Let the top 10-a-palooza commence! Over the next couple weeks, Paul and I will be looking back at our favorite things of 2013. First up, films; next week, TV series; and finally, comics. As always, these lists are imperfect and incomplete, reflecting only on what we’ve seen and love at the moment. Or as Paul writes:
I intentionally refer to the films on this list as favorites, not best. I rank films based on how much I enjoyed them, for whatever ephemeral or esoteric reasons unique to me, not on some system of objective filmmaking truths. These are the ten films I liked the most. YMMV.
Regarding omissions, neither of us have been able to see Inside Llewyn Davis, which makes me want to die, but oh well. I also haven’t seen The Great Beauty, Cutie and the Boxer, or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, among others. Meanwhile, Paul hasn’t gotten around to Her, The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, Short Term 12, or Blue Jasmine, to name a few.
Here we go!
PAUL: 10. WARM BODIES (dir. Jonathan Levine)
The zombie genre is by this point a bloated undead thing feasting on its own rotting flesh. But director Jonathan Levine (50/50) makes this adaptation of Isaac Marion’s novel fresh, fun, and full of life. Yes it’s a (very) thinly veiled Romeo and Juliet pastiche, but the two leads, neo-nerdhunk Nicholas Hoult and Australian beauty Teresa Palmer, are both engaging and committed. Hoult in particular gets praise for being monstrous and vulnerable, and for selling the cheesy-but-hilarious voiceover with nothing more than his eyes. Also, Rob Corddry as a zombie lamenting, “Bitches, man,” is the best comedic line delivery of the year.
AJ: 10. GIMME THE LOOT (dir. Adam Leon)
You walk out of Gimme the Loot immediately wanting to know what first-time writer-director Adam Leon is going to do next. His voice is sharp and fresh, chronicling a day in the life of two teenaged petty criminals in a way that feels authentic but never gritty. His Bronx streets are unvarnished, rife with economic and class divisions, but there’s so much damn heart. Newcomers Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson give performances devoid of pomp or flash; they simply find the souls of these two aimless kids. They’re one of the most affecting screen duos in recent memory, in one of the biggest surprises of the year.
PAUL: 9. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (dir. Alan Taylor)
2011’s Thor has perhaps lost some of its luster in the last couple of years of reflection. But the follow-up, directed by Game of Thrones alum Alan Taylor, takes everything that was good about the original and dials it up to eleven. In the wake of the ensemble fun of The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth feels much more confident in his own cape than perhaps he did the first time around, and thus is able to command the screen with a little more presence. Tom Hiddleston is back of course, this time as less of an overt villain, though he is still every bit the Trickster god he’s always been. The chemistry between the two actors, the brotherly love/hate relationship, is on its own reason to enjoy the film. But the action is bigger and better, with much more attention given to the realm of Asgard, and a final battle that is inventive and brutal enough to make up for a lackluster Big Bad. Watching Mjolnir scream back and forth across space trying to keep up with its master as Thor is tossed from one interdimensional portal to another is a sight teenage me reading the classic Walt Simonson comics run (on which much of this film is loosely based) could only have ever dreamed of seeing. And the end sets up some very interesting possibilities for the franchise going forward.
AJ: 9. PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER (dirs. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin)
The three members of Russian art collective Pussy Riot featured in A Punk Prayer were recently freed, but it’s absolutely still worth watching this documentary to find out why they were given incredibly harsh sentences for their peaceful protest of Putin and the Church. Blame the government’s willingness to silence its critics and the citizens who eat up righteous condemnation every night on TV. These women dressed in balaclavas and slinging electric guitars are one of the most potent political statements of the last decade, and this is a fine tribute to their unique form of protest.
PAUL: 8. GRAVITY (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Director Alfonso Cuarón had a lot to live up to following his last feature film, 2006’s Children of Men. Not sure how many would claim that he has done so here, but for my part, Gravity was one of the most visually and technically stunning pictures of the last several years. Time will tell how well the wonder of it translates to home viewing, as even the most extravagant of home theater systems can’t possibly capture the jaw-dropping wonder of seeing this in IMAX 3D. But seen in that particular format, I can tell you that it was hands down the most tense and terrifying movie experience I’ve had in a while. And the fact that there are layers, little hidden threads of detail that may or may not be there, that encourage me to look closer, to dig deeper than just the surface spectacle, to discuss what some of it may mean, ensures that I’ll continue thinking about this film long after the “event” of its release fades away.
AJ: 8. BLUE JASMINE (dir. Woody Allen)
Sometimes we have to wait years and years for the next great Woody Allen picture, but this time we only had to wait two. After the terrific Midnight in Paris, Woody bombed with From Rome with Love, but now he’s bounced back with one worthy of his pantheon. Jasmine and Ginger had the same adoptive parents, but Jasmine was the one with the “good genes” who grew up into a platinum blonde beauty seduced by a rich man. That rich man spearheaded a Ponzi scheme, though, and now Jasmine has to come crawling to Ginger for help. She’s not well; the various crises in her life have driven her to a nervous breakdown, often consumed by thoughts of the life she used to live, the film jumping back-and-forth through time to follow her. She talks to anyone who will listen to her story, and if she can’t find anyone, she’ll talk to herself. As Jasmine, Cate Blanchett is tremendous, delivering a brilliant portrait of vanity and an even better one of mental illness. As Ginger, Sally Hawkins is sweet and caring and all those things one expects of Sally Hawkins. Blue Jasmine is sad and funny and one of Allen’s best.
PAUL: 7. AMERICAN HUSTLE (dir. David O. Russell)
Dismissed by some as “Faux-sese,” a crass attempt by director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) to imitate Martin Scorsese (whose own period piece of excess The Wolf of Wall Street came out just five days after Russell’s). I’m not a fine enough Scorsese connoisseur to confirm or deny that. But I can tell you that of the two pictures in question, this is the one I had the most fun watching. For one thing, it’s not 18 1/2 hours long. I’ve long said that in my opinion the longer a film the better. I’ve watched all 12+ hours of the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions in a single viewing. More than once.
But Wolf just felt too bloated and indulgent to me. Hustle moved better, and crackled in ways that held me much more. Christian Bale’s performance as conman Irving Rosenfeld was humorous, harried, and sympathetic, though his combover should have at least equal billing. Amy Adams was great. Bradley Cooper was smarmy. Jennifer Lawrence was, as always, a flawless treasure. And any movie with Jack Huston gets automatic consideration for my top 10 list. Also, second best soundtrack of the entire year.
AJ: 7. FRUITVALE STATION (dir. Ryan Coogler)
Later on in this list, Paul’s going to talk a few times about how many hours he spent sobbing in a movie theater last year. Lest you think he’s alone in that, I present to you Fruitvale Station AKA AJ Openly Sobbing for 85 Minutes. The film seeks to put a human face on a well-publicized tragedy, and boy, does it ever. As Oscar Grant, played with no small amount of humanity by Michael B. Jordan, moves inexorably to his death by police officer, you watch as he makes his bed for the last time, sees his mom for the last time, hugs his little girl for the last time. The film isn’t maudlin, though. At a time when a man can still be shot because of the color of his skin, Fruitvale Station is a powerful reminder of how valuable all of our lives are.
PAUL: 6. SAVING MR. BANKS (dir. John Lee Hancock)
Mary Poppins is one of my all-time favorite films. I adore Tom Hanks, particularly in these kinds of roles (here he plays Walt Disney, not someone facing impossible life-threatening odds). And there’s very little I enjoy more than being made to sob myself sick by a film. It’s weird, and possibly masochistic, but there it is. So, all that taken into consideration, it’s really not surprising that Saving Mr. Banks, the more-or-less true story of how Disney came to acquire the rights to the Poppins material from creator P.L. Travers, ranks so high on my list. I’m less concerned with nitpicking the finer details of accuracy (some events are fictionalized, some characters conflated, some artistic license granted, though I believe it’s far more true to fact than a lot of critics claim). My concern here is that I had a good time watching the film, and the fact that it made me weep openly around perfect strangers almost more than any other film this year (more on that further down the list) makes this one of my favorites.
AJ: 6. THE ACT OF KILLING (dirs. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and anonymous)
Bizarre. Terrifying. Surreal. Lynchian. These are not words you often use to describe a documentary, but in the case of The Act of Killing, they are more than apt. It’s a sprawling three-hour examination of the killers who murdered half-a-million “communists” following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government. If you’re from the West, you will experience severe culture shock as you witness how celebrated and revered these mass murderers are, particularly Anwar Congo, who is reported to have killed more than a thousand men by himself. They are protected by their corrupt government and go on talk shows where the audience applauds the blood on their hands. Oppenheimer, Cynn, and their co-director (remaining anonymous to avoid retribution) give the killers the opportunity to make short films about their muders, and the results are as haunting as you would expect. At one point, Congo wonders what his victims must have felt. It’s the first time he’s ever considered such a thing.
PAUL: 5. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (dir. Joss Whedon)
William Whedon. Joss Shakespeare. They’re both funny. They both kill people. And they both love black-and-white. The surprise is that it took so long for them to come together. But it was worth the wait, as Much Ado About Nothing is practically perfect, for what it is. Bringing together a gaggle of actors who, let’s be honest, in most cases had already spent years playing very Shakespearean characters in Joss’ prior film and television work, this production captures the wit, camp, and chaos of the source material. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker will likely be the definitive Benedick and Beatrice for the foreseeable future.
AJ: 5. THE WORLD’S END (dir. Edgar Wright)
It’s not just the world that’s ending; so is Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, which began with the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead, continued with the buddy cop homage Hot Fuzz, and here comes to an apocalyptic conclusion. In each, Wright examines the bond between his Spaced actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; this time, their roles have been reversed, with Pegg the emotionally stunted man-child and Frost the proper adult. That raises the question, though, of just what in the hell a proper adult is expected to do. The World’s End is about fighting for your right to be human and an individual and to fuck up. The conclusion it reaches is as genius as it is open to interpretation.
PAUL: 4. IRON MAN 3 (dir. Shane Black)
Controversial opinion time: I feel that Iron Man 3 might be the best of the Marvel Studios films. Aside from The Avengers, of course; let’s not get crazy. But coming on the heels of that film, IM3 deals at least in part with the psychological fallout Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) faces from his experiences fighting the alien invasion of New York and his almost-but-not-quite suicide run through the portal into alien space. He suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic superhero disorder) and has completely immersed himself in the design and construction of suits and technology as a way to keep his mind distracted. This pays off in dramatic fashion in the final climactic battle, the so-called House Party Protocol sequence, which stands as one of my favorite action set pieces of the year. But it also serves to keep him removed somewhat from humanity, his own and that of his loved ones. So he struggles to discover and nurture his own humanity, his worth as a man more than as a gear in the machines he creates. And he has to face the consequences of his inhumanity from years ago, before he ever became Iron Man. Some criticize director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) for indulging his storytelling clichés, but I wasn’t bothered by any of that. The story is engaging and interesting, and I appreciate where it takes the characters, the stage it sets for the future of the series. And it doesn’t hurt at all that Pepper Potts gets to power up and kick some ass. In her sports bra.
AJ: 4. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (dir. Martin Scorsese)
In which Scorsese offers his grand indictment of capitalism and how thoroughly it’s perverted the American Dream; in which Leonardo DiCaprio finally shatters his matinée idol image into a million fucking pieces; and in which so much sex is had, so many drugs are consumed, and so many taboos are broken that the limits of taste are pushed and prodded from every angle. Scorsese fights excess with excess, creating a wildly self-indulgent film which seeks to tear down not only real-life stock market monsters like Jordan Belfort but the culture which allows him to thrive. DiCaprio is even more insane than he was as the cruel slave master in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, giving the kind of towering, go-for-broke performance most actors never approach. The film itself is at turns thrilling, exhausting, disturbing, hilarious. It is much too long and far too short. Here’s to hoping Scorsese has a few more movies this good in him. I bet he does.
PAUL: 3. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (dir. Francis Lawrence)
The first film in this trilogy (actually quadrilogy) was good, not great. It starred Jennifer Lawrence, which was good. It was directed by Gary Ross, which was not great. The sequel still features Lawrence, who is now beyond good to amazing, but is directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation), who is a vast improvement. In addition to the two Lawrences, the returning cast significantly ups their game from the first round. In particular, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta really acquits himself well this time, making up for a somewhat unremarkable performance in the previous film. Woody Harrelson gets to show some more depth to the drunkard Haymitch. Donald Sutherland gets to be much, much more menacing as President Snow. Even Elizabeth Banks’ previously vapid Effie Trinket shows character growth, perhaps the most significant of the returning cast. But it’s the newcomers that most will remember. Sam Claflin as the “peacock” victor Finnick moves ably from “he’s so obnoxious I can’t wait to see Katniss kill him” to “please don’t let anything happen to poor Finnick.” Most have been reserving praise for Philip Seymour Hoffman as new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. He’s great, and he’ll have even more scenery to pretend he’s not chewing in the next two films. But my VIP really is Hutcherson’s Peeta. His quiet resolve and willingness to be the one not chosen sells the story.
AJ: 3. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (dir. Joss Whedon)
After principal photography wrapped on The Avengers, Joss Whedon had a month of downtime before getting back to work on that superhero extravaganza. Instead of, I don’t know, maybe finally catching some Zs, Whedon’s restless creative mind turned to a long-time passion project: an adapation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Over the next 30 days, Whedon banged out the script, brought together a cast consisting of friends and frequent collaborators, and shot the whole thing in his own home. As anyone familiar with his genre mish-mashing would expect, Whedon brings the Bard to life in wonderfully witty modern dress; many of the best actors from his other projects take to their parts with relish, like Dollhouse‘s Fran Kranz and Reed Diamond, Firefly‘s Nathan Fillion, and The Avengers‘ Clark Gregg; and goddamn, the man has a nice house. As Paul already said, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are absolutely fantastic, evoking not only Shakespeare’s spirit but that of the classic screwballs. A warm, fizzy, funny movie.
PAUL: 2. FROZEN (dirs. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)
It took 53 tries to hit upon this version of “true love’s kiss,” but Disney finally figured out that not every princess needs a prince to rescue her. Frozen, based loosely on the The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, is a wonder of subverted tropes, gasp-inducing twists (seriously, I’ve seen it multiple times and there’s always at least one audience member who audibly gasps at one particular revelation), and stunning, icy beauty. At this point it’s really not a surprise that new technological advances push the artistry of every big-budget film that comes out, but the animation department developed a system for bringing the frozen landscapes of the kingdom of Arendelle to life down to the fractals of individual snowflakes. And the refraction and color filters of Queen Elsa’s ice palace are truly amazing. There’s a handsome prince with a unique story arc. The “best friend” this time isn’t a talking animal, but in fact a guy. A normal guy. Who talks for his reindeer companion. There is a talking snowman, who despite accusations of crass commercialism or clumsy third-grade humor (kids will see this, by the way), could actually quite realistically be considered the single most important and effective heroic character in the film. And the soundtrack feels less Saturday morning cartoon touchy-feely than perhaps some modern Disney has become; it’s more a projected-to-the-rafters Broadway powerhouse à la Wicked. But most importantly, as I said at the top, the heartwarming, ice-melting “true love’s kiss” twist of this film is the real magic. Multiple viewings and it still brings tears to my eyes.
AJ: 2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (dir. Steve McQueen)
From Vulture’s interview with director Steve McQueen: “In the history of cinema, he said, there have been fewer than twenty movies made about slavery.” Wikipedia disagrees, but not by a whole hell of a lot. It’s not hyperbole to say that 12 Years a Slave is easily the best of them, but it’s shocking how few films have broached the topic. Which makes 12 Years all the more valuable. It’s one thing to say slavery is bad; it’s another entirely to understand what that means. McQueen’s film pulls no punches in depicting the barbarity and cruelty of slavery, and of how completely it erodes the soul. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career as Solomon Northup, a real man who was born free but drugged and kidnapped into slavery. What’s most striking about the film is its humanity; Solomon clings to every bit of his identity as if holding on to a lifeboat. Likewise, Michael Fassbender’s slave owner is a monster, but a terrifyingly human one. This is not an easy film to watch, and one that some viewers won’t be able to finish. But I’m very, very glad we have it.
PAUL: 1. ABOUT TIME (dir. Richard Curtis)
Young Tim, a lovelorn lad, is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men of their family have the ability to travel through time, and he decides to use this amazing gift to find himself a girlfriend. That is what the trailers would’ve told you about this charming little romantic comedy with a sci-fi twist, assuming you’d actually seen the trailers, which I get the impression virtually no one did. But it hardly matters, because like all the best science fiction, and much of the great romances, it’s not about what you think it’s about. There are moments of awkward, fumbling romance, which do indeed lead to laughter and squirming and characters misunderstanding each other. But none of that ever goes where you expect, where other standards of the genre would take it. And yes, the sci-fi conceit of time travel actually happens, quite often, truth be told. Likewise, it doesn’t play out the way you imagine it will. It never becomes the MacGuffin it so easily could be. This film has two charismatic leads, Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, who woo and worry and wonder, but never succumb to clichés, and seem all the more real for the lack. It’s a love story, yes, and it’s a sci-fi story. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about time. The time we have, the time the ones we love have, the time we share. Critically, it’s about what time means to us. And it’s a film about making me sob out loud in a theater full of strangers. It found an inner turmoil I had no idea I even had and pulled it out of my chest and beat me about the head and shoulders with it. In the most sincere and loving way, of course. This one isn’t for everyone. It hasn’t made very many (any?) critics’ top 10 lists, and I’m insane for making the smallest, most unassuming, mundane-looking film of the year my number one pick. But it’s the film that moved me the most, and left me the most rattled and contemplative after walking out of the theater. By my admittedly warped criteria, that makes it the film that I enjoyed the most in 2013.
AJ: 1. HER (dir. Spike Jonze)
We’ve talked a lot about humanity on this list. It seems obvious, but that’s such a crucial component for storytellers; whether that humanity is good, evil, or somewhere in between, it needs to be present. So many films lack humanity. They fall off the assembly line, soulless chunks of corporate product, making little impact and soon to be forgotten. The films on this list don’t do that. They make you think about what it means to exist, to be alive, to be a wonderful, awful, crazy, normal human being. No film did that this year like Her. It’s ironic in a way: Samantha literally falls off an assembly line, an operating system which has a mind of its own and can become your companion. Theodore Twombly, who makes his living by writing heartfelt letters for customers who can’t express their own emotions, is still getting over his divorce. He buys an OS, inputs some basic information, and boom, suddenly there she is (or isn’t), scouring his e-mails and private documents, knowing who he is better than anyone or anything else on the planet.
It’s not just a clever spin on how we relate to our many, many devices here in the 21st century. Her is about the irreconcilable differences between any two people, about whether or not, as Scott Tobias puts it, “love can transcend the body.” Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, and the first written solely by himself, has no easy answers. The chaotic madness of his Charlie Kaufman-scripted films isn’t here, though; there’s a simplicity and straightforwardness, with a sincerity that makes the whole thing ache. The performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are nothing short of remarkable. They’re so good it’s almost difficult to describe how good they are. They just exist, as full of life and love and joy and heartbreak as any two movie characters you’ll ever encounter. Her made me happy in the way that only truly great films do.
No top 10 list is ever really complete, so here are some more movies we felt deserved mention…
PAUL would like to give a shout-out to Europa Report, Monsters University, Now You See Me, Oblivion, Sound City, Spring Breakers, This Is the End, Upstream Color, The Way Way Back, and The Wolverine.
AJ requests a round of applause for Behind the Candelabra, Berberian Sound Studio, Blackfish, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Captain Phillips, Don Jon, The Place Beyond the Pines, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell, and Upstream Color.