Mike’s Top Ten of 2013

I don’t particularly remember 2013 in terms of my top ten list. I remember the year feeling like it was weak. Which I must say about almost every single year initially, which has to be because I’m forced to assess as year as a whole just as its coming to a close rather than having had the proper time to let stuff settle as it ought to.

This year in particular I know has a major change to it, which is that it’s the second time ever alongside the first list I ever posted on this site that a surefire top ten film didn’t get seen before the year was out. The first year, technically the list got posted after the year was over and I wasn’t as efficient in seeing things as I became over the course of the decade. Which is what makes it even more stunning to me. Even by 2013, I knew that if anything felt like it had a chance at the top ten, I made sure to see it. And yet, I posted 2013’s list and literally the next day I saw the movie. It’s the most significant top ten moment for me out of all the lists. It won’t seem so major on paper, since I quickly went in and made it my #11 for the year at the time, but that’s the biggest alteration in the history of the lists.

Aside from that, most of the list is basically the same as I had it. My “#11” and #12 moved up and other stuff moved down, which is par for the course. It feels like a generally pretty solid list of ten, and there’s some cool stuff down below. Overall this feels like one of the more average years for the decade.

Mike’s Top Ten of 2013

12 Years a Slave

About Time

All Is Lost

Captain Phillips

Frozen

Gravity

Her

Inside Llewyn Davis

Prisoners

The Wolf of Wall Street

11-20: American Hustle, Before Midnight, Dallas Buyers Club, Escape from Tomorrow, The Great Gatsby, The Kings of Summer, Out of the Furnace, Philomena, The Spectacular Now, The Wind Rises

Tier two: The Best Offer, Blood Ties, The Book Thief, The Congress, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I Know That Voice, Lone Survivor, Mud, Nebraska, Pacific Rim, The Place Beyond the Pines, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Short Term 12, Side Effects, Snowpiercer, Spring Breakers, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Upstream Color, You’re Next

Tier three: 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Don Jon, Enough Said, Frances Ha, The Grandmaster, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ida, Iron Man 3, Monsters University, Mood Indigo, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Nymphomaniac, Only Lovers Left Alive, Rush, This Is the End, The World’s End

Tier four: 2 Guns, 21 & Over, 42, Fast & Furious 6, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, In a World…, Machete Kills, Now You See Me, Oblivion, Only God Forgives, Pain & Gain, Star Trek Into Darkness, Stoker, Sunshine on Leith, Thor: The Dark World, To the Wonder, The Way Way Back, White House Down, World War Z

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1. Gravity

“So, what do you like about being up here?”
“The silence.”

This feels like the kind of #1 that people who weren’t there when it came out may not properly understand. It may not look as great in perpetuity as it looked in the moment. Because this movie needed to be experienced, in a theater with a big screen and with surround sound. That’s when you get the full experience of this film. Which was stunning, and one of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever experienced.

The premise is simple: Sandra Bullock is in space to help fix a space station. Only some space debris comes by and knocks her off, leaving her untethered and floating through space. Which is perhaps the single scariest thing anyone can ever experience. And that’s it. It’s a simple film. 90 minutes, no frills. Bullock and George Clooney are the only two people who appear on screen for the entirety of the film. You hear three or four other people’s voices, but that’s it. It’s a straight survival movie. BUT… the visual effects, the sound design, the score… it makes you feel like you’re in deep space. Down to the eerie silence as Sandra Bullock is careening out into nothingness. It’s terrifying. And it’s brilliant.

It may seem quaint as the years pass, but this, in 2013, was one of the finest cinematic experiences anyone had ever seen, and in my mind is the best piece of filmmaking of the entire year.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

I thought long and hard about putting this at #1. That’s how much I love this movie. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but give it a couple of years and it may happen.

This is one of my all-time favorite Coen brothers movies. This movie, to me, is perfect. It’s set in the folk music scene of New York in the 60s, just before Bob Dylan came onto the scene. It takes place in a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac. He broke out from this, and rightly so. He’s so fucking good here. But the film is great in that it’s pure Coen brothers. They take such glee in the misery of their characters, and the beautiful thing about the film is that it’s meant to just be some regular old week in the guy’s life, but you really get the sense that this is what every single week is like for him. Which is why I love it so much.

The songs are also spectacular. T. Bone Burnett reconfigured a lot of folk folk tunes, which really add to the atmosphere of the overall film. “Fare Thee Well,” “A Hundred Miles,” “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “The Death of Queen Jane,” every song on this soundtrack is incredible. Plus you get the novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which is just so great. And then the supporting cast — Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund — everything about this movie is perfect. And the cinematography! Bruno Delbonnel shoots the absolute hell out of this movie. It looks just as good as if Roger Deakins had shot it.

Everyone knows you don’t miss out on a Coen brothers movie. This, to me, is one of their absolute best, and like I said, it may end up at #1 before all is said and done.

3. 12 Years a Slave

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

It’s gonna be hard to find a top ten list for 2013 where this doesn’t appear. There’s a reason it’s as critically acclaimed and loved as it is. It’s an amazing film.

It’s Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the Solomon Northrup memoir about his capture from freedom in the north to being sold into slavery until being able to get word to a friend of his a dozen years later to achieve his freedom. It’s a crazy story that is beautifully told by McQueen. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o (in her film debut) and Michael Fassbender all got nominated (and Nyong’o won) for their performances. This is one of those movies you just have to experience, because it really sets you down and makes you experience the brutality of the situation. Not even an endless stream of famous cameos can detract from it. It’s absolutely incredible.

4. Prisoners

“Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

It feels like every year there’s a movie in my top ten that makes me go, “Why wasn’t this movie huge?” This is the one for 2013. I saw this and was absolutely blown away by how good it was. And then I watched as absolutely no one bothered to go see this movie, and even now, only a small number of people have gone back to admit how good it is, and mostly because the film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, went on to direct Sicario and Arrival and Blade Runner and now people are retroactively going back and realizing, “Oh, this one’s pretty good too.”

It’s a movie starring Hugh Jackman as a man whose daughter goes missing with her friend on Thanksgiving. The police do an investigation and arrest Paul Dano, a mentally-challenged man whose van was seen on the block before the disappearance, but release him due to lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Jackman doesn’t think that’s enough justice, so he decides to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a detective investigating the case, who begins to suspect that Jackman is doing more than he’s supposed to be doing.

It’s so good. Villeneuve really elevates the material (as he tends to do). Roger Deakins shoots the hell out of the film (as he tends to do) and Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal give two of the absolute best performances of this year, bar none. This movie is utterly captivating, and I cannot understand why this wasn’t on everyone’s list of best films of the year and nominated up and down for awards. There’s a scene near the end of this movie with Jake Gyllenhaal in a car that is better and more thrilling than most car chase scenes you’ll ever see. This movie deserves to have a much wider audience.

5. Her

“I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.”
“Me too. Now we know how.”

Spike Jonze’s movie about a man who falls in love with his operating system. After directing two Charlie Kaufman pictures, Jonze writes this one himself, and it’s so good it feels kind of like a Kaufman film. This movie is so incredibly prescient, because it shows where exactly we’re headed as a culture in the next ten to twenty years, if we’re not there already.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely (recently divorced) man who writes letters for other people who can’t otherwise write them themselves. He gets a new operating system (like Siri, but much more complex) that can fully communicate with him. Kind of like Jarvis from Iron Man. And so he sets it up (it talks like Scarlett Johansson) and pretty soon is in a full-on relationship with it, taking it around on his phone, showing it the world, talking to it as if it’s his actual girlfriend.

It sounds weird to try to explain the plot, but it’s one of those movies where you have to just trust that it works. It’s an absolutely beautiful film, with an incredible lead performance from Joaquin. Amy Adams is also very good in a smaller role, as is Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the O.S.

It’s a really tremendous film and most people will tell you that it’s one of the best movies of the year. But also, just look at the movies Spike Jonze has directed — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things are and this — when are they not top ten quality?

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

“On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month. I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my “back pain”, Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine… Well, because it’s awesome.”

Martin Scorsese doing his version of Wall Street. But instead of slick, austere Michael Douglas, it’s a bunch of frat bros who got super rich and treat the place as their own personal playground. At this point, anytime Scorsese shoots a movie like Goodfellas, with that energy, it’s gonna be great and people are gonna love it.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a guy who went from penny-ante stockbroker to multi-millionaire criminal. And it’s just the story of his rise and fall. It’s fucking awesome. This movie is so great and so funny. The quaaludes scene alone is one of the best pieces of physical comedy you’ll see. Also, Jonah Hill is amazing here. He matches Leo every step of the way and completely steals the movie out from under him. Which is impressive, because in the early stages of the film, Matthew McConaughey shows up for about ten minutes and you think, “Oh my god, he’s amazing here.” He’s so good you wish he’d come back. And then Jonah Hill shows up and you completely forget that McConaughey is even in the movie.

The cast is wall to wall loaded, as one would expect from a Scorsese movie. This one gave us Margot Robbie (for which we should be eternally grateful) and the list of random cameos goes all the way from Jon Favreau to Rob Reiner. And you know what? Totally works. There’s definitely a looseness to this movie. You can feel like they had a wealth of material (because there are a lot of scenes of people doing drugs and banging hookers at the office) to choose from and had to edit it down, and there’s definitely a rock and roll kind of sensibility to this, which is amazing considering Scorsese had just turned 70 when he made it.

I feel like most people would put this in their top ten for this year. It’s just one of those movies everyone loves. So there’s not really anything I need to do to sell this movie to most people. Scorsese is a master filmmaker, and really it’s just impressive that he makes them great every single time.

7. About Time

“We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.”

This is only one of two times in the history of these top ten lists where I saw a film after I had posted my list and then went, “Shit… that would have been on it.” The first was Blue Valentine, which I saw like ten days after I posted the list and just missed out on. This one I saw THE NEXT DAY. Literally saw it on New Year’s Day 2014 and went, “Oh dear god.” Because I knew immediately it was a top ten movie. And now, I wouldn’t even hesitate about going back in and changing what I put just so I could have the most accurate version of my list out there. But back then I had standards or whatever. I felt like if I had announced the top ten with pictures, I couldn’t really go in and change it…. so I just made it #11 and figured I’d remedy it later on when I updated my list (which I did back then. I’d do a remixed version of my list before the end of the next year to see if anything had changed in the ensuing months).

Anyway, the point is, I love this movie. That’s really what that all was leading toward. I saw this movie and immediately fell in love with it and that love has endured ever since. It’s Richard Curtis’s third directorial effort (and I should point out that the other two, Love Actually and The Boat That Rocked, are in either my top ten or top 20 favorite films of their respective years), and it’s just a marvelous film.

It stars Domhnall Gleeson as a guy who finds out that the men in his family have a particular… skill, shall we say. They are able to go back in time. He can go back to any point in his life (with restrictions, of course) and change anything he wants to change. And that’s the film. We follow his life as he tries to go back and undo his mistakes as he makes them, learning along the way, falling in love, starting a family. And ultimately, it becomes a beautiful father/son story with him and Bill Nighy.

Words cannot express how deeply I am in love with this movie. I will watch this movie and cry every single time. It is beautiful, it is perfect, and it is a movie I will come really close to forcing the people I like to watch, because everyone needs this movie in their lives.

8. Frozen

♫ “Do you want to build a snowman?
Come on, let’s go and play!
I never see you anymore
Come out the door
It’s like you’ve gone away

We used to be best buddies
And now we’re not
I wish you would tell me why!

Do you want to build a snowman?
It doesn’t have to be a snowman” ♫

This list is being posted on the day the sequel to this film comes out. Which isn’t really relevant, but worth noting as one of life’s little coincidences.

I had almost no expectations for this as it was coming out. And then I remember exactly where I was when I saw this for the first time. I was at the office, and it was my lunch hour. So I put it on to see if it was gonna be any good. And I watched exactly up to the very end of “Let It Go.” And that song is pretty much the Act One showstopper finale anyway, but as soon as it ended, I paused the movie and I said, “That’s one of the best Disney films I’ve seen in 20 years.” The whole movie is just an utter delight.

This movie wins you over almost immediately. Is there anything more joyous than “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” All the songs in this movie are terrific. The story is great (even the trolls I don’t hate so much), the characters are memorable, and even though the whole move got beaten to death by people going nuts over it and everyone hearing “Let It Go” about a thousand times in the span of about four months, it’s just great.

Truly, this is a wonderful film, and if you had to figure out all-time Disney rankings, this would be in the top 15. I don’t see how it couldn’t be.

9. All Is Lost

I was all in on this movie from the jump. It’s a survival movie about a guy whose boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean and has to not die. And there’s only one person on screen for the entirety of the film, and there are maybe a total of only about forty lines spoken over the course of the film. So it’s basically a wordless movie about a dude at sea trying to survive. I could have told you from those words alone that this would be in my top ten. This is everything I want out of a movie. And that’s before you tell me the only person on screen is Robert Redford.

This is J.C. Chandor’s second film after Margin Call, and it is a very impressive feat. This was a pretty big risk for him. You’re essentially making a silent film and expecting people to be invested in a dude slowly sinking for 100 minutes. And yet, it’s always fascinating. You get almost no backstory to the character (and even what’s given is vague), and the opening shot of the film is him waking up to find out the boat has a hole in it. So it’s just straight up survival. And you’re watching this dude rig sails and do what he can to not sink. And it’s fantastic. It’s just a beautifully shot and acted film.

It’s definitely not for everyone. That first paragraph alone will tell most people whether or not this is for them. But it’s an incredible movie that highlights the best of its filmmaker and star. This is a beautiful late-career gem for Redford, who can add this to his multitude of incredible work.

10. Captain Phillips

“Look at me.””
Sure.”
“Look at me.”
“Sure.”
“I’m the captain now.”

One of the most indelible lines of the decade, for sure. There’s something immediate about this movie that’s impressive. It’s the kind of movie that you almost forget is as good as it is because you sort of take it for granted. I almost ended up putting American Hustle here because of the flash and style of that one, but then I realized… no, this movie deserves it. Maybe that changes over time, but you forget what an amazing piece of tension and acting this film is until you go back to it.

I remember scoffing when I heard that they were gonna make this. “A movie about a Somali pirate attack on a freighter ship? How is that gonna be good?” Then I started watching it, and immediately you realize that it just works. Greengrass’s style adds an intensity to the film that it might otherwise lack in the hands of another filmmaker. The scene of the pirates boarding is one of the most thrilling I’ve seen, and we’re talking a giant freighter ship and not even a smaller boat. Somehow they make it work. And then the sequences with the pirates on board are tremendous. Then the later scenes come and the load is really carried by Hanks’s performance. We all take for granted how effortless most of his performances seem, but here, when you get to that final scene he makes you realize just how incredible he is.

There’s no sexiness to this movie, but it’s pound for pound one of the best movies of this year

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11-20:

American Hustle — So David O. Russell, after the abandonment of Nailed and coming off the critical/commercial failure of I Heart Huckabees disappeared for a few years and came back with The Fighter, which was bursting with energy and was a new style for him. And then he made Silver Linings Playbook, which takes the communal nature of The Fighter and sort of minimizes it. He doesn’t do anything too flashy with it, but keeps the core of what made The Fighter great. Here, he does the opposite. This is him going balls out with style and energy, with the character core practically ripping apart at the seams because it can barely ground everything else around it. This is him doing his Goodfellas. That’s what it is. He clearly took the Scorsese route and wanted to make that movie. And that’s not a knock. That’s what it is. It’s a film about Abscam, where the FBI performed a sting operation to take down a bunch of elected officials who were going to accept foreign money from a fake Arab prince. And the film is told through the perspective of two con artists who are brought in (mostly unwillingly) to help out in exchange for the lessening of charges and the FBI agent who decides to pull off this scheme. And it’s got Russell’s usual cast of characters: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence. He brings in Jeremy Renner here, brings back De Niro for a minute — it’s a family affair. The cast is great, the movie is just brimming with energy and fun, and honestly is about a half an inch away from popping back into my top ten. 1-11 this year are really close together, so it’s not like it really just comes down to which ones I see most recently. I’m sure this will find a way back on in the future. It’s just all around fun.

Before Midnight — The third film in the series from Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise is them meeting as college students, Before Sunset is them meeting 9 years after that, and this one is them 9 years after that. They’re now married and living in Greece with their children. And the film is them, over the course of a day in their lives. And, like the others, it’s brilliant. The series keeps getting better as it goes along because you have the other films to refer to and the characters (and actors) get richer and more experienced with age, and they write the films themselves, so it feels real and feels like a snapshot of where their lives are at. These are the films that should make every film fan smile, because it’s rare to get something as pure and as beautiful as this.

Dallas Buyers Club — The pinnacle of the McConaissance. A small little indie that ended up getting nominated for Best Picture and winning two acting Oscars for McConaughey and Jared Leto (who give two of the best performances of the decade). The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a Texas man who contracts AIDS in the 80s. And it’s about his fight to get the medication he needs around the system that is not designed to help him or people like him afflicted with the disease. And eventually he goes about helping a lot of people by creating this ‘buyers club’ for unlicensed medication from Mexico that works a lot better than the stuff American doctors are giving out. The film is very solid, but the real highlight are the performances of McConaughey and Leto. Trust me when I say they are great. They are really fantastic. What makes me like it even more — and I’ve shown this article to literally dozens of people — is the insane backstory of how it got made. Granted, that article is told from a very specific point of view, but it’s the kind of thing that should make you feel great about the movies.  That sometimes good things happen and good things get made despite all the opposition working against them.

Escape from Tomorrow — One of the most unique and interesting movies ever made. And it’s weird and different and honestly the fact that it even got made makes it worthwhile for every film fan to see it out. It’s, to me, one of the most important films of the decade and is a movie you should have on your resume just to be able to talk about it. It’s a movie that was shot at Disneyland. Not like, professionally. This was not sanctioned whatsoever. What they did was bring in the entire crew and shot the film on cell phone cameras and video cameras without ever being caught by park employees (which, if you know anything about Disney… they have their own private security system and people who monitor everything going on in their parks). Without even ever watching this movie for its story, you already have one of the most interesting movies ever made. The director edited the movie in Korea just to make sure Disney never found out about it. And they premiered it at Sundance with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. And immediately it became the hottest film of the festival, because then it became, “Oh my god, are they gonna sue about this?” And they couldn’t, and they didn’t. Because technically cell phones and video cameras are allowed in the park. They just happened to bring in the actors and shoot the entire movie without anyone realizing what they were doing. And also, the plot — nuts. It’s about a family on vacation and the dad slowly starting to lose his mind. And honestly, you don’t even need to know the specifics. Just watch this movie. It takes everything you know about Disney and all the urban legends you’ve heard about the parks and gives you all of it. It’s so crazy, and I love this movie so much. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good — the film was only gonna be so good, quality-wise, but the fact that it got made, and how they made it, makes up for that tenfold. This is a movie that is great beyond what’s on the screen, and every single person who loves film should see this movie at least once.

The Great Gatsby — Baz Luhrmann’s version of one of the most famous novels ever written. It’s excessive, but that’s what the book is. Rich guy throws lavish parties. So what does Luhrmann do? Gives giant party sequences with an incredible soundtrack. It’s crazy. It’s colorful, and it’s awesome. It’s not high cinema, but if you’ve seen Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, you know what you’re getting. And you have Leo as Gatsby, which is perfect casting, Tobey Maguire as Nick, which is also kinda perfect both on-screen and off, Carey Mulligan as Daisy (solid) and Joel Edgerton as Tom. It’s all handled really well. And the film looks great, and it’s just entertaining as shit. It’s probably my favorite Luhrmann movie.

The Kings of Summer — What an amazing movie this is. I fell in love with this movie within about five minutes. It’s a coming of age story about three friends who get fed up with their parents so they decide to build a house in the woods and spend their summer vacation there. And it’s just wonderful. This movie is Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ directorial debut, and it’s an indie coming of age movie with teenagers, and because of this he got Kong: Skull Island. That’s how impressive a debut this is. It’s a terrific film that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Out of the Furnace — Is Scott Cooper’s second film after Crazy Heart. To the point where, if you look at the posters for both films, they literally just repeated the same thing. But man, is this such an underrated film. Cooper seems to have a one-on, one-off kinda luck with his movies. Crazy Heart hits big, and no one sees or knows about this. Then Black Mass people saw and know about. Hostiles — I bet people don’t even know that movie came out. But this movie — it stars Christian Bale as a guy whose life was unfairly taken away from him because of a single accident. Now, he’s back and seemingly back to what he was doing before, which is caring for his wayward brother Casey Affleck, who always seems to be getting him into trouble with his antics. Only now, Affleck goes missing and Bale decides the cops aren’t working fast enough to find him, so he’s gotta take matters into his own hands. And there’s this whole subplot about bare knuckle boxing with Woody Harrelson as one of the most sadistic people you’ve ever seen on screen, and then there’s this other subplot, which is my absolute favorite part of the film — without going into too much detail (though I have in the past on here) — in the early parts of the film, Bale is dating Zoe Saldana. And it’s pretty much assumed they’re gonna get married and have kids and all that. Then the incident occurs and Bale is in prison for several years. So there’s a scene when he gets out where he goes back to see Saldana. And I’m telling you — it is the single best acted scene of 2013. That scene is worth an award on its own. It’s the one of the most emotionally affecting scenes I have ever watched. And that’s only one of the many great things about this movie, which is just unfairly ignored by people at large. It’s truly great and deserves a much wider audience than it’s gotten to this point.

Philomena — This movie is incredible. It’s based on a true story about a woman who was raised at a convent and got pregnant as a teenager. And the convent took her baby away and gave it to another family. So now, almost fifty years later, her daughter reaches out to a journalist to see if he can help find out what happened to the child. Steve Coogan plays the journalist, and is wonderful here. And Judi Dench plays Philomena. And my god, does she give a performance that probably should have won her an award. She is stunningly good here, and it’s her performance that elevates this film into truly something special. I couldn’t believe how good this was as I was watching it. Because you expect a certain kind of film from that story. But it’s not that. It’s really not that. And it’s also got a nice statement at its end that I really enjoy, but that’s separate from the story of the film and is a discussion for another time. But trust me on this movie. It’s easy to dismiss because you think you know what it is. But it’s really one of the best movies of this year and deserved every accolade it got.

The Spectacular Now — This is a really wonderful coming of age movie with Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller plays a high school kid who parties too hard to the point where it’s gonna fuck up his life if he doesn’t stop who does the unthinkable… he actually falls for a ‘nice’ girl. And it’s just a sweet little movie that doesn’t do anything flashy but is just charming. I adore this movie a lot.

The Wind Rises — This was, at the time, Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘final’ film. Which made it a big deal. He has since decided to come out of retirement for How Do You Live?, which is wonderful, but at the time knowing this would be the last miracle we get from the master was a kind of a bittersweet feeling. This is a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Japanese fighter planes during World War II. And it’s just a love letter to aviation. And it’s beautiful. I loved this movie so much, it was in my top ten when I originally posted the list. It’s a stunning achievement from a man who seems to only make stunning achievements. I say this every time, but it bears repeating every time — any Miyazaki movie is better than 90% of Disney or Pixar. It just is. So regardless of what one of his movies is about, you should see it. They’re all that good.

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Tier two:

  • The Best Offer
  • Blood Ties
  • The Book Thief
  • The Congress
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • I Know That Voice
  • Lone Survivor
  • Mud
  • Nebraska
  • Pacific Rim
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • Short Term 12
  • Side Effects
  • Snowpiercer
  • Spring Breakers
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
  • Upstream Color
  • You’re Next

Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho adapting a graphic novel. It’s a film that takes place entirely on a train. That’s it. The train is constantly in motion, containing the last remaining survivors on a post-apocalyptic earth. The train takes one year to circle around the entire globe and contains each level of society in its different cars. At the front, the rich, and so on and so forth until you get to the back, where the poor people are jammed in like sardines and are barely given enough food to survive. And the film is about a riot that begins at the back of the train and makes its way to the front. It’s amazing. There’s so much going on here that I can’t even begin to go into it without spoiling the entire film. But Chris Evans is great, as is Jamie Bell. And Tilda Swinton… I mean… yeah. You know what it is by now every time she gives a performance. This movie is so good, and it’s truly one of the best films of this year.

Spring Breakers is Harmony Korine. And somehow this became an immediate cult classic. I’m guessing because most of his cast came up on the Disney Channel and that got some eyeballs on it. It’s about a group of girls who go on spring break — played by Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine — who end up getting into some trouble and are bailed out by local drug dealer James Franco, who gives what might be the performance of his career. And it’s just this crazy movie. They’re committing crimes at one point, there’s a giant shootout at the end — I don’t know what the point of this movie is, but I also know it was fun as hell to watch. So there. And it managed to stick with me for longer than it really ought to have. So I’m calling it a really solid movie that’s worth seeing. I have no idea how most people are gonna come out on this. But hey, it’s worth it alone for the Britney Spears musical number in the middle of the film.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Studio Ghibli and is the final film of Isao Takahata, who directed Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas and, most notably, Grave of the Fireflies. Next to Hayao Miyazaki, he might be the most notable animator in Japan in the last half-century. This film is a beautiful fairy tale about a girl who is found by an old bamboo cutter inside a bamboo stalk. And the old man and his wife raise the girl, who grows very quickly and soon becomes the most sought after woman in town. And that’s the film, for the most part. It becomes something so much more beautiful by its end, but it’s for the viewer to find out. I love this movie. I think it’s one of the most beautiful animated films of the decade. If you at all care about animation as an art form, you owe it to yourself to see this film.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second one. This one has more of the story than An Unexpected Journey did, and finally gets into the dragon of it all. However, this movie ends right before the dragon part gets good. And I question the decision-making in terms of where they cut off the story. But apart from that, as I always say — I’ll take Middle Earth over most things. So even if it’s nowhere near the Rings movies, it’s still solid enough for my purposes. I’ll watch the Rings trilogy five times before I watch this one once, but honestly, the once will be solid. So it’s fine.

I Know That Voice is a documentary about voice actors. And it’s the documentary you didn’t know you needed to see. Because voice acting, while incredible in its own right and very underrated and under-appreciated as a profession… it’s kind of insular. All of your favorite animated characters are pretty much voiced by the same dozen people. And that’s what this documentary is about. Putting a face behind the voice. And so you get introduced to these people, and then they start going into all their voices and you realize, “Oh my god, this person is like, 40% of my childhood.” Because truly, all those voices… same people. And you don’t even necessarily realize the connective tissue between all of that until you see something like this. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. Anyone who grew up on cartoons in the 90s and 2000s will love this documentary.

Lone Survivor is the movie Peter Berg made Battleship in order to get financed. Quite literally the definition of “one for you, one for me.” It’s the story of soldiers in Afghanistan and a mission gone horribly wrong. A small team goes in to capture a Taliban leader and end up on the run. The cast is Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana and Alexander Ludwig. And let me tell you — while I despise parts of this movie (namely the opening, which feels like an army recruitment video they show before films in theaters when people are sitting down, and the ending, which feels so manipulative with its use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “Heroes”), the entire action in between is great. It’s some of the most visceral action you’ll ever see. Because you have guys on the run in the mountains in a country they do not know. And sometimes they only thing they can do to survive is throw themselves down steep inclines. And you feel every single rock and branch they hit on the way down. I watched the film and actually went, “Oh my god,” because I’d never seen sound design that hit me as hard as that did. Truly you feel the punishment these guys felt as they did this stuff. And that, to me, is what makes the film stand out so much as a really solid piece of work. Berg usually makes solid films, but this one… I don’t like military glorification films and I really am not interested in these Afghanistan/Iraq War movies. But I really liked this one.

You’re Next is one of the great horror films of the decade. I usually hate the genre, but I loved this movie. First off, this film had a great marketing campaign. It was a low budget film and they didn’t have a lot to spend on the marketing. So what the studio did was take the other films they had coming out and subtly advertise this film as well within those posters. So there was this bad ensemble movie that year called The Big Wedding with Katherine Heigl and Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. And the poster is all of them laughing or whatever on it. And sort of transparent in the background is this ominous figure standing there in an animal mask. Which was the viral campaign for this movie. Which is just tremendous and unsettling and I love everything about it. Anyway, the film itself, aside from an opening horror scene of people breaking into a house, a la The Strangers and murdering a couple, it starts like any old indie family drama. A family gets together at their lake house, and almost immediately, all their petty conflicts come to the surface. Inheritance and who married who and who hates who, all of that. And you almost forget about the horror stuff at the beginning. You get deeply involved in this family’s squabbles. And then boom, completely out of nowhere, the murder happens. It’s sudden, and great. And then it’s just mindless killing in this house for about twenty minutes. And then… one of the family members decides to fight back. And that’s when the movie gets great. It’s so darkly funny. And that’s what I love about it. It’s not just mindless killing and thrills. There’s an undercurrent of humor to it and it just feels fresh. As someone who really does not like watching these kinds of movies… this is one of the best of the decade.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo Del Toro making his version of a kaiju film. Basically — giant monsters show up, so they put humans in these giant robots to fight them. That’s it, that’s the film. But because it’s Guillermo, he develops this entire world and mythology behind it and creates such a vivid film with great colors. It’s just a wonderful, fun film. And hey, it’s one of Kanye’s favorite movies of all time. So that’s gotta count for something, right?

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Disney making Mary Poppins. It’s supposed to be a magical film, but does unintentionally come across as being the story of how Walt Disney managed to get film rights from a raging bitch. Which is really not how it should come across. P.L. Travers created the Poppins books based on her own childhood and her relationship with her father (a banker, played here by Colin Farrell in flashback). So Disney (played by Tom Hanks, of course) comes knocking, and she’s like, “No. I don’t want them turned into a movie.” But then he flies her out and tries to wine and dine her and show her what he can create, and she’s just kind of miserable about the whole thing. But then she slowly starts coming to terms with everything about her childhood and what she’s resistant to give away, and… you know where it’s going. It’s a very lovely movie. Emma Thompson is good as Travers, though I do question a lot of the choices made in the portrayal. There’s a lot of fun stuff in this movie, even though I do struggle with the fact that it’s a basic Hollywood story in which there’s no real good guy here. Travers come across very harshly and just as an unhappy person, and then Disney is basically the sleazy (if off-camera) salesman who says whatever he has to say to get her to say yes and then goes and adds dancing penguins despite telling her he wouldn’t do that. The result is a great film (Mary Poppins, I mean), but I question why we needed to tell this story. Still, I like the film and it’s really solid. But I do wanna be up front with how I struggle about its content.

Short Term 12 is the movie that helped break Brie Larson as a great actress. Most people felt she should be nominated (if not win) for her performance here, which set the stage for when she’d give her performance in Room two years after this. She plays a 20-something counselor at a facility for at-risk teens. And it’s about her, barely an adult herself, trying to help these kids, who have all been through serious and traumatic experiences, and the weight that puts on her as a person, even when she tries to have a life of her own outside of the job and also has her own shit to deal with. It’s a tremendous performance by her, and also features a bunch of great performances, specifically by Kaitlyn Dever and Lakeith Stanfield. It’s also got John Gallagher Jr, Rami Malek and Stephanie Beatriz in it as well. Definitely one of those really solid indies most people will shout out when talking about this year. It’s a terrific film that should be seen.

The Place Beyond the Pines is Derek Cianfrance’s followup to Blue Valentine. It’s a really interesting film. Because it’s a three-parter. You wouldn’t know it when it starts, but the film is broken up into three stages. The first stage is Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt performer (he rides the bike in those giant steel cages at state fairs) who also robs banks so he can care for his family. The second stage is Bradley Cooper as an ambitious cop trying to take Gosling down. And so the Gosling section overlaps with the Cooper section until Cooper eventually becomes the main character of the movie. And then the Cooper section starts to overlap with Dane DeHaan, who plays Gosling’s son, until DeHaan becomes the main character for the last third of the film. It’s a really interesting way to tell a story. I really like the first two sections of the film and am not crazy about the third. But overall it’s a really solid film and I like that I can talk about how it does something different rather than being the same old boring thing. Plus it’s also got Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Emory Cohen and Ray Liotta in it. Which is pretty sweet. I definitely recommend this one. Few people give it the time of day, but it’s really solid.

Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh. At the time, it was his ‘final’ theatrical film. His ‘final’ film was meant to be Beyond the Candelabra, which came out a few months after this, but was released on HBO. Of course, he came back four years later with Logan Lucky and then his string of other great films, but this at the time was kind of a big deal for fans of his. Of course, no one bothered to go see it anyway, and the result was yet another great Steven Soderbergh movie that you have to basically shout about in order to get people to see it. This movie is a Hitchcock thriller. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s Hitchcock. I don’t call things Hitchcock lightly. I’ll mention things are like Hitchcock in terms of how they feel (which I will do with the next film I talk about, which even then I try to be picky about when I say it), but I don’t straight up say Hitchcock unless it really merits the term. It’s a movie that’s kind of about the world of prescription medication, but stars Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s better if you go into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it and just trust that cast and Soderbergh to carry you through. Also, the movie was written by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote (or wrote on) The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!, Contagion, The Report and The Laundromat. So yeah, kind of something you can trust sight unseen. But, if you need a setup — Rooney Mara is the wife of Channing Tatum, who just got out of prison. And, unable to deal with her anxiety, she soon attempts suicide. So her psychiatrist, Jude Law, prescribes medication for her, which has some unintended (insert title here). Trust me on this, it’s great. What makes it even better is when you know nothing about it, just put it on and get that excitement from having discovered something you knew nothing about. It’s one thing to know a movie is gonna be good and then to love it. But to come in cold and love it, that’s why we love movies. So I definitely recommend you go see this one almost immediately.

The Best Offer, meanwhile, is a Giuseppe Tornatore film that absolutely nobody saw. I know almost no one knows this exists. (Ennio Morricone did the score for it as well, just FYI.) Geoffrey Rush plays a lonely man whose life is dedicated to the auctioning of fine art. He’s never been in a relationship, and all his knows is his job. But then he goes to the house of a rich heiress who is a shut-in and begins to become infatuated with her (as well as with her art). It’s kind of Hitchcockian in a way. Not that it’s a thriller or anything like that (and definitely not in the way that Side Effects is), but there’s an air of mystery to the romance between the two. It’s kind of like Rebecca, almost, where you feel like there’s something, but you’re not quite sure what. Of course, it’s not the 40s, so it’s not overt. But at the heart of this film is a really interesting story, interesting characters, and a romance of sorts. I really liked it a lot and think it’s one of the true hidden gems of the year.

Blood Ties is an interesting film. It’s a remake of a French film from 2008. And the star of that film, Guillaume Canet, returns to direct this remake, which he co-wrote with James Gray (who clearly was there to make it sound more ‘New York’). The film is set in the 70s (and my god, does it feel like the 70s) and is your typical ‘brother vs. brother’ kinda movie, with one a cop and one a criminal. The brothers are played by Clive Owen and Billy Crudup, and the film’s also got Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, James Caan and a bunch of other recognizable faces in it. And also a killer 70s soundtrack. And yes, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s a cast. How come I don’t know about this movie?” And I don’t know the answer to that. Almost no one knows about this movie. I only discovered it because I happened upon the poster and immediately got the thrill of discovering some obscure 70s movie, because that’s what it felt like. And it’s great. And you should see it because it’s one of the great gems of the year.

The Book Thief is a really lovely little movie that is very much up my alley. It’s the story of a 12 year old girl living in Germany during World War II. She’s unable to read, so her foster family teaches her. And then she reads everything she can find. Which… Germany, World War II… kinda tough to do in a lot of regards. And so part of it is that, and then there’s the coming of age element, with her relationship with a boy she knows, and also there’s the fact that her foster family is hiding a Jewish family down in the basement. And that’s kind of a big deal too. It’s a lovely little film. Kind of on the nose as far as story goes. It is based on a bestselling book, so there’s gonna be some broadness there. But it’s lovingly acted, with great and tender performances, specifically by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the foster parents. And John Williams did the score, which is rare for him in these latter years to do something not directed by Spielberg or a Star Wars movie. But it’s a lovely film. I’m not gonna say everyone will like it, but if you like anything in that setup, give it a shot. It’s a nice little gem.

Mud is Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter got him noticed and this put him firmly on that ‘respected indie director’ foothold. And then Midnight Special and Loving sort of made him ‘elite indie director’. He still hasn’t fully broken yet, though he’s definitely a name among film fans with all the great work he’s done. This one is probably his best known film, mostly because it came out during peak McConaissance and got a lot of good notices. It’s about two young boys who find a fugitive hiding out on the river and decide they’re gonna help him out. It’s like the opening of Great Expectations but if it took place in the South. It’s really awesome. McConaughey plays the fugitive, Tye Sheridan plays one of the boys, and the film’s got Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon and Joe Don Baker! It’s a really great indie that is just one of the more solid films of the year that everyone should see.

Nebraska is Alexander Payne. At this point, that’s pretty much all you need to say to get people to see it. Because you know he delivers the goods. This is a film that he didn’t write, and also one that he shot entirely in black and white. It’s a father-son story with Bruce Dern and Will Forte, with them going on a road trip because Dern says he won a Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize of a million dollars and wants to go claim it. So they go on a trip along the midwest, to the town where Dern grew up, and it becomes a really sweet reminiscence about family and aging and childhood (and also settling up some old vendettas). Dern was nominated for his performance, which is sublime, and June Squibb, who plays Dern’s foul-mouthed wife, also was nominated for her work. It’s a lovely little film. Not my favorite of Payne’s stuff, but with him they’re all good, so it’s not like you can ever go wrong with one of them.

The Congress is a very interesting film. It’s hybrid animated and live action. It’s based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, and is directed by Ari Folman, who made Waltz with Bashir. Robin Wright stars as an aging actress unable to find work anymore who accepts an offer by a studio to digitize her likeness into a CG version that can then be put into movies in perpetuity. It’s a version of what they’re doing with actors now, and the de-aging and all that. But the idea is, “Hey, you need money, so we’ll give you this big lump sum now that’ll cover you for the rest of your life, and then we can put you in movies forever and not have to pay you.” So we follow that story for about an hour, and then the second half is pure animation. And that’s where things get weird. It’s pretty trippy, but gorgeous. And also has something to say, which makes it even better. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. Speaking of trippy, Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s followup to Primer, which, if you saw that, is very much a mindfuck. This one is different, but also beautiful in a way. The opening involves a woman being drugged and kidnapped with a special kind of insect, which causes her to become extremely suggestible. Eventually the man who kidnaps her takes all her money and property, which legally can be seen as having been done of her own volition. And then later in the film, after these events have happened, she meets and starts seeing a man, who she discovers is a victim of the same crime. And it turns into this beautiful little romance. It’s a terrific film, though Carruth’s stuff can be a bit dense for some people who don’t want to have to engage with films as much as one does with his. But if you can manage it, it’s a wholly rewarding experience.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller’s remake of the Danny Kaye movie from 1947 (which no one remembers at all). The premise of both films is that the main character is just a regular guy who constantly daydreams in order to escape his drab life. But then, he ends up on an adventure like one of those he constantly imagines inside his head. And what’s kind of a zany comedy with Danny Kaye is actually kind of a beautiful meditation on life from Stiller, who directs his first film since Tropic Thunder with this. The specific plot details him as a photo worker for Life Magazine who is dealing with the cover photo for the last issue ever before the magazine goes completely digital. And he gets a roll of photos from the best photographer the magazine has, who has contributed countless cover photos for years. Only, in his note, one of the photos is missing, the one he suggests should be used as the final cover photo, leading to Stiller to go travel around the world to find the guy to get that last photo. I love this movie.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • The Act of Killing
  • Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • August: Osage County
  • Blue Is the Warmest Color
  • Don Jon
  • Enough Said
  • Frances Ha
  • The Grandmaster
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Ida
  • Iron Man 3
  • Monsters University
  • Mood Indigo
  • The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
  • Nymphomaniac
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Rush
  • This Is the End
  • The World’s End

The World’s End is Edgar Wright and the final film in his Cornetto Trilogy. It started as a joke. After Shaun of the Dead, the Cornetto company sent them free ice cream because they referenced it in the movie. So when they made Hot Fuzz, they included another reference in there as a joke. And then when someone brought it up during an interview, he joked that it was his version of Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. So then he made this one as the third one to complete it. Shaun of the Dead is ‘red’ of course for all the blood and gore, Hot Fuzz is ‘blue’ because it’s a cop movie, and this one is ‘green’ because it deals with aliens. Not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, because they don’t reveal that it’s aliens until a decent amount of time into the film, but it’s worth knowing, since, for me at least, the introduction of the aliens actually hurt the film. This film is more dramatic and has more of an emotional core than the two previous films do. It’s about a group of friends who get together twenty years after college in the hopes of recreating that one pub crawl they did that one time that was beyond epic. At the center is Simon Pegg, a guy still sort of living in his 20s while the rest of his friends have lives. The other friends, by the way, are Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan. And so the first section of the film is the drama between all of them as they get together again, and then the movie turns into aliens and survival. And it’s fun. But I did feel like it didn’t immediately feel as satisfying as the first two films in the trilogy. Though that said, I bet if I watched this again I would like it much more. But for now, it’s Edgar Wright, and he hasn’t made a film less than very good thus far (in fact, if this is his weakest film, that’s a hell of a weakest film to have), so you know you’re getting the goods regardless. So just see it if you haven’t.

20 Feet from Stardom is the Best Documentary winner from this year, and it’s about backup singers, an integral (yet often overlooked) aspect to many songs. There are some amazing stories here. The big one is when they do a bit about Darlene Love, and the other really famous one is the singer who was like six or seven months pregnant, got a call in the middle of the night and went in to the studio and is the lead female vocalist on “Gimme Shelter.” There’s cool shit like that in this. If you at all love music and famous songs, this one tells you about all the unsung people that are part of all that stuff. The Act of Killing is the other famous documentary from this year. It’s arguably better than 20 Feet from Stardom and definitely more “important.” But it’s not necessarily as fun a watch. It’s about the Indonesian genocide. And it looks at all the people who led the death squads (who are almost revered as celebrities in their towns). And what the film does is interview them as they tell their various exploits as if they’re renowned heroes while also reenacting them as if they’re Hollywood movies, with actors and sets and things like that. It’s a pretty ingenious way to get stuff out of these people, since they let their guard down and almost gleefully tell you about the horrible shit they’ve done. It’s powerful as hell, and even its sequel (The Look of Silence) is incredible. Definitely don’t miss this one if you’re into documentaries.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is David Lowery’s first major film, a modern-day western with Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. Affleck plays a criminal who escapes from prison and travels across Texas to reunite with Mara, his wife, and to see his child who he’s never met. And of course the law is after him and all that. It’s modern day western tropes. And it’s a really solid film. It’s not the most mainstream movie. If Old Man and the Gun is mainstream Lowery, and A Ghost Story is experimental Lowery, this is firmly the midpoint between those two extremes. It’s solid, but it won’t be for everyone.

August: Osage County is an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by John Wells, who was coming off The Company Men. And as such, the film is loaded with top tier actors. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts star, and it’s also got Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Abigail Breslin. It’s about a family that reunites after its patriarch goes missing. So they all come back under one roof and of course all the shit gets stirred up. Meryl and Julia Roberts are particularly great here, and both were nominated for their work. But everyone’s good here. Which is to be expected, because every actor in this movie is great at what they do. It’s just a really solid, theatrical kinda movie that lends itself to showy performances. That’s what you’re coming here for.

Blue Is the Warmest Color is the film that won Cannes this year, and is a three hour movie about a woman coming of age and starting a relationship with another woman. The idea of it didn’t particularly appealed to me, and yet I found myself thoroughly engrossed in this for the entirety of its run time. Though I will admit… lotta hardcore sex scenes in this movie. Almost to the point where it feels exploitative. But the rest of the film is really engaging, with great performances from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. I definitely recommend it, though it’s not gonna be for everyone.

Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, which he also wrote and stars in. He plays an Italian dude from Jersey who’s just really good and bringing home hot women. And all that changes when he meets both Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore. Johansson is a woman he may actually be in love with, and Moore is a single mother with whom he shares a connection. It’s a really solid movie. It has a fair amount of indie tropes (like Brie Larson as the sister, who doesn’t speak for the entire movie and then busts out with the speech at the right moment near the end), but I did really love Tony Danza as the father. He’s quite good here.

Mood Indigo is Michel Gondry, having returned to France after interest in his films ran out stateside. This stars Audrey Tautou and is basically like if Michel Gondry made his version of Amélie. Tautou plays a woman who has a flower growing in her lungs and the man who loves her and wants to save her. It’s cute. The visuals are nice and it’s a whimsical little film, the kind of which Gondry excels at. It’s the kind of movie that is both nothing special and also very special. You should see it because it’s fun, it’s worthwhile, and you never know if this is gonna be one of those movies you fall in love with. Because it feels like it has that sort of wavelength that, if you’re right for it, this will be a discovery you cherish for a long time.

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman is one of the best titles of the decade. I remember being all over this one because it was made during the difficult period in Shia LaBeouf’s career, when it was too easy for people to take shots at him and everyone was paying attention to the off screen stuff as opposed to the work. And for some reason the idea of this movie greatly appealed to me and was something I had to point to (even though no one bothered to actually see it) that showed that he was a great actor picking interesting material. (After this he did Fury, which helped, and then it took a few years but then he started his little string of great indies and reestablished himself.) Here, he plays a guy who, in grief, travels to Bucharest after seeing what he feels is a sign. Then, on the plane, he meets an old gentleman who dies in his sleep before they land. Again, following what he feels is a sign, he seeks out the man’s daughter, who he falls in love with. And the film is about him sort of following his heart/conscience and getting involved with the woman and all the stuff she brings with her (ex-boyfriend, gangsters, etc). I really enjoy this one. It’s also got Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Til Schweiger, Rupert Grint, Vincent D’Onofrio, Melissa Leo and Aubrey Plaza. Nice little indie almost no one knows about.

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch. One thing I’ve learned with him — it doesn’t matter what his film is about, doesn’t matter if it sounds interesting, doesn’t matter who’s in it, it’ll always be solid and watchable. Every time. This one, however, is more intriguing than most of his films. It’s a vampire romance starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. They’re a couple who have been together on and off for centuries and now reunite. That’s pretty much all you really need to know about it. It’s also got Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin, if I can interest you in those people as well. It’s a gem. One of my favorite Jarmusch movies and one of the ones that feels like it would appeal to the widest audience.

Rush is Ron Howard’s racing film. It’s about the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Formula One in the 70s. Not something non-racing people will necessarily know anything about. But it’s a race car movie and those are typically really good. The race scenes are great, the editing is fantastic, and Daniel Bruhl is so good as Niki Lauda. Definitely recommend this one. Plus it’s Ron Howard. With him, 90% of the time you’re getting a really solid movie, sight unseen.

Frances Ha is the first Noah Baumbach movie I didn’t outright hate. To this point, he had made The Squid and the Whale (which I did not like), Margot at the Wedding (also didn’t like) and Greenberg (strong dislike). I say this to let people gauge my reaction to the film based on their own, as there are some people who really like all his films. I strongly suspect the reason I really like this one is because is co-writer is the film’s star Greta Gerwig. Honestly, the plot of this movie I can’t even remember. It just feels like a film built around her. It’s shot in black and white, which could come across as pretentious but actually seems kinda charming here. It’s just a very likable movie because it’s built around its likable star. And considering I hated all his previous films, the fact that I like this one should tell you something about it.

This Is the End is not the Edgar Wright movie, but rather the Seth Rogen and company movie. It’s directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and is one of the weirder premises I’ve seen. Yet somehow it works. All the stars play themselves (highly fictionalized versions of themselves, of course, but still themselves) and the film takes place during the apocalypse. That’s it. That’s the film. The rapture happens and a bunch of people get sent up to heaven, while others get sent to hell. The rest of them are on earth trying to survive as all sorts of horrible creatures and things roam the earth, killing anyone who’s left. It’s a lot of fun. The stars all have fun with it, and I found myself enjoying the shit out of this movie despite fully expecting to hate it. But I think it’s really good. It’s pure dumb fun with actors most people love.

Ida is the Best Foreign Language Film winner for 2014, but it was released in Poland this year, so here it goes. It’s Pawel Pawlikowski, who most people would know from the film Cold War, which got him a Best Director nomination. This is the film he made before that one. It’s also shot in black and white, and it’s also gorgeous. And arguably it might even be a better film than Cold War, but they’re both fantastic and it’s probably one of those where it’s a matter of opinion about which you prefer. It’s about a nun about to take her final vows who was brought up in the convent and has no real other family. So the older nuns tell her that she should go seek out her only living relative before she takes her vows. So she does… only to find out that her family is actually Jewish. So yeah, it’s about a nun who finds out she’s Jewish. But really it’s a story of her going to find out just who her family is and where she belongs. And it’s really well-done. It’s an amazing film. If you’ve seen Cold War and loved it, you should definitely see this as well.

The Grandmaster is a Wong Kar-Wai directed film about the famous martial arts master Ip Man. They made a bunch of really popular action movies about Ip Man around this time that maybe some people have heard of or even seen. But none of them were directed by Wong Kar-Wai. This movie looks great, and it’s just really well done. It’s not In the Mood for Love, so don’t go in expecting that. But if you want a movie that’s gorgeously shot with great production design and costumes and cool fight scenes, this is your movie. Plus Tony Leung plays Ip Man, which is pretty sweet.

Enough Said is the penultimate James Gandolfini film before his death and the first of two posthumous performances of his (the other being The Drop, which is also great). This one is a nice little rom com starring him and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. It’s about the two of them, both recently divorced, starting this new relationship. Only she finds out that the woman who she recently became friends with is his ex-wife. Which puts her in a weird position, since she’s heard this woman talk about how awful her ex-husband was, only to find out that this sweet guy she’s really into is that ex-husband. It’s a really good movie and both Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are fantastic in it. Highly recommend everyone seeing this movie.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel. I fully expected to not like the sequel nearly as much as the first one. Because YA franchises always devolve into toppling corrupt dystopian governments by their end. Every time. And this one was clearly heading that way. And I figured, “Well, the first one was Battle Royale. You can’t just do that again. You have to add more subplots and things you already set up.” So I figured it would naturally not be as good. But you know what? There’s a moment like 20/25 minutes into this where Donald Sutherland shows up and immediately it started becoming about political chess maneuvers, and I was immediately convinced that it was as good as the first movie. And then they find some way to do the Games again, which mostly works, and they pretty much delay the downward slide in quality into the next movie, which is nice. This movie also has a line that I have never forgotten: “Look at them… they’re holding hands. I want them dead.”

Iron Man 3 is the third one. Downey brought on Shane Black to do it, and Shane Black basically makes his own version of a Marvel movie. Which is fun as shit. Some people have major problems with some of his choices (bring in the smart ass kid and the whole thing with the Mandarin), but I think it’s fun as hell. Give me Shane Black dialogue over standard Marvel shit any day. Plus, there are some really awesome sequences in this movie. The Air Force One sequence where he’s gotta catch all the people falling from the sky is pretty awesome. And the suit battle at the end — there’s a lot of great stuff in this movie that people forget about. And it feels like a solid journey into Downey’s character. And it also keeps him mostly as the Tony Stark I know and love from the first movie, even if they made him more serious over the course of the later films. It’s middle of the road Marvel, but it’s a fun as hell movie that will rise and fall based on what people think of Shane Black and the notion of a Shane Black movie versus your average Marvel movie.

Monsters University is the prequel to Monsters University, twelve years after the fact. It’s about Mike and Sully going to college to learn how to scare people. It’s fine. It’s fun. Pixar is, most of the time, solid as long as you care about the general premise (see: Cars as the outlier). Disney would always put these kinds of movies out as direct-to-video so as not to taint their filmography. Pixar seemed to have run out of new ideas after Toy Story 3 and then spent the next decade mixing in lots of sequels while they came up with the original concepts. Or maybe it’s just that Disney bought them out and decided, “Hey, we like money, bring on some sequels.” No idea. But while this is a disappointment based on the lofty standards Pixar established for themselves, it’s still a fun movie.

Nymphomaniac is Lars Von Trier. technically he split it into two films, but I’m gonna mention both. If you wanna get technical and make me limit it to one of them, I’m gonna tell you that Vol. 1 is much better than Vol. 2. But what psycho would only watch half a movie like that? The movie is Charlotte Gainsbourgh as a… well, guess… who gets saved by Stellan Skarsgard after she gets attacked by some men, and as she recovers, she tells him her life story. And there are a lot of flashbacks to her having lots of sex. Thats the film. Like most Lars Von Trier movies, I cannot explain why it’s solid and why it’s watchable, but it is. It’s not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea at all, so I’d recommend that you start with the other, higher profile Von Trier films first before you think about venturing to this one. You’ll know based on those whether you think this one’s for you or not.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier four:

  • 2 Guns
  • 21 & Over
  • 42
  • Fast & Furious 6
  • Fruitvale Station
  • The Great Beauty
  • In a World…
  • Machete Kills
  • Now You See Me
  • Oblivion
  • Only God Forgives
  • Pain & Gain
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • Stoker
  • Sunshine on Leith
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • To the Wonder
  • The Way Way Back
  • White House Down
  • World War Z

Fruitvale Station is Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut. It’s based on a true story of Oscar Grant, who was killed in San Francisco by a BART officer. And the film is about the last day in this guy’s life, leading up to the fateful moment. People loved this movie. It’s solid. Michael B. Jordan is really good and so is Octavia Spencer and this is one of those movies that, while I don’t love it, it’s a fantastic first film and shows exactly what Coogler is capable of as a filmmaker (which he’s clearly continued to show us with both Creed and Black Panther).

The Great Beauty is a Paolo Sorrentino-directed film that won Best Foreign Language Film this year. It feels like Fellini. If you like stuff like La Dolce Vita and 8½, you’ll like this. It’s about a dude in his 60s still living the playboy lifestyle but actually learns to take a second and slow down and see the natural beauty life has to offer. It’s awesome. It’s really terrific. But if you’ve seen any of Sorrentino’s work, you know that already.

Now You See Me is a fun magician heist movie. The words ‘magician heist’ alone should intrigue you, and this one is actually quite fun and doesn’t squander the concept. Plus you get Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Always the recipe for a fun, watchable movie.

Oblivion is a Tom Cruise sci fi movie. Generally when you hear that it’s a Cruise movie, you know at the very least it’s going to be solid and watchable. And that’s what this is. It’s a one-off. They could never franchise this movie. But it’s still kinda interesting. It’s directed by Joseph Kosinski, who did Tron and the Top Gun sequel, and Cruise stars as a drone repairman on a futuristic earth that’s been savaged by wars with aliens. And it’s about him slowly starting to question what he’s doing and what’s going on, and all that stuff. It’s a movie that looks better than anything else. The story is just kind of whatever. The score, however, is amazing. As far as Cruise movies go, it’s below most of the other stuff, but it’s still worth seeing in its own right.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s followup to Drive. And it clearly feels like a ‘fuck you’ to everyone who loved Drive a little too much and wanted him to do that again. So he deliberately took all the aspects that made people like Drive and gave people more of them, which resulted in a movie that is resoundingly despised by most people. It feels like there’s barely any dialogue in the entire film, the plot is incomprehensible, and it’s just an insane movie. Which is why I love it. All the pretentious film people swarmed all over Refn and then he did something so outrageous that he dared them all to stay. And of course they all hopped off and distanced themselves the minute he did. I’m never gonna claim this is a good movie in any regard, but I do enjoy how nuts it is and I like that it pisses off all the people who typically annoy me in the first place. That alone makes this a worthwhile film.

21 & Over is one of those ‘kids go out and have a party that gets out of hand’ movies. And I assumed I was gonna hate it. They had a couple of ones like this around this time, and, to a film, I hated them all. This one, though, I watched and went, “Oh, this is actually fun.” I was very surprised at how much I didn’t hate this and how much I even enjoyed it. So that’s why it’s here. There was absolutely no reason for me to even be indifferent about this movie, and yet, I still think of it positively.

Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s movie that he tried to make for the better part of a decade. I heard him talk about wanting to make this movie like five or six years before he actually did. It’s based on real events in Miami and stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie as dudes in Miami who get caught up in some insane extortion and kidnapping scheme. It’s basically idiot Fargo. It’s what would happen if a crime gone wrong situation involved all the meathead frat bros you know. It’s insane. But it’s also clear that Bay had a story to work with and cared about the material. Which he didn’t necessarily do for some of those Transformers movies. They were all mostly vehicles to his visual interests. This one actually does try to be a movie. And you know what? It’s fun. Not amazing, but it’s fun and weird and a nice little diversion to his bigger stuff.

In a World… is, as you can guess by the title, a movie about movie trailer voice actors. It’s written and directed by Lake Bell, and she stars as the daughter of the ‘guy’ who voices all the movie trailers who dreams of doing that herself one day. It’s fun. It’s well-written and very amusing and is a nice little gem of an indie that no one knows about.

Stoker is a Chan-wook Park movie written by actor Wentworth Miller and starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode. It’s a southern gothic kinda movie about a rich family and death (possibly murder) and mysterious relatives coming in with dubious motives and getting involved in a volatile family situation. It’s fun. Kind of a weird (and perfect) choice for Chan-wook Park.

Sunshine on Leith is a very charming UK musical base on the music of The Proclaimers. Which, for most Americans, means only one song, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” And yes, of course that song is in this. But it’s the finale. So you gotta make it there in order to get it. But it’s fun. I like jukebox musicals that actually feel like they kinda gave a shit about the story and weren’t just writing filler in between the songs. Speaking of which, Dexter Fletcher directed this movie, and it helped get him brought on as the replacement director for the end of the Bohemian Rhapsody shoot and got him Rocketman, which is itself a jukebox musical. So if either of those is your thing, give this one a shot. Even if you don’t necessarily know the band, the movie is fun.

The Way Way Back is a coming of age movie about a teen on summer vacation and working at the local water park. It’s got that Adventureland kinda vibe, and it’s got its charm. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne, it’s also got Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph

World War Z is an interesting movie. It’s based on a novel by Max Brooks, son of Mel, who wrote a fun book about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. And then he followed that up with this, a very serious zombie book that somehow got turned into a movie with Brad Pitt directed by Marc Forster, only a few years removed from having directed a Bond movie. It’s always difficult for me to think about this one, because I remember all the huge production troubles they went through and how much money was spent and how they just kind of decided (for quite possibly the first time ever) to not spend money for an insane CGI finale and instead made it smaller and more character driven. But this was one of those movies everyone assumed was gonna be a disaster, and then it came out, made a lot of money, and was actually quite solid. I suspect they changed a lot of the book to fit this movie, but what I like about the movie is that it’s like a picaresque novel but for horror. Pitt goes places, meets people, zombies attack and the people are dead within five minutes. Though I guess the fact that in all those encounters, he does get little pieces of information that help move the plot forward would make it the opposite of a picaresque novel. But you get the idea. He meets someone, “We gotta go to Keny…ahh SHIT.” And then dead. And then we go to Kenya. And a new person, and a new place. For that, it’s fun. It’s definitely a very solid movie even though I’m never gonna love it more than being mildly amused by it.

2 Guns is Denzel and Mark Wahlberg. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what this is about. It’s a buddy crime movie. They’re both criminals, but then I think one is an undercover agent, but also the other one is also an agent. I can’t remember. It’s basically Denzel and Mark Wahlberg in a movie together. And it’s fun. That’s all you need. You like them both, you enjoy their movies, so you’re gonna enjoy them together. It’s simple as that.

42 is a Jackie Robinson biopic starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and is directed by Brian Helgeland. It’s solid. Not particularly deep in any way, but it’s entertaining enough to work.

Fast & Furious 6 is the sixth one. Honestly don’t really remember what the plot of this one is? I think this is the Luke Evans one, that introduces Statham at the end. Then Statham becomes the villain for 8 and then is a good guy for 9. That sounds right. This one introduces some new people and I think has the scene of them riding the cars out of planes with parachutes. The point of this franchise isn’t to really remember what they’re about or what happens. It’s just to enjoy them while they’re on, because you know they’re all gonna blur together after a while anyway. They’re all dumb fun, and that’s what we like about them.

Machete Kills is the sequel. And it’s a better movie than Machete is. Because Machete was bound by that fake trailer they made for Grindhouse. So they had to include those moments in the film, which killed a lot of the suspense and fun because you knew they had to build to those moments. This one was able to do whatever the hell it wanted. And it does. One of the characters is called The Chameleon, and it’s a hitman who changes appearances throughout the film. So there’s like six characters that play the guy. That’s the kind of fun shit they do. And they set up Machete Kills… in Space, which is exactly what you want a franchise like this to be doing next. This is pure dumb B movie fun, and I don’t know how anyone couldn’t have fun with it.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel. I didn’t particularly love it, and I liked it even less when they tried so desperately to hide the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan even though he was clearly playing Khan. Which was a double whammy for me, watching it. Because I got a movie I didn’t really love that then slapped me in the face midway through and said, “Oh yeah, remember how we were vehement about him not being that dude? Yeah, so, he’s that dude.” But, it’s Star Trek, and honestly I’ll take a not-great version of this movie over some other stuff that came out this year.

White House Down is just an insane movie. One of two movies with the exact same premise that came out this year. It’s like when Deep Impact and Armageddon both came out. The other movie is Olympus Has Fallen, and both films deal with terrorists laying siege to the White House and the president needing to be protected. This one, rather than having Gerard Butler going around and stabbing people in the face, has Channing Tatum as a Secret Service Agent and Jamie Fox as the president. And it’s nuts. There’s literally a scene where Jamie Fox kicks a terrorist in the face for touching his Jordans. That’s not a joke. It happens. Which should tell you everything you need to know about thsi movie. It’s dumb fun. But I enjoy dumb fun most of the time.

Thor: The Dark World is the sequel, and in my mind is the weakest film Marvel’s ever made. Marvel proper. I know most people think Incredible Hulk is the weakest because it doesn’t really fit in with everything else. But when you think about this one… they had Avengers under their belt already. They introduced all these characters. They had the structure to make everything work. And this one is just generic. There’s no fun in it, the story feels like almost a carbon copy of the first movie. I remember watching it and seeing Rene Russo die and thinking, “Did she not die in the first one?” Because I honestly couldn’t even remember. Now, they redeemed themselves somewhat by bringing this movie back into Endgame and having it feature heavily into it. And now I will retroactively be able to go back to this and think more fondly about the stuff that happens parenthetically in this movie between the moments on the screen. So there’s that. And also, it’s Marvel. Even their worst movie is typically more watchable than most of the crap that comes out each year.

To the Wonder is Terrence Malick’s followup to Tree of Life. He utilizes the same style, but to lesser effect. The film is split into three parts. The first is Ben Affleck meeting and falling in love with Olga Kurylenko in Europe and bringing her back to his hometown. The second is Javier Bardem as a priest struggling with his faith. And the third is Affleck meeting Rachel McAdams, an old girlfriend. It’s… it’s a lot of people standing in fields, looking longingly at nature. There’s not really a plot here, and it’s Malick trying to recreate the tone poem aspect of Tree of Life. It looks great, but I’m not sure the story is all there. I wouldn’t start with this if you haven’t seen Malick’s films, but if you’re a fan of his, it’s worth seeing.

– – – – – – – – – –

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