Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best & Worst of 2013

It’s that time of the year: the end. For those of you who are still following The Gibson Review on Facebook, it also means it’s time for my annual best and worst of the year lists.

Now, as is the case every year, I was only able to catch up with half of the 60 worthwhile films that came out this year. I’ve still yet to catch All is Lost, Blue Jasmine, Don Jon, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, You’re Next, as well as majority of December’s releases like Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street, among many others. So, take this list with a pinch of salt, as it might change a bit. But there’s no point in releasing a best of the year list in March, now is there?

I usually look for trends and noteworthy aspects of the year in film. However, there weren’t many recurring trends in 2013, save for two: racism and the economic struggle. For whatever reason, racial politics were prevalent in the cinema this year with 12 Years a Slave, 42, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, and Winnie Mandela hoping to get people talking, with varying degrees of success.

Even more dominant in cinema were people’s economic struggles being reflected one way or another. Blue Jasmine, Captain Philips, Elysium, Frances Ha, The Great Gatsby, Mud, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street all reflected struggles between the Haves & Have Nots or characters representing the 99% dealing with their economic struggles, sometimes by finding a way to make a quick buck.

So, with that said, what were the worst films of the year?

The Worst

Before we count down the best of the year, let’s look at the worst films I saw this year. Luckily, I was able to avoid the obvious train wrecks: Grown Ups 2, Movie 43, Scary Movie 5… There is one that my disturbed curiosity has yet to catch up with, but is looking forward to: Lindsey Lohan’s latest, The Canyons. That will likely hit this list eventually.

4. Lovelace

Lindsey Lohan actually left this film, which was intended to be her return to credibility, before starring in The Canyons with porn star James Deen. Amanda Seyfreid filled her shoes and probably did a better job. Unfortunately, the film is buried under a mediocre script and direction. A film about the star of one of the most popular adult films of all time should’ve become one of the most talked about films of the year. Instead the film inspired a collective shrug and that makes it one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

3. G.I. Joe: Retaliation

I have to admit, this second outing with the Joes is a lot better than I expected – and an improvement over the ridiculous Rise of Cobra from 2009. Dwayne Johnson and Adrianne Palicki served much better action stars than Marlon Wayans and Channing Tatum. And the quippy script was a better direction than the camp and cheese of its predecessor. But it still wasn’t a good film and far from the year’s best action films.

2. The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio. F. Scott Fitzgerald. 3D. This was one of the most anticipated films of the year and its biggest disappointments. The 3D visuals were a feast. The adaptation was mostly faithful. Everything else was a slog. From the unbearably frenetic and anachronistic first 20 minutes to Carey Mulligan’s insufferable performance, it may have been an improvement on 1974’s dull attempt, but there’s nothing great about this one either.

1. World War Z

Yes, it offers a different perspective of a zombie apocalypse than any other film before. Yes, it has a couple effective jump scares. Yes, Brad Pitt does a decent job as he works hard to carry the film. None of that is enough to save a film that bears no resemblance to its source novel outside of its most basic premise. That wouldn’t be so bad if it were nearly as interesting or frightening as the novel. Or if it weren’t full of as many stupid mistakes and plot points this side of last year’s Prometheus. If it weren’t for its star power, this would be another SyFy movie of the week.

Now finally…
The Best
10. This is the End

Seth Rogen and the rest of Hollywood star in the end of the world in one of the year’s freshest, funniest, and least predictable comedies. Yes, it has a few sex jokes typical of any Seth Rogen comedy. But it’s also a great buddy comedy and a lot of fun.

9. Prisoners

Yes, it was way too long (did we really need all that stuff in the middle with Hugh Jackman?). While it may have not been the tightest thriller of the year, it was certainly one of the best. That’s largely due to a script that keeps you guessing and an intense performance by Jackman as a father desperate to find his missing daughter. Prisoners is also one of those unusual thrillers where very few of the characters are one-note (save for Maria Bello’s wailing mother) and the answers aren’t obvious. Prisoners was certainly a nice surprise.

8. 42

Jackie Robinson, like many baseball legends, was due for a biopic. Sure, there was The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Jackie Robinson himself. But that was of-the-moment propaganda that brushed over the unpleasant stuff. Chadwick Boseman, a relative unknown who’d mostly done some TV, gives a warts-and-all portrayal of a man who wasn’t exactly as noble about his role in baseball history as we might think. Harrison Ford gives one of the best dramatic performances of his career as the baseball manager who decides to take the risk of hiring the first black man to the majors. It’s a fine film and one of the year’s earliest homeruns.

7. American Hustle

Christian Bale puts on the pounds. Amy Adams bears cleavage. Jennifer Lawrence gets sexy sassy. Jeremy Renner plays the innocent victim. And David O. Russell (The Silver Linings Playbook) scores a second consecutive hit. While the film asks insightful questions about whom the bigger victim is (the entrapped politician or the black-mailed con man?) and whether or not it’s just to entrap the Haves, regardless of how they intend to use their fortune and power, American Hustle is mostly a fun little trifle. But it’s one of the most interesting and engaging trifles the year has to offer with an of-the-moment all-star cast that gives their best.

6. The Conjuring

The Conjuring is not only the most terrifying film of 2013, it just might be the most terrifying ‘true story’ ever put to film. Director James Wan (Saw) knows how to utilize the old haunted house tropes in effective and fresh ways, while also sprinkling in a pinch of creepy elements from other films (Paranormal Activity and The Orphanage come to mind) without ever relying on gore. Also, if you believe any of what unfolds to be actually true, then that just adds to the chills. The icing on the cake is the film’s cast: Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) as the two parents terrorized by the house they just moved into and Patrick Wilson (Insidious) and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as the two demonologists hired to investigate and clean house. The Conjuring is never campy, never repulsive, just a great old fright fest.

5. Mud

Hopefully, you’ve been paying attention. If you are you’d notice that Matthew McConaughey has steered his career in a much more interesting direction than simple-minded romantic comedies these past few years. You might even notice the rise of director Jeff Nichols, who first got a bit of attention with his debut Shotgun Stories, then gained even more ground with 2011’s Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), and has now pushed just this side of mainstream independent cinema with this coming-of-age story with McConaughey as the titular supporting character. If you haven’t noticed yet, then be sure to check out this film as soon as possible, because it features one of McConaughey’s best performances and one of the year’s most interesting stories.

4. Captain Phillips

A man from a land of poverty and daily struggle for survival leads a team planning on taking from someone who he thinks has enough money to spare so he can improve the quality of his life. Things don’t go as planned. This "Haves vs. Have-Nots" story is the backbone of what happened to Captain Richard Phillips and his crew of the MV Maersk Alabama in 2009. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93) brings his documentary-style focus to both sides of the hijacking that captured the world’s attention. Tom Hanks manages to give a minimalist performance that avoids the award-bait showboating one might expect from a film like this. It proves once again that this once comedic actor has range. Captain Phillips will put you on the edge of your seat as it reaches its climax, even if you recall how reality unfolded. In a year full of true stories, Captain Phillips was among the most gripping.

3. Before Midnight

I know there’s a good chance that most of you out there have barely even heard of Richard Linklater’s romantic Before trilogy, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jessie and Celine, one of cinema’s greatest couples. Because of this, it is very difficult to talk about what makes this film great. As any fan of the trilogy will tell you, it is important not to know anything about anything beyond the premise of 1994’s Before Sunrise (boy meets girl on train; boy and girl talk and get to know each other all night while walking through Vienna). I will say Before Midnight features two of the greatest characters of the year, demonstrating some of the most interesting and grounded realities of love you’ll ever see in film. If you like your love stories to feature more than formulaic plot points and engaging dialogue, don’t see the trailers, go in cold, and enjoy.

2. Gravity

Let’s just not waste any time here: Gravity is one of the best experiences of the year. It is not hyperbole to say Gravity is the best 3D spectacle of the year. It seems every year has one of these: 2009 had Avatar, 2010 had How to Train Your Dragon, 2011 raised the bar with Hugo, 2012 had Life of Pi, and now 2013 had Gravity. It is a technical marvel, a literal jaw-dropping visual wonder that left me literally speechless long after the credits rolled. Just try to catch when the camera cuts to a new shot or figure out how they did some of those zero gravity long takes. Technical achievements aside, Gravity has a simple premise (woman free-floating in space), yet manages to be a metaphor for the fear we have sometimes of letting go in order to live. I would be remiss to not mention this is Sandra Bullock’s greatest performance - perhaps a lifetime best for her – certainly far better than The Blind Side and better than her supporting turn in Crash. Director Alfonso Cuaron takes another step toward greatness. He could quit now and forever be celebrated for Gravity, Children of Men, Prisoner of Azkaban and everything that came before. With Gravity, Cuaron continues to push the envelope and create possibilities for filmmakers of the future.

1. 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen may have made the ultimate film about slavery. While it isn’t quite as brutal or a hard-sit as its reputation suggests, it is a film that refuses to allow its audience to shy away from the reality of slavery. Make no mistake this is no sentimentalized Hollywood gloss-over where the hate, danger, and violence is implied or softened. Nor is there any hope for any moral satisfaction for the audience via slave owners to getting their just desserts or any Great White Hope swooping in to save the main character (and thereby the audience) from any horror they’re about to endure. This film shows the pre-Civil War Deep South for what it was, matter-of-factly. Chewitel Ejiofor steps out of the character actor shadows to carry us through this experience and becomes a star because of it.

Honorable mentions: Side Effects, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Those are my picks for the best and worst of 2013. What are yours?

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I look forward to seeing what 2014 has in store for us. Keep watching!