Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mark Ahn's Top 10 of 2013

 2013 didn’t start off so great, but sure finished strong.

The honorable mentions (movies I really liked but didn't make this list): 
New World (Hoon-jung Park)
, Her (Spike Jonze)
, Upstream Color (Shane Carruth).

10) Mud
It is Matthew McConaughey’s world, and we are merely lucky enough to watch it through screens. McConaughey is on a run of rare form that is unmatched by his contemporaries not only in terms of quality, but in diversity and shape of performance. He gives another solid turn as the charming and wounded title character, but he’s not the best part of the movie, which are the two boys, Ellis and Neckbone. Jeff Nichols paints small life on the Mississippi River large by never leaving the viewpoints of his young protagonists, and he captures the romanticism and adventure of their youth without making the boys seem overly naïve. It all starts with a boat, in a tree.
9) Stoker
Although too uneven to reach the heights of his previous work like Oldboy or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and borrowing heavily from Shadow of a Doubt, I can see why director Chan-wook Park gravitated to a story that defies or blends multiple genres and plays into his operatic sensibilities, and the movie, for better or worse, allows him his voice. It’s visually extreme in its color choices and framing, but those choices counter the subtle murkiness of the relationships between the three main characters; I enjoyed that the pregnant pauses in their interactions can be read in a myriad of ways. The movie zigzags through genre conventions, emotional intensity, and narrative direction as secrets are unearthed or buried, but Park always pushes or pulls back his audience with an expert hand.

8) Inside Llewyn Davis
We’re quickly coming upon the anniversary of J. D. Salinger’s death (January 27th), and his Catcher in the Rye came to mind upon watching the latest Coen brothers creation. Forty years from now, when Oscar Isaac collects his lifetime achievement awards, this movie will feature first in his highlight reel, which is strange in that the movie is hardly a collection of flashy moments. The film shuffles and dwells in a dreary romanticized New York following Llewyn, a wounded soul who arms himself with a wry and prickly demeanor, another unlikeable but likeable anti-hero. Llewyn has a hard time connecting with others for a variety of reasons, but not when he’s got a guitar in his hands. The songs are a fitting keepsake, giving testimony to the power of art in this story: the musical in Llewyn, and the cinematic in the Coens.

7) The Wolf of Wall Street
There are lots of things worrying about Martin Scorsese’s loose biopic of a power-drunk stockbroker in the '80s. The rampant drug use and debauchery. The misogyny. The cultish glorification of illegal activities. The detachment from the real people these illegal activities harmed. The current economic environment which many feel still make the rich richer and the poor trampled. The subsequent generation of louts who watch all of this and nod with stars in their eyes. And that’s the point; this is all worrisome. Leonardo DiCaprio’s presence and Scorsese’s direction shouldn’t confuse anyone into thinking that glorification is the same as advocacy. Jordan Belfort looks cool and acts cool, but that is how he sees himself; the spotlight that this movie puts on him is not of acclaim, but of caution at the enormity of greed’s ravenous appetite.
6) The World’s End
Edgar Wright keeps on making movies that are close to perfect that keep on mashing up genres in hilarious ways; it feels as if he and collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost can make anything. Strings of made-up adjectives are the only way to describe what he does in making a zombie-horror-slacker-bromance and a buddy-cop action homage comedy and now onto an apocalyptic science fiction boys’ night out. Underneath all of the sharp dialogue, the gags, and the nerd pastiche, there is always a soft and tender emotional heart in Wright’s movies, and that heart is almost always the brilliant Pegg, who plays the likeable unlikeable, Gary King, who doesn’t really want to let go of his past, and decides to take his buddies with him.

5) Gravity
It was perfectly plausible to me that Alfonso Cuaron lugged a bunch of cameras, microphones, and actors up into space, filmed this movie, then came back down for cocktails and press junkets. I thought, I wonder how many takes Sandra Bullock needed to nail that spin away from the spaceship? I thought about how much the space station sets cost to build. I marveled at how they put the wires on the actors to film the zero-gravity stuff. Once I came to my senses and realized that almost everything was on a computer, I then thought, well, that can’t possibly hold up to repeat viewings, but I was wrong again. In this movie, the environment ends up feeling like just another extraordinary location, as if some scouts chanced upon this great little spot while taking 5 for coffee while tooling around Earth’s upper atmosphere. Cuaron’s achievement of making the vacuum of space feel real and intimate but still cold and dangerous makes for the perfect backdrop for the small, tightly wound story of a woman fighting for survival.

4) Blue Jasmine
It’s funny that I keep telling myself that I don’t like Woody Allen, but he’s made a good number of movies that I like, although part of that is his considerable output. I definitely like that he keeps finding good actors, or good actors keep finding him, and so the possibility of something really good is always there. Cate Blanchett’s performance headlines her first collaboration with Allen, but there are plenty of other good ones, including Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay. Yet another likeable unlikeable, Blanchett’s Jasmine drinks and medicates to insulate herself from the lowly mouthbreathers who surround her; it’d be insufferable except for the snippets of her past calamity and her earnest efforts to pick herself back up. And, it’s got the (shocking, unbelievable, unforeseen) best ending of the year.

3) Spring Breakers
Many of the worrisome elements in The Wolf of Wall Street are also part of the fabric of this movie, like a sequel in some nightmarish universe where Jordan Belfort’s kids go off to school and get bored. Harmony Korine’s movie is about similar themes of debauchery and self-glorification, just told from the perspective of the millennial generation. So much of the movie dwells in the tension of opposites, particularly between the old and the young, and the rich and the poor. Is there something inherently wrong with Alien (James Franco) and the four young women, or are they a product of a toxic distortion of a social environment for which we’re all partially responsible?

2) American Hustle
Sometimes, people get upset when a movie tries too hard to be good. Movies like this get called “Oscar bait” and we scoff at the neediness of a film that so obviously wants our love and attention. And sometimes it works. The heart of the movie is Amy Adams and Christian Bale as con artists who fall in love stealing just enough money to get by. As the stakes are raised higher and the lies between people have to subsequently grow deeper, both Adams and Bale have to figure out who’s lying to gain advantage, who’s lying just to survive, and who’s lying just because it’s fun. David O. Russell (who’s enjoying his own McConaughey-esque springtime) seasons the vibrancy of his film with a hilariously demented Bradley Cooper, a hilariously unstable Jennifer Lawrence, and the labor of an army of hair and makeup artists. American Hustle works hard for our attention, patting us on the arm, handing us a drink, kissing us on both cheeks and getting us that nail polish we like before asking “do we have a deal?” It’s hard to say no.
1) Before Midnight
The coolest aspect of this movie is that it actually began in 1995, stretching eighteen years later to finish up one of the most unlikely trilogies in film. Who makes three films with tiny budgets and tiny box office for that long of a time? Who has the patience to revisit characters who actually grow old? Who wants to make movies that are just people walking and talking? Despite these perceived obstacles, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy have created the most sober-eyed of “romantic” movies, complete with manipulative pettiness, emotional hostage-taking, and children. The characters have weathered hard days and nurse grudges born way in the beginning of their relationship, but this movie never forgets about the sweetness and joy to be had in the endless process of finding out new things about the one you love, of the infinite ways that this person can still be fascinating, even after many years. It’s that sort of hope that has kept Jesse and Celine together, and romanticists everywhere coming back to this story.


  1. Are you Team Jesse or Team Celine?

    1. Team Jesse (does that make me a bad person?). Although I think that the story is such that most men will side with him, and most women will side with Celine.

    2. Sometimes movies make me happy to be single. Before Midnight is one of them.

    3. I understand that viewpoint. Even though BEFORE MIDNIGHT showed a lot of the wear and tear of the relationship, I really liked it because it felt genuine and real. I've read a lot of reviews that say Jesse and Celine should separate, but there is something hopeful in both of those characters that resonates with me. Even if they don't do so, I feel like they can make it.