By Ezra Stead
Every year, I struggle with the relatively arbitrary process of ranking movies, so this year I’ve decided to do something a little different. Instead of a traditional Top Ten list, I’m grouping two thematically connected films together for each place on the list, resulting in a hopefully more interesting Top 20 list. I’ve also included a more traditional Top Ten below that, for all you “too long, didn’t read” folks. One final note before we get to the list: it should tell you a lot about my credibility as a film critic that I liked Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa more than most of the Academy Award Best Picture nominees for 2013.
10. THE WICKER MAN: FINAL CUT / JURASSIC PARK 3-D – BEST RE-RELEASES. Obviously, this category doesn’t really count, as both of these films were originally released decades ago, but I can’t deny that each of them provided one of the most enjoyable experiences I had in a movie theater in 2013. This new cut of the original 1973 classic The Wicker Man adds some nuance and more musical numbers to an already great film. Most crucially, it opens with a scene of Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) praying in church, emphasizing his piousness from the very start, which enriches the events to follow. Jurassic Park, on the other hand, is quite simply my favorite movie (it has the most dinosaurs in it – I rest my case), and seeing it on a big screen again, in 3-D no less, made me fall in love with it all over again.
9. THE WIND RISES / BEHIND THE CANDELABRA – BEST FAREWELL FILMS. This category came very close to simply being called “Farewell, Mr. Soderbergh,” as his final theatrical release, Side Effects, is a nasty, fun thriller that could have easily made my list. However, the great Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro) also released his final film in 2013, and I felt the need to recognize it as well. The Wind Rises is a very personal film about a young aircraft designer finding love and professional fulfillment in pre-WWII Japan, but above all it is about the power of dreams. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra is a delightfully decadent look at the life of Liberace, brilliantly played by Michael Douglas in one of his very best performances. It seems more likely that Miyazaki’s retirement will stick, given his advanced age, whereas it is to be hoped that Soderbergh will pull a Jay-Z/Michael Jordan and come back in a year or two. Even if both filmmakers do remain out of the game, though, at least they’ve both left us with solid final works.
8. MANIAC / JOHN DIES AT THE END – BEST HORROR MOVIES. Elijah Wood gives a wonderfully creepy performance as the central character of Maniac, a rare remake that lives up to (and maybe even surpasses) the original. This is true horror in the grand tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that is more unsettling than merely entertaining. John Dies at the End is the exact opposite type of horror film, a wild, imaginative joyride with plenty of laughs to offset the gore. You only have to watch the first ten minutes to witness some of the best practical effects in years, but if you’re not completely hooked by then, this isn’t the movie for you.
7. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS / 12 YEARS A SLAVE – BEST OSCAR MOVIES (that aren’t The Wolf of Wall Street). The true story/Oscar prestige isn’t the only thing these two films have in common. More than that, they are both consummately engaging portraits of an ordeal. The ordeal suffered by Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is, of course, not nearly as long or harrowing as that of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave, but both films strive admirably to create empathy for both sides of the equation. In Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, we are made distinctly aware of the lack of options available to the film’s Somali pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi, in one of the year’s best performances). In Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we clearly see the ways in which the institution of slavery dehumanizes the slave-owners as well as the slaves themselves. This is most clearly shown in the benevolent but cowardly Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), as well as the less sympathetic (but certainly pathetic) Epps (Michael Fassbender).
6. ENOUGH SAID / JACKASS PRESENTS: BAD GRANDPA – BEST COMEDIES (that aren’t The Wolf of Wall Street). Enough Said, like most of writer-director Nicole Holofcener‘s films, is a movie I feel like I should hate, because she makes films about the relatively insignificant problems of wealthy, privileged white people. Truth be told, I probably would like it a lot less if not for the late, great James Gandolfini’s remarkably warm and lovable performance. Coupled with equally great work from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener, this is the best romantic comedy of the year. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is sort of the polar opposite, though it is rather sweet and touching in its own twisted way. His appearance heavily altered by excellent prosthetic make-up, Johnny Knoxville plays Irving Zisman, the ultimate dirty old man, who embarks on a road trip with his grandson, Billy (the superb child actor Jackson Nicoll). Their subsequent raunchy shenanigans are captured by hidden cameras in real-life situations, a la Borat, the other Jackass movies, and 2013’s worst film, as described below.
5. 56 UP / BEFORE MIDNIGHT – BEST SEQUELS. Sequels get a bad rap, generally, but I think most critics would agree that these two are less of the more common cash-in variety, and more of the “latest installment in a project larger than the sum of its parts.” 56 Up is the newest film in a project that spans decades, and which is truly one of the most amazing achievements in cinema history. Beginning with Seven Up! in 1964, the Up series has followed the lives of several London children all the way through their adulthood, checking in on them every seven years. They are now 56 years old, and it’s very strange and wonderful to reflect that I have watched a bunch of people who are nearly 30 years older than me grow up. Before Midnight continues a similarly intimate exploration of two fictional characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who have navigated a nearly 30-year romance that began as a one-night stand in Before Sunrise (1995). Director Richard Linklater co-wrote all three films (which also includes 2004’s Before Sunset) with the actors, and this may be the trio’s best work yet, a film that explores the hard, bitter truths of the very long-term relationship.
4. THE ACT OF KILLING / STORIES WE TELL – BEST “TRUE STORIES.” The reason that phrase appears in quotation marks is that what each of these films accomplishes is a thorough and insightful examination of what exactly a true story is, and how that changes based on who is telling it. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing explores the dark side of this question, allowing the mass murdering “heroes” to tell their own story by re-enacting their war crimes for the camera. Sarah Polley‘s Stories We Tell is a much lighter and more personal take on the question, as the gifted filmmaker searches for the truth of her own family heritage. What could have been a pointless exercise in narcissism instead becomes a universal, moving and very funny film in Polley’s capable hands.
3. THE BLING RING / PAIN & GAIN – BEST “AMERICAN DREAM” MOVIES, PART 1. “Let’s go shopping!” “You know who invented salad? Poor people!” “Look at my shit!” “Sell me this pen!” These are the quotes that define America in 2013. What all four of these films have in common is drugs, sex and money, but above all, excess. What sets Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring apart is its exploration of our obsession with celebrity culture, and all the fashion and status that goes with it. I have yet to see her second most recent film, Somewhere, but I am otherwise confident in saying this is my favorite Sofia Coppola film to date. I am even more confident in saying that Pain & Gain is my favorite Michael Bay film. What sets it apart from the other three films in this two-part category is the way it addresses our culture’s obsession with physical perfection. What it has in common with the other three is an extremely strong “supporting” performance that at least threatens to become the true star of the movie. In The Bling Ring, it is Emma Watson as the self-aggrandizing “innocent,” Nicki; in Spring Breakers, it is James Franco as Alien; in The Wolf of Wall Street, it is Jonah Hill as Donnie, his best performance yet; and Pain & Gain, of course, has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a gloriously entertaining turn as Paul Doyle, the conflicted, coke-loving born-again Christian whose actions prompt the film’s greatest moment, when it breaks the fourth wall to remind the viewer that this is, indeed, a true story.
2. SPRING BREAKERS / THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – BEST “AMERICAN DREAM” MOVIES, PART 2. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a revelation, a beautiful, trashy, and consummately entertaining blend of self-absorbed depravity and high art anchored by a career-best performance from James Franco. This is the rare film that manages the delicate balancing act of apparent contempt for and extreme empathy with its characters, and Franco’s Alien is one of the most indelible and fascinating cinematic creations of the past few years. Much as I love Spring Breakers, the one film that takes the cake for pure American excess is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which is quite possibly his best film since Goodfellas, and easily his funniest since The King of Comedy (and probably his funniest ever). I was not expecting this movie to be gut-bustingly hilarious from start to finish, but I was pleasantly surprised, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have never been better. This film has apparently pissed some people off, and understandably so because it unabashedly glamorizes the lifestyle of complete scumbags, but I found it impossible not to have a supremely good time watching it.
1. ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW / UPSTREAM COLOR – MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE YEAR. In a way, Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow was a victim of its own hype. One of the most talked-about films at Sundance because of its status as an event that would probably never be seen again, it eventually opened to middling reviews and poor box office. Taken apart from its notoriously surreptitious production (it was secretly shot at Disney World without permission), the consensus seems to be that the film itself is, at best, an interesting failure, but I disagree. By turns funny and deeply unsettling, it is a wildly inventive dark fantasy that wears its influences (Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and of course Walt Disney films) on its sleeve, but also manages to feel strikingly original, and it taps into something very disturbing about the male psyche. The best way I can summarize the plot of Escape from Tomorrow is that it’s like The Shining, on acid, at Disney World, and nothing about that is less than awesome. Upstream Color, on the other hand, is truly in a league of its own when it comes to originality and vision. Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 time travel film, Primer, cements his place as the most exciting new filmmaker of this century. Upstream Color is an endlessly fascinating, disturbing and beautiful film that, more than any other movie I saw in 2013, rewards repeat viewings. You can read my full review here, but only after experiencing the film for yourself at least once.
As promised, here is a more traditional Top Ten list, with a slightly different order, just to emphasize the absurdity of ranking movies in the first place:
2. ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW
3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
4. SPRING BREAKERS
5. PAIN & GAIN
6. STORIES WE TELL
7. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
8. JACKASS PRESENTS: BAD GRANDPA
9. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
10. THE BLING RING
WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: INAPPROPRIATE COMEDY – I used all caps in the header, so you can’t tell that this movie’s title is actually spelled InAPPropriate Comedy, because its central premise is that all of its terrible recurring sketches are apps on a mobile device viewed from beneath a subway grate over which Lindsay Lohan is apparently standing for about 80 minutes, for no other reason than the fact that she looks nothing like Marilyn Monroe. That is far from the stupidest thing about this abysmal film from ShamWow pitchman Vince Offer. The only slightly funny sketch in the whole movie involves a large, intimidating man offering discounted coathanger abortions at a clinic. This is part of a recurring sketch called “Blackass,” whose entire conception is based on the idea “What if Jackass was a bunch of black guys instead of a bunch of white guys?” So they do “hilariously” stereotypical things like evading police and jousting with giant fake dicks in a parking lot. The rest of the movie is basically just gay panic jokes (Adrien Brody slums it up as “Flirty Harry,” a renegade cop whose every line of dialogue is gay sex innuendo) and “ironic” racism (co-writer Ari Shaffir does a recurring sketch as “The Amazing Racist,” in which his actual, horrible real-life personality is completely indistinguishable from the “character” he’s playing). Truly dire, unfunny stuff, folks.
MOST OVERRATED: GRAVITY – Visually and technically, this movie deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten, and that opening long-take is undeniably thrilling. It’s just that film’s story and characters never really live up to the promise of its substantial technical achievements. To put it another way, Gravity is amazing to look at, but not all that great to listen to. Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker, as he previously proved with great films like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men. Unfortunately, he struck out on the script this time, and the result for me was that I was never really engaged beyond the eye candy.
MOST UNDERRATED: MOVIE 43 – This was considered the worst sketch comedy of the year by a lot of critics who must not have seen InAPPropriate Comedy, and I’m not saying it’s great, but compared to that movie, it’s practically Citizen Kane. A pet project of Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), Movie 43 certainly has its share of misses (Brett Ratner’s predictably misogynistic entry is especially a low point), and of course it’s pretty juvenile (as evidenced by the first sketch, in which Hugh Jackman has a scrotum growing out of his chin), but is has it’s fair share of hits, too. This sketch in particular is pretty great, as is this one in which Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts strive to give their home-schooled son a normal public school experience. Perhaps it’s just a result of my low expectations, but I can’t deny that Movie 43 made me laugh.
PLEASANT SURPRISE: THE CALL – This is a highly underrated and surprisingly tense thriller from Brad Anderson, director of the excellent Session 9 and The Machinist. Halle Berry stars as an emergency call operator who gets personally involved in the kidnapping and imminent murder of 911 caller Abigail Breslin and, though the film’s third act might prove too brutal and nasty for some, I found The Call to be a very interesting and enjoyable movie.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: ONLY GOD FORGIVES – No one loved Drive more than me, so despite the mostly negative early reviews, I had pretty high hopes for the second collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling. Unfortunately, while Only God Forgives has much of the same gorgeous cinematography, brooding atmosphere and stylish, visceral violence as Drive, what it’s lacking is the most important thing: any reason whatsoever to care. The characters are basically all repugnant and, worse, boring, and the plodding, pointless story goes nowhere. This was the most frustrating movie of 2013 for me, because there’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, in service of absolutely nothing.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and aspiring stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.