Wasn’t this a damn good year for movies? While the summer blockbuster season wasn’t so up to par, there were some gems just waiting for us at the end of the year, with the Oscars sure to be one of the most exciting in years. It was hard for me to pick 5 definitive films that defined 2013, but lo and behold, here are my picks for the movies that made 2013 a great year!
Dallas Buyers Club
It’s always wonderful to find a film that completely and utterly surprises you, and such was the case with Dallas Buyers Club, the true story of Ron Woodruff, who sold non-FDA approved medication to patients suffering from HIV in the 1980’s. The film never feels like it’s manipulating the audience, nor does it ever feel cheesy or, well, like a movie. It’s brutal and up front in its’ presentation, due in part to the sensational lead performance from Matthew McConaughey (a sentence which a few years back I didn’t think I’d ever be writing). As Woodruff, McConaughey creates a complex and fascinating character to watch, a straight man diagnosed with HIV, whose brash, confrontational nature starts off in a hate-filled, homophobic place, but slowly takes shape to becomes his driving force in his journey for absolute survival (Survival is a theme that pretty much runs across all of my picks, actually). Together with excellent performances by supporting cast Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club is a brash, dirty film with a beautiful heart.
Standout Performance: Matthew McConaughey, for all the reasons listed above. His performance makes the film, ’nuff said.
The Exquisite Corpse Project
While technically not an official release in cinemas, The Exquisite Corpse Project (TECP as I’ll call it from now on) was released earlier this year online at Splitsider.com, and is probably the best comedy-documentary out there. It centers around a no-longer-active sketch comedy group, Olde English, whose sketches in the 00’s were some of the best on the Internet. After the group dissolved, they decided to tackle one final project; a movie. The rules of the movie are a bit complicated to get into here, but we’ll just say it’s no ordinary movie they’re making. The end product is a combination of the film they end up making and documentary footage of them writing the film. Not only is TECP pretty damn hilarious, it’s a unique look into what it’s like to create art with friends, and how relationships change over time and affect that art. The last half hour of the film is especially emotional, when the worlds of the film and the documentary thematically become one. It’s probably the movie I’ve watched the most of my picks (mainly because it lives on my computer), but for good reason. TECP is something you’ll never forget.
Standout Performance: Raphael Bob-Waksberg, it’s strange to give a shout out to a performance in what is essentially a documentary, but Raphael (one of the five writers) is just the funniest of the bunch, always providing witty commentary on the proceedings, and is the one who eventually brings the two worlds of the film and the documentary together.
My personal pick for Best Movie of the Year, Her is hilarious, depressing, beautiful, and revelatory. It’s a story about 21st century love, our relationship to technology, our relationship to people, and just what IS a relationship. The simple-enough premise: Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with his new operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). What could have potentially been a flat, or absurd story turns into something much deeper, thanks to expert writing/direction from Spike Jonze, one of our finest storytellers working in film today. Compared to last year’s The Master, it’s a marvel to see Phoenix be able to create such a gentle spirit like Theodore, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a truly identifiable romantic. With a supporting cast of wonderful people including Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, the world of Her is funny and touching, and the film that I feel truly captures the 21st century outlook on love in this moment.
Standout Performance: Scarlett Johansson, who is able to just use her voice to create a rich character in Samantha, someone who is continually trying to grasp for more knowledge, and to develop as both an OS, and a person in Theodore’s life.
12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is brutal. It’s unrelenting in its portrayal of slavery in the late 1800’s, and at times the film can be hard to watch. This isn’t the sort of “Oscar-bait” drama you catch around this time of year. This is struggle, and pain up on the big screen for all to see. With an extraordinary ensemble cast led by the astounding Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, director Steve McQueen presents us with the danger, disaster, and fear that comes with a man trying to survive. The scenes of utter brutality in this film will stay with you for days, etching into your mind the struggle and loss that Solomon endured for twelve years. McQueen has gone on the record to say that he thinks the film isn’t just about slavery; it’s about human respect, and the way we treat each other. This universality is what makes the experience so illuminating and so visceral. It’s a film that must be seen to be believed. And you MUST see it, trust me.
Standout Performance: Lupita Nyong’o, making one of the best film debuts in years, plays Patsey, a fellow slave on Michael Fassbender’s plantation. Her pain is there for all the world to see, and it is one of the bravest performances of the year. That Supporting Actress Oscar better be coming her way.
The Wolf of Wall Street
I think it’s fair to say that Martin Scorsese has never made a film as audacious and hilarious as The Wolf of Wall Street. This film goes all out. Sex, drugs, violence, and the “fucks” fly across the screen a mile a minute. It’s the most outlandish film of the year, it isn’t afraid to pull any punches, and to show some bad people doing bad things at every turn. And my god, is this film FUNNY, and that’s what saves it from losing the audience’s interest (looking at you, American Hustle). Sometimes the best way to look at the immoral behavior of individuals like Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is through the lens of comedy. Hell, for all his criminal wrong-doings, Walter White in Breaking Bad had his prime comedic moments (pizza on the roof, anybody?). The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour, non-stop, gawdy, despicable, no-good comedy thrill ride, showing us the seedy underbelly of Wall Street stock brokers, moving from hilarious set-piece to hilarious set-piece. But it never glorifies this behavior, goodness no. We laugh at Jordan and his cohorts’ antics, but in the end, we see the result of what happens we you try to have everything go your way Spoiler: it ain’t so great. It’s a damn good time with some damn bad people at the movies, and I loved it.
Standout Performance: Leonardo DiCaprio, who proves that he’s not just a great actor, he’s balls-to-the-walls hilarious. The physical comedy and antic wordplay he displays throughout the film would surely get him an Oscar in another year that wasn’t so stacked with so many outstanding lead male performances. But DiCaprio’s work here shows why he’s one of the best.
Inside Llewyn Davis
In their most recent effort, the Coen brothers tackle broken dreams, set against a palette of gray with one lone orange cat for color. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bleak, unrelenting portrait of an almost-made it, our title character, who weaves his way through a week by both screwing people over and getting screwed himself. Llewyn is a jerk, but a sad one who’s so close to being lovable. The scene where his dreams are crushed for good (by a character based on Bob Dylan’s real life manager, no less) is difficult and heartbreaking, and that’s really the climax of the movie. The ending leaves you with a sense of repetition and questions about fate – what happens when the cat stays inside? Well, the same thing. Great performances by lead Oscar Isaac and a varied supporting cast helps, as does the whip-smart script, but we expect no less from the Coen Brothers. If they do a sunnier movie next time, great. If they give us more of these, that’s great too. (See our review here.)
Standout Performance: In a huge cast with a few big names thrown in, Oscar Isaac shoulders the movie with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a guitar in hand, and he does it beautifully. Download his cover of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” if you’re not yet convinced.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Not all sequels are evil, guys. A vast improvement from the first installment, hastily and shakily directed by Gary Ross, Catching Fire has a whole lot of plot development to deals with, but moves it along while maintaining the emotional gravity, leading up to a second showdown in a brand new (and far more sinister) Hunger Games arena. People kvetched about the movie ending with the cliffhanger, but so did the book – and speaking of the book, the movie is faithful as can be, quoting directly when possible and translating the best moments to screen easily. This isn’t just a good adaptation, though; it’s a good movie. The script crackles, the shots are gorgeous, the Capitol is fleshed out to an alarming degree, and the direction is precise. New additions to the cast bring their best: Jena Malone’s spitfire, often nude Johanna Mason is a sight to behold, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, perhaps the most important new character plot-wise, brings his signature seriousness. Jennifer Lawrence is, as always, phenomenal, and Josh Hutcherson charms as Peeta despite his total uselessness in the arena (after I wrote about it in our review, Vulture literally listed his screw-ups). Superfans and newbies alike are holding their breath until Mockingjay: Part 1. (Read our review here.)
Standout Performance: It’s tough to outshine Jennifer Lawrence, but Jena Malone does it by sheer force of will, particularly in the now-infamous strip scene.
You have to respect Woody Allen for basically putting out one movie a year at his age, and his track record has gotten pretty strong as of late. He’s taking a break from his European travel ads this time, though, with Blue Jasmine, his take on the Madoff scandal, which is set between San Francisco and New York. Cate Blanchett shines, sweats, and drinks as the titular Jasmine, who serves as not only the wronged Madoff wife, but the Blanche DuBois, as she’s forced to move in with her scrappy sister, Ginger (brilliantly played by the underrated Sally Hawkins). Allen’s dialogue is as quick as ever, and the movie is pretty good, but it’s Blanchett that makes this movie a great one. This is an actress who can look beautiful one moment and disgusting the next – one moment she’s serenely sipping a glass of wine, the next she’s sweating everywhere and chugging vodka and pills. Louis C.K. has a great cameo as Ginger’s married lover, and Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Jasmine’s would-be husband, but it’s Andrew Dice Clay who wins Best Cameo here, as Ginger’s ex-husband who’s been harboring a grudge against Jasmine and her con-man husband for years. Bobby Cannavale is also fabulous as Ginger’s current squeeze. It’s a sobering movie – after Blanchett’s final close-up, I almost had to pick my jaw up off the floor. It’s current and staggering, but still puts a smile on your face from time to time.
Standout Performance: Do I even need to say it? Allen has always been able to get the best possible performance out of his actresses, and this effort from Cate Blanchett is no exception. She’s a whirlwind.
Another big studio movie, you say? Well, shut it. Not only was this my favorite comedy of the year, it struck a blow against every male studio executive who’s ever turned down a female driven movie, since this ended up grossing about $218 million worldwide. I’m certainly not saying box office is the be-all, end-all, but clearly, people came out in droves for this movie, and I’m pretty sure they left satisfied. The Heat, Paul Feig’s follow-up to the brilliant Bridesmaids, pairs two incredible actresses – the incomparable Melissa McCarthy and Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock – in a traditional buddy-cop comedy, wherein McCarthy is the loose cannon and Bullock is the tight-ass. It really is a typical buddy-cop movie, especially since it doesn’t have a romantic subplot, which is definitely refreshing with two female leads. With an excellent supporting cast, including Taran Killam as the surprise villain (he’s literally EVERYWHERE this year), slick direction from the always-great Feig, and a healthy amount of improvisation, The Heat wasn’t exactly a surprise hit, but it definitely was a welcome one. Honestly, I would watch a movie that was just Melissa McCarthy tossing watermelons at people. So there’s that.
Standout Performance: Melissa McCarthy. Duh. I don’t need to explain this. Just read this if you have any questions.
The Spectacular Now
Every year, there are handfuls of teen movies that come out that try to tell us what life as a teenager is really like, but I really haven’t seen one that’s more unflinchingly honest than The Spectacular Now. Based on the novel by Tim Tharp (which is quite different and, dare I say, not quite as good), the movie focuses on Sutter, a budding alcoholic who cruises through life with no thought for any consequences – that is, until he meets Aimee, a good girl who can show him the simpler pleasures in life, or so it seems. What really happens is he corrupts her (she ends up drinking constantly, along with him), he crashes his car with her in it, and ends up leaving her behind without so much as a word at the pivotal moment. It’s poignant, awfully sad, and incredibly joyous, and it’s the only teen movie I’ve seen in forever that’s realistic, particularly in the scene where Aimee loses her virginity to Sutter. It’s awkward and thrilling and totally silent, and finally, it’s not a little piece of heaven. (Nobody has a great time losing their virginity, and I’m not saying this as a bitter weirdo, cause I’m not. It’s just a fact. It’s either okay, or it’s awful.) There’s a final scene where Sutter tracks Aimee down and approaches her just before the movie fades to black, but giving the movie a deeply unhappy ending works for me. Not every first love ends perfectly, and this film is honest and true, and the better for it.
Standout Performer: Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, our two leads, are outstanding, but Kyle Chandler makes an appearance as Sutter’s absent father that’s completely devastating. Honorable mention goes to Teller for this scene alone – he tries so hard to hide his disappointment in his father, and just barely manages.