A week ago I posted my reactions to this year’s list of Academy Award nominees; the post included my initial predictions as well as my insights as to why some films or actors may have been snubbed over others. After all, there are always a few surprises.
You can read the post here. A couple of readers inquired about my “Top Ten Movies” list for the year. I recited a few favorite films off the top of my head, but never compiled an exact list. Top ten lists, however, are essentially a prerequisite for any film critic, even an amateur such as myself. So without further ado – and noting that I haven’t seen every 2013 film on my wish list – here’s my (pending) list.
GringoPotpourri’s Top Ten Films of 2013
1) Before Midnight: The third – and probably best – film in Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy about the complicated romance between idealistic American novelist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Parisian NGO worker Celeste (Julie Delpy) finds them, at last, married and content, spending a long summer holiday on one of Greece’s idyllic islands. The metaphorical walls come crashing down around them, however, when a planned romantic evening alone inadvertently brings nine years’ worth of resentment and hostility to the surface. Did he cheat on her? Does she resent him for giving up her career for motherhood? Unlike its predecessors, I wouldn’t call “Before Midnight” a “date movie” – not unless your idea of a date movie is to squirm uncomfortably as two actors in their prime hurl arsenic-laced non-niceties at each other. I have never been married but I have had my share of failed relationships, and I won’t hesitate to call “Before Midnight” the most honest movie of its kind.
2) American Hustle: Without a doubt, watching “American Hustle” was the most fun I had at the movies in all of 2013. Under the watchful eye of director David O. Russell, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence (Russell veterans all) wow us in this fictionalized telling of a true story about the Abscam scandal of the 1970’s, in which the FBI investigated government officials accused of taking bribes from a fake Arab sheikh, all under the guise of civic pride and urban renewal. The plot moves at a brisk pace, but always with humor and never at the expense of character development. David O. Russell, on a roll since 2010’s “The Fighter,” out-Scorcese’s even Martin Scorsese himself (trumping Marty’s similarly-themed “The Wolf of Wall Street,” lower on this list), and for the second year in a row Russell directs all four leads to Oscar nominations. Oh, and the movie features inspired 70’s hair and costume design (as if it wasn’t already good). Also, Amy Adams has never looked sexier.
3) Gravity: Although his name is seldom mentioned in the same breath as that of Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, or the aforementioned Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most respected directors in the business. He did the post-apocalyptic London-set “Children of Men,” he directed my favorite Spanish-language movie, “Y Tu Mamá También,” and he helmed what many consider to be the best Harry Potter film: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Well, the Mexico City-born Cuarón was clearly just warming up when he directed those films; his latest, “Gravity,” is not only a lean survival tale that just happens to be set in outer space, but it also is of the most technically-accomplished films ever made. Kudos also to Sandra Bullock, who – like Cuarón – delivers career-best work here, playing a grieving mother, an inexperienced astronaut, and a determined survivor. Watching her character gather the courage needed to survive in outer space is one of the most inspired cinematic journeys in years.
4) This is the End: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum as #3 entry “Gravity,” “This is the End” features some of the worst visual effects in any Hollywood feature since…it doesn’t matter. I don’t actually know if the lowbrow effects were intentional or a budget sacrifice on a film that surely was a tough sell to distributors, but it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie in years. In “This is the End,” Seth Rogen (who also co-directed), Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride poke merciless fun at their own images, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, complete with the same names. “Jay Baruchel” plays a not-quite-mainstream, not-quite-loving-Hollywood actor who visits his friend “Seth Rogen.” After an afternoon of video games and soft drugs, they journey to the house of sexually ambivalent friend “James Franco,” at which point the apocalypse arrives and the evening becomes a fight for survival. Trust me on this: If you’re even a moderate fan of these actors, you should rent this movie. It is much, much funnier than it sounds.
5) The Wolf of Wall Street: Another uproarious movie – and another home run for co-star Jonah Hill – is “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Like #2 entry “American Hustle,” “Wolf” is based on a true story, stars a Method actor at the top of his game, takes place in/around New York, and is distinctly set in a period of ridiculous excess. This time, it is the Reagan 80’s, and the Method actor is Leonardo DiCaprio, chewing exquisite scenery as Jordan Belfort, a real-life swindler of penny stocks and swallower of Valium, Quaaludes, and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on. You no doubt have seen this rise-and-fall Wall Street story done many times before, but never in as entertaining a manner as presented here. Under the expert hand of Martin Scorsese, still churning out strong material with regularity at age 71, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is never less than deliriously entertaining. I am fairly certain that the same story could have been told in less time than 2 hours, 59 minutes, but there are so many wonderful moments in each scene that I suppose I can’t blame Scorsese for not knowing when to quit. As a blogger and critic – even an amateur one – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jonah Hill’s exuberant performance. I thought his Oscar nod for “Moneyball” in 2012 was a fluke, but here – and in “This is the End,” listed earlier – he has proven me wrong. Hill matches DiCaprio scene-for-scene, beat-for-beat. If you don’t mind a movie that contains 506 F-bombs, see this film.
6) Blue Jasmine: Cinema in 2013 was seldom bleaker than in this downer, a rare drama from the prolific Woody Allen. The title character of “Blue Jasmine” is a study in down-on-their-luck, oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen sad sacks, played here by Cate Blanchett in a revelatory performance. Jasmine, whose marriage to a billionaire investor (played by Alec Baldwin in the type of role he does so well) collapsed following revelations that her husband was a charlatan and a cheat, has relocated from Manhattan to San Francisco, crashing at the less-than-glamorous digs of her adopted sister (Sally Hawkins, also great) and attempting – half-assedly – to put her life back together. But alas, denial is not just a river in Egypt, and Jasmine’s battle is an uphill one. It is all pretty somber stuff, but Allen’s usual roster of subtle jokes and well-written characters make Jasmine’s journey highly watchable. Simply put, this is his best drama since “Hannah and her Sisters.”
7) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Okay, I’ll say it: “The Desolation of Smaug” is a much better film than “An Unexpected Journey.” While “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” it ain’t, the second “Hobbit” prequel features swifter pacing than its predecessor, as well as more forward progress towards the end goal of the film’s protagonists. Although there is still one more film to go, the last 45 minutes of this entry actually find Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions in the treasure-filled lair of Smaug, our hate-filled, red-scaled dragon. In other words: we’re getting there. The good news is, Freeman is given more to do this time around, and he fits the role to a “T.” I also liked the voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug. The in-demand Brit lends an air of sophistication, curiosity, and menace that livens up the film’s third act. I was less taken by Stephen Fry as Lake-town’s corrupt Master, or by an undercooked love story between dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the biggest deviation from J.R.R. Tolkien’s meaty tome. Still, the production design was superb, and I very much look forward, roughly 11 months from now, to seeing how the story ends.
8) The Conjuring: James Wan, the Malaysian-born director of such torture porn mainstays as “Saw” and “Insidious,” may seem like an odd choice to direct this gore-less throwback to 1970’s haunted house/demon possession classics like “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist,” but as it happens, he brought just the right touch to the proceedings. “The Conjuring” follows disco generation demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they attempt to rid a drafty Rhode Island house of the vengeful spirit(s) that reside within, driving a financially-strapped family close to the breaking point. The film is as much about the convictions of Ed and Lorraine as it is about close-knit family bond felt by the Perron family. Ron Livingston and especially Lili Taylor are excellent as the Perrons, parents of five girls, who moved into this country home for a country bargain. And no wonder. Old school horror FTW.
9) Captain Phillips: It is a tad overrated, but you’ll nevertheless be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like this taut, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about a Gulf of Aden freighter taken over by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks plays the title character, a smart – but world-weary – career mariner who does everything right when his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, is taken over by a lifeboat of four machine gun-toting pirates, led by Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi (a Somalia-born, former Minneapolis cab driver starring in his first movie) as the resourceful Muse. If it sounds a bit too realistic for comfort, that’s because it is: the Alabama, under Captain Phillips’s command, really was hijacked in 2009 – the first of many aggressive high seas assaults in the region. As with the #5 entry on my list, tighter editing could have shortened the film by 15 minutes, but then again, the slow-burning fireworks between Hanks and Adbi made for some of cinema’s better dramas in 2013. Hanks did not receive the expected Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but perhaps it’s because by now audiences are no longer impressed by his mastery of the put-upon Everyman character? IMHO, his two final scenes as “Captain Phillips” are a veritable master class.
10) Inside Llewyn Davis: I still haven’t seen every Oscar nominated film, so let’s call this entry a weak #10. I mean no disrespect to the Coen Bros., who seem to catch the Academy’s eye with roughly every other movie that they write, produce, and direct. I liked “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but I didn’t love it. Anyway….Relative newcomer Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a supremely talented folk musician in 1960’s Greenwich Village. Problem is, he’s every bit as self-destructive as he is gifted with a guitar and a microphone. Llewyn’s latest romantic conquest is in the family way, and she isn’t the first. His backup vocals on a catchy crossover medley could earn him handsome royalties for years to come – that is, if he doesn’t sign away his fortune in exchange for a quick, one-time payday. He reviles popular music, even though it pays the bills. Etc. We have seen this tortured artist story before, and even the Coen Bros. can’t entirely make it fresh again; their own “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” from 2000, was a superior version of a similar tale. That said, Isaac is appealing, the music is great, and the camerawork is transfixing.
What do you think, Loyal Reader? Is my top ten list out in another galaxy, or do we agree on what constitutes a top ten-caliber film? Any glaring omissions?