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:

The ABC's of Death - An interesting experiment, but an unsatisfying result. If you're on the fence, watch Q through V and pretend the rest of the film is equal in quality.

About Time - A charming tale of time-travel dressed up as a romantic comedy. It's a nice change of pace for all fans of speculative fiction. But that's all it is: nice.

American Hustle - A for Acting, D for Story.

The Bling Ring - "Okay, we have setting, story, plot, themes, I think that's all... Oh shit, we forgot characters. Dammit. Aw hell, let's shoot the film anyways."

The Butler - The theme of taking an active role vs a passive role in history was intriguing, but it hits a lot of the same markers as Forrest Gump. Also, when you compare it against other films released this year like 12 Years a Slave or Fruitvale Station, you can really see how The Butler pulled its punches. All criticisms aside, The Butler does have one remarkable cast. The actors and actresses alone are worth the price of admission.

Carrie - Certain aspects were improved over the original 70s version, but the remake fails because of the ending. If you spend the entirety of a horror film building to a horrifying climax so important and so renowned, it's deliberately featured as the film's marketing focal point, then 95% of the movie's worth is based on that ending. And they didn't do it justice. Carrie is a tragedy. Everybody contributes to the destruction of Carrie, either through action or inaction. As a result, Carrie results in the destruction of everyone, whether they deserved it or not. Everyone. Not just the school's resident queen bees. Everyone. Those who ignored her, those who never met her, the one person who tried to help. Everyone. That's the tragedy.

Chinese Zodiac (CZ12) - Spazzy. I've seen Saturday morning cartoons with more subtlety and restraint.

Don Jon - An interesting commentary on habits, addiction, love, lust, personality and pornography. That said, I didn't believe the romance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and either of his two paramours for a second. Oddly, the story of how Gordon-Levitt brought the film to fruition is more interesting than the film itself.

Drinking Buddies - It's mumblecore. Need I say more?

Elysium - Fantastic visuals, but absolutely nothing else. It's social commentary is less subtle than a Michael Moore documentary. I heard director Neill Blomkamp abandoned a Halo adaptation to work on Elysium instead. Which is a shame, because I would have much rather seen a movie about a cybernetically-enhanced super-soldier fighting on a ringworld with futuristic weapons for the fate of mankind.

Ender's Game - I never read the book, so I have no basis on how the actual Ender's Game story goes, but there's no way it's 100% faithful. It's equally composed of both Reagan-era military rhetoric and Obama-era military rhetoric. At least it was entertaining. Why the hell was Abigail Breslin in this?

Escape From Tomorrow - Aspiring filmmakers of the world, your attention please. You are not David Lynch. You should not attempt to make a David Lynch film. Only David Lynch is allowed to make David Lynch films, and even he doesn't bat a thousand. When other people try, they make indecipherable, insulting, grotesque messes. Escape From Tomorrow is a perfect example.

Evil Dead - It's not terrible. Unfortunately, because it just *had* to be a remake, it is completely incapable of standing on its own merit. If it were its own thing, maybe it would have earned a small footing in the horror community. But since it had to cash in on the already not huge Evil Dead market, it will forever be remembered as 'Oh yeah, I forgot that was remade.'

Frances Ha - It's your typical "I'm a young, urbanite, free spirit whose life is falling apart" indie comedy, buoyed by two things: First, no melodrama, second, a fevered energy from actress Greta Gerwig. She's on par with Audrey Tatou in Amelie.

A Good Day to Die Hard - If you stripped away everything from Die Hard that made it memorable, interesting, original, likeable, and good, you would have A Good Day to Die Hard. Words cannot express how much I loathe this movie.

The Great Gatsby - A remarkable visionary adaptation, but it falls apart at the halfway point. It's tragic how one of the most visually engaging movies of the year devolves into a tedious march of dialogue. Show don't tell, Baz Luhrman. You should be the last person to whom I need to say this.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters - Exactly what it says on the tin.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - A notable improvement over the first film, but still overlong and padded. I remain upset this is a trilogy. Throughout, I could only focus on what could be cut, what could be pared down, and what could be sped up.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - They fixed practically every problem I had with the first movie. *This* is the internationally successful sci-fi/dystopian epic I was waiting to see.

In a World... - Funny and pointed commentary on sexism and empowerment. Tragically, it's a 40 minute story told over the space of 90 minutes. Still, I expect great things in the future from Lake Bell.

John Dies at the End - I get what they were going for, and it almost works, but it doesn't walk the line properly between straight sci-fi/fantasy/horror and dark comedy.

Kick-Ass 2 - Only after leaving the theater did I realize Kick-Ass was perfect as a standalone feature. Kick-Ass 2 is some weird amalgamation of Mystery Men, The Hurt Locker and Mean Girls that never melds, never clicks, and is never as satisfying as the original.

The Last Stand - Arnold Schwarzenegger spends an entire movie complaining how old he is and how he should just retire. So does his character. *rimshot*

The Lifeguard - Ironically, of the three coming-of-age stories released this year about the protagonist becoming a lifeguard, the one actually called "The Lifeguard" is the worst.

Man of Steel - It tries hard to copy Christopher Nolan's Batman formula, but misses the forest for the trees. It doesn't know what it wants to do or what it wants to be. And when it actually gets there, it doesn't do enough right.

Monster's University - Was it unnecessary? Yes. Am I upset with it? No. See it once, and just move along.

Movie 43 - A lot of people are claiming Movie 43 to be one of the worst movies of all time. I don't see it. Don't get me wrong, it is bad. It's god awful bad. I feel dumber having watched it, but it wasn't even the worst movie of the year, much less worst movie of all time. Truly bad movies make me angry, Movie 43 just fills me with confusion and pity.

Much Ado About Nothing - Hey, you got your Shakespeare in my Whedon! Hey, you got your Whedon in my Shakespeare! Two great tastes that taste great together.

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Yes, I watched it. I'm not proud of myself, but I watched it. Curiosity simply got the better of me.

Now You See Me - See this movie once, and you'll love it. See it twice, and you'll hate it. However clever it thinks its being, it's not. The whole film is full of contrivances, plot holes, and gaps in all branches of logic and science. The Prestige it wants to be, and The Prestige it ain't.

Oz: The Great and Powerful - L Frank Baum wrote 14 books concerning The Land of Oz. There are another 30 by other authors considered canon by Baum's trust. I'm sure any of these would be better than this half-hearted, half-baked prequel. And did anybody else notice the climax was exactly the same as Army of Darkness?

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters - I saw this movie exclusively for one line of dialogue: a Firefly reference delivered by Nathan Fillion. It was the only part of the movie worth seeing.

Prisoners - Haunting, tragic, terrifying, and captivating beyond belief. It burrows under your skin and stays there, crawling around while you squirm uncomfortably, but you don't dare avert your eyes for a second.

Salinger - It's a documentary about JD Salinger. What were you expecting? Really, it's nothing impressive or mind blowing, and hardly worthy of a theatrical release.

Saving Mr. Banks - Even the most obtuse individual would see the bias in this film. At the very least, there was fine acting all around.

The Spectacular Now - The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. What should have been a basic coming-of-age story is insanely captivating, raw and earnest.

Star Trek Into Darkness - I liked it, but I'm in the minority. This whole 'alternate Star Trek timeline' motif has nearly killed the franchise before it truly had a chance to take off. JJ Abrams needs to find his own stories and own ideas, and quickly. Because I truly do love this franchise and this cast, and I don't want them to fizzle out.

This is the End - Hilarious, but I'm worried about its shelf life. It's not going to be nearly as funny five years from now, and God only knows how it will seem twenty years from now.

Thor: The Dark World - Leaps and bounds above its predecessor.

The To Do List - I am so sorry, Aubrey Plaza.

Warm Bodies - Living in the painfully obvious shadow of Twilight, Warm Bodies is better than it has any right to be. It was interesting to see a zombie story from the zombie's perspective, but the movie made up its own rules and only played by them when convenient. It's not abysmal, but it is an easily forgettable, mediocre flick with a forced happy ending.

The Wolf of Wall Street - It's Goodfellas, but funny. Funny like a clown. It amuses me.

The Wolverine - It's not the worst installment in the X-Men franchise, but it did feel unnecessary and unimportant.

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