30 December 2013

The Way We Were: The Flicks of 2013

If you're on the Internet this time of year looking at movie sites, no doubt you've come across one or two "Best Of" lists. I struggle with this concept each year, because it's tough to define what really makes a great movie. Is the best movie of the year the one that made me reflect the most about myself? Was it the most fun I had at the theater? Or is it the film that accomplishes the greatest technical achievements?

My general rationale regarding what makes a movie great is its cultural staying power - which is impossible to measure in a year anyway. Even though back in the day There Will Be Blood (2007) probably got the most cultural cache, and No Country for Old Men (2007) got all the awards, who knew that in December 2013 we'd be talking the most about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)? Does this make it the best of the three aforementioned slow moving westerns released in 2007? No, but there's never any telling with these things. It's all subjective and bonkers.

For these reasons, I've split up my favourite films of the year into three big divisions, because I'm going to the movies to get different things out of each. First we have the Blockbusters, where I'm looking at who did and did not succeed at the big spectacle (and sometimes I enjoyed the "failures" much more than the "successes"), who surprised me, and what I thought was genuinely interesting. Let's begin, counting down from no particular set number:

Blockbuster Division:

#5: Oblivion

Oblivion would have been a much better film if it had come out like thirty years ago so that it could innovate and inspire every sci-fi movie to follow instead of appearing to rip them all off. Still, even though it's a far cry from Tom Cruise's high sci-fi watermark in Minority Report (2002), it was a surprising film full of gorgeous landscapes, a likable Cruise, and even if most of the plot elements were largely lifted from dozens of other films, it was competently executed.

#4: The Lone Ranger

I loved the fact that Disney based their entire non-Marvel summer around The Lone Ranger, but Verblinski and Depp were more in a mood to make an anti-Blockbuster, pulling the rug out of its audience's feet with completely boffo shifts in tone, some of the greatest train sequences of the year (or ever), and a general disregard for big movie conventions, despite its identity as such. Racist and un-American? You got it.

#3: Iron Man 3

It took me a while to realize what Iron Man 3 did for superhero films. I'd be curious if it has as general an effect on the genre as something like The Dark Knight (2008) did. While The Dark Knight pushed everything to be "dark" and heady, Iron Man 3 asks why superhero movies can't be exactly like early 90s action movies. It both takes the suit off the Iron Man and the piss out of the Mandarin. While the fanboy in me was outraged at first, I eventually grew to appreciate Shane Black's postmodern take on the pomp and pointlessness of antiquated archrivals and their unnecessary place in the hero narrative. The result is far more interesting than Iron Man 2 (2010).

#2: Pacific Rim

Originality may be a stretch here, for Pacific Rim does borrow liberally from mecha, kaiju, and many anime genres, but still, this was the biggest, best original sci-fi of the year. It gets big points for the best world-building of the decade, its refreshingly multi-cultural cast, its relenting coolness, and Charlie Day. No other big studio film had as much fun with itself or gave its audience so much to play with this Summer.

#1: Furious 6

How did this Happen? Not only does the plot of Furious 6 run pretty tight, despite a complete disregard for physics (who cares), it changes the narrative of every movie that comes before it, which is impressive in a franchise largely written off seven years ago. From the Rock to Diesel's incredible headbutt, tank chases and runways that stretch from London to Manchester, Furious 6 announced itself as able to play with the big boys in a big way. When every other movie this summer tried so hard to be cool, this rose above the rest and lived it, baby.

Next we have what I'm calling the Prestige Division. These are the kind of high-minded films I'm betting we'll see on many end-of-year lists, but I've probably thrown in a few wacky choices. I'd consider these to mostly be thought-provoking dramas, but a single genre definition essentially eludes the collection I have here:

Prestige Division:

#8: The Way Way Back

This movie tends to come along every couple years. Sometimes it's called Superbad (2007), sometimes it's Adventureland (2009), but it always tends to be tough to get sick of. The Way Way Back takes itself slightly more serious than either of these two, and thanks to Sam Rockwell sliding into a perfect role (he tends to have a lot of those), and Carell caring less and less about stardom, this one works.

#7: Side Effects

I can't stop being a Soderbergh junkie, and this, supposedly his final theatrical film, brings everything you could want from the man. The narrative juggles and switches protagonists like no film since No Country for Old Men (2007), and continually threads a mystery between who to believe and who is full of shit. It's tense fun with a slight critique of Big Pharma for being huge dicks. Rooney, Jude, Channing, and Catherine are all must watches.

#6: American Hustle

Hustle, even amidst criticisms of being "Scorsese Lite," is a damned fine bit of filmmaking. David O. Russell essentially combines the casts of The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) in a slick ABSCAM piece that has tremendous fun with itself. Is it a comedy? That's a question that rages across a lot of flicks this year, and Hustle, while probably not as groundbreaking as Silver Linings, is just as enjoyable.

#5: 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen finally brings instant acclaim to his filmmaking abilities with a brutal look at slavery in its nadir in the 1840s. It's not only a portrayal designed to shock audiences into recognition and remembrance of slavery's horrors, but a critical examination of black identity, the survival of hope among hoplessness, and the corrupting influence of the peculiar institution. Spoiler alert: this one gets all the awards come March.

#4: Inside Llewyn Davis

Somehow Llewyn stands out among Coen Bros films, which grows more difficult with each subsequent film they release. Biting bitter comedy flicks in and out with splashes of irreplaceable wit in an otherwise exceedingly sad film. "Please Mr. Kennedy" should be the song of the year and with John Goodman's presence turning The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) into Best Picture winners, can he go three for three? 

#3: Wolf of Wall Street

If Goodfellas (1990) had never existed, I may have listed this higher. Any breakthroughs this may make in narrative Scorsese already accomplished with his seminal gangster flick. Still, Wolf is crazy good, with the kinds of overflow of sex and drugs we've always dreamed of seeing on screen. At its heart, though, it's a tortured an uncomfortably funny tale of a man who can't do anything but make money, at the expense of everyone around him, including himself. There's not a better fable to tell in an age where the financial sector regularly screws over the entire world.

#2: Gravity

Picking between these last two was very difficult. They both get a lot of points for using their medium really well. Gravity provides a reason to go to the theater again during a time when the entire industry is whining that they're losing out to Netflix and home viewing options. It's a nauseating, dizzying turn through space with a ridiculous performance out of Sandy Bullock that genuinely works best when paying for a premium 3D IMAX ticket. Finally, a film that makes the trip worthwhile. As soon as other studios learn this, everyone can get a slice of that Gravity pie.

#1: Spring Breakers

Even though it's an incredibly important film for the medium, Gravity really didn't have the story to push it to the #1 spot. I'll give that to Harmony Korine's gritty dirty Spring Breakers, which feels like a dream when watching it. It's bathed in neon excess, Britney Spears rhythms, guns, cash, and a lot of delusional dreams, both broken and half-fulfilled. James Franco's "Spring breeeeaaakk" breathy whisper echoes throughout the slow scene construction over and over again, and unpredictable craziness flows at every turn, not only because it was primarily filmed with real spring breakers interacting with four hot Disney starlets. It crawls and oozes like only it can and remains the trippiest flick of the year.

Finally, we have a smattering of movies that don't really belong anywhere. I doubt you'd find these on any "Best Of" lists, but a handful were the most fun I've had at the cinema in years. In favor of continually eschewing any regard for form or convention, here are the downright funnest flicks of the year:

Fun Division:

#6: Warm Bodies

I'm basically at the point where I'll reward a movie for just not sucking. That's Warm Bodies, which takes what could have been a pretty stupid Twilight-esque premise and eschews any sort of expectation that could come along with that. The Zombie genre has been deconstructed time and time again by now, but perhaps never better than in this romantic comedy. The hokey ending be damned, this was a nice surprise.

#5: Don Jon

Otherwise known as Jersey Shore: The Movie, Don Jon showcases Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a competent and confident filmmaker, pushes a love of porn and girls in some new exciting directions (seriously), and offers a smooth ride from beginning to end. I'm still not sure what it is about this trashy sub-culture that attracts so much adoration from the general public looking it, maybe it's just how ridiculous yet commonplace their generally accepted behavior is within their own communities. I dunno. I can't stop watching, though.

#4: This is The End

I would put this at the top of my list for the whole year, but I understand there's a pretty heavy caveat - just about all enjoyment of this film depends on whether or not the viewer is pretty familiar with the culturally accepted social personas of the actors involved, as well as whether or not the viewer enjoyed Pineapple Express (2008). I'm a big supporter of both, so I had more fun watching this flick than any other single movie this year. Since it's so dependent on buying into that quasi-fictional world though, it's ultimately held back from being a truly great comedy. I also really didn't buy that Backstreet Boys reunion.

#3: You're Next

Probably the greatest marketing for any movie all time, You're Next proved to be the best kind of horror film - small, scary, fun, and effortlessly iconic. There were a lot of pretty good horror flicks this year, notably The Conjuring and even Insidious: Chapter 2, but James Wan can't get all the credit for reviving the genre. This little renegade movie needs a whole lot more attention than it's been given so far.

#2: Pain & Gain

Auteur Michael Bay's greatest film, and notably one of the most insane experiences at the cinema this year, Pain & Gain presents a non-stop assault on the senses, but not in that normal explosion-driven Bay way. Is the American Dream completely delusional? What's the price for success in a world that restricts the working class and rewards the liars and cheats? What's the best road to the top - honesty, steroids, theft, murder, or cooking hands on the grill? These are the big questions that I'm not sure Bay is even sure he's asking, but Pain & Gain contemplates them all pretty thoughtfully while serving up constant insane nonsense. It's a spectacle.

#1: The World's End

What's more to say? The fourth of four end-of-the-world comedies to premiere this year, and the second on this list, The World's End caps the Cornetto Trilogy and doesn't disappoint at all, in fact there's a good argument to be made it's the best of the three. Without a lot of fluff or other goofiness in the kind of film that could easily slip up, this flick provides laughs, some of Simon Pegg's strongest character work, and an answer to the hundreds of man-child alcoholic films that began with Will Ferrell and have accelerated through Todd Phillips' Hangover series. Every inch of this movie is covered in brilliance and it's thoughtfully the best outright comedy of a year full of pretty great ones.

Actor of the Year:

This was a pretty tough call this year. Tom Hanks had a few high profile roles in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks, but despite his admirable best efforts, both those flicks were kind of shitty. 2013 will always be remembered as the year everyone started treating Matthew McConaughey with more respect between Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street, but none of those flicks were really mainstream. Therefore I'm kind of torn between James Franco and Dwayne The Rock Lobster.

Now, The Rock starred in one of the biggest films of the year, Furious 6 as well as Pain & GainG.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Snitch. The thing is, though, only the first two of these films were really that notable, and neither especially because of Dwayne. Franco had a little bit of everything this year - big blockbuster potential with Oz the Great and Powerful, indie cred with Spring Breakers, a comedy blast with This is The End, and a bizarre domestic drama, Homefront. Not only that, but he appeared in small films such as The Iceman, Third Person, and Lovelace, and directed three additional festival films. He was also roasted on Comedy Central. Now, Franco may have the same lack of widespread cultural influence that the Rock did, but for sheer volume and diversity he gets our Actor of the Year award, with Dwayne a close second.

Actress of the Year:

This was also a very tough decision. Jennifer Lawrence just like last year has awards buzz from American Hustle, won the Academy Award for Silver Linings Playbook, and starred in one of the biggest films of the year, Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I'm also looking at Amy Adams, who had a slice of big budget blockbuster with Man of Steel, and two smaller great films in Her and American Hustle.

This duel, however, is coming down to the two starts of The HeatSandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Besides the success of The Heat, Bullock owned Gravity, and McCarthy added a supporting role in The Hangover Part III and provided a lot of the success of the year's first hit, Identity Thief. I'm not going to question the cultural impact of Gravity, however, and Bullock will get our Actress of the Year Award.

Scenes of the Year:

#11: When Oz's head finally makes its appearance in Oz the Great and Powerful, there's a lot of clever pay off there that encapsulates the entire movie and this douchebag's journey from Kansas to Oz.
#10: Pick any train scene from The Lone Ranger or The Wolverine. Why were trains in this year?
#9: Much of Star Trek Into Darkness fell flat, but Kirk and Harrison's (c'mon if you don't know who he really is by now) space jump saw Abrams briefly find a moment to equal the thrill and excitement of Star Trek (2009)
#8: There's not much more to say about the powerful hanging scene from 12 Years a Slave - McQueen lingers uncomfortably long on Northrup's body - if you don't get the point after the first thirty seconds, maybe another thirty will do.
#7: There were two big SPOILER-y superhero scenes that changed a lot in the genre this year - the first upends everything Superman is supposed to be about when Man of Steel kills Zod. The second is when Tony Stark finds out about Trevor Slattery and everyone's idea of what makes a supervillain is completely upended.
#6: Michael Cera has always seemed like kind of an enigma, but his brief turn in This is The End blows by ridiculous into a super-insane coke-fueled, Rihanna ass-slapping glory.
#5: Did you hear the apocalypse was cancelled? The best moment in Pacific Rim may be both of Gipsy Danger's Kaiju exterminations in Hong Kong (a double tap and a sudden massive sword, respectively), but when Idris Elba tells us that they're cancelling the apocalypse - damn if we don't buy his conviction.
#4: Gravity lets you know what kind of innovative, unique movie it's going to be from that first, exhaustive opening scene scrolling through the infinity of space.
#4: Smaug Awakes in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - it's as if this whole crummy cash grab was worth it - Smaug is an incredible character and Peter Jackson offers us a rare pay off that's really worth it.
#3: Say what you may about Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and many will point to the absurd obligatory battle scene, but for me, nothing beats the moment where the family says goodbye to Doby.
#2: It's hard to pick a scene from Spring Breakers. The most famous scene is surely James Franco serenading his masked beauties to the tune of Britney Spears' "Everytime," but I dig the crazy tension and character turn when the ladies make him fellate his own gun.
#1: You knew this was coming. Leo, on Quaaludes goes into the cerebral palsy phase in The Wolf of Wall Street. It's horrifying, hilarious and full of powerful character moments all at once. Scene of the year.

Trailers of the Year:

I always like dishing on trailers as their own special artform. Let's begin with films that came out this year:

Gravity - This first teaser still scares the shit out of me. In just 90 seconds the trailer demonstrates the inescapable fear, loneliness, and terror of the whole film, as well as a brief showcase of the crazy good effects. Seeing just this in 3D IMAX for the first time was more memorable than the Man of Steel that followed it.
Don Jon - Trailers have the unenviable task of capturing the spirit of a film, grabbing our attention without spoiling big moments, and getting our butts in seats. Don Jon provided a memorable trailer based on a simple man's routine that's interrupted by a unique woman that shows a lot of story but leaves the viewer intrigued for more. And the music's perfect.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire - I give this a lot of props because I didn't see The Hunger Games (2012), and have no desire to see Catching Fire, but this trailer really made me want to check it out. It's mostly the intriguingly conniving dialogue between Don Sutherland and Philip Seymour here that catches my fancy, hinting at some brains behind this bippity YA adaptation. You have my attention - thanks, trailer.
The Wolf of Wall Street - Even if the film itself is really just Goodfellas meets Boiler Room (2000), the trailer presents itself as wildly original. It's got a fine slice of insane douchebaggery on display, exhibits Leo's totally unhinged performance, and presents the film's irreverent tone set to the intense thumping of Kanye's "Black Skinhead" - a match between clips and song made in heaven to perfect demonstrate the theme of this flick. MORE IS NEVER ENOUGH couldn't be a better thesis for this flick. Completely engaging and instantly re-watchable, it's a nigh perfect trailer.

There is aother set of trailers that came out in 2013 for films premiering in 2014. Let's wrap up the year in movies by dishing on them:

The LEGO Movie - I can't think of a worse idea for a movie than LEGOs. I mean, I love LEGOs, but the point is to play and build with them, not watch them on a screen. This trailer gets a lot of credit then, for just being damned funny ("The 2002 NBA All-Star Team...") and hinting that maybe, just maybe this won't suck.
Captain America: The Winter Solider - Could probably go without seeing the Helicarrier go down, but as far as cookie cutter Marvel superhero flicks go, this seems solid. More than Thor 2 (2013), this looks to push Cap's ideals as far as they go, especially through S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems like a nice little dose of Civil War. I'm intrigued more than I should be.
Godzilla - This is another movie that really needs to prove in its marketing material that it won't suck. The trailer succees with a kind of urgency that is usually lacking in previous campy Godzilla films, GINO (1998) included. It wisely sticks with just shots of shadows, and destruction, mostly around one scene, which aptly demonstrates just what kind of film this wants to be - a badass realistic interpretation of the Big Tokyo Stomper. Walter White can't hurt.
X-Men: Days of Future Past - How the hell were they going to pull this one off? While holding back a lot of his hand, Bryan Singer helps us remember how he started all this superhero nonsense - with damned good character work. This trailer doesn't need a big explosion at its climax to let us know it's a big shouty important movie - merely one man saying to his younger self, "We need you to hope again." It understands where its drama is and promises a hell of a ride by way of character, not set pieces. If that holds, that'll be about the best we can hope for.

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