First, here are my honorable mentions (#20-11): The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (even better than the first one and made me a fan of the series), The Conjuring (so well-directed and entertaining), The Best Man Holiday (really solid melodrama and the best Christmas movie in years), The Spectacular Now (two great performances and a terrific movie romance in spots), Enough Said (for everything with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), The Rep (uniquely effective for me because I love repertory movie theatres), The Lords of Salem (the best movie yet from Rob Zombie; great mood), Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (the most fun I had at a movie this year, my favorite IMAX 3D experience ever) , Captain Phillips (strong movie with a perfect last five minutes that elevate the whole thing) and Philomena (a really interesting and emotional look at faith vs. common sense).
It’s still messy, but I can’t deny that sometimes when I’ve been early for a movie recently, I’ll pop in and watch American Hustle. It’s compulsively watchable. After more than one viewing, I now love much of this movie. First off, no one is better at making Saturday night date movies right now than David O. Russell, by which I mean he produces old-fashioned, kinda glitzy, kinda-'80s entertainment for grown-ups that is all about the characters. The great joy of American Hustle is that it features scene after scene of really good actors letting it rip with witty and interesting dialogue. At heart, American Hustle works for me because it’s not so much about Abscam (that’s just a backdrop) but rather is a romantic comedy where I really want to see the guy (Christian Bale, maybe doing a great Al Pacino impression) and the girl (Amy Adams, hubba hubba ding ding, baby you got everything) stay together. The obstacles in their way are the wrong girl (Jennifer Lawrence, half of a great performance) and the wrong guy (Bradley Cooper, EXCELSIOR). Bale even has a best friend character (played by Jeremy Renner, whose performance I like more and more on each subsequent viewing) and their final scene together exemplifies what is so great about David O. Russell because it’s emotional and sort of ridiculous all at once. I also love Russell’s throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to using music, because when it works (e.g. "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Jeep’s Blues"), it creates indelible movie moments. American Hustle drives me crazy*, but in a way only something you love can drive you crazy.
*That "Live and Let Die" moment is embarrassing and Jennifer Lawrence in a neck brace is like something out of Ernest Goes to Jail.
The marketing for Mud was terrible. It was sold as a generic thriller about the Matthew McConaughey title character, and what a pleasant surprise that it’s not really that. Instead, Mud is a unique coming of age story about being stuck in the mud; i.e. unable to get over being on the short-end of unrequited love. But instead of being a corny kid romance, the movie becomes about a boy learning the various approaches to being in love from the men in his life that serve as role models. There’s his father, who is hard-hearted and disenchanted by it, the Matthew McConaughey character, who is imprisoned by it, and the Michael Shannon character, who posits the only way to survive love is to be emotionally detached. At the center of all this emotional madness is Tye Sheridan’s character. He’s the anchor of the whole movie and it would fall apart if the young actor wasn’t ready to hold his own in scene after scene with his more experienced peers. Sheridan is terrific in the movie and helps make Mud the best movie yet from the exciting new(ish) filmmaker Jeff Nichols. Plus, it’s a movie that bravely suggests that one-night stands might be the way to go. "Help Me, Rhonda" indeed.
Quick rant: My only complaints about the movie, which prevent it from being higher on my list, are a) the dumb shootout near the end, which might make sense plot-wise but is totally out of step tonally with the rest of the movie, and b) the fact that Sam "I’m just gonna stand around and be Sam Shepard" Shepard is in Mud. If you want to see an especially bad Sam Shepard performance, see him in Out of the Furnace. There’s a scene where he’s in a drug kingpin’s house and he should fear for his life, but he’s standing around like a bored kid at an antique store. Sam Shepard is on my Mt. Rushmore of actors I don’t like along with Robert Downey, Jr. (you guys made him the world’s biggest movie star, why did you do that?), Paul Dano (who is he blackmailing?) and Greg Kinnear (whenever I see that dude in a movie I immediately think "Oh dammit, this movie is going to suck" and he’s getting all insidious about it, too. Like who knew he was in Anchorman 2…it’s not so much that he’s bad as he’s almost only in bad movies). #TheMoreYouKnow
I love how movies can turn you on to a topic you in which you had no interest and ignite a newfound fandom. The movie that did that for me this year was the documentary A Band Called Death. I never cared much for punk music, but after watching this movie I am completely in the bag for the music of Death (specifically their album For the Whole World to See, which is played throughout the movie). In the documentary, Death’s music is aptly described as being the type where you can tell the band is trying to max out their talent with every song. They are leaving it all out there. For that reason alone, the movie is special to me. It’s even more special because it’s a human interest story of a band that refused to be stereotyped. Being three black brothers from Detroit, David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney were supposed to be Motown artists by default but instead they took pride in a misfit status and put all their energy into “white boy music.” A Band Called Death has several exploding heart moments for me, like when the long defunct band’s music is discovered by the surviving band members’ children or the way one brother’s premonition about the band came true even if he was no longer alive to see it. It also features one of the funniest and weirdest prank phone calls I’ve ever heard*. On a personal note, as a writer (when I was performing comedy) there was always something in me that was hoping my work was having a positive impact on somebody, and A Band Called Death is an example of a family living in the realization of that moment. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
*Note: Back in November, I named this as my favorite movie of 2013. It was the heat of the moment. So, yeah, number 8.
The World’s End
First off, can we just give Edgar Wright an Academy Award for direction already? Just for the opening montage alone (set to a sample from the song "The Only Rhyme That Bites" and foreshadowing the entire next two hours) he deserves one. I am always awestruck by how dense and thought-out his scripts are, and The World’s End might be the most ambitious one he has written to date (credit also goes to co-writer Simon Pegg). The movie is certainly funny and well-paced (This is the End is funnier, this is a better movie; we’re lucky to have both), but what makes it even more memorable is how mature and melancholy the whole thing is. Conversely, it’s dystopian without ever feeling like a bleak slog to get through. The performance by Simon Pegg (playing Gary King) is the best thing he’s done in his entire career; it’s a tricky part with a very specific point of view and a tough pill to swallow. I love that the movie is brave enough to say that things are not getting better with advances in technology and debates the virtues of growing up in favor of “living in the moment,” even if that moment was 20 years ago. The World’s End is almost a bizarre companion piece to my favorite movie from last year, Silver Linings Playbook, except that Gary King's silver lining has to happen at the detriment of every person in the world. What a ballsy movie. Edgar Wright is the best.
Note: I also want to give a shout out to editor Paul Machliss (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who has once again done a phenomenal job. Boxing is not the sweet science; editing comedy is.
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has an interesting back-and-forth structure for what is essentially a character study. This is a credit to Allen’s screenplay, as scenes from the past collide with current events in understated ways enhancing their effect because they catch you off-guard. A perfectly cast Cate Blanchett gives my favorite performance of hers to date as the conceited wife of a fallen financial crook (Alec Baldwin). She creates a character so cold and disagreeable that it’s almost astounding we’re asked to follow her for an entire movie. At no point is this character anything but contemptible, and part of the pleasure of this darkly funny drama is watching the character’s social obliviousness as she’s uprooted from her ivory tower to blue collar San Francisco to live with her sister (Sally Hawkins). Woody Allen’s dramas have always been very moral. He makes no bones how he feels about his scumbags, but just like in Match Point or Crimes and Misdemeanors, he has a way of eliciting complex feelings from his audience -- part of you still wants to see Jasmine marry her way into another undeserved trophy situation. You are embarrassed to watch this character, so out-of-touch with normalcy, make half-hearted attempts at “learning computers” or interacting with the public as a dental receptionist. I might make Blue Jasmine sound like a cold movie, but it’s not a drag whatsoever. The reason for this is Allen fills the rest of the movie with a lot of likeable and sympathetic characters, like Hawkins and her boyfriend, played by the underrated Bobby Cannavale, who have a dynamic together that feels like it’s out of Moonstruck. Also strong is Andrew Dice Clay in a surprising performance, so sad and tragic with none of his usual bluster. Peter Sarsgaard is also in the movie briefly and he gets to yell at a liar, which he is the Lawrence Olivier at doing. Blue Jasmine is the kind of studio indie that I love. It’s not a pretentious awards piece. It’s just a good story, well-told by a professional filmmaker in an unfussy way. When the movie was released, much was said about it being an updated take on A Streetcar Named Desire. What they left out was that Blue Jasmine is a better movie.
I love horror movies. There is nothing better than stumbling onto the next great one (#LookingForTheMagic). Of all of the entries in what turned out to be a strong year for the genre (including The Lords of Salem, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Conjuring, Stoker), You’re Next was my favorite. I honestly have no idea how this movie worked. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were able to make one of the least enjoyable horror subgenres, the home invasion movie, into a terrific (and FUN) black comedy that doesn’t sacrifice suspense for the laughs. Along with my #3 pick, You’re Next represents my favorite ongoing trend in movies today -- the gradual evolution of the mumblecore genre. Mumblecore (specifically its attention to character development) is the best thing to happen to horror in a long time, and credit goes to Wingard and also stars of You’re Next like Ti West, Joe Swanberg (who is so great in this movie) and Amy Seimetz for being integral parts of that. As if You’re Next needed another surprise, we get the wonderful Sharni Vinson, who gives us a final girl by way of John McClane. You’re Next is a marvel at juggling tones and homages to other movies -- I see elements of Die Hard, Home Alone, Scream and Assault on Precinct 13 (down to its synth score in the third act) -- and somehow You’re Next always feels of a piece. The biggest compliment I can give the movie is that it feels like if Quentin Tarantino made a home invasion thriller. At the beginning of every year I read pieces on which movies bloggers and columnists are looking forward to the most. I find that impossible to determine, because often most of my favorite movies each year are ones like You're Next that are making the rounds on the festival circuits like. What I’m saying is this: read up on movies premiering at Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Toronto etc; find out what’s clicking for audiences and support these movies when they come to VOD or in theaters. Mumblechorror. Let’s make that a word in 2014.
I sat in awe for much of Inside Llewyn Davis, and this is coming from someone who is hit-and-miss with the work of the Coen Brothers. I read a review (or it might have been a top 10 list) where someone compared this movie to listening to an album, and I think that's a very appropriate description of the experience. Like most albums, there is not a narrative that begins and ends as much as the collection of pieces that evoke a mood, sensibility or point of view. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t follow the “and then this happened” structure of most movies about musicians, but instead makes you feel what it is like to be Llewyn Davis. By the film’s end, you understand this character’s makeup and can probably figure out for yourself where his life will lead and not lead. The musical performances throughout the movie (particularly "Hang Me, O Hang Me," "Five Hundred Miles," "Fare Thee Well" and "The Death of Queen Jane") are absolutely wonderful. I was drawn right in from the opening scene. Inside Llewyn Davis also considers some intriguing ideas about what it means to be an artist. Should you wait for that perfect moment (and not compromise your integrity) or just play for the love of the art? The movie seems to argue that landmark moments in art just sort of happen and you have to keep plugging away, making those "Please Mr. Kennedy’s," or else every performance carries the weight of the world. This is such a beautiful movie, anchored by a phenomenal performance from Oscar Isaac, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and Jess Gochner’s production design. Between this movie and A Serious Man, maybe I’m starting to become a Coen Brothers fan. I seem to respond the most to their movies where they pity their characters. Inside Llewyn Davis feels like the music gods are looking down on the title character and shaking their heads in frustration.
Drinking Buddies was down in the bottom half of my top 10 until a recent re-watch. It’s hard for me to describe why I connect with Drinking Buddies so much. It’s a modest movie, a four person character study about relationships and friendship. It’s not trying to innovate or transcend cinema in any way, but I feel very drawn to it nevertheless. I love this movie. I think the reason is because it’s so well-developed, character wise. I feel like the Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick characters are all real people and not personalities from a romantic comedy. I care about them. I understand where they are coming from. I sympathize with their vulnerabilities, but also can empathize with many of the shitty things that they do to each other. And the movie is funny, too. I can’t promise you’ll connect to this movie as much as I did, but I think it’s a giant leap forward for Wilde, Johnson (who is becoming one of my favorite actors, equally good at drama as he is comedy) and writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg. I’m also very impressed with Drinking Buddies because the movie was entirely improvised. There was no script. The cast only had a vague outline of the plot and the order of events. Somehow, everything works. There is hardly a false or self-indulgent note in the movie. I place a high value on well-made relationship movies, and this was the best one I saw in 2013.
A demented spiritual cousin to my favorite movie of 2013, Spring Breakers is a movie of such style and tenacity that it feels like an immediate classic. I see the movie as a straightforward examination of “the worst generation,” eschewing finger waving and moral judgment for an almost clinical look at what makes these people tick. The characters in Spring Breakers only see the world as a playground for their own debauchery. One strength of the movie is that eternal spring break is not the only way of life the movie seems to be questioning. Think about it from the perspective of the Selena Gomez character. The Christian group she participates in is just as one-sided as Spring Break!!!! Director Harmony Korine is questioning any philosophy that becomes your entire worldview, no matter what it is. It’s all-in or nothing. I can’t say much else about James Franco in Spring Breakers that has not already been said. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year and such a daring, flashy creation. He took a huge chance with the craziness of his performance, and Franco succeeds partially because he’s able to tap into a sort of idiotic sweetness to the character. He’s like a more layered version of Gary Oldman’s pimp in True Romance. Spring Breakers also features beautiful cinematography and an amazing electronic score from Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. Spring Breakers is so good it (in the best scene of any movie this year) made me a lifetime fan of the song "Everytime" by Britney Spears, which is nothing short of amazing. It’s sort of ironic and a testament to the power of the movie that for all its ugliness the experience is never short of thrilling.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the best movie I saw all year. The primary reason is because it seems to dwarf every other movie on this list, and these are movies I love or like very much.
First, to address the controversy of The Wolf of Wall Street: if you are criticizing this movie for glamorizing its despicable behavior, then I think you are missing the point. Do you really think Donny, Rugrat, Chester Ming and the fucking Sea Otter look like people you would want to emulate? Do you think the movie in any way is saying these guys are cool? Do you want to steal from people, do drugs, fuck dirty hookers or beat up and humiliate women? Compare that to Boiler Room (a movie I like despite its flaws), where the big bad stockbrokers are played by the likes of charismatic actors like Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel. That movie makes these guys seem frat-house cool; The Wolf of Wall Street does not. That aside, the movie is a feast; three hours long but seeming much shorter. It was a masterstroke of Martin Scorsese to pitch this movie as an absurd comedy, because if you can’t laugh at this situation, how are you supposed to react? Think about it. The last scene of the movie is saying that no matter how awful a guy like Jordan Belfort is, we’re still lining up to buy his bullshit (whether we’re a seminar audience or reading his book or even seeing THIS MOVIE) because he is persuasive and entertaining.
Having the endlessly charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio play the leader of this pack of pigs is very smart, because he’s the cool guy holding court over a bunch of losers. He wants to be the shit and the shit wants to be him. I love how DiCaprio’s performance almost acts like a revision of his previous best performance in Catch Me If You Can. Think about it: Jordan Belfort and Frank Abignale are somewhat similar characters, except Scorsese’s “hero” goes all the way; he doesn’t have parental baggage or moral quagmires to concern himself with (plus Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent may as well be Carl Hanratty). I really can’t say enough about DiCaprio in this movie. He’s sensational. I always thought he was doing himself a disservice by playing so many tortured, clenched heroes before Django Unchained, and I’m glad that he is now in a phase of his career where he is tapping into his old-fashioned movie star quality to deliver devious, unbridled performances. The Wolf of Wall Street is a true epic: a colossal adventure in the life of one of the biggest pieces of shit ever to grace planet Earth. It’s a testament to the talents of Martin Scorsese that it’s also among the most entertaining and lively movies to come out in 2013. It’s a movie I watched and thought to myself “Wow, that was some cinema!”