Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Favorite Films of 2013

10. Upstream Color
I'm not going to pretend that I even remotely understand 100% of whats going on in Shane Carruth's Upstream Color. It is an emotional journey that will likely be different for each person that views it. Beautifully filmed and scored with acting so subtle it nearly feels unscripted. It's narrative so disjointed that it feels like we're just briefly dropping in on some complex happening we have no hope to understand. I think it's about circles, not just geometric circles, though those are here, too, but about idealogical circles, and natural circles... repeating cycles if you will. That's irrelevant, though, as it's simply my simplifying one of the most complex films you might see... umm, pretty much ever. It plays to themes of love and empathy, both uplifting and celebratory, but also has an underlying moreseness to it, but a natural one, like decay in that it's simply an inevitability of the circle of life. Take from it what you will, it's so vastly open to interpretation I think it would be impossible for someone to have an identical reaction to it as someone else, wherein lies the movie's genius. If you enjoy challenging cinema, that allows discussion and dialog, then I can't stress enough how much this should be seen.

09. You're Next
The brainchild of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett is proof positive that the home invasion sub-genre within horror is one well worth mining when done correctly. Here we have a tightly paced, smartly scripted story placed in a simple setting with interesting characters. We have a great cast, especially Sharni Vinson who strives to prove that you can have a strong, non-derivative, emotionally complex and compelling female lead in a horror film without losing face or ruining it. Wingard's direction is intense, as well... he's an industry vet at this point, at least in indie horror films, and he handles his role here superbly, milking the cast for everything they're worth, framing each shot with something worth seeing. He also brings an understanding for the need for great practical effects in a picture like this. It's relatively bloodless compared to his peer Adam Green's Hatchet franchise, but when there's grue it's convincing and unsettling and not courtesy of shoddy CGI. Super fun all told, and a flick any horror freak should see, it managed to stand above many others of its own ilk this year and should become a cult classic given a few years for sure.

08. The Wolverine
While the theatrical cut was a fun blockbuster spectacle in its own right, what really won me over with this film is James Mangold's director's cut. While I have consistently believed that Hugh Jackman really nails the depiction of the X-Men's Logan, he has always been shorted by either his script (X-Men) or his director (X-Men Last Stand) or both (X-Men Origins). The Wolverine is what happens when Marvel's fare is given to competent hands behind the camera. Mangold took a great many pains to capture the essence of the story told by Claremont and Miller in Wolverine's first real adventure way back when and it shows, especially in its uncut form. We're given an unhinged Wolverine, that claws, eviscerates, dismembers, and decapitates his opponents in remorseless rage, and Jackman carries that well, balancing it with the cheekiness Logan's hordes of fans have come to expect from him. In the longer format, as well, we are given some better characterization and a pace that fits the overall film better, leagues better than anything else that has put Wolverine on screen in the past. It's worked some to help restore my faith in the superhero film, and I hope serve as a wake-up call to Marvel execs that its gallery of characters don't have to be neutered for ticket sales. A huge surprise, and one I will likely revisit many more times.

07. Mud
I have been closely following Jeff Nichols' career since his Shotgun Stories debuted with a powerhouse Michael Shannon performance. His latest, Mud, is another notch on his belt as adroit and adept director. I won't rehash the story, aside from saying it's about childhood, friendship, and redemption. General idioms of independent film making but which here eschew derivative drivel. The cast is excellent, especially newcomer Tye Sheridan who would like people that argue "children aren't capable of great acting" to either second guess themselves or simply stay quiet. His portrayal of the main character, Ellis, is both powerful and subtle, and he puts on the face of a veteran for each of his scenes where he's allowed to explore trauma, glee, disappointment, anguish, hope with more ability than many adult actors currently in Hollywood's a-list. McConaughey is also great here, my favorite role of his since Frailty. He consciously plays against type for the film's benefit. This is a picture that reminds me of why I love movies in the first place, and I can't recommend it enough.

06. Out of the Furnace
I would call Out of the Furnace Christian Bale's penance for that last Batman fiasco. While that movie had no heart, plot-holes miles wide, a cast that, Tom Hardy excluded, mostly phoned in their work, and some of the laziest direction I've seen in high profile blockbuster fare, Out of the Furnace is the exact opposite. Scott Cooper has crafted a dour masterpiece here, bottled up with rage and frustration, anxiety and a hatred of apathy. His eye is impeccable, shown by his locations and knack for scenery to match the script he penned with Brad Ingelsby. The cast is icing on the cake. Bale is a reserved force who keeps himself in check until the point where he's given up and Casey Affleck has never been so unhinged. The dynamic between the two is natural, and their chemistry builds even more credibility. Harrelson's villain is likely his most vile character to date, also completely off the chain, personifying the terrifying esoterica of the Appalachian meth culture. The supporting cast as well, deserve nods, whether that be Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Tom Bower, and especially Sam Shepard as the confidant and same time foil for Bales main character. It's a grim picture, with few happy moments, but that shouldn't deter people from checking it out, as doing so would be to miss out on a real gem of American film. We need more like, this, Hollywood, you'd do well to take notes.

05. Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers seemed to be destined to be nothing more than a clever schtick of casting former Disney kids as promiscuous, misanthropic party girls. But it's the principle cast here that makes the whole thing work. Each of the actresses embraces the insanity of the premise and lends their respective roles believability, but it's James Franco's portrayal of Alien that sells it. Never before has Franco been so over the top, gone so whole hog into a flick, or been so horribly creepy yet charismatically endearing and naive. The narrative might go over your head, considering it's stuffed to the brim with bright colors and trippy music and Gucci fucking Mane, but it's there, with plenty of substnace itself. Korine has a lot to say about the children of the 21st century, wealth and excess, but it's buried in order to commercialize its fare... and not to its detriment, either. The whole picture just works, as mind bogglingly ridiculous the notion might seem on paper.

04. Lords of Salem
I don't think Rob Zombie will ever make a movie better than Lords of Salem, which tops the Devil's Rejects in terms of maverick originality and an unflinching disregard for studio tropes. This is a slow burn tale of witchcraft, inspired heavily by the early works of Polanski, Kubrick, and Richard Donner. It is also the perfect vehicle for Sheri Moon to let us know just how much she's matured as an actress since her first appearance as Baby Firefly all those years back when Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses was a thing whispered about by genre fans thinking it'd never see the light of day, theatrical or otherwise. Lords of Salem is unrelenting in its grim tone and dour creepiness, crawling its way under your skin and unsettling you piecemeal minute by minute until the bat-shit insane ending. This is brilliant stuff, for sure: most "good" modern horror directors will go their entire careers never making a film this good.

03. The Counselor
What you get when you pair a veteran director with more style than substance with one of the most prolific American writers of the current time & give them a high profile cast of international actors. It's an experiment in dialog that works extremely well for some (me) and not so well for others (apparently everyone else that saw it). It's a contemporary western without horses or heroes that wants in no way to romanticize the drug war. Endlessly quotable lines uttered by morose characters of dubious morals in exotic and dangerous locales within the American southwest & Juarez, the most dangerous city in North America. I highly recommend it, regardless of what other critics have said, based on the strength of the writing and the delivery of the perfect cast alone, by Scott's stylish direction and eye for sets, moods, & theme are all bonuses on top of that.

02. Drug War
Johnny To's Drug War is an excellent police procedural pitting the wits of the police's star inspector against those of a cornered drug dealer trying to get out of a death sentence. Very much a movie made to highlight the talents of its cast, it is smartly scripted and avoids the politicking and propaganda that usually mar films from the Chinese mainland. To's direction is adeptly handled, proving him a veteran master as opposed to the John Woo inspired maverick he's been written off as in the past. Action is brutal and unflinching and nonromanticized. And mostly, it's the perfect vehicle for the resumes of its cast, namely Louis Koo and Sun Honglei, who both would be getting Oscar nods were this a bigger, more international production. 

01. Cheap Thrills
What can I say about Cheap Thrills? Well, to start it's the most fun I had in a theater in 2013. It's also the only film shown as part of SIFF that got me out of the house this year. Its story of a hard luck family man trying to make good may on paper conform to various genre tropes, but I guarantee no other thriller has delivered like this. It is both hilarious and morally ambiguous, dementedly misanthropic and full of satirical barbs and intellectual lampooning. A brilliant cast, with especially great turns from David Koechner and Pat Healy, never mind Sara Paxton and Ethan Embry, both who play completely against type. It's both a visceral comedy and sly thriller/drama, playing to each genre's strengths.

I want to also mention some other films I liked a great deal this year:

Man of Tai Chi, The Way Way Back, Bounty Killer, Junkie, American Mary, The Kings of Summer, Hellbenders, Zero Charisma, Only God Forgives, & We Are What We Are.

Some disappointments or wastes of talent altogether:

Evil Dead, The Last Stand, Pacific Rim, The Place Beyond the Pines, Antiviral, & Elysium.

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