Monday, February 24, 2014

My favorite movies of 2013...

Yeah, I know. Most critics do their "best of" lists at the actual end of the year they're highlighting. But then again, most critics have the chance to see all of a particular year's movies by the end of that year, and don't have to find themselves at the mercy of when the movies will be released to the "general public."

I saw 47 movies this year. That's a few more than 2012. Not bad. So now that I've had the chance to see all of the 2013 movies I could (I missed a few), I've ranked my 12 favorite movies of the year. Most won't surprise you, and you've probably seen many if not most of them, but perhaps you'll add one or two to your list of movies you need to see.

In a future blog post over the next week, I'll talk about which actors I thought gave the year's best performances, so what you'll find out is that in some cases, fantastic acting didn't make for a fantastic movie. For all except one, I linked to my full movie review if you want to read more.

1. Her: Admittedly, I'm a total sap, but Spike Jonze's smart, sensitive, thought provoking movie has so much going for it even without my emotional weakness. This commentary about a not-too-distant future where connecting with people will become so difficult that a sad sack loner (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and no one bats an eye, is funny and poignant, with lines I wish I could have recorded so I could use them again. Read my original review.

2. Fruitvale Station: Still can't get this powerful movie out of my head. It's based on the true story of Oscar Julius Grant III, a 22-year-old resident of California's Bay Area, who was inexplicably shot and killed by police at a BART station in the early hours of January 1, 2008. The movie follows Oscar (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan) on New Year's Eve Day, as the ex-con tries to put his life completely on track. You see what a good heart and soul he has (although you get glimpses of his troubled past in some flashback scenes), and how determined he is to make things work, job-wise and relationship-wise. Should have been a Best Picture nominee, at the very least. Read my original review.

3. 12 Years a Slave: Emotionally searing, painful, and powerful, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, truly brilliant), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his family in the 1840s, who is accused of being a runaway slave while traveling in Washington, DC. He winds up on the plantation of a sadistic slave owner (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender), and becomes the friend—and sole hope for salvation—of fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in a starmaking performance of dazzling proportions), with whom the plantation owner is obsessed. Absolutely fantastic movie, although difficult to watch. Should absolutely win Best Picture next Sunday. Read my original review.

4. American Hustle: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with a paunch and a bad comb-over) is a con artist married to the flighty, unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), while smitten with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, never sexier). Irving and Sydney begin scamming people as a team until they run afoul of ambitious detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, complete with Robert Reed's perm from The Brady Bunch). He forces the pair into working for him, setting people up that he can then arrest. The ultimate scam they set up seems too good to be true—convincing Camden Mayor Carmine Pulido (Jeremy Renner) to take a bribe from a fake sheik in order to rebuild Atlantic City. Richie decides that's not good enough—he wants the scam to entrap some members of Congress as well. (This is based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s.) And that's when things start to go completely haywire. Smart, tremendously well-acted, and funny. Read my original review.

5. The Way Way Back: While this isn't a film that blows you away, nor is it one that surprises with its plot, it was tremendously heartwarming and funny, and full of memorable performances. Shy, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has to spend the summer at the beach house of his mother's horrible boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type), who is abusive to everyone, especially Duncan. To escape, he finds a haven at Water Wizz, a water park straight out of the 80s allegedly managed by manchild Owen (a fantastic Sam Rockwell). This film combines the lightheartedness of summer comedies with actual sensitivity and intelligence, although it hit a little too close to home for me in a few places (and those who know me well will know why). Read my original review.

6. Short Term 12: Short Term 12 is the name of a foster care facility that focuses on teenagers with emotional issues. It's supposed to be a short-term solution until the county figures out a more permanent solution for these kids, but some wind up staying there for more than a year. The home is run by Grace (Brie Larson) and her goofy-but-lovable boyfriend Mason, who are fiercely protective of the kids but are not willing to cut them any slack. This is a quiet powerhouse of a film that keeps surprising you every time you expect it to take the usual turns. You learn surprising details about the characters, which give you more insight into their actions. In a perfect world, Brie Larson would have gotten a Best Actress nomination and Keith Stanfield, playing one of the home's residents, would have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Read my original review.

7. Nebraska: One of Alexander Payne's finest films to date, this black-and-white tale is about an old man on a road trip chasing down what might be his last dream. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a somewhat addled alcoholic without much to live for, constantly nagged by his wife, Kate (June Squibb). When he gets a letter from a sweepstakes marketing company telling him he won $1 million, and he can claim his prize if he brings the letter to the company's headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, he plans to head there at any cost—even if it means walking. His younger son, David (a surprisingly low-key Will Forte, of Saturday Night Live fame) agrees to drive Woody, partially to humor him and partially to spend some time with his aging father. And hijinks and introspection ensue. Marvelously acted, sensitive, and funny as hell (particularly Squibb). Read my original review.

8. Before Midnight: I'll admit I didn't see any of the films in Richard Linklater's trilogy (including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) until my desire to see this one prompted me to watch them in order. These films follow Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), who met cute on a train to Vienna in the first film, spent a fantastic day and evening together, and vowed to meet again six months later. In the second film, nine years later, Jesse is on a book tour in Paris when Celine sees him at a reading, and they spend a few hours together before he is due to catch his flight. This film, again nine years later, follows the couple on vacation with their daughters and friends in Greece, but the passion and excitement of the first two films has been worn away by the struggles and quandaries of every day life. The fact that these three movies are not much more than Delpy and Hawke walking and talking, but all, particularly this one, are so wonderful, amazed me. See them in order, but see them.

9. The Spectacular Now: Popular party boy (Miles Teller, just on the cusp of stardom) meets down-to-earth, intelligent girl (Shailene Woodley) after his girlfriend breaks up with him for not being serious about life, and everyone else is getting ready for college. She is unlike anyone he's ever met, and he challenges her to want more from life. But he can't believe anyone would really want to be with him, and his self-destructive behaviors kick in. Sounds like a clichéd movie, but it's not. The script is smart and funny, and Teller and Woodley are great. You want to root for the couple to succeed even if you know they may not be right for each other. Read my original review.

10. Enough Said: On paper it shouldn't have worked—a romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini? Yet despite this unlikely premise, this sweet, funny, thought-provoking film really tugs at your heartstrings. The story of a masseuse (Louis-Dreyfus) who, despite her expectations, begins falling in love with a rumpled, sad-sacky film archivist (Gandolfini), while unwittingly becoming friends with his ex-wife, who spends all of her massage sessions cutting him down (although not by name). You know you're invested in the characters when you want to smack them so they'll behave the way you want them to. Louis-Dreyfus is less quirky than normal and Gandolfini, in his penultimate movie, plays totally against type and does it well. Read my original review.

11. Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon, meet William Shakespeare. The pairing of the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (and director of The Avengers) and the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon seems unlikely, but it's tremendously successful. And there are no vampires, zombies, or superheroes in the movie, although for Whedon fans, there are many familiar faces. You've seen the story before, but not quite in this way—the characters speak Shakespeare's dialogue in a modern setting, but the sexual chemistry between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) is still razor-sharp; Don John (Sean Maher) still causes trouble for the potential pairing of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morghese), much to the chagrin of her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg). Whenever Acker and Denisof are onscreen, they ignite everyone around them. Read my original review.

12. 20 Feet from Stardom: Except for rare occasions, we don't really think about the unsung heroes singing in the background of our favorite songs. Who are these people, and did they choose a life behind the spotlight, or is this what they wound up with? These are the questions answered by this brilliant, engaging, and entertaining documentary. The film looks at background singers from the earliest days of rock and roll—particularly Darlene Love, who, with The Blossoms, was the first group of African-American background singers, whose sound everyone wanted to emulate—through current background singers. If you're a music fan, you'll love this film because it gives you the opportunity to see those whose voices you may recognize but whose names and faces you might not know. Read my original review.

Honorable Mentions
Mud (Read my original review.)
Gravity (Read my original review.)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Read my original review.)

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