Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Heath Holland On...My Favorite Movies of 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.