It's the end of the year, and I've put together a list of five of my favorite movies from 2013. This doesn't mean I consider these the best of the year, but these are the ones that have stayed with me. Narrowing down the list was a little tricky, and there are some on the cutting room floor that deserve a little more (sorry, Pacific Rim). But what can you do? Also included at the bottom is my single biggest regret of the year, cinematically speaking. The favorite list is ordered chronologically.
The one ray of light at the beginning of the year was this piece of sci-fi from April. This is a movie that I liked then, and has grown on me since. The whole thing feels cohesive, that it is all a part of its own world. The design, the story, the music, all work together to produce a couple of hours of entertaining getaway. It has a peculiar beauty and emotional current running through it that resonated with me. I know there were haters then, and you've probably forgotten about it now, but I'd say to give it a shot one night.
2. The Kings of Summer
This one is I think less divisive, but also less circulated. It was a hit at Sundance, but I don't know that much of our local theatre-going public saw much of it. It is on DVD now, so there isn't any excuse. This movie really freshened up the coming-of-age genre for me. It is hilarious and touching and exciting, and it has a distinctive flavor. It is one of those that is as enjoyable watching the second time around as the first, because there is so much to experience. It isn't overwhelmingly dense, but each frame is loaded with summer and adolescence and things to be relived. It is sure to have something that you thought only you and your teenage friends ever did.
3. Blue Jasmine
My favorite character movies of the year came from one of my most idolized directors, Woody Allen. I feel that this is among his strongest movies to date, and much of that is because of Cate Blanchett. She is wonderful. There are so many layers to her character that many actresses might overlook or overexpose, but her precise, delicate touch is at once thrilling and tragic to watch. It is a tragedy for the 21st century. For all its drama and weight there is still some dark humor, but do not look for any comic neuroticism here. Allen writes best when he writes like this, and it is a treat.
Of the movies I've seen this year, Gravity was the most unexpected and surprising. I do not remember such an engrossing, pervasive experience at a theatre. Fun-killers will say that its science is dubious, but since when are we watching a documentary? The elements that make it such a great movie are all sterling: the visual effects, the story being told, its sheer experiential quality. It is movies like this, not flashy action hoedowns and gaudy studio look-at-me's, that make going to the movies the special event it can be, and I'm glad that can still happen in our skeptical age.
5. 12 Years a Slave
I'm the first to be wary when people call a movie "important". It's a movie, not a movement. It is first a piece of art; anything else comes later and is often fleeting. I think the title "important" can only be bestowed decades later, when history has given it a more objective scrutinization. But, 12 Years a Slave is a movie that feels momentous once it is over. Its narrative is vital, and its delivery is flawless. It is respectful, but truthful, and will eventually become a part of our canon of art and literature devoted to the story of slavery. It is still playing, and I urge you to go.
We have come to the real reason you are reading this, to discover what I was hating on enough to decry it in writing. There were disappointments this year, as there are every year. After Earth and Man of Steel come to mind. The one has suffered its anonymous death already, but the other has spawned offspring bred to combat Marvel's unstoppable box-office force. However the movie I speak of here was one that perhaps promised more, and has greater expectations trailing it. And that movie is...
Star Trek Into Darkness
To be brief, I will say that its sins are many and grievous, but the chiefest of these is the central conceit itself. The character of Khan and his consequences for our heroes mean nothing more to uninitiated fans, and ruin the greatest entry of the franchise for everybody else. I am not worried about the rest of the Star Trek franchise, because nothing worse can be done to it, but I am most concerned about a certain other intergalactic property to which JJ Abrams is attached. I know not all of a film's problems can be pinned to the director (I look now at writer Damon Lindelof, who almost ruined the Alien world with his Prometheus meddlings in addition to killing Star Trek) but he most certainly signed off on their being given life. Star Wars: Episode VII has a LOT of convincing to do.
Those are my year-end thoughts, so what about yours? What were your favorite discoveries and hurtful let-downs?
Here we are again, back in Middle Earth for the second chapter of the rip-roaringest dwarf-filledest adventure ever filmed! Last week the only thing on anybody's mind was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and of course this writer was there with the rest of you to partake in the spectacle. Although I was a titch skeptical going in, I feel that these movies have found an appropriate place within the canon, and it was enjoyable besides.
We pick up here where we left off before, following our intrepid dwarf band to the Lonely Mountain. They of course have some jolly adventures along the way (LEGOLAS!), culminating in their confrontation with the titular dragon.
I said I had reservations going in, and they were these: that there would be enough story for three full movies, and that the lighter tone would become cartoony. Concerning both of these I had an epiphany in Lake Town. This trilogy is a prequel series in a kind of legendary sense. In incorporating extra material into The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and company have crafted a sort of mythological backstory to The Lord of the Rings. Hence, its lighter tone and exaggerated action are appropriate, because that is what you do with legends. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is more "realistic" and grounded, and deals with much deeper themes. The Hobbit trilogy is Bilbo's account of things that influence those later events, but they are fairly distant by the time he records them. In the world of Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings can therefore be considered more of a "true" record, and The Hobbit more of a fictionalized account of things that few living people remember.
Obviously it is a little silly to talk about two equally-fantastical stories in such journalistic terms. I know neither story is real, in case you were worried.
To shift gears, I thought the confrontation with Smaug was fairly-nearly worth the wait. Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent casting choice, and he relishes every line. Many have spoken about the addition of Tauriel, so I will only add that I do not think it is necessarily heretical since she adds an emotional element to the story previously absent, but also signals a new concern brewing in me. That is, is this story still Tolkien's story? Many adaptations are substantial departures from the source, but Jackson's gang has done so well remaining true to Tolkien's work that to move away from it at this point could be a foolish thing. Also, the location tag at the beginning and especially the barrel-mounted camera took me out of the world pretty jarringly.
So overall, I will say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was fun, exciting, and a perfect way to escape into everybody's favorite fantasy world. I have concerns going into the finale next year, but I am also confident now in the trilogy's role.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug features Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, and Evangeline Lilly, and is rated PG-13 for the creative dispatch of many many orcs.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro
I hope all of my loyal readers have enjoyed the cinematic climate these past few weeks, because I have been busy not feeling bad about not participating in franchises I don't have any attachment to. Not that there is anything wrong with Thor or Hunger Games or what have you. It's just, when you live in a town like Cedar town, those are the only things that make it to the screen, which I think is a little unfair. So over the holiday I took some time out of family bonding to support my local independent theater and see 12 Years a Slave. I heartily encourage you to go out and see it too.
The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the memoir by Solomon Northup. He is a free man living in the north and is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
Much, I think, has already been said about this movie, and a great deal of it is accurate. People are saying that not only is it a good movie, but that it is an important one. I agree. In many ways, it is in line with films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Like those, it shows history through an unfiltered movie lens, giving a powerful and frank depiction. It is not an easy movie to watch, but it is immensely rewarding and incredibly potent. It tells a story that needs telling to all of us who have at best a mediocre grasp of that chapter of our history.
But, of course, this is a movie we are talking about, not a documentary. This is why I think it is so powerful. The same kind of material in a documentary would be powerful, too, but we often draw a thick line between the present and the documented past. In a movie such as this we dive in, removing our insulation, and it has a special kind of emotional immediacy.
The film itself, aside from subject matter, is also impressive. McQueen is less artistically conservative than someone like Spielberg, and his movie has a distinct flavor. There are agonizingly long shots, intricately choreographed segments, and moments of intense simplicity. The film shows us a different side of slavery. Masters are not all brutal racists, and the enslaved are not all bristling for a chance at freedom. There is a complex morality in this world, among the slaves themselves and also between them and their masters. The film's ultimate goal is something of a portrayal for understanding, not necessarily a call to action. It is not a political movie; it is a movie about humanity and its resilience.
12 Years a Slave is justifiably one of the best movies of the year. The story is important, the craft is excellent, and there are several powerhouse performances to carry it through. Even if you are uneasy about violent or graphic movies, I think you should watch this.
12 Years a Slave features Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumber-batch, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano, and is rated R for its depiction of life in slavery.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley
by Chase Harrison