Steve Ranks 2013 Movies

Heading into 2013 I was less excited about the upcoming movies than in recent years, but upon seeing more trailers I grew more hopeful. I didn’t see my first 2013 film until the end of April, but then I saw four in two weeks, and three of them were quite good. One was good, but still fell into the dreaded Greatly Disappointing category. Through the summer I saw a few more good ones, but it wasn’t until the release of Gravity that a movie finally merited placement in my Great Ones category. Having seen many more movies through the fall and winter and now I’d say this year’s movies are stronger over all than the past two years. Like last year, I will not put all of the movies in order. I am simply going to break them into categories, ranging from the great films to the weak ones. Within a particular category I will put them in the order that I saw them, from earliest to most recent. I’m again including a category called Greatly Disappointing Ones. These are movies that came with both critical acclaim and my own high expectations, but failed in some significant way. They are not terrible movies, but they should have been much better.

THE GREAT ONES

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Gravity

Finally, a great movie in 2013! Yes, it is a grand cinematic experience, but it is more than that. Although some folks complain that the story is weak, I beg to differ. The movie’s true brilliance is found in that story. The key is the realization that this is not a movie about astronauts stranded in space, but rather that the entire movie is a metaphor about grief, the kind of soul-crushing grief that leaves one feeling untethered from life, set adrift, utterly alone. Thus, the question isn’t whether Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) will return to Earth, but whether she will be restored to life. In that way, it is a deeply spiritual film, even including a profound reflection on prayer. Bullock delivers a strong performance, as does George Clooney. If I’m stranded in space, I want Clooney with me!

American Hustle

This is why I love movies! Stellar cast, intriguing story, great use of music to enhance the storytelling…they all add up to one of the best, if not the best, movie of the year. If you love great acting, this is the movie to see. Every part is perfectly cast and exquisitely performed. David O. Russell always brings out the best in the actors that he directs. It is fitting that Hustle is represented in all four acting categories. Christian Bale has never looked worse in a movie (how much weight did he gain for this part?), but it is also one of his most wonderfully nuanced performances. Bradley Cooper is an absolute hoot as the FBI agent who is totally in control, except that he isn’t. Amy Adams is so fragile, yet so resilient. The way that she slips in and out of her English accent is fabulous. Jeremy Renner is often left out of the conversation about the stars of the film (he’s the one not nominated for an Oscar), but his portrayal of Mayor Polito, the man who gets caught in the web by doing the right thing in the wrong way, gives the movie its heart. And then there is Jennifer Lawrence! The only thing wrong with the movie is that she is not in more of it. Surrounded by great performances, she commands the screen every time that she appears. Thank God for Jennifer Lawrence!! Some people say that the movie is messy and hard to follow. I think that is part of its charm. It is after all a con movie. Part of the fun is not knowing who is conning who and, in the great tradition of con movies, it is vital that the audience is conned right along with the characters. Although loosely based on Abscam, it is really about the cons that we all pull on others and ourselves. Do we dare show our true selves to others or do we hide behind fabrications? Do we even dare to face our true selves or do we try to reinvent ourselves in order to survive? This movie actually asks some tough questions, but it does so in a way that is simply a blast!

The Wolf of Wall Street

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit how much I liked this movie. Is it excessive? Well, it does show the excess of Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle and it does seem to revel in that excess, but I’m not sure the movie would have been effective told in another way. Does it glorify the greed of Belfort and the excessive use of sex and drugs? That is a more difficult question, but I would argue that it does not. I think that Scorsese is up to something else here. Far from glorifying what is shown, he is exposing the Belfort that is in each of us. What would we do if money was no obstacle? What would we do if we thought we could get away with it? Even the experience of watching the movie enters into that self-exposure. As my senses were bombarded with scenes of such depravity, I found myself needing to justify my enjoyment of the movie, just as Belfort had to justify his greed and other addictions, but enjoy it I did. It is a marvelously crafted movie and very, very funny. The biggest surprise, though, was finding myself in tears in one scene where Belfort’s compassion for a co-worker was revealed. Life is complex and this movie is deeper than you might expect, but it is not for the faint of heart! I was surprised that Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but his no-holds-barred performance is worthy of the honor. I was less impressed with Jonah Hill’s performance, but that was due to the nature of the part which had far less range than DiCaprio’s. The Academy was obviously impressed enough, nominating him for Best Supporting Actor.

Nebraska

It is strange indeed to place this movie right alongside Wolf of Wall Street in my Great Ones list. Could two movies be more unlike each other? Wolf is so brash, thrusting its story at you. Nebraska is so unimposing, even to the point of presenting itself in muted black and white cinematography, quietly inviting you in. Yet, there are some interesting connections. Both deal with the misguided notion that obtaining wealth will somehow make life better, that it will fill up a space in life where something is missing. Both deal with issues of addiction. Although Woody Grant’s alcoholism is nowhere near as excessive as Jordan Belfort’s many addictions, it is nonetheless a defining element of his life and character. And, finally, in her own way, Woody’s wife, Kate, is as sex obsessed as anyone in Wolf. Again, she doesn’t carry out this obsession in the excessive manner of those in Wolf, but, as she reminisces about her life, it is surprising how many of those memories relate to who wanted to get into her pants. She also has a bad word to say about nearly everyone she has ever met. These critiques say more about her lack of self-worth than they do about anyone else that she less than fondly remembers. Those elements of Kate’s character, in fact, start to get us to the heart of this movie. There is most definitely an existential angst that pervades Nebraska. Woody, Kate, their sons, David and Ross, and pretty much everyone else in the movie have lived small lives. They are dissatisfied with what little their lives have amounted to and particularly dissatisfied with their relationships. Have you ever felt like that? When the story moved from Billings, Montana to the tiny hamlet of Hawthorne, Nebraska, at first I thought that Alexander Paine was mocking small town Midwesterners. However, knowing Paine’s other directorial work, I was sure that he wasn’t interested in simple mockery. He is more than willing to reveal his characters’ foibles, but only in service of shining a light on our shared humanity. Even though some of the characters here are close to caricatures (especially the cousins), I realized that I had actually lived with these people.  Nebraska is about all of us that struggle to find meaning in our lives.

Fruitvale Station

Racism is ugly and this powerful film reminds us that racism is, unfortunately, alive and well in our country. Let’s face it, racism is alive and well in each of us. It is part of human nature to fear those who are different from us. What can we do to overcome that fear? I’m saddened to admit that I felt my own racist (not to mention, classist) tendencies rise up even as this movie brought me into the world of Oscar Grant III. For Oscar that racism became a matter of life and death. Whether or not the shooting was accidental, the actions by the BART police that led his death were clearly racially motivated. He died because he was black and that is unacceptable, more than that, it is evil. This is a strong movie, and, given the important subject matter, it is must-see film. Ryan Coogler directs with a sure hand on his first full-length feature. The acting is strong throughout, especially Michael B. Jordan as Oscar and Octavia Spencer who makes the most of limited screen time in the role of his mother. The only weakness in the movie was that certain elements felt somewhat forced to me, such as his decision on that day to live a better life and a few other moments that felt like convenient coincidences. However, those drawbacks were counterbalanced by a sense that overall the presentation of the story was evenhanded. Most importantly, there is no attempt made to present Oscar as some kind of saint. He was flawed, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to die.

Blue Jasmine

Everything considered Blue Jasmine is a nearly great movie, with one exception. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine is so incredible that it moves the entire film up a notch. If you love acting, this is a must see! Be forewarned, though, it is not a joyful experience. As Woody Allen movies go, this one is definitely more drama than comedy. After a number of movies set in Europe, Allen returns to the USA (New York and San Francisco) for this one, but he doesn’t return for a Hollywood ending. Jasmine has always cared about one person, herself, and that self-centeredness destroys her. Interestingly, in these uncertain economic times, many of this year’s top films deal in some way with the issue of money, including this one. Jasmine married Hal (a financial wheeler-dealer played by a slick and sleazy Alec Baldwin) for love…the love of money. That money allows her to create an illusion of happiness, but when Hal is convicted of fraud, that illusion is shattered and Jasmine along with it. After a breakdown, she moves to San Francisco to try to get her life back together. Her sister is surprisingly gracious given their personal history, but Jasmine has no  notion of how to accept that grace. Like Kate in Nebraska, she can only see the worst in others, as a defense against seeing it in herself. It is a sad, painful movie about a woman who simply isn’t very likeable and yet it is surprisingly entertaining, mostly because of that stellar performance by Blanchett. The Oscar is hers.

12 Years a Slave

One of the best movies of the year? Certainly. The very best? Not in my book, but if it should pick up the Oscar it would not be the worst choice the Academy has ever made, not by a long shot. It is a fine, and mostly effective, film. It does present a much needed harrowing portrait of the horrors of slavery. (Lest we are tempted to believe that the forces that led to slavery are a problem long resolved, we need only see Fruitvale Station to be reminded that even when laws are changed, it is much harder to change people’s hearts.) The strength of the film is that it shows the moral complexity of the problem while seldom becoming heavy-handed. This complexity is evident in the contrast between the slave masters Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Epps (Michael Fassbender). Ford’s kindness is more than counterbalanced by Epp’s cruelty, but both are trapped in the system. Is the good man who is unwilling (or unable) to work for justice any better than the evil man? Even if not overly heavy-handed, the impact of the movie’s message could have been strengthened by a more subtle approach. The white characters too often felt like caricatures. Epps and the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) were so crazy in their hatred of the slaves that the performances bordered on the comic. On the other end of the spectrum was the abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) who came across as a 21st century liberal, but who was nonetheless the most delightful character in an otherwise dark movie. My biggest complaint, though, is that I wasn’t given the opportunity to know Solomon (played so well by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to care for him deeply as a person, not just as a representation of slaves in general. This is the kind of movie that should have had my tears flowing freely, but I only shed a few tears at the end. I think that I needed more of his back story. In addition, I had a problem with the movie’s dialogue, which too often felt stilted, even Shakespearian at times. This also distanced me from the emotional impact of the film.

Dallas Buyers Club

This movie just barely snuck into the Great Ones category and that was on the strength of the Oscar-nominated performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. They certainly deserve those nominations and all the awards that they have won so far. McConaughey has been on such a roll of late and that may have tempered my reaction to his work here. As good as it was, I’m not convinced it was even his best performance of the year. His character in Mud was more interesting and his single scene in Wolf of Wall Street was more fabulous. However, the part of Ron Woodroof was certainly the most difficult. He had to take a character who was quite unlikeable and make us care enough to buy into his story. He drew me in, but I’m not sure if I was pulling for Woodroof or for McConaughey, who is simply one of my favorite actors these days. Much has been made of the weight loss that McConaughey endured for the role, but I think it was a distraction early in the movie. He looked so obscenely thin before being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. I understand that he was ill before the diagnosis, but I don’t understand how someone could have lost that much weight and not already been looking into the reason for that weight loss. Despite those issues, he definitely delivers a powerful performance. Leto’s role presented a different problem. Playing a transgender role such as Rayon is Oscar-bait, but it is so easy to overplay it and turn it into camp. I thought Leto’s performance was perfect. Those two performances secured the movie its spot in my Great Ones list, but there were other elements that were not so impressive. One of those was the acting of Jennifer Garner. Most of the time she seemed like a deer staring into headlights. She was obviously there as the sympathetic one within the system, but her part just didn’t work for me. The bigger problem I had was with how the story was presented. In many ways it was simply a story we’ve seen many times before, including the themes of the outsider fighting against the system and the odd couple growing to understand and care for one another. Those involved tried too hard to make this an “important” movie, which meant casting the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies as the bad guys. I think the movie would have had a greater impact if the focus had stayed on the more personal story. In that regard, we face the issue of whether or not Woodroof was truly the homophobe that he was presented to be in the movie. That certainly made for a convenient story arc, the homophobe learns to care for gays in need of treatment and even befriends a transgender person, but it actually undermined the story by making it seem too convenient and forced at times. Despite these drawbacks, this still is an important movie and well worth seeing. Be forewarned though that there are a few scenes of fairly graphic sex and drug use.

Philomena

Before seeing it, I was skeptical that Philomena deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It only registers as a 76 on metacritic, so the critical consensus is very good, but not great. I figured the nomination was achieved by a bloc of voters based on a particular agenda rather than on artistic merit. Given that the movie deals with the Irish Catholic Church’s abusive treatment of unwed mothers and the forced adoptions of their children, it seemed likely that the agenda had something to do with bashing the Church, and particularly the Catholic Church. Certainly the Catholic Church, along with the rest of organized religion deserves some bashing for its various abuses, but that didn’t sound like the recipe for a great movie to me. Despite looking forward to seeing Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the lead roles, I entered the theater with some trepidation, fearing a movie experience that would become strident. As the story began to unfold, I was relieved. The Church took its share of deserved bashing, especially from Coogan’s journalist character, but that was counterbalanced by Philomena, who continued to love God and even the Church despite what she had been through. As the movie ended, I was ecstatic. This is a wonderful movie, well deserving of that Best Picture nomination. It gives us much to think about and, more importantly, much to feel.

Short Term 12

This was the most emotionally powerful (and draining) movie I saw all year. Yes, even more so than 12 Years a Slave. It is a deeply intimate movie that brings us into the lives of the kids in a residential foster-care facility and the young staff members who care for them. These young kids have faced severe difficulties, including various forms of abuse, in their short lives. They do not easily trust others, including those trying to help them. The staff inhabit a strange place in which they need to authentically care for those in their charge in order to have any hope of helping them heal, while at the same time keeping enough emotional detachment that they are not crushed by the inevitable disappointments.

Inside Llewyn Davis

THE NEARLY GREAT ONES

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The Place Beyond the Pines

This pleasant surprise got my movie-going year off to a great start. I wasn’t overly impressed with director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s prior film, Blue Valentine, but his work blew me away here. I may have to give Blue Valentine another look! With Pines, Cianfrance shoots for greatness. He falls a bit short, but I applaud him for the effort. This is a gorgeous film, filled with great images. The acting is solid throughout, with Ryan Gosling’s performance just a tad better than Bradley Cooper’s. Special mention needs to be made of Ben Mendelsohn in a small, but significant part. He nails it! It is the writing that keeps this from true greatness. It is occasionally clichéd and simplistic, but the story’s focus on the effects of the sins of the father(s) upon the son(s) is thought-provoking. It is a movie well worth seeing. You can find my full review at http://wp.me/p1ohe0-kK.

Mud

Like Place Beyond the Pines, Mud is an art-house film that is categorized as a crime/thriller, but, also like Pines, at heart it is a drama about the complexities of human relationships. Here the themes are love, trust, and loyalty versus deception and revenge, with a bit of superstition thrown in for good measure. It boasts strong performances, solid writing, and, while not as dazzling as Pines, a style that gives a strong sense of place. In this case, that place is southeast Arkansas, the home area of writer/director Jeff Nichols. When I saw it I did not know that he was the writer/director of the fabulous Take Shelter. Now he is on my “directors to watch for” list. Matthew McConaughey continues his recent hot streak with a fabulous performance as Mud, a fugitive hopelessly and dangerously in love. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play the two young teens who aid him in his quest to be reunited with his true love while avoiding the bounty hunters. They give remarkable performances, especially considering their lack of prior experience. Sheridan was the middle son in Tree of Life, but this is Lofland’s first movie role. The rest of the cast is strong, including Michael Shannon in a small, but delightful, role. The questions to ponder here are is there such a thing as true love and, if so, what price are you willing to pay for it?

Side Effects

Soderbergh claims that he is retiring soon from directing. Say it isn’t so, Steve! I’ve really been enjoying his work recently. His movies are so well crafted, whatever the genre. This one is a delightful thriller with plenty of twists and turns. Jude Law is wonderfully frazzled as the psychiatrist caught up in a mess that keeps getting messier. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones turn in performances that keep you guessing. If you are a big Channing Tatum fan, don’t get too excited. His name may ride high in the credits and he joins those three on the poster, but his part is actually rather small.

The World’s End

Given my admiration for the first two movies in the Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), I was really looking forward to this one. I was not disappointed! Many folks seem to feel that The World’s End isn’t as good as the first two, but I strongly disagree. In fact, I think it is the best of the three. I thought that the characters were stronger here. I even found myself wishing that the genre stuff wouldn’t kick in because I wanted to see how the characters would resolve their personal conflicts without the interruption of dealing with aliens. Of course, the genre stuff did kick in and it was lots of fun (although some of the fight scenes got a bit long). There was some great social commentary along the way. In that regard, I found Simon Pegg’s character to be particularly intriguing, the guy who can’t quite move on from the “glory” days of high school. The fact that the pinnacle of those glory days was an unsuccessful pub crawl gives the movie a melancholy heart that provided more depth than was found in the first two parts of the trilogy. I loved the way the worked Bill Nighy into this one!

The East

I love Brit Marling’s work as an actress, especially when it is coupled with Zal Batmanglij’s work as director, as it is here and in The Sound of My Voice. They also co-wrote both films. They are talented folks! Marling brings a deep intensity to her performances, which fits perfectly with Batmanglij’s gritty, intimate directing style. Their work is grounded in character and relationships while simultaneously pondering big questions. They pose the questions knowing that there are no easy answers (although the ending of this one does lay things on a just bit thick). The East tackles the subject of eco-terrorism, raising the question of what happens if a group with a noble cause crosses the line and becomes as immoral and dangerous as those that they are calling to task. It gives us much to think about, but at the same time works well as an enjoyable thriller. A shout out to Ellen Page who is, as always, a joy to watch.

Captain Phillips

I disagree with the best picture nomination for this one. Part of the problem may be that I was quite tired when I saw it. It was the last night it was going to be showing in town so I gave it a shot despite a lack of sleep. Maybe it will move up if I give it another try some day. I probably will give it another chance, but at this point I’m not overly excited to do so. I found it to be predictable and even a bit dull at times. Again, that may be due to my own fatigue, given the number of folks who say they were on the edge of their seats for the movie’s duration. Actually, the first scene tainted the entire film for me. I found it to be so contrived and clichéd. Oh, Captain Phillips is a husband and father so I should care about what happens to him. Truth be told, I was pulling for the Somali pirates. More truth be told, I had a bone to pick with the movie even before that first scene. I knew that this “true story” was only somewhat true and that Phillips was not quite the hero that the movie made him out to be. I know that all movies based on true stories manipulate the facts and I’m generally alright with that, so I’m not sure why it seemed to bother me more with this one.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Originally I placed this in the Great Ones category, but I realized that I was only doing it because Gravity seemed lonely there. HG2 certainly accomplishes what it set out to do, but that doesn’t make it a great movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it, yet I would still have to say that it doesn’t quite catch fire. It is a movie to be admired rather than loved. It is faithful to the book, which I think is important in this case. The movie looked great. I was not disappointed when I heard that Gary Ross would not be back to direct this one (I hated his shaky cam). Frances Lawrence was a great choice as director for the final three films. The casting choices have been nearly impeccable. Josh Hutcherson is even growing on me as Peeta. Of course, it all starts with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She is maturing wonderfully as an actress and is able to communicate so much with a look. The subtle transformation of her face in the final shot is a prime example. My only complaint in regard to many of the minor characters is that we didn’t get to see enough of them! They were simply spot on. Kudos to Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffery Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Caflin, Jena Malone, and all the rest.

Frances Ha

Strangely enough, Frances Ha is a fitting companion piece to Nebraska, and not just because they are both presented in black and white. At first glance they may seem to be world’s apart, populated by people so different from each other. What connection could there possibly be between those simple, small town, mostly old, Midwestern folks in Nebraska and the youthful New York hipsters of Frances Ha? The connection is the search for meaning. Woody and Kate find themselves at the end of life, looking back with many regrets, looking for some shred of meaning to hang on to. Frances and her best friend Sophie are at the beginning of the journey, trying to find their place in the world and, in so doing, to find meaning in the struggles they face. They may be hipsters in the big city of New York, but in many ways their lives are as small as the lives of those folks in Hawthorne, Nebraska. Maybe most of our lives are that small, but if that is so, Frances’ perseverance gives us hope. Greta Gerwig gives a tremendous performance as Frances, in this film that she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach. Mickey Sumner (Sting’s daughter) gives an intriguing performance as Sophie. In many ways she is as self-centered as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine and, like Nebraska’s Kate, she seems to have a bad opinion of most everyone. Given the many ways in which she lets Frances down, I can’t understand what Frances saw in her as a best friend.

In a World…

Lake Bell is definitely someone to keep an eye. Actually you should keep both eyes on her! She wrote, directed, and starred in In a World… and shows definite talent in all three areas as she delivers a light, but not lightweight, comedy. She plays a voice coach who is trying to break into the movie trailer voice-over profession. Her father is one of the giants in the profession, but he knows it is time to pass the torch on to the next generation. However, he discourages his daughter from following in his footsteps because he doesn’t believe the world is ready for a woman in that role. He most certainly is not ready for that so he does all that he can to insure that his male protégé gets to do the prime trailer that his daughter is also auditioning for. There are many delightful scenes throughout the movie and, although the ending feels rushed, it is well worth seeing. Bonus points for including Nick Offerman in a small, but effective part.

August: Osage County

Wow, that is one messed up family and this is a wild ride of a movie. Like a rollercoaster, you feel exhilarated and exhausted from the experience. Unlike many critics, I enjoyed it immensely. It received only a 58 on metacritic, but I was tempted to put in my Great Ones category. I finally decided that it doesn’t quite achieve that height, but it comes close and it is the best of the Nearly Great movies I’ve seen this year. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your reaction to the writing and acting. Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay based on his stage play. It is to his credit that as one character after another drops a bombshell of a revelation the entire story doesn’t go up in flames. He maintains just enough control over the chaos to make it work. The intensity of the family relationships calls for acting that is on the edge. Some complain that the acting falls off the edge into overkill, but I thought the cast was wonderful. Leading the way are Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts as a mother and daughter who are at one another’s throats, in one instance even literally so. They are both deservedly nominated for Oscars. Meryl was great (as always), letting it all hang out in a way that is rare even for her, but I was even more impressed with Julia. I’m not a huge fan of her work, but she was fabulous here. Meryl’s mother was pretty much crazy throughout the film, but Julia’s part called for craziness along with a wide range of other emotions and she delivered big time. The rest of the cast was stellar. Chris Cooper, playing Meryl’s brother-in-law was magnificent as the quiet voice of reason and compassion in the midst of the chaos and meanness. I was also quite impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch in a part so different from anything else I’ve seen him do. He was no Sherlock here, but gave an achingly beautiful performance. One final note regarding Julia (and the movie as a whole): if you desire to see her only as America’s sweetheart, don’t see her in this. She sends the f-word flying thick and fast, so be forewarned!

Much Ado About Nothing

THE PRETTY DARN GOOD ONES

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Iron Man 3

One would be wise not to expect much from the third installment in a superhero franchise. In this case, though, I actually liked this as much, if not more than, the first two Iron Man movies. Robert Downey Jr. continues his strong run as Tony Stark, but here there is a new dimension to his character as he deals with anxiety attacks brought on by the events in The Avengers. Director/co-writer Shane Black brings us a story with plenty of twists and turns. They say that what makes a good superhero movie is a good villain and that’s what sets this apart from the first two. I never thought that Jeff Bridges’ good guy turned bad was all that strong a story line in the first movie. I enjoyed Micky Rourke in Iron Man 2, but here he is trumped by a slick. but nasty, Guy Pierce, and especially by a delightful performance by Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin. The final action sequence was somewhat chaotic, but overall I really enjoyed IM3.

World War Z

Do we really need any more zombie movies, especially ones like this where the story is both clichéd and preposterous? However, it must be said that the zombies here are not your usual slow trudging folks. They zip along in fast moving swarms, so at least that is a change of pace. In many ways this movie belongs in the fairly good category, but I elevated it up a notch because I did really enjoy it. Most of that has to do with Brad Pitt. I love Brad Pitt. I’ll watch him in anything, even a stupid zombie movie. The truth is, without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you who else was even in the movie, other than the guy who played a W.H.O. doctor and who will soon be the 12th Doctor Who.

Elysium

I was really looking forward to this one. I adored director Neill Blomkamp’s previous film, District 9, and this one stars Matt Damon, who I love almost as much as Brad Pitt. Like Pitt’s WWZ, Elysium is an enjoyable movie experience, thanks to a good enough performance by Damon and Jodie Foster’s cold and calculating government official. The movie tackles important issues such as economic inequality, immigration, and access to health care, but it does so in such a ham-fisted way that it almost makes one embarrassed to be a liberal! The writing nearly landed this in the dreaded Greatly Disappointing category, but I still liked it despite itself.

Sound City

Do you love rock music? Do you want to know more about the history of this music that you love? Are you intrigued by the effect that the recording process itself has on the music that eventually comes out of your speakers and the way that process has changed as we have moved into the digital age? Then, by all means, see this fine documentary. Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighter fame) is our guide through the famous studio known as Sound City. His passion for this place and it’s legendary soundboard is infectious. Grohl rounds up lots of famous folks to talk about their experiences recording at Sound City. As we learn the history of the studio, the history of a large slice of rock and roll is also revealed because the list of those who recorded there is a real who’s who. I especially enjoyed the segment on the transformation of Fleetwood Mac from blues rockers into supergroup, as well as the stuff on Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.

Prisoners

Some directors seem to take delight in presenting movies that are filled with twists and turns, red herrings and surprise endings. Given the evidence of Prisoners and his previous film, Incendies, Denis Villeneuve seems to be such a director. Watching such movies can be thrilling, but if the ending doesn’t provide a satisfying conclusion, the overall effect can be the feeling that one has simply been jerked around rather than being artfully led through a maze. In that regard, I think that Incendies is a stronger film than the bigger budget, higher profile Prisoners. It seemed that Prisoners couldn’t fail with it’s loaded cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo (wait a minute, is that really Melissa Leo?). It is a strong cast that performs admirably well, but the characters always seem a half-step away from becoming unbelievable. That is not the fault of the actors, but rather the hazard of a story filled with so many twists and turns. The movie also becomes darker and more disturbing than one might expect, even in a movie about children being kidnapped. Despite its shortcomings, the movie does ask some interesting questions. How far would you go to protect your children? Is it possible to go too far and thus become as evil as your enemy?

The Way Way Back

The year brought us two very fine coming of age movies, this and The Spectacular Now. This is the more enjoyable of the two, mostly because of the presence of Sam Rockwell. He specializes in kooky characters who have a lot of heart and he brings both of those aspects to this role of a waterpark manager who takes young Duncan (Liam James) under his wing. Both his humor and his compassion are essential to this movie which is otherwise much sadder than I expected. The movie slips into a teen movie cliché with a mismatched romance between Duncan, the shy awkward outsider, and his ultra-cute/ultra-cool neighbor, Susanna, who unsurprisingly turns out to be much deeper and caring than her shallow friends. Although clichéd, their relationship works fairly well in the movie, mostly because it doesn’t bear the burden of being the center of the story. The heart of the movie is Duncan coming to self-confidence through the acceptance he receives at the waterpark. Even as he gains that confidence, his family life remains a mess, which is where the movie’s sadness dwells. Toni Collette plays to her strengths here as his mother, an emotionally wounded woman. Steve Carell plays her boyfriend, a character even more unlikeable than his role on The Office.

The Spectacular Now

Like The Way Way Back, this is a teen coming of age movie with a strong undercurrent of sadness, this time due to themes of alcoholism and abandonment. It also features another mismatched romance, this time with the girl (Aimee played by Shailene Woodley) as the geeky one and the guy (Sutter played by Miles Teller) as the life of the party. Woodley, who was so good in The Descendants, gives another strong performance here. Teller is fairly good, but I had trouble believing Sutter was universally loved by all the kids at school, as he is presented early in the film. Later in the film a fellow student does tell him that everyone thinks that he is a joke, but I nonetheless felt that the presentation of this character felt a bit forced and artificial. (Who knows…maybe that is because I still hold a grudge against the popular kids in my high school after 35 years? Nah, couldn’t be that!) I also felt that too often the movie moved forward in lurches, which may have been appropriate given the amount of alcohol that was consumed. For instance, to begin with Aimee says she doesn’t drink, then moments later she accepts Sutter’s offer of alcohol. This is understandable enough, but from there on out she drinks as heavily as Sutter when they are together. I would have liked to have had some sense of what that felt like for her. That is also true for their sex scene. One moment they are just barely a couple and then there is a lurch forward and we find them in bed preparing for intercourse (at least they used a condom.) I know teenagers engage in sex, but I still found this scene more uncomfortable than all the sex in Wolf of Wall Street. Again, I would have preferred to have had a sense of how they came to the decision to be sexual. For much of the movie there is too little regard for the consequences of behavior, but at least Sutter did eventually have to face the consequences of his alcohol use.

Lee Daniel’s The Butler

This is another of this year’s “important” movies, but it is the least effective of the group. The storyline of the White House butler who serves under eight presidents feels contrived, even if it is based on a true story. Forest Whitaker is a fine actor, but he brought nothing memorable to this role. Two younger actors play the part of Cecil in his childhood and teen years. When Whitaker takes over shortly before Cecil gets the position at the White House, he seemed too old for the part, as did Oprah Winfrey as his wife. They both fared better as the characters aged, but by then the damage had been done. That part of the movie never really worked for me. Fortunately there was another side to the film that focused on Cecil’s son, Louis (a solid performance from David Oyelowo), who becomes actively involved in the civil rights movement. This is where the movie’s heart and power is found. I was quite moved by these sequences as Louis was involved in the sit-in at Woolworth’s and seemingly every other important event of the civil rights movement.

Rush

I was on the edge of my seat. Is there any higher praise for an action movie? I’m not a huge fan of Ron Howard as a director, as he tends to be heavy-handed, but he has given us quite an enjoyable viewing experience in Rush. The racing scenes are captivating, although the images do become repetitive later in the film. The one area where the directing was heavy-handed came as quite a surprise. I did not expect such graphic sex. The sex was included to make sure we understood that James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a playboy, but the point could have been made in much subtler ways that would have made the film appropriate for a larger audience. As it is, I wouldn’t suggest showing this to younger teenagers. You might even feel uncomfortable watching it with your older teenager! It almost felt like Ron Howard was trying to prove that he has “grown up” as a director, but it came off as an immature, or at least inappropriate, decision that marred an otherwise fine directing job. That directing job involved balancing the two aspects of the movie, the racing and the biography drama. Without the story to give them context, the racing sequences, as good as they were, would have been nothing more than cars going around in circles. The two lead actors took care of things on that end. Although I kept expecting him to pull out a hammer, Hemsworth showed that he could play a cad as well as he can play a superhero/god. Even better, really. However, the movie was truly anchored by Daniel Bruhl’s performance as Niki Lauda. Interestingly, both Hunt and Lauda were less then likeable characters, but their rivalry and relationship was intriguing. The trailer made it seem as though they worked together (like Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song) to make Lauda’s comeback possible, but fortunately their relationship was much more complex than that, making the movie an interesting ride both on and off the racetrack.

Enough Said

I never watched The Sopranos, so James Gandolfini’s death this past June didn’t affect me the way that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death did, but now that I have seen his performance in Enough Said I realize how much he will be missed. His work alone put this movie in the Pretty Darn Good category. The rest of the movie was hit or miss, but his tender, moving portrayal of a middle-aged divorcee hoping for another chance at love is must see material. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was good as Eva, but at times her acting seemed too sit-comish. Her character was also frustrating, if not irritating. It was not her fault that she got caught in the difficult scenario of dating a guy while serving as masseuse for his ex-wife, but she allowed herself to be sucked in by the ex-wife’s negativity rather than trusting her own instincts and, when the inevitable revelation of the mess came, her attempts to weasel out of personal responsibility were pathetic. As her daughter so aptly described her, she was incredibly needy, not to mention immature. I wanted to sit her down and tell her to grow up before she messed everything up. However, even as foolish as she was, she was a delight compared to the other characters around her. What a self-centered, passive-aggressive, unlikable lot they were! Especially bad were Eva’s friends, played by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone. I’ve loved Collette ever since About a Boy, but her character here was just an awful person. What was the point of having this couple in the story? Was it to show us how terrible marriage can be when those involved are incredibly self-absorbed? If so, it certainly succeeded in that. In fact, the movie as a whole made marriage seem like a pretty bad gamble. It was a bit of a mistake to watch it on Valentine’s Day! At least the ending did offer a slight glimmer of hope.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick are inevitable, especially to Malik’s early films Badlands and Days of Heaven, but there are certainly worse directors to be compared to. Writer/director David Lowery is definitely someone to keep an eye on. The look and feel of many of the scenes is reminiscent of Malick, but Lowery’s writing has a unique edge to it. The story plays out like a classic Western, including its location somewhere in Texas, but it is set in a more recent, but not clearly defined timeframe. It is a tale of how far someone will go to both protect and be with someone they love. Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are the lovers at the center of the tale. Both Affleck and Mara deliver terrific performances, which is no surprise. Bob and Ruth are involved in some sort of illegal activity. The exact nature of their crimes is never revealed. Much of the storytelling had that same vagueness about it. At times I found that frustrating, but it did serve to keep the focus on the relationships rather than on the details of the plot. Early on, their crime spree comes to an end when they are trapped in a shootout with authorities at an old farmhouse. Ruth shoots a deputy, but Bob takes the fall for her, having just found out that she is pregnant with their child. Eventually he escapes from prison to get back to his family. However, such a reunion is a complicated thing, especially when the deputy who was shot (played by Ben Foster) has taken an interest in Ruth. Providing another intriguing piece to the puzzle is a neighbor (wonderfully portrayed by Keith Carradine) who has a mysterious connection to Bob and Ruth. This gritty movie is definitely worth a look.

Mistaken for Strangers

THE GREATLY DISAPPOINTING ONES

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Star Trek Into Darkness

In my book, Star Trek Into Darkness is a victim of expectations. I am by no means a Trekkie. I watched the show occasionally while growing up. I didn’t see more than one or two of the original movies. I did, however, love the reboot and had high hopes for this one. Into Darkness is not a bad movie. In many ways it is a good movie, but it is so much less than what I was hoping for. It certainly did not boldly go where no one had gone before. The interplay among the crew and the in-jokes were still cute and delightful, but that is not enough to carry a movie. The story was messy. The action sequences brought nothing new to the table and were often confusing. This may simply be my inner Spock speaking, but my biggest complaint is that there were too many things that defied logic. I’m not talking about the sci-fi elements, but things like security issues. If you were holding a meeting of all the captains and first officers after a terrorist attack, would you hold it in a room with a full length window, which apparently isn’t even made of bulletproof glass? How easy do you think it would be to pose as a high ranking member of the crew on a star ship, especially one on a top secret assignment? I know it is silly to nitpick in a movie like this, but I found myself shaking my head too many times to simply let it go. I was also disappointed with Benedict Cumberbatch. His villain was properly cold (especially for a guy who had been frozen for years), but was also somewhat boring. I did like Peter Weller as the Admiral. The main cast is marvelous, but they needed more to work with. One final note to J.J. Abrams: enough with the lens flares! It felt like I was watching much of the movie through a window.

Out of the Furnace

I was so excited to see this. The trailer was filled with tension. I loved Scott Cooper’s previous directorial effort, Crazy Heart. The cast included Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in the lead roles, with Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker for support. How could it not be great? Well, a movie still needs a good story and this didn’t have one. It never went anywhere truly interesting or new (being too derivative of Deer Hunter) and it gave those great actors characters that were essentially one dimensional. What a shame. That being said, it wasn’t a terrible movie. It was fairly entertaining for what it was. It looked good, too. I was just hoping for so much more. There was one scene that showed what the movie potentially could have been. Bale’s character meets his former girlfriend (in a fine performance by Zoe Saldana) on a bridge to talk about whether they might have a future together. The scene plays out perfectly. If only the rest of the movie had the depth and texture of that scene.

THE FAIRLY GOOD ONES THAT ARE WELL WORTH SEEING ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A FAN OF THAT PARTICULAR GENRE, DIRECTOR, OR ACTOR

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Trance

Hearing “directed by Danny Boyle” is enough to get me excited about a movie and a crime/mystery/thriller involving hypnosis would seem to be right in Boyle’s wheelhouse. That kind of anticipation could have landed this in the Greatly Disappointing category, however I had read enough lukewarm reviews before seeing the movie that my expectations were already lowered. As it is, this is a decent thriller, even if it doesn’t quite live up to Boyle’s usual standards. Like this year’s Prisoners, it is filled with twists and turns, not to mention the occasional red herring, which I generally love in a movie. However, also like Prisoners, the twists and turns don’t finally end up anywhere satisfying enough to justify all the work involved in getting there. Yes, the ending was moderately surprising, but it was also only moderately interesting. Worth seeing as long as you don’t expect too much from it.

Ender’s Game

My younger son loves this book, but I have not read it. I went into this knowing a few basic plot details that I picked up from my son and the trailers, but without preconceived notions on how characters should be portrayed and how the story should be told. Without much at stake I could simply enjoy the movie and enjoy it I did. In many ways it is not a particularly good movie. The characters are not well developed. The movie looks good enough, but doesn’t add anything new to the sci-fi genre. Yet, even though part of me was making a checklist of reasons that this was a Meh movie, I found myself simply enjoying an evening at the cinema. In other words, it worked despite itself. Like Prisoners, it too asks the question about what happens when we become like our enemy. If we seek to destroy our enemy, even to protect ourselves, have we become the enemy?

The Great Gatsby

If Trance seemed to be in Danny Boyle’s wheelhouse, then The Great Gatsby would seem to be a movie that Baz Luhrmann would hit out of the park. Indeed, the first part of the movie, with its lavish set pieces and big party scenes, highlighted Luhrmann’s strengths as a director. Unfortunately, the second part of the movie, when the story becomes more personal, exposed his weaknesses. Luhrmann does much better with big than he does with small. In this case, that meant the movie limped into its conclusion, which is never a good thing. Overall, though, there is much to appreciate here. In addition to the fabulous look of the film, that also includes some fine acting performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the larger than life Gatsby. Tobey Maguire has no problem handling the wide-eyed wonder of Nick Carraway, representing all those who are drawn to Gatsby like moths to a flame. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as the beguiling Daisy Buchanan. I wasn’t quite as sold on Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, but that might be due to the part as much as his performance.

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Is this one of this year’s “important” films? I’m guessing that those who made the movie were hoping that it would be more than just another biopic. After all, this is about Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break the color barrier in professional baseball. Unfortunately, the movie is so filled with biopic clichés that it can’t rise above that film genre and become something greater. The racial hostility is hinted at, but I’m sure that the reality was deeper and more difficult, for Robinson and those around him. I wish the movie had dared to go there. Nonetheless, this is still worth seeing.

To The Wonder

Here is yet another movie this year by a director I greatly admire that doesn’t quite live up to the standards of that director’s best work. There is no doubt that this is a film by Terrence Malick. All of his directorial tendencies are on display. Whether you consider that good or bad news will depend on how you feel about Malick’s very personal style of filmmaking. If you thought The Tree of Life was hard to follow, you will be flabbergasted by this one. It tells the story of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) who fall in love in Paris, get married, and move to his home in Oklahoma where they struggle to maintain their relationship. No, it’s not quite accurate to say that it tells the story. Malick’s movies, especially of late, do not tell a story. They present a story. They let it wash over the viewer. As usual, there is beauty and poetry in this presentation. In this case, the poetry was somewhat lost on me. It was an intriguing film, but not intriguing enough. I especially struggled to figure out where Javier Bardem’s priest fit into things. Oh well, rumor has it that Malick is currently at work on two more films (an incredible pace for him!) and I’ll be more than willing to give them a look.

All Is Lost

This movie has received numerous rave reviews, as has the performance of Robert Redford as the movie’s solitary cast member. On the other hand, there are those who say they found it boring. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I was definitely more underwhelmed than overwhelmed. Credit must be given to writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and Redford for their bold decision to make a movie with one character on a small boat in the middle of the ocean and virtually no dialog (aside from a short opening voiceover and a couple of brief utterances later in the movie). There was absolutely no back story. We know nothing about Redford’s character, not even his name. All we know is that he awakens to find a shipping container has struck his yacht. He spends the next eight days struggling to survive. Maybe in his anonymity he was supposed to be an Everyman, but to me he was a Nobody. I needed something more. I needed a reason to care. For Redford to deserve that Oscar nomination he would need to do more than work hard (which he certainly did). He would need to give me at least a peek at the man’s soul. He didn’t. The movie needed something more. Maybe if he had a tiger with him…or if a pirate had taken over his boat…

MEH

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Man of Steel

There was nothing particularly wrong with this movie other than the nagging feeling that there was really no good reason for its existence. Did we need another Superman reboot? Given the number of times I felt bored watching this, I guess I didn’t need it.

Now You See Me

Now I have seen it, but I could have easily lived without it. The cast held such promise: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine. A plot that involved magicians performing a trick that is a huge con job sounded intriguing. It turns out the real con was the illusion that this movie would have a plot that made enough sense to follow and that was interesting enough that you would want to follow it. Actually, the first third or so of the movie was fairly entertaining. After that it fell apart and degenerated into nothing more than a bland chase movie. The weakest movie I saw all year, unless it shares that dishonor with…

Oblivion

It took forever for this movie to really get going and once it did it didn’t really go anywhere. That gives Morgan Freeman the distinction (with the emphasis on stink) of being in the two worst films I saw from 2013. Better luck next year, Morgan. I still enjoy watching Tom Cruise, despite himself, but his star power wasn’t enough to save this one. Oblivion, indeed.

WHATEVER

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