Last year was not a bad year for movies. I saw 23 in all and none of them were outright stinkers. As someone who also spent a lot of time watching television in 2013, I’ve come to rely on movies for a deeper, more vivid and more intense experience than you can get in front of a small screen. And if you can throw in a little catharsis all the better. The highest ranking movies usually delivered on the attributes that only cinema can deliver.
Per tradition, I have ranked all the movies I saw last year (see below). There are a few key omissions, so this is not a “best of” list in the traditional sense. I never did get to “12 Years a Slave” and I’m still hoping to see “Her” when it goes into broader release. Further, I didn’t see any of the big summer releases or any of the major kiddie flicks, which I don’t regret, and consequently only saw two of the top ten box office hits of the year (“Gravity” and “Hunger Games.”)
I did notice a trend or two:
Out of the Past – A lot of movies in 2013 were set in the recent past, and most of them were based, however loosely, on true stories. If you saw them in chronological order you could follow the evolution of fashion, hair and car design throughout the last century. In fact, almost every decade since the depression is covered:
• The Thirties (“Hudson on Hyde Park”)
• The Forties (“42”)
• The Sixties – specifically the year 1961 (“Saving Mr. Banks” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”)
• The Seventies (“American Hustle”)
• The Eighties (“The Dallas Buyers Club”)
• The Nineties (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)
Money – Sex and love used to be the prime motivator in movies but this year money served that purposer. People either didn’t have it and wanted it (“”Nebraska”, “Captain Phillips”, “Llewyn Davis”, “Frances Ha”, Blue Jasmine”) or they acquired it illegally (“American Hustle”, “Identity Thief”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”) or they earned it in interesting ways (“The Dallas Buyers Club”, “Saving Mr. Banks”).
Matthew McConaughey and Amy Adams – Over the past two years McConaughey has been in five movies and Adams has been in six. Yet they haven’t appeared together! What are the mathematical probabilities of that?
Weight gain/loss — Matthew McConaughey lost 50 pounds and Christian Bale gained 50 pounds for movie roles in 2013. I don’t really like that practice because when actors do that I spend the whole movie worrying about what it means for their health.
The Feds — We respect federal agents for their incorruptability in “The Wolf on Wall Street,” despise them for their ambition in “American Hustle” and outright hate them for their bureaucratic tendencies in “The Dallas Buyers Club.”
With that said, here are my rankings:
Certainly the most original and unexpected movie of the year. It’s beautiful, thrilling and ultimately moving when the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock makes a conscious decision that she wants to live.
2. Captain Philips
This is basically “Gravity” (see above) set on a freight ship; technology is again deployed to save a protagonist who fights to survive in a vast unforgiving environment. Tom Hanks is fantastic and the last scene alone might win him an Academy Award. Btw, I thought his accent was ridiculous until I heard the real Captain Phillips on the radio and discovered that the impersonation was remarkable.
3. American Hustle
Everything is a con in this spy-versus-spy comedy based very, Very, VERY loosely on the real-life Abscam scandal. A rousing tale of American hucksterism, this movie drags a bit in the beginning and lasts a little too long at the end. It’s the latest masterpiece from director David O. Russell and his usual troop of actors (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, etc.) They must have spent a fortune on hair design and the rights to all those great Seventies’ songs.
4. 56 Up
Forty-nine years ago, Michael Apted produced a documentary called “Seven Up” about 14 English school children from different economic classes and he has been updating the series every seven years. It is astonishing to watch these kids age into adults and see how their lives turn out. They are now 56 years ago and feel like old friends. We learn that class is important, but not deterministic of success or happiness.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
Marin Scorsese is the greatest living director and he’s still at the top of his game. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a movie about excess is excessive itself, but I wish he had tightened it up a little bit. What is surprising, though, is how funny the movie is. Credit Leonardo DiCaprio for creating a character who is both charming and despicable. Even though you root for him to get caught, you still find the bad boy routine just a tiny bit attractive.
6. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Didn’t see the first one, but came away from this very rousing second installment committed to fight totalitarianism, or at least an overweening government. (I came out of the theater shouting “Down with Obamacare!”) Jennifer Lawrence does a better job than Green Arrow ever did in proving that archery can be a credible super power.
7. Dallas Buyers Club
A slap-in-the-face reminder of what the early days of the AIDS crisis were like. Matthew McConaughey is outstanding as a homophobic rodeo rider who contracts AIDS and creates a mostly illegal business to import unapproved treatments. Needless to say, the movie greatly simplifies the issues involved in finding the right balance of drugs that eventually brought the disease under control, but the growing empathy and awareness of the McConaughey character is very moving.
You can tell that Dad’s losing his marbles because he actually thinks he’s won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes and insists on walking from Billings, MT to Lincoln NE to pick up his million dollar prize. SNL’s Will Forte plays his underachieving son, who agrees to drive him to Nebraska in hopes of finally making a connection. This being a movie and not real life, a connection of sorts is effected and a very modest understanding is reached between father and son. Oscar-bait for Bruce Dern because the Academy loves parts about the mentally challenged.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis
A Coen Brothers movie about the early days of the folk scene in Greenwich Village. The title character – a folk singer trying to make it as a solo artist – makes one bad choice after another, fueled as he is by grief over his dead partner and frustrated that his talents aren’t quite enough to put him over the top. Mostly sad but sometimes subversively funny about the artistic temperament of 1961. This is what Mad Men would be like if it were told from the perspective of Don Draper’s beatnik girlfriend Midge.
10. Much Ado About Nothing
Fresh off making “The Avengers,” Joss Whedon and his friends threw together this modest little production of the Shakespeare play. Filmed in luminous back and white in Whedon’s home, this was actually as amusing in the 2013 retelling as it must have seemed 400 years ago.
11. This is the End
From Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the guys who brought you “Superbad,” this is a parody of what the arrival of the Antichrist and the Rapture would look like from the perspective of today’s very self-absorbed Hollywood stars. Rogen and his buddies, including but not limited to James Franco, Jonah Hill and Emma Watson, play cartoon versions of themselves to great effect. Probably the funniest movie of the year.
12. The Way Way Back
You’ve got to hand it to Steve Carrel, who does not hesitate to play unsympathetic characters. In this case he’s the jerky boyfriend of a mother who’s so desperate to have a man in her life that she doesn’t see how lost and lonely her son has become during their summer vacation. The boy is rescued by the operators of a cheesy amusement park and – surprise surprise – they manage to reconcile mother and son in the nick of time.
13. Saving Mr. Banks
As a wittier critic than I put it, this movie is as truthful about the making of the “Mary Poppins” movie as “Mary Poppins” was truthful to the original books. My heart-throb Emma Thompson is great as P.L. Travers, the authoress who reluctantly allowed Walt Disney to film her beloved character. This is a real “movie” movie, well-made, to be sure, but utterly conventional. Still, it’s a pleasure to hear those songs again and you can’t help but feel touched by the happy ending.
14. Enough Said
A modest and likeable comedy about a divorced mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who doesn’t trust her own judgment when she meets a great but slobby guy (the late James Gandolfini), thereby sabotaging the relationship. It has some interesting things to say about modern human relationships, but it surprises me that this has made it into many top ten lists.
15. 20 Feet From the Spotlight
A documentary about the back-up singers who performed for Springsteen, The Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. These women, including Darlene Love, sure know how to belt a tune and it’s a mystery why they didn’t become major stars own their own.
16. The Heat
Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are mismatched cops who somehow find a way to bond after they expose their vulnerabilities to each other. There’s nothing very surprising about the movie but the co-stars are very funny and the political correctness police were all over the fact that this is a standard cop “buddy” movie made with two females.
17. Frances Ha
If you’ve ever seen the HBO show “Girls,” you’ve basically already seen this movie, which is about the loves, broken friendships, professional challenges and financial quandaries of a mid-20’s arty New Yorker. The main character, played by the lovely Greta Gerwig, is believably klutzy and, unlike the girls in “Girls,” she eventually does find her way.
18. Hudson on Hyde Park
Bill Murray plays FDR. Yep, you heard that right. And he’s pretty believable. Interesting fable about the pre-war visit of King George VI – last seen conquering his stuttering in “the King’s Speech”. The story is told through the eyes of FDR’s cousin, who, according to the movie, but not the history books, goes out for a drive and gives him some, um, physical relief in the car. Both the fate of the free world and the fate of this cousin’s emotional state are given equal weight.
19. Blue Jasmine
It is widely assumed that Cate Blanchett will win the Academy Award for her portrayal of this modern Blanche Dubois – a former society lady who crashes with her working class sister after hubby turns out to be Bernie Madoff. There are some interesting aspects to the movie but it’s clear that Woody Allen – the movie’s “auteur” – hasn’t spoken to a working stiff since he left Brooklyn 55 years ago. No one seems even remotely real.
A coming of age story about a couple of river rat kids – whose parents let them go boating on the Mississippi River without even a life jacket!! They discover Matthew McConaughey, a fugitive from justice, hiding out in a boat that’s stuck in a tree, bring him food and get entangled in his love life. Fine acting and cinematography, but the movie hovers between hyper-realism and magical-realism and it’s hard to know what we are supposed to make of the various characters.
This is a fine but very standard retelling of the Jackie Robinson story. When I was in the fourth grade I read a Young Reader’s book about Jackie Robinson and I didn’t learn anything about him from “42” that I didn’t already know from the book. This movie should be seen by every ten-year-old in America to help them understand what segregation was like, but it’s not a very complicated character study.
22. Identity Thief
Melissa McCarthy steals Jason Bateman’s identity and hijinks ensure. Just as in “The Heat” (see above) Melissa McCarthy is obnoxious at first but turns out to be a caring person once her vulnerabilities are exposed. Moderately funny, but it probably would have been funnier if she had stolen Sandra Bullock’s identity instead.
I feel bad ranking this last because it’s not really that bad. It’s just kind of inconsequential and I can barely remember what it’s about. Tina Fey is an admission’s officer at Princeton, I think, and Paul Rudd wants to get his protégé in, so he convinces her that the kid is the son she gave up for adoption 18 years ago. It’s all coming back to me now. As I said, perfectly fine but perhaps not worth the $9 price of admission.