What a year! Lots of challenging, beautiful films. A strong year for minority representation—including films that weren’t about that, like Fast & Furious 6 or The Best Man Holiday (oh lord), the latter of which I haven’t seen yet. Probably the strongest spread of black cinema since the late 1990s, but the prospect of a long-term sea change in that regard is rocky. And lots of films about the changing landscape of the American Dream, both excellent (Spring Breakers) and terrible (The Canyons).
If you’re not up to date on the Direct-to-Video action renaissance, you’re missing out on much of the most powerful and ambitious filmmaking in the world today. Last year, this market was dominated by the incredible Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which has made the whole movement kinda too good to ignore for a lot mainstream critics. This is wonderful news, but unfortunately none that I saw wowed me this year—if I missed any good ones, let me know. I hope going forward, we cease to be surprised to find quality in DTV, and instead expect ambition in the cracks as a matter of course. There’s no reason not to, right?
Here’s every 2013 movie I’ve seen, in order from best to worst. (Any film marked ‘2012’ was originally completed in 2012, but officially released in 2013.)
Feel free to comment and argue!
Gravity (2013) | Dir. Alfonso Cuarón | 91 min.
Overwhelming. We’ve all known it was possible to make a space movie this immersive, beautiful, and relentless, and for me it was practically a relief to have it done. Beautiful sensory filmmaking, equal parts The Naked Prey and Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope (right down to the name Commander Stone) this film has raised the bar for immersive camerawork for all time. It may even have raised the bar for video games. Like all films, it has flaws, and there are reasonable perspectives for disliking it, but a large part of the criticism I’ve seen of Gravity is from pedants and stuffed shirts who seem to think excitement, beauty, and awe are troublesome byproducts of filmmaking and not the essential core of the art. Me and Cody had a little slapfight about it here.
Spring Breakers (2012) | Dir. Harmony Korine | 94 min.
Pounding, complex, ridiculous magnificence. Keep an eye on this one, its uncomfortable and instinctual take on the sex-violence thing makes it our Marnie.
12 Years a Slave (2013) | Dir. Steve McQueen | 134 min.
The best parts of 12 Years a Slave take on the myth of the ‘good’ slaveowner, in a challenge to even Solomon’s own reports in his original narrative, the benevolents caught in an unjust economic system are cowards and hypocrites. Sort of a jarring and very present-day thing, one of the many examples of McQueen’s ability to reflect on the very political present without having to announce it. Also of interest is the Gordon Parks’ made-for-PBS version from 1984, which you can rent on Amazon Instant.
Leviathan (2012) | Dirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel | 87 min.
The ocean as a cold, ink-black, sloshing circle of hell, and the human as a beleaguered demon upon it. A nightmare actuality that does for the GoPro what The Shining did for the Steadicam. I’ve cut down my fish intake since this—yet it’s not a slog, every single shot is infused with weird beauty, and occasionally, a sprinkle of humor. It’s not a Moby Dick adaptation—despite its title and “Sacred to the Memory of” title card—but it gets that Moby Dick was about seagulls.
Pain & Gain (2013) | Dir. Michael Bay | 129 min.
Michael Bay’s Fargo.
Fruitvale Station (2013) | Dir. Ryan Coogler | 85 min.
Nakedly political and affected in the same way as that old propaganda short where Frank Sinatra teaches us about anti-Semitism, Fruitvale is an absolute necessity right now. Michael B. Jordan, as usual, knocks it out of the park playing the exact man an entire cinematic subculture is built to demonize.
Her (2013) | Dir. Spike Jonze | 126 min.
The secret to Spike Jonze, and what keeps his films from the mopey middlebrow, is his love of the human experience. There’s a lot of wit here, especially in the fashion trends and nonjudgmental social politics of his future. It’s a little too emotionally taxing to be as long as it is, but that’s a minor quibble for such a very accomplished and timely movie.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013) | Dir. Justin Lin | 130 min.
It’s still bullshit that this isn’t called Furious 6, but it’s amazing to think back to the original The Fast and the Furious and try and figure out just exactly how it all spun into a series about an international James Bond super team. Lin-era Fast movies are a rebuttal to the tedium of the similarly structured Expendables and Avengers films. Fast Five might be just a haaiiiiir better, but the beautiful locations, stacked cast, and absolutely insane action set pieces make this a masterclass in action cinema. I knew I was in love when Michelle Rodriguez used a handcuff as brass knuckles.
This Is The End (2013) | Dirs. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen | 107 min.
Charmingly ambitious, weird, and surprisingly humanistic. At one point I laughed so hard I almost had to leave the theater.
American Hustle (2013) | Dir. David O. Russell | 138 min.
The ’70s as a yeyed-out oversexed polyester playground, and I loved every minute of it. The Goodfellas comparisons are facile as hell—it’s much more in line with the dizzying betrayals of Burn After Reading.
Upstream Color (2013) | Dir. Shane Carruth | 96 min.
I admire it for technical reasons more than emotional ones, but we need more filmmakers as willing to explore as Shane Carruth is.
As I Lay Dying (2013) | Dir. James Franco | 110 min.
As I wrote not to long ago, James Franco took something nobody thought could be done and did it, succeeding more than he fails. He’s grown a lot as a filmmaker, but has a great deal more growing to do.
What Maisie Knew (2012) | Dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel | 99 min.
Loses none of the rage of Henry James’s original novel about two childish adults and one very adult child. Has the heart of Ozu. A strong, quick, well-acted domestic drama, which feels like a rare commodity these days.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) | Dir. Derek Clanfrance | 140 min.
I love the idea of a triptych film, and it never gets bad exactly, but the big challenge of a movie like this is keeping each successive setting as interesting as the last, and this one fails at that. Interested to see what I think on a second viewing.
Europa Report (2013) | Dir. Sebastián Cordero | 90 min.
Heavily inspired by The Abyss, it has a nice Howard Hawks-ish professionalism and a captivatingly mature story. Solid acting and some really great exteriors—alongside Gravity as part of a new trend of post-Astronomy Picture of the Day high-def sci-fi. Unfortunately, it loses its luster in the interiors, which are blocks of endless gray, and a too heavy hand in editing, especially in the last two minutes when they really really want to make sure you got the ending.
The Killers – AmexUNSTAGED (2013) | Dir. Werner Herzog | 8 min.
Werner Herzog’s ten-minute piece on earnest rockers The Killers is supposed to be fluff, but in a nonjudgemental and quiet way, it’s a portrait of the doe-eyed, flaccid, literally creaky (check out that punchline of a last shot) state of corporate-backed rock and roll.
We Are What We Are (2013) | Dir. Jim Mickle | 105 min.
Stately, small, and elegant, it feels like an X-Files episode in all the best ways. I get the sense that Jim Mickle’s best work is still ahead of him, which is very exciting for the horror community.
Rehearsals (2012) | Dir. Cody Clarke | 73 min.
Compassionate, humane celebration of the mundane gestures and small tactile elements that mark our lives. Possesses a long, rhythmic quietude that captures the terror of waiting.
Don Jon (2013) | Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt | 90 min.
Major character foibles cause a third act collapse, but it’s a fun and confident debut. Charming and lightweight filmmaking.
Toy Story of Terror (2013) | Dir. Angus MacLane | 22 min.
The cloying and tacky Toy Story 3 was the 21st century version of a velvet painting of Elvis, so this jolt of silly fun was a great of fresh air to me. I hope we get a new one of these every year.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) | Dirs. Ethan & Joel Coen | 105 min.
Beautiful lighting and a carefully measured story that never once managed to pull me in. I’m thrown off by the refusal to explore the political side of ’60s folk, but desperately in love with the visuals.
Computer Chess (2013) | Dir. Andrew Bujalski | 92 min.
I’m a sucker for anything in alternate formats. The daring visuals of this film—shot entirely on the long-dead Sony AVC 3260 video camera—do a good job complimenting its images of clunky old computers cobbled in California basements and its thematic perils of losing the analog. And director Bujalski’s mumblecore background comes in handy with his cast of asocial obsessives. Its Achilles’ Heels are its gormless pacing and often less-than-stellar acting. Still, I’m glad something so idiosyncratic is out there. I kinda suspect in a few years we’ll see a surge of interest in the early years of computing, and this weird little document might become a cult classic.
To the Wonder (2012) | Dir. Terrence Malick | 112 min.
After the ropy last act of The Tree of Life, the great Terrence Malick’s editorial seams are very evident now. He can’t come up with anything for Olga Kurylenko to do but prance, and he just can’t bear to cut away from her.
The Last Days on Mars (2013) | Dir. Ruairí Robinson | 91 min.
Better than its reputation, but it never musters the nerve to step out of the shadow of its influences. Too much Alien, not enough Last Days on Mars.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) | Dir. Isaac Florentine | 95 min.
Isaac Florentine has always had trouble finding a story to match his balletic action scenes, and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear saddles him with a particularly weak, low-stakes one. They don’t phone it in, though—the action scenes are downright beautiful, reveling in Shaw Brothers-inspired contraptions and relatively bloodless leaping and pirouetting. I’ve long felt that since the demise of musicals, action films are the last haven of choreography, and Scott Adkins is definitely in the Danny Kaye mold here. Takes a while to get going, but very much worth a watch.
Sharknado (2013) | Dir. Anthony C. Ferrante | 86 min.
I kinda like that it got weird with it.
Man of Steel (2013) | Dir. Zack Snyder | 143 min.
There’s a good hour and a half buried in here somewhere, but it’s lost in a quagmire of exhausting adolescence. The 45-minute digression of Russell Crowe on a dragon is my personal hell. It’s the best of Zach Snyder (unparalleled visual weight) and the worst of him (that embarrassing kung-fu lady) meets the best of Christopher Nolan (impeccable casting) and the worst of him (godawful pacing).
Oldboy (2013) | Dir. Spike Lee | 104 min.
Nice camerawork here and there, and Brolin really puts on a great show in the first half, but it just doesn’t resolve the basic character problems of the original, which despite its ‘classic’ reputation was, charitably, the 5th best mainstream Korean film of 2003.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) | Dir. J.J. Abrams | 132 min.
Emblematic of all the bad trends in filmmaking today, starting with the ugly fact that it’s noticeably less progressive than an episode of 1960s children’s television. The ‘twist’ villain was a two-fold failure—explaining him ate up story time for people who weren’t familiar with the show, and his offensively bad casting alienated those who were. The filmmakers threw away a lot of goodwill by completely misjudging what worked about the ’09 reboot. The idea of going ‘into darkness’ was a bad one to begin with, and with the exception of a few little moments with the (still spectacular) cast, every decision here was the wrong one. It made all the mistakes of those horrible TNG-era Trek movies that got the franchise into this mess to begin with. Grow up. For God’s sake, grow up.
Death Race 3: Inferno (2013) | Dir. Roel Reiné | 105 min.
The story is pretty solid here actually, with a few fun twists and stunning stunts, climaxing in a semi-remake of the original Death Race 2000 ending. But the car stunts get a bit repetitive, and the dialogue never rises above the merely functional—which would be okay if it wasn’t so goddamn chatty, and it’s all tarnished with Black Hawn Down-esque racism.
Maniac (2012) | Dir. Franck Khalfoun | 89 min.
Weird rage and godawful dialogue, just like the original. The conceit of shooting entirely from the killer’s perspective promises unparalleled access to a killer’s mind, but compared to genuinely unnerving serial killer films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—or hell, even elegant trash like The Cell—it offers absolutely nothing beyond throwback ’80s blandness and sloppily sketched quasi-human characters. It would’ve been better off if it had committed to the silliness inherent in its horrendous script and William Castle gimmick instead of this half-assed ‘gritty’ shock approach. It’s all so goddamn pointless. Good musical score, though.
Devil’s Pass (2013) | Dir. Renny Harlin | 100 min.
It cribs liberally from The Blair Witch Project, and it’s clear that its concept of teenage culture hasn’t moved much beyond 1999, either. The dialogue is stiff and outdated and it’s all got the vibe of a dad-rock version of a horror movie, ya know? But, it’s also a damn fascinating film—it’s a quickie found footage flick about that internet-famous Dyatlov Pass mystery, directed by Renny Harlin of the hyper-budgeted Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea, and Die Hard 2 fame. The ‘found footage’ style (which seems now to be on the wane) rose to prominence mostly because the rough aesthetic and semi-improvised storytelling style appealed to a horror community sick of slick bores like Harlin’s own Exorcist 4. So it’s interesting to watch Harlin’s polished, snappy style strain against a format specifically designed to oppose it. The compositions and actors never let go and sink into the milieu, which, played against the occasional appeals to the camera itself and internet-derived premise/bad guys, creates a weird netherworld of a film, ill-at-ease and constantly at war with itself—picture a shitty, late 90s action/horror interrupted by the constant question “Are you recording?”.
The Canyons (2013) | Dir. Paul Schrader | 99 min.
It got so handily trashed before release that I was half-expecting this would be a misunderstood classic, but nope. Garbage. Everybody involved in this production needs to grow up. Not a single thing to do with the present, it’s just an increasingly irrelevant Bret Easton Ellis’s memories of 1985 with cellphones lazily pasted over everything.
Movie 43 (2013) | Dirs. Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, James Duffy, Griffin Dunne, Peter Farrelly, Patrik Forsberg, Will Graham, James Gunn, Brett Ratner, Jonathan van Tulleken, Bob Odenkirk | 94 min.
Salinger (2013) | Dir. Shane Salemo | 120 min.
Just a total mess. Edited like shit. Cheap, cheesy, ugly. It annoys me because they get so wrapped up in fabricated mysteries they breeze past the new information I did want to hear about. Not just a waste of everyone’s time, an unforgivably vain waste of a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of original material and compelling subject matter. The filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves.
Pacific Rim (2013) | Dir. Guillermo del Toro | 131 min.
There wasn’t enough sound, there wasn’t enough fury, and it spent way too much time trying to signify something. Give me instead the grand insanity of Transformers 3, which—while also terrible—was at least enthusiastic about it.