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2013 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

medsker

It is not gross hyperbole to suggest that, box office be damned, the last couple of years have not been Hollywood’s finest. With all due respect to “The Artist” and “Argo,” the previous two Best Picture winners and fine movies, neither of them would have won had they been released in 2010. In fact, “The Artist” wouldn’t have even made my Top 10 list that year, while “Argo” would have slotted slightly ahead of “The King’s Speech” (that year’s Best Picture winner, by the way), which means it would have ranked as the sixth best movie that year. Yes, 2010 was that good, and everything since has been, as far as I’m concerned, a great disappointment.

Enter 2013, and the first time since 2010 that a movie truly excited me, to the point where I wanted to stay and watch it again the second it ended. Then I felt sad because Roger Ebert hadn’t lived long enough to see it. I’m really going to miss him. He was a damned fine writer.

Sadly, I still don’t have enough movies to make a top ten list. This is a combination of two things: missing some daytime screenings (stupid day job), and being rather underwhelmed by some movies with big time buzz, including the one that will likely win Best Picture. That won’t be a travesty along the lines of “Crash” taking the trophy in 2005, but unworthy of the honor just the same.

My Favorite Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

Only one movie comes even close to this one. I was thrilled when Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film “Children of Men” won my local film critics group’s award for Movie of the Year, and what he does here dwarves that in terms of technical achievement, while Sandra Bullock delivers as raw a performance as she’s ever given in her life. Even better, the movie is a mere 91 minutes long. Showing people something they’ve never seen before, while showing respect for the audience’s time: now that is my idea of a modern-day filmmaker.

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2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

This is one of those ‘little moments’ movies, where the story is thoroughly engaging, but it’s the little bits that will stick in your head, and each of the leads has one. Bradley Cooper impersonating Louis C.K. towards the end. Christian Bale letting it all hang out at the party while listening to Duke Ellington. Jennifer Lawrence and the “science oven.” (Lawrence actually has two, if you include her lip sync of “Live and Let Die.”) Jeremy Renner explaining all of the different things you can heat in a science oven (all Italian foods). Amy Adams introducing Lady Greensly. “American Hustle” has a gonzo spirit, but it’s a smoke screen to distract you from the fact that at least one of the characters at any point in time is already thinking two moves ahead. Brilliant stuff.

3. “HER

If “American Hustle” is a ‘little moments’ movie, “Her” is the one that will lead people to have book club-type conversations after seeing it. If the idea of someone developing feelings for an operating system seems odd on the surface, it won’t once you see Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) give up people for Samantha (Scarlett Johannson), who satisfies him in ways that real women can’t. Johannson will probably be overlooked by the Academy for the same reasons that motion capture master Andy Serkis has been shunned (only her voice appears in the movie), but she delivers a heartbreaking and utterly believable performance as the zeroes-and-ones Samantha.

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4. “THE WAY, WAY BACK

Fox Searchlight chose not to push this movie for awards consideration, and I’m disappointed they didn’t give this more support. A sweet coming-of-age story about an awkward teen trying to find himself while stuck at a vacation house with his mom and her overbearing new boyfriend, “The Way, Way Back” does a fantastic job weaving ‘80s-era hallmarks into a modern-day environment, and features great work from a top-notch cast, notably Steve Carell as the jerk boyfriend and Sam Rockwell as the manager of a nearby water park. This is in Redbox right now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

5. “BLACKFISH

If a child murdered one of his instructors, would they let him back in school? They might, if the child’s ability as a performer helped make the school a lot of money. That’s the argument that drives “Blackfish,” a documentary about a killer whale named Tilikum who was allowed to continue performing at Sea World parks even after maiming and killing multiple trainers. There is 30-year-old video of Sea World trapping a young Tilikum in the Atlantic Ocean and taking him from his family, who watches helplessly. It is one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever see.

blackfish

6. “NEBRASKA

A bit gun shy after Alexander Payne’s last film, the star-studded but emotionally cold “The Descendants,” I approached “Nebraska” with a fair amount of trepidation, and it lasted about five minutes. “Nebraska” is a kissing cousin of “About Schmidt,” in that older, damaged men embark on a road trip in the hopes that they will find what ails them at the end. That they don’t find what they’re looking for is beside the point; it’s the journey that matters, and “Nebraska” is a fun trip through one of the most desolate corridors of the Midwest as one is likely to find. Bonus points to former “SNL” cast member Will Forte for flexing some impressive dramatic acting chops.

7. “FROZEN

Not ‘Critics Top 10’ material, I admit, but I don’t care. Between Kristoff’s “conversations” with his reindeer Sven, the fantastic off-camera gag involving Olaf the talking snowman, the stunning animation, and the unexpected climax, it was great to see Disney try to right some of the wrongs they’ve perpetuated regarding gender roles. It confused the hell out of my 4-year-old daughter, though, but I’m guessing she’ll appreciate it when she’s a little older.

frozen

Oscar Bait That Fell Short

You will see these films on 80 percent of the critics’ lists you read this year, but not mine. Make no mistake, I liked these films, but I did not love them. It takes love to make the Top 10.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Great soundtrack – the in-movie recording of the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” is the movie’s finest moment – but there isn’t a lot of meat here. Your mileage may vary, though, depending on how long you can watch someone make bad decision after bad decision. It’s an entertaining film, for sure, but the Coen brothers have done better, and even they know it.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

My boy Jason Zingale took some heat for his review of Steve McQueen’s latest film, but I wholeheartedly agree with his take on it. Slavery was a dark, terrible part of our history, and no film to date, not even this one, has explored the depths of the atrocities that took place in that time. (If they did, they’d get an NC-17 rating.) I appreciate what the makers of “12 Years a Slave” were trying to accomplish, which was to make the viewer feel as helpless and hopeless as the people who appear in this movie in chains, and they did just that. The movie’s problem is something that handicaps many stories as they make the jump from book to screen: some books simply do not make for great movies (take, for example, the latest remake of “The Great Gatsby”). We’re supposed to have our hearts broken when Solomon finally starts singing along with the other slaves, but that moment rang hollow to me, like someone trying too hard to tug the heartstrings.

Now here is where I potentially break the internet.

12_years_a_slave

There is another aspect to the critical acclaim of “12 Years a Slave” that bothers me, and it’s this: I think some critics are afraid of speaking ill of this movie out of fear that they will have the perception of being racist. To many, critiquing a movie about slavery is the same as being pro-slavery (it’s not, by the way), and movie critics, generally progressive in nature, are loath to draw that comparison, for obvious reasons. It doesn’t matter if your objections are purely from a story structure standpoint, or perhaps that you saw “Roots” when it made its television premiere, understood at an early age the hell that slaves went through and are therefore less traumatized or horrified than others by the events that take place here. What matters is that you’re a white person saying unflattering things about a movie about slavery, and the trolls go wild.

Slavery sucked. “12 Years a Slave” makes that abundantly clear, but it does so using cliché plot devices and one-note characters to hammer the point home. That doesn’t make me or Jason racist for not loving the film (and again, remember that neither of us said we disliked it, but rather that we didn’t love it) – it just means that we’ve seen thousands of movies between us, and after a while, we recognize patterns. This movie contains several things we’ve seen before, and I don’t give a damn if this one happens to be about slavery: it’s still something I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen it done better. That alone takes it down a notch.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

I haven’t finished watching this one yet, but while I am loving the performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, I can already see this one going off the rails. Spite is an ugly emotion.

My Least Favorite Movies of 2013

Because of the aforementioned day job, I value my time a lot more than I did before, so I won’t waste an evening watching “The Love Guru,” which I once did just to make sure my Worst of the Year list was as accurate as possible. Nope, I have two kids now, and therefore a completely different set of priorities. This year’s list is much, much shorter, and you can count it on one, two, three…

IDENTITY THIEF

Everything about this movie rang false. It’s the story of a very smart guy who has to do something incredibly stupid in order for the rest of the movie to happen. There isn’t a single moment in this movie that feels real, and director Seth Gordon’s unwillingness to tame Melissa McCarthy does not help things one bit.

identity_thief

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER

Bryan Singer is considered one of the big time directors, but let’s be honest for a second: aside from “The Usual Suspects” and “X2: X-Men United,” has Singer done anything else noteworthy? I’d say not, which means it’s been over a decade since Singer’s last good film. Granted, Singer had his work cut out for him here, but that begs the question: what drew him to the material in the first place? There wasn’t a good movie to be had here; you’d think he would know that, right? Also, don’t look now, but he’s just taken back the reins of the “X-Men” franchise. Uh oh.

EVIL DEAD

Grossly overrated, emphasis on the word ‘gross.’ This movie missed the point from the very beginning, going for gore over terror. Yes, it was one of the goriest movies in recent memory, but it wasn’t scary. They call these horror movies, you know, not blood movies – try to make them scary, like “The Conjuring.” That had little to no blood, and was waaaaaay creepier.

  

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