Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Year in Review: The Best & Worst Movies of 2013


2013 was a particularly good year for movies. So many movies were by turns affecting, inventive, long-lasting, and just plain entertaining, so a list of movies from 11 to 25 just had to be included before the Honorable Mentions. Hey, it was tough, but somebody's got to do it. It's also worth noting that most of the films in my top 10 were released earlier in the year, despite all of the big awards-season contenders in November and December that will probably take home a hundred Oscars. The following ten are the ones that left the most lingering impact and are my favorites of the year, followed by the ten worst pieces of junk that I endured so you don't have to, along with Dishonorable Mentions. As usual, you will find a cluster of films that I also consider underrated and overrated. 

Note: Titles like Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Short Term 12 won't be found on this list because I was unable to screen them in time. Separate reviews will be posted later.

The Best of 2013

10) Disconnect - What connects all of the characters in "Disconnect" is their overreliance on technology. What makes the film such a piercing, sobering, and compelling cautionary tale of paranoia and impersonal communication is that this is the world we're living in now. In the vein of 2005's multi-character, intersecting-stories mosaic "Crash" by way of "Trust" and "Catfish," and supported with powerful, empathetic performances from a great ensemble, the film so effectively hits close to the bone that it could be viewed as a cyber horror film for the digital age. One of the most searingly insightful films of the year so far, "Disconnect" is going to be hard to forget. 


9) Enough Said - Beguiling, funny, and generous, "Enough Said" is yet another winner in Nicole Holofcener's filmography that will surely make moviegoers mourn the loss of James Gandolfini, a teddy bear of a talent, in his posthumous lead performance. Finally given the chance to lead a feature film after her years of TV work, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also enormously engaging with an unassuming grace and her infectiously expressive comic face. A romantic comedy about imperfect, identifiable grown-ups? What a concept. "Enough Said" doesn't have a particularly new story to weave but it's in the perceptive, true, and entertaining way it's told and acted that makes it so dear. Like an earthbound Nancy Meyers movie, it's that rarity you want to embrace — enough said.

8) The Place Beyond the Pines - Structured as a novelistic triptych, "The Place Beyond the Pines" has an admirably epic scope but still remains intimate and riveting with a lingering emotional impact. The performances register so effectively that they keep everything grounded and resonant. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, as well as Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, really anchor the film. A sprawling, heady generational drama with tragedy and a glimmer of hope, the film is an absorbing, affecting, and rewarding saga of guilt, fate, and fathers and sons. There are heroes and bad guys but also a grey area and a moral center.


7) The Spectacular Now - In the prevalent coming-of-age subgenre, especially this year with "Mud," "The Kings of Summer," and "The Way Way Back," "The Spectacular Now" is another one, but it has the most vivid resonance of them all. 2013's answer to 1989's "Say Anything…" and even last year's soulful "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," this treasure of a film will speak to teenagers and adults alike and never panders to either group. This might look like a trapise through heavily familiar territorypolar opposites falling in love, broken homes, and reluctance in one's impending adulthoodbut few films about teenagers that come through the pipeline actually understand them and are as inordinately honest, tender, and acutely observed as this one. Now, that's spectacular.


6) 12 Years a Slave - Tough, raw, and powerfully cathartic, "12 Years a Slave" is unflinching without verging on gratuitous or exploitative and gut-wrenching without turning into emotional pornography. Mainstream audiences should know that the film is never easy to watch, inducing a wince from every agonizing lash, paddling and racial epithet but impossible to look away from. Who would want to watch a bogus, cowardly depiction of such an ugly, shameful time in American history anyway? A searing work of art that passes more as a historical horror film than preachy eat-your-broccoli cinema, it's certainly a must-see, which, perhaps, only needs to be seen once. Even if it's for the most demanding and tough-skinned viewer, "12 Years a Slave" is unshakably harrowing, worth the effort, and too indispensable to ignore. 

5) Frozen - A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Snow Queen," "Frozen" is a lively, immensely entertaining, and dramatically affecting delight that has what it takes to make a name for itself as a winter-themed classic. Freshly modernized without taking the post-"Shrek" route of pop-culture references and filled with classical echoes of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Beauty and the Beast," the film finds ways to eschew the conventional Disney-princess trappings, vibrating with life of its own and engaging, fully rounded characters. The songs are all memorable, especially "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" and "Let It Go." Splendid entertainment, no matter your demographic, "Frozen" proves there's still power in animation to weave a spell of joy and grand emotion. 

4) Blue Jasmine - "Blue Jasmine," though dryly and uncomfortably witty throughout, is not the film you would expect from Woody Allen but a fascinating, penetrating character study that dares you to care about the snobby, pampered, ultimately damaged Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett. She is a knockout, giving the character three dimensions as Jasmine falls apart right before our very eyes. Surrounding her is excellent character work all around from Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, Alec Baldwin, and Louis C.K. "Blue Jasmine" is pitch-perfect every time, both Allen and Blanchett bringing a lightness to this devastatingly tragic character without ever sugar-coating her flaws and eccentricities.

3) Fruitvale Station - "Fruitvale Station," the incendiary feature debut of writer-director Ryan Coogler, is made with such burning passion that it pays due respect to the real-life central character, Oscar Grant III, and illuminates how real and timely injustice is in this society. Writer-director Coogler should be commended for not deifying Oscar as a martyr or whitewashing any of his human flaws. Deserving of accolades and star status, Michael B. Jordan disappears so convincingly into the role of Oscar. Serving as a blood-boiling conversation starter but a vital, unforgettable picture of our time and an authentic, empathetic account of the fragility of life, "Fruitvale Station" delivers a riveting, hard-hitting gut-punch, its powerful impact staying with you like most tragedies do. 

2) Gravity - An awesome, overwhelmingly thrilling adrenaline rush. A soul-baring, emotionally profound human odyssey and think piece about survival. A cutting-edge work of science fiction that doesn't need aliens as an extra threat and might as well be non-fiction. Without an atom of hyperbole, "Gravity" is breathlessly enthralling, impressively immersive, and thematically profound. It's about something more than just Sandra Bullock flailing around in space but never About Something, refusing to sell its characters short for allegory and mere spectacle. And oh, what an astounding spectacle it is to behold. 

1) Spring Breakers - It's been a year of inspired, electric filmmaking, but "Spring Breakers" lingers in my mind the most. Probably the most divisive film of the year, Harmony Korine's fever dream is a mesmerizing experience that shocks and shakes you up. Many will scoff at Disney Channel kids Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens' bikini-clad participation and judge the film as a debaucherous exercise, but "Spring Breakers" gets the gangsta'-is-cool culture so scarily right with Korine's own filmic language of neon-colored imagery and pulsing music that it will keep playing in your mind nine months later. Good luck forgetting James Franco's bravely uninhibited turn as the cornrowed, grill-wearing Alien or his mantra, "Spring break forever!" Vividly shocking, alive, satirically pointed, poignant, and rule-breaking, this is a cautionary tale for the here and now.

#11-25 (in alphabetical order): Blackfish; The Bling Ring; Blue Is The Warmest Color; The Conjuring; Don Jon; Frances Ha; The Hunt; Prisoners; Saving Mr. Banks; Stoker; Stories We Tell; Trance; The Wolf of Wall Street; The World's End; You're Next

Honorable Mention: About Time; American Hustle; Before Midnight; The Broken City Breakdown; Carrie; Dallas Buyers Club; Evil Dead; The Heat; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; I Give It a Year; Iron Man 3; Lone Survivor; Mud; Nebraska; Rush; Side Effects; Sightseers; Star Trek Into Darkness; Stuck in Love; This Is the End; Upside Down; V/H/S/2; The Way Way Back; We Are What We Are; What Maisie Knew


The Worst of 2013
10) Getaway - Story plausibility and editorial cohesion get thrown to the curb in this flimsy, mechanical and (only sometimes divertingly) stupid thriller. With the strange pairing of Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez that we've all been waiting for with bated breath, this junk is essentially a 90-minute car chase and commercial for the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 Super Snake. Oh, and Jon Voight's mouth gets to drink a martini, shout "Shiza!" and open to show his yellow teeth. Leave this clunker in the dust and visit a Crash Test Dummies site instead.

9) Riddick - Boring and not even fun in a bad way, "Riddick" is the type of cheesy schlock you'd expect to see premiering on the Syfy channel, not in nationwide multiplexes where one pays $12 a ticket. It doesn't even muster up enough so-bad-it's-good appeal for Mike and the Bots to heckle on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." By the end, the pic just elicits a shrug of indifference. One shudders to think that if "The Fast and the Furious" is a bellwether for Vin Diesel's career, there will be three more movies with Dick B. Riddick.

8) Aftershock - Merging an ample "Hostel"-like setup with mother nature and man's inhumanity to man bringing on the mayhem, "Aftershock" is an amateur hour and a half that doesn't refresh the genre as co-writer/producer/co-star Eli Roth probably hoped. Chaos, tsunamis, splatter, and rape ensue — fun! It just becomes a desperately grim exercise in watching deeply unpleasant people do unpleasant things to superficially unpleasant people. And the point is… watch out for sub-human escaped prisoners after an earthquake.

7) Movie 43 - When a rolodex of A-listers signs up for "Movie 43," a multi-sketch comedy promoted with the tagline, "Once you see it, you can't unsee it," it can either live up to its perverse curiosity or turn out to be an infamous disaster. Everyone involved seems to be in on the joke, but the joke is really on the audience for being duped into expecting a riotous good time when it's more like a baffling experiment gone wrong. Unless you find random tastelessness (i.e. incest, coprophilia, and bestiality) inherently funny, you're barking up the wrong tree. We might not be able to unsee Hugh Jackman's chin balls being dipped in butter and slapping the head of a baby, but just avoid this colossal mistake altogether and you won't have that problem.

6) Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor - It'd be tempting to call "Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor" the best-worst movie of the year, one to make fun of with friends and a cooler of Jungle Juice, but the first half is almost competent and then the rest just gets insultingly hilarious and preachy and "terribler" as it goes along. Even "Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman" was more overtly entertaining. By the way, HIV is used as tawdry, socially irresponsible plot gimmick in order to punish a character for being sinful.

5) Hell Baby - A year with two abysmal horror spoofs like "A Haunted House" and "Scary Movie 5" seems like a hell in itself, and, since three is a trend, "Hell Baby" is an additional blunder. A demonic-possession comedy that isn't really a spoof and barely qualifying as a comedy, this desperate, substandard cheapie is the result of funny people not knowing better. As the brainchild from the co-creators of "Reno 911," it's just astonishing how flat-out unfunny it manages to be most of the time.

4) Grown Ups 2 - If Adam Sandler and his pals want to go on vacation, they should do it on their own time without cameras. Assaulting the viewer with one lame, unfunny gag after the next, enough to question others' discernment, "Grown Ups 2" is what it is and it's a pathetic excuse for a fun summer comedy. Pandering, perfunctory, tone-deaf, and drecky, this counterproductive sitcom-level laffer can't find a memorable laugh to save its life. It's a prime example of a movie that was really fun to shoot but is more painful for everyone to watch. America, stop making this crap a hit. 

3) Maniac - Elijah Wood plays a mannequin restorer who preys on young women and then attacks and kills them, scalping them with a knife and then staple-gunning their hair to mannequins for his collection, and no, it's not a musical comedy. It's a given that a horror film should be horrific, shocking, and uncomfortable, with the integrity to just go for broke, but then there are genre films that cross the line into exploitation. A remake of the notoriously grubby 1980 slasher relic, "Maniac" is what it iscruel, ugly, repellent, distasteful, and altogether unpleasant. Clearly, that response is playing right into the hands of the filmmaker, but there's the non-appeal of paying moviegoers having to actually, you know, watch it. A hardcore, misogynistic snuff exercise with artsy, first-person camera work.

2) A Haunted House - Marlon Wayans is raped, or "altar boyed as his girlfriend calls it, by a well-endowed ghost. A possessed woman is body-slammed and beaten up with chairs. The unbearable Nick Swardson plays a gay psychic, and you can tell because he has swishy mannerisms and an earring in one ear and he touches Wayans every chance he gets. Lazy, boring, witless, grating, and slipshod, "A Haunted House" is like watching a dead horse being beaten, and there's a sequel slated for 2014.

1) Scary Movie 5 - This hateful steaming piece of crap isn't even worthy enough to be called a movie, but it is indisputably the worst in the "Scary Movie" franchiseand the worst of the year. "Scary Movie 5" is a terminally inane, desperate would-be spoof that almost makes you forget what made spoofs so infectiously funny in the first place. When the fifth entry in a flailing spoof franchise casts "High School Musical" alumna Ashley Tisdale as a stand-in for Anna Faris, it's already D.O.A. 




Dishonorable Mention: After Earth; Ass Backwards; G.I. Joe: Retaliation; A Good Day to Die Hard; The Hangover Part III; The Host; Identity Thief; Last Vegas; The Last Exorcism Part II; The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones; Paranoia; Parker

Underrated: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane; American Mary; Black Rock; Byzantium; Dark Skies; I Give It a Year; Insidious: Chapter 2; Mama; Monsters University; Oldboy; Only God Forgives; Out of the Furnace; Pain & Gain; Parkland; +1; The Purge; Thanks For Sharing; Warm Bodies; The Wolverine; World War Z; Would You Rather

Guilty Pleasures: Adore; Bad Milo!; Beautiful Creatures; The Best Man Holiday; The Call; The Family; Fast & Furious 6; Hatchet III; Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa; Texas Chainsaw; The To Do List; White House Down

Overrated (but not necessarily bad): All Is Lost; Captain Phillips; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; Lee Daniels' The Butler; Thor: The Dark World; 2 Guns

Major Disappointments: The ABCs of Death; Curse of Chucky; Girl Most Likely; The Great Gatsby; Kick-Ass 2; Man of Steel

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