First, some movie-related conclusions I reached in 2013:
1. How to avoid “bad” movies. It seems like I’m getting pretty good at avoiding movies I probably wouldn’t have liked (Cloud Atlas, the Carrie remake). How do I know I wouldn’t have liked them if I haven’t seen them? Fair point. Here’s what I do know: There were only 4 (minor) disappointments this year compared to 5 last year that I felt pretty strongly about. And out of the 165 movies I watched this year, there were only 18 I didn’t like (including only 2 that I strongly disliked, and only 1 that I actually saw in a theater). So I think as long as I stay away from the multiplex and continue to do my movie-watching via my local art house theater and Netflix, I’ve got about an 89% chance of seeing a movie I’ll enjoy.
2. Curtis Loves Documentaries. It seems like some of the most emotionally powerful stories being told by contemporary filmmakers are documentaries. Maybe this says something about me personally, maybe it says something about our cultural craving for “real” stories, maybe it says something about the world (may you live in interesting times), or all or none. Whatever the reason, more and more I’m finding myself drawn to documentaries.
Top 12 Movies Released in 2013
(Plus 13 Movies from Previous Years That I Saw for the First Time This Year)
Of the movies I saw in 2013, these are the ones I loved—not to be confused with “best,” whatever that means. I ranked them based on how likely I am to rewatch the movie (and in some cases I’ve rewatched them several times just this year) plus the emotional impact the movie had on me.
- Silver Linings Playbook (2012): The movies that get me the most are the ones focused on small, personal stories that illustrate some truth about the human condition. In this case: Everyone is crazy in their own way. Sure, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were entertaining as hell, but this movie is my favorite of the year because it made me feel like maybe I’m not the f’d up alien that I so often feel like I am.
- The Spectacular Now (2013): With a flip of a coin this movie could have just as easily taken the #1 slot. In fact, after seeing it at my local art house theater, I made a point to go find the Executive Director and thank her for choosing to screen it. At the risk of hyperbole, The Spectacular Now changed me. The main character’s desperate attempt to live in the present moment and escape it at the same time is a paradox I understand all too well. Plus it tackles alcoholism in a very real-feeling way, not demonizing it and not glorifying it, but ultimately showing it as a symptom of deeper psychological problems. I kept waiting for that inevitable Hollywood-style punishment that would befall the main character…but it never comes. He’s punished himself enough.
- The Grey (2012): Probably the saddest, most tragic, yet also most exhilarating and life-affirming story I’ve yet to experience. More than just Liam Neeson vs. the wolves, The Grey is a wake-up call for those of us squandering the gifts we have in our life.
- Mud (2013): Mud has been touted as a kind of Stand By Me coming-of-age story, and while it is to a degree, that’s not what I enjoyed most about it. The way the boy’s relationship with the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey) serves as a metaphor for romantic love — starry-eyed infatuation followed by the inevitable heart-break when we realize that the version of the person we fell in love with never existed in the first place — is an insightful exploration into the idealism of love vs. the realism of love.
- Gravity (2013): Alfonso Cuaron gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise — Sandra Bullock in space! I relished the 2D visuals so much I quickly went to see it a second time in 3D (and then a third again in 2D). This is probably the closest someone like me gets to having a religious experience. Earth is now my higher power.
- The World’s End (2013): Such a smart and well-crafted comedy from the team that created one of my all-time favorites, Shaun of the Dead. It gets better with each viewing, revealing more and more layers of clever social commentary and humor.
- Iron Man 3 (2013): I went to this movie not as the new Iron Man movie but the new Shane Black movie, and it rocked on both counts! He set the bar pretty high with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and managed to move it even higher this time. So happy that Shane Black is back and on a roll!
- Pacific Rim (2013): Pacific Rim gets right what many of the other blockbusters got wrong this year. I don’t care if Spock punches the bad guy in the nose. And why does Superman have to punch the same bad guy in the nose for 30+ minutes? But give me a whole movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the nose, and that’s something worth seeing! And though I wished we’d gotten at least one robot vs. monster brawl in the full light of day, nevertheless, I giggled with glee throughout this movie, and that’s pretty rare.
- Inocente (2012, short): It’s no wonder Inocente won the Academy Award for best documentary short film. This inspirational story of a young homeless girl who makes art her emotional home should be required viewing in every high school.
- Serenity (2005): I became a fan of Joss Whedon via last year’s Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, so I had some catching up to do. Serenity, a follow-up to the Firefly TV series, is a quality sci-fi movie that puts some of the recent blockbusters to shame. Great characters, great story, great writing.
- Marwencol (2010): This beautiful and inspiring documentary about a man recovering from a violent attack that left him with brain damage poses the question: When does art become therapy or therapy become art?
- 12 Years a Slave (2013): Great dramatization of a tragic true story. The filmmakers do their best to stay invisible and get out of the way of the powerful narrative, only stumbling for one scene towards the end. My only gripe is that the title gives away the ending — spoiler alert, anyone???
- Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): I had a blast watching this unnecessary but well-executed Wizard of Oz prequel. Great supporting characters, especially the monkey and the china doll. And a solid (minus one gaping plot hole) story from beginning to end. Not art, but excellent entertainment!
- Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008): Speaking of Joss Whedon, I also caught up with this playful and funny musical web-series he created. But as good as it is (and it is excellent), the ending is sublime. To say more would risk spoiling what is one of the bravest creative choices I saw all year. Um, hope I didn’t build things up too much.
- Senna (2011): This thrilling documentary about the career of a Formula One race car driver uses only archival footage of its subject with little (or no) narration. It plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, made all the more tragic because it actually happened.
- Don Jon (2013): Promising directorial debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A funny and fun look at how men (and women) sacrifice authentic intimacy for control and fantasy.
- The Parallax View (1974): The 1970s is my favorite decade for American movies, and I love paranoid political thrillers. Combine the two and I’m clapping my hands like a mental patient. It’s so much fun to “discover” great movies from the past.
- American Hustle (2013): On the surface it looks like it’s going to be the Abscam version of Goodfellas or Casino. But David O. Russell is more interested in the personal and neurotic ways his characters con each other and themselves in order to “survive” (as they define it). There’s little judgment in this movie, and lots of frenetic energy and good laughs.
- Blue Valentine (2010): Not to be confused with 2013’s Blue Jasmine (a movie I did NOT like). What sounds like a gimmick (cross-cutting between scenes of a couple’s relationship beginning and that same relationship ending years later) is handled exceptionally well in this movie. A lot of the credit goes to Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling who drew me so much into their stories that the structure of the movie quickly became invisible.
- Before Midnight (2013): (Pair this movie with Blue Valentine for one big bummer of a double feature.) The likeable couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset return a lot less likeable in this third entry in the Before… series. The dreamy love we saw blossoming in those first two movies is showing the strain of reality. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have to the courage to challenge the Hollywood notion of a happy ending. “Love stories” don’t end with the lovers riding into the sunset; familiarity breeds contempt no matter how “destined” two people are to be together.
- Dark City (1998): Although I’d technically seen this movie back when it first came out, watching it again this year truly felt like seeing it for the first time — seeing it with new eyes, perhaps. There’s a very Buddhist feel to Dark City‘s underlying questions: Who are we without our memories? Does identity have any meaning if there’s no past? And how do we know the past is not just a story we’ve fabricated? The best science fiction plants important philosophical questions like these in a thrilling story, and Dark City fits right in with the best of them.
- The Fog of War (2003): I don’t believe in evil and I don’t believe in monsters, but I do believe in misguided humans who create chaos, hell, and destruction with the best of intentions. This documentary takes a fascinating look at one of these humans, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, through his own words and candid reflections.
- Enough Said (2013): I’m such a sucker for movies about genuinely good-hearted people struggling through life’s challenges, learning from mistakes, and trying to be kinder and happier people. Both leads were charming as all hell. It was bittersweet to watch James Gandolfini in his final role. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus knocked my socks off. I knew she was funny, but she can really act her way across the whole spectrum of human emotion.
- The Hillside Stranglers (1989): Surprisingly effective for a TV movie, The Hillside Stranglers tells the real-life story of two cousins who committed a series of murders in the late 1970s. Helter Skelter made an impression on me at an early age (and may even be responsible for my love of horror movies), and this movie has a very similar feel. Add to that a great performance by Dennis Farina, and it’s no wonder it made this list.
- The Pianist (2002): This is one of those movies that makes you ask yourself, “What the hell do I have to complain about really?” Movies about the Holocaust can so easily feel manipulative, but Polanski for the most part gets out of the way of the story and lets the events have their way with us.
Top 7 Movies You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
(a.k.a. My Top Recommendations)
This is my list of movies I loved (or really liked) that didn’t get a lot of exposure as far as I can tell. If you check any out and like them, spread the word.
- The Spectacular Now (2013): What more can I say about this spectacular movie? Okay, here’s one more thing: Go see it now.
- Inocente (2012, short): As with most short films, you’ll probably have to seek this documentary out, but you’ll be rewarded if you do by this young girl’s contagious spirit of hopefulness.
- Marwencol (2012): Whether you’re drawn in by the subject’s life story or by his inventive artwork (or both — can we even separate the two?), this will probably be one of the most unique documentaries you’ve ever seen.
- Enough Said (2013): On its face, Enough Said might seem interchangeable with a hundred other romantic comedies, but give it a chance. I found it to be much more honest, and a truly delightful movie-watching experience.
- Sightseers (2013): Took a little time to warm me up but I ended up really liking what is probably the darkest romantic comedy ever made. Ben Wheatley is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors (his Kill List was one of my favorites last year). If you like off-kilter indie movies that blend genres, check him out.
- The Pact (2012): This independent horror movie surprised me by how skillfully and cleverly it blended the slasher and haunted house sub-genres.
- The Battery (2013): Not a perfect movie, but this indie zombie film has a great soundtrack, great chemistry between the two leads, and a fresh take on a well-worn genre. Most definitely worth seeking out.
Top 7 Surprises
The ingredients for me to be happily surprised by a movie typically include some combination of low expectations and ignorance.
- Gravity (2013): I didn’t think I’d even like this movie let alone fall head over heels the way that I did. And to think I almost didn’t go see it… I shudder at the thought.
- The Tall Man (2012): Considering this one was almost universally trashed because of it’s apparently misleading trailer (which I never saw), I thoroughly enjoyed the playful (and frequent) plot twists.
- The Hillside Stranglers (1989): After Dennis Farina died, I did a quick search on Netflix and was surprised to discover a Farina movie from the 80s that I’d never even heard of. How I missed it baffles me. But what a thrill it was to see him in a “brand new” movie from my favorite time period of his career.
- Frances Ha (2013): What a delightful indie film about friendship, self-acceptance, and the challenges of living your dream! I typically have an aversion to movies with an “Aren’t we weird and cute?” tone to them, but after about 20 to 30 minutes, this movie won me over. Rare to see a platonic love story, and a really good one at that.
- Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): Another delightful movie-going experience! I usually find these kinds of CGI extravaganzas to be heartless and excessive, but Oz was a happy exception.
- The Great Gatsby (2013): Here’s another CGI extravaganza that I was pretty sure I’d hate. The wild card, of course, was Baz Luhrmann. I found it to be an entertaining and pointed criticism of contemporary greed and entitlement.
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): After the disappointing first Hunger Games movie, I was unsure of what to expect. Catching Fire was the weakest book IMO with a very thin plot, but that same quality benefited the movie by giving it some space to breathe.They smartly downplayed the whole teenage girl drama and played up the political/social revolution plot elements. Could end up being the best movie in the series.
Top 4 Disappointments
The ingredients for me to be disappointed typically include a mix of high expectations and a lot of excitement. Sprinkle in nostalgia for an extra kick to the groin.
- Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Coming off the heels of the 2009 Star Trek reboot (which I loved), I was almost certain this would be great (especially given the rumors that Khan would be in it). And though I liked some of it, especially the way it played with the events from previous episodes in the series, I found the action sequences mostly uninspired and tedious. But my biggest complaint was that it’s whole raison d’etre seemed to be the scene where Spock beats up the bad guy. Lame. Who are these doppelgangers? Aren’t there enough movie action heroes? Isn’t there room for Spock to just be Spock? Ugh.
- Man of Steel (2013): More like Meh of Steel. Christopher Nolan is no fun.
- The Purge (2013): Great premise, poor execution. I actually laughed out loud the tenth time a main character was suddenly saved at the very last second before they were about to be killed.
- Only God Forgives (2013): This is a borderline disappointment. I really liked it, but it felt like a misstep by director Nicolas Winding Refn, and I’m a bit worried that his style may be edging into self-parody.
Top 13 Movies from 2013 I Missed
(and Am Looking Forward to Seeing)
- The Act of Killing
- Stories We Tell
- The Conjuring
- Spring Breakers
- This Is the End
- Fruitvale Station
- Computer Chess
- Let the Fire Burn
- The Gatekeepers
- Short Term 12
- You’re Next
- Much Ado about Nothing
If you’d like to see the “full” list of movies I saw in 2013… Continue reading