Wednesday, January 01, 2014

BEST AND WORST OF 2013

Another year, another Best/Worst list. How (and why) do I still find the time?

What's new for 2014? A few things but not too much. For starters, a spoiler: neither Michael Bay or Woody Allen ended up on the Worst List this year, both of them actually turning out surprisingly watchable flicks (Pain and Gain and Blue Jasmine). Plus, the Year of McConaughey that was 2012 miraculously carried over into 2013 with three more wowee-zowee performances in Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and Wolf of Wall Street (though none of the movies themselves quite made it to the Best Of). Also, a first for this yearly Best/Worst shindig...I've introduced one or two animated GIFS. See if you can find them. It's not hard-- just look for the only things moving down the length of this long-ass page. Rest assured at least one of them is NSFW (not safe for work).

One last thing before we commence. A quick, not-so-mathematical look at my yearly viewing stats: 107 new theatrical releases viewed in 2013 (one less film than last year), most of them viewed at home, many of them again viewed in the last few months of the year. Boy, are my eyes, earbuds, USB drives and Netflix queues dog-tired. But you know the drill by now. Let's just get this over with, shall we?

THE BEST


10. Stoker

Maybe not the most "important" movie of the year, but definitely the most gorgeously designed. Director Park Chan-wook's English debut is part twisted coming of age story, part serial killer fable, 100% Hitchcock fetishization. Imagine Shadow of a Doubt retooled for the teen goth set and photographed with Kubrickian levels of perfection.


9. Post Tenebras Lux

I'd be hard-pressed to summarize the narrative throughline of this beautifully hypnotic meditation on...well, something. Even the Latin title ("light after darkness") is a bit of a head-scratcher. Scenes of rural Mexican life mix seamlessly with sequences involving rugby, random animal cruelty, rehab groups, underground sex clubs, blissful family moments and a glowing alien-bull creature slinking silently around a sleeping household at dawn. Despite the expressionist approach (or maybe because of it), I was captive from the very first moment-- a little girl running through a muddy field at dusk amid barking dogs and loping cows as thunder rolls in the distance. I'd never seen a Carlos Reygadas film before this. With only one movie, he is already on my Great Directors list.


8. Gravity / All is Lost

It's good to have a movie you can recommend to your parents every once in a while. This year, there were two, both of them well-told survival tales. One was set in space, the other entirely on the ocean. Gravity was the more bombastic, effects-laden one that scored bigger box office, the most press. All is Lost was its quieter, humbler cousin, achieving the same result with far less digital trickery and one of Old Hollywood's greats (Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson At Sea mode) in the solo starring role. Of the two, I had more nitpicking issues with Gravity. Too much deep space banter with Clooney (Come on! Your oxygen's rapidly depleting with every quip!). Too heavy on the soaring orchestral score (Take a cue from your setting...space = silence). But if I had to choose one for a second viewing I'd probably go with CGI asteroids and hallucinated Clooneys over two hours of waterlogged Redford any day.


7. American Hustle

As a con artist movie, it's just so-so. As a go-for-broke actor/costumer indulgence vehicle there wasn't a more entertaining flimflam this year. I knew I was in for a good ride from the opening frames-- a minutes-long sequence involving a paunchy Christian Bale and the rigors of applying the world's most arduous comb-over/toupee. Every actor is firing on all cylinders here-- Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, even Bradley Cooper (who I normally loathe). Sure, director David O. Russell is riffing on Scorsese in his prime. But this movie is bone-deep in inauthenticity...it would be a sacrilege for him not to steal from the best. Most importantly, it finally cleansed the saccharine aftertaste of last year's Silver Linings Playbook from my palate.


6. Frances Ha

A spirited wisp of a movie, one that nearly succeeds in making twenty-something aimlessness appear enticing. Noam Baumbach proves a nimble editor of odd slice-of-life rhythms and a solid framesmith in the Woody Allen 70s-era black and white mode. I'd be tempted to call this Baumbach's Manhattan if most of it didn't take place in Brooklyn. I'd also be tempted to place it higher on the list if it didn't come off as one long (but really good!) episode of HBO's Girls.


5. 12 Years A Slave

Finally, a true-to-life depiction of slavery in the American South that doesn't pull any punches. Finally, the movie Chiwetel Ejiofor's enormous talents deserve. Watching the scene where Solomon Northrup is hung from a tree and forced to stand on his tiptoes in the mud to survive is a devastating experience. Watching him be forced to whip a fellow female slave is even worse. But the most heartbreaking of all involves no torture or bloodshed (at least, not physically). It's the scene where Solomon, an educated man, tries unsuccessfully to use an ink made of berries to write a letter of appeal for his freedom. Watching it bleed and splotch in wordless blobs across the stolen parchment is a study in despair, a palpable metaphor for the useless cruelty of that once accepted "peculiar institution." I would call 12 Years the definitive slavery movie if Northrup's circumstances weren't so uncommon (a Northern free man kidnapped back into captivity). Definitive or not, it's still one of the year's most important films.


4. The Hunt

A criminally underseen Danish film about a small town kindergarten teacher falsely accused (though never indicted) of perceived sexual misconduct with a child. The way the town slowly erodes and destroys Mads Mikkelsen's entire life based on the mercurial claims of one fickle towheaded moppet is a queasy thing to witness. You could easily place yourself in each and every character's shoes. Circumstances are the enemy here. There are no true villains, just victims. If you thought director Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration was just another Dogme 95 pose, rest assured The Hunt is his bonafides. No handycam hi-jinks necessary...this one's the real deal.


3. The Act of Killing

What happens when a country (and, particularly, its citizen death squads) gets away with genocide? Lots and lots of repression. Lots and lots of patriotic rationalization. Lots and lots of personal denial. More disturbing though is the eagerness on the part of its aging foot soldiers to reenact their various atrocities in grand Hollywood gangster movie style. Though this documentary is often very beautiful to look at, the unresolved feelings of guilt and atonement it traffics in are rotten to the core. Part therapy session, part cultural examination, part tables-turning provocation, The Act of Killing is an important work of art that anyone interested in human rights or human psychology should see. You may feel literally nauseated by the end (like its main subject Anwar), but you may never watch The Godfather or Scarface the same way again.


2. Inside Llewyn Davis

It's no secret that the keeper of this blog is an unconscionable Coen Brothers fan. The fact that he has no particular fondness for cats (i.e., more of dog person), '60s folk music or Justin Timberlake crooning in cardigan sweaters is immaterial and somewhat beside the point. You KNEW he was going to love this movie, the first Coens character study with a touch of sadness to it, just an inkling
of what those prone to sentimentality might call "heart." You KNEW it would end up somewhere on his Best Of list. Really, it was only a matter of where. But here's a secret you may not have known: Much to his dismay, the keeper of this blog also found himself IDENTIFYING with Llewyn Davis. A prickly, perpetually single, arguably talented though inarguably unsuccessful (money-wise) artist. Check, check and check. Maybe it's time the keeper of this blog start combing Greenwich Village animal shelters looking for his own runaway yellow tabby cat.


1. Spring Breakers

If you were to tell me in January of 2013 that a Harmony Korine flick...any Harmony Korine flick...would nab the Best Movie of the Year spot (and from the Coen Brothers, no less!), I probably would have slapped the beer bong from your hand, the Philly blunt from your lips and donkey-punched you through the back of your gold-plated, diamond-encrusted grill. But I'm not here to flex; I'm here to bear witness...Korine did the impossible. Not only did he make a front-to-back great movie (a first for that guy), but he also made one that hit dead center in that very narrow sweet spot between the urban art house crowd and the suburban multiplex hordes. Actual spring breakers could play this movie on a Bud Ice-drenched motel widescreen in the middle of an underage house party and revel earnestly in a film made "for them." Meanwhile, effete city folk could rubberneck and deconstruct the whole thing from an ironic distance and still get their vicarious trash culture thrills. Shockingly, Spring Breakers works on several levels. It even has some things to say about race and cultural misappropriation (which I won't go into here). What I will say is this: Franco as Alien is wigger perfection, all the Disney girls are spot-on and the Skrillex jams are bangin'. Personally, I missed my high school's spring break exodus by several months and a few Florida counties in the wrong direction. Yet, thanks to this movie, I now feel safe in intoning the St. Pete party bus mantra: "Spring break, bitches...Spring break, fo-eva..."

HONORABLE MENTION


Before Midnight

Let's face it...middle age sucks. Your once storybook romance begins to show signs of wear and tear. Needy children come into picture (twins, in this case). Ex-spouses are a thing to be bargained and negotiated with routinely by passive-aggressive phone calls, texts or emails. "Before Midnight"? What's that? Oh yes...about the time we pass out exhausted every night...without having sex. Props to director Richard Linklater, Hawke and Delpy for going a little darker, coarser with this final (?) entry in the Before trilogy. It may not be the most romantic of the bunch, but it's certainly the most real.


Blue is the Warmest Color

Speaking of romance, how about a little Cannes winning girl-on-girl action? This French firebrand of a film (by an Arab director) came bundled with much hype, much controversy and only some of it earned. It's the oldest story in the world (the agonizing pains and euphoric pleasures of first love) told with the urgency of something undiscovered and new. Everything about this movie feels raw and CLOSE-UP. And I'm not just talking about the graphic sex scenes. On the few occasions we're granted a long shot to take in the scenery, think and reflect (and not just feel, feel, FEEL!), it comes off like a cold red slap in the face.


Computer Chess

Granted, the retro camera format steals the show here. '80s era analog black and white tube videocams...sign me right up! But this droll little indie about a nerd-packed weekend computer chess tournament might also be the most stealthily amusing comedy of the year. The scene involving the geekiest of programmers awkwardly resisting the advances of a middle-aged swingers collective staying in the same motel is priceless. This flick is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it on your laptop or your big screen. Just pretend it's on a Commodore 64.


Museum Hours

This quiet, contemplative film set almost entirely in a Vienna art museum feels like a film your grandmother might make...if your granny used to play in a punk rock band. There's something about its slow, deliberate rhythms and the platonic friendship at its center (between a male German security guard and a female Canadian tourist) that, in this day of bombastic, fast-cut overkill, feels downright subversive. By asking you to put down your cell phone for just one second, take a breather and simply OBSERVE the images around you like the characters in the film do, it may be one of the more demanding movies of the year but also the most rewarding. Best Scene: A exceptionally polite museum guide laying the interpretational smackdown on a loutish American tourist with her highly astute Bruegel knowledge.


Simon Killer

What if Travis Bickle never drove a taxi? What if he was a recently dumped college grad with a degree in neuroscience and an unfinished thesis paper about the link between the eye and the brain roaming the streets of Paris weeping intermittently and masturbating frequently? What if Jodie Foster was a Middle Eastern prostitute? Simon Killer answers those questions...with style to burn. Director Antonio Campos (Afterschool) is one to keep your eye on. Ocular pun intended.

THE WORST


10. The Canyons

I am far from a Bret Easton Ellis fan. I am even farther from a Lindsay Lohan fan. Yet, unfortunately for me, I am still a fan of director Paul Schrader and continue to follow him down some dismal cinematic pathways, his most recent Kickstarter-funded trek through the vacant canyons of D-List Hollywood perhaps the most arduous path of all. I actually saw this one in the theater, mostly because Schrader was speaking after the film. The man showed up to his own premiere in cargo shorts. Phoning it in perhaps? Not even. He barely Instagrammed it.


9. Paranoia

A by-the-numbers cyber-thriller more generic than its generic title would suggest. I'd never heard of this movie before and never would have thought to watch it, but it was the only one American Airlines was offering for free in-flight and I had three flying hours to kill. Gary Oldman going head to head with Harrison Ford? An Air Force One showdown redux? Sure, I'll buy that for zero dollars. Now can I have my money back, please?


8. Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain

No...let ME explain. First off, this one was favor viewing for a friend. Second, I didn't pay for it. Third, I don't find Kevin Hart remotely funny at all, though for some reason his head seems to be appearing on every other subway billboard these days as if he were the second coming of Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle or an '80s-era Eddie Murphy. He even wears a black leather top ala Murphy's red leather outfit in Raw. Despite the shout-out leathers, he's just not up to any of those guys' stand-up standards. This surprisingly profitable documentary of his sold-out Madison Square Garden performance was basically a fifteen minute promo reel for himself, followed by an hour of sub-Def Comedy Jam material. "Here's the difference between men and women..." "Here's some of my best homophobic and homeless-person-phobic material..." "Look, I got pyrotechnics and shit!" Boom! Bang! Pow! Snooze. Yawn. Crickets.


7. jOBS

You know how to make a highly temperamental yet visionary tech wizard roll over in their iGrave? Cast Ashton Kutcher in their life story and deliver the end user product as a color-by-numbers biopic. I watched this exceptionally bland movie only because I read the book it was based on. And I read the book only because it was pertinent to a writing project I was working on at the time. Woe is me, the things I do for research.


6. A Good Day to Die Hard

2014...a great year for this decrepit franchise to finally, mercifully die.


5. Olympus Has Fallen / White House Down

Speaking of Die Hard...how about not one but TWO "Die Hard in the White House" movies and both in the same year? Of these two soulless action programmers, White House Down was slightly better in that it took itself less seriously and in no way, shape or form included the personality-free Gerard Butler. I mean, come on...Jamie Foxx was basically playing Obama in WHD, running around 1600 Pennsylvania in a business suit with Air Jordans and firing a bazooka at oncoming Tomahawk helicopters. International diplomacy dictates I cut at least one of these jingoistic, bullet-brained groaners a little slack.


4. Killing Season

Once upon a time there was this decent little script called Shrapnel. Two WWII veterans (an American and a German) take out their old war rivalries on each other in a cat and mouse game in the U.S. wilderness during the 1970s. It was set to star Nic Cage and be directed by action legend John McTiernan. Somewhere along the way (i.e., development hell), the year was updated to present day, the war was changed to the Bosnian conflict (Iraq and Afghanistan obviously too touchy, too topical), Cage dropped out and was replaced by a very haggard DeNiro and John Travolta with funny facial hair and a laughable Serbian accent. Somewhere else along the way, McTiernan went to jail (or something like that) and was replaced by the guy who wrote Grumpy Old Men and directed Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Surprise of surprises, a movie that was once interesting on paper was dead on arrival before it ever hit the screen.


3. Gangster Squad

Sean Penn, why are smiling at me? You were once in a good Brian DePalma movie (Carlito's Way) and another so-so one (Casualties of War). Yet here you find yourself as the scenery-chewing baddie in a terrible Untouchables rip-off directed by the guy who did 30 Minutes or Less and Zombieland. As an actor, you are known for your verisimilitude, yet absolutely nothing feels authentic in this flick. It's a tired compendium of a million better mob movies. So, why are you not frowning, Mr. Penn? It must be all those heavy prosthetics. Better yet, it must be that hefty paycheck.


2. Salinger

This is not a documentary but a poorly researched hit job on an already deceased author. More reprehensible, it's a promotional tie-in for a book and not even one of Salinger's own, but one written by the literary mastermind who also gave us Armageddon. Shane Salerno's basic directorial approach: Treat his subject as if he were a mob informant in hiding, not a reclusive writer. Then fan the flames of all the controversies that surrounded him for maximum salacious effect, while ignoring the thematic thrust of his actual written works. I was never a huge Salinger fan. But after suffering through a Netflix stream of this miserable scandal-baiting doc, I can't blame him or Holden Caulfield for hating movies or phonies in general. Yes, Armageddon Hack, I'm talking to you.


1. Only God Forgives

Maybe he forgives. Maybe not. But can I? Nic Refn, of all the gory, gaping wounds you inflicted on your characters in this-- perhaps the most pretentious, overstylized and extravagantly hollow revenge picture of all time-- the one that bruised the most is the sucker punch you delivered to your faithful audience. You see, I'm no Johnny Come Lately. I knew of you long before Drive. I was there for the promising Pusher trilogy, the stellar Bronson, the interesting Valhalla Rising. Shit, I even circled back and watched the much-derided Fear X, which, though lacking in spots, was still miles better than OGF. Please, Mr. Refn, if you've got it in mind to make another one like this next time out, do your old faithful a favor and don't dick us around with more Muay Thai meshugass or David Lynch style-rips. Just be merciful and deliver that final cinematic death blow with one swift fatal punch. And, whatever you do, don't dedicate that punch to Alejandro Jodorowsky this time.

DISHONORABLE MENTION


The Bling Ring

An indictment of celebrity-obsessed youth culture or a proud card-carrying member of same? Hard to tell with The Bling Ring. Director Sofia Coppola takes neither side but merely observes from a slight hipster remove (see entire soundtrack), making for a rather toothless true-life teen heist movie.


Bullet to the Head

I went into this solely for the Walter Hill directing credit. I don't recall much directorial flair. Only a very lousy script and Stallone's slightly less obvious hair piece.


Dirty Wars

Put aside for the moment the concept supposedly at the center of this documentary: That the U.S. frequently doesn't play fair when it comes to its military operations abroad. A worthy topic for study but not exactly groundbreaking news at this point. So why is the bulk of this film comprised of shots of Jeremy Scahill (the writer/reporter whose book this doc is based on) walking around Brooklyn looking lost in thought? Or nodding compassionately in close-up as Afghani villagers tell him their story? Or staring pensively out of a passing car window trying to figure out the meaning of it all? I read Scahill's Blackwater book and enjoyed it thoroughly, which led me to this film. But, seriously, give us some more relevant footage other than you moping around Park Slope. The war you're researching is not being waged over the Gowanus. The name of this documentary is Dirty Wars, not Jeremy Scahill: Intrepid Outer-Borough Reporter.


Lovelace

Shouldn't we be done with '70s rise and fall porn industry stories by this point? Didn't we blow our thematic wad years ago with the far superior (and arguably definitive) Boogie Nights? And how can you ever expect to top Eric Roberts in Star 80 when it comes to abusive, controlling husbands of na├»ve young starlets (porn stars, fashion models or otherwise)? Peter Sarsgaard is a fine actor. But he was so horribly miscast in this pedestrian porn bio. You never believe he poses any real threat to Amanda Seyfried beyond the tips of his handlebar moustache.


Man of Steel

And you thought porn industry biopics were overdone. I'm am so very, very tired of superhero movies at this point. And superhero remakes and reboots. And Superman in general. How many times has the man with the "S" on his chest been redone in the last decade? Honestly, I've lost count. But I read this one was better than average. More importantly, I heard the fantastic Michael Shannon was playing General Zod, so I decided to give it a whirl. In the end, I just felt bad for the guy...this unquestionably great actor having to bellow hammy, overblown dialogue about the fate of his home planet as wall-to-wall CGI swirls around him. I know I shouldn't feel bad for the guy-- I'm sure Shannon was paid handsomely to bellow. But I couldn't shake that queasy "this is what it's come to" feeling. Great actors routinely clamoring for comic book roles that are far beneath them. Not lining up to do Shakespeare in the Park but to become action figures, basically. That said, I'm pretty sure I won't care when it comes time for Batfleck.

SUPERLATIVES

BEST DOUCHEY MICHAEL CERA PERFORMANCE

Crystal Fairy (barely edging out his great douchebag portrayals in Magic, Magic and This is the End)

BEST WILLIAM FITCHNER PERFORMANCE AS CHINESE MAN WITH PONYTAIL

As Master Chang in Wrong

BEST FELINE PERFORMANCE

All the cats in Inside Llewyn Davis

MOST UNWELCOME CAMEOS

Will Smith, Liam Neeson and Kayne West in Anchorman 2

STANDOUT DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS

Fruitvale Station, Gimme the Loot, Antiviral (Cronenberg's kid), Don Jon

WORST BLUE COLLAR PORN

Out of the Furnace, The Place Beyond the Pines

WORST ONE-PERCENTER PORN

Wolf of Wall Street, The Bling Ring

MOST EGREGIOUS HIPSTER BAIT

Her, Frances Ha

WORST TERRENCE MALICK RIP-OFF

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

WORST ACTUAL TERRENCE MALICK MOVIE

To the Wonder

BEST USE OF MEAT AND INSECTS

John Dies At The End's cockroach and meat man (barely edging out Upstream Color's hallucinogenic worms and pig farm)

BEST F'ED UP PLASTIC SURGERY

Rob Lowe's alarmingly hideous nose job in Behind the Candelabra

BEST SPREAD EAGLE SELF-PLEASURING ATOP A CAR HOOD

Cameron Diaz in The Counselor

BEST SLOW MOTION FIGHT SCENE ON QUAALUDES

DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in Wolf of Wall Street

MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2014

A holdover from last year (in that it has still yet to be released in the U.S.): The five-hour, two-part uncut video-on-demand version of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Just take a look at this playful series of "climax posters" and tell me you're not also psyched.


Finally, here's that other GIF I promised (as if the Von Trier posters weren't suggestive enough).
 
 
HAPPY 2014!!!!


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