Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Heath Holland On...My Favorite Movies of 2013

List time!

Instead of a Top 10 list, I decided to highlight five of the movies from the year that I really loved, explaining why I enjoyed them so much and what they meant to me. Some of them will be controversial, but nothing was put here to make you raise your eyebrows (though some of my choices raised my own).

There are some big movies that aren’t here because they haven’t made it to my neck of the woods or I haven’t had a chance to see them yet, but some might not be here because I really didn’t care for them (I’m looking at you, Mr. Baggins). In the end, the movies I picked were chosen for deeply personal reasons.

Here we go!

I’ve heard a lot of different things about 42 over the last year. Some people said that it didn’t have enough baseball in it, while others said that it had too much. Some people are complaining that it’s too saccharine and glossy, but I really loved this film. The challenge was making a film that told the story of Jackie Robinson and the racial challenges he faced while still appealing to a general audience. Robinson is an American icon after all, so taking the Mississippi Burning route would have been ill-advised.
42 does a fantastic job at walking the line between having something to say about an ugly part of America’s past and still portraying its subject as a human character. I had an especially unusual theatrical experience with this film, as the room was filled with tension and emotion.

It was only 45 minutes from where I’m writing this that in 1963 Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school to block African Americans from entering, saying “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” It was also in 1963 that a local church was bombed, killing four little girls. Those events are fresh on everyone’s mind here this year; it’s been 50 years since those tragedies (among others), and Birmingham has marked 2013 as a time of remembrance and honor for the lives lost and the ugliness of our past, as well as the progress we’ve made. Those events are a big part of our city’s DNA, and we live with that history daily. All of that was present in the theater when I saw this film.

The success of 42 is that it reminds me how far we’ve come while still being fun to watch and not feeling like a funeral, especially when so many of the big summer films DID feel like a funeral. This movie makes me feel good about where we’re going, and so few of the mainstream movies did that this year. It also marked a return to Harrison Ford giving a crap and actually acting. He’s a character here instead of just playing a mumbling, elderly Harrison Ford.

The World’s End was the most joyful experience I had at a theater this year. I avoided all the marketing for the movie and I hadn’t even seen a trailer. I literally had NO IDEA what it was about, only that it was the third film from the team of director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. That was enough to get me into the seat.

I won’t spoil anything for those who still haven’t seen it, but the path the movie took definitely came out of the blue for me. I was putty in its hands, and by the time the credits rolled I had been through quite an adventure. Repeat viewings were definitely necessary to get all the nuances and to follow everything that the movie was trying to say and do (which is a lot), and I was happy to oblige. The further I get away from that initial viewing, the more it feels like a masterpiece. With The World’s End, Edgar Wright went from a director who could get me into a movie that I knew nothing about to a director that I consider to be one of the best filmmakers working today.
2013 was also a year in which I really struggled with my expectations for comic book movies to give me the feeling that actual comic books do. So few movies based on comic books actually have the fun that their printed counterparts do. For my money, X-Men: First Class and The Avengers are the only films in recent memory that carry the same sense of fun and unbridled adventure that I get when I actually read comic books. More often than not, comic book movies make me really sad.

Yet even with my lowered expectations, I found myself still hoping for a marginally good time at the superhero fare of 2013. Bad idea, because the people making movies like Man of Steel don’t seem to even like the characters, or in the case of Thor: The Dark World, to even have read the source material. I think they found the villain Malekith on a trading card and wrote him from that, because NONE of his 4-color alter ego is in the movie.

In 2013, the only movie based on a comic, cartoon, or action figure line that made me read comics, buy action figures and watch cartoons was G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I enjoy more about it every single time I revisit it, and it rekindled a love for G.I. Joe that had cooled in the past few years. Please don’t stop reading. Let me explain.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation does a lot of things wrong, the most egregious offense being that it writes out some characters in a very foolish way that feels permanent. Luckily, nothing is permanent in this world of costumed do-gooders, and those characters can easily be written back into the story should a third or fourth installment require it. There’s always a back door. Another thing that I saw a lot of people lamenting was the increased focus on the darker, more violent aspects of the Joe universe.
But it feels EXACTLY like the G.I. Joe comics that I read as a kid (characters you loved died), and I absolutely love the balance between the military stuff with Roadblock and Lady Jaye with the ninja action of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Cobra Commander looks awesome, and actually resembles his drawn alter-ego (which is rarer than it should be). Even the loose loyalties and side switching comes straight from the comics. If the first G.I. Joe film felt like the cartoon series, G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels like it was made by a director who loved the comic books, which were always darker and intended for an older audience than the cartoon.

The feeling I get when I watch the sequel is the same feeling I would get when I cracked open a new issue of the comic book in 1992. Money can’t buy that. It’s a feeling I’ve been chasing since the first X-Men movie in 2001, yet I rarely find it. With G.I. Joe: Retaliation, that’s there. It’s a movie made by people who really, really love the source material.

If there’s a movie for which I’m still trying to figure out my affection, it’s The Lone Ranger. On paper, there’s a lot about it that should bother me. It’s got Johnny Depp in heavy makeup doing that thing he does now instead of giving a performance. It has a ridiculously irresponsible budget and elaborate, ridiculous action scenes that go on and on without mercy.

Normally, I mentally check out when a movie goes into a CGI action fest (which is why I spent half of Pacific Rim thinking about what I wanted for dinner), but I don’t check out at any point when I watch The Lone Ranger; on the contrary, it mesmerizes me. I can’t decide why: is it the beautiful cinematography of Monument Valley and New Mexico? Maybe it’s because it’s both a straightforward western adventure film with cowboys and Indians as well as a post-modern western in the same spirit as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, albeit with much different motivations and results.
There’s a lot of subversion going on in The Lone Ranger. Your hero is incompetent, your second lead is insane, the good guys are really the bad guys and while the movie is showing you the myths of the West it also appears to be telling you that those myths, ultimately, are empty. It seems open to multiple levels of interpretations. I think there was more intended here than actually got pulled off, which makes it, for me, one of those beloved ambitious failures.

I remember telling Adam Riske that while the audience was watching things blow up, the film slipped a message under the door. I’m still not quite sure what that message is, but I THINK one of the things it’s saying is that the West of classic Hollywood is a fabrication, and that’s its okay to have fun with that fabrication as long as we realize that the real west Was a far sadder place where bad things happened to really good people and where good people were overcome with greed and pettiness. There are no real heroes, only the ones we make. But you know, it could be like Yoda’s cave in The Empire Strikes Back. There’s nothing in there except for what you take with you. And I might have taken my lightsaber in against Yoda’s advice.

JB hates this movie, and I really do understand why. It takes something that he loves and pisses all over it. The original television series is a much more straightforward and lighthearted experience. Many times the movie seems to be ironically mocking the show on which it’s based. But this movie led me to the television series, which I’ve also fallen in love with. They are two very different interpretations of the same property, but they both feel viable to me. The '50s television show is VERY pure, and nothing can ever touch it. My affection for that old black and white show will likely outlive my affection for this new Disney movie. But for now, it’s nice to have both.

Also, this movie is special to me because my step-daughter and I have bonded over it. She and I went to go see it together and she loved it. She left the theater shouting “Hi-yo Silver, away” and shortly after we saw it we bought her a pink toy pistol and a mask so she could fight bad guys. Any mean-spirited irony was completely lost on her. To her, The Lone Ranger is still a hero and he will save the day. Coincidentally, she also watches the '50s television series with me and seems to get nearly as much out of that.

The biggest surprise of the year for me was Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey. The dude is on a roll, and he’s gone from being a joke to being the subject of some serious discussions. I absolutely love his character in Mud, but I love the picture that the movie paints even more.
At the center of Mud is a boy who is at the edge of adolescence, and therefore the trials of adulthood. His world is in flux around him as the comforts of childhood give way to the harsh realities of the world and innocence is lost through no actions of his own.

Tye Sheridan’s character of Ellis feels like a real kid, not Hollywood’s version of one. He doesn’t deliver pithy one-liners and he isn’t unbelievably cute, he’s just a kid like we all were once. He still believes that all people are good and that everything will work out for the best if everyone does what they’re supposed to. Over the course of the film, he lives through some experiences that go directly against that worldview, but the movie ultimately lands in an ambiguous place that I really love. Mud is a coming of age movie where the kid actually learns the realities of life and where everything is not tied up with a pretty bow. 
There’s more TRUTH in Mud than in most of the main studio releases of 2013 combined. The lessons it has to give are that sometimes people are just people, and there’s no such thing as an easy way out. Sometimes life is really hard, there are no answers, and all you can do is try your best to do what’s right. People make mistakes and act selfishly on their own behalf most of the time. Mud leaves us with the message that we’re all struggling to do the best we can, but that there’s beauty in that struggle. It takes an unvarnished look at the hardships in life, yet still manages to be uplifting. The way that the movie handles those issues and the delicate sweetness with which it looks at them makes Mud my favorite movie of 2013.


  1. I really enjoyed this article, it's nice to see someone talk about how much they enjoyed some movies this year. For some reason, 2013 to me felt like the year when everyone decided to fully embrace the snark of it all, and everything either had to be great or it was garbage. I felt like almost everything I saw this year I enjoyed to varying degrees, but I end most years almost beaten down by how negative everyone seems to want to be. Keep up the good work please sir.

    1. Thanks, Michael! These aren't the movies that I thought I'd be championing at the end of the year. The ones I was looking forward to the most are the ones that I ever need to see again, but these are movies that I could watch over and over. Life's surprising sometimes.

    2. Were you really that let down by Hobbit?

    3. Mmmm hmmm. I'll elaborate more in something forthcoming, but yes, I thought it was just way too much of everything: too much CGI, too many action scenes with no basis in the characters, and far too much wholecloth fabrication (much more than the last installment) that feels hollow. But I'm softening on it as time goes by. Me and this movie still have a long road ahead of us.

    4. Yeah, I think I know what you mean. It did have a lot of scenes that felt like were action sequences for the sake of action sequences. They also glossed over some of the more interesting dramatic scenes from the book. Beorn seemed shortchanged and Mirkwood felt a little rushed.

  2. Great article, Heath. I was alone for New Year's Eve (worked late at the office, too late to make the long road trip to see family, and last-minute get-together plans with friends fell through) and I asked myself 'What do I want to do that will make my evening fun?' And the answer was clear as a bell: watch my "Lone Ranger" Blu-ray. I cannot understand how anyone that loves the "Pirates of the Caribbean" can turn around with a summer action movie that EARNS, through careful build-up and hard-work, every moment of joy and child-like thrill of its two action set-pieces. Patrick and JB come hard on the perception that "The Lone Ranger" is making fun of its source material as quaint and outdated, which the ton of sweat and effort that went into building the movie's character myth completely contradicts. This movie works on so many different planes (revisionist myth-busting western one moment, slapstick-happy Johnny Depp star vehicle the next, kick-ass summer blockbuster at both ends, etc.) I can see the 'Tonto recaps his adventures of old' flash-forwards (!) as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the 'Indians are saintly innocents' western sub-genre within Hollywood ("Dances With Wolves," "Little Big Man," etc.) filtered through Depp and the writers into a private in-joke that just a few people know.

    Depp, Verbinski, Bruckheimer and the writers are only really guilty of the hubris of assuming the audience from the "Pirates" movies would show up for a new franchise. But weren't Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and the "At World's End" gang also guilty of the same hubris and expectations (with a smaller box office prospect)? These two movies were among the most joyful and fun experiences I had in theaters last year, just the antidotes I needed to remove the stench of joyless gloom that "Man of Steel" and its ilk brought constantly to the cinema week after week.

    1. You know, JM, I don't necessarily think that The Lone Ranger is making fun of the source material, but I definitely don't think it's really respectful of it either, and I can understand why that would bother someone who loved that original series. As precious as I can be about movies based on comics I grew up with, I want the people making these movies to really love the property, like I talked about for GI Joe: Retaliation. But based on some of the press interviews that Verbinski and Depp did around The Lone Ranger, that love is not there. Verbinski didn't even seem to have watched the show much at all, and when asked if he loved the show he said "well, no, but Johnny asked me to direct this project." Depp seems to have reasons of his own for the story, but I don't think he's coming from a place of affection either. Under normal circumstances that wouldn't seem like the best idea for a creative team on a project, but somehow the movie still seems to have a lot on its mind. I don't think it succeeds in conveying all of it, and I wish there was a commentary on the blu-ray and DVD with Depp and Verbinksi talking about what they were trying to do, but there isn't.

      So while it may not be a labor of love for The Lone Ranger series (which is lamentable), it does it's own thing. And what it does is something I really like.

  3. Glad to see I'm not the only one who got something out of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. For me, this film was pure fun, and aside from a few miscalculations (Walton Goggins basically playing Justin Hammer from IRON MAN 2, and the RZA as Fu Manchu), one of the year's finest popcorn movies. I also, like you, have mixed feelings about THE LONE RANGER, but find myself remembering it in a positive light more and more as time goes on. I think it's one that'll hold up to repeat viewings as the years go on. It's a mess, but a fascinating and rewarding one.

  4. Nice column Heath! I liked Mud a lot too. Jeff Nichols is a really interesting director. He kind of picked up where David Gordon Green left off when he went to do more mainstream comedies. Have you seen Take Shelter?

    1. I haven't. I don't think it ever showed here, and it's not available to rent on Amazon Instant. It's not on Netflix either. I'll try to track it down.

  5. Im loving these lists. So many suggestions that I have to get through in the new year. :-)

    I think im on the Pro-Lone Ranger side of things. I saw it after I read Alphas love letter for it following its release, so I was on the look out for the subtleties and subtext in a movie that presents as a superficial tent-pole movie, and I saw a whole bunch of them.
    I had no preexisting relationship with the character, beyond a vague memory of the cartoon, so there was no insult when it wasnt faithful. The message I took from it was that picture perfect representations can often be the surface level of something that is not what you expect.The creation of the Lone Ranger myth was built off the myth of his dad and the myth of Tonto's stories, which in turn was built off the romantisised version of Native American myth when underneath there is tragedy, genocide and trauma. Tonto had some incredibly powerful and heartbreaking moments. I still feel its impact when thinking of it now. Im glad they treated Tonto the way they did. While not exactly a realistic version of PTSD, it is far better an acknowledgment of personal impact than either romantising the noble savage or the down trodden sad Indian.

    It is also a product of its time, because while I understand the nostalgic desire for something straightforward and clear cut, I dont think a recreation of the traditional Lone Ranger story would work today, at least not on a large scale general audience level. Maybe on a preteen male demographic.

  6. I'm with you Heath on the good vibes for The Lone Ranger. While it's far from perfect and wildly changes tone throughout the movie (which is something I personally like) it felt different from the standard blockbuster flick that came out last summer. As an adaptation of the old Lone Ranger show it fails spectacularly, but as an update on the classic western I think it works well. I'm reminded of Live Free or Die Hard (the 4th Die Hard movie) which is a movie that I think would work better without the Die Hard moniker attached to it. I almost wish the same thing could have been done with Lone Ranger (although that would mean the loss of the theme during the train sequence at the end.)

    If your looking for a movie that's based off of an old tv show and respects it more I reccommend Martin Campbell's Mask of Zorro (1998), thats light swashbuckling fun I believe more people were hoping from The Lone Ranger.

  7. Great article Heath and some very interesting favourites you have there - the first couple I haven't seen - 42 is on my list and, though I've had no interest in the G.I. Joe movies (in Canada we had Peacekeeper Doug: A Real Canadian Guy, Eh?), your review has convinced me the latest is worth a watch.

    I really like what you have to say about The Lone Ranger as it helps put words to my own difficult-to-describe feelings - like Brad, Riske's review convinced me to go see it and I had a lot of fun with it (I think the "no pre-existing relationship" with the story might be key to that) - it was worth watching for the gorgeous Monument Valley cinematography alone - and I felt it had said a lot more than people were giving it credit for, a lot of which I think you've touched on. I'm looking forward to seeing this one again.

    Mud is a movie I have to watch again - I had some weird expectations for that movie, I think because I confused it with something else I had heard about, and we all know how much expectations can colour a first-time viewing. I liked it - especially, like you say, the TRUTH of its coming-of-age story - but I'm pretty sure I'll like it a lot more the next time. Whodathunk the 21st century's adolescent years would be the Golden Age of McConaughey?

    Good stuff Heath - sorry it was such a disappointing year for you in some ways, but glad you found lots to be positive about!