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Cinema 2013: The best and the rest

by Mark Burger

Feat . Mark Burger

Looking back over the films of 2013, the year actually turned out to be one of the better in recent memory. Admittedly, and predictably, a significant number of the year’s best films were released late in the year — all the better to keep them fresh in the minds of Academy voters. There were some distinctive and powerful films to be enjoyed — as well as those to be endured — and some of the year’s most critically hailed films turned out to also be financially successful, thereby dashing the theory that art and commerce are mutually exclusive in contemporary filmmaking.

The 10 best1 . American Hustle

Director David O. Russell’s take on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s is executed with energy, flair and, yes, hustle. The “masterminds” of the scheme — and the scam — are Christian Bale and Amy Adams (both superb) as the con-artist duo “recruited” by FBI agent Bradley Cooper, but their relationship becomes more complicated and complex as the story progresses. Add Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence to the mix, along with Louis CK, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Shea Whigham and a surprise cameo by Robert De Niro, and you’ve got one of the year’s best ensemble casts — and there have been many this year. Funky, funky and ferocious, this is a great American story and a great American movie. Russell, who began his career with quirky indies such as Spanking the Monkey, then made The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, hasn’t gone mainstream so much as mainstream has come to him.

2 . Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips. Director Paul Greengrass brings the same sort of visceral immediacy he’s brought to both his Bourne films and his historical films (Bloody Sunday and United 93) to this fact-based, sea-faring saga of the cargo ship hijacked off the coast of Africa by Somali gunmen. Even though the film’s outcome is commonly known, this is a white-knuckle ride all the way — told with as much compassion as credibility. In the title role of the heroic American captain, Tom Hanks is at his best. This is big-studio filmmaking at its finest.

3 . 12 Yearsa Slave

Director Steve McQueen’s handsomely crafted screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s first-hand chronicle has been potently distilled in John Ridley’s screenplay, resulting in a devastating tale that’s as much about the American experience as the black experience. Chiwetel Ejiofor, eloquent and outstanding, is backed by a superb supporting cast (Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita N’yongo, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Brad Pitt). This does full justice to the book and the history that it dramatizes. It’s not just a film about the black experience, but also the American experience. Hard to watch, impossible to forget.

4 . Gravity

A high-concept idea — a disaster in space — is brought to full fruition by director Alfonso Cuaron. Although similar in tone and setting to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), Cuaron is less concerned with the symbolism than the immediacy of the situation. The technology on display appears not too far removed from current technology, lending the film credibility. As the endangered astronauts, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney lend the film its all-important human element. The visual effects and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography are top-notch.

6 . The Wolfof Wall Street

A biting, bracing saga from Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio front and center as Wall Street wastrel Jordan Belfort, whose rise and fall are chronicled in outrageous, no-holds-barred fashion. DiCaprio again proves himself as one of our best actors, tearing into the role of the amoral Belfort with relish, remaining totally appealing even while indulging in all sorts of chemical, sexual and financial mischief. Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s righthand man, has never been better. (Even his teeth are funny!) Now in his seventies, Scorsese just keeps trucking along, leaving one great movie after another in his wake.

7 . Mud

UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols has only made three films: Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011) and now this. All have featured Michael Shannon, and all have provided an ample showcase for Nichols to display his considerable talents as a storyteller. Matthew McConaughey, who’s had a very good year (Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street), plays the title character, a mysterious hermit whose friendship with two young boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, both terrific) has unforeseen consequences. This is quintessential contemporary Americana, an elegiac parable about love, loss, retribution and redemption. Michael Shannon’s here too (in a very funny role), as are Reese Witherspoon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson and Sam Shepard, himself emblematic of contemporary Americana.

8 . Saving Mr. Banks

The Disney magic is very much in evidence in this affectionate and sweetened dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the making of the Disney classic Mary Poppins (1964), as Emma Thompson’s brilliantly prickly and fussy author PL Travers clashes with studio head Walt Disney (a very smooth Tom Hanks) over seemingly every detail of the production. Charming and unabashedly sentimental, this is a magical movie about the making of movie magic. Once again, there’s a splendid ensemble on hand: Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, Kathy Baker and young Annie Rose Buckley.

9 . The Hunt

Actor-turned-filmmaker Peter Berg’s intense dramatization of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings military operation in Afghanistan in 2005 boasts some of the best combat sequences in recent memory. Mark Wahlberg once again maneuvers deftly within a strong ensemble cast that includes Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch as members of the Navy SEAL team whose mission, through no fault of their own, goes completely wrong. The film also represents a major rebound for Berg, whose last film was the big-budget bust Battleship (which starred Kitsch, also rebounding nicely). This is an important story and an unforgettable, harrowing tribute to men in combat. (Lone Survivor opens Jan. 10 in wide release.)

1 0 . Nebraska

Filmmaker Alexander Payne continues his winning streak — he’s made six films and all of them good (some great) — with this droll comedy about dashed hopes and pipe dreams. Bruce Dern, in a career-capping turn, plays a wizened eccentric convinced he’s won $1 million in a magazine sweepstakes offer. To pick up his “winnings,” he and his estranged son (Will Forte) embark on a road trip that eventually includes a detour to Dad’s hometown, where both father and son are forced to confront the past and find a path to the future. Although Dern dominates the proceedings, there’s good work from the entire cast, particularly Stacy Keach as Dern’s one-time best friend, and the hilarious June Squibb as Dern’s long-suffering but stalwart wife.

It was a very good year at the movies, so good that several worthy films just missed the cut: Dallas Buyers Club, Disney’s Frozen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impressive directorial debut Don Jon, the rock doc Muscle Shoals, and Rodney Ascher’s deliriously entertaining documentary Room 237, which takes such a thorough and bizarre look at Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining that you’ll never be able to watch The Shining the same way again.

The 10 worst1 . To The Wonder

There are those who believe Terrence Malick is one of the great cinematic visionaries. And then there are people like me, who don’t. After making one of his more comparatively accessible films (2011’s Tree of Life), Malick the maestro concocted this pretentious romantic dirge that follows the rise and fall of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko’s relationship. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem skulks around as a priest questioning the meaning of it all (he’s not alone). Typical Malick, the film contains some lovely visuals (courtesy ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), but pretty pictures do not a movie make. Not a good one, anyway.

2 . The Counselor

The pedigree could hardly be more encouraging: An original Cormac McCarthy screenplay, Ridley Scott directing, and an all-star cast including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem (not having his best film year), Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. The shocking result is a model (and muddle) of stunning ineptitude, a longwinded and only intermittently stylish treatise on morality and the lack thereof. Scott’s direction is as unfocused as McCarthy’s writing. The cast is lost. Audiences ignored the star power and stayed home.

3 . The Heat

Take a by-the-book FBI agent and a maverick detective, pair them up and see what happens. The only difference here is that the FBI agent is Sandra Bullock and the detective Melissa McCarthy. Otherwise, this by-the-numbers buddy comedy is just what you’d expect — and even less. McCarthy’s foul-mouthed routine is initially amusing, then repetitive, and finally just plain obnoxious. Is this the best they could come up with for these actresses?

4. The Ultimate Life

Yes, it was shot in North Carolina, which brings business to the state. But this unnecessary followup to The Ultimate Gift (2006) simply doesn’t work — not as nostalgia, not as drama (or melodrama), not even as a faith-based film — with those elements of the story seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. It’s both prequel and sequel, and inferior to the first film on both counts.

5 . The Host

Twilight scribe Stephenie Meyer tried to incorporate another adolescent love triangle into a fantasy setting — this one involving a Planet Earth that has been overrun by aliens who use humans as their hosts (so that’s where the title comes from!). The Twilight faithful, still preoccupied perhaps with trying to differentiate one Twilight film from another, stayed home in droves. This was one of several proposed big-screen franchises (Ender’s Game, anyone?) that fizzled at the starting gate after only one film.

6 . Breaking the Girls

This failed film noir, in which gorgeous college babes Madeline Zima and Agnes Bruckner get mixed up in a convoluted scheme of murder and blackmail was touted as a steamy, seductive thriller with twists aplenty. Instead, it’s just a pallid knock-off of Wild Things (1998) — the sort that belongs on late-night cable-TV. The talented and attractive Bruckner (so good in her 2002 breakout Blue Car) just can’t seem to get a decent break… although she did play Anna Nicole Smith in a recent Lifetime movie.

7 . Gangster Squad

What could (and should) have been a rip-roaring adaptation of Paul Lieberman’s book, in the tradition of The Untouchables (1987) or LA Confidential (1997), becomes a hackneyed retread of seemingly every cliché in the genre. A well-dressed cast — Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone (slinky but miscast) and a frothing Sean Penn (as LA crime czar Mickey Cohen) — is left to swagger and stagger through standardissue shoot-outs and spout obligatory tough-guy dialogue. Where’s Jack Webb when you need him?

8 . Dark Skies

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are appropriately alarmed (they play wideeyed well) when they move into a new house and spooky things start happening. Is the house haunted? Is demonic possession to blame? Writer/director Scott Stewart tries to keep the audience awake and guessing — no points for either — until it’s revealed that this is an alien abduction movie. All the scares were in the trailer.

9 . You’re Next

The members of a dysfunctional (although affluent) family reunite for a weekend at their remote country manor, where they are soon set upon by mask-wearing fiends bearing sharp objects and murderous intent. It’s a good thing that heroine Sharni Vinson — the best thing in the movie — was raised in a survivalist camp. (What are the odds?) If you can’t figure out the plot and its players, you haven’t seen enough movies. Some late-inning black comedy is far too little and far too late.

1 0 . Texas Chainsaw 3 – D

What can be said? Take off your 3-D glasses now. It’s gotten to the point where there have been so many reboots, remakes and rehashes that it’s starting to make the original film look bad. Hey, it happened to Halloween. !

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