Friday, January 10, 2014

S. Nerfherder Presents: The Top 11 Best Movies of 2013

By Andrew Braid

Hi everyone, and happy new year! Well I've already posted my Top 10 Worst Movies of 2013, so I figure it's about time to wash that garbage down with a more positive look at the year in movies. And I must say, 2013 was in fact a pretty great year for movies. In fact, narrowing down a top 11 was pretty damn difficult this year, somewhat more than usual (mind you it's never an easy thing to do, but this year proved a challenge all the same).
And before you ask, it was a Top 10, but one movie that I saw very recently just blasted its way onto my list guns blazing at the last second, and I didn't want to just delete the entry for what has now been pushed to #11. So there, no intentional Nostalgia Critic-aping here.
Ah heh, anyway, before we begin...

Other Great Movies From 2013 (that didn't make the Top 11):
American Hustle
Don Jon
Monsters University
Star Trek Into Darkness
Side Effects
Captain Phillips
Blue Jasmine 
Dallas Buyers Club 
The Wind Rises

Movies I Still Need to See (but really want to):  
Inside Llewyn Davis
Blue is the Warmest Color

Alright, now on with the show, the Top 11 Best Movies of 2013, starting with...

#11: Much Ado About Nothing

Adapted for the Screen and Directed by Joss Whedon

This fresh and delightful Shakespeare adaptation comes courtesy of every nerd's being of worship, Joss Whedon. Bringing this romantic comedy to a modern setting, Whedon preserves the original text and dialogue just as it is, but filters it through his own personalized quick-witted style. Hardcore fans of the writer/director will recognize the film's cavalcade of Whedon regulars playing all the parts, including Dollhouse's Fran Kranz, The Avengers' Clark Gregg and Captain Mal (and Captain Hammer) himself Nathan Fillion. Each actor handles the old bard's rhymes and barbs with a natural delivery and excellent cast chemistry. But the standouts are Angel alums Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as the endlessly bickering would-be lovebirds Benedick and Beatrice. Acker shines as Beatrice, relishing her putdowns, proud of her intelligence, and unafraid to express her indignation. Denisof proves her ideal foil in the form of Benedick, embracing his lack of commitment and macho bachelor status, only to soon be made a fool for love himself.

#10: Iron Man 3

Directed by Shane Black
Screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black

Reunited after his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. prove a match made in witty dialogue heaven in the third (and undoubtedly best) installment of the Iron Man series. Playing in a post-Avengers sandbox, Iron Man 3 smartly chooses to center its focus on Tony Stark- his post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the battle of New York, his (often hilarious) efforts to do right by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Downey and Gwenyth Paltrow have their strongest screen chemistry yet here), and a series of events and screwups that leave him to fend for himself without his suits of armor to protect him. It's because of the insistence on trying to strip things down for so much of the movie that Iron Man 3 proves so engaging, allowing Tony (and the viewer) to realize that he's more than just "a man in a can".
The film feels as much like a Shane Black movie as it does an Iron Man movie, bursting with hilarious lines and repartee while keeping its plot reveals coming in hot, with a particularly big twist in the middle (also a very divisive one- personally I think it's one of the best parts of the movie). Whereas the first two Iron Man films were both pretty great (hey, I liked IM2), they also played things relatively safe, while also lacking a particularly satisfying action climax. Not so here: Iron Man 3 takes some real risks, ones that might even piss off some fans, which makes it all the more gratifying when they end up paying off. And the big-scale action climax actually delivers this time, although a spectacular earlier scene with Iron Man saving falling plane passengers is still the film's best action setpiece. If this ends up being the last Iron Man movie (well, the last one with Downey Jr anyway), then it's a strong, fitting note to go out on.

#9: This is the End

Written and Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End is hysterical. There, done, end of review, moving on.
Okay fine, I'll elaborate a little. While it's not necessarily the best comedy released in 2013 (namely because it lacks the same high replay value of the highest-ranking comedy on this list), This is the End is definitely the hardest I laughed at any movie that I saw this year (and undoubtedly among the best theater experiences I had in 2013). It gives you a simple setup and then goes in about 20 different crazy, absurd and unpredictable directions, all while still making room for Rogen and company's natural, hilarious riffing and improv. Yet it avoids feeling like a strung-together sketch movie and actually showcases a semblance of heart, being a story about two men trying to retain their friendship. It also involves giant demon dicks, but I'm giving away too much already. Not knowing what insane or raunchy thing is going to happen next is a big part of the fun. Even if I probably only need to see it once, the one time was more than its money's worth.
Okay, happy now? That's the thing about good comedies: they're really hard to write much about, aside from saying "it's really funny". Because really that's the most important thing for them (often the only important thing). And while the aforementioned best comedy of 2013 has decidedly more to talk about and dissect, there's really only one reason I can offer for This is the End being one of the year's best movies: it's really, really goddamn funny. And that's honestly all I should have to say as to why I loved it so much.

#8: Frozen

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Screenplay by Jennifer Lee; Story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris

I already wrote here about how great Frozen is, so I'll allow that to do the bulk of the work for me. In summation though, I ended up waiting all year for one of the animated offerings this year to really blow me away (Monsters University came the closest), and Frozen was pretty much my last shot. Thankfully, it not only met my high expectations for the recently-resurgent Disney Animation, but went one step further by giving us the best Disney musical since The Lion King, mixed with a genuinely well-written, character-driven story that presents a touching and even complex sibling relationship. Mix that with a great sense of humor, gorgeous animation and some great subversion of the usual Disney formula, and it's honestly no wonder that it's become such a runaway smash for Disney (don't be surprised if we see this one getting the same kind of hallowed treatment as Lion King or Beauty and the Beast 20 years from now).
Now if you excuse me, I have to try and get "Let it Go" unstuck from my head for the 1000th time...

#7: Spring Breakers

Written and Directed by Harmony Korine

How do you even describe a movie as subversive, messed-up and insane as Spring Breakers? Maybe I should just post a link to this (now infamous) scene and let that sum it up.
So yeah, that was a violent crime/poolside dance montage set to Britney Spears. On piano. Played by James Franco as a wannabe rapper.
It's just that kind of movie.
Spring Breakers is decidedly not a movie for everyone. In fact, there's a decent chance that you might absolutely hate it. But damn is it memorable, what with creative direction, go-for-broke style, surprisingly deep and thoughtful subtext about our MTV-influenced youth culture, and James Franco's performance as Alien, a thing of twisted beauty destined to live on in cult movie and internet fame for the rest of time. Say what you may about Harmony Korine's latest, but forgettable and boring it sure as hell ain't.

#6: Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Guillermo Del Toro; Story by Travis Beacham

Yep, that's right. My top 6 includes both an artful, unflinching portrait of slavery and a movie about giant robots blasting kaiju with plasma cannons, because THAT'S JUST THE KIND OF GUY I AM.
Somehow we haven't gotten a movie directed by Guillermo Del Toro in five years, but man was this worth the wait. More than any other summer blockbuster this year, Pacific Rim lives up to the hype. It's exactly what such a movie should be: willing to be kind of dumb, but unwilling to use that as an excuse for sloppy laziness in its execution. No, Pacific Rim is a dumb popcorn blockbuster with heart and soul, a true labor of love from a director whose whole career is pretty much defined by his geeky passions. It's still up in the air if a sequel will happen, but Del Toro clearly knew that going in, and used it as an excuse to go all-out with what may be his only shot at making a cinematic love letter that's part Top Gun (except so much better than Top Gun), part Gundam, and part Toho monster movie. With a $190 million budget, and no A-list stars. That this movie exists at all is something to be thankful for.
At slightly over 2 hours Pacific Rim is superbly paced for an action blockbuster, effectively and efficiently taking care of all the needed context and setup within the opening sequence before throwing us right into the action. But instead of just bombarding us with wall-to-wall setpieces with little context thereafter, Rim instead doles out buildup, character development and emotional backstory for much of its first half. It invests us in its characters' common struggle in a world where we have set aside our differences in the wake of a threat to us all, and where everyone's contributions and teamwork really do matter (such a philosophy of globalism is refreshingly ahead of the curve in today's generally centralized blockbuster filmmaking). It even paces in some good action beats that still function as important character development (a flashback to Mako's firsthand experience of a Kaiju attack as a child is particularly effective). And when we do get back to the epic-scale action sequences once again, we enjoy and appreciate them all the more because of our investment.
There's always a palpable sense of tension and stakes to every Jaeger battle: every blow has impact and weight, every mistake or slipup is potentially fatal, and the people in the 'bots putting their lives on the line are actually worth giving a damn about. Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh is a different kind of action hero, one who not only has a sense of humanity but actually values it, and never puts himself before others. Meanwhile his copilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is every bit the story's protagonist as he is, the kind of strong, intelligent, non-sexualized female character that action movies in general desperately need more of. And let us not forget the indescribably badass Idris Elba, who commands the screen whenever he appears, and gives a climactic battle speech to rank among the best of them (I still pump my fist and say "Hell yeah!" every time I see that scene).
Pacific Rim's standout sequence however is still the extended Hong Kong battle that takes place after the film's midpoint. Here's where Del Toro flexes his stuff and delivers the goods in spectacular fashion with the single best action sequence in any big-budget blockbuster this year. It's a fantastic example of scale meets creativity, not to mention how to expertly keep escalating the action, with one epic moment after another. This scene encapsulates what makes Pacific Rim such unabashed, consistent and engaging action movie fun, and yet it still manages to include a real, passionate moviemaking soul along with the package. It's proof that just because it's dumb doesn't mean it lacks for imagination.
Case in point: the boat sword. The pure, pulsating awesome cannot be denied.
Above: your argument, becoming invalid.

#5: The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Terence Winter

For the following video clip, imagine Jake the Dog is Martin Scorsese:

Because at this point in his long, storied and legendary career, Scorsese is basically just showing off. Not only is The Wolf of Wall Street an equally gripping, biting and unbelievable wild ride of a movie, but it's already one of my personal favorite Scorsese films- and yeah, I just said that. Need I remind you this is the guy who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed and (his best movie, IMO) Goodfellas, among many others.  
Wolf is a 3-hour tale of supreme excess, and yet even when the irresponsible (to put it very mildly) party inevitably crashes and stops, it never feels its length. The performances are top-notch across the board, anchored by career-best performances from Leonardo DiCaprio (more unhinged than you will likely ever see him) and the ever-surprising-in-his-growing-range Jonah Hill. The extended dialogue scenes shine throughout, with some standout sequences (Mathhew McConaughey's big scene early on, Belfort's attempt to bribe Kyle Chandler's straight-and-narrow FBI agent) that are destined to go down as notable highlights in a career that's littered with them. The film brazenly presents the awful people at its core, letting us see and experience the (pretty simple) reasons why they did such things without clouding the outrageous real-world lack of consequences. And that's the point, really: even Belfort himself is surprised at just how easy he gets off by the end, how the imbalanced system proves just as absurd and unbelievable as his grossly bad, excess-fueled behavior. Believe me, anyone who claims that Wolf of Wall Street is an endorsement of the characters' wealthy, careless, ridiculously immoral and drug-fueled lifestyles clearly wasn't paying any attention.
And then there's one sequence that will forever cement The Wolf of Wall Street as the next great Scorsese film, perhaps the single most outrageously funny scene of any movie this year. It can be summed up with one word: Quaaludes. I may not have known what they were before, but after this movie you sure as hell won't forget.

#4: The World's End

Directed by Edgar Wright
Screenplay by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

What do you know, here's the real best comedy of the year, and it's another end-of-the-world story! So what make this one so different, you ask? Two words: Edgar Wright.
If it hasn't become abundantly clear yet, then this should make it so: Edgar Wright can do no wrong. I mean this is only his fourth feature film, and yet it seems to be not just opinion but absolute fact. Here is a director with such an innately funny sensibility, a finely-honed style that just explodes with lively energy, and yet every one of his films so far (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and now this) feels both familiar and uniquely its own. The proposed final installment of what has been dubbed the "Cornetto Trilogy" (The first two being Shaun and Fuzz), The World's End not only lives up to high fan expectations but arguably even surpasses them, and any argument for it being the best of the three would be entirely valid (hell, even I'm considering it).
The World's End is fast and breezy with its constant barrage of laughs and wordplay, but adds a more mature undercurrent than we've seen in previous Wright films. It takes longer than usual for the genre elements to enter the story, with the first act feeling like a much more grounded, conventional approach to this story. Once it does though the film truly kicks into delirious high gear, mixing its pre-established comic wit with fantastic pub brawl fight choreography and some surprisingly clever and insightful sci-fi ideas (the climax of the film in particular, which is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams' work). Anchoring it all is a fantastic cast who always keep up with the film's tone, be it comic or otherwise. Frequent collaborator Nick Frost really shows his range, playing against type as the bitter straight-man Andy, a stark contrast to Frost's usual buffoonish friend characters.
But this is Simon Pegg's show, and what a hell of a show we have here tonight. Pegg plays Gary King, an alcohol-obsessed, manipulative scoundrel obsessed with living in the past but unable to see the sorer points of said past thanks to a very selective memory. Throughout the film Gary is obnoxious, insensitive and self-centered, but thanks to Pegg is somehow never unlikable. Everyone has (or will end up having) a friend like Gary, which is why we relate so much to the rest of the movie's gang of reunited high school friends and their annoyed revival of long-gestating bitterness. But we also feel sympathy for Gary, a lost soul without purpose or direction, a struggling man who must cling to his past and his drink, because he feels that it's all he has. A part of us even grows to enjoy his antics, despite not being as funny as Gary seems to think. And through it all Simon Pegg runs the full emotional gamut, effectively masking his character's true inner workings in astounding (and often hilarious) fashion I have to say, having seen The World's End a couple times now, that the best performance of the year... is still Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. But Pegg's work as Gary King is still a strong contender, and easily the most complex, nuanced and yes, funny performance I've seen in any comedy that's come out in years, probably ages.

#3: Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Gravity is a blockbuster cinematic experience unlike anything else this year, or in several years for that matter. And that's the key word, really: experience. When you see Gravity on the big screen in 3D or IMAX, you aren't just seeing it, but experiencing it. You experience Dr. Stone's terror as she struggles for her life in the endless vacuum of space, terrifyingly depicted in absurdly long shots and uneasy close-ups that know exactly when to cut for the sake of the film's nail-biting suspense and thrills. You experience the awe of watching the sunrise through George Clooney's cool-headed, optimistic astronaut Matt Kowalski. You experience Stone's desperation and her near-defeat, conveyed through what is easily the best performance of Sandra Bullock's career. You experience the jaw-dropping visuals and cinematography, the stunning visual effects, and the most immersive and well-integrated 3D in any Hollywood film to date. It's the definition of a film that needs to be seen to be believed.

#2: Her

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze*368/HER-FP-0871.jpg

Her is many things. It's an often-hilarious romantic comedy. It's a heartbreaking relationship drama with an unusual hook and some not-so-predictable twists. It's a continuously fascinating, intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction story, with a near-future that feels incredibly believable. It's a moving and complex study of human connections, communication and feelings. It's an immeasurably soulful and human character piece, anchored by Joaquin Phoenix in probably the only other lead performance this year that deserves to win Best Actor awards like crazy. It's certifiable proof to any naysayers that voice acting is a true art in and of itself, as Scarlet Johnannson's role as Samantha is not only deserving of just as much praise as any other actress' "real" performances this year, but likely outdoes all of them. It's beautifully directed by the ever-talented Spike Jonze, who with this, his fourth feature film after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, I think is safe to call a true cinematic visionary.
But at the end of the day, Her is really just one thing: altogether wonderful. And that's all the reason you should need as to why it's unquestionably one of the year's best films.

#1: 12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by John Ridley

Because honestly? The more I think about it, the more any other top choice just wouldn't feel right. Many movies mentioned in this list achieved not just greatness, but excellence, each in their own ways and each for different reasons. But 12 Years a Slave is the only film in 2013 that I could feel wholly comfortable with proclaiming a masterpiece. A flawless, harrowing, absorbing, brilliantly crafted masterpiece. The harsh-yet-beautiful direction by Steve McQueen lingers on brutal moments for near-unbearable amounts of time, and yet it always keeps itself above exploitation territory. The performances are magnificent across the board, ranging from Michael Fassbender's psychotic and monstrously violent Edwin Epps to newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, an abused slave and the object of Epps' desire (and his wife's barely-contained envy). The depictions of slavery in America are unflinching in their accuracy and sense of period, honest in the era's brutality and cruelty like almost no other film I've seen. And at the film's core is Chiwetel Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon Northup, giving without a doubt the most powerful and nuanced performance of the year- the film truly is worth seeing for him alone. 12 Years a Slave, more than anything else released in 2013, is not a film that just should be seen, but rather one that needs and deserves to be seen. I don't care for any excuses you may have- none are good enough for passing up the opportunity to see a film so overwhelmingly powerful, gripping and thought-provoking, one that takes a topic dodged, avoided and sugar-coated for so long and exposes the horrors of the past for what they were. And more than just about any other film this year, it makes you feel. It makes you feel shock, sorrow, desperation, injustice, terror, anger, horror, and finally a faint lining of hope, hope that things might get better in a world with such an ugly history.

Thanks for reading my list, everybody! What were your favorite movies this year?