Monday, December 30, 2013

The Highlights of 2013*

2013 hasn't been the kind of banner year that 2007 was, but it definitely hasn't been a terrible year either. There have been a handful of great films, some challenging films and a no real shortage of good to very good films. I'm not going to say that the films on this particular list are the best films of 2013, but I can say they are the films I liked the most out of the releases I've seen this year. All of this being subjective, for the most part, I have a hard time with the "best" and "worst" titles. In fact, I generally think the "worst" lists are a waste of everyone's time, so I don't write them. As for "best", it something that can and will be argued. These were the films I most enjoyed the experience of watching or were just the most well made in relation to the things I generally care about and pay more attention to like character, cinematography and writing in general. Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments.

I was pretty sure it was going to be extremely hard for a film to beat out Mud as my favorite film of the year. It hasn't beaten Mud, but it has definitely tied it. Beyond the cultural and social import of the film, Steve McQueen's adaptation of Solomon Northrup's autobiography is one of those films whose level of quality is so exquisite that it is as awe inspiring and heart breaking in measure equal to its subject matter. My original review goes into depth about what it is I thought was so incredibly special about it. 

Just when I thought Id seen so many coming of age tales that I would never again be able to find one that would seem like it might be anything but stale and used up, Mud comes along. Jeff Nichols, like Steve McQueen is one of the best new directors of his generation. His prior films showed him to be a disciplined, intelligent, subtle and powerful film maker. My review for Mud makes it absolutely clear that I have no fear of slathering it in praise.

Harmony Korine has become a brand all his own. Known for making films that are thematically challenging, running the edge of exploitation and making some degree of social commentary, Korine has been no stranger to controversy and in almost every possible way, Spring Breakers is a culmination of what he's been doing since his first feature. It is like a concentrated shot of all that is mesmerizing and horrid about mainstream popular culture. It is completely out of it's mind and it is absolutely the most entertaining film Korine has ever created. My review lays out all of the things I found fascinating about the film. 
I didn't write a review after I saw this film, but I'm going to see it again at some point and write a more detailed review. Like Mud, this film took a type of film that's been more or less overdone and did it so incredibly well that it makes clear why so many others have attempted it. When it actually works it makes for a riveting, deeply effecting, and human form of storytelling. This story demonstrating the old adage that the sins of the father are visited upon the sons is the best role Bradley Cooper has yet to be given and gave Ryan Gosling a chance to once again show the charisma that helped make Drive one of the most fun films of 2011. Derek Cianfrance was at the top of his game for this film and it puts him next to Nicholas Winding Refn, Jeff Nichols, Steve McQueen as the new generation of absolutely must see directors. 

Don Coscarelli has made a few of the most interesting genre benders in the last 40 years. Phantasm, and Bubba Ho-Tep are great films, made great even with the kinds of shoe string budgets that leave almost every other director hamstrung. He brought that magic back to John Dies At The End and takes a story that was a crazy, genre bending book and creates a movie that is high as a kite on it's own weird energy. This is a screaming, howling, cackling film that is absolutely undeniable when watched. Check out my drooling, unseemly love fest of a review for more. 

Nicholas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling gave us Drive in 2011. It was dripping with cool, charisma, a great soundtrack and a real beauty in it's cinematography that usually runs away from a film like this as if it might cease to exist by just being a part of the same film. Reuniting for Only God Forgives, both of them bring all of those elements back to the screen and then mixed in a healthy dose of Alejandro Jodorowsky (whom it's dedicated to), martial arts and Thai culture. It is a gorgeous film, running through a language of symbolism that makes it even more interesting and entertaining than it could have been without it. The original review describes the wonders of this film in much more detail.

Taking the reigns of what is shaping up to be the biggest franchise in history, and one of the most complicated interwoven sets of stories for anyone to ever even attempt to put on film, Joss Whedon invited his friends to his house for 12 days while he was in the midst of filming The Avengers, and being the big creative brain behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, while he was making the impossible possible by not only bringing The Avengers to the screen, but also making it the best action/adventure film of 2012, he was also filming the best Shakespeare adaptation in at least a decade. It brings all of the best out of material that is the backbone and standard of a few hundred years of romantic comedies. It gives a cast of actors who have all been criminally overlooked a chance to shine, and it is wonderful.

This fun little gem of a horror/action film takes the home invasion sub genre into slightly new territory and is just well made over all. It's not going to go down as a horror classic and it's not a harbinger of some great changes ahead in horror, but it is a solidly made film, that's really fun and avoids one of the most egregious issues that plague too many low budget horror films. What sets it apart is the absolutely awesome protagonist, antagonists that are genuinely creepy through the majority of their screen time and some really ingenious set pieces. Worth a look if you haven't caught it. 

I can hear the groaning from the peanut gallery already. I know, I know, I know... A lot of people (even many of the most die hard Rob Zombie fans) hated this film with a passion. It was too meandering, too unclear, too slow and not Rob Zombie enough for them and for most of the critics. So much of what other people disliked about it made me really enjoy it. To me, personally, this film has more in common with House of the Devil, House by the Cemetery, The Beyond and Rosemary's Baby than it does with House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. It's more slow burn supernatural thriller than it is rip roaring, slasher inspired mania. The design and cinematography are absolutely stunning. There are a few jaw droppingly beautiful and bizarre visual moments in this movie. The weird, meandering sense of being somewhat lost in what feels like someone else's dream, Dee Wallace getting to play a really fun, completely against type character (along with the great interplay between her and her "sisters"), and of course, a great, fun soundtrack helped this film hit the same kind of sweet spot for me that Ti West's House of the Devil did. But I genuinely think that because West has gathered a good cache of indie cred, and critics and audiences aren't bringing the same expectations to his films, his foray into period piece art horror was much more well received. Because Rob Zombie is Rob Zombie, he's expected to do things in a much more straight forward, commercially friendly way. I was glad to see he didn't feel that way. I'm not a Rob Zombie fanboy or anything, his Halloween was nearly insufferable, but I don't have a predisposition to dislike him either. In this case, he just made the kind of film that highlights what makes a lot of my tastes different from a good portion of other horror fans. 
Xan Cassavetes is the daughter of one of the fathers of modern independent film, John Casavettes. Where her father favored experimental, occasionally unscripted drama and subject matter that was somewhat controversial for it's day, Xan isn't afraid to wade into waters that aren't as highly lauded artistically, but are among the great traditions in film. This is another film that is basically gorgeous from beginning to end, with a slick, seductive, stylish visual vocabulary. Thematically and narratively, it tiptoes up to the line of Jean Rollins body of work, but isn't willing to risk becoming straight up exploitation. It's fun, gorgeous, silly pulp, like much of the European horror of the late sixties and seventies. If Xan can take this flair for visual style and unpretentious fun and add even a quarter of her fathers eye for catching some real humanity in her characters, she's going to be a powerhouse. If not, she's still going to be making visually sumptuous, entertaining movies. 
Neil Jordan's return to cinema is also his return to the vampire genre. It's a lush, layered and nuanced retrofitting of the vampire myth, taking it's metaphors to different territory from the usual vampire fare. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are the protagonists in what becomes a nuanced and interesting investigation of love, need, family, gender, and what we desire or want from or for our lives. It's a very different kind of vampire film than is usually released. This is closer to Let The Right One In than it is to The Lost Boys.

In 1988, Chile's notorious dictator, Augusto Pinochet was pressured into a referendum about whether or not he would continue to be the "President." Having been a brutal dictator, for decades, Pinochet expected that because he had the media under thumb and the populace would be terrified of him that the referendum before it was even won. In large part, due to an ad campaign put together by the various factions fighting to see Pinochet deposed. No tells the story of how that campaign came together and who was responsible for it. It's a great film that simultaneously touches on so many different topics surrounding media and politics, and the very hard realities of politics versus idealism. Gabriel Garcie Bernal is a great actor and every bit of it shows here. This is a rare kind of film. 

There are so many films that take place in space. Very few of them deal with the actual realities of attempting to survive in the most forbidding environment for human life that actually exists. There is no more dangerous environment for human beings than space. Europa Report deals with that idea head on and creates a tense, heartbreaking and breath taking tale. Gravity, the much more expensive film about surviving in space released this year was a good film, but because it did play so directly like a big budget attempt at a much more intimate and personal kind of film. That's not to take anything away from George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, but Europa Report is just, hands down, a better film.

 *There's still a chance that some additions will be made to this list, as 2013 isn't completely over and there are a few films recently released that I really want to see and which have gotten the kind of reception from the kind of writers that suggest they are films I will probably like very much.

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