Blanks, Songs, and Samantha: Cody’s Top 20 Movies of 2013
Another year, another terrific batch of movies. 2013 started out a bit rough, with the first few months featuring very little of value. Summer rolled along, and gave us some surprising gems among the usual bloated blockbusters. Then, as per usual, Fall came and with it, wave after wave of great film. It can get exhausting, scrambling to see so many different movies in such a short timeframe, but when the selection we got was this good, it’s hard to complain. I’m going to alter my format a bit this year, and instead of rambling on to paragraph length for every one of my choices, I’m just going to give quick explanations for the 11-20 on my list, and go into more detail for my top ten. So without further ado, my Top 20 Films of 2013…
20. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Francis Lawrence takes the reins on the franchise and delivers a sequel that improves upon the original in almost every way, featuring fun new performances by Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Joanna, but all anchored, as per usual, by the raw talent that is Jennifer Lawrence.
19. The Kings of Summer
A sweet, funny coming of age story about three friends who build a house in the woods, that feels like a modern Stand By Me. The leading trio of Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias show a lot of promise for the future, while Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman has a nice turn as a surly father.
18. Iron Man Three
Marvel kicks off Phase Two of their cinematic universe in very smart fashion by Robert Downey Jr. with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black. The result is an Iron Man movie that is smart & witty with some genuine surprises.
17. The Conjuring
James Wan (of Saw and Insidious fame) makes his best film yet along with the scariest movie of the year. Beautiful period detail, likeable characters, and genuinely terrifying sequences.
16. Drinking Buddies
Olivia Wilde sheds her usual eye candy roles to show a whole of charisma up against Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, in this small, but engaging indie about two friends who might be more. It sounds like a standard romantic comedy, but it takes things in a much more realistic, interesting direction.
15. About Time
A time travel romance with an enormous heart that features what should have been a starmaking turn for Domhnall Gleeson as said time traveler and some of Bill Nighy’s best work as his time traveling father. It’s a slow build, but once it reveals it’s true intentions, it brought me to tears.
14. The Spectacular Now
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley display endless amounts of charm & chemistry in this low-key comedy/drama, about a hard-drinking popular high school student who shows interest in a quiet, sweet classmate. The true-feeling teen characters work because they face some harsh realities in a story that is very reminiscent of the best of John Hughes.
A dark, gripping thriller about the lengths someone will go to when their child goes missing., with captivating performances by Hugh Jackman as a grieving father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective working to find the two missing girls. It didn’t receive much notice upon it’s release, but hopefully time will be kind and put it among the ranks of other great thrillers like Seven.
12. This Is The End
Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg make their directing debut with this hilarious end of the world comedy that mixes impressive effects along with Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Michael Cera and many other comedy stars skewering their self-image in hysterical fashion.
11. The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese proves that even at 71, he doesn’t plan on slowing down, with one of his best films in years. The three hour film flies by, showing how the types of criminals Scorsese once portrayed in Goodfellas are now nothing but a bunch of snickering, preppy morons, only searching for more excess, which the film itself bathes in. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to show how many tricks he has up his acting sleeve (including an outstanding bit of physical comedy), playing Jordan Belfort as a bombastic, selfish, infuriating, yet still sometimes charming, idiot. There has been controversy over whether or not the film is endorsing the actions of it’s characters, but when they’re presented as foolish as this, and when the film begins showing the fallout of their actions, the real question leans more towards how they were able to get away with it all, and why so many people let them.
10. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg was a film that struck a real chord with me. It was a painfully realistic portrayal of social anxiety and how the inability to connect with others can make it hard to grow. Baumbach’s latest, Frances Ha, plays almost like a spiritual, gender-swapped sequel to Greenberg, as it folows Frances (the enormously charming Greta Gerwig), as she struggles to find her place in post college life, while her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), matures without her. It’s a very low-key, shot in simple black and white, with no flashy setpieces, but it masters it’s mood & tone of aimlessness one can feel in their late 20’s, where even something as little as oversleeping can feel like a huge disappointment.
9. Pacific Rim
Where was everyone on this one? Do we just not like fun anymore? Look, I know the idea of “Giant Robots Vs. Giant Monsters” is a silly one and Pacific Rim has it’s share of silly moments. But Guillermo del Toro isn’t trying to make some epic thinkpiece; he just wants to throw barrels of his trademark creativity onto the screen, and let the audience have a blast, and he definitely achieves that. Sure Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh is a bit of a bland hero, but then you have Rinko Kikuchi’s brave, tough Mako Mori, Charlie Day’s hilariously enthusiastic Newt, and Idris Elba’s commanding presence as Stacker Pentecost, who gives one of the best endearingly cheesy film speeches in recent memory. There’s also a genius level of detail here. del Toro has created a world that feels lived in, littered with small details that don’t call attention to themselves. It’s a world that feels like it has many more stories to tell, and I hope we’re lucky enough to see them.
8. 12 Years A Slave
A real life horror story that grabs you by the guts and doesn’t let go. 12 Years A Slave is a stirring display of both the evil humans are capable of, and how the human spirit struggles persevere against that evil. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the unquestionably best performances of the year as Solomon Northup, a free man who is captured and sold into slavery. We follow him as he goes from a kind slave owner (if such a baffling, anachronistic thing can exist), played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to being owned by the monstrously cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The film is brutally honest with it’s violence, and can be almost unbearable to endure at times. One would think it could turn into misery overkill, until you remember that this was a real person who experienced these terrors firsthand. Ejiofor absolutely nails the depth of Solomon; from his confused anger after being captured to his sad acceptance while singing a spiritual to his heartbreaking final scene, he carries the weight of Solomon’s story, and lets you feel how important it truly is.
After 15 years with Pixar on top, is Disney taking back the animation crown? Don’t get me wrong, Brave and Monsters University were both very good, but when placed next to the double whammy of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, it’s hard to argue that Disney is back in it’s prime. Frozen is Disney jumping back into familiar territories of the princess story and the animated musical, and the result is a movie on par with Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I realize that’s a heavy claim, but Frozen is just that good. It gives us not one, but two princesses, and ditches the outdated fairy tale core of women relying on a heroic man’s love and rescue. Instead, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are complex women, full of flaws, hopes and fears that guide their journey. While the male characters do work very well by being more than the Disney prince standard of handsome and bland (blandsome?), it’s the relationship between sisters that drives the heart of this story. And the songs! It’s so nice to have another Disney musical with songs that serve the story as well as being catchy. All these elements blended with truly gorgeous animation make for a real landmark for Disney; one that will hopefully bring more great animated films in the years to come.
6. Before Midnight
The story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) continues with the third installment in Richard Linklater’s mesmerizing Before series. Just like 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, Midnight is made up of a series of long conversations between Jesse and Celine about life, love, art, failure and so many other thing. However, there is a much more painful core at the center of their talks, a stark contrast to the wistful musings of their first night together. Linklater’s decision to revisit the couple every nine years is such a smart one, as with the physical maturity we see Hawke and Delpy go through over the course of the films, there’s an even stronger emotional maturity they go through. Hawke and Delpy’s insane chemistry makes these films. After so much time together, you can feel the bond between these two. They love each other, but they also know how to hurt each other, as seen in a very long, yet utterly enthralling argument in a hotel. Jesse and Celine are a rare thing; characters that feel real and ones we love to visit and catch up with. I hope we get another chance to see them again in another nine years.
Wow. Just wow. Gravity is unlike any theater experience I’ve ever had, and the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen. Alfonso Cuaron uses his superb directing skills to give all of us non-astronauts the closest feeling we’ll ever have to actually being in space…and guaranteeing we’ll continue to stay far, far away from it. In just under an hour and a half, Cuaron performs true magic with amazing lengthy single shot sequences, and breathtaking scenes of peril. There were several moments where the work on screen is so visceral & overwhelming, I was moved to tears. Grounding it all is Sandra Bullock, giving a career-best performance, and George Clooney, who should’ve played an astronaut years ago. Gravity truly is an experience in cinema unlike any other; one that should be brought back to theaters every year, so that everyone can get lost in it’s wonder.
4. Short Term 12
It would have been all too simple to make the sappy, mainstream version of Short Term 12. A drama set at a foster care facility for at-risk teens, you can easily make up a movie filled with weepy moments of troubled youths reaching out for help. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (who himself worked in a similar facility) has something more intimate and real in mind, however. The focus is on staff member, Grace (Brie Larson, showing all sorts of depth), and her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), as they attempt to balance helping these kids while dealing with problems in their personal lives. Old demons rise in Grace, when the facility brings in Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl who shares a past very similar to Grace. The film is very quiet and full of heart, setting apart the more dramatic beats with funny, natural conversations that make Short Term 12 feel like a real place. Each of the kids has a personality, and seem like normal, nice kids; but Cretton shows that their past have wounded them, as seen in a terrific sequence in which the quiet Marcus (Keith Stanfield) performs a rap for Mason. Short Term 12 barely made a splash in the film discussion this year, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, as it presents a sincere, down-to-earth story, with believable characters with lots of substance.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers make it look so easy. They have such a knack for dialogue and tone, that their cinematic worlds breath with life and character. They’ve dipped their toes in so many different genres and have excelled at almost all of them, with no sign of slowing down. Inside Llewyn Davis is in the “lone man struggling to find validation” subgenre they’ve made with such films as Barton Fink and A Serious Man. Set in the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, the movie tells the story of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer who is hopping from couch to couch and struggling to make a name for himself after the loss of his partner. We’re so used to seeing music stories in which the artist fights to make it, and finally gets his big break when his talent is discovered. This is the Coens we’re dealing with though, so instead we get a much more interesting tale of an artist who slowly realizes he probably won’t ever make it, but keeps on playing, because he has very little else. The film is filled with beautiful folk songs that provide nice moments of character clarity throughout the story. Isaac has a real musical talent, and his performance matches it. The supporting cast is wonderful, with Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver and many others providing so much unique character to the setting. The Coen Brothers have a voice that’s completely rare and unique; their films exist in this cinematic universe that is wholly original and so much fun to dive into. Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest trip to that universe, and one of the very best.
2. The World’s End
The long-awaited finale to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy (also consisting of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World’s End had a lot to live up to. Wright and his usual collaborators, co-writer/star Simon Pegg & co-star Nick Frost, took that challenge and delivered some of their most accomplished work yet. Wright’s trademark visual language is as kinetic and sharp as ever, and the smart, layered sense of humor is still there, but this film reaches for a bit more than his previous films. Pegg’s protagonist, Gary King, is a tough protagonist to latch onto; an abrasive alcoholic who is stuck in his teenage glory days, refuses to let go and wants to drag his old friends back with him. As the story progresses and the truth reveals itself, though, we see what Wright and Pegg have up their sleeve, and it’s something with a lot of weight and depth that gives the film a whole new meaning. They dig into why some people hang onto the past, and how their vices become a crutch just to exist when life doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would. On top of that though, the film is just flat-out hilarious and fun with outstanding action setpieces. The story is clever and pays loving homage to all sorts of genre, from sci-fi to invader movies, to apocalypse tales & even small town reunion stories. Pegg does his best work yet, but Frost also shows an impressive contrast to his usual loveable oaf persona, while Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman round out the group perfectly, each offering something to the ensemble and the story at large. Wright is onto the even bigger leagues next year with Marvel’s Ant-Man, and this film proves that he is more than up to the task…as long as he’s willing to come back and bring his original brain children (Original Brain Children! Great band name!) to the big screen now and then.
Spike Jonze understands loneliness. He also understands how connection can be the most important thing in the world when you’ve felt true loneliness. Through Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze has exquisitely portrayed damaged, lonely people who find some semblance of connection & purpose, whether it’s a twin brother, a group of monsters, or a portal that leads into actor John Malkovich’s head. This theme culminates in Her, a heartbreakingly beautiful love story. The set-up, about a recently separated man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a new advanced operating system with artificial intelligence that allows it to evolve, seems like an opportunity for either an extended joke or a satire on our reliance on technology. Instead, Jonze treats his characters with complete respect and sincerity, and portrays the relationship between Theodore and his OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), as nothing but completely genuine and real. They have long, meaningful conversations and form a real connection. Phoenix plays the wounded, shy Theodore wonderfully, frequently having to act opposite nothing but a voice, but he never seems anything but completely invested. Scarlett Johansson is the real surprise though; with just her voice, she makes Samantha one of the best characters of the year, someone who despite exisiting primarily in a computer & phone, is real. She laughs, she loves, she feels pain and sadness and jealousy. Her journey is a very moving one, as she learns more and grows and becomes more and more like a real person, and beyond that. The rest of the cast brings their A-game as well; Amy Adams also provides a very nice performance as Theodore’s supportive confidante, while Olivia Wilde has a brief role that continues to break away from her past image and show a real talent. The film is set in a near future, and like all the best films, Jonze makes it feel real with his details. Subtle choices like clothing styles, advanced phone & video game technology, and the evolved architecture of L.A. make it feel like a place you can step into and explore. There is so much to love about Her. It understands pain and heartbreak, but also love and happiness. It captures so many moods and ideas so beautifully. It makes you think so many different ideas and feel so many different emotions. It’s rare for any art to do it as succinctly and perfectly as Her does and that’s why it is my favorite film of 2013.