Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Best of 2013

Hey everybody!  It's that time of the year again.  That time where we film critics (and others of a similar cinematic bent) dole out our annual best and worst of the year lists.  Well, that is just what I will be doing below (and over at my main site, All Things Kevyn).  But this ain't just some boring ole top ten list.  No sirree.  This will be my choices for the best that cinema had to offer this past year, from the best to the worst.  A top twenty or so offering (a top 21 to be exact), followed by some runners-up, followed by my choices for the best performances of the year, which then will be followed by my choices for the dregs of then past cinematic year.  But enough of this introductory nonsense.  Without further ado, I give you the cinematic year that was 2013, beginning with my choices for the best films of the year.  Oh yeah, and due to some scheduling conflicts, two films that would have likely made this list (and still might through the wonder of the retcon), Spike Jonze's Her and The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, have yet to be seen by your not-so-humble narrator, and therefore are not included below. Anyway, on with the show...

1. Stoker - This film, the first English-language offering from Korean enfant terribles, Park Chan-wook, came onto the screen quite early in the year, and ever since the March 21st screening I saw, the film has been the runaway winner for best of the year - no film was ever able to topple it from its high and mighty perch.  Loosely based on Hitchcock's 1943 classic thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, Park brings his unique, oft times batshitcrazy, style to Hollywood, and casts a pitch perfect Mia Wasikowska in the central role of lonely little girl lost-cum-potentially demented serial killer - all via a bubbling sexual cauldron of Lolita-esque desire.  A gorgeously harrowing near-masterpiece, indeed.

2. American Hustle - The only film that even came close to toppling Stoker from that top spot, came quite close to the year end deadline - as many big name Oscar potentials do.  Taking a riff on making a Martin Scorsese film ("the best damn Martin Scorsese film ever made by someone who is not Martin Scorsese"), David O. Russell has finally made the great film we all knew he had in him all along.  Granted, many thought his last film was that great work, but the obvious cliché of that film (really, how were so many fooled into thinkig it was anything better than typical Oscar-bait pabulum?), is wiped away completely with this new, great visceral work of art.  Bravo.

3. Spring Breakers - From its opening montage of a typical spring break setting that looks to be an auteuristic take on Girls Gone Wild, to its dangerously sexualized interior involving several actresses with usually (usually) squeaky clean images, all the way to its killer final scene that could have been lifted straight out of a Brian De Palma-fuelled wet dream, Harmony Korine's succulently filthy paean to the Godardian ideal of a girl and a gun, or in this case, several girls and lots of guns, may not be the film for everyone (what an understatement!) but that doesn't change the fact that this is indeed, cinema as it damn well should be.

4. Before Midnight - This acerbic love(esque) story is the culmination (unless Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke decide on making a fourth one down the road) of one of the smartest, most beautifully filmed trilogies around.  Beginning in 1995 with Before Sunrise, and continuing in 2004 with Before Sunset (my personal favourite of the bunch), the aforementioned director, Richard Linklater, and his stars and co-screenwriters, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, have given us a deft comedy-cum-potential tragedy in this continuing tale of the life and love of Celine and Jesse.  Simple, yet deceptively perceptive, this film (along with its predecessors), and its filmic couple, is just so so fun to watch.

5. Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach, the Brooklyn-born writer/director of such arthouse hits as Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale, is at it again.  This time around he is joined by muse/girlfriend Greta Gerwig as co-screenwriter and star - in fact Gerwig pretty much created the character, foibles and faults included, from the so-called ground up.  The film, done in crisp black and white and shot on a minimal budget in and around Brooklyn, is the story of a twentysomething New York dancer, all done in the most post-new wavy kinda manner one can imagine.  So much so that one can actually see, hear, and smell the ghosts of Francois Truffaut wandering around in the background somewhere.

6. Blue Jasmine - Once upon a time, a Woody Allen film meant something special.  Lately, the guy can be pretty hit and miss.  Luckily, his latest film, though panned by many this year, is one of those aforementioned hits.  But no matter how well written it is (and it is), and no matter how great a performance is given by supporting player Sally Hawkins (and it is indeed, a great performance), and no matter how glad this critic is to see the Woodman back in such fine form (and yes, he is back baby), it is Cate Blanchett's stellar take on one of the most complex characters Allen has ever drawn, that steals this movie away from anything and everything else.

7. The World's End - Judging from the genre-spanning satirical films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the cinematic combination of director Edgar Wright, and stars Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) and Nick Frost, pretty much guarantees a witty and wry comedy, and with the release of The World's End, their collective take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and probably the most acerbic of the trio's loosely-based trilogy, that guarantee has become even stronger.

8. Upstream Color - Finally, the long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth, director of the 2004 ground-breaking indie sci-fi film Primer, and this mother is just as mind-fucking trippy as his first film.  Taking on the idea of identity and self-awareness, this film slowly builds to a bizarre climax, all the while giving momentary hints, though barely revealing the truth as to what exactly is happening on screen.

9. The Act of Killing - A documentary about gangster squads and para-military assassins, told in various manners, from reenactments to talk show appearances to elaborate musical numbers, and all done with not only the complete cooperation of these very same gangster squads and para-military assassins, but also actually reenacted by these very same men.  Imagine something akin to a Taliban reality show, and you have this bizarre and intense film.

10. To the Wonder - Sure, when compared to Terrence Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life (the one and only true masterpiece of this decade so far), this much smaller-in-scope work is sure to look minor in such a comparison, but still, a film that can be considered (and is by the director himself) a companion piece to The Tree of Life, a footnote even, then To the Wonder is a marvelous miniature work of art.

11. The Grandmaster - How good a filmmaker is Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai?  Good enough that even my least favourite film of the director's oeuvre, makes it to number eleven on my best of 2013 list.  Yeah, that's right, The Grandmaster is probably the auteur's least interesting film, and it is still better than most films made today.  Of course by least interesting, I mean that only when compared to the rest of the guy's filmography.  Standing on its own, The Grandmaster is a gorgeous and quite succulent work of art.

12. Blue is the Warmest Color - A three hour French lesbian drama, complete with a ten minute or so unsimulated sex scene smack dab in the middle, probably is not the most mainstream friendly movie out this year (many audiences, including those at official Academy Award screenings, either scoffed or even laughed during said sex scene), but once the gratuity is overlooked, this graphic novel adaptation ends up being a heart-wrenching and tragic love story.

13. Only God Forgives - Cool and strangely calming, this otherwise visceral work from Nicolas Winding Refn (the man who gave us both Bronson and Drive) is a psychologically brutal and visually haunting look at the underbelly of Thai society and familial dysfunction, all done with three bravura performances from Winding Refn muse Ryan Gosling, and Kristen Scott Thomas, and Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm.

14. Fruitvale Station - More often than not, when we are given a film about tragic real life events, the end result is either pandering schlock or trite mishandling.  In the case of the debut film from Ryan Coogler, the end result is a riveting look at tragic real life events, that almost never blinks away from its harrowing storyline.  A (would be) star-making performance from Michael B. Jordan helps out a lot too.

15. The Bling Ring - Sofia Coppola has made a directorial career out of portraying lost little girls in her films, be they suicidal sisters or legendary teen queens, and she keeps that going here, as she tells the story of a TMZ-addled youth culture, that, no longer able to differentiate between reality and reality TV, lives by their own (im)morality code.  A chilling film indeed.

16. The Lone Ranger - Yeah, that's right bitches!  This movie, an epic failure due more to its ridiculous (and completely excessive) epic budget than any sort of box office dilemma, can be found on more than quite a few worst of 2013 lists, but I say bah to them.  Bah indeed.  Sure, this may not be a great work of cinema that should be held high in the annals of film history, but it is a rather spectacular grand guignol of Hollywood spectacle, indeed.  Fun fun fun!

17. A Touch of Sin - This film, the latest from Chinese master of melancholy,  Jia Zhangke, slowly builds its intertwining plot threads into an eventual boiling pot of despair and destruction.  Allowing his camera, and some pretty damn spectacular work from his actors, to explain the otherwise unexplained, Jia's film resonates like an unending drum.  Thump, thump, thump, thump...

18. Side Effects - If we are to believe director Steven Soderbergh, this is to be the enigmatic auteur's final theatrical release.  If so, it's a damn fine way to go out.  If it isn't (and let's face it, it probably isn't), then it's yet another unique experiment in what is probably the strangest oeuvre of any director working today.  In other words, Side Effects is yet another reason why everyone should be in love with the films of Steven Soderbergh - and for that matter, the equally enigmatic acting of the often overlooked Miss. Rooney Mara.

19. Ain't Them Bodies Saints - My wife says that Casey Affleck may very well be the best actor of his generation, and, aside from Christian Bale and Affleck's own bro-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, I am prone to agree, especially after seeing yet another seering performance from the guy in this little seen gem of a film.  As for the film itself, think Arthur Penn meets early Nicholas Ray, with a kinda stormy Terrence Malick feel.

20. Gravity - I have always been, and will always be a most loud proponent of, whenever possible, watching a film on the big screen, where it should be seen.  This is especially the case with Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say the only proper way to watch Gravity is on the big screen in 3D.  That's right, this noted 3D-hater is proposing one see a film in 3D.  So be it.  Gravity is a stunning work of art that will probably end up being just average when it makes its way to smaller screens at home.  But up on that big silver screen?  Just gorgeous.

21. Much Ado About Nothing - A black & white Shakespearean adaptation, set in modern times and using the Bard's original Early-Modern English dialogue, and directed by the man responsible for the third top-grossing film of all-time, Joss Whedon's foray into classic lit may not have been the runaway box office success that The Avengers was in 2012, but it is certainly good enough to round out my best of 2013 list.

Some worthy runners-up (in no particular order): Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine); Trance (Danny Boyle); The Last Stand (Kim Jee-woon); Mud (Jeff Nichols); Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams); The Angel's Share (Ken Loach); Dallas Buyer's Club (Jean-Marc Vallee); Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro); Wrong (Quentin Dupieux); Lore (Cate Shorland); Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski); The Iceman (Ariel Vromen); You're Next (Adam Wingard); Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener); Passion (Brian De Palma).

Best Female Lead Performances of the Year:
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Mia Wasikowska in Stoker
Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color
Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Rooney Mara in Side Effects & Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Best Male Lead Performances of the Year:
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
Christian Bale in American Hustle
Simon Pegg in The World's End
Michael Shannon in The Iceman
Casey Affleck in Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

Best Female Supporting Performances of the Year:
Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
Nicole Kidman in Stoker
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Kristen Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives
Tao Zhao in A Touch of Sin
Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Male Supporting Performances of the Year:
James Franco in Spring Breakers
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew Goode in Stoker
James Gandolfini in Enough Said
Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives
Nathan Fillion in Much Ado About Nothing

And then, ever so briefly, come the worst of the year...
1. 47 Ronin
2. After Earth
3. A Good Day to Die Hard
4. The Counselor
5. Machete Kills
6. Oz the Great and Powerful
7. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
8. Elysium
9. Bullet to the Head
10. Gangster Squad

One final note: Though it is not quite bad enough of a film to make the above Worst of the Year list, plus I would've broken my heart to have to include this filmmaker, one of my all-time favourites, on any sort of worst list, but nonetheless, the biggest 2013 cinematic disappointment for this critic has to be Martin Scorsese's surprisingly banal The Wolf of Wall Street.  Cool poster though.

Well, that's it kids.  See ya 'round the web.

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