My Top Ten of 2013

10) Side Effects

One of the most difficult genres to write is the mystery genre. The storyteller not only has to develop an intricate story, but then choose when to reveal which details. Too much, too early and it seems clumsy and insulting. Too little, too late and it's as if the author had written themselves into a corner. It's like dancing in a minefield; every step must be in right spot, at the right time, in the right rhythm.

Side Effects is a good mystery film because it focuses on the journey instead of the destination. It isn't so much a Whodunnit as a Whydunnit and Howdunnit. The cast is fantastic. Jude Law pays the reluctant detective, uncovering the conspiracy engulfing him, trying to understand his place as the fall guy and redeem his life in the process. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones make a great pair of alternating villains/victims/red herrings/confidantes. And Channing Tatum sure did appear onscreen.

Side Effects owes a lot to the conspiracy thriller genre perfected by Alfred Hitchcock. If you like those types of films, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's tight, it's tense, and it's always moving. One of Soderbergh's greatest strengths as a director is his ability to keep multiple balls in the air at once, and Side Effects only makes you wonder why he waited so long to try his hand at the mystery genre. It's Holmesian in its plot twists, and smart throughout. I definitely recommend it.

9) Nebraska

I didn't grow up in a small town. I was suburban, through and through. I do, however, have an aunt, uncle and cousins who live in the middle-of-nowhere. I'm talking 1000 people maximum in a ten mile radius. My family used to visit often, as it was cheaper than a real vacation. If you've ever had a similar experience, the understated humor and scenery of Alexander Payne's Nebraska will speak to you directly.

Bruce Dern performs with tremendous passion and effort. He switches believably back and forth between senile, cantankerous, bitter and joyous. Relative unknown June Squibb plays his battleax of a wife, in a wonderful, hilarious role that's all but guaranteed to be nominated for an Oscar. Also of note is Will Forte, playing Dern's son and begrudging shepherd. Yes, Will Forte. SNL, Clone High, MacGruber, Will Forte. Forte displays a set of subtle comedic muscles he's never had the opportunity to flex, and it shows just how much he has to offer besides funny voices and an inability to read screenplays.

Nebraska works as both a biting satire and a quiet reflection of family life and small-town America. It reminds me so much of The Straight Story, and I loved The Straight Story. It's funny, it's heartwarming, it's tragic, and you develop so many feelings for the main characters over just an hour and a half, you cheer them on as their story draws to a close. It's a wonderful celebration of life, legacies, and fulfillment, no matter who stands in your way.

8) The Way Way Back

Oh, life. It's big, it's confusing, it's terrifying and it's just not fair. Good people get dealt bad hands, and bad people end up getting more than they ever deserve. And in the middle of it all are the teenagers, no longer under the blissful naivety of childhood, but not able to make the changes needed to fix the world. All they have a small, uncloseable porthole where all the pollution seeps in at a constant rate. Life sucks. Enter, the coming-of-age film.

The Way Way Back is typical in this regard, but that doesn't make it any less spectacular. Liam James plays a young man, unsure of his place both in the world and his family. His soon-to-be-stepfather (played very against-type by Steve Carrell) unceremoniously burdens him with adult-caliber stress and emotional problems. Further complicating things, he's dragged unwillingly on summer vacation. How does one escape from one's problems when one's problems completely engulf one's existence? Enter the magical slacker played by Sam Rockwell, to teach him by example, life is never so bad, and problems are never so real.

The Way Way Back reminds me a lot of my childhood (minus the adultery, marijuana and slacker mentors). I was quiet, misanthropic and I was dragged on my share of family vacations to places I didn't like. And when we got there, there was nothing to be done except lounge around, allowing my quiet, misanthropic self to fester. The film felt like it was speaking to me, directly. The protagonist's problems were my problems. I felt a moment of connection between me and a fictional character, across the stretches of time and space. Truth be told, you couldn't pay me to relive my teenage years. But as long as films like The Way Way Back continue popping up, I feel comfortable looking back.

7) Iron Man 3

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one of my favorite films of all time, and it's taken quite a while, but I finally have my sequel. Robert Downey Jr reprises his role as Robert Downey Jr, while Don Cheadle stands in for Val Kilmer. Also returning is Protocop, the robotic, crime-fighting suits of armor, this time in a leading role.

Shane Black returns with his traditional action/comedy style, returning Downey to his most comfortable settings: southern California. Once again, Downey must uncover a massive, murder-laced conspiracy whilst hiding undercover, all for the sake of a pretty blonde girl. All the other Kiss Kiss Bang Bang staples are present as well: The incidental Christmas setting, the smart-ass henchmen, the film noir inspiration balanced by a bunch of goofy humor, shocking moments of gore delivered with Tom and Jerry physics, and so forth. It's a real treat, and I'm happy to finally have it. Bring on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang 3!

6) Pacific Rim

This is what Transformers should have been. Seriously. I've never given more than two rat asses about the Transformers. If you had given me Pacific Rim instead of the LaBoeuf/Fox clusterfuck, you would have a fan for life. But you don't. Because you didn't. Instead of fixing the problems, you tried to add Ken Jeong into the mix.

There are no bad ideas, just bad executions. Pacific Rim works because it knows exactly what it's supposed to be: Giant robots fighting giant monsters. There's more influence from Toho Productions than from the works of Roland Emmerich. It's fun. It knows exactly when to take itself lightly (look at these names: Gipsy Danger, The Shatterdome, Hannibal Chau), and when to take itself seriously (anytime Rinko Kikuchi is onscreen). You care about these action scenes because they feature characters you respect, know, empathize with, and the stakes are raised so high, concerning them and them alone. It's not the fate of the world, it's the fate of THEM. The world is just a bonus.

There are so many things to love about Pacific Rim, ranging from themes such as multinationalism and feminism, to little things like Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's odd-couple schtick and Ellen McLain revisiting GLaDOS for no reason beyond fan service. All this and more is bundled up in a very smart, very stylized, very exciting genre film. And because of that, nobody went to see it. They prefer Transformers. People are dumb.

5) Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is a tragedy wrapped up in the guise of a comedy. Or perhaps vice-versa. Oscar Isaac is Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in New York City, 1961, forced to go solo after his singer/songwriter partner commits suicide. Llewyn is the Art Garfunkel, the John Oates, the Andrew Ridgley. He tries his damndest to make his solo career work, but cannot due to bad breaks, missed opportunities, his own selfish nature and most tragic of all, his lack of talent.

The film features the trademark Coen Brothers style of various, colorful characters weaving in and out. Everyone in the cast is just wonderful. Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, the list just keeps going on and on. It's all-inclusive. Even Justin Timberlake is wonderful, and understand, I only say nice things about Justin Timberlake once every three years.

Despite the diegetic insistence Llewyn lacks musical fortitude, the soundtrack is inescapably catchy and engrossing. After seeing the movie, I immediately fired up Spotify and listened to the entire soundtrack again and again, long into the night. It's just that good. That's Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons singing with Oscar Isaac in the trailer, who also helped produce the soundtrack. As of writing, it doesn't seem like Inside Llewyn Davis will replicate O Brother Where Art Thou's success, but it's definitely a worthy companion piece.

4) Frozen

It's the little things that make Frozen a wonderful film. I love the way various frozen items react, especially compared to their thawed versions. I love the way snow falls, in clumps and flakes alike. I love the way ice freezes, fractures and grows onscreen. I'm a grown man, but I've listened and lip-synched to the soundtrack unapologetically. I love how the animators have perfected various textures. That velvet looks like velvet. That wool looks like wool. That... other fabric looks real as well. (What do you want from me? I'm a film blogger, not a seamstress.)

Frozen has received lots of acclaim for updating the Disney fairy tale model. Getting married promptly after meeting a handsome man is a stupid idea. Love isn't exclusively a romantic thing. The main character isn't a princess, she's the goddamn queen, with all the responsibilities and duties therein. All of this is uncharted territory, and we're going full steam ahead. Don't just SET the bar, RAISE the bar!
Everything about Frozen is wonderful Disney magic, cranked to the max. I've overused the word "love" in this review, but to hell with it; in for a penny, in for a pound. I love the story, I love the themes, I love the subtleties, I love the humor, I love the animation, I love the music, I love the characters. I love it, I love it, I love it. It's too early to claim Disney is in the midst of another renaissance, but if they keep it up, I'd love to see what they do next.

3) The World's End
The final film in the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End focuses on the dangers of nostalgia, arrested development, and destructive behavior, but does so in a comedy/sci-fi setting. Pegg plays Gary King, who reunites his four childhood friends to reattempt an incomplete bar crawl from their bygone youth: The Golden Mile. In a switch from the first two Cornetto movies, Frost plays the straightman while Pegg plays the lovable loser. It's a testament to the duo's acting range, as well as their strength as a pair.

What makes Edgar Wright so unique is his ability to blend the realistic with the absurd. A romantic comedy with zombies. A Shoot-Em-Up in a picturesque village. A hipster rock opera set in a video game world. The Big Chill meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This man should have made Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

And I'll just admit it: The ending is a cop out. They could have gone a dozen different ways, and they picked probably the worst direction. But that's okay. There's no such thing as perfection. When you like something, you don't ignore the flaws, you like it despite the flaws. And even though The World's End has a pretty big one, it doesn't detract from an otherwise grand movie. Cheers all around.

2) Her 

Science fiction is a strange genre, and the better the story, the more malleable the genre conventions become. Her continues the philosophies of Isaac Asimov, proffering questions about what constitutes a life, an experience, an emotion, a feeling, a thought, and how science could not only transcend those definitions, but make an artificial entity that fully incorporates them.

Her is the story of Ted Twombley, an ordinary man who purchases an AI operating system on a whim. As the film progresses, Ted learns the AI isn't just a genuine personality simulation, but an actual artificial human, who identifies itself as Samantha. Friendship, romance, desire, dependency and passion stem from what should have been nothing more than voice-recognition software. And it's absolutely wonderful.

No force in Heaven or Earth could convince me this is silly, disingenuous, or phony. Ted and Samantha are 2013's Rick and Ilsa. It is genuine love. You feel engrossed in every conversation. You feel every feeling. You feel touched when they touch. It is real. Scarlett Johansson never appears onscreen. Not even in a cameo (and there were plenty of opportunities.) And yet, her voice work is so powerful, so moving, so hauntingly beautiful, she deserves a special award of merit. Melt down two Heisman trophies and three Peabodys, and just leave the result on her doorstep. I'll cover the shipping cost. Her is, with no hyperbole, one of the greatest romance stories to ever grace the silver screen. It's not conventional, but then again, great stories rarely are.

1) Gravity

Every time I try to find intellectual discourse on film, I'm always greeted with chants of how CGI and special effects and 3D presentation is ruining the medium. From this day forward, every time I see this argument, I'll cue up a clip from Gravity, one of the most breathtaking, remarkable experiences I've ever had in a movie theater.

The story is scenery. Sandra Bullock is an astronaut who becomes stranded after an accident leaves her isolated and shipwrecked in the cold, hostile vacuum of space. Using the limited resources available, including oxygen, she must not only survive, but find a way back to the warm embrace of planet Earth.

On the other hand, the story is the scenery. There were actual moments I forgot I was watching a movie. A fictional construct. Not actual footage of people in outer space. The scenery (or lack thereof, I guess) is so amazing, rich and beautiful. It looks like space. It feels like space. I've never actually been myself, but I fully believe Gravity is the single closest representation of space in film history. I can't believe something so near perfect exists, and I'm thankful for the privilege of seeing it.

CGI is not a plague. It is not an abomination. It is a tool. In the right hands, tools can build a house. In the wrong hands, tools can build an O'Charleys. The only difference is whoever wields the hammer, the chisel or the paintbrush. CGI can do wonderful, amazing things, and we the viewer should encourage filmmakers to test the limits of what those things are, not besmirch them for trying. We go to the movies to see things we've never seen before, hear stories we've never heard before, experience things we've never experienced before. In order to do this, we sometimes need to bend the rules of time and space, and that's precisely what SFX advancements allow us to do. Otherwise we're just a group of neo-luddites who should line up for the latest zoetrope.

Gravity is one of the best films of 2013, and certainly my favorite of the year. It preaches the simple message of never giving up, and never abandoning hope. If we received a film this good this year, who knows what the future may bring.

And now, The Also-Rans: