Archive for the ‘Best of 2013’ Category

Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.

We saw the vast expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we’ve never seen them before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with a tabby cat.

Enough nonsense, let’s do this.

10. Blue Jasmine

We can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand’s Maddoff-esque antics are exposed.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is captivating and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin’s wealthy criminal).

The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by Jasmine’s presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature despite Jasmine’s superiority being little more than an empty shell. It is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen’s best works.

9. Fruitvale Station

The tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer (he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how the story ends.

That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant’s life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.

But part of the film’s strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the nation’s attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film would arrive in, but they didn’t need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies continue to occur.

8. Blackfish

A documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.

So it is with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in — if not the intentional cause of — several deaths and injuries of park trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers is hard to question.

Through a series of interviews and truly breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing – archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas’ teeth. We see park employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his side where the other whales have “raked” him with their teeth. And we watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing cries after her child was taken from her.

We hear the interviews of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as a whale trapper. You can’t help but believe him when he says he’s seen some things in his day, but it’s the whaling that haunts him most.

The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.

7. All Is Lost

After Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss JC Chandor’s All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the sea. But even with Pi’s tiger, and Phillip’s gun-toting Somali pirates, it’s All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost wordless role.

Chandor — who made his debut in 2011 with the spectacular Margin Call — goes all in on his star, and the bet pays off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It’s a surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.

6. The Kings of Summer

In Kings of Summer (full review here), three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It’s a simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh, scream, and do as they please.

The performances are spectacular, particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of the year.

5. American Hustle

In the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI in taking down other ne’er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam case it’s based on.

At it’s heart, American Hustle is the story of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent who thinks he’s in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s absolutely unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.

It’s an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In American Hustle (full review here), everyone’s a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they’re not always the same people that get punished.

4. Before Midnight

It’s a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through the rain to profess his love at our heroine’s doorstep, but it’s what happens after they kiss that’s truly interesting. The morning after, as it were, is when the drama begins.

It’s that sense of realism, not relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what “love” is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything. Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France only now he’s married with a son and she’s in a relationship, but the attraction remains.

And now, 18 years after their initial serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy, only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent frustrations of what they’ve each given up to be together.

In Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an almost unbearably honest  approach to the idea of marriage as our pair go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the space of a single conversation. If that’s not modern romance, I don’t know what is.

Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Is there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired against us, stopping us from catching a break? That’s the emotion that sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and failures. He’s a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends’ couches to provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a guitar.

But the beauty of the Coen Brother’s film is how it pulls back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some omniscient being. Llewyn’s situation is less a matter of bad luck as it is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him. It’s a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at one point a producer suggests there’s no money in Llewyn as a solo act, but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for his time and walks out.

It’s a highly symbolic tale, filled with themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with one’s self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and layered with the best soundtrack of the year.

2. Gravity

The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (full review here) is that of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before her eyes and no way to reach it.

That image comes early in Gravity’s 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity, Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist trapped in a race against time.

What Cuaron has accomplished with Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was previously the frontier of “edge-of-your-seat” thrills.

1. 12 Years a Slave

In Steve McQueen’s brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a decade before regaining his freedom.

The power of the film comes from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who’s camera lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor’s Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic weight.

The desire of that scene and others like it (and the decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a visceral way that only film can.

Paired with the heartbreaking humanity of Ejiofor’s performance, McQueen’s work is a triumph, exposing a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.

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I started naming an 11th best film two years ago. The idea was to reserve a special recognition for mass-market popcorn films of high quality that failed to make the final cut. For example, past winners include 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Skyfall.

But this year, I found myself stuck. I boiled the candidates down to World War Z and Iron Man 3 – both great films that I enjoyed – but neither of which felt right to sit, ostensibly, as one-slot-away from the Top 10 films of the year. World War Z ends with a cleverly creepy third act, but that only serves as a reminder of how uneven and – pardon the pun – lifeless the rest of the film is, as Brad Pitt’s character hop-scotches around the globe getting out just in time and magically landing exactly where he needs to be. It’s essentially 2012 without the cheesy acting.

Iron Man has the opposite problem. The first two-thirds are excellent, trading impressive action sequences with witty humor and culminating in a gonzo reveal, only to then devolve somewhat disappointingly into an over the top explode-a-thon that sees Guy Pierce’s villain literally breathing fire and the most predictable non-death in Marvel Cinematic Universe history.

As I wrestled with the decision, my mind kept being drawn to my drafted Top 10 list, which had one title too many. A title I knew would likely be knocked out entirely once I finished screening all of December’s releases. A title that I couldn’t bear to leave off the list, having given it a perfect A rating and having enjoyed it so thoroughly.

“But it’s an indie movie,” I said to myself. “The Wood’s Stock 11th Best is for big-budget popcorn films and mass-market flicks. A movie shot on a shoestring budget, in which the actors recite Shakespearean dialogue, is the antithesis of this category.”

But then I remembered that I AM Wood’s Stock. I MAKE the categories. I AM THE LAW!

And so, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the 11th Best Film of 2013 is…

joss-whedon-s-much-ado-about-nothing-gets-a-trailer-watch-now-129765-a-1362674635-470-75Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and shot in a minimalistic black-and-white over the space of a few days at Whedon’s family home in California, Much Ado About Nothing sees all of our favorite Whedonverse friends (Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, etc.) spouting the Bard’s prose in a modern take on one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.

The story, for those of you who skipped English Lit in high school, revolves around two couples: the sweet, young Claudio and Hero and the independent and disdainful Benedick and Beatrice. While gathered together at the home of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, friends conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together while enemies plot to drive Caudio and Hero apart.

Setting aside the pure delight that this movie is, the existence of a film like Much Ado About Nothing in the current cinematic landscape is something that demands attention. This year saw many seasoned film veterans (including Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) lamenting the state of modern film-making and forecasting a dire future as more studios look toward the ballooning budgets of so-called “tentpole” films for their survival while choking out quieter, more artistic storytelling.

Soderbergh announced his retirement (we hope he’s not serious) and Spielberg predicted that a few big-budget losses would start a chain reaction leading to an “implosion” of the studio system. He said that in June, right between the releases of After Earth and The Lone Ranger, which went on to be two of the biggest flops in box office history.

Which brings us back to Much Ado. Joss Whedon made the Avengers in 2012. It was the most successful film of that year and the third most successful film of all time with a worldwide gross of more than $1.5 billion. It cemented his status as nerd demigod and creative overlord of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all but extended the keys to the Hollywood kingdom into his hands.

So how did he follow up that success? By calling up a few of his friends for a weekend getaway where, what the heck, let’s make a movie.

I would imagine that making Much Ado was essentially one big party, and that energy pours from the screen and infects the audience. The film moves along with such a sense of effortless charm and playful ease that you feel like you’re among friends, giddily participating in the ruse that brings Benedick and Beatrice together and anticipating the final reveal where things are made right between Claudio and Hero.

It was one of the smallest of 2013’s films and also one of the best, a master class on intimate, emotional storytelling. Here’s hoping other directors were taking notes.

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I’m just about ready to post my Top 10 movies of 2013 (I have two more films to watch, although Her is proving to be a challenge since it doesn’t screen in Utah until January. Sigh) and as always, there are more quality films than I know what to do with. This year has seen an embarrassment of riches in Cinemas, which has made whittling down to a final 10 particularly difficult.

So in the spirit of recognition, here’s this year’s list of honorable mentions. As a note, these movies do not necessarily represent what would be ranked 11th, 12th, 13th and so forth from the year. Instead, they are standout films from various categories that deserve some kudos even while they may not have measured up for one reason or another (mostly because the best films this year were just so darned good).

Best January Surprise: Side Effects

January and February are the garbage dump of the Hollywood calendar, as the last of the Oscar season behemoths trickle into wide release distribution and studio execs turn their attention toward their awards campaigns. But ever year, one or two gems take advantage of the less competitive landscape to launch under the radar.

This year, that claim goes to Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s twisty thriller about prescription antidepressants and the people who use them. The tagline for the movie was “In some cases, death may occur,” a riff on the soft-spoken fine print in drug advertisements that foreshadows the fate of Channing Tatum’s reformed criminal husband, the catalyst that sets off a cat-and-mouse game between Rooney Mara and her psychiatrist Jude Law where things may or may not be what they seem.

Best Documentary: After Tiller

There are only four doctors in the United States that practice late-term abortions and in After Tiller, we are treated to a day in the life of each of them. By zooming in with a lazer focus on the real-life people at the heart (literally and figuratively) of the Abortion debate, the filmmakers bypass the screaming protestors and demonstrate how the individuals undergoing and performing these procedures are just people, faced with difficult circumstances and even more difficult decisions.

Best Rom-Com: Enough Said

What happens when a masseuse learns that the man she’s dating is actually the supposedly dead-beat ex-husband one of her clients has been gossiping about for weeks?

It’s the kind of schlocky premise that would feel right at home in a mid-90s Sandra Bulloch movie, but played with extreme earnestness by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said is endearingly sweet, hilariously uncomfortable and poignantly understated. The fact that it was one of Gandolfini’s last performances also punctuates the entire film with a sort of reverent melancholy that lifts the film above its contemporaries.

Best Superhero: Iron Man 3

Sure, the other Superhero movies this year were largely an indistinguishable mass of destructo-porn (I’m looking at you, Man Of Steel) but even with the weak competition that doesn’t lessen what director Shane Black (who also made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a movie that if you haven’t seen you should do so immediately) was able to do with the Iron Man franchise. Where most comic-book heroes are investing in the Michael Bay school of EXPLOSIONS AND MAYHEM, Black doubled down on RDJ’s likeability, creating a sort of buddy-cop comedy where our Iron Man spends most of the screen time cracking wise, sans super suit, and making self-referential meta jokes. He also pulled off one of the ballsiest baits-and-switches with his Mandarin reveal, angering fanboys and making a believer out of me.

Best Indie: The Way Way Back

Screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash proved their moxie in 2012 by picking up Oscars for their work on The Descendants and parlayed that success into their directorial debut, a coming of age tale about a Waterpark of Misfit Toys. At moments heartbreaking and triumphant, TWWB strikes an emotional tone that speaks to the awkward teenager inside all of us and in Sam Rockwell’s waterpark manager gives us the Mr. Miyagi of the hipster-millenial generation. It’s delightful, pure and simple.

Best Head Trip: Prisoners

A lot of critics have put Prisoners on their Top 10 and while I don’t think it rose that high, I can understand the point of view. Prisoners, about the kidnapping of two girls and the lengths their parents and a local detective go to find them, has a way of burrowing into your mind and staying with you for days.

After the two girls are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, a suspect turns up in the form of a quiet and possibly confused man played by Paul Dano. With no evidence, the police are forced to let him go, prompting one of the girl’s fathers (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands by attempting to torture a confession out of the suspect. That’s just one thread of the multi-layered story, which follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s investigation that seems to only turn up more and more questions with few answers.

The movie poses a litany of morally ambiguous questions as your first identify with and are then conflicted about sympathizing with Jackman’s character and his “whatever it takes” attitude. The underlying question throughout is “What would you do?” which you are left to answer on your own after the smoke clears and the complex maze takes shape.

The 2013 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: This is the End

It’s no secret that actors of a feather tend to flock together, giving rise to the multitude of ‘verses’ that critics love to write about above the heads of more casual film viewers (i.e. The Whedonverse, The Apatowverse, The Andersonverse, The Nolanverse). So what happens when a group of comedy actors and all their friends get together to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves struggling to survive the end of the world?

That, in a nutshell, is This is the End, but the actual film plays like a synergistic effect as the combined powers of all involved make a product greater than the sum of their parts. Presented almost as a series of mock-horror vignettes we see our key group of Franco, Hill, Rogen, Baruchel, McBride and Robinson performing exorcisms, battling demons, making a home-video sequel to Pineapple Express and getting robbed by an axe-wielding Emma Watson. It’s outright absurdity and probably the funniest movie of the year.

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