These days, waiting until the year is over to put a “best of” list together is kind of a quaint notion. Like an all ages show that’s gotta clear out for the late-night dance-club party, everyone seems to be in such a rush to wrap it up and move on to all that Oscar speculating. The New York Film Critics Circle preemptively named American Hustle as best picture over a month ago. What’s the hurry? Had they even seen The Wolf Of Wall Street? Unlikely, since it was still unfinished at the time—but if they had seen it, never mind the question of whether or not they would’ve had time to actually process it. Soon after, all those other circle jerks followed suit and the same movies turned up over and over: Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, and the aforementioned American Hustle; coloring nearly every “best of” list to come down the hype chute. Why all the lock-step? Are these really “best of” lists? Or are they just advertisements for movies that most of the country hasn’t even had a chance to see yet?
Which is just another way of saying that these lists don’t really matter, but nevertheless here’s another one. If it’s any consolation, it only features two films that came out in the final weeks of 2013 (either Her was a bit underwhelming, or I’m going to need more time to process it), and there’s a few that I haven’t seen anywhere near a “best of” list. I’d also like to point out that I didn’t get a chance to see a few films that I hear are pretty great, especially Computer Chess and Touch Of Sin, so consider this list incomplete. Here we go.
10. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
If you had asked me last summer which movie was likely to have more to say about race in America—Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave or Lee Daniels’ The Butler —I would’ve laughed you out of the conversation. Surely, the Schindler’s List of slavery movies would have no trouble crushing the Forrest Gump of feel good civil rights films. But if 12 Years A Slave is meant to be a corrective to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, then The Butler is a corrective to them both. The Butler dares to be a movie that addresses racism without wallowing in slave imagery for its run time. In the partially fictional story of an African American White House butler, Daniels manages to convey how far we’ve come as a country while never letting us forget our shameful starting point—or the shameful growing pains along the way. He mainly does this by turning the conventional race-prestige picture on it’s head in excluding the presence of any well meaning white people, indulging in some truly bizarre stunt cameos, and painting the warmest, funniest, and most nuanced picture of an American black middle-class family this year. And Oprah kills it. Maybe it’s a matter of McQueen being one of the more pretentious directors working today and Daniels being one of the least (despite that title!), but Daniels manages to work in more truths by being subversive than McQueen does by hitting us over the head. I realize that’s McQueen’s point, so maybe I’m just sick of watching black actors dressed as slaves.
9. This Is The End
Like 12 Years A Slave and The Butler, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This The End will forever be linked in my mind with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s The World’s End, two movies about dudes partying against the backdrop of the End Times. Now I yield to no one in my love of Wright and Pegg’s Shaun Of The Dead, but once again I’m gonna go with the Americans on this one—mainly because This Is The End made me laugh harder than just about anything else this year (except maybe for The Wolf Of Wall Street). Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Danny McBride, etc. decide to just say “fuck it” and play themselves as spoiled Hollywood narcissists trying to cope with the most literally Biblical end of the world since The Rapture. Sure, it may be one big self-referential in-joke, but it contains so many instant classic bits (Franco and McBride’s mimed masturbation fight, Jonah Hill’s Rosemary’s Baby impersonation, a mistaken rape panic involving Hermione), that I can’t imagine anyone but the most hating of haters minding too much. Funny’s funny, man. I refuse to defend this choice.
8. Enough Said
Nicole Holofcener has gone from being an apprentice on ‘80s Woody Allen comedies to being one of our more astute chroniclers and critics of the well to do and their white people problems. She hasn’t made a lot of movies—Enough Said is only her fifth feature since her 1996 debut, Walking And Talking—but her insights only get sharper, funnier, and more humane each time out. The deceptive contours of the rom-com plot—a divorced woman learns that she’s been sleeping with her new friend’s ex-husband—are just a springboard for Holofcener’s auteurist preoccupations with class and polite society. And the results are glorious. She’s aided in no small measure by a fine lead turn from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, easily one of the finest comic actresses ever to grace the big OR small screen, but Enough Said’s real legacy may be as a showcase for a heartbreaking penultimate performance by James Gandolfini. That alone makes it unmissable.
7. Pacific Rim
Does everything have to be dark now? Iron Man; so troubled and dark. Star Trek went straight Into the Darkness. Thor’s whole World was Dark. And Superman was just dull as dishwater. So it was nice to see a big, dumb summer movie that was smart enough to be FUN, for God’s sake. Pacific Rim’s reason for being—giant robots battling giant monsters—is, depending on your disposition, either kick-ass or sub-mental; but at least Guillermo Del Toro has the courage to present silly characters to go along with his, frankly, silly premise. In this post-Dark Knight age, I’d call that a virtue. Featuring a terrific prologue, nifty production design by long-time Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier, and awesome Japanese monster movie-styled battles that push Michael Bay bullshit into neon abstraction until it resembles the psycho freak-outs of Gaspar Noé and Enter The Void. I haven’t seen a sci-fi movie this energetic and playful since the Hollywood glory days of Paul Verhoeven.
6. The Place Beyond The Pines
At first, Derek Cianfrance’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling (after Blue Valentine in 2010) looks like it’s going to be another entry in the smoldering, swooning canon of St. Gosling. And, yeah, for a while it is exactly that, but then The Place Beyond The Pines becomes something else; a critique of the cool cat criminal that Gosling plays in Drive. And when Gosling’s dare-devil biker protagonist is swapped out for the considerably less charismatic Bradley Cooper as an ambitious rookie, who is then replaced by the virtually unknown Dane DeHaan; it also becomes a nervy experiment in dimming star wattage. You could say that makes for a movie that’s gets less gripping as it goes along, or you could read it as an indictment of macho shit-head posturing and all the damage it does to people who aren’t necessarily the shit-heads doing the posturing.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers are so consistently on their game that it’s easy to take them for granted. We shouldn’t. This understated comedy(?) about pre-Dylan folkies in Greenwich village is, quite possibly, the most beautiful thing the Coens have ever done. What more do you need?
4. A Band Called Death
Music documentaries are everywhere these days. The internet-aided fracturing of music hierarchies has spread so far that even bands who never even released a proper record are awarded rock docs filled with fawning testaments to their genius. That’s fine with me, just as long as the movies are as great and as life affirming as this one about a band of three brothers in Detroit who formed the black proto-punk band, Death, about 30 years before anyone was even remotely ready for that unwieldy tag. After sitting through one too many movies this year featuring some rock star drummer who complains about being broke after he spent all his money on jet planes and drugs (or whatever it is rock star drummers spend all their money on)—A Band Called Death’s message of fraternity and the belief in the power of music came on like a breath of fresh air.
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street
I’m not sure that it was such a good idea for David O. Russell to release his Goodfellas rip, American Hustle (or as I like to call it The Martin Scorsese Playbook), the same week as Scorsese himself decided to return to Goodfellas form with The Wolf Of Wall Street. Maybe someday I’ll be able to see Russell’s film through different lenses, but not now. Not while Sheriff Scorsese is back in town. The breakneck pace, the endlessly quotable voiceover, the comic amorality—it’s all here. Except this time, that rule book is shot through with the satiric bite of Billy Wilder. At times the movie plays like a ‘40s screwball comedy (especially during a Howard Hawksian bedroom screaming match between Leonardo DiCaprio and his new-ish bride, and ESPECIALLY during DiCaprio’s uproarious “Quaalude Crawl” scene), but Scorsese, as usual, never lets the comedy eclipse the ugliness. Which makes the controversy over the movie’s supposed glorification of criminals kind of a moot point. In the same way he took the warm, nostalgic Godfather glow off of gangsters in Goodfellas, Scorsese’s gangsters of Wall Street are not shown as shrewd Gordon Gekko types, but rather as the frat boy buffoons that they really are. It’s a treatment that couldn’t be more appropriate.
2. Blue Is The Warmest Color
A sweeping epic of human proportions, but let’s get the sex out of the way first. Yeah, there’s a lot of it in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palm D’Or winner about a young French girl’s first love, and it’s pretty strong stuff. There’s been an effort by most critics to sweep all that sex under the carpet by saying it’s only a fraction—about 22 minutes—of the film’s 3 hour run time. Just as much time, it is argued, is given to scenes about food. Or scenes in the classroom. But 22 minutes of sex? Raw, hot, lesbian sex? That’s like a Seinfeld episode full of sex. How do you ignore that? The answer is you don’t. And like that Seinfeld episode where everyone goes to see Rochelle, Rochelle (one girl’s erotic journey from Milan to Minsk), Blue Is The Warmest Color would seem to fit into a long tradition of foreign art films that flirt with prurience. But Kechiche’s film has less in common with Last Tango In Paris than with Truffaut and his The 400 Blows. And in the end, everything in this movie is raw and hot. So, if not sex, what is this movie really about? If I had to pick one thing, it would be the face of Adele Exarchopoulos, who gives a star-making performance if there ever was one as the main character, Adele. Whether sleeping, eating, dancing, crying, marching during protest parades (my favorite sequences), whatever—Kechiche pushes his camera close in on Exarchopoulos’ face and stays there, and that unbelievably expressive face tells us all we need to know. It’s better than any special effect. This movie is fucking great.
1. Before Midnight
Eighteen years ago we watched Jesse and Celine meet each other on a train in Europe. Were any of us aware that we were watching the beginnings of a love story so profound that it approaches Michael Apted’s 7 Up series in its greatness? I wasn’t. And yet, here we are with the third entry in Richard Linklater’s superb series of films that began in 1995 with Before Sunrise. A third film that manages the impossible task of being the best of the bunch, a feat that I would argue has never been accomplished before. Richard Linklater, who has quietly become the best film maker of his generation, co-wrote the film with his two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and the three have grown so skilled and fearless in their portrayal of our beloved couple that we could almost be forgiven for our continued folly in thinking that, this time, there’s no way that they could top themselves. Except, of course, they probably will. Tongues are sharper this time around, and there’s a bravura all-out hotel-room-war-of-words set piece that’s as upsetting as watching your parents fight—but the sense of wistfulness and romance is bone deep. Right down to the marrow. You think those kids in Titanic would’ve gotten this far? Linklater has one of the best filmographies around, but Before Midnight might be his masterpiece.
And here’s 5 more:
11. All Is Lost with a stellar performance by Robert Redford.
12. Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.
13. Cate Blanchett helped Woody Allen return to form in Blue Jasmine.
14. Michael Cera as a big, dumb American asshole in Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus.
15. And, oh, what the hell? American Hustle.
And now for the worst:
I don’t really go out of my way to see bad movies. Who would? So there’s no The Hangover: Part 3 or Grown Ups 2 on my list—you will find Will Smith’s kid, though—but having said that, I managed to sit through my fair share of junk this year. I swear to God, brothers and sisters, I went to every movie on this list with the best of intentions. I really did. If you’re interested in a synopsis for any of these fine features, Google ‘em. I really can’t bring myself to rehash the gory details. Bring on the snark!
10. The Internship
Listening to Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson shovel bullshit has been one of the great pleasures of American comedies since the mid ’90s—and Vince Vaughn still has some of the best reaction shots in the business—but this is a long way down from Swingers and Bottle Rocket.
It’s not like I’m the biggest fan of Park Chan-wook’s original, and I’m not necessarily opposed to remakes, but what’s the reason for this neutered version by Spike Lee? Do people hate subtitles that much? American remakes of beloved foreign cult films have been successful in the not too distant past (The Departed was Scorsese’s superior take on Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong), but usually they end up like this or that lame carbon copy of Let The Right One from a few years ago. Apparently, it’s not all Spike’s fault—the studio made Lee pare down his original edit from 140 minutes to 105, even making him insert a blasphemous cut in the middle of his take on Chan-wook’s legendary single take hammer-fight sequence (really the only time Lee’s version comes alive), but I have a hard time believing there’s anything in those 35 minutes that could save this mess.
8. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Can we all admit that this isn’t even a real movie, for chrissakes? It’s a glorified TV show that nobody on screen seems to give one shit about. I understand the concept of ‘serialized films’ but can someone tell me what the climax is here? Kill Bill Volume 1 had the fight at the House of Blue Leaves. The Empire Strikes Back had the light saber duel where we find out that Vader is Luke’s father (sorry for the spoiler). This has nothing even close to those sterling examples of pop catharsis. It’s like somebody lost the last 20 minutes. Yes, I know there’s going to be another one, but where is the emotional pay off in THIS one? And if one more person tells me, “Oh, it helps to read the books” I’m gonna go Battle Royale on their Katniss. We’re not talking about books here, we’re talking about movies, and if you can’t enjoy a movie without reading the book then that movie probably shouldn’t exist. Unless, of course, its sole reason for being is to make a butt-load of money.
7. The Great Gatsby
Outside of maybe Tommy Wiseau, Baz Luhrmann has to be the most tone-deaf director working today and I can’t think of a worse choice to direct F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unassailable masterpiece. Armed with such sturdy source material, it should be impossible to go completely wrong—but Luhrmann just can’t get out of his own way. He pushes his actors to be cartoons and his editing style chases after some MTV aesthetic that is long gone. At times, it seems like he’s straining to be Russ Meyer, but with all the joy replaced by pomp and pretense. Of course, Meyer made a career out of elevating trashy porn into high art, while Luhrmann has made his living on turning high art into shitty music videos for the ADD book club set.
A pointless remake of William Lustig’s scuzzy slasher classic brought to you by a bunch of French guys who brought you pointless remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha. Ripping off the point of view gimmick from Enter The Void is not some “innovation” that justifies this lazy rehash of the original’s spunky sadism.
5. After Earth
It really says something about how far the once mighty M. Night Shyamalan has fallen that he’s been reduced to directing birthday presents for Will Smith’s son. What? A new car’s not good enough? I would say that the Smith family must be stopped, but I think they just did that to themselves. (And speaking of Jaden Smith, have you seen that kid’s red carpet photos? What the hell is that thing he’s doing with his eyebrows?)
4. You’re Next
Adam Wingard invites his mumble-core buddies to go slumming in the horror genre and the results are predictably self aware and cutesy-clever. That either sounds like a good idea to you, or it sounds like the worst idea ever. Guess where I stand?
3. Machete Kills
Look, I get the gag, Robert Rodriguez. But this latest installment in a joke that’s getting less and less funny barely rises to the level of one of those cheap pieces of crap they make for the SyFy channel. If you can’t be bothered to care, why should I?
2. Man Of Steel
It’s a comic book movie, so let’s not get too bent out of shape here. But three things:
1) We were promised a deconstruction of the Superman myth. What we got was an hour and a half of shit we already knew, followed by an hour of explosions and empty technique that was like listening to an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo while watching somebody else play a video game.
2) I’ve said this before, but does EVERYTHING have to be dark now? Jesus Christ! When did Superman get so humorless and dull?
c.) I hope Sears, 7-Eleven, U-Haul, and IHOP got their money’s worth. It’s a little hypocritical to lecture us about Truth, Justice, and the American Way while turning our greatest superhero into a corporate whore. Although, I suppose that actually IS the American Way, right?
1. The Way, Way Back
Shameless pandering of the worst kind “from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno” (um…who gives a shit?). Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s directorial debut—after winning Oscars for co-writing The Descendants with Alexander Payne—only makes me realize what a genius Payne must be. What kind of Herculean efforts did Payne undertake to prevent his film from being even half as hacky as this one? Who talks like these characters? Who does the things these characters do?!? There is not one honest or un-manufactured moment to be had. I’m not fucking kidding, but there is actually a scene where the dorky but good-hearted teenage hero ingratiates himself with the cool kids by break dancing. BREAK DANCING!! What?!? WHAT?!? I’m done. Fuck this movie.
And finally, three more movies that are either the worst of the year, or some bizarro version of the best. They’re like car wrecks. No. Train wrecks! So awful, but I couldn’t look away.
3. Pain & Gain
Michael Bay moves up from movies taken from a series of toys to a movie taken from a series of magazine articles. This true crime farce with Marky Mark and the Rock has already garnered a loyal cult of apologists, but Bay’s got a lot of nerve making fun of numbskull body builders and and vapid chicks with breast implants when his entire oeuvre is the cinematic equivalent of fake tits. Or maybe that’s the genius part. Who better than Michael Bay to tell the story of a trio of ‘roided out stooges who’ll do anything to get millions of dollars to buy drugs with? That’s some choice irony right there, man.
2. Only God Forgives
This might be the most boneheaded movie of the year. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Not stupid and awesome, the way Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s previous collaboration, Drive, was. This one is just stupid and stupid. But, of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that kind of pissed me off. Virtually nothing happens in this movie (at least nothing that makes any sense), but it’s all done with a beautiful and narcotic style straight out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and unlike some of Refn’s earlier work—I hate Valhalla Rising—I was never really bored. A lot of blame was placed at the godly feet of Gosling for his supremely vacant performance, but I think he was just using his character to embody the ethos of the movie: pretty and dumb.
1. The Counselor
So, does this mean this is the best or the worst of the three? The least offensive or the most deliriously misbegotten? Beats me. If you were to tell me you liked this freak of nature I’d say, “You’re nuts! And I don’t care who wrote the screenplay (Cormac McCarthy), or who had the stupidest haircut (Javier Bardem again), this is no No Country For Old Men!” Now on the other hand, if you said it was awful I’d probably be all like, “Now hang on a minute. We might have a screwy cult classic on our hands.” And in theory, it’s not too far from director Ridley Scott’s late brother Tony Scott’s film of Tarantino’s script for True Romance, another movie that was able to attract a gaggle of A-listers hoping to recapture lightning in a bottle with a cinematic hand me down. Maybe McCarthy’s no screenwriter, and Scott’s no Coen brothers—but Cameron Diaz does fuck a windshield.
And now here’s the list of every movie I saw in a theater in 2013. This year I saw 202 movies in theaters. Which is a number that I’m not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed of.
BUT * #9 should be Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. #12 should be “Mama”. #14 should be “Warm Bodies” from Jonathon Levine. #30 is “A Love Letter For You”. #75 is “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm”. #76 should be “A Band Called Death”. #81 is “The Internship”. #105 is “Chicago Calling” and #106 is “High Tide”
- both directed by John Reinhardt. #110 is “Alias Nick Beal” directed by John Farrow. #120 is just “Getaway” not “THE Getaway”. #158 is “Bad Grandpa”. Stumping MUBI like a MOFO!