Saturday, January 04, 2014

2013 in Review: Movies

This is the third in a series of blog posts reviewing 2013. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

I watched 159 movies in 2013 that I had never before seen. Here’s the breakdown of how many of those movies I would give a particular amount of stars (out of four, with four stars denoting an excellent movie and one star denoting a bad movie):

****:   10
***½:  23
***:     31
**½:    28
**:       50
*½:      10
*:         7

Average movie rating: **½

The numbers seem right on track. I saw more average movies (**) than anything else. That makes sense. But the movies I saw were themselves, on average, slightly above average, or mildly recommendable (**½). It makes sense that my personal average would be slightly above average, because I’m not stuck watching everything that comes out, like the critics are forced to do. Since I’m actually selecting the movies I watch, you’d hope they’d usually be better than not. And that’s exactly what’s happened, although I’ve encountered a handful of stinkers along the way.

It’s rather difficult to come up with a meaningful list of movies. I’ve toyed with different ways of presenting this list and how precisely to break it up. I could just list the 10 movies that I considered worthy of four stars, but that strikes me as boring. Also, despite the fact that I’ve assessed 10 films to be of excellent quality, 2013 was somewhat of a letdown in terms of finding movies that I really loved. Only two of those top 10 films would I be rather enthusiastic about praising. That being said, I’m going to focus on a few select films from a variety of genres, hopefully showcasing some of the best—and some of the worst—from each category.

The best film I watched during 2013, and one that I would indeed be enthusiastic about, is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Say what you will about Tarantino, his films are masterpieces. Django isn’t my favorite Tarantino flick, but it is an amazing one, and it thrills me that Christoph Waltz picked up an Oscar for his performance as Dr. King Schultz, bounty hunter and incidental emancipator. Waltz won me over in Tarantino’s earlier film, Inglorious Basterds, wherein he gave one of the best onscreen performances I’ve ever seen. I’m happy to report that Santa Claus left Django Unchained under our tree and I can now watch it anytime I like. Well, if the kiddos aren’t around, that is. This is a Tarantino film, after all.

As far as legitimate 2013 movies are concerned (i.e. those movies actually released in theaters during the calendar year), Gravity is probably the best I saw. Gravity got a lot of hype, and I didn’t think it was quite that good. I didn’t walk out of the theater saying, “Wowzers! What a brilliant film!” But it was an excellently-crafted and tense film that deserves some accolades and that I wouldn’t mind watching again. People may pooh-pooh the scientific integrity of the film, which is all about Sandra Bullock being stranded alone in outer space. But for entertainment purposes, you couldn’t do much better in 2013.

Runner-up for the best 2013 film (that I saw) is American Hustle. I don’t think American Hustle is a four-star film, but it’s nearly so. So much about it is done right, but it wanes a bit in the story department. There’s something unsatisfying about it, and some aspects of the storyline aren’t adequately developed. I wanted to like it more than I did, even though I thought it was overall quite good. And the opening shot of a pot-bellied Christian Bale taking meticulous care of his comb-over is quite priceless.

Another film I’ll mention that falls into the drama category is 2012’s A Late Quartet. This is a little film that took me by surprise, which is why I wish to include it. Assuming you haven’t heard of it, A Late Quartet is about a renowned string quartet (surprise!) whose close kinship begins to fray. There really isn’t much more to say about the film. It’s one of those movies that is great in large part because its characters are so authentic and believable. It’s realistic, sometimes unhappy as a result, and yet not excessively dour as so many independent films are wont to be. I strongly recommend it, even if it’s not quite a four-star film.

Foreign Films
I finally saw the French film Amour, which was nominated for Best Picture of 2012, and I agree it was extremely good. But much better is a French film from the previous year, The Intouchables. The Intouchables ranks as my top film discovery of 2013, next to Django Unchained. Based on a true story, The Intouchables follows the friendship that gradually develops between an extremely wealthy quadriplegic and the ex-convict he hires as a caretaker. The movie is an inspiring and beautiful one, which isn’t something you can say of movies often enough. If you’ve got Netflix instant viewing, pull this one up now.

Franchise Films, Summer Blockbusters, and the Like
It’s hard to believe Hollywood makes anything other than franchise films nowadays. In a day and age when movie theaters routinely offer 20+ screens, few and far between are the screens showing anything that isn’t part of a trilogy, or a reboot, or in all too many cases, both. Fortunately, Hollywood has made their big-budget contenders more and more worthwhile over the last several years. With the likes of Christopher Nolan, J. J. Abrams, and others, blockbuster movies today are frequently imbued with intelligent writing and inspired direction and therefore often defy the term “frivolous entertainment.” (I know this isn’t always true, so no need to email me a list of Michael Bay films, folks.) The Hunger Games franchise is evidence of this marked improvement, and indeed, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was one of the best films I saw of 2013. As a book, the sequel couldn’t live up to the acclaim of the first. As a movie, it has matched or even surpassed the original. Other strong films in this category include Skyfall, one of the better James Bond films to be released … well, ever; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which seemed destined to disappoint Lord of the Rings fanatics but is nevertheless a rich cinematic accomplishment; and Star Trek Into Darkness, which I personally liked better than J. J. Abrams’ first foray into Star Trek filmmaking.

I saw a lot of fascinating documentaries in 2013, including some that (from an objective viewpoint) weren’t very good films. Both Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and I Am gave me a lot to think about, despite their being heavily flawed. The former is about the world of academia and the prevailing bias that exists against those who embrace or even fail to reject the theory of intelligent design. The latter is about the interconnectedness of everything, but also concentrates a bit too much on the director’s own shift from worldly, egocentric filmmaker (he’s made several popular movies, including a few of Jim Carrey’s most famous) to enlightened, humble filmmaker … of a documentary that talks a lot about him, for example. (Yeah, you see the problem.) These are films that I wish people would watch and take on their merits, simply because they have the potential to open up some very interesting conversations. But I must admit, from a critical perspective, they aren’t great films.

Several documentaries did in fact rank highly on my year-end list. These include The Imposter, an almost unbelievable tale about a missing child who seems magically to reappear years later in a foreign country; Exit Through the Gift Shop, which chronicles an obsession with street art that leads the filmmaker himself to become a street artist; Sons of Perdition, about young men who escape from polygamist groups in southern Utah; Searching for Sugar Man, a filmed attempt to locate a mysterious American musician who for decades has been something of an icon in South Africa, apparently without even knowing it; and Kumaré, about a man who poses as a guru in order to test people’s susceptibility to cling to religious leaders. All of these films were extremely worthwhile (I even wrote about Kumaré here), and several of them are available on Netflix. Queue ‘em up, if you can.

Melanie and I gravitate toward thrillers, but that doesn’t mean they’re always good. I didn’t see a single thriller during 2013 that I would give four stars, but I did see some very good ones. Among the best is Compliance. I posted a review of Compliance, so I won’t bother expounding on that particular film. Another one I quite enjoyed was Trance. Trance tells the story of an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) who seeks the help of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) after a bout of amnesia prevents him from remembering the whereabouts of a painting he helped to steal. Of course, things get a lot more complicated than that, both for the characters onscreen and for those watching the film. I’ve long been a fan of director Danny Boyle, and Trance resonated with me as a result. It’s not as good as most of his other films, but I was satisfied. And finally, the best thriller I saw in 2013 is Bound, a Wachowski Brothers film that predates The Matrix. Jennifer Tilly stars as Violet, a woman who plots to con her mobster boyfriend out of millions, all with the help of her lesbian ex-convict lover. What isn’t there to like? One of the final scenes of Bound is so beautifully shot, I can’t shake it from my mind. Of course, I’d ruin the film to tell you about it, so you’ll have to see it for yourself.  Just remember it has something to do with white paint.

I finally saw, and thoroughly enjoyed, Silver Linings Playbook. It tops my list of comedies seen in 2013. My runners-up are lesser known, so I’ll focus on them. Hit & Run stars real-life couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard as Annie and Charlie, two lovers en route to a job interview in Los Angeles. There’s just one problem: Charlie is in the Witness Protection Program, and L.A. is his home turf. You can imagine the kind of high-energy antics that such an adventure would entail, and in that regard Hit & Run, a kind of pet project for Shepard (who also wrote and co-directed), delivers where it should. I probably wouldn’t give it more than three stars, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment. Even better than Hit & Run is the Australian comedy Mental. I don’t often use the word “zany,” but in the case of Mental, such a description hits the nail on the head. Toni Collette stars as an eccentric version of Mary Poppins (a comparison I believe even those involved with the film have made), a nutcase nanny hired to care for the five daughters of a less-than-respectable politician. It may not sound like much, but Mental is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. It’s probably the funniest film I saw in 2013, even if it’s not the best film I saw  that also happens to be a comedy. Make sense? Good.

Animated Films
Animated films are often among my favorites, but I didn’t see anything in 2013 that really wooed me. I have to go almost halfway down my comprehensive year-end list before I find an animated film. I gave Monsters University a slight lead over Despicable Me 2, but they were both really good without being great. They are the best animated films I saw in 2013. Every other animated film I saw was iffy in comparison. And some (such as Planes) were flat-out bad.

The Bottom of the 2013 Barrel
Now that I’ve praised some films, let me tell you about the worst pieces of cinematic crap I saw during the year. From the best of the worst to the worst of the worst, here are what I consider to be, without question, the lousiest movies I saw in 2013:

Love Actually
Love Actually is one of those emotionally-manipulative movies marketed for mass appeal and chock full of characters and plot lines that, due to overcrowding, are doomed to perpetual and intellectually-offensive superficiality. Save for Dami Judi Dench, nearly every English actor of note is in the film. It may actually be easier to tell you who doesn’t star in Love Actually, but to list just some of the actors picking up an easy paycheck with this piece of rubbish: Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Emma Thompson. In terms of plot, Love Actually consists of interweaving love stories, each of which is thoroughly clichéd and familiar and about as heartwarming as nuclear warfare. The fact that such drivel is peddled as romantic is the most egregious sin of all.

I’m quite a fan of Jeff Bridges, so despite the fact that R.I.P.D. looked pretty campy in the commercials, I had my hopes up. But … wow. It really did stink. The premise is somewhat amusing, a kind of buddy cop movie set in the afterlife. But the end product feels more like a cheap rip-off of Men and Black, hitting theaters 17 years too late. To be fair, I’m sure the special effects used in R.I.P.D. are superior to those available in 1996, but they most definitely are not up to par for 2013. Almost every special-effect shot left me cringing in embarrassment for the filmmakers. This truly was a turd of a film.

A Good Day to Die Hard
Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing, but I consider Die Hard to be one of the best action movies of all time. And while it’s been years since I’ve seen the first two sequels Die Hard spawned, I remember quite liking them as well. Resuscitating a beloved film franchise is always a risk, but it’s a risk A Good Day to Die Hard was willing to take. And it paid dearly. The spirit of the earlier Die Hard films was sacrificed for the sake of modernized (re: bloated) action sequences and modernized (re: borderline incoherent) plotting, blunders that may have been forgivable had the character of John McClane been sufficiently restored to his former glory. But 2013’s John McClane is a bastardized version of his former self, a schmuck that I believe the John McClane of the 1900s would have wanted to punch in the face. As far as reprehensible sequels go, A Good Day to Die Hard makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look like The Godfather: Part II. For those of you who aren’t film buffs, allow me to translate: A Good Day to Die Hard sucks ass.

Rid of Me
It may be cruel for me to pick on this film, because even to call it an independent film may be a stretch. It’s more like a movie some friends got together and made with a decent video camera. That’s how professional a project it seems to be. It is such an awkwardly acted film that I could barely watch it without feeling like a masochist. If you’re curious, the film is about a woman who feels out of place among her friends and even within her marriage. It’s a tale of self-discovery and self-empowerment, although paradoxically enough, it left me feeling very depressed and ashamed of myself for having devoted any time to watching it. It’s available on Netflix instant, if you’re now perversely curious. Go on, I know you are.

1 comment:

  1. Loving your reviews! I can't wait to listen to some of the music in the next post.