Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2013

If you'd asked me what sort of movie year we were having at the end of August, I'd have told you 2013 was one of the worst on record. Based on the magnificent crop of films that arrived during the last four months, however, I will call it one of the best in memory.

Spring was flat and lifeless, with only a few good movies to perk us up. Then came a drab, dull summer of soulless sequels, including "Iron Man 3," in which Robert Downey Jr. seemed to make it clear that he really doesn't want to do this anymore. The comedies were talkie and  mirthless ("This Is the End"), the animated features more about merchandising than storytelling ("Despicable Me 2"), and some of the so-called "serious" movies were aggressively awful.

Then September roared in with a wonderful spate of movies, and things never really let up from there. The final inning of Oscar-wannabe films was not quite a home run, but still connected cleanly with several movies that made my Top 10.

I gave one film my highest rating, the first one bestowed since 2011. I don't think I'm an especially harsh critic -- I'm the guy who loved "Oblivion," after all -- but I do admit to being gun-shy about throwing out my highest grade too readily. When I do that, to me I'm saying a movie is immortal, that it will live throughout the ages.

The space between the top rating and the next one down is oceanic, ranging from very good films to truly magnificent ones. That's why I look forward to the annual task of making a "Best of" list, because it helps me sort them out clearly for all to see.

Without further ado, here is my list of the finest films of 2013, followed by 17 more that were in the running.

1.    Her -- Because of scheduling issue, only three of the regular crew of Indianapolis film critics were able to make it to the screening of "Her" prior to voting on our group awards. All three ranked it as their #1 of the year. I have little doubt that if more of our members had been able to see it in time, it would have won Best Film from Indiana  critics instead of "12 Years a Slave," a fine film with a splendid performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor that just missed making my Top 10. (I found the Michael Fassbender character, conceptually and as executed, to be positively cartoonish. Also, I cannot support a film that, in 2013, includes the dialogue: "I don't want to survive ... I want to live!")

But here I am, talking about my #11 film instead of my #1. "Her" is a strange, disturbing yet enlightening cinematic experience that could only have become from Spike Jonze, Hollywood's maverick genius, and wayward actor Joaquin Phoenix. In telling the tale of a man who falls in love with his computer -- there's more to it than that, but that glib summation will suffice -- they approach a subject many would find ridiculous and treat it with utter earnestness and lack of irony. Marvelously acted, smart and funny/sad, it was easily the most original film of the year.

2.    Prisoners -- This bracing drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal resembles a crime procedural, wherein an agonized father searches for his missing daughter. But really it's a morality play in which many questions are raised, but none satisfyingly answered. Good and evil are real, the film seems to argue, but it's the people who skate in between them, willing to do horrendously awful things in the service of a noble goal. It was one of the few lengthy movies I saw that I didn't wish to see trimmed even a bit.

3.    The Wolf of Wall Street -- Martin Scorsese's latest criminal autobiography, told very much in the manner of "Goodfellas" with the main character addressing the audience, shows that in his sixth decade as a filmmaker he hasn't lost a step. Ostentatious and audacious, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a real-life stock market manipulator, who made piles of money and made sure the entire world knew about it. The movie careens all over the map in between comedy and drama, and inhabits each fully and creatively. A smorgasbord of a movie, untidy but brilliant.

4.    Pacific Rim -- I can think of no movie more purely entertaining I saw in 2013 than this action/fantasy masterpiece from Guillermo del Toro. Whenever anyone questions my adoration for this film, I feel like a precocious 14-year-old having to explain himself to seriously uncool grownups: "Did I not already make it clear that this movie features giant monsters and giant robots, and that they fight each other?!?" Well-crafted and orderly, with sharply drawn characters and action scenes that never let us forget the enormity of the colossuses we are witnessing.

5.    Rush -- No film's reception was more depressing to me than that for "Rush," an excellent character study hiding inside the costume of a racing movie. Director Ron Howard delivered the thrilling, dizzying action scenes, while Peter Morgan's screenplay brought the rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda into sharp focus. Daniel Brühl delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as a man who related to machinery better than people. Hopefully more people will get up to speed on this excellent film when it comes out on video.

6.    Dallas Buyers Club -- A showcase for Matthew McConaughey's return to dramatic leading man status, "Dallas Buyers Club" is also a historically compelling story about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As a hateful redneck playboy who contracts the disease, McConaughey paints a portrait of utter determination and bravery, reflected outwardly by the incredible weight loss he endured to play the role. The fact that the filmmakers never devolve into maudlin sentiment is one of the things that makes this a great movie.

7.    All Is Lost -- J.C. Chandor is not a household name. He's directed two feature films that hardly anybody saw, 2011's "Margin Call" and this nautical drama starring Robert Redford as a lone seamen facing death. Both are gems. Almost totally without words, "All Is Lost" immerses us in the tale of "Our Man" (never named), an aging, apparently well-to-do man enjoying a sailboat cruise around the world when disaster strikes. It's an existential journey told with grace and beauty.

8.    Gravity -- Standing both beside and counterpoint to "All Is Lost" is this space adventure/drama that puts Sandra Bullock in much the same predicament as Redford was on that boat. A fledgling astronaut is isolated when her space shuttle is destroyed in an asteroid storm, and must find some way to make it back to Earth alive. A true marriage of science fiction and filmmaking science, in which Bullock manages to give a great performance despite dealing with green screens and confining costumes. Great old-fashioned you-are-there moviemaking.

9.    Mud -- Writer/director Jeff Nichols broke onto the scene this year with this powerful and original drama inspired by the writings of Mark Twain. Two preteen boys in the bayou discover an abandoned boat on a nearby island, and entertain thoughts of adventure until they encounter a strange vagrant named Mud (McConaughey again) living aboard it. This sets off a great spin of adventures, entanglements and lies, in which the truth is all relative depending on the person relating it. Both elegant and brutal, it hums with energy.

10.    Nebraska -- It's hard to conceive that director Alexander Payne is considered a comedic filmmaker, despite films ("Sideways," "About Schmidt") that are so often spare and sour. Yet there is a lot of humor in this sobering black-and-white picture starring Bruce Dern as an ornery, addled old man who thinks he's won a million dollars in a magazine contest. And also some compelling drama, as the man and his son face up to the predicament of their own emotional limitations. Filled with terrific supporting performances by June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, if it's a comedy then it's one that is black as night.

These other 17 films may or may not have come close to making this list above. But they were all movies I saw and appreciated greatly over the past year (listed alphabetically):

12 Years a Slave
About Time
The Act of Killing
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
The Great Gatsby
Enough Said
Great Expectations
Lone Survivor
*Olympus Has Fallen
Short Term 12
The Spectacular Now
The Way, Way Back
The Wind Rises
*White House Down

*You could practically list the two terrorists-taking-over-the-White-House movies together, so similar were they in plot. Some may blanch at seeing dopey action films on a critic's best-of list, but I will forever defend the virtue of big, dumb movies that are aware of their own bigness and dumbness.

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