The Best and Worst Films of 2013 – A Year of 43 Great Blue Warm Nebraskan Wolves
By Jason Whyte
Posted 01/01/14 16:37:58
For this moviegoer tucked away in this corner of the world, 2013 represented a year where almost everything changed. The movies changed in many ways, and the way we watch movies changed either for the better or worse, depending on who you asked. Some filmmakers seemed to get wise to the fact we don't want gimmicks, as many remakes or 3D movies (although there were still many of those, many even converted for 3D for no other reason than to drive up sales). There seemed to be many better movies then bad ones...or maybe I'm just becoming more picky. I didn't wind up seeing “Scary Movie 5” after all.
Spoof movies and unnecessary 3D aside, 2013 was an excellent year for movies. There are always great films each and every year from major releases, attending several film festivals and other special events, and the year was a lot of fun with many new discoveries both in front and behind the screen. The following represents how I saw the year based on the countless times I visited local cinemas and attended film festivals in Toronto, Austin, Whistler and Vancouver. Without futher ado, here we go...
The Best Films of 2013:
#1. The Wolf of Wall Street (USA, dir. Martin Scorsese)
The best sequence filmmaker Martin Scorsese has ever directed is the final act of “GoodFellas”; the cocaine fueled last day of freedom of Henry Hill as he constantly screws up his life and eventually gets caught. The entire sequence is a master class in editing, storytelling and rise-and-fall madness in an already classic piece of cinema. “Wolf of Wall Street” has that madness and desperation through its entire three hour running time, resulting in a black comedy as enthralling as his entire resume, most resembling his 80's classic “After Hours”. For its entire running time, we are thrown into the world of stock exchange by way of Jordan Belfourt (Leonardo DiCaprio) who rises up from age 22 as a failing middle class stock trader, then thrown back into the world of pink sheet stock trading, all to rise up as a multi-millionare trader in merely a few years starting in 1987. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the great works of Scorsese but also quite telling in the current climate of economics and trading; throughout we are reminded that this lifestyle is not what it leads to, rather we are just seeing slowly what was there the entire time. The film's pace is relentless, and it damn well should be as it fits the lifestyle. It is Scorsese's best work in years; the most exciting, headlong look into madness, excess and consumption that I have seen in years. This was such a thrill to experience in a cinema that I went to watch it again hours after I first saw it.
#2. Nebraska (USA, dir. Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne is one of my favourite filmmakers, and in “Nebraska” he is at the top of his game with a human comedy of little, brilliant moments about people and their character. The film's wonderful little set up is a father (Bruce Dern) in his 70's who thinks he has won a sweepstakes prize of a million dollars, and his son (Will Forte) who decides to drive him from Billings to Nebraska to collect the winnings. What results is a road trip movie about the people they encounter along the way, many of whom really believe there is a million dollar man travelling around and all want a piece of the pie. The movie brilliantly comments on many human elements we are all familiar with; the generation gap, social class, the economy and especially how family reacts to one another when they want something from another person. Each character in this movie has their own unique voice, especially in June Squibb's legendary performance as a mother and wife who has had her fill of everyone around her; her profane reaction to a domestic situation late in the film is one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
#3. Blue Is The Warmest Color (France, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Winner of the P'alme Dor at this year's Cannes Film Festival, this film has gained strong attention for its content but not for its actual intent, which is a shame as this is one of the most complete desconstructions of youth entering adulthood. The film takes a bold step in showing the life of young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulous) from age 15 as a somewhat typical teenage girl unsure about her life. Enter Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired, slightly older woman who takes an interest in Adele. That is the mere setup for a near three-hour up-and-down story on growing up that shows adolescence in rare, honest form. Yes, the sex scenes are incredibly hot but also show a great amount of truth about sex and relationships and are absolutely necessary. We see a lot of ourselves in both Adele and Emma and the mistakes we have the potential to make at that age; thinking that we are ahead of ourselves but certainly have a lot of growing up to do. Add to that, the movie is just an intoxicating watch, entertaining in its near-documentary like look at sex and relationships in an epic running time.
#4. Blue Jasmine (USA, dir. Woody Allen)
It's thrilling to say that in 2013 that Woody Allen is still a filmmaker turning out a new movie every year; good, mediocre or even bad these days (I wasn't a big fan of his 2012 film “To Rome With Love” for example) we must give him credit for working so hard at his age. “Blue Jasmine” is one of his very best films featuring a whirlwind performance by Cate Blanchett in the lead as Jasmine, our “heroine” who relocates her life as the wife of a rich, Bernie Madoff type (Alec Baldwin) to working class San Francisco to start over. Thinking this is an easy solution, it is quickly discovered the past is not through with her as she lies, manipulates those around her and people from her past come back to haunt her, even on the other side of the country. It is also quickly evident Jasmine has personal problems which are hurting everyone around her too. More of a hard drama than we are led to expect from Woody Allen, this is one of the more difficult films I have seen from him but a richly rewarding one by the end.
#5. Dallas Buyers Club (USA/Canada, dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)
A telling and important film on the AIDS crisis in the 80's, brought to us surprisingly by Jean-Marc Vallee, a French Canadian filmmaker giving us a pure Texas story of triumph over adversity. Ron Woodruf (Matthew McConaughey) is a free-wheeling electrician who is diagnosed with HIV after an accident. Not knowing what he has at first, he is quick to learn about this illness which will eventually kill him, and tries to reinvent himself and fight the illness. When it is discovered potential medicine that can help him is not approved in the United States but is in Mexico, he quickly establishes a “Buyer's Club” to smuggle it over. Matthew McConaughey, an actor I have always liked and has turned in some solid work, deserves the Best Actor Oscar in a few months. His portrayal of Ron Woodruf is, no exaggeration, one of the best performances I have ever seen in the movies. It isn't just the dramatic weight loss he endured to play Woodruf (although it helps), but the multi layers of his Texas life and his personality is flawless. Mention must also go to co-stars Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto playing people close to Ron who reach out to help in a classic story of fighting for what you believe in.
#6. Gravity (USA/Spain, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Last year's “Life of Pi” was an out of body experience, a visual triumph that brought a new language to cinema. “Gravity” seems to continue that language of cinema into a 90 minute assault on the senses. The set up is fairly simplistic – what happens when two space station workers encounter debris hitting their station – but it feels like a real-time, you are there experience of what it is like to be lost in space and forced to go into survival mode. “Gravity” is a relentless experience and feels like one single, grand action sequence where I couldn't move in my seat for its entire running time. It is a great concept by director Alfonso Cuaron and his filmmakers who create an unforgettable moviegoing experience using all the cutting edge effects work to their advantage. This is also a rare example where seeing the movie in 3D is preferred and sucks you right into the picture, although I have seen in both 2D and 3D and are both incredible experiences.
#7. Before Midnight (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)
The third and final film in Richard Linklater's trilogy of an American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a Paris girl named Celine (Julie Delpy) who met back in the 90's on a train headed to Vienna has about every possible emotion that you can imagine. It is years later and the two people are still together, and the less you know about the movie before seeing it, the better. That said, there are moments of warmth, but then there are also moments where we cringe to look at the screen. There are big laughs and also times where we gasp in horror at what is happening on screen. But every single moment of the lives of fated Jesse and Celine are palpable. We have now followed the couple over three films spanning seventeen years which all leads to a final moment that either will break your heart or leave you wanting more. It wasn't a hit with everyone (I watched many couples get up and walk out at a local screening during one pivotal late sequence in the film) but I found it a fitting and honest end to the film trilogy of my dreams.
#8. Fruitvale Station (USA, dir. Ryan Coogler)
Based on the real life story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), “Fruitvale Station” is the story of a young man struggling to make something in his troubled life yet meets a fateful end in a police incident at a train station in San Francisco on New Year's Eve 2008. What is surprising about Ryan Coogler's debut movie is that it takes the time and patience – even in a brisk 84 minute film – to show an entire day of Oscar up until the horrible, shocking event happens at the end. It shows a strong, decent person just trying to do the right thing, and we are given unforgettable moments with Oscar and her pint-sized daughter that are just as poignant as the shocking finale. Winner of both the grand jury AND the audience award at Sunance this year, this is a great and powerful film worth seeking out.
#9. Mud (USA, dir. Jeff Nichols)
“Mud” is pure storytelling through and through, featuring another great lead performance by Matthew McConaughey even though the younger kids are the star of the show in a murder mystery and coming of age story all rolled into one. Two kids living on the Arkansas river come across a drifter named Mud (McConaughey) who is running from hit-men and all strike up a unique relationship. In addition to Mud's story, we also see much of the action unfold between the two kids, who both have a lot of discovery to make. There are surprising notes of honesty and not where we are expecting and it is all anchored by excellent performances (mention must also go to young Tye Sheridan playing one of the boys), a great feel for the south and a calm yet assured direction by Jeff Nichols, who with this film, “Take Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories” is definitely one of the top new directors in the game.
#10. You're Next (USA, dir. Adam Wingard)
It has been a long, winding road for Adam Wingard's blast of horror cinema, a total throwback to the types of horror films that I want to see more of these days. The set up is simple with a home invasion during an anniversary party, yet the movie takes strange, bizarre and original turns throughout the remainder of the picture that I dare not reveal, except to say that the movie is so darkly funny and such fun to watch in its graphic, gory detail; also in a year of strong female characters it was pretty awesome to see talented actress Sharni Vinson (you may remember her as the lovely dancer from “Step Up 3D”) kick some major butt. The movie is as silly as all get out with its tongue firmly in cheek, and I for one am proud of the film finally seeing the light of day; premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 (!) and finally getting a release last August, the movie has attracted quite a following. This movie is a cult classic in the making.
There were so many good movies this year that I had to extend the list a little bit. Here are a few honorable mentions...
#11. The Crash Reel (USA/Canada, dir. Lucy Walker)
A documentary I was not prepared for whatsoever; at first glance you think you're seeing a doc on snowboarding yet turns out to be a story of overcoming odds, fighting for what you believe in (even if everyone thinks you're crazy) and how your actions can impact family around you. Lucy Walker's powerful, unforgettable doc on snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his near-death accident a few years ago follows the sport, the injuries but, most importantly the effect on his immediate family around him. “The Crash Reel” almost feels like a narrative at times, featuring twists we can't see coming and a beautiful, haunting ending that left me silent for nearly an hour after I saw it. It's the best kind of documentary that can be made.
#12. Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The first movie to be made in Saudi Arabia, and from a woman no less, here is a simple story on Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) who breaks the rules almost daily in Riyadh. She pushes what she can get away with, especially when she first sees a gorgeous green bicycle and insists that she has it. She enrolls in a contest at her school to help pay for it, and as a result gets in trouble with one of her teachers. It's a unique set up for a movie of surprising power and warmth. I have mentioned quite a few strong female lead performances already but a major standout this year was young Waad Mohammed who steals an entire movie from a much bigger picture around her. The movie is wise to let her performance breathe as we get to see a unique view in a place of the world not normally shown in the movies.
Mention must also be given to a long list of honorable mentions, in no particular order: the powerful documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” about the behind the scenes of backup singers (most notably the amazing Darlene Love), the powerful beyond words “12 Years a Slave” which is one of the most haunting films I have seen on racism, “Saving Mr. Banks” which blew me away with its Disney-on-Disney take on how “Mary Poppins” was created, the neon-fused reality horror flick “Spring Breakers”, the elegant and beautiful hand-drawn animated “Ernest et Celestine” from France, Derek Cianfrance's three-act opus “The Place Beyond The Pines”, the surprisingly effective and visual triumph “Oblivion”, the equally surprisingly excellent “The Butler”, the teen zombie movie “Warm Bodies”, the multi layered puzzle of a crime film “Prisoners”, and “Inside Llewlyn Davis” about a drifter who is a damn good musician. Outer. SPACE.
The Worst Films of 2013:
#1. Movie 43 (USA, various directors)
Feeling more like an incomplete movie more than anything, the year's biggest cinematic dump came from a surprising amount of talented writers and directors who all contributed a short segment of crude, unfunny debauchery into a painful ninety minutes where there was not a single laugh to be had. Kick-started by Peter Farelly over four years ago, the film's through line features an embarrassed looking Dennis Quaid as he attempts to pitch a movie as a modern day equivalent “Kentucky Fried Movie”, but seems to know the words but not the music. Throughout we are given one nasty, over-the-top sequence after another that WOULD be funny if there were original thought or ideas behind it, but everything comes across as desperate. Even if you think of the segments from “Movie 43” as short films everything still fails, from the unfunny comic timing to the failed attempts to make the audience laugh. Quietly released into the dumping ground of early January, the movie thankfully didn't spark much attention or box office. The only thing I remember about the screening was how quiet it was, and how quickly everyone left when it was over.
#2. The Great Gatsby (USA, dir. Baz Luhrmann)
A colossal disappointment featuring the lead actor from my favorite movie of this year, which is clearly saying something. Baz Luhrmann's direction of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ode to Roaring 20's excess is a bizarre counterbalance to the infinitely superior “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and both films even feature Leonardo DiCaprio in clashing roles. It is certainly based of a stellar book, but this wall-of-noise adaptation is so over-blown, so filled with irritating detail yet so dull and boring at the same time that it's a surprise how much a downer it is by the time it reaches its endless finale. Also, if you're watching a movie where all you can think of is the day someone comes up with a Youtube video entitled “The Great Gatsby – Old Sport Edition” where it's only a clip show of how many times “Old sport” is said, you know you're in trouble.
#3. The Big Wedding (USA, dir. Justin Zackham)
Like with “Movie 43” and its huge cast all looking confused and lost, “The Big Wedding” features some of best working actors today in a horrible, unfunny mess from beginning to end. I even cringe at describing the wedding storyline, but it's pretty much your average big wedding-slash-wackiness ensues comedy featuring characters who are at wits against each other who all come together for the nupitals of an incredibly uninteresting young couple despite their comedic differences. The movie is a chaotic mess and I point my finger at Robert DeNiro, an actor who seems to have a spot on this list every year (although I did enjoy him in the recent “Grudge Match” playing Jake LaMotta thirty years later) who embarrasses himself to do a part for a paycheque. I'd say he's better than this, but I am sure he is aware.
#4. Leviathan (France, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Art-installation masquerading as cinema. One of the most frustrating films of recent years, “Leviathan” is a pure, bona-fied film festival movie where its defenders will feel inspired by endless Go-Pro HD footage of the point of view of a fishing boat and enjoy the quasi point of view perspective of sea creatures, birds and nets as they all collide POV style off the New England coast. Over and over again. In fact, it goes on for so long it's still playing as I write this. I will admit that there's a decent idea of what it is like to be in a part of the world you never want to experience first-hand, but none of this is entertaining or even thoughtful. As for “Leviathan” itself, perhaps this footage would work if you're at a fishery party with a flightly filmmaker in attendance who projects this movie on a screen in the background.
#5. Passion (Germany, dir. Brian DePalma)
Out of all the filmmakers I admire, Brian DePalma is definitely one of them; even with some trashy movies in the last decade he remains one of my favorite classic filmmakers. With PASSION he seems to have totally lost his nerve and feels like a pale imitator of his earlier work. The movie is about the rivalry between an advertising executive (Rachel McAdams) and her assistant (Noomi Rapace) that seems to keep unraveling to the point of frustration, until we are left with an inspid ending that inspired some fun comments from the audience as the credits rolled. Even with its ranking on this list, I will admit it's a VERY good looking movie; both Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace along with lovely co-star Karoline Herfurth are gorgeously photographed by DePalma. He's still got it in the visual skills, at the very least.
#6. Identity Thief (USA, dir. Seth Gordon)
The year's quintessential “Made for stupid people” movie, a beyond insulting comedy that was only remembered from its February release so I could have a spot for it on this Bottom 10 list. The entire movie is rife with the “idiot plot” formula where you want to ring the necks of all the characters for figuring out things way too late. The filmmakers here believe that identity theft can be funny, especially when a woman takes the identity of a man with a feminine name (oh how the movie thinks it is getting a lot of mileage out of this)...but it isn't. Not even close. Even Melissa McCarthy, a wonderfully funny actress, is wasted here as a lousy person who tries to earn our sympathy towards the end, and Jason Bateman looks embarrassed to be here.
#7. Adore (Australia, dir. Anne Fontaine)
This ultra-creepy Australian drama came and went quietly from cinemas this September, even though it featured both Naomi Watts and Robin Wright Penn, two strong actors I am surprised accepted roles as middle aged best friends who sleep with each other's kids. Bet that makes you want to see the movie, right? How about we thrown in a LOT of shots of these represeed women laying on a beach, sipping iced tea for a good portion of the running time? I'm not saying the idea itself is forbidden to be made into a film, but “Adore” makes us bored within minutes in this piffle of a movie.
#8. RIPD (USA, dir. Robert Schwentke)
One of the worst blockbuster films to come out this year, RIPD (Rest In Peace Department) was DOA...and yes I know that is a corny joke. I wasn't even a fan of “Men in Black” and yet this detective film about a killed policeman who teams up with an afterlife police force to track his killer felt like a pale imitator of the 1998 film. What COULD have been an interesting idea for a sci-fi comedy instead takes Jeff Bridges in full Lebowski mode and a bored stiff Ryan Reynolds in a movie that thankfully came and went from cinemas quickly.
#9. 47 Ronin (USA, dir. Carl Rinsch)
I am excited to see a tale on the 47 Ronin as much as the next samurai film fan, but this new movie somehow makes samurais, witches, dragons and even Keanu Reeves all boring beyond measure. “47 Ronin” is a massively expensive production resulting in a gigantic question mark of a movie with not a single person looking to be enjoying themselves on screen. It is another example of a potentially great and exciting idea (who doesn't want to see a new Samurai folklore tale?) in a miserable and lackluster presentation. The movie is also released in 3D rendering the already dark and murky images so unwatchable that you may think you put on sunglasses instead of 3D lenses.
#10. Kick Ass 2 (USA, dir. Jeff Wadlow)
Over the top. Profane. Bloody. Violent. Funny as hell. Those adjectives perfectly describe the 2010 minor hit “Kick-Ass”, an adult-themed superhero movie that has since gained a respective following. The inevitable sequel is made by another studio and another filmmaker, both of which failed to grasp what made the original so funny. More mean-spirited in tone featuring jokes the clearly cross the line, the continuing adventures of Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) who have to deal with more copy cat super heroes as the audience quickly discovers we are just watching the first movie all over again but with a painfully uneven tone and bereft of any soul. Adding to the mess is a nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey playing a super hero who isn't funny or the least bit memorable. At least he is disposed of quickly. Mercy.
Happy 2014 Everyone! May the next year be filled of new cinematic discoveries and hopefully a few good movies.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Follow on Twitter: @jasonwhyte