Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Films of 2013

Well, it's that time of year again. 2013 is drawing to a close and I'm now obligated to formulate a list of my top ten films of the year. Some years this is a pretty simple task (see 2012 list), but that is not the case here. Just like last year there are some pretty major releases that I haven't caught up on that would most likely make this list (Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Twelve Years a Slave, etc.). The following top ten list is only from films I've seen, so sorry if one of those isn't mentioned. Over the past twelve months I have seen over thirty films released since last January, very few of which were against my will and most of which (about twenty-two) I ended up liking to varying degrees. With that in mind, I'm going to start out with some films that I enjoyed but didn't quite make it into my top 10.

** Honorable Mentions**

The World's End

The funniest movie of the year has to at least get a mention. With some of the best British comedic talent available, this film capped off the cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) in terrifically clever fashion. Though it can be a bit crude at times, The World's End does a great job riffing on popular sci-fi elements while also telling a surprisingly nuanced story about the characters' reactions to maturity and adulthood. It's not for the faint of heart, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film and it certainly will reward repeat viewings.

A pleasant surprise coming in the usually disappointing month of March, Oz the Great and Powerful did a good job of setting up another adventure in the land we all know so well. Sam Raimi's focus on the internal conflict of the title character really brings this crowd-pleasing blockbuster to a slightly higher level.

While shooting a little below its potential, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty uses independent-film creativity to great effect with the aid of a budget rarely afforded such creations. Its message is pure (if not a little too straight-forward) and the likable performance of Ben Stiller makes this film about self-discovery worth the journey.

Quite an increase in quality after X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman and company are able to redeem the clawed X-Men with The Wolverine. Taking the invincible character and finding a way to make him vulnerable, this story brings a more tactile approach to the fantastical premise than its disappointing predecessor. It may be my bias for the setting, but The Wolverine is one of the year's best superhero films.

I can't tell you how tempted I was to put this one in my top ten. Taking a fairly original premise and giving it the ultimate blockbuster treatment, Guillermo del Toro creates an immersive and adrenaline-fueled world in Pacific Rim. I feel bad for all the people who weren't able to see this film on an IMAX screen. Some may say the story isn't great, but this is one time where the magnificent visuals are all that matters.

Top Ten Films of 2013

#10   Mud
This is a film that kind of snuck up on me. Were it not for Matthew McConaughey's involvement in Christopher Nolan's next film, I might not have seen this in theaters. Mud is a personal story much more about love than most people would think. McConaughey gives a stellar performance and the cinematography captures the scenery in remarkable fashion. I had to put this one on my list for the performances, the characters and the care the director put into each frame of this film.

#9   42
I'm a sucker for baseball films (MoneyballThe Natural, etc.), and I've always liked hearing about Jackie Robinson. Add to that Harrison Ford's involvement, and you can bet I was there opening weekend for 42. Thankfully, this film does justice to the man by honoring his enormous contribution to the civil rights movement as well as for the game of baseball. It's very moving to see these real-life events about an American hero, and I appreciate the respectful way he was depicted by Chadwick Boseman.

#8   Thor: The Dark World
Having thoroughly enjoyed the first Thor film, I was pleased to see that Marvel was stepping further into its "Phase 2" in a good direction. Playing heavily to the strengths of its cast, this film balances humor, action, and suspense in equal measure, even daring to take some risks unprecedented in the Marvel cinematic universe. It's a vast improvement over the previous Marvel entry, and I can only hope that this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier can keep the momentum going for Marvel (spoiler alert: it will).

#7   Rush
I caught up to this one pretty late, so much so that I haven't even had time to write a formal review. Rush is a film about race car drivers, but it has much deeper messages being expressed. The antagonistic relationship between the two rivals is perfectly played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, and the unfolding of their respective stories are fascinating to see. It is an R-rated film, but purely for throw-away moments that add nothing to the plot. It's really a good film, and if you're averse to R-ratings then this film would be a fairly easy one to clearplay.

#6 (tied)  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
While I really enjoyed the first film in the Hobbit series, I knew the second one was going to raise the stakes. Indeed, The Desolation of Smaug is an edge-of-your-seat kind of movie with spectacular action sequences and some of the best visual effects ever put on the big screen. With the tension rising and terrible danger imminent, Bilbo and his friends must face the titular dragon without the help of Gandalf. Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely kills it as Smaug, whose voice and facial expressions will send chills down your spine. I seriously cannot wait for next year's grand finale, There and Back Again.

#6 (tied)   Captain Phillips 
Perhaps the most intense movie I have ever seen (though another film on this list competes for that prize), Captain Phillips is a gripping experience. Based on the well-publicized true story, the film puts you as much in the moment as possible. Paul Greengrass (director of the Bourne Supremacy and the Bourne Ultimatum) has a knack for capturing realism and pulse-pounding suspense. The main performance by Tom Hanks is worthy of all the acclaim it will receive in the coming months. Fair warning, however, once this movie kicks off (about ten minutes into its two and a half hour running time) it never hits the breaks until credits roll.

Though it isn't necessarily the best film of the year, Star Trek Into Darkness was perhaps the most entertaining. Building character development from the first film, it takes the crew of the Enterprise to a dark place indeed as they face off against the wonderfully frightening John Harrison. The visuals are remarkable and the performances are all top-notch, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch as Harrison. I consider this to be not only an incredibly fun movie, but the best Star Trek film to date. Though the series will definitely miss director JJ Abrams, I can't wait to see the film he's doing next.

#4   Frozen
As I mentioned in my review, this movie completely caught me off guard. The trailers don't do this film justice, and the characters, visuals, and (most of all) the music make this one of the better Disney outings in years.  It takes a very thoughtful approach and subverts audience expectations for these kinds of stories in the climax. Easily the best family film of the year and a must-see for fans of Disney animation at its best. While the story isn't necessarily groundbreaking as a whole, it's the overwhelming feeling of this movie that totally charmed me when I finally got around to seeing it.

There's something extremely satisfying about a film franchise that goes to great lengths to reward its audience. Adding an enormous amount to its budget, the latest film in The Hunger Games series has not only outstripped its predecessor in every way, but its also an improvement over its source material. The performances are all terrific, and Jennifer Lawrence is emerging as one of the best actors in the business. I'm encouraged to know that Francis Lawrence will return to direct the next two films in the series, which based on his work here, is only a good thing for Mockingjay fans.

This may be the most controversial choice on my entire list. Despite the strong box office receipts, Man of Steel has polarized the viewing population. You can read my full review for my complete thoughts, but suffice it to say that I remain a strong supporter of this film. Its visuals are some of the best I've ever seen, the score is phenomenal, and the story is inspirational while introducing new (and oddly relevant) ideas into the Superman mythos. I really considered putting this film at the number one spot, and will watch it again and again. That it will be completely ignored by the Academy for its technical achievements is a crime, but I unabashedly say that Man of Steel is one of the best films of the year and the best Superman film to date.

#1   Gravity
While my previous selection might elicit some backlash, this may be the safest choice on my entire top ten list. One of the best reviewed films of the year, it's tempting to demote it a few spots just to buck the trend. However, having seen this film in glorious IMAX 3D, I cannot deny the technical wizardry at work in this soon-to-be Oscar winning film. Gravity gives audiences the closest experience they will ever have to be in space, and Sandra Bullock's performance sells every second of it. The story itself is a rather simple one, but I couldn't help but connect with the fight for survival even while questioning whether it was even worth the effort. It's a tremendous achievement and I won't blame any Academy members for selecting Gravity.

Agree with my top ten list? Let me know in the comments which movies were your favorite from last year!

**Bonus Round**

Top Ten Scores of 2013

Anybody who knows me well could tell you that I really enjoy movie sores. I think they can be incredibly inspiring as well as entertaining. While this is just as subjective as any of my reviews or lists, here are my ten favorite scores for 2013 (I'll let the music do the talking).

#10   Thor: The Dark World - Brian Tyler

#9   The Book Thief - John Williams

#8   Saving Mr. Banks - Thomas Newman

#7   Captain Phillips - Henry Jackman

#6   Rush - Hans Zimmer

#5   Oblivion - M83

#4   Pacific Rim - Ramin Djawadi

#3   Star Trek Into Darkness - Michael Giacchino

#2   Gravity - Steven Price

#1   Man of Steel - Hans Zimmer