Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013: or, better late than never, part II

While there were 31 or so movies that left me genuinely happy in 2013, these are the ten best, that I will keep in my heart forever.  In reverse order, to add to the tension as you realize that movies you hated are even higher in my estimation than you thought.  Feel free to gnash your teeth.  It's a free country and they're your teeth!

10.  EVIL DEAD (8/10)
Five kids go to a cabin in the woods.  What do you think happens next?

Well, THE MOST TERRIFYING FILM [I have] EVER EXPERIENCE[d] it surely was not, but it is in the upper ranks of the gnarliest, and by God, in Evil Dead's case, that counts for damned near everything.  Evil Dead accomplishes something that has become increasingly rare: a remake of an avowedly canonical film that is, frankly, better than the original.

Then again, that original is so often confused with the perfection of Evil Dead 2 that it's easy to forget what an obvious learning experience The Evil Dead was.  But stop right there: Evil Dead '13 is no learning experience, it sprung forth fully formed, already divested of any unnecessary distinguishing article, straight from the head of Zeus, or at least the head of Fede Alvarez.

And it did so with all the grody glory that should entail.  Evil Dead is a showcase for blood and viscera, deploying ten films' worth of some of the most advanced gore effects in cinematic history.  And if it were only this, it would still by their estimable strength solidly earn its place on this list.  But Jane Levy's performances as Mia, heroic heroin addict, and Mia, the most memorable of all the Deadites, elevates even such already sublime ultraviolence.

Why did I originally give it a lower score?  Because of those other actors.  But as vehicles for makeup, don't they serve their purpose?  Ultimately, I cannot deny that they do.  Scary or not, Evil Dead is the horror film of 2013.

9.  THIS IS THE END (8/10)
The Rapture occurs, the Apocalypse follows, and a group of actors eventually notice.

This Is the End could probably kill a man with a weak heart.

Indeed, by so far that even its worthiest competitors have disappeared over the horizon, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's Hollywood parody-cum-(ha)-Christian satire is the most outrageously, most consistently, and most physically intensely funny thing I have seen in years, and in a theater?  Probably ever.  While by no means wishing to minimize Leo DiCaprio's shockingly hilarious turn as Jordan Belfort, nor the perfectly darkly comedic performances of a film to appear later on this particular list, The End features Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, and all the rest conjuring a perfect storm of viciously self-abnegating humor.

What lifts The End bodily into its instant classic status, however, is how slyly, and how bitingly, it subverts Protestant soteriology and eschatology.  But you can read more about that in the Bible!

8.  EUROPA REPORT (9/10)
In the near-future, a crewed mission to Europa goes horribly wrong.  In fauxcumentary form, we see how.

Europa Report is a nearly-unvarnished triumph.  It is, first and foremost, a triumph of small-budget science-fiction filmmaking, using its eight million dollars to flawless effect for exquisite sets and models, great greenscreen and wire work, and its few but crucial moments of unsparingly beautiful and elaborately creative CGI.

It is, even more suprisingly, a triumph of the found footage conceit, and an essentially perfect example of how to do found footage without once either breaking the narrative or breaking my eyes. (The trick, it turns out, is using stationary cameras.  Who knew?  Everyone.)

Finally, it tells a timeless story of the triumph of the human spirit, with a tale of science that will make youor at least it made meweep happy tears at witnessing the price of knowledge readily paid by those who are compelled to know, and to share what they have learned.

If that story is also chopped up chronologically for no obvious, let alone compelling, reason, well, there's a reason why it didn't get 10 out of 10, isn't there?  The biggest surprise is still that it didn't wind up the single best film of its subgenre of the year, but enough about thatfor those who crave hard science-fiction and astronauts in trouble, I cannot recommend it enough.

7.  THE COUNSELOR (9/10)
The lawyer with no name buys a stake in a small business.  Hijinks ensue.

Ridley Scott's and Cormac McCarthy's grand nihilistic talk-opera was maligned and misunderstood the moment it hit theaters, but there was no helping that.  Who would want to watch two or more hours of philosophical mumblings interspersed with shocking acts of barely-explained violence?

I would, for one.  So would Richard Roeper, God bless his heart.  Probably the most polarizing movie of 2013, unlike any other movie on my Top Ten, I would hesitate to ever recommend The Counselor to anyone.  The choosing, as it were, was done long ago.

Naturally, I purchased, with my own dirty money, The Counselor's nifty extended edition the very instant I could.  I regret to inform you that the cut reincludes what is easily the movie's shittiest scenea bizarre, jokey bit with the cartel's courier, that seems to serve to vaguely humanize him, or even include him in the narrative proper.  The obvious problem here is that he was already ideal, as just one more gear in the distant machine that would grind the real characters into so much metaphorical, or actual, meat.

While it's thus less "perfect," the longer cut can nonetheless claim to outdo the theatrical version, if for no other reason than through sheer quantityit's just such a delightfully obtuse picture, and too much of a good thing, as they say, is wonderful.

But the reinclusion of just a few seconds is crucial to The Counselor, and though it was already exceptionally well-staged, one highly key scene is now made truly flawless.  As I must be coy to avoid spoilers, I can say only that it involves a boledoan automatic decapitation machine, designed by amoral engineers with too much time on their hands, and used by assassins with more flair for the dramatic than a sense of efficiency.  This extended scene addresses my only serious complaint with the theatrical cut, because this time you see everything your black heart could ever desire to witness.

It's not too often that you get to squee with ecstatic surprise at the same scene twice, but then there's The Counselor.  I cannot advise you, but I still think it's fucking great.

6.  SIDE EFFECTS (10/10)
Emily Taylor attempts suicide, leading her into the care of a doctor whose idea of treatment is to jam as many psychoactives as possible into her brain.  Then things get worse.

Steven Soderbergh's last theatrically released picture serves as a far more ideal swan song than the enjoyable but rote Behind the Candelabra.  And yet: it may take you three viewings to actually see that.  Or, as is certainly possible, I'm just a little slow on the uptake.

The first time I saw Side Effects, I was happy and satisfied.  Informally, I gave it a 6.  It was, to be sure, no exercise in exhausting audience patience and goodwill, in the same vein as The Girlfriend Experience.  It also has the human affect (and acting) (and complete sense-making) that Haywire so substantially lacked.  It wasn't until months of thinking about Side Effects that I realized how utterly blown away I was by its brazenness, by its sheer grift.  I watched it again.  I gave it: a 7.

Then I thought about it some more.  Never has a movie slow-burned like this for me.  I suspect I owe my dampened reaction to learning too much about the film before I sat down.  It all comes down to this: having read about Side Effects, I expected Side Effects.  And that is a pity.  I have little doubt that a formal review will eventually issue forth from this office, and on that day there will be spoilers such as only God has seen, but until then, if your mind is still a virgin to Soderbergh's last theatrical outing, know only this: Side Effects is Soderbergh finally marrying his penchant for formalistic fuckery to his well-tuned populist sensibilities in a single film, and it is the perfect example of what it is.

5.  12 YEARS A SLAVE (10/10)
Solomon Northrup is a slave for twelve years.

I expected to get a little bit of hate mail for calling 12 Years a Slave "entertaining."  I guess I just need to try harder.

Thing is, by no means was I trolling.  In the same vein as Cast Away or Ben-Hur or The Pianist, if admittedly even more harrowing, 12 Years a Slave is a story not about dying in misery, but surviving misery.  It has the bittersweet ending that removes it from the ambit of a purely holocaustal film, without ever defusing its powerThe genius of the film is that it takes a man not unlike us today and throws him into perdition; the final mercy of it is that he got out, not unscathed, but still himself.  Add in an outstanding performance from its lead and the year's most impressive, physically-captured long take, and we can fairly describe Steve McQueen's third film as perfect.  If its win for Best Picture this year was, sorry to say, eye-rolling and undeserved, in just about any other year, there never could have been a debate at all.

Of course, the only reason why Lupita Nyong'o's Best Supporting win for her service as a prop for rape and torture doesn't promote any sarcastic eye movement is because the field was simply so very weak already (June Squibb? really)No, the real awards unfairness for 2013 was suffered entirely by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Legitimately turning in the year's Best Performance by an Actor Other Than Tom Hanks, Ejiofor still lost, and just what did he lose to?  Why, to nothing so much as a perfectly ordinary "I've got AIDS and learned how to not hate The Other quite so fucking much" turn by the once and future Wooderson.  Yes, the pro-ana bias of the Academy is well-known, but for fuck's sake, give this man his damned trophy.

Anyway, maybe that will do the trick.  I mean, I'd have at least liked to have gotten nasty comments when I wrote about how inflicting a genocide on the Confederacy would have been a good thing.  Well, I still believe it.  So c'mon!

4.  THE GREAT GATSBY (10/10)
Jay Gatsby wants to have sex with his imagination.  It works, but then he dies.

It's just... well, I don't know what people wanted from Baz Luhrman's adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel.  It's eminently faithful to the text and to the tone, with the mild and perfectly acceptable exception of its framing sequence.  It's as unbelievably stylish as you'd expect a Luhrman picture to be, especially in its kaleidoscopic first act, but never inappropriately, and in fact the beautiful kitsch and tempting excess suggest exactly how Fitzgerald must have felt about his world's real-life Gatsbies; and even after that first act, this film is never once visually dull.  It is immensely well-acted, as well, with Leo DiCaprio winning hearts and minds everywhere and forever, and with wonderful turns by the perfectly cast beauty that is Carey Mulligan as the object of Gatsby's desire, by Joel Edgerton employing his physique from Warrior to its best bullying effect, and not least by the so-often-derided yet always-solid Tobey Maguire.  And, finally, it tells a tale that is timeless and universal: that of a man who loves someone who wasn't real.

I know that quite a few people who loved the novelwhich, for once, I have read, and more than twice—hated the film.  For my part, I'm baffled; I can't imagine enjoying one and not the other.

If Luhrman emphasizes the headiness of the romance of Gatsby, focusing more exclusively upon its enigmatic title characterand if by virtue of making a movie of the thing, he bestows a character with agency upon Daisy Buchanan as wellthen surely that was his prerogative, perhaps even his obligation; at the very least, you cannot claim surprise.

But is it so different?  It's not just the same words.  The film is the story of Jay Gatsby, who deluded himself that he could not only capture his perfect mate with of a combination of will, memory, and wealth, but that he could create her.  The tragedy was always that he never even realized this was what he was really doing all along, and, chasing a phantom that did not and could not exist, he dies, hearing the ringing of a phone that he hopes was her but never was.  Details may have been fudged; and a touch of social commentary 80 years out of date may have been wisely left to molder in the book; but the heart has not been touched.

3.  HER (10/10)
In the future, Theodore Twombly dates his computer.  His experience is neither better nor more efficient.

Her is an emotional meatgrinder, let's be perfectly clear.  It is also a story of hope, for societyfor look at this film, feel the warmth of its future, and understand that as plausible as it is, its values are so much better than oursas well as hope for ourselvesyes, it is possible, sometimes even unavoidable, to love someone again.

It's a sci-fi mirror image of Gatsby, and while it explores its material with so much less conscious myth-making, it doubles down on emotional truth and intellectual dissection.  What does it mean to love?  Can we really love anybody?  Can anybody ever truly love us?  And what's the point of all this love crap, anyway?

Well, watch it and find out.  Maybe you'll be a better person for it.

2.  PAIN & GAIN (10/10)
Daniel Lugo leads a gang of steroidal losers in a death ride against capitalism.

Only in a year with a cinematic super-event like this list's Number 1 could Michael Bay's cruel communist manifesto have wound up demoted to only my second favorite film of the year.  I have spent many hours and many, many words trying to take Pain & Gain apart, and then put it back together again, so I will leave these comments brief.  It is the most angrily leftist film to come out of Hollywood, and maybe anywhere, in years; and it is enraged, not only by the failure of the American system, but by its failure to even recognize any failure.  Pain & Gain is the true story of what happens when the ethos of predatory capitalism has been internalized by every man, woman, and child in a society.  It is thus, necessarily, a truly ugly story.

But Pain & Gain, itself, is emphatically not.  Beautifully directed by Bay, flawlessly performed by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, and all the rest, and brilliantly drafted by, yes, my new favorite screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this film is in itself perfect.  Somehow I doubt Transformers 4 will live up to this new Mature Michael, but you never know.

1.  GRAVITY (10/10) 
Ryan Stone is stranded in space, where life is impossible.

Here's the thing: it's not even fair that the other 99 films I watched in and around 2013 should need to compete with Gravity, for Gravity isn't even a movie.  Gravity, on IMAX and in 3D, is a God damned holodeck.

But, it was a holodeck installed in thousands of theaters across the world and visited by millions.  Thus, fair or not, here it is.  And once I witnessed and viscerally experienced the unrelenting spectacle that Gravity offered there wasn't a chance that any other effortno matter how class consciouscould ever assail it as the reigning queen.

Even if not without its single narrative flub or its solitary science error, Gravity is the 2001 of 2013, but without the coldness to match its grandeur.  Gravity is a picture of the most profound cosmic enormity our technology has yet replicated, yes, but it is the pure humanity of its story that kept me coming back to feel it, again and again.  (And again.  When was the last time I went to see a movie in the theater three times?  Exactly never.)  No one will ever argue that Keir Dullea should have gotten an Oscar; expect me to passively-aggressively note how Sandra Bullock was robbed for the next decade.

So: is Gravity the best film of 2013?  Such mild praise does not reach far enough.  Gravity is the best film of the 21st century.  And even that may not contain its splendor.

Update, 9/17/2017: 2013 was as miraculous a year in film as they come, and there were masterpieces that I didn't even see, that would've easily made it onto this list if only I had.  So: if I had it to do again, Richard Linklater's trilogy-capping Before Midnight would've slotted in right behind 12 Years a Slave, and Makoto Shinkai's utterly splendid The Garden of Words would've taken its place right between Pain & Gain and Gravity.  (Also, if I were doing it again, Monsters University and Oblivion would've made the list and displaced Evil Dead and This Is the End.)  Anyway, it's not so bad that not all years can be like 2013, but, man, nothing else I'm aware of even comes that close!

2013 in review: the Middle Eighty
2013 in review: the Worst Ten

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