And it's time once again for my annual wrap-up of movies that came out this year. As usual, many of them were viewed on an airplane screen or my iPad since I rarely get to the theater now-a-days. Not the most engaging movie experience, but I wouldn't have seen a fraction of these films if not for killing time while traveling. Not having to deal with idiots talking and texting on their mobile phones at the theater is just a bonus.
THE TWELVE BEST...
These are my favorite movies from this year that I actually saw.
#1 Iron Man 3
Another flawless performance by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, without which this movie would have been half the film it was... even with Shane Black writing and directing it. Marvel truly has a handle on their cinematic universe, and the fact that their films just keep getting better and better makes no sense at all. Comic book movies usually suck, after all. But Black did exactly what he had to do to keep Marvel moving forward... which included giving Iron Man a case of post-traumatic-stress syndrome (after the events in The Avengers) for Robert Downey Jr. to flex his acting chops. The story was great, and this is probably the first time in history I haven't been annoyed to death by a kid-sidekick. Please, please, please, somebody get Downey Jr. onboard for Iron Man 4.
#2 Star Trek Into Darkness
I shouldn't like this film as much as I do, because I absolutely hated the unnecessary Khan re-tread. I mean, why? Yes, they added a few new twists to the story, but that's all window dressing. The simple fact is that we've seen it all before, and I'm not convinced this was a better version than we got years ago from Space Seed. But boy did it look good on-screen. And man was it entertaining as all get out. And wow did they nail the characters. And it's frickin' Star Trek! So I loved it, of course. Here's hoping Star Trek 3 boldly goes in its own direction rather than continuing to re-write the past.
A stunning film by Alfonso Cuaron that has more sphincter-puckering moments than should be legally allowed. Yeah, it dragged a bit in spots, but that didn't pull me out of the movie at all. Kind of makes me wonder how anybody could possibly follow with a "disaster in space" film now that Gravity is out there. If I have one criticism, Sandra Bullock's escalating fear should have started at zero. Instead they start at 5, which means it gets a little irritating by the time they crank it up to 10.
#4 Thor: The Dark World
The first Thor film was a wonderful exploration and introduction of the character. This sequel tries to do one-better by playing with the more mystical elements of The God of Thunder... and it mostly succeeds. What's missing is character development, which seems as though it was so far on the back burner that even The Avengers did a better job (and that was an ensemble film!). Regardless, it's a gorgeous spectacle with fantastic performances... some truly humorous moments... and yet another opportunity for Tom Hiddleston to chew up the scenery as Loki. I just wish that it was a little tighter in ramping up the impending doom and a little better at exploring what makes Thor and Jane tick. Still, I'm completely onboard for Thor 3.
#5 The World's End
Holy crap does Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost know how to make an entertaining film! The third (and final?) film in the so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" (preceded by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) takes things to another level entirely... this time in the science fiction genre. Well, kind of. The real element that makes this movie so compelling is the characters, all of which have stories and interactions that are not only critical to the storyline... but also provide a genuinely moving look at friendship and our transition into adulthood. Here's hoping that the team behind three really good films realize there's more than three flavors of Cornetto out there!
#6 Sound City
In an age of shitty reality shows like American Idol telling us what music is, Sound City comes along to tell the real story. This documentary by Dave Grohl is a love letter to actual MUSIC that every music-lover needs to see. I've watched it three times and am just as caught up the last time as the first. I have always appreciated Grohl's talent, intelligence, and creativity as a musician... but his film still hit me as something incredibly smart and unexpected. I hope he continues to raise my expectations, because there's a lot more stories he can tell.
#7 American Hustle
Despite having a killer cast including Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Robert De Niro... I had really low expectations for this film because I just don't care much for 60's and 70's period films (X-Men: First Class being a notable exception). But I needed to kill some time and American Hustle was there, so away I went. And I ended up loving the movie. David O. Russell has crafted a mafia con epic that is about as compelling a film as I've ever seen... and did it with an unexpected level of humor that was like piling gravy on top of gravy. But what I loved most was just how amazing Jennifer Lawrence is in her role. She's hands-down one of my favorite actresses because she comes off as incredibly likable, smart, and funny in "real life"... but she's got jaw-dropping talent as well. I can't wait to see where she... and David O. Russell... go next.
#8 Saving Mr. Banks
Yes, yes... I know. This is a highly fictionalized account of Walt Disney and how he managed to get the film Mary Poppins made. I've read the press and I've seen the rants over the unreality of it all (including the Harlan Ellison smack-down). But none of that changes the fact that Saving Mr. Banks is a really good film with a terrific story and some great performances by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would, and the fact that it's more myth than fact doesn't take away from that for me. Mostly because I know it's fiction... but also because I've tried to get to the root of all the atrocities that modern pop culture attributes to Walt Disney. Ultimately I ended up feeling quite badly for him, because the things I've read about these claims of fascism, racism, anti-semitism, and the like, seem to be mostly exaggerated. Yes, it was a different time and, yes, he even stepped over the line of what was disgustingly considered "acceptable" back then, but there's a lot of research showing that he was hardly the rabid racist, anti-semite, fascist, Nazi he gets painted as even today (he's a big target in Family Guy). But I guess that's the way it goes. Heaven only knows I'm not attempting to excuse anything he actually did here, but it's disheartening to know that there's a lot of evidence against the severity of these claims that's widely overlooked. As for "ignoring" Mary Poppins author P.L. Traver's bisexuality... why is it that a person's sexuality is so critical to their make-up as a person that excluding such information in a film portrayal is some kind of travesty? Had she been straight, would anybody even care? No. It's only because she was bisexual that suddenly it's CRITICAL that her sexuality MUST be splashed on screen. Absurd. There is more to a person than their sexuality, and it actually seems a bit bigoted to suggest that a bisexual can't be an interesting character without their sexuality being explored in the story. And... blargh. I've rambled on way too much. This is a good film and terrific entertainment. I hope that doesn't get lost in the shuffle here.
#9 The Heat
YES, I'VE PUT THE HEAT ON MY BEST MOVIES LIST FOR 2013! And the reason is simple... it was funny. Much funnier than I thought it would be. And despite Melissa McCarthy going off the rails a few times, Paul Feig ended up using her to brilliant comedic effect as a rough-and-tumble police officer on the mean streets of Boston. As if that wasn't enough, Sandra Bullock was pretty much perfect playing a by-the-book FBI officer having to team up with her. AND, YES, I WANT A SEQUEL!
I've voiced my concerns over parks, zoos, and animal captivity many times. On one hand, I realize there are places that do their level-best to care for animals and create a habitat that they can feel at home in (Disney's Animal Kingdom and the San Diego Zoo come to mind). But, on the other hand, I know that these animals would be much "happier" outside their captivity. And yet... if not for animal captivity, species like the Tasmanian Devil are sure to go extinct. So I'm not sure what the answer is. Animals as entertainment seems wrong, but a lot of times it's this entertainment which pays to save them. That being said, Blackfish sure makes a compelling argument against Sea World. This is absolute must-see material, and the ramifications of the film's popularity could be far-reaching. Especially if you own stock in an animal entertainment park...
#11 World War Z
Anybody expecting that this film will in any way resemble the brilliant novel by Max Brooks (or the even more brilliant audiobook of the same novel) is in for severe disappointment. This is an action flick which just happens to share a name with the afore-mentioned book, and that's all. However... if you are able to put that behind you, it's a pretty good action flick. Gone are the lumbering zombies of old, these zombies are shockingly fast and virtually unstoppable. Lucky for us, Brad Pitt arrives on the scene to save us all as a United Nations investigator intent on scouring the globe for a cure. What ensues is an intense and dark thriller that relies on really good special effects and some surprisingly good acting talent. At times the combo proves lethal, sucking you in and suffocating you with a plague that never seems anything less than overwhelming. It's for this reason that I enjoyed the film so much, despite fully expecting to hate it. As if that weren't delicious enough, there are scenes that won't leave your head any time soon, and I can't offer bigger praise than that.
#12 The Way Way Back
Every once in a while you tune into a movie on a long plane ride simply because it's the least unappealing option out of the crap you haven't seen. In this case, I picked The Way Way Back because the cast included Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Steve Carell, and the amazing Sam Rockwell. Turns out it's a really good "coming of age" story about an awkward kid named Duncan who is forced to accompany his mom, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's spoiled daughter to a summer resort town. There he meets the slacker manager of the local Water Wizz theme park, learns what life is really about, and has his life forever changed. Yeah, it sounds like a movie you've seen a hundred times before, but it's surprisingly fresh (despite the ending, which falls back to more familiar territory). The great cast and smart performances were just the icing on the cake.
What a great film! I'd recommend it, even if you're not a baseball fan. The movie focuses on Jackie Robinson's struggle for acceptance as he becomes the first African-American to play for the major leagues. In that respect, it really does the job, and the casting is flawless. Chadwick Boseman, who I've never heard of before, plays Robinson with an enthusiasm and dignity that is essential to the character, and his performance anchored the movie beautifully. The biggest surprise to me was Harrison Ford's role as Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey, which is probably one of the best performances of his career. Maybe it's because I fully expected John Goodman to get the part, but I honestly didn't think Ford was going to work as well as he did. No less shocking to me was seeing Alan Tudyk (my favorite actor from Firefly) as racist Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, and I have to give him credit for taking on a part that is the polar opposite of the lovable roles his fans love him for. If I have one bit of criticism, I wish the film had dug even a little deeper into Robinson's life outside of the game. Yeah, I know that's not the focus of the film, but I can't help but feel it would have been a much stronger movie if they had added more dimension to Robinson's personal life. Still, a film worth seeing.
Make no mistake, Monsters, Inc. is my favorite Pixar film by far, and the idea of getting to revisit that world had my expectations running high. And I wasn't let down. Mike and Sully were just as funny and appealing as ever, and Pixar's attention to detail was shining through stronger than I've seen in years. So why did this feel like a sorry retread of Revenge of the Nerds via a made-for-TV animated special? Probably because it didn't really break any new ground. Since it's a prequel to Monsters, Inc., characterization actually takes a big step backwards so you can start from the beginning. Not that it wasn't cute to see a young Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan pal around, but I'd rather see what they're doing now instead of looking back at where they were. Still, the story isn't all bad. After starting out as rivals, Mike and Sully team up with the nerds of a forgotten Monsters University fraternity to prove they have what it takes to become "scarers" at Monsters Inc. Except they don't, which means the entire premise of the story was moot. Oh well. It had funny moments and was beautifully imagined... that alone from Pixar is better than most movies you'll see.
Despicable Me 2
If you liked the first one, this is more of the same. Steve Carrell and a cast of hundreds (of Minions) make for smart fun that's perfectly realized cartoon entertainment. While not reaching the heights of the original, this sequel manages to keep things funny while moving in a new direction. Evil genius Gru is back along with his adorable trio of adoptive daughters... who are intent on finding Gru a wife so they can have a mom (Kristen Wiig!). But Gru has bigger fish to fry, as he's been recruited to use his talents for good by tracking down another evil genius. The result is a bit scattered, but worth your time.
Well imagine that... another X-film that somehow managed to not suck. Who knew that X-Men: First Class would set such a precedent? This film pretty much ignores all the previous shitty X-Men film travesties (including the first Wolverine film... X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to forge onward with a story that actually bothers to stay faithful to the source material. The result is pretty darn good, playing into the Japanese roots of the character. If this is the kind of thing we can expect from future films in the X-Men Cinematic Universe, then there's hope after all. And I need a little hope seeing as how crap director Bryan Singer (responsible for much of why the X-Men movies suck so badly) is heading up the forthcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Now-a-days, more often than not, black & white films are a pretentious effort at creating "art cinema" for projects that are anything but. Happily, sometimes that's not the case, and Nebraska was a refreshing return to actual art. Bruce Dern is receiving a lot of praise for his portrayal of a cantankerous old fart who wins the lottery and has to travel through four states to claim his prize. But his role seemed the easy one compared to Will Forte's fantastic turn as his son who's along for the ride. While not quite as great as the reviews would lead you to believe, this is still a very good movie that manages to be entertaining in all the right ways.
In a World...
Seeing this movie was a complete accident, and it ended up taking me completely by surprise. Lake Bell (whom you may recognize from The Practice and Boston Legal) wrote, directed, and produced this comedy which revolves around the life of a voice-over artist. Hilarity ensues. Well worth a rental on video when it comes around.
DIDN'T SEE, PROBABLY WOULD HAVE MADE MY LIST...
This movie just came out, so I still have a chance to see it. Spike Jonze's latest film is a futuristic tale about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with the advanced operating system of his computer (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who is more than a little human. The trailer looks fantastic, so I can't wait.
Twelve Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of my favorite actors, and I would watch a movie where he did nothing but open mail for 90 minutes, because I know he'd do it in the most interesting way possible. But give him a compelling story that actually means something? Boy do I regret not getting to see this in the theater.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
My comments on the first Hobbit movie still stand... "WTF?!? I mean, seriously, how could Peter Jackson manage to condense the fucking massive Lord of the Rings trilogy into three films... but not keep a short story like The Hobbit as a single film? I probably could have forgiven stretching it out to two films... but THREE?!?" The Hobbit was a pretty simple and straight-forward story. There was no need to pad it out to such a ridiculous level. And yet... Desolation of Smaug is when we get to the good stuff, so I'm sure it made for a much better film than the first one. If nothing else, I bet it looked amazing, so I'm sad to have missed its theatrical run.
The buzz out of Cannes was that this was the most powerful movie to play at the festival, so it made my "must-see list." I remember hearing the news that a man named Oscar Grant had been shot and killed at a BART station on New Years Day in 2008, and this film follows his final 24 hours leading up to this tragic moment.
Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan? Sign me up.
I was aware of this movie, but it didn't sound like it was something I wanted to see so I passed it by. Then I started seeing reviews heaping praise on the film, saw friends were talking about it, and ended up wanting to see it after all once I had taken a closer look. Sadly, I waited too long.
I enjoyed The Hunger Games novels well enough... but the film adaptation of the first book left me cold. They changed the ending, skipped over some pretty important points, and generally made a watered-down version of a better story. So I was going to pass on the sequel... until everybody started talking how much better it was... how it was so faithful to the source material. Well, darn. Another one to catch on video, I guess.
The Man of Steel
I hated just about everything to do with Man of Steel, and am horrified that this abomination is the cinematic future direction for the character. This is not Superman. Not the Superman I know, anyway. This imitation origin story begins on planet Krypton where scientist Jor-El is predicting doom and gloom for the planet, and decides to salvage the legacy of his people by stealing "The Codex"... a wholly unnecessary plot device masquerading as some kind of genetic program that breeds Kryptonians. This raises the ire of General Zod, though who knows why. Anyway, Zod is exiled to the Phantom Zone, Krypton goes boom, and baby Kal-El is rocketed to earth where he is raised as human Clark Kent by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane (easily the two best things about the film). The death of his father results in Clark wandering the earth... saving lives and trying to find his place in the world. Meanwhile intrepid reporter Lois Lane tries to track down this "mystery man" and stumbles upon one of the worst-kept secrets ever. But that's not Clark's only problem, as General Zod has escaped and returned to Earth to reclaim The Codex and remake our planet into a new Krypton... destroying everything in the process. Loads and loads of laughable super-battles and disaster porn ensues. None of it even remotely worth watching. The controversial moment in the film comes when Superman chooses to kill General Zod because humans are too fucking stupid to run away when somebody is trying to vaporize them with heat vision, at which point I didn't give a shit if Superman, Lois Lane, Perry White, or any other idiotic characters in the film lived or died. And why should I? The people behind this atrocity aren't writing about Superman and don't give a flying fuck about maintaining the integrity of the characters. Next up? Imitation Superman vs. Ben Affleck Batman. Oh how thrilling.
Now You See Me
Holy crap what a stupid, stupid film. The movie begins as four D-list magicians are recruited by a mystery man to band together to become the hottest magic act in the world, "The Four Horsemen." Of course, absolutely no explanation is given as to how they actually become the hottest magic act in the world... all of a sudden they just are. With their fame escalating, they perform their biggest show yet (or one would assume, since you don't see a single magic trick before the finale), where they proceed to "magically" rob a bank. Thus begins a tedious game of cat and mouse between The Four Horsemen and a special investigator (Mark Ruffalo), his Interpol collaborator (Mélanie Laurent), and a famous magician de-bunker (Morgan Freeman). With each new show the foursome become inexplicably more famous... and understandably more wanted by the law for the crimes they perform on stage. Along the way they perform elaborate but unnecessary magic tricks which make -zero- sense to the plot (why in the hell pretend to rob a vault and come back later for the money when you can just JUST TAKE THE FUCKING MONEY IN THE FIRST PLACE?!). And that's the problem... nothing here really makes sense. Even the things that might make sense go unexplained, which doesn't make sense. Regardless of whether or not the magicians get away with their crimes... they're still going to be wanted by the law. And for what? To join some secret society that nobody gives a shit about except them? And the ending is about as stupid as it gets... the nonsensical "trap" set for one of the characters can be defeated in five minutes if the character calls a lawyer... or ANYBODY... to explain who set the trap and what happened. Dumb. SO dumb. I'm embarrassed for everyone involved.
The Lone Ranger
Marry a flawless cast with a script that's filled with action yet incomprehensibly dull, and you get this turd of a film that was my biggest disappointment of 2013 (I already figured Man of Steel would be shit, but this was a shocker). The whole project was inexplicably more complex than it had to be... but not in an interesting way at all. Both Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer were completely wasted, and I'm still trying to figure out how Gore Verbinski could have fucked-up such an un-fuck-uppable franchise. Even so, I still have to say The Lone Ranger had moments that saved it from being the horrific failure that the reviews would lead you to believe. But not by much.