Aaaah I’m writing a thing.
So here are my top movies of 2013. My usual rules: I’ve had to have seen them, and they’ve had to have come out this year. I’m also mixing in documentaries this time around just because there are some I really liked and wanted to include.
Also as usual, I have high hopes for many movies that came out this year that I haven’t seen yet, so I will release an amended version of the list later on.
#10 — Gravity
Gravity was a lot of fun, though it was almost more of a very good theme-park ride than a movie. I wonder if it would be worth seeing not in 3D or on a big screen – I doubt it; but it was a pretty great experience as it was. Sandra Bullock is also very good, and her talent and charisma saves the movie from being completely trivial. The one scene where she hallucinates George Clooney giving her a pep talk is so stupid that it almost sinks the whole thing, but it doesn’t last very long.
#9 — Europa Report
Another space movie. This one made for a lot less money! (Under ten million dollars versus a hundred million for Gravity.) I admit to a clear bias in my attitude toward this movie. I think the series of discoveries about Jupiter’s moon Europa showing it has a warm subsurface ocean are possibly the most amazing things that have happened during my lifetime. The idea of a manned mission to Europa to sniff out life is so appealing that I would watch almost any movie with that premise. All this said, I think this movie was a good movie about a Europa mission rather than a bad one! There’s an emphasis on accurately depicting what a near-future space mission of this magnitude would really take and be like. The astronauts always come across as professionals doing their job. And when the film does take a dive into some more speculative stuff, it’s fun and inspiring rather than ridiculous.
#8 — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I just continue to really like the Hunger Games movies. Both this and the first are smart, well-put-together blockbusters that do what they’re meant to without disrespecting the audience. Everything comes together, writing, acting, even the special effects don’t detract attention from what’s going on. Jennifer Lawrence is still great, and Donald Sutherland is just awesome — his villainous President Snow gets more screen time this time and is hypnotically scary. Basically, whoever is casting director of the Hunger Games is brilliant (and well-funded, obviously). Every secondary character is just perfectly cast: Stanley Tucci is brilliant and bonkers; Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as the weird techie couple are slightly unexpected but also great. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman seems not to care very much, weirdly.
#7 — Gimme the Loot
“Gimme the Loot” follows two New York teens as they plot to graffiti the big apple that pops up when the Mets hit a home run at Citi Field. This ends up being a pretty classic macguffin, though, since the movie is much more about following around the two leads, Malcolm and Sophia — incredibly appealing as played by Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington — on their daily life and chronicling their interactions with each other and many other characters. The most biting part of the movie is Malcolm’s interaction as drug dealer with a clueless and occasionally cruel rich girl 20-something who seems to have stepped out of a different movie. The tone is light throughout, though, and it’s more a comedy than anything else.
#6 — 12 Years a Slave
Harrowing but really good. There’s something interesting about the idea that to make a really honest movie about slavery, you need a a director and a cast that are either British or otherwise not American. If I had a criticism, it would be that the movie comes across a little bit as a series of episodes and could use more connective tissue. But to a certain extent I think that’s faithful to the source material. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great as a smart everyman forced into these horrific situations. And as a nasty plantation owner, Michael Fassbender comes right up to the edge of camp villainy and just barely avoids falling off.
#5 — Inside Llewyn Davis
I liked “Inside Llewyn Davis” a lot, all with the caveat that it was extremely depressing. The main character is such a sad-sack, and such terrible things keep happening to him, that it really wears you down after a while. This said, the film goes some interesting places, and all the acting — and singing — is pretty terrific. Like everyone else, I think the best thing about the movies is probably Ulysses, the post-modern cat or cats who is off having his own adventure in a parallel universe somewhere. And is Llewyn caught in a Groundhog day style time loop? Maybe? Folk music!
#4 — American Hustle
Really really really weird movie this. I enjoyed it a lot, but boy is it strange. It has a weird arc, the genre is never totally clear, and you never know exactly what you’re feeling about what you’re watching at any point. In the end though it’s an incredible amount of fun to watch. Christian Bale and Amy Adams pull off what I think are my two favorite lead performances in any movie I saw last year as fictionalized versions of the Abscam conners. Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner are also great, and the whole impression you get from the movie is one of just barely contained chaos. Why is there so much weight given to the idea that crooked politicians aren’t so bad? Why do we see little Family Guy style flashbacks throughout? Why do all the male characters have such spectacularly bad hair? I honestly have no idea, but I was never bored. Also, Louis CK almost completely runs away with this movie in a relatively minor part.
#3 — The Great Gatsby
I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby movie. And I can go hot or cold on Luhrmann — I love “Strictly Ballroom” but “Moulin Rouge” is kind of a disaster. And I know critics weren’t wild about this movie! But for one thing, Leonardo DiCaprio really has the charisma to pull off Gatsby. The anachronistic music worked for me too. And yes, the film hits you over the head with its metaphors, but so does the book, for God’s sake, unless I’ve been reading a different Gatsby than everyone else. Certainly, this is miles better than the awful, bloodless Robert Redford movie, though that’s a low bar. Even some things that initially made me nervous, like Tobey Maguire as Nick — and the frame story with Nick in a sanatorium — either worked pretty well or were at least inoffensive. And some things were truly great: I love that Tom comes off as thuggish but cunning instead of just a stupid foil. And the very strange friendship between Jay and Nick is almost more believable on film, because it’s easier to see what each is looking for in each other.
#2 — Stories We Tell
A wonderful documentary by Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley exploring her own family history. But due to smart storytelling (hah!) — and some gimmicks I don’t want to spoil — this is one of those rare documentaries that has as much or more suspense as a fictional narrative. This is a tricky movie, but the tricks are earned and make you more attentive to the story rather than distracting you. This all may sound a little nebulous, since I’m dancing around talking about the way this movie is presented, and even the central question being answered. But that’s because it’s better to watch and see how the film unfolds everything. Summary would be kind of a disservice.
#1 — Computer Chess
This is NOT the movie I had any suspicion would be my favorite of the year before I watched it! I wasn’t even sure going in whether it was fictional or a documentary. It is in fact fiction, loosely in the format of a mockumentary though that format gets smashed to smithereens by the end. Basically, the film — directed by mumblecore king Andrew Bujalski — chronicles a tournament in the early 80s to crown the best chess-playing computer program. At first, it seems almost like a Christopher Guest movie, except for the extremely naturalistic dialogue. Loopy characters who care deeply about an extremely narrow and specialized field. Then, some really odd things start happening. “Computer Chess” at first appears to be a comedy, but that ends up being almost a disguise for something much darker and stranger, occasionally dipping into something like existential dread. Basically, while watching this movie, I had thoughts along the lines of — “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this suddenly went in x direction… but no, that’s too insane.” Then that’s where the movie went! After I watched Computer Chess, I wanted to write fan fiction about it. Far and away the best movie of the year for me. Also, more cats. Here, at least watch the trailer:
So that’s it! Still plenty of movies from 2013 I haven’t seen yet and am excited about though. “Her,” “Frozen,” “Short Term 12,” “The World’s End,” and “The Act of Killing,” just to name a few.