On average, I went to the movies a bit less but liked what I saw more often in 2013, and it feels like my Top Ten picks are (a bit) more closely aligned with the general critical consensus than usual this year, give or take the following…
WILD CARDS (potentially list-worthy movies unseen by moi in 2013): Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, 12 Years A Slave
1. DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB
In some ways, this tale of a flaming heterosexual teaming with (and profiting from) the LGBTLMNOP community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is a standard Hollywood “issue” drama crossed with an unlikely buddy picture bromance as Matthew McConaughey’s homophobic redneck Ron Woodruff learns to accept and even care for the equally tough, stubborn transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto). But the ferocious commitment of those two central performances elevates the whole production, while the depiction of individuals battling corporate bureaucracy and shameful government apathy nicely commemorates a key civil rights struggle. (Plus, bonus points to director Jean-Marc Vallée for providing Griffin Dunne with his best role in years as a hippie Tijuana doctor.)
2. COMPUTER CHESS
Boston native Andrew Bujalski started his career in “mumblecore,” a character-focused independent film movement notable for its lo-fi aesthetic. With Computer Chess, the writer-director finally decided to go high tech – although, in this clever, heady period piece, the technology (including the ancient video camera used to shoot the film) is several decades out of date. Set in the very early 1980s, the story focuses on a convention of programmers obsessed with the titular activity and the pursuit of artificial intelligence. But what begins as an exploration of an arcane subculture takes a turn for the universal (and surreal) as the scientists discover they’re sharing their dingy, cat-infested hotel with a parallel convention of New Age sensualists more concerned with the mysteries of the heart and soul than the complexities of simulated thinking machines.
Many critics preferred Robert Redford’s elemental battle for survival at sea (All Is Lost) to Sandra Bullock’s solo space struggles in Gravity (belittled by some as nothing more than special effects wrapped around a squishy center of spirituality and simplistic symbolism). Personally, I prefer a bit of back story to silent, stoic cragginess when it comes to contemplations of mortality, and deriding Alfonso Cuarón’s breathtaking, pulse-pounding depiction of space as mere technical gimmickry is like saying Lawrence of Arabia’s Oscar-winning cinematography was nothing but pictures of sand. Plus, when it comes to visceral terror, the thought of going down with the ship seems almost quaint compared with spinning off forever into the inky void of eternity.
4. DRINKING BUDDIES
In most Hollywood romantic comedies, we know the central couple will overcome a few perfunctory obstacles and live happily ever after because the actors playing the lovebirds are the most attractive, likable (and famous) people in the movie. But writer/director Joe Swanberg knows real-world relationships seldom follow a predictable formula, which is what makes Drinking Buddies so relatable, funny and ultimately moving. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (New Girl’s resident wiseass, Jake Johnson) work – and flirt — together at a craft beer microbrewery. They seem perfect for each other, yet never act on their clear mutual attraction because they’re both tethered to significant others (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick), who in turn also seem perfect for each other…if only life were that simple.
5. AMERICAN HUSTLE
There was barely a moment in David O. Russell’s whirligig ‘70s caper flick where the famous lead actors let us forget they were movie stars or convinced us they were real, authentic people…but the high-energy performances, plunging necklines and ridiculous hairpieces were so much fun it didn’t really matter. Jennifer Lawrence is a goddamn delight as an unstable housewife, Amy Adams and Christian Bale pull off the neat trick of making us care about their scumbag hustler characters and Louis C.K. is hilarious (and almost heartbreaking) as he battles Bradley Cooper’s arrogant fellow Fed. But for all the conspicuous Scorsese-ish directorial showboating and the deep cut gem of a soundtrack, American Hustle’s best tricks are a con I didn’t see coming and a truly scary cameo from a surprising special guest villain giving his best performance in years.
6. THE BUTLER
Messy, uneven and easily mockable thanks to its parade of A-list presidential cameos (from Robin Williams’ distractingly prosthetic’d Ike to John Cusack’s peculiar Nixon impression), Lee Daniels’s sweeping historical drama was also impassioned, entertaining and occasionally harrowing in its multifaceted depiction of the dangers and divisions of the black civil rights struggle (so often portrayed in Hollywood films from the perspective of sympathetic white folks). The question of whether to function within the system (like Forest Whitaker’s high-ranking White House servant) or fight it from without (like the Black Panther son who derides his father as an Uncle Tom) is a perennial debate, while Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Whitaker’s flawed but ferocious spouse and the film’s brutal depiction of Southern lunch counter sit-ins were memorable highlights of my filmgoing year.
On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, Alexander Payne’s black and white tale of an old man on a seemingly pointless quest rendered its family drama on a much smaller scale, without directorial flash, special effects or violence (give or take one extremely satisfying sucker punch). But the lived-in performances (especially from the film’s central quartet of Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) play well off each other, conjuring a believable sense of shared history that helps the moments of grudging affection and minor victories feel earned and sweetly satisfying.
8. BLUE JASMINE
Typical of his oeuvre, Woody Allen’s habitual love-hate relationship with the 1% is more compelling than his cartoonish depictions of blue collar life, but the sparks of seething class friction and resentment burn through the director’s standard hermetically sealed fustiness, providing Blue Jasmine with a timely, contemporary charge often missing from his films. Cate Blanchett nails the role of her career as a fallen socialite teetering on the edge of sanity, while Andrew “Dice” Clay (almost) makes up for a lifetime of shitty stand-up in one fell swoop as a world-weary jamoke unexpectedly thrust into the role of karmic avenger.
9. WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS
Branson, Missouri is the Las Vegas of the Bible Belt, where older white conservative Red State residents can enjoy glitzy patriotic variety shows in a small town oasis of traditional Christian family values. But, as the title of this documentary by A.J. Schnack and David Wilson implies, the reality is far more nuanced. The town has a large gay population of performers forced by geography to hide their personal lives in plain sight. A single mother sings squeaky-clean pop songs for the crowd, then curses like a sailor offstage. The moderate Republican mayor is more concerned with protecting her citizens than political divisions at the national level (while a visiting Congressman makes a point of cursing the stimulus money he hopes to wrangle for the town). And with the economy keeping visitors away, everyone struggles to ensure the show will go on in this compelling behind-the-scenes portrait of a uniquely American community.
10. ENOUGH SAID
I have a lot of affection for 20 Feet From Stardom, the toe-tapping documentary tribute to Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and all the other unsung supporting background players of the music industry. But Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said edges it out for the final spot on my Top Ten list simply because of the unintended poignancy of knowing James Gandolfini’s charming, uncharacteristically gentle performance as a lonely middle-aged divorcee (in a pitch-perfect romantic duet with the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was also one of his last.
Honorable Mention: 56 Up, Spring Breakers, 20 Feet From Stardom, Medora, All The Labor, Our Nixon, I Am Divine, The Fifth Season, Room 237, Casting By, Good Ol’ Freda, Frances Ha, Oblivion, Fast and Furious 6, Before Midnight, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Kings of Summer, The To-Do List, In A World, The World’s End, All Is Lost
Memorable Moments/Performances of 2013: The common thread of disdain for 1% vultures uniting all the varied participants in 56 Up, whatever the hell James Franco was doing in Spring Breakers, the “Gimme Shelter” story in 20 Feet From Stardom, Henry Kissinger by the pool in Our Nixon, the super creepy finale of The Fifth Season, the back-to-front simultaneous screening of The Shining in Room 237, the first half hour of This Is The End, the weird kid in Kings of Summer, Oprah’s “trifling bitch” scene in The Butler, Sandra Bullock spinning out of control in the opening minutes of Gravity, the slo-mo Winnebago crash in Anchorman 2.
WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
J.J. Abrams squandered all the good will of his 2009 Star Trek prequel with Into Darkness, a plodding, predictable and ultimately nonsensical sequel that wastes a likable ensemble (and the ever-charismatic Benedict Cumberbach) on a witless retread of the far superior Wrath of Khan. The low point comes when Abrams replays Spock’s death scene from the 1982 film, as if simply referencing classic fanboy faves is better than attempting original and/or vaguely believable storytelling.
MOST OVERRATED: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
While the sections of this true story detailing the chess game between Somali pirates and the crew of the Maersk cargo ship they hijack is compelling, the final act of Paul Greengrass’s overpraised film is an endless hostage drama that sheds no real light on the fairly one-dimensional participants. And the pointlessly hyped-up scenes of Navy SEALs parachuting from a plane into the ocean just so they can go wait on an aircraft carrier almost play like a Saturday Night Live parody of a big budget military “thriller”.