Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My favorite movies of 2013

I reach 2013's finish line with 42 of this year's movies under my belt, a number that, while low, is still better than what I had accomplished at this time last year. (28 movies? In all of 2012? For shame.)

More notable than the movies I have seen are those that I haven't: "12 Years a Slave," "Captain Phillips," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Her," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" are just a few of the critically acclaimed films I still need to see. Most, if not all, of those films will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and I'm sure I'll see them before the March telecast.

But that's a little over two months away. Today is Jan. 1, and these are the ten best films I saw in 2013, presented alphabetically:

"American Hustle," director David O. Russell — Early in this incredibly entertaining, sometimes euphoric film, combed-over con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and stripper-turned-partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are lustily looking into each others' eyes as plastic-covered garments spin around them on Irving's dry-cleaning carousel. These two low-rent bottom-feeders are headed for the big time, but they'll always be cheap cons at heart. That, for me, will be the lasting image of "American Hustle," a romanticized depiction of the FBI's Abscam operation that was the most complete, most joyous moviegoing experience of 2013. All of the actors are absolutely perfect, from Bradley Cooper's fledgling FBI agent to Jennifer Lawrence's boundary-free housewife. The script is unbelievably funny. The filmmaking, which obviously owes much to Martin Scorsese, is exhilarating. The music choices, including a scene with Tom Jones' "Delilah" that nearly had me singing out loud in the theater, are familiar and fun. The smile on my face lasted the length of the film.

"The Conjuring," d. James Wan — I finally watched this last night and spent most of its 110 minutes hiding behind a pillow, yelling at the TV, and laughing and clapping after the biggest scares. That happened while I was sitting on my couch, alone, at home. I can't imagine what seeing this relentlessly scary movie was like with a packed theater. Wan, who also directed 2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2" and began the "Saw" franchise in 2004, may never top this '70s tale of a home besieged by demons and the paranormal investigators (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) who drive them out. It's like watching "The Exorcist," "Paranormal Activity" and "The Amityville Horror" all at once, with a terrific performance by Lili Taylor as the mother who wakes up with mysterious bruises all over her body and hears phantom clapping in her hallways. This feels like an instant classic.

"Drinking Buddies," d. Joe Swanberg — In a summer ruled by big, bombastic fantasies, this film made an impact with its realism. Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston star in a Chicago-set tale of two co-workers who long to be more than friends despite their significant others. It's light on plot and heavy on talk, which is just right — as someone who has had more than one hopeless crush on a co-worker in years past, I was touched by "Drinking Buddies," and found myself laughing and tearing up in equal measure. (Plus, the first shot of the film is Johnson wearing an Old Style cap while brewing beer at Revolution, so it was basically love at first sight.)

"Escape From Tomorrow," d. Randy Moore — A black-and-white indie shot surreptitiously within Disneyland and Walt Disney World, "Escape From Tomorrow" puts a dark, surreal spin on places that are surreal to begin with. Where many saw a cheap film full of cheap shots at the Disney theme parks, I saw a daring, multi-faceted examination of an American rite of passage. The script knows far too much about the Disney parks and the people who visit them to be a full-on slam — one of the film's biggest laughs comes early on when the protagonist's boss gushes over the Soarin' ride, because OF COURSE some square's favorite ride would be Soarin' — and plays, for me, as a dead-on satire of the parks and the people who visit them. As we've learned from Twitter and message boards, you don't have to hate Disney World to be a harsh critic of it; I think the same applies here. This is an essential film for any fan of the parks. (And the payoff of the son's unfulfilled desire to ride Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin is one of the funniest scenes of the year.)

"Frozen," d. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee — Elsa (Idina Menzel), queen of Arendelle, sings about who she is, not what she wants, in the most memorable scene of any movie I saw all year. "Let It Go," Elsa's anthemic display of confidence, is the best song in a Disney animated feature since the days of Howard Ashman, and the movie is perfectly entertaining even if the narrative is decidedly imperfect. This is one of only two movies in 2013 that I saw twice in theaters. (The other may involve stars and/or treks.)

"Gravity," d. Alfonso Cuaron — Definitely a film I admire more than one I genuinely like, but there is so much to admire. It is a leap forward for CGI, obviously, but "Gravity" wouldn't work without the strong performances of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, or the emotional music by Steven Price. This is the rare movie that can move you with images alone; my tears flowed near the end as Dr. Ryan Stone's capsule re-entered Earth's atmosphere among the burning embers of space debris. Can you believe that some brave souls have actually seen something like that in real life?!

"Room 237," d. Rodney Ascher — Five insane theories about Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," presented in a trippy kaleidoscope of film clips free of talking heads. This film isn't notable for the content of the theories themselves — though I do find the one about Native American genocide to be awfully convincing — but for how it puts our collective obsession with movies on display. Surely any hardcore film buff has a crazy theory about one of his or her favorite movies, right? (Mine is about Spielberg's "A.I.," which I implore you to watch again.) Available for streaming on Netflix.

"Star Trek Into Darkness," d. J.J. Abrams — Yes, I know (and mostly agree with) all the arguments against this movie. And yes, I was "in the tank" for this movie the moment it was announced, as I am not only A) a Trek fan but B) an unapologetic fan of Abrams and co-writer/co-producer Damon Lindelof. Feel free to discount my opinion of this movie, but consider this: If you can accept the idea of "Star Trek" as a thrill ride, can that thrill ride get much better than the two films Abrams has given us? As in the 2009 film, Zachary Quinto (Spock) and composer Michael Giacchino are the MVPs, though baddie Benedict Cumberbatch all but steals the show.

"Upstream Color," d. Shane Carruth — A sci-fi mystery with an indie spirit from the genius who made "Primer," "Upstream Color" is nearly indescribable. Its pleasures are best to be discovered by open-minded, adventurous moviegoers who don't need everything spelled out for them. Available for streaming on Netflix.

"The World's End," d. Edgar Wright — Wright and Simon Pegg close out their informal "Cornetto Trilogy" with a film about growing up and moving on — and alien robots. The true revelation of this film is Nick Frost, Pegg's constant co-star, who gives a nuanced, funny and brutally physical performance.

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