Friday, January 17, 2014

Beyond 2013

This has been, by far, my weirdest ranking year ever.

Since this post is going to contain a ton of list activity, why don't I start with a list of what has made this year so weird:

1. I moved to Australia in August.

2. My second son was born just over two weeks ago.

3. Half the prestige films getting nominations (and already winning awards) have not even been released yet where I live.

4. Yet somehow, I still ranked more movies this year than I ever have before: 128, beating my previous high by a whopping seven films.

It's #3 that has been the most difficult for me to grapple with. The last time Martin Scorsese made a movie that I didn't get to rank in its release year, it was Kundun in 1997. (Still haven't seen it.) The last time Alexander Payne made a movie that I didn't get to rank in its release year, it was Citizen Ruth in 1996. Yet this year I can rank neither The Wolf of Wall Street nor Nebraska, because neither has been released in Australia, and Nebraska still has more than a month to go before hitting theaters.

This seems like a good time to list the other movies I most regret not seeing in time to rank them, a section I usually save until after my list. In alphabetical order:

All is Lost
Blue is the Warmest Color 
Labor Day
The Past
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
12 Years a Slave

Only Walter Mitty can I blame on my son, for limiting my ability to get to the theater since he's been born. The rest are still awaiting their Australian release date. And thank goodness Her and Inside Llewyn Davis both had a January 16th release date, meaning I had a chance to watch them before my deadline, the announcement of the Oscar nominations some 12 hours later. Otherwise, this list would be even longer.

I suppose it's appropriate, then, that my #1 film of 2013 isn't even from 2013, if you count its initial release in its country of origin. That's something I haven't done since I made the 1998 German release Run Lola Run my #1 movie of 1999, and it's something I've said I would try to avoid doing at all costs. (That makes it hard on foreign releases, but A Separation slipped in two years ago because it happened to be released in both Iran and the U.S. in the same year.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First I'd like to change up the format a little bit on this post, which in the past has included just my rankings from #1 to #whatever. This year, I'm going to count down my top ten and my bottom five, with a short blurb on each. So let's finally get to that:

10. Prince Avalanche - One of the biggest surprises in my top ten, especially considering my less-than-stellar history with David Gordon Green. This story of two guys refurbishing Texas roads after a series of devastating fires in what would appear to be the late 1980s is quirky, oddball, and moving when it wants to be. I loved the atypical performances submitted by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, finding them eccentric in all the right ways. As often as I was reminded of something like a milder version of Napoleon Dynamite, I was also reminded of cinema's great melancholy stories of post apocalypse. It left me in a dreamy stupor with a smile on my face.

9. Gravity - The only film I saw twice in the theater this year, and I believe the first film I've seen twice in the theater since Cloverfield way back in 2008. If I'd seen it only once, it might have been even higher on my list, but the second viewing awakened me to the story problems I was content to overlook during the wondrous spell cast over me on my initial IMAX 3D viewing. (On the world's third largest IMAX screen, no less.) Alfonso Cuaron's technical marvel is quite possibly one of my ten most awe-striking theater experiences of all time -- a near perfect simulation of life in space, complete with the impossible camera tricks that are his trademark. That certainly makes it one of my ten best films of 2013.

8. Gimme the Loot - Because Cinema Romantico's Nick Prigge had this film among his top ten of 2012, I considered it off limits -- until the end of this year rolled around, and critics began throwing it some 2013 love. I watched Adam Leon's film less than a week ago and fell in love myself. Rarely have I seen the lives of urban youths (two Queens graffiti artists who want to tag a landmark at the New York Mets' ballpark) portrayed with both an acknowledgment of life's miseries and hardships, and an intoxicating joie de vivre that makes the journey downright bouncy in its sense of optimism. And as in the aforementioned Mr. Cuaron's classic Children of Men, the male half of the pair goes around most of the movie without any shoes.

7. Spring Breakers - A lot has been written about why to like or not like Spring Breakers, but I'll just offer this inarguable piece of reasoning: It's the 2013 film I've spent the most time thinking about, and that has to count for something. The reason I chewed over Harmony Korine's film so much has something to do with a personal affinity for seeing the following dramatized: the familiar phenomenon of staying somewhere past the point where it has ceased to provide you that ephemeral emotional peak. No 2013 movie gave a more dreamy (and sometimes critical, maybe, sort of) glimpse of that high, and a more thudding sense of its toxic aftermath. The film's constant duality is expressed perfectly in its signature song by Skrillex, in the title alone but in the music as well: "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites."

6. What Maisie Knew - I don't know how much of the giddy five stars I allotted to What Maisie Knew after seeing it in September was the result of the film really being amazing, or just my jaw dropping so much at the performance of then 6-year-old Onata Aprile. And then I don't know how much credit to give Aprile for the most astonishingly naturalistic performance I've seen from a child actor in years, and how much to give to her directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Then there's the impressive fact that this modern-day movie is an adaptation of an 1897 Henry James novel. Rarely has the plight of a girl being passed around between two unfit parents and their unwitting significant others been so terribly poignant.

5. Berberian Sound Studio - This has been the most determined climber in my top ten since I first ranked it a couple weeks ago. If I weren't closing these rankings now, #1 might have to watch its back. I was quite simply spellbound by Peter Strickland's psychological horror -- one of the most effective I've seen in years -- of a mousy British sound engineer (Toby Jones) hired to supervise the sound design of a grisly 1970s Italian horror movie (think Dario Argento). You never see the actual film he's working on (with the wonderful title The Equestrian Vortex), but the things you hear -- vegetables being wantonly chopped and smashed, blood curdling screams of actresses -- give you a clear picture of why this man is losing his sanity.

4. Stories We Tell - In a year where The Act of Killing was endlessly lauded for breaking down the documentary form, the documentarian making truly unorthodox choices was a sometimes actress and fiction filmmaker: Sarah Polley. As the Canadian walks us through interviews with her family members, both known and heretofore unknown, in discovering the true identity of her birth father, she also entirely reimagines ways of telling us the story, including impeccably crafted stagings of imaginary 8 mm home videos from her youth. It's both touching and incredibly creative, and if Polley hadn't become a tad redundant by going on for ten minutes too long, this remarkable film would be even higher on my list.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coens' best film since Fargo. It's been less than 12 hours since I saw it and I'm still processing, but one thing I loved: noting that Llewyn Davis' travels seemed like those of Homer's The Odyssey (even more so than in the Coens' similarly music-themed O Brother Where Art Thou?), and then learning that the Gorfeins' cat -- the symbol of Davis' soul -- is named Ulysses. Resembling a young Al Pacino, Oscar Isaac plays Davis as a lonely traveler indeed, as the unlucky folk singer's episodic interludes go from comic to sardonic to just plain spooky. Everyone is on a lonely, wintry journey, the film seems to say. Some people are going somewhere. Others are going nowhere. It's my third favorite film of the year even though I'm not sure I understand the ending. Googling should help with that.

2. Before Midnight - The two previous films in this series indulged in a fantasy. Before Midnight brings things crashing back to reality for Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) -- even while existing in arguably the most gorgeous setting of the three films. What connected me so much to this film is not just that it finds its characters addressing the challenges that deteriorate even the happiest of marriages, but that it isn't sure things are ultimately going to turn out alright for the hopeless romantics we've loved for 18 years. I'm a husband, and I know I live with that fear every day. I also loved the one formal departure of this movie from its predecessors, the scene where life and love are discussed among three generations around the dinner table, against the Aegean Sea. Richard Linklater is a writer-director who thrives on ideas, and for this 15-minute scene, he just lets them flow.

1. Beyond the Hills - Okay, so I already ruined the surprise. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu can do no wrong in my eyes, having directed the near-perfect 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (my #2 of 2008), and following that up with this, the most beautifully composed film I have seen in several years. Mungiu is a master of what to show, what not to show, and how to arrange shapes and figures in the frame, all of which is in service of trying to help us figure out what could have or should have happened at a Romanian convent during an attempted exorcism. The surface pleasures of Mungiu's craft, the performances of his leads and the unanswerable questions about love and faith at the film's core made me love it. But realizing that it also functions as metaphor for a terrible breakup, where the dumper destroys the dumpee by trying to be nice about it and complete the breakup in "let's be friends" half measures, made me declare it my favorite of the year.

And now my five worst of the year:

5. The Hangover Part III - I don't know why I expected an uptick in the fortunes of the Hangover series after the execrable second entry -- maybe it was the decision to return to Las Vegas. If Todd Phillips' concluding chapter is better than The Hangover Part II, it's by such a small margin that it's not even worth mentioning. This time the big mistake is one of tone, as we get a violent thriller more than a comedy. Good riddance, Wolfpack.

4. Black Rock - This feminist restaging of Deliverance just gets worse the more I think about it. It's a truly clunky and brainless creation, which is all the more shocking given the track record of screenwriter Mark Duplass and director and star Katie Aselton, his wife. The characters in this one may as well be cardboard cutouts, and the final showdown is downright laughable. 

3. Movie 43 - I would have been within my rights to rank this last among all the movies I saw this year; that's just how dumb this omnibus comedy film is. The only reason it's only third worst movie is that I applaud the effort, which attracted more actors who should know better (such as Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts) than you can shake a stick at. I also may have laughed once, which would be one more time than ...

2. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - Comedies rarely get more inept than this. I've hated Steve Carell plenty of times at the movies before -- Get Smart and Dan in Real Life come quickly to mind -- but rarely has he seemed to phone one as much as he does here. Even Jim Carrey, a personal favorite, couldn't bring a smile to my face.

1. Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive may not be the worst film of the year, but it's certainly the most pointless. And when a film is this brutal, violent and nihilistic, pointlessness is a grave sin indeed.

And now my complete list:

1. Beyond the Hills
2. Before Midnight
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Stories We Tell
5. Berberian Sound Studio
6. What Maisie Knew
7. Spring Breakers
8. Gimme the Loot
9. Gravity
10. Prince Avalanche
11. Fruitvale Station
12. Warm Bodies
13. Upstream Color
14. Oz the Great and Powerful
15. The Great Gatsby
16. Jack the Giant Slayer
17. Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012
18. A Band Called Death
19. Frances Ha
20. Side Effects
21. Her
22. How I Live Now
23. The Butler
24. 42
25. Maniac
26. Blancanieves
27. Much Ado About Nothing
28. Twenty Feet From Stardom
29. The Bling Ring
30. This is the End
31. Pacific Rim
32. Mud
33. In the House
34. Blackfish
35. Elysium
36. The Silence
37. Monsters University
38. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
39. Ender's Game
40. Mama
41. The Sapphires
42. This is Martin Bonner
43. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
44. Enough Said
45. Computer Chess
46. No
47. It's a Disaster
48. Captain Phillips
49. To the Wonder
50. As I Lay Dying
51. Don Jon
52. The Conjuring
53. American Hustle
54. Sightseers
55. Frozen
56. The History of Future Folk
57. Prisoners
58. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
59. Drug War
60. The Place Beyond the Pines
61. Safe Haven
62. Blue Jasmine
63. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
64. The Act of Killing
65. The Last Stand
66. Europa Report
67. Star Trek Into Darkness
68. Pain & Gain
69. Ain't Them Bodies Saints
70. Salinger
71. The Call
72. World War Z
73. Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
74. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
75. We're the Millers
76. The Spectacular Now
77. The Croods
78. About Time
79. Admission
80. Drinking Buddies
81. The Lifeguard
82. Epic
83. Antiviral
84. Newlyweeds
85. Planes
86. Diana
87. The World's End
88. Disconnect
89. The Way, Way Back
90. Something in the Air
91. Short Term 12
92. The Internship
93. Post Tenebras Lux
94. Stand Up Guys
95. Broken City
96. Adoration
97. Escape from Planet Earth
98. A Haunted House
99. Upside Down
100. Now You See Me
101. Wrong
102. 2 Guns
103. Trance
104. Oblivion
105. The Wolverine
106. The ABCs of Death
107. Struck by Lightning
108. The Big Wedding
109. Lovelace
110. Man of Steel
111. Kick-Ass 2
112. After Earth
113. The Lone Ranger
114. John Dies at the End
115. Evil Dead
116. Stoker
117. Passion
118. The English Teacher
119. Identity Thief
120. A Good Day to Die Hard
121. I Give it a Year
122. The Purge
123. Parker
124. The Hangover Part III
125. Black Rock
126. Movie 43
127. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
128. Only God Forgives

Thank you for reading, and please -- let me know what you think of my choices.


Groundskeeper Willie said...

What an impressive list! I like that you were able to sneak in viewings of Her and Inside Llewyn Davis just under the wire.

What didn't you like about The World's End? I think that was maybe my favorite film of the year. (Note: I tried to answer this question for myself by clicking the link for The World's End to the right, but that's really just a quick mention of the film in a larger discussion of Martin Freeman. Who, yes, it seems like he should be a bigger star. Maybe he does a lot of work on the stage in England and we don't hear about it in the US or in Oz?)

Groundskeeper Willie said...

Another question I could answer for myself, but it's fun to spark discussion here: did you enjoy Drive? I think plenty of folks who loved it hated Only God Forgives, but I'm curious

Vancetastic said...

I readily admit that I watched The World's End under less than ideal circumstances. We started it too late and I was struggling to stay awake. However, it was just one of those movies where every time it zigged, I thought it should have zagged. I was having trouble finding it funny, and when things go haywire at that particular point in the narrative (which I unfortunately knew was coming, though that was probably unavoidable), I kind of felt like I'd seen it all before. I wish I felt like these guys would have actually rallied around Gary, but he was such a prat that I just couldn't buy it. I also think the movie goes seriously off the rails in the last 30 minutes, which takes it beyond the fairly modest goals of the other two movies in the Cornetto trilogy. Still, I realize I am very much in the minority on this one and will likely give it another shot in the future.

As for the Refn films, I didn't enjoy Drive that much. However, it looks like a masterpiece compared to Only God Forgives, which is simply a collection of violent impulses with very little connective tissue.

Thanks for the comments!

Groundskeeper Willie said...

A bit more about the two films I've seen in your top 10:

-- I really loved Gravity the only time I saw it, and I'm worried about having the same reaction you did upon a second viewing. And with the second viewing at home on a 32" TV or a 20" monitor, it's going to be tough to replicate the awe of that first viewing.

-- You said that one of the reasons The World's End might not have grabbed you was viewing conditions, and I think I'm in the same boat for Spring Breakers. I watched that the other day during a long bike workout -- from what I knew of the film, it seemed like it would be perfect workout distraction watching -- and maybe that prevented me from getting in the right frame of mind. The kinetic editing and the soundtrack and the look of the film just turned me off.

Groundskeeper Willie said...

I'm eager to see all six films on your "Didn't see in time for consideration" list. It's sort of against the spirit of this exercise, where you close one year's list and start the new one on nominations day and that's it, but have you ever gone back and slotted the ones you didn't see in time back into your now super-definitive list?

Vancetastic said...

No, I can't ever revisit this list. It's finalized. Of course I will end up seeing these films -- the difference this year is that I may actually consider seeming them in the theater, even though I'm no longer ranking for this year. In most year, I would have seen as many of the best picture nominees as I intended to see before the nominations were announced, but it just wasn't possible.

Spring Breakers was very divisive. I can easily see it being one that's unduly influenced by your circumstances of watching it. I saw it at a party in St. Petersburg while doing body shots off a coed, so I think I was probably in the right frame of mind when I watched it.

Gravity is certainly a staggering achievement, it's just not a perfect film, which is what I originally though it was. And that's ... okay.

Nick Prigge said...

Gimme the Loot! Yessssssss! I've seen that pop up on a few year-end lists and oh, how it makes me happy. Glad you dug it. I felt a little weird putting it on my 2012 list when I knew it was getting a proper 2013 release, but what's true is true.

Llewyn Davis is an interesting choice. That's one I have come to appreciate so much more the more distance I got from it and the more time I had to reflect on it. Except...that road trip business with John Goodman. That's the one element I still can't seem to square with it. Thoughts?

Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, I'm ashamed to admit I have not seen yet. If it hit theaters in Chicago, it must have been quick because I never noticed it, though I've heard nothing but good things. I will get on this ASAP.

Oh, and since I haven't said it yet, congratulations on your new son.

Vancetastic said...

It's funny, Nick, I'm just realizing that I can thank my move to Australia for my #1 movie of 2013. I also missed the short theatrical run of Beyond the Hills (I believe it was last March), and it hasn't hit video yet, so I wouldn't have seen it either -- except that it was still playing in the arthouse theater in Melbourne when I got here in late August. In fact, it was my first movie in the theater down under.

Interestingly, the road trip sequence may have been what kicked the movie up a notch for me. It was Llewyn Davis peering into his personal hell. The things that happen to him before then are all more or less within the safe realm of his familiar New York City surroundings, and his legion of friends who continue to support him despite his many faults. The road trip to Chicago is when he stares into the abyss that will be waiting for him if he keeps fucking up his life. It's key that there's a moment on this trip when he has the chance to go meet his son in Akron, but he actively chooses to stay in the known hell of his life rather than switching it out for a hell he doesn't know, which could be his salvation. I agree the sequence changes the movie's groovy vibe, but that's kind of the point.

Loot, on the other hand, finds joy even when all it should find is sorrow. It's the optimistic opposite to the Coens' pessimism, and both films are brilliant.

Thanks! The little guy is getting cuter every day, I swear. ;-)

Nick Prigge said...

All right. That's a good analysis. I like that analysis. The Akron bit hit me the first time around, more than anything in the film really, because that's when it really struck me that the Coens were actually giving him his own choice as opposed to just screwing around with their own creation as they sometimes do. The rest - the car ride to Chicago really - was where I felt left out.......but I see what you're saying and it's working for me.

Yeah. This "Llewyn Davis". I really, really dig it in retrospect.