Unlike Joey, I don’t think you should care that I really enjoyed “Despicable Me 2″, because I’m not a hopeless narcissist. What follows are not my favorite movies of 2013, but rather the ones I think other people should see, will stand the test of time, and are the most technically and artistically accomplished. Go see the movies.
10) SAVING MR. BANKS
While often a bit of a narrative mess (the flashbacks between P.L. Travers’ childhood and the story’s present often feel abrupt and confusing), Saving Mr. Banks is nonetheless a beautifully staged snapshot of a fascinating moment of pop history. It is impeccably cast, acted, shot, written, and scored, and while it may not add up to quite as much as it thinks, it is the kind of good-natured and cynicism-free entertainment that Hollywood seldom makes anymore.
All criticism leveled at Salinger is entirely valid: this is a superficial look not at the life of J.D. Salinger the man but rather at J.D. Salinger the cultural movement. It is manipulative and exploitative, and anyone looking for a fair and thorough analysis of the man and his works should look elsewhere. However, as an analysis of the Salinger zeitgeist, it is perfect. It may not be a fair or even a good documentary, but it is entirely thrilling, and if you are already a Salingerphile then you already know everything you need to know, and this is the one place you can go for a different look.
8) THE WAY WAY BACK
It is unlikely that The Way Way Back will be remembered as a milestone in American cinema. This is a small movie with small ambitions, but it is one of those rare gems in which everything works. In the tradition of Cameron Crowe, The Way Way Back throws us into the middle of a story that has been playing out long before we arrive and gives us a brief peak into its comings and goings. Its characters are beautifully realized and lovingly brought to life by its cast, and while the end result is less than earth-shattering, one feels genuinely upset to leave these characters behind when the movie ends. And, yes, as Joey says: Sam Rockwell.
7) 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Rarely do I take into consideration my own emotional response to a movie in attempting to criticize it, but here I agree with Joey: I will (very likely) never watch 12 Years a Slave again, and while I think it may be the most important movie of the year, and is absolutely one of the best, and is absolutely one I think everybody should see, recommending it feels…inadequate. Movies like this deserve their own lists and their own places in history. It says something that it took this long for this movie to be made, and it says something (possibly something damning) that it took a creative team of Britons to make it at all. Brutal, unrelenting, and unflinchingly human, this is the movie about slavery that should have been made a long, long time ago and could have been (and now should be) a game-changer in the way we talk about race in America.
6) THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Two movies into a trilogy, it is obvious that The Hobbit series will never have the narrative thrust or emotional resonance of its preceding trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. But that makes sense, since the latter actually had to condense a sprawling epic narrative and had an intact climax to which it was building while the former is working to build a stronger and richer foundation for the latter. It isn’t going anywhere conclusive, so it is tasked with finding thrills and resonance in the margins. The first Hobbit was a loveable mess that felt like an epic quest to find a plot, a reason to exist and, most allusively, a place to end. This one suffers from many of the same problems, but it moves along briskly and engagingly until its final half hour, when the dragon shows up and things really do get interesting. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is the greatest performance by an actor with zero screen time this year (no offense, Scarlett Johannson), and his teasing, taunting back-and-forth with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is edge-of-your-seat stuff. The entire last act is worth the price of admission and just demands that it be experienced, which is not to take away from the thoroughly engaging film that precedes it. The end will leave you wanting more, right now, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a 3-hour movie.
5) FRANCES HA
Everything about this movie should be annoying. It stars the media-anointed Princess of Indie Greta Gerwig (who is to the twenty-teens what the also alliteratively named Parker Posey was to the 90s), is directed by the sometimes cloying and twee Noah Baumbach, is shot in black-and-white, and deals with a middle class white girl’s struggles to make it New York City. Uggggghhh.
So the fact that it’s not only not annoying but quite superb is a remarkable thing. The secret to Frances Ha’s success is that it is at once very aware of the innate annoyingness of its subject matter and indeed its main character and fully committed to telling its story anyway, hipster trust-fund first-world-problem gratingness and all. It is proof that if you approach telling a story about human beings as though they are human beings who, like all of us, are aware that our problems are our own, and that other people have theirs, and that this doesn’t make our own any less problematic…well, much can be forgiven. Frances Ha walks a tightrope, and it knows that one false move into B.S. sentimentality or navel-gazing will end it. Thanks to Gerwig’s miraculous performance (equal parts dancer’s grace and wrecking ball’s clumsiness), a superb supporting cast, and Baumbach’s skilled pacing, that never happens. It is relatable to those (like me) who lived it, but it smartly does not rely on its relatability as its sole source of enjoyablity.
4) MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Joss Whedon is probably the kind of creative talent that makes other people throw up their hands and return to their day jobs, so it’s great that he’s built a mini-empire of like-minded and equally crafty creative talents. On the surface, Much Ado is a tiny throwaway project shot in a few days at Joss Whedon’s house, featuring a cast of his friends. What it ends up as is the first Shakespeare adaptation in a long time (and perhaps ever) that effortlessly acts as a masterclass in how to modernize and, yes, Americanize Shakespeare without looking like you’re trying to hard or resorting to gimmickry. The whole thing is just so well executed, so confidently staged, and so fancy-free and non-self-conscious that one quickly buys into the idea of Elizabethan English being used in modern Los Angeles without a second thought. The cast may not be uniformly adept at Shakespeare, but they all give it everything they have, which is infectious. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker make a Benedick and Beatrice that give Branagh and Thompson a run for their money, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry is the funniest supporting performance in any film this year.
3) AMERICAN HUSTLE
David O. Russell is undoubtedly one of America’s finest filmmakers, and there is not a clunker in his repertoire. While not as strong as Silver Linings Playbook (my pick for best picture of 2012 and a film on which Joey and I vehemently disagree) nor as hard-hitting as The Fighter, American Hustle is a ferociously-acted tour-de-force that plays like a pile of roman candles in a bonfire. It is funny, thrilling, and oddly poignant, and (for a movie about con men and corrupt politics) never treats its characters like caricatures. I have a problem with some of the casting choices (Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner are both far too young for the respective roles), but sometimes you have to sacrifice perfect casting for adequate talent (which both Lawrence and Renner ooze from their pores) in order to pull off a script like this.
2) THE SPECTACULAR NOW
There are few more grating subgenres of film than the “coming of age” story, so it’s something of a miracle that 2013 gave us 3 terrific ones (this, in addition to Frances Ha and Way Way Back). The Spectacular Now is as close to perfection as movies get. Impeccably cast, written, shot, paced, and performed, it trades not in melancholy (as some of its promotion suggests) nor in cheap melodrama (as so much in its genre does) but in honest, funny, and thoroughly non-cynical portraits of contemporary teenage life. Even the most minor of characters feel like human beings, and, astoundingly, the teenagers here act, talk, and live life like actual teenagers. I love this movie.
Gravity is pure cinema. Built (like “A Trip to the Moon”, “Star Wars”, “Titanic”, and “Avatar”) on improvised, breakthrough technology and innovation, it is a breathtakingly choreographed existential ballet. But for all its ambition, it is little more than the most basic of human stories: the will to survive. What makes it an important version of that particular story, however, is its modernity. It examines the current outer limit of human exploration (space) and how the human spirit thrives in the awkward margin between the irresistible allure of the dread of the unfamiliar and the eternal yearning for the security and certainty of home. That idea has been explored to death, but never as effectively and as relevantly as it is here. One imagines a time in which Gravity will seem dated in much the same way and for the same reasons “Robinson Crusoe” does today, and the thrill of what a world in which that is true would look like is very much at the core of Gravity‘s soul. This is a landmark masterpiece.