Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lucky Number 2013

I usually wait until March to “finalize” my top ten list of favorite movies from the previous year for two reasons: One, to wait and see what the Academy Awards do first. Two, I need the first few months of the new year to see whatever films I missed before ranking the final tally. This year, with my Golden Ticket, was certainly an exception. I saw so many movies already that there was no need to catch up on missed ones, but I had to take the extra time just to recap them all. In the average year, I see what amounts to about one movie a week, so the grand total is usually about 52 by March. I also keep track of films I’m interested in seeing, but haven’t yet, and my “surplus” averages anywhere from 30 to 50. This year, I saw 84 films and have less than 10 on my unseen list. Definitely a record and one that will probably stand indefinitely (unless I win another year of free movies or there’s a nuclear war and I’m stuck in a bomb shelter containing every film made that year).

Obviously, with that much of an overflow, it was a nearly impossible task to rank the movies in order of preference. Luckily, my main favorites stood out pretty clearly, but it was still pretty tough to narrow it down. Since this was such a unique year, I considered doing a top twenty list instead, but it just didn’t seem to have the same level of reverence, I suppose for the same reason I resent the Oscars’ new 10-nominee policy. So, I’m sticking with ten favorites. And here they are:

#10: Fruitvale Station – Every year there’s at least one major Oscar snub and this year it seemed to fall squarely on Fruitvale Station (although overlooking Monsters University for best animated feature is a pretty big oversight as well). As I said in my pre-Oscars post, Fruitvale Station is so convincingly re-created, it plays almost like a documentary. Every aspect of it is superb: Writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, everything. This film deserved nominations in all of those categories and more. What’s most insulting is that only nine films were nominated for best picture this year, meaning the Academy thought it was better for there to remain a vacant slot rather give Fruitvale Station a shot at the title. Disgraceful. I’m especially perplexed because it was not only a fantastic film, but it was (a) based on a true story (over half of this year’s nominations for best picture were based on true stories), and (b) was relevant to current events (in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting) making it a strong social parable. Oh, well. Great films being unappreciated by award committees is nothing new, but it’s a shame when the result is less people seeing it. So, do yourself a favor and see Fruitvale Station.

#9: Philomena – Here’s a true story that actually was given credit where credit was due. I didn’t know too much about it going in and may not have bothered with it had I been told that it was about a woman looking for her long lost son given up for adoption. My sister-in-law said she was real interested in seeing it and it was playing at the theater I volunteer at, so I checked it out to let her know how it was. I loved it, so it was as good an outcome as one can hope for going into a movie cold. Speaking personally, I’m a big fan of anything that shines a light on the hypocrisy and corruption of organized religion and skewers it effectively, but that wasn’t what made this movie great. It’s definitely a character story and the characters are very interesting and sympathetic. In hindsight, I was surprised at how funny the film was, given the melancholy subject matter. It was roundly entertaining and actually made me want to read the book. I probably won’t get around to it, but I would like to watch the film again.

#8: Zero Charisma – I played Dungeons & Dragons once when I was in grade school. I lost interest in it real fast, though, because the “Dungeonmaster” (or is it “Dragonmaster?”) had a bit of a god complex and seemed to enjoy toying with the rest of us. At one point, I accused him of just making it up as he went along and creating a game that couldn’t be won purely for the sake of his own amusement. He got really pissed and I stopped playing. This is a movie about him in adult form. It’s a tough sell for a movie to have a protagonist that the audience really doesn’t like, but it works here, because that’s the whole point. I’m not sure why I liked it so much (certainly not because I’m into RPG’s, because I’m not), but I think maybe because it was so honest. All too often in movies, when the hero is an outcast, they paint it as though they are simply misunderstood victims. In real life, they’re usually outcasts because they are downright unlikeable people who consequently alienate themselves. Napoleon Dynamite was like this. So was Eagle vs. Shark. These characters were people who created their own misery, made other people miserable, and yet were audacious enough to blame their misfortune on external circumstances. I have tremendous respect for any movie that plays fair by not whitewashing the truth and remains entertaining while doing it. It’s even better when the movie is funny, and I thought Zero Charisma was hilarious.

#7: Captain Phillips – I feel like I’ve written too much about this movie already (since I saw it at Cinetopia twice and included it in my Oscar essay in January), so I hope I don’t repeat myself too much in talking about it again. In a nutshell, I suppose this is as close as any of us will (hopefully) get to knowing what it is like to be kidnapped by Somali pirates. It’s a tense film that escalates to the point where the ending feels almost like an act of mercy. The end is a bit of a surprise, too. The surprise isn’t in what happens (if you know anything about the story, you already know Captain Phillips survives), but how it makes you feel. I’ve heard a number of people remark that they weren’t expecting to cry at the finale because action films rarely bring about that kind of reaction. But whatever tears you may experience are not because there’s a heartfelt reunion with the captain’s wife or because beloved characters get killed or anything as simple as that. It’s because what we’ve seen is so traumatizing, they are tears of compassion and perhaps even some pity. Tears for living in a world where things like this can (and do) happen. That’s powerful stuff.

#6: The Wolf of Wall Street – This is film is classic Scorsese cranked up to eleven. One could even consider it the third part of a Scorsese trilogy about the inevitable downfall of a criminally Machiavellian rise to power (GoodFellas being the trilogy’s first entry and Casino being the second). A fellow movie fan labeled this one as “Caligula on cocaine” and that’s pretty much right on the money. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a hedonistic film in my life and it’s pretty exhilarating in the same “guilty pleasure” way Jackass was. The film has gotten a lot of flack saying it glorifies this kind of lifestyle, but I don’t believe it condoned the things it showed anymore than Captain Phillips condoned piracy. In fact, I think suggesting this film glorifies such reprehensible behavior says more about the accusers than it does about the filmmakers. It certainly didn’t make me want to go out and become a stockbroker and screw innocent people out of money and then spend it on drugs and prostitutes and wreck cars and get divorced and find myself arrested and nothing to show for it in the end. I had fun watching it happen to someone else, though.

#5: 2 Guns – Now that we’re in the top half of my list of favorite films from 2013, we graduate from award-worthy empirically “good” films to the “fun” stuff. As I said in my original review of the film, 2 Guns harkens back to the days of the mid-80’s when action films were fun and silly and felt more like amusement park rides than actual movies, when there was as much humor as violence and, even when they didn’t particularly make sense and defied all reasonable plausibility, you didn’t care because you were having way too much of a good time. In 2 Guns, we’ve got people walking away from explosions in slow-motion, arguments manifested as car chases, a stampede of cattle during a shoot-out, and even a scene where Mark Wahlberg literally farts on one of the badguys. If this doesn’t sound like a movie you’d enjoy… well, I was gonna say “Don’t see it,” but I’m more inclined to say “Lighten up.” I saw it on my birthday and I couldn’t have picked a better film to celebrate being alive.

#4: Elysium – This film got a mixed reception from critics and audiences and I can only assume it’s because District 9 came first and some people thought Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore opus didn’t measure up. I enjoyed District 9, but I liked Elysium even more. I remember some friends saying other friends of theirs didn’t care for it (one of them calling it “Elysi-dumb” and probably patting himself on the back for being so witty), but I implored my friends to see it anyway. Most of them liked it, too. So, I’m not sure where the disconnect is. Just a question of apples and oranges, I guess. With that in mind, I find it difficult to think of ways to talk you into checking this out, if you haven’t already. Ranking it as number 4 out of 84 movies I saw last year is enough of an endorsement, I suppose. But, for the sake of comparison, I liked it more than Pacific Rim and Oblivion and even Iron Man 3 (all of which were pretty decent sci-fi films as well). The action was good, the story was interesting, the special effects were absolutely incredible, and it kept me guessing. Maybe there’s not as much of an audience for science fiction as there used to be, but for my money, this is about as good as it gets.

#3: The Heat – Like Philomena, I sort of stumbled into seeing The Heat. Although, unlike Philomena, I knew what The Heat was about and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it to begin with. Not because it came across as a chick flick, but because the trailers didn’t strike me as particularly funny. Even the red-band trailer (which pretty much just showed the same jokes with more swear words), didn’t have much to offer. That’s a bad sign for a comedy. Somehow, though, this film managed to be almost the funniest one of the year (second only to my #1 pick). Most impressively, it’s not the kind of comedy that’s only funny in places where the successful gags compensate for the weak ones. This movie is consistently funny from start to finish and it’s hard to pick a favorite part. A great deal of it has to do with casting. Sandra Bullock is one of the most thoroughly likable actresses today (and, as such, it was a stroke of genius for Alfonso Cuarón to cast her in Gravity, given it was essentially a one-woman show) and Melissa McCarthy’s been on a hot streak lately. The combination of these two absolutely kill it and it doesn’t hurt that the script is strong to begin with. The film did well when it came out, but you don’t hear people talking about it now as they did when Bridesmaids came out on DVD. There were two other comedies this year that made a lot of noise and featured almost entirely male casts (This Is the End and Anchorman 2) and I frankly thought they both kinda sucked. The arrogant, self-indulgent comedy of those two films could learn a thing or two from The Heat and the women in it.

#2: Star Trek Into Darkness – As far as sci-fi films go, this one might have been chided even more than Elysium was. For starters, Star Trek fans are almost impossible to please (as are all hardcore fans of any geek subculture) because they have their own “rules” of what’s allowed and what’s possible. I don’t really care what they think, though. This movie was a blast. It was a bit heavy-handed with the massive destruction (a point of contention I had with Man of Steel) and there were a great deal of “camera-winking” references peppered throughout, but I ultimately felt like those were part of the fun. I got the same enjoyment out of it that I got from 2 Guns, making it one of the best times I had at the movies last year. I loved the previous Star Trek and I liked this one even more and I’m eagerly anticipating the next one. Anybody who disagrees with me can go sulk in their own misery for all I care.

#1: The World’s End – I saw this film three times in the theater and I would’ve watched even more. Half an hour in, it was already my favorite movie of the year. Immediately after seeing it, I must have texted a dozen people telling them they had to see it, too. And, indeed, most of them texted me back after they did see it saying something to the effect of “You weren’t kidding, that was amazing.” It’s somewhat of a movie miracle since it succeeds so effectively as a comedy and an action spectacular and a science-fiction thriller and a kung-fu movie and a post-apocalyptic adventure and a drinking game. I’m pleased that, in a year when I saw every movie that was conceivably worth seeing, the best one seemed almost as though it had taken what worked so well from all the other ones and combined it into one masterful cyclone of awesomeness. I don’t know what else to say, except thank you Edgar Wright and company!

So, that was my 2013 as far as the best of the best. Since this was such a unique year, I thought (in lieu of a top twenty) I’d mention a few other movies that stood out for one reason or another. I’ll probably never see this many movies in a single year ever again, so I might as well make my annual report as thorough as I can:

Worst movie of the year (by far): Upstream Color – I hated this movie so much, I actually felt violent afterwards.

Most underrated: Oldboy – This did not deserve to flop anywhere near as badly as it did. In fact, as far as remakes go, it’s actually pretty good.

Biggest disappointment: A Good Day to Die Hard – I actually liked Die Hard 4 and was impressed by how earnest they were in remaining loyal to the franchise, but this one didn’t even try.

Nicest surprise: The Purge – Wasn’t expecting much, but this turned out to be the best horror film of the year.

Most squandered potential: Last VegasRobert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline in the same movie and this was the best they could do?

Most mixed-feelings: Her – Brilliant in places, lame in others. What did you think?

Most impressive technical feat: Gravity – If there’s one movie that deserves to be seen in IMAX 3-D, it’s this one.

Best kids’ movie for adults: Monsters University – Leave it to PIXAR.

Most original story from a tired genre: Warm Bodies – If you’re gonna make a zombie movie, you’d better do something new and interesting with it and this one’s pretty clever.

The only movie I’ve ever been to where I was the only person in the entire theater: Delivery Man – Ironically, the movie wasn’t that bad (but it wasn’t that good, either).

And, finally: Even though it wasn’t in my top ten (as far as personal favorites go), I can honestly say with a clear conscience that 12 Years a Slave did indeed deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year. So, in that instance, justice prevailed.

So, in closing, I should say if there’s a movie in 2013 you’re curious about and want to know what I thought of it, just ask. Chances are I saw it.

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