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Column Fri Jan 03 2014

Steve at the Movies: Best Films of 2013

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I landed four shy of seeing 500 new films in 2013 (a personal best that includes a small number of restored-print screenings). As usual, I actually wait until a given year is completed before I finalize my "Best of..." list, because in the final few weeks of every year, I play a ferocious game of catch-up — revisiting films I've already seen to see if they are as good as I remember, as well as view a few works that I may have missed in the shuffle of the previous year. In the final two weeks of 2013, I watched about 20 films, a few of which landed on one of my two lists this time around.

So why 40 picks? I guess the best answer is, because I said so. Hell, last year I had a list of 50, and I promised myself this year I'd be more selective. But I still ended up with about 45 that I trimmed back for my own sanity. And why separate out documentaries? I love them so much, I want to get as many titles out there as possible. But I can tell you that my favorite doc pick would have easily landed in my Top 5 feature films' list if I combined the two. I firmly stand by the principle that if you watch each and every one of the 60 films on these two lists, you'll have a hell of a great time at the movies.

And for the first time ever, I'm skipping my annual Worst Of... list because I started to compile one, and the list got so long, I was losing perspective. I guess in one of the best years in recent film history, and in a year where the number of means of accessing movies is growing by the month, more shit made its way to the surface and my prying eyes.

Here's the other thing I'll ask of you. You certainly don't need my permission to disagree with my choice or order, but rather than simply crank out the usual "This is a bullshit list" response, be bold and counter with your own list. I eat up these end-of-year lists with a passion. I think they say more about a critic's tastes, biases, passions, etc., than their lengthy essays and dissertations about individual movies. Hopefully, you won't need to post your own; you'll think mine is perfect and just leave it at that. But if you're pissed that Iron Man 3 or Hunger Games: Catching Fire or A Haunted House isn't on my list, put it on one that you slap together.

I've included blurbs to go with my top 10 picks (most of which are picked up from my original reviews). And please keep in mind that, although I labeled this list "Best of," it only represents my favorite films of 2013. Again, tell me yours if you think I'm way off. Thanks and enjoy.

10. 12 Years a Slave

An extraordinary film that may simply be too much for some to handle. Yes there is violence, but I was more overtaken by the overwhelming sense of despair and the grim, unbelievable reality of this man's situation. Director Steve McQueen spares us nothing. The language will make you flinch, the attitudes about the worth of a slave's life are beyond troubling, and the severity of the violence can get damn near unbearable at times. But the cumulative impact is undeniable. McQueen is going for authenticity, not shock value. It just so happens that the reality is terribly shocking. And at the center of it all is the noble Chiwetel Ejiofor, who isn't tasked with playing a slave; he must play a free man pretending to be a slave, pretending to be uneducated, pretending to be illiterate. This is a man who has spent much of his adult life being able to walk down the street and have people say hello to him or shake his hand. Nothing in his life has prepared him to take on this existence, but he holds on because he firmly believes that sanity will take hold in the world long enough for him to get free.

9. Drug War

The great Hong Kong director Johnnie To brings us this meticulously crafted story of a a drug cartel boss who is arrested and coerced into betraying his former accomplices as part of an undercover operation. To is an absolute master at staging complicated, large-scale action sequences that spare nothing when it comes to violence and compromised moral choices. Louis Koo as the drug lord is especially strong as the man who would sell out his grandmaster to avoid the death penalty; he's one of the year's great villains, and fans of blazing battles and blood spatter should start lining up to own this movie now.

8. The Way, Way Back

In a year of exceptional, mature coming-of-age films, this one stood out because it handled its humor and serious moments with equal reverence. The pacing and tone are flawless, and the performances are across-the-board wonderful. Alison Janney is at her screechy, inappropriate best; Amanda Peet is a nasty, manipulative weasel; Maya Rudolph is the perfect mother hen for the water park; and San Rockwell just steals the show in the best possible way as the lead boy's mentor and confidante. Most importantly, writers-director Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are smart not to make Duncan whiny or pathetic; he's just socially awkward but not permanently broken as a good person. I adored this little movie, and I have complete confidence you will as well.

7. The World's End

If you're cruising around 35 to 45 years old, there are parts in this movie that are simply going to hit you hard over the head and in the heart, whether it be the supremely wonderful soundtrack selections or the themes of growing older in a world where staying younger is as much a benefit as it is a detriment. As much as I hope Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost continue to collaborate down the road, The World's End closes a chapter in their working relationship, while leaving the door open for more thoughtful work (together and separately) down the road. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

Scenes will repeat themselves in your head. They'll get in there because of the nudity and sex and partying that surrounds them, but they'll stay there because there's something else going on, and bigger questions and issues being raised. It's a remarkable film that frankly needs its epic length to drive its difficult themes home and give room for these remarkable performances to breathe and grow to grotesque proportions. This film is so strong, it makes me scared at how much better Scorsese might still get.

5. Inside Llewyn Davis

The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac's work: he's been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. The film is easily one of the best you'll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don't try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.

4. Short Term 12

If this story had been placed in the hands of any other director, the temptation would have been to put the spotlight on the kids in this group foster home, all of whom have fascinating stories behind what brought them there and the progress they've made since arriving. But here, writer-director Destin Cretton actually held a counselor job at a facility similar to the one in his movie, and he chooses to give slightly more weight to the barely older folks looking after these wayward youths — some of whom have been placed there because they may be harmful to themselves or others, some because there's simply no one else to take care of them. And though you won't believe it because it may seem like the film is the heaviest, most depressing thing you've ever heard of, it's really funny throughout, especially when the counselors get together and tell wonderful stories about their work. Laughter and tears: how could you want anything more? This is not only one of the true discoveries of the year, but simply one of the best films you'll see in 2013.

3. Before Midnight

Every look, every step, every raised or lowered voice is absolutely right in Richard Linklater's film. It's as if we're seeing these moments as they were originally lived, and I can't think of another film or series of films where that is the case to this degree. With something this exquisite and raw, you need to just step right in and let it either embrace you or slap you across the face — ideally both.

2. Gravity

My first thought after seeing Alfonso CuarĂ³n's latest masterwork remains the one that has stuck in my brain (and I've saw the film a second time on the IMAX screen, which only served to amplify my initial thought). And the simplest way of describing it is: I've never seen anything like it in a movie theater in my life. I suppose there are many ways of interpreting that statement — some even negative. But let's not be silly or cynical. Gravity is one of those benchmark films that stands alone in its greatness, elegance and seamless means of blending the real with the artificial to make it all look genuine in its portrayal of space travel in all its beauty, danger and sheer loneliness.

1. Her

Writer-director Spike Jonze is an eternal optimist; he's a spirit guide through a great deal of pain, but he usually brings us out of such a gauntlet with some amount of hope, if not outright happiness. Her is a magnificent story of a kind of love; it somehow manages to be utterly original, while clinging to conventional romantic ideas about soul mates, desire and the resulting bliss. There's an immaculate grace to the film that will both haunt me and fill me with joy every time I watch or even think of it. Prepare to be moved.

And here's the rest of the best.

11. Upstream Color
12. The Past
13. American Hustle
14. Nebraska
15. Blue Is the Warmest Color
16. Fruitvale Station
17. A Touch of Sin
18. The Wind Rises
19. The Spectacular Now
20. The Conjuring

21. Beyond the Hills
22. Big Bad Wolves
23. Mud
24. Pacific Rim
25. The Hunt
26. This Is the End
27. Dallas Buyers Club
28. Spring Breakers
29. The Place Beyond the Pines
30. All Is Lost

31. Philomena
32. A Single Shot
33. Blue Jasmine
34. Enough Said
35. Frances Ha
36. Don Jon
37. Stoker
38. Prince Avalanche
39. A Hijacking
40. Side Effects

20 Best Documentaries of 2013

As good a year as it was for feature films, it was an even better year for documentaries. This list could have easily been twice as long, but I've always kept it at 20, so let's keep to that tradition. Hell, any year we get two Alex Gibney films has got to be a great one. Read on...

1. Stories We Tell

This is one of the most elegant, funny, revealing, intelligent and moving films (documentary or not) that you will see all year. It goes to the heart of who we are as a planet of storytellers and digs deep into why we remember certain details of an incident, while other critical details simply escape our memory without reason. The film also reveals something so special about its maker, actor-director Sarah Polley, that you come away feeling closer to her in a way that so rarely happens in the moviegoing experience anymore that it almost feels other worldly. This is one of the great ones.

2. The Act of Killing
3. Blackfish
4. Leviathan
5. Let the Fire Burn
6. After Tiller
7. A Band Called Death
8. 20 Feet from Stardom
9. The Unknown Known
10. Inequality For All

11. The Gatekeepers
12. The Trials of Muhammad Ali
13. Spinning Plates
14. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
15. We Steal Secrets
16. The Punk Singer
17. 56 Up
18. Room 237
19. The Armstrong Lie
20. Good Ol' Freda

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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