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’Tis the season to make year-end lists, and far be it for me to Scrooge out on my responsibilities. And while I have my faves (listed dutifully below), it might be a tad more interesting to explore some of the year’s cinematic trends and thematic triumphs. Near-misses, almost-rans and abject failures are often worthier of comment than the inevitable pack of consensus picks. I mean, does it really say something if I rank 12 Years a Slave 10th when A.O. Scott slotted it second? If you survey the many top 10 lists that show up in newspapers, blogs and broadcasts, they have at least five or six of the same flicks. And, just as predictably, on each list there’ll be a surprise or two, an off-center or obscure discovery that declares the critic a truly independent thinker, capable of seeing things other folks miss. Honestly, I’m no different.
But while reflecting on the 120 or so movies I’ve watched over the year, it’s become clear that some of my reviews inadequately articulate my opinion about them. It’s not because I was mistaken in my impressions (I stand by my pans and praises) but rather because, over time, the film’s impact on me has evolved. Some movies lose their luster, others become difficult to shake.
I did not review the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, but I’ve noticed that my appreciation for it has deepened since I saw it three weeks ago. A fellow critic described it as a “sitter,” the kind of movie that doesn’t fully impress at first but ends up sticking with you. That sounds about right. I suspect those strange and unexpected choices that pop up on critics’ top 10 lists are “sitters.” And, more often than not, they’re the selections that are most interesting to read about.
My Top 10
(1) Her, (2) Before Midnight, (3) Stories We Tell, (4) Inside Llewyn Davis, (5) Short Term 12, (6) Upstream Color, (7) Mud, (8) All Is Lost, (9) Gravity, (10) 12 Years A Slave
The Three Best Movies You Should Have Seen But, Noooo, You Had To Waste $10 on Oz the Great and Powerful
Looking over the big-boy reviewers and their top 10 lists, the majority of this year’s celebrated directors — the Coens, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Alfonso Cuarón — are baby boomer white males. So too are most film critics. Steve McQueen and Spike Jones represent for GenX. But it’s the Millennials that deserve the attention — at awards banquets and at the box office.
Both in their 30s, Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz) and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) have quickly established themselves as filmmakers with immense vision, craft and creativity. Nichols’ tragically under-the-radar Mud is a lyrical slice of modern Americana that plays like a cross between a chase thriller and Huckleberry Finn. Matthew McConaughey rules in an award-worthy supporting role, but it’s the kid performances that’ll blow you away. Meanwhile, Polley’s Stories We Tell is a masterfully intimate documentary that forces you to reevaluate what you’ve seen while you’re watching it. It’s a brainy and heartfelt examination of just how unreliable the truth can be.
New on the scene is writer-director Destin Cretton, whose barely seen Short Term 12 was an unsentimental, yet profoundly compassionate indie drama about the emotionally damaged staff and kids at a foster care facility. While the entire cast is terrific, Brie Larson delivers this year’s best female performance. My fellow members at the Detroit Film Critics Society agreed, awarding Larson top honors for her devastatingly authentic work.
We’re All Gonna Die! And It Might Be Kinda Funny
This year continued a three-year trend where Hollywood invested big bucks into imagining humanity’s apocalyptic end. But whereas previous years’ world catastrophes were all somber and serious, only World War Z seemed to embrace the nihilism of our collective demise. Instead Guillermo Del Toro gave us kick-ass giant robots to stave off the apocalypse in Pacific Rim while comedies like Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End saw the end of days as an opportunity for big laughs. Who knew mass death could be so funny?
Dude, Why Not Just Retire?
Is there a less interesting, more jaded actor working today than Bruce Willis? Look, I get it, Bruce: Action movies like A Good Day to Die Hard, Red 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation suck hard. But there’s this amazing word in the dictionary. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s spelled N-O. Unless alimony payments to Demi are seriously kicking your ass, I can’t imagine that you need the money that much. But if you just can’t help yourself, don’t take it out on some poor fanboy movie blogger. He didn’t make you sign the damn contract.
From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee, J.J. Abrams
Spock yells “KHAAAN!?” Seriously? That was your big new idea? Let me explain something: One of the virtues of Star Trek has been its ability to straddle the line between thoughtful science fiction and pulpy space opera. Gene Roddenberry and the Trek creators that followed carefully fashioned a rich and somewhat believable universe that treated its fan-base with respect. Star Trek Into Darkness pretty much threw that sentiment into a transporter and beamed it onto the planet Aw, Who Gives a Shit? Yeah, the effects were cool and we get that you have a hard-on for lens flares, but this sloppily plotted sequel to your otherwise respectable reboot was as internally illogical as it was bereft of original ideas. Flipping Spock’s and Kirk’s roles in a Wrath of Khan retread isn’t imaginative; it’s stupid and lazy.
Really, Really Good,
But Not That Good
David O. Russell riffs on Martin Scorsese while Martin Scorsese riffs on himself. The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour, balls-to-the-wall indictment of American greed that will invoke memories of Goodfellas and then some. In tackling the true-life tale of a drug-addled, immoral penny-stock megalomaniac (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the 71-year-old Scorsese seems determined to prove that he can out-Scorsese all the Scorsese imitators who have followed in his footsteps. As a result, the movie is fitfully brilliant but far too long. American Hustle, on the other hand, knows not to wear out its welcome and sports the best ensemble in the worst of hairdos. A ’70s era con movie set during Abscam, Russell’s comedic drama fizzes with brash energy and nutty performances but has a mess of a plot that botches its central conceit: The cons are neither convincing nor all that clever. Still, it’s to Russell’s considerable credit that you probably won’t notice.
2013 Releases Deserving of Praise: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Frances Ha, What Maisie Knew, Much Ado About Nothing, Stoker, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Enough Said, Kill Your Darlings, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, Frozen, Nebraska, C.O.G., In a World.
2013 Releases Deserving of Only Scorn and Derision: Gangster Squad, Bullet to the Head, Movie 43, After Earth, Only God Forgives, Grown Ups 2, The Smurfs 2, The Hangover Part III, A Haunted House, The Host, Prisoners, A Good Day to Die Hard, Last Vegas, Planes, The Counselor, Saving Mr. Banks.