But wait! There’s one more. Technically speaking, I already did a year-ending top ten list, but it occurs to me it was strictly confined to one genre: Here’s my top ten list of horror movies for 2013.
The ten movies to appear below are my favorite movies from 2013 which have [theoretically] little to do with horror. I’ll get to them in a second. But there are some honorable mentions to be mentioned. Some of the movies that could just as easily have made this list were
TO THE WONDER,
SHORT TERM 12,
MAN OF TAI CHI,
THE ICEMAN [here’s my review], and
A BAND CALLED DEATH [here’s my review of that one.]
Make sure to check out those movies. They’re all very worth seeing. Ultimately, though, there were ten I liked even more. This list is in order. It’s the least I could do. These are the ten movies I’m most willing to go to bat for, or to go to the mat for, depending on the sport. I will fight anyone on behalf of these movies.
In the well-populated theater where I saw HER, you could have heard a pin drop. Really. I dropped like twenty pins to test it. And that sucked, because I was barefoot that day. In the theater where I saw HER, you could hear me going “OW OW OW OW OW!”
But seriously folks. HER is a movie which earns its silences. It feels like a very tender, very intimate movie, with subdued, fuzzy cinematography and warm colors in the costuming and production design, all of which have a very absorbing effect. HER is subtly innovative in its details — it takes place in the future but looks only a few believable steps away from today. The futuristic elements are convincing but not distracting. It all feels lived-in, cozy. You’re listening to Scarlett Johansson’s recognizably rich voice and a low-key Joaquin Phoenix cooing to each other through the entire movie. HER feels like lazing around in a pigeon’s nest with bedding made from chinchilla fur.
The premise of the movie is brilliant and vitally current, a love story between man and his technology. How many of us are now inseparable from our smartphones? Due to size, portability, and design, our phones are with us at our most intimate moments. I’ve fallen asleep with my phone beside me more times than I can count. I haven’t fallen love with my phone, but I have fallen in love through it once or twice before. So I get it. This movie is relevant, contemporary, prescient, beautiful, sad, all those things. But there’s something else.
Along with the sound of twenty pins dropping, in that theater you also could have heard me chuckling. This movie is wry and funny. I wonder how much of it is meant to be satire. Filmmaker Spike Jonze and his collaborators are rightfully getting rave reviews for somehow managing to make the relationship between a lonely man and a self-aware computer system so believable and so touching. But this is also a guy who, in 2013 alone, helped make BAD GRANDPA and played a comedy cameo in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. He’s a prankster at heart. What are we to make of scenes where the lead character turns down the impossibly beautiful Olivia Wilde in favor of his phone, or where he takes the phone on a picnic double-date with Chris Pratt’s character and his girlfriend? It’s thanks to the particular genius of Spike Jonze that the audience nearly forgets the absurdity of such moments in favor of their investment in the love story angle — in fact, the love story is meant to be taken as genuine, but at the same time, the joke is right there in plain sight. And at whose expense?
DID I REVIEW IT?: Just did!
9. THIS IS THE END
Outside of the diner scene in BAD GRANDPA, Harrison Ford’s dramatic metamorphosis in ANCHORMAN II, and everything Alan Rickman did as Ronald Reagan in THE BUTLER, there wasn’t anything in a 2013 movie I laughed at harder than the argument between James Franco and Danny McBride over personal hygiene in THIS IS THE END. Those two argue a lot in this movie, but that one specific argument is a highlight. And that’s just one of many incredibly funny scenes in THIS IS THE END, which, I’m so sorry, has it all over THE WORLD’S END (assuming it’s got to be a contest.) America just plain does the end of the world better, maybe because we’re the ones who will probably end up causing it. And I know Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Canadians, but come on, Canada is just America with weirder bacon.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Yes. That’s why this paragraph was so short. Need more? Click here!
8. JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS
The way I feel about Stephen Chow’s movies is the way you probably feel about Pixar’s movies. JOURNEY TO THE WEST may not be his single best film, but it’s a strong addition to a beautiful filmography. Fleet, funny, broadly universal, and unexpectedly moving, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is the story of a young demon hunter (Wen Zhang) who takes on a wild menagerie of monsters and villains, looking to get them to change their evil ways rather than simply killing them. He’s both aided and bedeviled along the way by a pretty demon hunter (Shu Qi) and her gang of killers (including the insanely cute Chrissie Chau), all of whom would prefer the more extreme option. That relationship is the through-line of the movie, which otherwise progresses from demon battle to demon battle. The characters voyage through a variety of environments; some inviting, like the open-air river battle against a gigantic fish demon, and others less inviting, like the hellish domain of the nightmarish pig demon. Most prominently featured is the Monkey King (Huang Bo), the most duplicitous of the creatures but also the most likable and enjoyable. He’s the reason for the movie’s dance sequence, is all I’m saying. Like all of Stephen Chow’s movies, JOURNEY TO THE WEST reaches heights of joy few movies can match, but also comes with moments of heartbreak. It’s an epic adventure stuffed with comedy that ends up having agreeably spiritual resonance, based as it is on a classical work of literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty. But it also has a giant gorilla. This movie really does have everything you need from any movie.
DID I REVIEW IT?: No. You don’t need any words from me besides SEE IT.
7. THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Just a lovely, indelible movie, every frame imbued with honesty. I’ve come to expect heart-on-sleeve honesty from director James Ponsoldt (SMASHED) but it can’t have been easy to do it in the high school genre, which is why the delicate performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so remarkable and appreciated. Every actor in this film brings uncommon soulfulness to it — even Bob Odenkirk, the great comedian, broke my heart in a small role. I kind of like that THE SPECTACULAR NOW is by and large existing outside of the awards-season horse race: It’s a movie which deserves better than that. It’s sweet and sad and true and deep and very, very valuable.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Yes. At length. Click here.
6. ONLY GOD FORGIVES
I can just hear the muttering. First of all, if I let you have BLUE JASMINE or FRANCES HA, you can let me have this. Secondly, if PAIN & GAIN was on your best-of list, you need to be quiet right away. ONLY GOD FORGIVES gets better the more I think about it, and I think about it a lot. It’s haunting in a creepy and fairly awesome way. I know that ONLY GOD FORGIVES is widely hated; what I don’t fully understand is why. My best guess is that it’s the follow-up to DRIVE, such a breakthrough for director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling. DRIVE was widely beloved because it was a love-lorn crime movie in dreamy 1980s drag, Michael Mann distilled for a new generation. DRIVE starred a heartthrob best known for THE NOTEBOOK, hazily amorous and very music-oriented: PURPLE RAIN, if Prince had wielded a hammer in anger. Now, ONLY GOD FORGIVES has many of the same signifiers as DRIVE: director, star, composer, poster artwork in soft colors, only purple where DRIVE was pink. But comparatively, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a very bitter pill. It’s darker, nastier, sleazier, and ultimately unreassuring. DRIVE‘s ending was romantic; ONLY GOD FORGIVES‘ ending couldn’t be bleaker. That’s hard to take, especially if you weren’t expecting it.
But even if you violently disagree with me about the quality of this movie, I must ask, HOW CAN YOU DISCOUNT A MOVIE THAT LOOKS LIKE THIS?
The cinematography is by Larry Smith, who did lighting on Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT. The Kubrick connection is intriguing: In ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Smith’s camera roves through darkened hallways and dangerous alleyways in a manner which could easily recall Kubrick’s lone horror film. In a year that brought ROOM 237, a deranged documentary parsing THE SHINING for hidden meaning, here’s that same film’s demented grandson. Combined with the pipe-organ-heavy, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA-feeling score by Cliff Martinez, ONLY GOD FORGIVES goes beyond eerie. It’s hellish. The awful violence and upsetting sex only contribute to the sense that this movie is transpiring in some dark netherworld. At the same time, when the graceful camerawork encounters the lush production design by Beth Mickle, the movie reaches a level of supreme beauty — there are colors in this movie that feel like they were only just discovered by the movie. Those who complain about the supposed slowness of the movie clearly aren’t taking the time to luxuriate in its visuals. Are we theater people or are we film people? Try to remember, this is a visual medium. The pictures matter as much as the writing or acting.
This film, sparse on plot, makes sense when looked at as a kind of Purgatory. There are no heroes here. Gosling’s character, Julian, is an American running a drug business in Thailand, the worst kind of Ugly American. He sees a prostitute named Mai regularly, but she seems terrified of him and his barely-contained rage. Just because she’s beautiful and so is he, that doesn’t make this a romance. Julian’s brother Billy is a more overt kind of monster, having raped and murdered an under-aged prostitute. When Billy is killed, his and Julian’s mother Crystal arrives, demanding that Julian avenge his brother. Crystal is a piece of work, sexually inappropriate, vicious, and lacking in any kind of morals. Kristin Scott Thomas is awfully magnificent in the role — she’s rarely been this interesting and formidable before. Julian doesn’t seem strongly inclined to avenge Billy, so she pushes him until he makes an attempt, which doesn’t end well for anyone. The entire engine of the plot — avenging a despicable killer and sexual deviant — has not a trace of nobility. There’s no one here for an audience to latch onto emotionally, which may be another reason viewers have trouble with it. For me, I found fascination with the film’s most active character, Chang, the police lieutenant who patrols the Thai underworld with a fearsome coldness and a sharpened sword whose blade is kept busy throughout the film. Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm would be nobody’s idea of an action hero — he looks like he could disappear into a crowd — but his performance here is redoubtable, elemental, almost mythic, more akin to a Leone character than anything else. If Sergio Leone were still working in 2013 I wonder if people would find his movies slow, or indulgent, or impenetrable, or whatever people have attacked ONLY GOD FORGIVES for being.
This is the one movie on my list I predict all these slickster critics who crapped on it in 2013, grouping it among the ‘worst of the year,’ are going to try to quietly take back in five years. Maybe I’m wrong there. But I’ve been proven right before, about a lot of once-unpopular opinions more far-out than this one. Look it up. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a movie where the nominal villain dismembers the nominal hero and then sings a lullaby over the end credits. There’s no way that doesn’t get it into my top ten.
DID I REVIEW IT?: No, but hopefully all of the above makes up for it.
5. DRUG WAR
The best action movie I saw in 2013. If you liked the big bank-robbery setpiece in Michael Mann’s HEAT, you’ve got to see the comparable gunfight that caps off DRUG WAR. With DRUG WAR, Hong Kong director Johnnie To has made his first action movie in mainland China, an event with global import. (Hong Kong has more independence than mainland China, where movies are subsidized in part by the government and thus subject to more restrictions in matters of violence and morality.) In this film, our main protagonist is a gangster turned police informer (Hong Kong star Louis Koo) whose actual motives are constantly in doubt. The police, headed by a humorless but effective veteran officer (Chinese actor Sun Honglei), can never know if they can fully trust the information they’re being given here. Some of the perps, including the scene-stealing mute brothers, are sympathetic and likable. There’s plenty of ambiguity here. In the end, the film’s perspective on whether or not crime pays appears to be definitive, but the nuance along the way fascinates as much as the superlative, immaculately composed action filmmaking thrills.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Nuh-uh. This movie is about deeds, not words. See it.
4. SPRING BREAKERS
SPRING BREAKERS is a minor miracle as far as casting goes. It takes the spring-break movie genre, along with three of today’s most popular Disney-farmed actresses, and drops them all into a sinister world of crime and perversion. As the carnival barker of this particular freakshow, James Franco exults in a meta-performance both infuriating and astonishing. This movie is gross and excessive but necessary and telling. Love it or hate it, you will remember it. I don’t always look at memorability as a measure of a film’s value, but in this case it applies. SPRING BREAKERS just feels relevant. For good or for bad, it marks the era we’re currently living in. It’s been this way in America for a while (from Britney Spears to George W. Bush), but never before has it felt more this way: vacuousness is valorized while thoughtfulness is disregarded. Whether you think SPRING BREAKERS is just another example of that cultural vacuousness or a sly satire of it, it’s still the perfect movie to fit the moment.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Damn straight. Click here!
3. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
Maybe the most jubilant movie about movies ever made. Almost every prolific director seems to end up making a movie directly or indirectly about making movies — from Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) to John Carpenter (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), from Clint Eastwood (BRONCO BILLY) to Spike Lee (SHE HATE ME), from George Romero (KNIGHTRIDERS) to Martin Scorsese (THE AVIATOR) — and now here comes the one by Japan’s Sion Sono. The story centers around a long-running feud between two factions of violent gangsters. Aside from war in the streets, the head of one mob is dedicated to making his daughter (the very young, very appealing Fumi Nikaido) a movie star. Towards that end, he recruits a group of would-be filmmakers calling themselves “the Fuck Bombers” to make it happen. One of them falls in love with the leading lady, which is problem enough, but the gang war is escalating, although ultimately, it provides the perfect setting for a very realistically bloody movie. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? runs over two hours but every single minute is full of boistrous energy. It’s as wildly funny as any teen sex comedy and as gruesomely violent as any horror movie, usually at the same exact time. The point, it seems, is that film-going and filmmaking becomes an obsession and a delirium, like love itself. Makes perfect sense to me.
DID I REVIEW IT?: No. But a trusted homey of mine did: Click here!
I ride with Jeff Nichols. His first feature as writer and director was the excellent SHOTGUN STORIES. His second was the earth-shaking TAKE SHELTER. His third movie is MUD, which is transcendent. The guy keeps getting better and better. Here he takes on the dual challenge of directing child actors and professional movie stars in prominent roles. Set and filmed in Arkansas, MUD is the story of young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and the boat they find in a tree while exploring the big river nearby. Turns out the boat belongs to a man calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who’s full of charm and stories and none of it explains why he’s hiding out on a tiny island in a big river. Mud tells Ellis and Neckbone he’s on the run for killing a man who hurt his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The man he killed was the son of a very dangerous man named King (the great Joe Don Baker, in a small but perfect role), who has been sending thugs after both Mud and Juniper. This part turns out to be true, and puts the boys in the line of fire after they resolve to help Mud reunite with Juniper.
MUD is unprecedented for a couple reasons. For one thing, it’s a love story where the two lovers (Mud and Juniper) are, unless I’m mistaken, never shown in the same place at the same time. The romance is believable mainly because the boys believe in it. McConaughey and Witherspoon look as winsome and romantically sad as they ever have on film, but all of their communications are carried and delivered by Ellis and Neckbone, who love the two of them for different reasons — Mud because he’s an appealing rogue, Juniper because she’s a gorgeously-distressed damsel, and both of them because they represent the promise of a bigger world of true love and adventure. Ellis is disappointed by his own father (the tremendous and under-acknowledged character actor Ray McKinnon) and his own youthful romances, and thus empowered by his friendship with Mud. The canniness of the story is that Mud is lovable but no role model, and punching out the bully to win the admiration of the pretty girl in school doesn’t mean she’s going to stay with you forever. MUD the movie captures profoundly the feeling of being a kid and watching as a spectator the world of adults, of trying to get involved in grown-up business and realizing life is harder than it looks.
MUD has literary levels of depth. It’s a drama that has comic relief from Michael Shannon, of all people. It’s got a perfectly surly performance by Sam Shepard, a veteran actor so often called upon to personify the history of the West and the South and all the movies about both — here he gets to cut through the romanticized bullshit, providing cold realities to both Mud and his two young friends. But in all the echoes of great literature, the Twain and the rest, Nichols never forgets to keep MUD hustling on the cinematic tip. The cinematography by Adam Stone feels like it has texture, a rough-and-tumble gritty beauty that feels and looks like the essence of an America whose past is fast eroding. Another movie overlooked by the awards-season hysteria, I suspect MUD will stand the test of time. Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker to watch closely — his next film, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, is a sci-fi action thriller inspired by the films of John Carpenter. If he’s half as good at the trappings of genre films as he is at richly-detailed, beautifully-acted character pieces, that will be something to see.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Nope. Shoulda.
1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
While I love to see people talking passionately about a Martin Scorsese movie in 2013 (and now 2014), I think the people who have been decrying THE WOLF OF WALL STREET for supposedly glorifying its subject need to sit down, take a breath, relax, and then study a little harder. Does this film, at a breezy three hours, make the story of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort entertaining? Yup. Does it condone his amoral behavior, his criminal actions? Not for a second.
The real Jordan Belfort is in this movie, for the record. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a version of him throughout the film, but in the very last scene, there’s a cameo by the actual guy. He appears briefly at the top of the movie’s final scene, as the one introducing DiCaprio-as-Belfort at a speaking engagement, and I’d like to tell you something about my viewing experience here: I hated that guy on sight. His smirking face, his gratingly irritating voice; it makes my hand curl into a fist just thinking about it. I didn’t even know that role was performed by Jordan Belfort until the end credits rolled. His appearance almost took me out of the movie, and not because I knew who he was. My thoughts went something like, “Jesus Christ, that’s the most obnoxious extra ever.”
So Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t playing Jordan Belfort, not exactly. DiCaprio’s performance is charming and entertaining, and it needs to be, or the movie couldn’t hold its audience for a fraction of its running time. A movie can satisfy the needs of its audience while also delivering a message. DiCaprio’s performance is a vessel which delivers the moral mission of the movie. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET doesn’t glorify Jordan Belfort; it uses him. He’s displayed as a parable. People are angry to think Jordan Belfort got paid for the rights to his life story. I get that. But consider the case of Henry Hill, the man who provided the source material for GOODFELLAS. Sure, he was played by the handsome and charming Ray Liotta, and yes, he probably got paid. Does anybody watch GOODFELLAS wishing they were Henry Hill? In real life, after he came out of hiding, he had debilitating substance abuse problems and basically became a member of Howard Stern’s Wack Pack, and not even one who’s beloved, like Beetlejuice or Eric The Actor.
When contemplating the moral message of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, we are helped greatly by considering the track record of the man who made it. Martin Scorsese is rightly and highly ranked among the most well-regarded of living film directors. Scorsese is a movie-mad Catholic, one of the most thoughtful artists ever to probe the matter of man’s violent nature. He uses film both as the medium of communication and as the metaphorical fuel stoking the fire. This is the man who made THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, about the thoughts of Jesus while hanging upon the cross. Therefore, I do believe Scorsese is someone who is concerned with spirituality and ethics. This is the man who made KUNDUN, a movie which treats the Dalai Lama with reverence. Therefore, I do not believeMartin Scorsese endorses dwarf-tossing.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET makes people uneasy because it is so thoroughly entertaining. That’s good. That’s a testament to the movie’s effectiveness. After four decades of making and perfecting excellent movies, Scorsese knows how to work an audience like few others. This film spends the majority of its running time showing how Belfort left Wall Street (making the title a bit inaccurate, ironically) because he wanted to start a criminal enterprise even more profitable than the everyday swindling. It shows how selfish and shallow he was, how he hurt people without a second thought during his monomaniacal pursuit of women, drugs, and especially money. It shows how he won over his trophy wife and lost her (Australian actress Margot Robbie, a stunner who does a pitch-perfect New York accent and should have been in the running for all the awards). This guy hits a beautiful woman, one of the worst things a man can do in a movie. The movie doesn’t condemn him, seems impartial in point of fact. Shouldn’t it condemn him? Shouldn’t someone condemn him?
Consider how much time is spent showing Belfort’s punishment. It isn’t much. Belfort’s downfall takes up comparatively little screentime, his time in prison confined to one short scene, and even that takes place on an open-air tennis court. This movie shows us everything this bastard did, in gory detail, and then it doesn’t give us the sight of the punishment he deserves. That’s why so many people are troubled by this movie. Jordan Belfort got away with it. He did all those things, and he basically got away with it. And he’s just one guy. Implicit in the film is that Jordan Belfort is not the only one who was doing what he was doing, that there are plenty who are still doing it. If that bothers us, it should. One reason we love movies is because they are tidier than real life. The good guys win and the bad guys get it in the end. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET gives us all that pleasure and then denies us the pleasure of seeing Jordan Belfort get his come-uppance. It works us up and then it gives us blue balls. That’s what we, as America, deserve. We let these guys get away with it, every day. Our national economy has been raided time and again by predators easily as bad as Jordan Belfort, and they are rewarded, not imprisoned. That’s not politics. That’s a measurable truth. But it’s an unpopular truth, and so it needs to be snuck into people’s minds inside of a yummy dessert. So very far from being an immoral film, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is in fact the most daringly moral film of the year.
DID I REVIEW IT?: Not before now. How’d I do?
Finally, here are my previous four Top Tens from 2008-2012, just so you know the kind of guy you’re dealing with:
10. the bay
6. killer joe
4. the raid
3. cloud atlas
1. the grey
10. the tree of life
9. viva riva!
8. 13 assassins
5. black death
3. the guard
10. four lions
9. the wolfman
7. the town
6. get low
1. true grit
6. the road
4. big fan
3. district 9
8. the wrestler
5. hellboy 2
2. gran torino
1. in bruges
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,
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