CJ’s UPDATED Top Ten Movies of 2013

blue-is-the-warmest-color-lea-seydoux

After I’ve seen a few more, here’s my new list, in alphabetical order rather than ranked, and now categorized into fiction and documentary!

TOP TEN FICTION

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Before Midnight

Blue is the Warmest Color

Computer Chess

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

Her

The Hunger Games

Inside Llewyn Davis

TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARY

The Act of Killing

Call me Kuchu

Cutie and the Boxer

The Square

Stories We Tell

My additions into my top ten list were “Before Midnight,” “Her,” and “Blue is the Warmest Color.” All of them were great; “Her” might ultimately be my favorite movie from the last year.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a weird one to think and talk about. So I flat-out loved the movie. But when you read about it, you find out the process of making the film was awful for almost everyone involved. The crew was abused and didn’t get paid enough, and the two actresses were also bullied to the point of tears and terror by the director –especially during the sex scenes. Lea Seydoux said she was humiliated and made to feel like a prostitute. So that’s unsettling: how do you think about it when you watch these incredibly moving and affecting scenes and you know that, while they were being made, the actresses were being tyrannized. It’s difficult to take onboard, and made me wish I liked the movie less. You know, I never really feel any conflict about Woody Allen anymore. He’s an awful person, whose movies also are terrible. Where’s the conflict? But with this, this was a moving, almost brilliant movie. What does one think if the person who made it seems to be at best really nasty, at worst something of a monster? I have no solution to this.

As for the Oscars, I actually was much less horrified that usual about the movies that got awards. “12 Years a Slave” is a fine choice for Best Picture, and the whole slate of nominees was pretty good as a set. Since I’m not the dictator of the Academy Awards, some things will never be how I’d wish — much as I’d like, Sarah Polley is not going to win best director for a Canadian documentary about her family — but all told things basically made sense.

As a postscript, I also saw “Nebraska” and really enjoyed it. Not one of my tops, but notable for being the first thing I’ve seen by Alexander Payne that didn’t make me want to die inside.

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Heroes of 2012

Here’s the other half of my heroes and villains thought-spew.

#5 — Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky (from “Moonrise Kingdom”)

The young couple that runs off to be together in “Moonrise Kingdom.” These guys get to be heroes in my book because they stop at nothing to pursue their love, which may not be forbidden, but is at least very unconventional and earnest. I think it’s that extraordinary stone-faced earnestness which makes the characters so appealing. They’re often funny, but they’re never played for laughs. What they’re doing is at every moment the most serious thing in the world for them, even when everyone around them completely fails to understand it. Suzy’s obsession with fictional young adult paperbacks is also very appealing, coming right up to the edge of the Wes Anderson twee cliff without quite falling off. And another nice thing about the movie is, they succeed in their mission, more or less. They consider themselves to be married, whether or not anyone else does.

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-review-image-Quvenzhane-Wallis-noscale#4 — Hushpuppy (from “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

Another character that blows you away with her genuineness. I think it’s a cool gesture that Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for a best actress Oscar, though I have some doubts that anything a 6-year-old does on film is exactly acting. Hushpuppy saves the world from very large baby piglets and brings her dying father a piece of magic deep-fried alligator, all of which seems freighted with awesome symbolism when you’re watching “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She also just seems so completely real at every moment that it’s almost unsettling to see her on a screen; it’s not something you’re used to seeing at the movies. The thing her portrayal most reminds me of is kids in Francois Truffaut films, but with the added lens of the film’s magic realism, which makes it seem even truer to a child’s perspective.

martin-freeman-as-bilbo-baggins-in-the-hobbit#3 — Bilbo Baggins (from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”)

Martin Freeman continues his run of straight men and audience stand-ins, from Arthur Dent to Dr. Watson to Bilbo Baggins. Martin Freeman reacts! Anyway, Bilbo is so iconic I figured he had to be in here, as almost the founder of the unlikely hero trope. And seriously, Freeman is absolutely the best  imaginable casting for this. “The Hobbit” movie is strongest when it’s firmly focused on Bilbo; it’s when it drifts off into prologues and Thorin’s heroism that it’s weakest. Bilbo is (obviously) the heart of the story, and the fundamental brilliance of Tolkien is that hobbits may be made-up creatures with fuzzy feet, but they’re also much more like you and me than heroes in almost any other fantasy story. Bilbo’s not Siegfried, he’s a guy who likes to eat and read maps. And that makes him automatically more interesting to me than, I don’t know, Conan the Barbarian or something.

JenniferLawrenceHungerGamesKatniss002#2 — Katniss Everdeen (from “The Hunger Games”)

There has been a lot of ink spilled on how Katniss is a new kind of heroine, most of which I agree with. She’s an unusually powerful and independent hero, who is — at least at this point in the story — mostly uninterested in romance with her available man-candy, seeing it as secondary to survival and the protection of her family. She’s competent and powerful at the same time as being vulnerable. She’s a pragmatic hero; she does what needs to be done without worrying too much about grand ideologies. At the same time, you totally believe that she could become the symbol of a movement in the way she does. She has the charisma and the presence. And Jennifer Lawrence is perfect in the role. She’s a serious, skilled actor who is good enough that she makes you believe that she has actually gone through the things the character has.

Daniel-Day-Lewis-as-Abraham-Lincoln-634x445#1 — Abraham Lincoln (from “Lincoln”)

This one is easy. And of course Abraham Lincoln was actually the hero of two movies this year, though I’m concentrating on the Spielberg-y one rather than the one with vampires. Lincoln is another deeply pragmatic hero, who gets things done in the face of incalculable odds. And the stakes he’s playing for are higher than in almost any fictional story that you can think of. He saves the country and its soul. And I noticed that several of my other choices on this list are kids. Lincoln obviously is not. He’s wise and deeply moral without the benefit of the youth, innocence, and naiveté that make it easier. He’s moral despite — or because of — all that he’s lived through and all the pain he’s seen. It also is a nice symmetry that my top hero and my top villain (Old Georgie) both wear a stovepipe hat.

Villains of 2012

I’m still hanging out at home, busy being horribly ill, so I’m going to keep churning these entries out. It’s one of those things, though, where I really don’t know what I’ll make of them later on when the huge doses of cold medication wear off.

Anyway, I thought it would be cool to do an AFI-stye list of the best heroes and villains of the movies in 2012 — so I’ll start with the villains.

#5 — Ravenna (the evil queen from “Snow White and the Huntsman”)

Back to this again. This movie wasn’t good, but I loved the evil queen, or at least what she could have been. Charlize Theron was very scary in an interesting way; she never seemed completely in control, instead she seemed constantly desperate, just hanging on by the skin of her teeth and trying to figure out a way to keep on going. This made her very scary in that you got the sense she was unpredictable, and ready to do just about anything. She’s running scared through the while movie, since the point she finds out that her whole “the fairest” deal isn’t going to last forever. And again, it seems like there’s a much more interesting movie that could have been –that we just get hints of through the brief appearances of this character. Basically since the only way a woman can exercise power — or even stay alive — in the  world of the film is to be beautiful, she decides that she’s willing to do anything that’s required to remain beautiful forever, because the alternative terrifies her.

django-jackson#4 — Stephen (from “Django Unchained”)

Another character I liked from a movie I didn’t. It’s the same deal; I thought Samuel L. Jackson as the house slave Stephen was by far the most interesting part of the movie. He’s a nightmare version of Uncle Tom or Pork in “Gone With the Wind.” He’s the archetypical loyal old male slave who loves his master more than life itself  — and that the master shows a kind of creepy mock deference to. This kind of character is always unsettling to look at through modern eyes anyway, so I like that “Django Unchained” calls it out and makes him the primary antagonist. He’s sort of semi-comic relief, but also has real teeth — he’s the one who figures out what the heroes are up to and stops their plan. And tellingly, when Django ends up slaughtering everybody, he’s the last to die. It makes it seem as though, at least in crazy Tarantino world, Django isn’t just killing the bad guy, he’s killing a symbol of this nasty malingering stereotype. Of course, the more you think about this, the less sense it makes — has Django defeated racism? — but I think that’s true of this movie in general.

8024346983#3 — President Snow (from “The Hunger Games”)

Part of this is because President Snow is a pretty good character anyway, but a big part of it is the brilliant casting of Donald Sutherland and of Donald Sutherland’s beard, which makes him look like an evil Canadian Santa Claus. As the primary antagonist of the whole Hunger Games series, Snow doesn’t even get all that much screen time in the movie, but none of it is wasted. He’s shown as affable, charismatic, and completely cold and ruthless. The books make a lot of hay out of descriptions of Snow’s eyes — “snake eyes” — and Donald Sutherland can do that. He can make his eyes look totally without emotion or sympathy; it’s very creepy. And I mentioned the beard as a joke, but it actually really enhances the character. Snow wants to be seen as this benevolent, paternal figure, so he has this big friendly Walt Whitman beard to cover up how cold and calculating he is.


#2 — The Director (from “The Cabin in the Woods”)

No picture here, because the actor who plays the Director is a fun uncredited reveal and it would be a shame to ruin the surprise for those who haven’t seen the movie. The Director is one of those villains you don’t hate, and to some extent you can’t even fault. He/she is in charge of torturing and killing the heroes of the movie, but you find out it’s all for a pretty good reason: namely to stop the world from being destroyed and every living person from dying in agony. (Why exactly this is is explained in the movie.) So that’s a bummer, but can you really fault him/her for his/her actions, ruthless as they are? The Director is also a fun, “The Third Man” style antagonist who only shows up at the very end of the film after being repeatedly referred to in hushed tones throughout, so it’s a treat when you finally get the reveal, even though he/she isn’t onscreen for very long before things wrap up. And the actor packs a lot of character into those last few minutes.

#1 — Old Georgie (from “Cloud Atlas”)

So Old Georgie — played by Hugo Weaving — is a possibly imaginary devil figure who appears to Tom Hanks in a post-apocalyptic future and tries to push him towards doing the wrong thing. In this guise he gets an awesome Baron-Samedi-type outfit, a warty zombie face and creepy yellow eyes. The cool thing, though, is that in the other time periods the movie covers, Hugo Weaving plays a bunch of other nasty characters, including a vicious assassin, a corporate thug, an 19th-century slaver, and a dictatorial female nurse at a nursing home (seriously). So all these characters and the qualities they exhibit can be see as echoes throughout time of one protean embodiment of evil, hatred, and selfishness. So Old Georgie may or may not actually exist, or may be an archetype of all of humanity’s worst qualities that exists beyond time.

UPDATE: Can we get some more comments up in here? What do you think of my choices?

Calamity Jim’s Top Ten Movies of 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

It time again for my annual top ten list of the movies I liked most this year. Hooray!  This comes with usual caveats, I have to have seen the movie, and it had to have come out this year. I’m also not including documentaries, though I saw some that I really enjoyed.

This was also kind of a weird year — I thought — either for movies in general, or maybe just the ones I saw.  This list has a lot more big-budget wide-release things than usual. Why this is I’m not sure.  I guess I didn’t connect much with many of the smaller independent films I saw this year, and perhaps I also didn’t see as many.

But, when I think about last year, there was “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Arbor,” “Poetry,” “The Trip,” and “Pariah.”  A whole bunch of just astonishingly good movies that didn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and were amazing and transcendent.  In all honesty, I don’t see an equivalent to those movies this year. The obvious candidate I guess would be “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  And I liked that a lot, but it just isn’t in the same league in my mind.  Or maybe I’m just getting less sophisticated and turning more to big popcorn-munching affairs.

Make of all this what you will.  Here is my list as it currently stands. My order of ranking is awfully sketchy and frequently arbitrary.  If you like you can totally ignore it and think of this as ten movies I enjoyed equally, which is close to the truth.

# 10 — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s all about the expectations.  Despite my deep and abiding love for the book “The Hobbit,” I was kind of thinking this might be awful, looking at the reviews. And it wasn’t.  Sure, it’s certainly not a perfect movie. I still don’t understand why the Hobbit needs to be three movies.  And there are too many CGI battles, two completely unnecessary prologues, a weird manufactured albino goblin character, and a terrible terrible moment when Saruman talks about magic mushrooms.  But all this said: coming back to Middle Earth is pretty great, the acting is fantastic, especially Martin Freeman, the comic adventure tone is just right, and everything just looks stellar and beautiful.  Peter Jackson uses 3D in a smart way, he doesn’t throw things out of the screen at you, and the moment when you’re flying over the Misty Mountains with the eagles and it feels like you’re actually there is astonishing and worth the price of admission.  And the high-frame-rate? It worked for me.  Looked bizarre and sped up like the Benny Hill show for about five minutes, then my eyes got used to it, and it made everything that much sharper and more real, especially in 3D. I want more, push it to 60 fps like Douglas Trumbull says; it’s the future.  I’ve got more to say on this, and might do a full review, but time to move on.

#9 — The Dark Knight Rises

This is a similar story of beaten expectations. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a movie I thought would be kind of ponderous, but I actually really enjoyed it.  I was caught up in it from beginning to end, and I never felt like the movie had the kind of thundering pretention of, say, “Inception,” or even Nolan’s earlier Batman movies.  It was a fun movie.  The various interpretations I’ve read of how it alludes to the Occupy movement seem overblown to me. It was a movie about Batman.  All the acting was great, including Tom Hardy, who had to act without a visible mouth and nose.  He’s completely ridiculous, but it’s great. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman continue to be absurdly good, and Anne Hathaway is fun as a character who has all the qualities of Catwoman with the notable exception of the whole — you know — “cat” thing.  Basically, I feared something grinding and self-serious, and got a fun, kind of stupid comic book movie with great actors. Good deal. Also my cat Splenda wants to be Bane for Halloween.

#8 — The Hunger Games

More blockbuster stuff, I know, I know.  I have nothing to say except “The Hunger Games” is really good.  Smart, streamlined, and hits all the right emotional notes.  It’s like a master class in how to adapt something.  In a lot of important ways, it’s better than the book, which I did like.  The most important thing they did right is cast Jennifer Lawrence, who is brilliantly good, and an unconventional leading lady in all the right ways. (Not because some idiots think she’s fat, that’s not what I mean.)  Plus, as a movie about kids killing other kids, it manages not to glamorize all the gore and death, which is not so easy. (Blah blah blah Battle Royale blah blah blah who cares.) Donald Sutherland as a villain is also always a good idea. I would literally be completely happy if he played the villain in every movie ever made.  He’s awesome at it, there’s something intrinsically evil about his weird Canadian accent.

#7 — Skyfall

I think this may be the only James Bond movie I’ve ever seen which is a completely good movie entirely apart from it being about James Bond, if that makes sense.  It also cements in my mind that Daniel Craig is really really good at being James Bond, even with the horrific “Quantum of Solace” under his belt.  He’s funny, sly, and constantly kind of pissed off.  Javier Bardem is hammy and good as a nasty former British agent, and at one point starts feeling up Bond when he’s tied up in a chair, leading to the following great interchange:

BARDEM: There’s always a first time.

BOND: What makes you think this is my first time?

I approve of this.

#6 — Prometheus

So I feel like this is one I really need to defend. Honestly I’m not totally sure I can. Let me start off with: I’m aware this movie makes no sense.  Literally no sense — I can’t list the things about it that make no sense because it’s everything. I can’t really list anything about this movie and its plot that DOES make sense. Yet I enjoyed every minute of it. Basically, “Prometheus” is a loose prequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Characters do things that nobody would ever do, and you’re not sure why. Things happen, and you have no idea why.  Nothing is consistent. And I don’t think this is purposeful and sophisticated and artful, that would be giving it too much credit. But I was always transfixed  by everything onscreen because it was so unusual and visually inventive.  The scenes and dialogue pull you in despite being as nonsensical as something from Lewis Carroll.  Hey, that guy took off his space helmet in an alien ship, and there’s a robot obsessed with Peter O’Toole who dyes his hair. I  don’t get it, but it’s interesting, and I want to keep watching. There are scenes from the movie I keep playing over in my head.

#5 — Safety Not Guaranteed

This was a great, weird little movie with Aubrey Plaza as a magazine intern investigating a man who claims to be planning a trip back in time. It’s very funny at the same time as being surprisingly emotional; you care a lot about the characters.  This will be spoiler-free, but I can say that throughout the movie you go back and forth between thinking this guy might actually have a time machine and thinking he’s just a crazy person. And the movie is smart in that it recognizes that if he IS actually a crazy person, that’s not really funny or cute, but actually very sad and potentially dangerous. This is all a pretty tricky line to walk while still being more or less a comedy, but the movie does it perfectly. And Aubrey Plaza is hilarious.

#4 — Cloud Atlas

I have a weird feeling that I’m on the defensive for a lot of movies on this list. Here too. I really liked “Cloud Atlas,” despite its issues, which include some well-intentioned cross-racial casting which did not actually turn out well — the worst of which is a lot of white actors playing Koreans in heavy make-up.  The deal is that there’s one group of actors who play all the parts as the movie spans 6 separate historical periods, including the 19th century and the far future.  So people are cast across racial and gender lines. This does not always work well, but I feel the fault is one of too much ambition rather than insensitivity. I love the book “Cloud Atlas,” and it seemed to me adapting it is a nearly impossible task.  I think the makers of the film did their best at this impossible task, and came up with something that doesn’t always work, but is really remarkable when it does. Better too much ambition than too little, I think. And a lot of this movie is fantastic, with an incredibly engaging story, and a willingness to tackle big ideas. I like movies that have a thesis about the meaning of life, and this one has one. It’s worth giving it a chance.

#3 — Lincoln

The brilliant thing about “Lincoln” — besides Daniel Day-Lewis, who is not human — is how limited in scope it is. It’s not some massive greatest-hits bio-pic, it’s about a very specific few months of Lincoln’s life, with a very specific goal — the passage of the 13th amendment. It’s basically a political movie, all about scaring up votes with a lot of backstage bullying and pleading. It’s like a very good episode of the West Wing. The other thing that surprised me is how funny it is. Even with the audience’s knowledge of what’s going to happen to Abe, the tone is very light. It’s wistful rather than melancholy, and there a really shocking number of laugh-out-loud moments. About DDL’s performance, I really don’t even know how to talk about it without drifting into self parody, so I won’t try.

#2 — Moonrise Kingdom

I think “Moonrise Kingdom” is now my favorite Wes Anderson movie. I like it because it takes place somewhere which is similar to the real world, but is also clearly imaginary.  I also like it because you end up liking all the characters; even the closest thing it has to a villain, Tilda Swinton as a very tightly wound woman from social services (who is apparently named Social Services.)  Bruce Willis and Ed Norton are both incredibly sweet in this movie, as are the strange young leads. Because of the movie’s obvious sympathy for all the people in it, it never gets too far down road to arch and twee as Anderson sometimes does, it actually is almost painfully ernest throughout.

#1 — Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods is up here on the top because it was my single most enjoyable experience at the movie theater this year. It’s a completely ridiculous horror movie written by Joss Whedon — and it starts out as the story of a group of college kids going out to a creepy cabin for vacation.  But the movie very quickly takes a hairpin turn away from what’s expected and becomes a crazy meta-commentary on why we watch horror movies to begin with. It’s hard to discuss specifics, because I don’t want to ruin anything, but the cast gets bigger and the story quickly broadens to become half farce, half bloodbath. It’s hysterically funny at the same as being scary.  Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford have an important part I can’t really talk about.  I always say I like movies that have theses, and this one has one, though it’s not about the meaning of life exactly. It’s about horror movies and the desire to punish and destroy youth in our society. That sounds very weighty though, which “Cabin in the Woods” is not. It’s just awesome.

UPDATE: Thought it might be interesting to mention some of the better regarded movies I saw this year which did NOT make the top ten for me.  These include:  “Chronicle,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Avengers,” “The Kid With a Bike,” “The Master,”  and “Django Unchained.” I liked all of these on balance, except perhaps “Django Unchained.”  Movies I did NOT see, but hope to soon, include “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Argo,” Looper,” and “Holy Motors.”