Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 at the Movies: The Good, The REALLY Good & The Lousy


What a strange year.   A weeks-long moviegoing break was absolutely not planned and was terribly painful in many ways, but the end result was worthwhile on all fronts: Lucy almost fully recovered (the vet used the word "miracle" to describe our feisty little dog), while I got some healthy time away from the silver screen.

Don't get me wrong, there's almost nothing better in the world than spending time in a movie theater.  But after a summer of ear-deafening, sometimes soul-crushing sameness to one superhero movie after another, to an endless supply of "blockbusters," the quiet time was appreciated.

And when I got back to the movies, I did it with a vengeance. Of course, I'm just another guy with a laptop, I'm not paid to do this, and I rarely get into the movies for free -- though frequently they are helpful, even necessary, to my full-time job.  But every time I go to the movies, like the vast majority of people in the world, I plunk down real, hard-earned money, and that gives me a right to expect something of value for it.

For a lot of people, that means mindless, fast-paced action, the louder the better.  Nevermind that most of these movies make little narrative sense, that they're edited with such a frenzy that it makes me suspect (just what are they trying to hide?).  For me, the "something of value" comes down to this: Do I forget I'm in a movie theater?  Do I lose myself in the story that's being told?  Do I come away feeling like my life's a little better for the couple of hours I just gave away?

In all 10 of these cases, the answer is a resounding yes.  Interestingly, none of these movies is on the list of 10 highest-grossing films of the year.  Does that make me a cultural snob?  I hope not, because here's something I can absolutely guarantee (if you can tell me convincingly that I'm wrong, I'll be surprised): Every one of these films is worthwhile, illuminating, insightful, inspiring, fascinating, or just downright entertaining.

These are my 10 favorite films of the year because I think they're terrific, and I think you'll feel the same.  Don't feel badly if you have to talk yourself into seeing some of them -- not all of them are easy or instantly appealing.  I won't tell you which, but I resisted at least a couple of them.  I'm glad I gave my time to all of them, and hope you will be, too.

In life, 2013 may have been a mildly crappy year.  At the movies, it was great.  Here's to 2014!

  #10 - Dallas Buyers Club  


Matthew McConaughey is getting all the Oscar talk for his role, and with good reason.  He's given a nearly impossible task in this movie: Take a character who is not simply unlikable and make the audience care about him. McConaughey's Ron Woodruff is a miserable excuse for a human being, and by the end of the film, he's improved only fractionally, but his story is mesmerizing.  Still, despite the work he does, it's not McConaughey's film: Dallas Buyers Club belongs to Jared Leto, who delivers the most fully realized performance of the year.  Leto alone is transcendent.  Leto with McConaughey are spectacular.  Despite the incredible story it tells, Dallas Buyers Club is sometimes a little flat (both visually and narratively), but these two actors turn it into something special.


  #9 - Before Midnight  


The 2004 film Before Sunset may be one of the most romantic movies ever made -- even more than its predecessor, Before Sunrise.  How do you make a sequel to such a romantic, lovely movie?  You show what really happens when romantic love fades and real life takes over.  It's not always easy to watch.  Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been married nine years now, they have kids, and sometimes they wonder if they even like each other anymore.  They can certainly be cruel, and Before Midnight doesn't flinch from showing us what that does to both of them.  Maybe you have a wonderful, argument-free relationship, but for those of us who don't, Before Midnight is the slap in the face by the jilted lover, who happens to be the very person who's still by our side.  Fortunately, it's also got a warm embrace afterward, and some gorgeous Greek scenery.  Unlike Before SunsetBefore Midnight probably won't work if you haven't met these characters before -- but if you have, it's the year's most honest movie about human interaction, much better, I thought, than Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.


  #8 - Room 237  


You've almost certainly seen The Shining.  Though it wasn't particularly well-received when it was released in 1980, the Stanley Kubrick horror film has become mandatory viewing, despite the fact that it's not all that scary.  There's just something about it … .  Room 237 interviews five people who are obsessed with The Shining, and that's putting it nicely.  They're the cinematic equivalent of overzealous flat-earthers or Obama birthers, convinced that they see something in The Shining that other people don't see.  And they've got proof, ranging from interviews Kubrick gave to notes he took to the best evidence of all, the movie itself.  Room 237 never shows the moviegoers it interviews, but it is chock-full of film clips, and their theories, arguments, assertions and conspiracies will make you rethink everything you ever knew about The Shining, and maybe even about filmmaking.  Room 237 is essential for anyone who says they like movies.


  #7 - Inside Llewyn Davis  


Almost until the very end, Inside Llewyn Davis seemed to me a movie more to admire than to embrace. And then there's that final scene, the one that might make you wish you had paid more attention to the rest of the movie, and that gets you thinking, even as you're sitting there in the theater, about everything else you've seen.  It just so happens that what you've seen is a beautifully rendered ballad about ambition, talent, love, understanding, pain and loss.  That might make it seem a little touchy-feely, and perhaps a little too artistically challenging for some audiences -- which is, in a lot of ways, just like the folk music at the heart of the movie.  The really tricky thing is, Inside Llewyn Davis might not immediately make an impact; it's a tough film to really love.  But then you'll find yourself thinking of it days or weeks later.  No one in the movie seems to actually like Llewyn (Oscar Issac) much, but they can't help but care deeply, even passionately, for and about him.  The movie is a little bit the same way.


  #6 - The Wolf of Wall Street  


Outrageously, almost impossibly, entertaining, The Wolf of Wall Street might not be Martin Scorsese's most intellectually stimulating accomplishment -- but, damn, is it stimulating.  Leonardo DiCaprio leads a cast hell-bent on shocking you silly, making you laugh a lot, and instilling a certain ire; these are hateful people doing hateful things, but they are exactly the kind of people most of us envy, as much for their lifestyle and money as for the effortless ways in which they flaunt their excess.  The thing is, they've done it by climbing all over you, and The Wolf of Wall Street makes it plain that what they've done is despicable.  The trouble is, the movie can't seem to decide whether these are villains or heroes, whether we should hate them or simply laugh at them.  The indecisiveness matters -- but only to a certain point, because it's such a freakin' good time at the movies.  You'll be shocked, you'll be appalled, and you'll barely notice the movie's epic length or, perhaps, its moral wishy-washiness.


  #5 - The Way, Way Back  


You can practically smell the chlorine-laden water slides in The Way, Way Back, which avoids being just another coming-of-age movie and instead reminds us of what it's like to be young, uncertain and a little sad.  It's a period film, and while it can't help but play the nostalgia card, it does so honestly and effortlessly.  The Way, Way Back never feels forced or contrived, and the central relationship between 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the Water Wizz amusement park, rings strikingly true.  Duncan just about worships the man, and thinks he wants to be just like him; Owen is only just beginning to realize that maybe "just like him" isn't the best thing in the world to be.  Still, it's not just the performances (including a hilariously ribald Allison Janney) that set this apart, it's the entire tone of a movie that remembers how good it was to be young -- and how not-so-good, too.


  #4 - Saving Mr. Banks  


Emma Thompson delivers the single best performance of the year in Saving Mr. Banks.  Not just the best performance by a female (outshining Sandra Bullock in Gravity), but the best performance, period.  Her interpretation of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, is free from the kind of treacly sentimentality that Travers herself was so afraid, and sure, infused the Disney version of her fictional creation.  She's fussy, she's headstrong, she's downright irritating, but she's also heartfelt and sincere.  Travers is the kind of person we all hope we don't become but secretly fear we will (or have): angry that life didn't turn out the way she planned, secretly desperate for someone to notice her, and irritated when they do.  Saving Mr. Banks may be sun-dappled and scrubbed clean of anything that might be offensive, but that's in keeping with both the backdrop and the time it depicts.  Lurking just under the surface is a satirical bite, a surprisingly cutting dismissal of what critic Richard Schickel called "The Disney Version," which is tempered by the presence of Walt Disney himself.  As portrayed by Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks offers both the best defense and sharpest indictment of Disney sentimentality yet attempted on film: He knows his movies soft-pedal the truth, emphasize the sweet over the sour, but he never forgets why they do that -- to mask the harsh reality of life.  Saving Mr. Banks is one of the best movies yet made about making movies, digging into the creative process and showing how trade-offs and decisions are made.  Don't dismiss Saving Mr. Banks because it was bankrolled by The Walt Disney Company; it's a fine, well-crafted movie that manages to be soft and sharp at the same time.


  #3 - Blackfish  


Crafted like a traditional Hollywood thriller, Blackfish may not be the most honest documentary ever made -- it never tries to hide the fact that it has an agenda -- but it's one of the most riveting.  Like last year's extraordinary Senna, Blackfish thrusts us into a world most of us know little about and gives us a lead character who's mean-spirited, aggressive, disturbing and memorable.  Tillukum is a killer whale who was taken from his home and made to perform tricks for the amusement of humans, and in the end it turned out he wasn't too happy about that.  His final act of defiance was one that shocked everyone, but the filmmakers want to understand why it happened.  Blackfish offers some disturbing answers, indicting pretty much everyone who sees it, since there are few people who haven't been to Sea World or laughed at the "antics" of captive marine mammals.  You can argue, pretty effectively, that Blackfish is horribly one-sided, but the other side refused to engage with the filmmakers because its position, the film posits, is simply untenable.  Blackfish is an angry, angering movie.  It may be possible to disagree with its reasoning and presentation (though not with its cinematic flair), but it's not possible to come away from this movie feeling nothing at all.


  #2 - Her  


This is exactly what it feels like to fall in love: The sudden rush of joy knowing you are not alone in the world, that there is someone else who feels the things you feel, who doubts the things you doubt, who wants to learn what you know.  The big problem for Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't so much that the object of his affection is a computer operating system, it's that Samantha (the OS in question, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is just as complex as he is.  Designed to evolve and grow, Samantha starts to wonder about her own place in the world, even as she remains committed to Theodore.  But Theodore is what he was meant to be -- he has grown into the person he is, and may not be able to meet Samantha's needs.  Her is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, as beautiful to look at as to experience.  Given that many of us are more apt to put the "needs" of our computers and smartphones before the needs of other people, it's not even all that far-fetched.  But it is indeed lovely.  Phoenix, an actor better known for his bizarre off-screen behavior than his accessibility as a performer, brings a warm, happy humanity to Theodore, who is not the introspective, socially awkward geek you might think, but a well-adjusted, happy adult who finds love when and where he least expects it.  Who can say why love strikes?  But when it does, poets have told us, we're helpless; and that's exactly what Theodore is.  Man-computer love may not exactly be the norm, but, hey, why not?  Her takes an unconventional pairing and makes it feel vital and precious.  Created with a soulful, sometimes detached, eye, Her is a wise, wonderful movie, with a cameo by the most offensive, charming computerized character (and I'm not talking about Samantha) you may ever encounter.

  #1 - Fruitvale Station  


No other film in 2013 affected me the way Fruitvale Station did.  It combines a romantic, mournful sense of fate and destiny with a magnanimous vision of humanity that is utterly disconcerting for many reasons, not the least of which is that we know right up front that the main character will be senselessly murdered in the end -- by police, no less.  That knowledge infuses every frame of the movie, but never makes it feel maudlin or contrived, rather urgent and compelling.  For most audiences, the characters and lives depicted in Fruitvale Station feel utterly alien, but that's one of the film's points: There are entire worlds happening outside your own, even if you never notice them.  They are vibrant worlds, filled with people just as deserving, just as flawed, just as important as the ones you know, but director Ryan Coogler doesn't force this point.  His beautiful, simple drama presents the final day in the life of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), beginning first with the very end and continuing with the moments that led up to it.  They're not particularly weighty moments, but they matter because they're so honest: Every one of us, I think, goes through the day aware of what we're doing, wishing we could be better, hoping we'll get the chance to do it right tomorrow.  For Grant, tomorrow never comes, and Coogler's screenplay gives us some powerful, lovely food for thought -- it might not come for any of us.  Every moment takes us closer to the end, and who knows what that end may be?  Fruitvale Station took me somewhere I hadn't been and left me in a state of shock.  I've rarely cried as openly or as much as I did in this film, not simply because I was angry about what happened, but because the movie dared me to care deeply -- about Oscar, yes, but also about life.  Fruitvale Station is a fine, special film, made with technical flair (it opens up an entirely new way to use modern communication devices to tell a story), palpable passion, and extraordinary humanity.  See it.

********

If only every movie were as worthwhile as these 10.  Alas, it's just not so.  While I still hold true to my conviction that two hours in a theater is almost always time well-spent, these three movies made me seriously doubt that belief:

    All Is Lost   


The title's a cheat.  All isn't lost, just most, particularly a sense of entertainment, enlightenment or believability.  Take Life of Pi, strip it of its mysticism, beauty and meaning, and you've got this endlessly stupid piece of claptrap.  We're supposed to believe in the indomitability of the human spirit or something like that; but anyone who sits through this eye-roller shows just as much courage and strength of will as the central character.  Call it The Old Man and the Zzzzzzs.

    Man of Steel   


A long, painful slog through a "re-imagined" Superman -- a joyless creature, really.  Henry Cavill cuts a fine figure as Superman, but this loud, brainless movie is strictly for fanboys who, let's face it, have pretty much made up their mind to like something before they walk in the theater.  If Superman had been like this in the 1930s, the Great Depression might never have ended.

    Stoker   


I remember virtually nothing about it, except for the fact that I was unrelievedly bored and disappointed that I couldn't even find it laughably bad.  All I am certain of is that Stoker was just plain awful.

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