Jan 30, 2014


With only 2 days left in January - what I refer to as the "bubble month" in terms of "Best of the Year" lists (I mean come by February, nobody really cares anymore - and even if they do now is questionable). 

I wanted to be sure to catch as many films as possible to try and not miss anything essential.  While a few films have eluded me (Inside Llewyn Davis being one for various reasons - it's on Disc March 11 so I may have to wait until then) I kept adding to my list of much watches thanks to podcasts such as Linoleum Knife, etc.  So while I would have loved to check out The Source Family and Concussion before assembling this list, I finally had to cut it off.

Not that I was lacking for titles this year as I have fifteen titles that I absolutely loved (I don't want to corner myself into a defined number like "10" so it becomes a popularity race) as well as two that qualify as my "Pop" movie surprises that while perhaps not strong enough for a "Best of" list, deserve mention.  I usually only pick out one title per year for that honor, but I was so torn between two that I decided to include them both. 

My list this year also has a record number of documentaries included (three).  Also note, that while some of these may have premiered in other territories or film festivals in previous years, I go by the U.S. general or limited run release dates.

So here it is, I finally lay the 2013 movie year to rest with my Top picks in order of preference.

NOTE: While I try to steer away from major spoilers, there are minor plot points or elements mentioned that  some people might consider spoilers.  Throwing that out there just in case...

BLUE JASMINE  (Dir: Woody Allen)

The make a movie a year output of Woody Allen definitely has its drawbacks.  For every Match Point there's a Scoop.  However, every so often Woody amazes us all by releasing a truly great movie that reminds us why he's one of the top directors not only working today, but of all time.

Within the last ten years, two Woody Allen films have topped my best of list - Match Point (2005) and Midnight in Paris (2011) - so mark this as number three.

Woody has a knack for excellent casting choices - especially with women - that end up winning a large majority of them awards and judos.  This time it's Cate Blanchett who the press almost declared a lock for an Oscar the moment this picture was released last summer.  She's won a Golden Globe and I believe is still considered the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

I have seen movies where the performances are beyond outstanding, but the movie itself can't quite keep up - this is not one of those.

Blanchett plays a New York socialite who is forced to relocate to San Francisco to live with her working class sister after a financial scandal sends her husband (Alec Baldwin) to prison and they lose everything - the homes, the cars, the vacations in the Hamptons and most importantly, the money, social standing and prestige.  As you can imagine, adapting is a challenge for Blanchett's Jasmine.

It's hard not to think of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire in Blanchett's performance of a woman forced to reinvent her life, but is struggling in the process.  An example has Blanchett's character telling her sister that she flew First Class from New York to San Francisco even as she announces she's flat broke.  She continually lies to herself and others about her situation.  Is she lying purposely, or is she so deluded that her mind can't adjust to the reality of the situation?  That question is one of the elements that makes this picture so great, not to mention a surprising twist that I personally did not see coming.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.

ALL IS LOST  (Dir: J.C. Chandor)

If anyone was truly robbed of a nomination when this year's Academy Award Nominations were announced, it was Robert Redford.

This was the year for stranding people in difficult situations where they are forced to fend for themselves while trying to survive and reach safety.  I am of course also referring to Gravity which I will discuss down below.

This is a one-man show with Redford stranded by himself on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean when a minor calamity sets off a series of events that make his fight for survival difficult.  Virtually dialogue-free, Redford's movie star presence not only has to command the screen but also be enough to keep the audiences rapt attention - which he does in spades. 

Robert Redford to me has always been one of those actors - like say a Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Burt Lancaster, etc., etc. - that personifies the term "movie star" - and he knows it.  Even when he's doing press junkets promoting independent films or the Sundance Film Festival, this guy knows that he's a name brand that during a certain era, his name carried a picture and drew audiences in.  He's also an accomplished and Academy Award Winning director.  This however, was the first time I felt that Redford lets his hair down and truly plays an "everyman".

He's a smart everyman at that, one that is prepared for every eventuality.  While viewing, I imagined Redford's character walking around Home Depot or Costco stocking up on supplies and gear for this trip as he makes himself simple meals and pulls out numerous pieces of gear to help himself out of his troubling situation.  I also imagine he's not like James Franco's character in 127 Hours, meaning he probably has told someone where he is, where he's going and how long he plans to be gone for.  The thing is, this movie throws every eventuality at him so even when he solves one problem adeptly and calmly, there's another one right around the corner that he needs to confront.  It leads up to a key moment of dialogue - one lone word that says everything about the character in that moment, and as an audience member you can't help but feel "I would have said that ages ago." 

Very similar to Gravity, I think I liked this one more because not everyone will find themselves trapped in space, but being lost on Earth where the chances of being rescued depends on being noticed by a plane, a boat or any living person that happens to be passing by at the moment, or reaching land which is more within reach than getting back to Earth from Space.

All is Lost will be released for purchase on Blu-ray, Digital HD and DVD on February 11, and is available for Digital HD rental through various retailers including Amazon (and I would imagine) iTunes.

PRISONERS  (Dir: Denis Villeneuve)

This is not an easy picture to sit through as it's a raw and tough movie that doesn't pull any punches - although it felt during many moments like it was indeed punching me as a viewer with its intensity.  Even saying that though, I couldn't tear myself away from it, even when troubling things were happening and I found myself trying to "will" characters into taking actions I wanted them to take in order to make everything okay. 

It's a dark story about two girls who are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, and a father (Hugh Jackman) who is losing his mind and going to violent extremes to try and get them back - even if it means holding his own hostage.  Assigned to the case is a no-nonsense cop played by Jake Gyllenhaal whose tattoos and awkward, stuffy way of dressing (he does the buttons up all the way to the top, but doesn't wear a tie) hints at a troubled past of his own.  There is one moment in this movie that is so tough to watch, I had to turn away from the screen and you could audibly hear the rest of the audience react to it as well.  When the lights came up following the credits, you could sense that the audience as a whole felt like they had been put through a meat grinder (in a good way) and my Dad, who was with me, looked at me laughing stating "okay so who's idea was this again?" (for the record, he liked it).

 Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.

GRAVITY  (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron)

Here's the other picture released this year that had a big movie star (Sandra Bullock) stranded in an isolated situation fighting for survival and to return home.  Bullock is lost in space but has some temporary company in the form of George Clooney.  Unlike Redford, Bullock is completely ill-prepared for the situation she finds herself in and has to figure things out on the fly.  Not to mention [POSSIBLE SPOILER] there is a great ticking clock element of a complication that shows up every so often and threatens to make things worse. 

With great use of 3D and the big screen, even though there is really only one person throughout the majority of the movie, this plays stronger with a theater viewing rather than watching at home - where I still think it will be effective, but not as much.  Many moments will leave you gasping and the gasps don't let up much, especially during the ending which I won't be spoiling here.

Gravity got a much wider more commercial release than All is Lost, and is available on Digital HD on February 11, and Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray Disc and DVD on February 25.

HER  (Dir: Spike Jonze)

Her is a picture that has topped many "Best of" lists for the year, and almost topped mine as well as I contemplated for a while putting it on top.

It's the story of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his very personable computer/smartphone Operating System (Scarlet Johansson who is so much sexier than Siri) and carries on a very intimate and human relationship with her. 

The love story is touching - even though one of the "individuals" is just a disembodied, artificial intelligence voice - and it makes a great statement about how attached we are to out devices these days, hinting that at some point it is going to get a lot worse, not better.  I mean go anywhere at anytime and almost everyone around you is transfixed with their smartphone, tablet or iPad.  I've even been at parties and had conversations with people as they used their devices (oh yeah, full disclosure - I do it too). 

What really stood out in this movie for me was just how everyone reacts to Joaquin's new relationship in that they just accept it as "oh yeah, cool".  All except for one person...but that would be a major spoiler and I don't want to ruin this movie for anyone.  A must see!

The movie is still in theaters, and as far as I know has not been announced for the home market as of this writing.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT  (Dir: Richard Linklater)

I have a friend who on Facebook stated she will stop reading any top 10 list that includes this film.  So while I hope she sticks around, chances are she's already moving on. 

This third film in the trilogy that includes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2005) returns us to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, now a together couple living in Europe and when we rejoin them, are vacationing in scenic Greece. 

If you've ever wondered what happens to a fairy tale-like movie couple after the credits roll, well this is it.  The movie is 100% dialogue driven yet absolutely engaging as the characters vent and work through their relationship issues.  In Sunrise and Sunset you wanted these characters to get together, and well here they are together years later and like every couple, they have their problems.  What seems like a happy vacation turns on a dime when regrets and expectations flare up and some pretty nasty things are said between two people who moments before seemed like there were happily in love.  It's a very real examination of a relationship, more so than I have seen in any other movie.

I liken this trilogy to Michael Apted's Up series that revisits a group of people every 7 years that began when they were 7 to see what they are now up to, and how life has treated them.  I hope that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy take that approach as I would happily check in with this couple every so often to see how things are going.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.

CUTIE AND THE BOXER  (Dir: Zachary Heinzerling)

One of the three documentaries I spoke of in the preamble, this Academy Award nominated film gives us a glimpse into the lives of painter Ushio Shinohara (who boxes with paint on his canvases which is where the Boxer in the title comes from) and his long-suffering wife who is also an artist, but lives in the shadow of her more famous - and sometimes extremely self-absorbed and clueless - husband.

While there are some segments that feature vintage footage of the couple, for the most part the director just lets the camera run and the couple goes about their business as though it isn't there. 

It's a very emotional love story, and there is one (older) clip in particular that is so heartbreaking, it says more about the idea of starving for your art than anything I have ever seen put on film.

Currently available on Digital HD and streaming on Netflix.  Will be available on Blu-ray Disc and DVD on February 4.

RUSH  (Dir: Ron Howard)

One of the more disappointing developments of this year is the fact that Rush has been overlooked by most critics and awards thanks to a crush of prestige movies that stole its thunder.  It also struggled at the box office which is a shame because Ron Howard's Formula One picture that focuses on the 1970s rivalry between Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is fantastic.

There were moments in this movie where I found my allegiance torn between both characters as the actors do a great job of winning over viewer sympathy as well as losing it - sometimes within the same scene.  Bruhl in particular is outstanding.  I also felt the movie played with many of the elements that are featured in the majority of sports movies, in a sense turning the genre on its ear while still tapping into the energy that makes them audience favorites.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.

THE HUNT  (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

This Danish picture that is among this year's nominees for Best Foreign film is one that I want to be careful talking about as it is so engaging that I don't want to risk spoiling any second of it.

I will go so far to say that it is about a teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) who finds his life torn apart by a vicious (and for the most part, accidental) rumor. 

Every character makes some sort of error that at first wouldn't seem to cause a problem, but ends up helping things to spiral out of control.  It makes strong statements about how much interaction adults should have with other people's children, the damage of a rumor and assuming the party is guilty even when evidence appears that proves hes innocent can do as well as why young children should never be subjected to pornographic material. 

There was one moment that I had to stop the movie and walk away to calm down as I feared that it was about to go to a very troubling place.  Again, a must-see movie and a strong, sympathetic performance from an actor that is best known for playing a Bond villain in Casino Royale and Hannibal Lecter on TV.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix.

BLACKFISH  (Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

I'm going to ashamedly admit I avoided this movie for a while.  I assumed it was the usual "animals shouldn't be in zoo's" type argument that I often find is weak.  Boy, was I wrong.

Blackfish documents a series of troubling events - some of them fatal - involving whales and their trainers at SeaWorld.  The movie succeeds in a few key areas.  First of all, the argument against SeaWorld is ironclad.  I can understand why companies generally don't comment for pieces like this because let's face it, they usually are toeing a company line thanks to lawyers and carefully prepared press releases, and they can never tell how a movie is going to be edited to make them look (and most times, it's bad no matter what as we are increasingly becoming an anti-corporate population).  In this case, there is nothing SeaWorld or their representatives can say that can argue against ANYTHING said or shown on-screen.  It doesn't help their cause that the majority of bad things take place in front of crowds of camera-toting, video-filming tourists (of which the majority are children and families) that capture it all first hand.  In EVERY single instance, the camera footage is completely contrary to what the company states happened. 

Another success for this film is the fact that none of the employees they use to build their argument seem bitter against SeaWorld or their jobs.  They all come off as professional, well trained in their positions and genuinely loved their jobs and the creatures they were charged with training and engaging with.

Finally, the filmmakers don't just focus on the idea that these are wild creatures enduring captivity, but also the fact that they are forced to perform for audiences under the guise of "they're happy to do so" and that they are unpredictable no matter how "well-trained" they are.

I mean come on [POSSIBLE SPOILER] any fatality on a job is a bad one, and here there are moments when there are segments of news footage featuring SeaWorld spokespeople making a case that are so outrageously offensive and wrong, it will infuriate you, literally putting words into the mouths of dead people.

I audibly gasped at least four times while watching this, and the chances of me not ever buying a ticket to SeaWorld but instead taking a spot outside the park to protest (and I am not a fan by any means of protesting - anyone who knows me will back that up) went up 100%.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix.

THE ACT OF KILLING  (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn)

If ever there was a film that proves there is unrepentant evil in the world, this is it.

In another of this year's Academy Award Nominated Documentary Features, the Act of Killing focuses on former Indonesian death squad leaders re-enacting their past real-life murderous acts. 

Here's the disturbing thing, for the most part they are gleeful about it!  The killers are boastful, seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and envision themselves as cool, Hollywood-like Gangster types that were justified in their horrific acts.  In turn, you as a viewer will be horrified.

There is one guy in particular who comes off as such an evil, mindless thug that it is unbelievable he's not a real person - but he is.  [POSSIBLE SPOILERS]  He not only openly shakes down a random shopkeeper for money, completely ignoring the fact there are cameras capturing the event, but later as he sits back in a lawn chair he describes some of the deeds he carried out on young women, bragging about their pleas for mercy and appears ABSOLUTELY PLEASED WITH HIMSELF.  I put that last part in caps because I still can't believe what I saw.  There is also a disturbing sequence where the individuals appear on an Indonesian Television talk show (think Regis and Kathy Lee-like), and with an audience completely comprised of sympathetic-to-their-cause soldiers, openly brag about their acts of killing and murder.

There are moments of revelation as the individuals play the parts of their victims, one in particular that has to be seen so I'm going to stop talking about it right now.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD in both theatrical and extended cuts, and is also currently streaming on Netflix.

12 YEARS A SLAVE  (Dir: Steve McQueen)

I'm not going to say a lot about this picture as it is featured on numerous "Best of" lists as well as being a top contender for this year's Academy Award for Best Picture except to say that director Steve McQueen's adaptation of Solomon Northup's story of being abducted and forced into slavery is as good as everyone says it is.

One scene in particular which is a mix of horrific actions set against a backdrop of tranquility will stick with you and is easily among one of the strongest cinematic images of 2013 - if not the strongest.

Still playing in Theaters, no Home Entertainment format release date announces as of this writing.

DON JON  (Dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

I was pleasantly surprised by this feature film directorial debut by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, 10 Things I Hate About You, Inception) that made a splash on the festival circuit.

Also starring in the film, he plays a likable New Jersey guy who engages more with pornography than with real people, even if the girl comes in the form of Scarlet Johansson. 

At first I wondered where this movie was headed, but as it progressed I felt it grounded itself in a very emotionally engaging story that could have easily strayed into misogynistic, overtly sentimental or even silly territory.  I found the final character resolution refreshing.

FRANCES HA  (Dir: Noah Baumbach)

It's hard not to like this film about a New York woman (Greta Gerwig) who seems incapable of fully growing up, accepting that people - no matter how close they are to you - will move on, or getting the idea that she has to put some actual work into achieving her dreams. 

Available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo package from the Criterion Collection, via Digital HD and is currently streaming on Netflix.

THIS IS THE END  (Dir: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)

I fully expected this movie to fall into the trap of a group of big names in comedic film - playing themselves - letting their ego run wild in a vanity project.  Instead, this is an extremely funny movie where all involved let themselves be the butt of the joke. There are some great comments about living in Los Angeles and working in Entertainment, and I was quite surprised at the amount of religious references - especially in terms of the Rapture - that the movie featured. 

The actors seemed to as good a time making it as I did watching it.

"Surprise" Honorable Mentions

THE CONJURING  (Dir: James Wan)

To put it bluntly, this movie scared me half to death.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and even had to turn on all the lights and find ways to ease the tension the film was creating within me. 

James Wan is proving to be a top-notch horror director with the first Saw, both Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2 and this one is better than all three combined.

Anyone who has watched horror movies can pretty much set their watch to the "scare" moments or jumps, but Wan plays with those expectations and will often hit you with an image or "jump" when you least expect it, or pile them on top of each other in such a way that keeps you on edge.  He also manages to deal with plot elements like "so, why don't they just leave the house?" in a logical and believable manner. 

It's a haunted house story, as well as a Poltergeist-like story with elements of The Exorcist thrown in and I don't recommend watching it alone.  Sure there are flaws in the narrative - which is why it's down here and not in the full-on "top list" - but wow does this movie pack a punch.

It will be interesting to see what James Wan does with the Fast and the Furious franchise as he takes over from Justin Lin (who has directed each installment from Tokyo Drift - a.k.a. part 3 - on) for part 7.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.

THE PURGE  (Dir: James DeMonaco)

When this movie was announced, I really didn't think much of it as it sounded like countless others featuring a family trapped in their own home terrorized by crazies (like say The Strangers).  However, I found myself caught up in this quickly and although the plot really offers nothing truly new, it succeeded in entertaining and engaging me enough to include it as an honorable mention.

Set in a virtually crime-less American future where the government has set aside one night where murder is legal, allowing the citizens to get out their angst as the entire nation falls into legal anarchy.  Ethan Hawke plays a well-to-do alarm salesman, providing the more affluent citizens with the means to lock themselves in their homes, protected from the chaos outside.  His son (Max Burkholder) makes a mistake allowing a homeless man being chased by a gang of killers to take refuge within their confines, and the mob wants him sent outside, or else they're coming in after him.  What follows is a tense sort of Assault on Precinct 13 like action story with some intriguing twists and turns that keep things interesting while making a social statement about the anger that seems to becoming a common thread throughout modern American society (for instance try honking at anyone these days without inspiring severe road rage).  There is one twist that comes up that I kind of saw coming thanks to some fairly obvious foreshadowing, but that didn't diminish my reaction to it when it played out.

A sequel is in the works.

Available on Blu-ray Disc, Digital HD and DVD.