Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Top Ten Films of 2013

For a while, I didn't think I was going to have one of these this year. With the twins born in February, the lifestyle around here is obviously a LOT different. These lists were always on the late side just because it's harder to get to see smaller movies in Connecticut (for the record, I am pissed that I still can't see Miyazaki's The Wind Rises for another month...I'm pretty confident that would have landed on here somewhere, for now let's just assume it tied with one of the movies currently on the list). I watched a lot of films on Netflix during late nights up with babies, but actually getting to the theater was tougher. It's a small price to pay, obviously, for having two cute little men crawling around the house. And yet movies are an important part of my identity, and falling far behind made me feel a bit like I was losing part of myself.

Typically, I recover from my geographical disadvantage with Operation Drink From Fire Hose, the annual December-January binge where I'm watching movies constantly. However, this year it was derailed early on by the wave of ear infections, pinkeye and flu that invaded our house around Christmas. As tough as it was, it didn't last forever, and by January things were mostly back to normal. So I decided not to give up on this tradition and had quite a rally when it came to movie watching. The convenience of Netflix, as well as that ever-shortening window between a film's theatrical release and its DVD release, made things easier...although there's still a handful of films I wish I'd made it to. Still, I ended things with a list I was very happy with. It helped that 2013 was a good year.

Family comes first...but the reason the word "first" even appears in that phrase is because there's other things out there to focus on sometimes. So the next time someone tells you that your interests fade away once you have children, tell them to stop watching Judd Apatow movies and grow a pair. With that out of the way, here's ten movies I really liked.

10. The Lords of Salem
It's not a Rob list without horror, right? There were a few horror films I could have thrown up here, but none were more visually striking than the latest movie from former metal singer Rob Zombie. Back in 2005, he stunned genre fans with The Devils Rejects, an alternately hilarious and horrifying allegory of post-9/11 America that, among other things, had a final scene that used all of "Free Bird." Since then, he regrettably got bogged down with unnecessary remakes of the first two Halloween films, but The Lords of Salem is one formidable comeback. A radio DJ (played by Zombie's wife, Sheri Moon) is sent a sample song from a mysterious new doom metal band, a melody which seems to have bizarre effect on her life. Zombie gets to have some fun with that old cliche about metal being "the devil's music" and also shows just how well he understands the visual language of horror. No cats jumping into the frame or ghosts in medicine cabinet mirrors here, just top notch ambience and imagery so intense I'm not sure I would recommend this one to people without some experience with the genre.

9. Elysium
So here's a movie I really liked that nobody else seemed to care about one way or the other. The second feature from Neill Blomkamp (District 9) envisions a future in which all the rich folks live on a pristine satellite in space while everyone else lives on the ruined Earth below. When a factory worker named Max (Matt Damon) gets radiation poisoning, his only hope is to get to Elysium, where they have machines that can cure any ailment in seconds. The subtext of all this isn't very far under the surface, which often gets a movie like this criticism for being too "blunt" or "in your face." Honestly, I prefer movies that don't sugarcoat things and the whole scenario is a great metaphor for how too many powerful people in America view health care - as a luxury that you only get if you can pay for it, like a big-screen TV that also just happens to keep you alive. Of course, the movie's not just one long sermon about compassion for the least of us. Blomkamp is already a master when it comes to judicious use of digital effects and staging action scenes. It may not be the revelation that District 9 was, but it's still miles ahead of most action films that come out these days.

8. Twelve Years A Slave
Here's why you should never read the comments. While perusing an article about Steve McQueen's slavery epic, I saw someone ask why there were "so many movies about slavery" and urging for a reduction in "negative Black movies." A reaction like that only illustrates the cultural importance of this film. Not only that, there really haven't been all that many films that depict slavery in America, even less once you filter out patronizing bullshit like Gone With The Wind, where all the slaves are just delighted to be trapped on the plantation. There's some exploitation stuff like Django Unchained or Mandingo, and I think the bluntness of exploitation can be well-suited to this subject, but this movie is a whole different kind of experience. The great and (until now) unappreciated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South for a dozen years. It's a beautifully made, chilling portrait of dehumanization occasionally punctuated by the brutal violence that was a fact of life during this era. Based on the real-life Northrup's memoirs, Twelve Years a Slave is a film that feels like a journey, one that will prompt a great deal of reflection when it finally ends. It's a film to be reckoned with - hard to like, but easy to appreciate.

7. Drug War
The story of Drug War is familiar stuff - cops, crime lords, undercover operations - but you rarely see it executed this well. Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, this remarkably taut adventure is devoid of sentimentality or filler. Louis Koo is superb as Timmy Choi, a scheming, self-serving dealer who hopes to avoid the death penalty by teaming up with Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun), the tough cop (and brilliant mimic) who busted him. The entire film is a master class in building tension up until the no-holds-barred finale. This was the first time To was allowed to shoot on mainland China, and he conjures up a memorable atmosphere, alternately sterilized and grimy. I'm not sure the Chinese government will be in a hurry to let him do it again.

6. Blackfish
A devastating documentary about the tragedy that can come from treating nature too recklessly, similar to the stories of Steve Irwin and "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell. But instead of an individual, the subject is Sea World and its cavalier pattern of abducting wild killer whales and training them to do tricks in front of massive crowds. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite set out to investigate the shocking death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at the hands of an orca named Tilikum. What she found was that given the whale's violent history in captivity, the incident shouldn't have been all that shocking. What is shocking, however, is the appalling behavior by the Sea World executives, whether it's the CEO blaming Brancheau for her own violent death or instructing tour guides to tell flat-out lies to tourists about killer whale life expectancy in order to mask the reality of the creatures dying young while imprisoned. Several former Sea World employees share powerful anecdotes and the cumulative effect of their stories has already left quite a welt on Sea World, judging from their unhinged gloating on Twitter after Blackfish failed to grab an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. With or without awards, this is a powerful film that goes beyond the ethics of Sea World and makes us question our own human arrogance for thinking we can bend the natural world to our will.

5. Short Term 12
Destin Cretton's first feature takes viewers inside a group foster home, a setting rarely seen in the movies, and it's one of the most convincing and compassionate portraits of troubled young people I've ever seen. In its compact 90 minutes, it gives a glimpse into the lives of teens who have suffered and waiting around while the system decides just what to do with them. Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever are standouts among the younger actors, but the film's core narrative focuses on the not-much-older supervisors, specifically Brie Larson as Grace, who is forced to examine her own demons after meeting a young girl with a similar life story. It's a tough story to pull off, but the film's blend of hope and melancholy contributes to a genuinely moving experience.

4. John Dies At The End
Two aimless friends discover an alternate dimension that is quietly threatening the human race and have to rely on a mysterious drug called "soy sauce" that can send users across dimensions but also across time. It only gets weirder from there in this sublime horror-comedy from Don Coscarelli, who gifted the world with the one-of-a-kind masterpiece Bubba Ho-Tep ten years ago. Filled with absurd twists, gloriously off-the-wall humor and one very heroic dog, it's an unpredictable joy to watch. The film critic Dana Stevens coined the phrase "artisinal horror," referring to low-budget horror films like this one that refuse to play by any of the genre's rules. I'm not sure if that's the phrase I would use, but she's on to something. Part of the fun of this movie is the gradual realization of just how out there it is, although it doesn't compromise the entertainment value in the slightest.

3. Gravity
How does one define the "movie of the year?" I've thought about this a lot lately and came up with an informal method of evaluating a movie's box office success, critical AND audience response, and impact on day-to-day pop culture. With that in mind, the title would seem to go to Gravity and it's a bandwagon I don't mind jumping on. The movie is a tremendous technical achievement and a vivid story of survival filled with breathtaking suspense. George Clooney shows up for a while to do his smooth-talking-George-Clooney routine, but for the most part it's up to Sandra Bullock as the stranded novice astronaut to carry things along and she makes it look easy. Director Alfonso Cuaron had to invent new technology to make this film possible and the results are so striking that I still have to remind myself that this was not actually shot in outer space. Cuaron's movies are always great demonstrations of what movies as an art form are capable of, with this one's 17-minute opening tracking shot as just one example. It's not perfect, in fact I was surprised by how clumsily the lead character's tragic backstory was handled, but a viscerally thrilling movie experience like Gravity can get away with a lot.

2. Fruitvale Station
The story of Oscar Grant, whose outrageous death at the hands of trigger-happy police officers was captured on video for the whole world to see, has been adapted into a small masterpiece that only needs empathy to drive home just how cruel modern America can be if you're a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. With a premise like this, the ending is a foregone conclusion, but the bulk of the movie is simply the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant's life. Grant, played to perfection by the outstanding Michael B. Jordan, is genuinely kind but also troubled, trying to get his act together but prone to fits of pride or anger. In short, he's like a lot of us trying to make sense of the screwed up world we live in. The more time you spend with Grant, the more devastating that foregone conclusion becomes. In a depressing development, the movie was completely shut out by the Oscars, with some commentators looking at the pile of nominations for Twelve Years A Slave and concluding that Hollywood can only focus on one black movie at a time. I suspect that this is part of it, the other part being the notoriously short memories of Academy members. The ceremony is supposed to honor a year's worth of film but nothing released before October hardly ever gets nominated. If they had any brains, you would be seeing about five or six nominations for this July release, including Best Actor for Jordan and Best Supporting Actress for Melonie Diaz, who broke my heart as Grant's girlfriend and mother of his child. The fact that incidents like this keep appearing in the news means that this film's importance will only grow over time. For each of those events, a story like this could be told.

1. The Act of Killing
In the end credits for Joshua Oppenheimer's amazing documentary, dozens of crew members and even a co-director are listed as "Anonymous." These are the Indonesian crew members who didn't feel safe attaching their actual names to The Act of Killing, which deals with mass killings in that country during the 1960s, an atrocity barely known to the outside world. After a failed coup by Communist forces, the country's leaders retaliated by wiping out hundreds of thousands of supposed "Communists," i.e. union leaders, public intellectuals and ethnic Chinese. Fifty years later, many of the perpetrators have gone unpunished and still enjoy protection from the state and are something akin to celebrities. Their cavalier attitudes about the slaughter bring the concept of "cognitive dissonance" to a whole new level and things get even stranger when the director invites them to recreate the genocide as a film that they would have total creative control over. Borrowing tropes from their favorite musicals and crime films, they stage increasingly surreal interpretations of the event. However, revisiting the past brings reflection, and to at least one of the killers, the beginnings of true remorse and shame. It's a bizarre experience to watch, but the human drama becomes positively overwhelming by the unforgettable conclusion. This is a truly dangerous film, but also one that has the potential to change lives and really do good in the world. It has a nomination for Best Documentary, but an Oscar doesn't feel like enough. A movie like this deserves a Nobel Prize.

Happy 2014, everyone. Back to babies!