Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Alex's Top 10 of 2013

I think I might be done trying to instantly assess the overall quality of a given year’s slate of cinematic offerings like a gymnastics judge.

It’s always been a pretty annoying concept that has only been exacerbated by the “EVERYTHING SUCKS” or “EVERYTHING IS THE BEST” tone that tends to rise to the top of all internet film discussion these days, as has been exhaustively discussed on this site and others.

It’s a copout, but I feel like pinpointing the precise legacy of a year’s worth of movies is always an exercise better conducted with the benefit of hindsight and time to digest the art. With that said, I had some fine times at the moviehouse over the past 12 months. I can’t shake the feeling that my list bears an eerie resemblance to most of those circulating the web pipes, but I’m really going to try very hard to refrain from peppering my list with quirky, off-the-beaten path selections just to be set myself apart from the masses.

10. About Time (dir. Richard Curtis) -- Okay, I said I would try to refrain. But seriously, among all the blatant award-season fodder (they will show up later) and genocide-laden popcorn flicks (they will not), the goofy and charming time travel fable from romantic comedy guru Richard Curtis kept a firm grasp on my mind and my heart.

The third installment in the ever-intriguing Rachel McAdams Beds a Time Traveler Series, Curtis only indulges in his gimmicky plot device in ways that feel really organic and in line with the whole rest of the narrative. About Time also pleasantly departs from the romcom tropes that put Curtis on
the map and presents a story that’s as much about family and wholeness as it is about romantic love.
9. Blue Caprice (dir. Alexandre Moors)  -- Frenchman Moors crashed this party by pulling off what I think is one of the most thematically difficult filmmaking feats of the year. He presents a dramatization of the infamous duo of snipers who terrorized the greater Washington, D.C. area over a decade ago. That alone is daunting enough, but Moors managed to present the story entirely from the perpetrators, John Muhammed (a superb Isaiah Washington) and Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond) in way that is perpetually horrifying and yet somehow never approaches exploitation.

8. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen) -- The hit-and-miss tendencies of the old master are well-documented at this point, but there was something so bold and brilliant about the trust he put in a never-better Cate Blanchett for this year’s installment in his iconic filmography. What momentarily seems like a heavy-handed rebuke of the perils of greed and 21st century capitalism is gradually revealed to be little more than the portrait of woman gradually losing her grip on reality. This is not to say there aren’t more complicated themes at work. There are, but it is the simplest arc of the film that has stuck with me.

7. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass) -- I would come up with some snarky bullshit to chide Greengrass for not straying outside his well-worn comfort zone here if his execution weren’t so fucking flawless. The same goes for Hanks in the titular role, who is the picture of tranquility and resolve in the face of the chaos that befell the Maersk Alabama all those years ago, but whose true mastery of his craft came to bear in the movie’s final gut-wrenching scene. Greengrass has earned his repute as the overlord of persistently gripping tension, but was bested in that sphere by one notable behemoth this year...
6. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron) -- It wasn’t until Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone staggered safely out of the sea and onto land and the film’s title card splashed onto the screen that I looked down and saw that I had been making fists so tight that my nails were cutting into my palms. That is not hyperbole. That actually happened to me and, I suspect, many others. The film is obviously deserving of the plaudits it has received as a technical achievement, but all of the computer voodoo and wizardry in the world would have been of little use if Cuaron couldn’t build an engaging and propulsive story to bring us along for the ride. It’s so saccharine and trite to fall back on “The Reason We Go To The Movies,” to steer my praise, but if Gravity isn’t just precisely that, whatever could be?

5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) -- James Franco fellating a pair of silenced handguns, that’s what. I never feel comfortable asking people if they’ve “seen Spring Breakers.” I feel like the more accurate verbiage is something like “Have you let Spring Breakers happen to you yet, man?”

Patrick and Erika conducted a superb conversation about this movie back in the spring and I’d echo one of the main points they kept circling back to, which is to say that Spring Breakers is challenging without being frustrating. It’s complex and ambiguous without being incoherent. It’s like a ghost, everywhere and nowhere, urging you to do a beer bong and ponder Machiavellian questions about partying and the American Dream.

**I’m compelled to note that from here on out, the competition for the top spot was fierce and the films are mostly interchangeable, because I enjoy hedging on all decisions.**

4. Her (Spike Jonze) -- Just think about the basic mechanics of the plot for the newest joint from Spike Jonze, who has yet to make a bad movie (come at me, Where The Wild Things Are naysayers): In the vaguely nearby future, a man, recently spurned by his wife, falls in love with the hyper-sophisticated operating system of his phone, and learns lessons about life and humanity and love and human interaction.

There are just so many ways to make a terrible movie out of this, whether it leans to heavy on antiquated screwball comedy jackoffery or digresses into pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook about how technology is robbing the human race of its ability to feel anything. Jonze avoids the pitfalls and somehow manages to make movie that fits into precisely none of the equally eye-rolling categories I could chart out in my mind and delivering one of the smartest and resonant movies about relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
3. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton) -- Every year there is a movie that catches me totally off guard and slams into my solar plexus like a goddamn sledgehammer. This year, it is Short Term 12, thanks in no small part to Brie Larson’s incredible, vulnerable performance as the overseer of a temporary foster-care facility for at risk kids. It’s a movie that was tough to track down if you didn’t live in a major market, so I will err on the side of not saying too much, except that you should see it. Yesterday.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) -- It bums me the fuck out that the legacy of this movie may very well be a reductive and stupid Internet conversation on the Martin Scorsese’s obligation to more harshly scold Jordan Belfort for his financial transgressions, fueled mostly by manufactured outrage. In a year replete with great movies, Scorsese’s latest opus stands among the titans. A clinic in pacing, The Wolf of Wall Street’s three-hour runtime speeds by as if you’re going backwards. All I wanted was for this movie to keep going, to have more, nothing was ever enough. Sound familiar? I’ve seen it twice and I still can’t get over the sheer audacity of it all, to make a comment about the themes of excess and addiction playing out in the screen through the very structure of the story and the reaction of certain audiences to that structure.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen) -- The Coens’ foray into the dismal abyss that is the 1960s Manhattan folk scene is incredible, due in large part to how effortless their execution seems to be. There’s just a perfect smattering of deep emotional peril within Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn, which is peppered with all the offbeat weirdness that has come to typify the Coens’ careers.


  1. Great list, Alex. I loved "About Time" (which was just shy of my Top 20 list) for how sweet, emotional and unabashed it was in indulging into its premise without really abusing the 'time travel' gimmick. This also was the movie whose trailer I saw the most during the year, so naturally I had to go see it because I had been hypnotized by the dozens of times I'd seen Rachel McAdams enter the church wearing a red wedding dress. :-)

    BTW, aren't you glad you live in Gotham and can watch "Her" since mid-December? That way your top 10, unlike Patrick's/JB's/Doug's, it's complete. New York City rulz!

  2. Glad to see some love for Short Term 12. Great little movie that was left woefully unseen by many.

    Also, there are Where the Wild Things Are haters out there??! I'll back you up in that rumble Alex.

    1. Gil,

      A friend of mine once called it "Where the Sad and Boring Things Are." While that's a pretty good line, it's wholly inaccurate, and he is no longer my friend.

    2. I think a lot of people were more disappointed with WHERE THE WILD THINGS AR because it just didn't fit their childhood memory of it. I knew I had to fight through that static when viewing it, although ultimately I think the movie hit the tone of the book.

      Really want to see SHORT TERM 12; keep hearing amazing things about it.

  3. Glad to see the About Time love here (and seeing a contribution from Alex :-) ). This movie really struck a note with me,\ and Im seriously surprised at the lack of praise there has been for it. Maybe I dont watch enough "chich flicks" but I thought it was brilliant.
    Oh, and the criticisms against it for the alleged "rules" of time travel. Some people obviously went in expecting a "time travel" movie, and were not prepared for what they got.

  4. I finally have the opportunity to see Her tomorrow! I really can't wait. Spike Jonze is one great director, Joaquin Pheonix is one great actor, and the premise sounds quite interesting. I hope my expectations aren't so high that it somehow disappoints me, but I fully expect it to make my top 10.

    1. Let us know what you think, John. Although it didn't make my favorite 10, I feel like it will grow on me over time (Joaquin Phoenix movies do that for some reason).

    2. I hope it does for you, Mark! I loved it immediately, and it was one of my favorite movies of 2013 for sure. It's very creative, as most Spike Jonze movies are, beautifully told, pertinent to modern society and our growing dependence on technology over actual human interaction, and impressively acted by Joaquin Phoenix, considering what he had to do and play against for this movie. It's an incredibly interesting and intriguing movie, and I would recommend it without question. I think calling it "one of the smartest and resonant movies about relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a spot-on description.

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    4. It makes me sad, though, that a lot of people might look at the "weird" premise (something I've already heard it referred to as multiple times) and chose not to see it based on that, when in fact they really, really should. I'm still thinking about it today.

  5. I had the opposite feeling at the Wolf of Wall Street; I felt like it would never end and I wish it had 1 hour earlier.