Our critics rank the best of 2013 in film, stage and music and more
2013 was the year the world ended. At the movies, at least.
Maybe it was the blowback from the 2012 election cycle. Maybe it was the continued influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Maybe it was the lingering economy-in-the-toilet news. But in 2013, earth did not fare well.
Some films — The World’s End, This Is the End, Ender’s Game, After Earth, Oblivion — said as much in their titles. Others predicted the human apocalypse more indirectly, simply by giving us a planet no longer worth saving, or so ravaged by war, disease, zombies and aliens that the very idea of normal life seems daunting: World War Z, Pacific Rim, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Elysium, Warm Bodies, The Purge, Upside Down, Escape from Planet Earth, The Host even Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness. And some movies just begged for life to end so we wouldn’t have to keep watching dreck (The Lone Ranger, Much Ado About Nothing, The Canyons).
It got a little depressing.
And the thing was, none of them did a very good job at it.
Oh, we laughed at World’s End and panted over Superstud in his Kryptonian codpiece, but raising the stakes so high — mass extinction — pushes the limits of what you can do to entertain.
Consider, instead, The Great Gatsby, a movie about le fin de siecle of the Jazz Age, a cautionary tale of the preface to privation as exemplified by the Great Depression and World War II. Those were real-life events, and even they — and throw in 9/11 if you want — did not come close to the horrors visited upon mankind in any three minutes of the above-named films.
Why go so far? Why not, like Gatsby, use metaphor and allusion and suggestion? Why spell out, week after oppressive week, what a miserable place the future is?
Which is probably why my favorite films of the year were the ones with more upbeat messages — not all, mind you, but many.
10. Now You See Me. The smartest mindscrew since The Usual Suspects uses the world of Vegas-style magic acts as a platform for exploring human curiosity and the inability to see what’s right in front of your eyes. Being fooled has rarely been as fun.
9. The Croods. Like the best animated films — The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up — this piece not only has its own style, but also something bigger to say about the world at large in telling about a family of cavemen who make a bold decision to enter modernity. It’s the kind of movie that would incense right wing extremists if they were smart enough to catch on.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers reinvent themselves slightly by opting for sincerity in this period piece about the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s as told through the prism of an artiste too ornery to hit it big but too talented to ignore. Oscar Isaac shines, performing his own music, and John Goodman has a scene-stealing cameo.
7. Blue is the Warmest Color. Don’t allow its monumental length (three hours) deceive you. This isn’t a leisurely, unfocussed lesbian romance, but an epic using a palpable romance for its framework. Could it be short? Only by damaging its massive effort to turn the human condition into a heroic achievement. It burrows deep.
6. Nebraska. In some ways, this is the film Alexander Payne has made over and over, a tight-lipped comedy about the tight-lipped quirkiness of Midwesterners, with Bruce Dern in a twilight performance as a gruff but ultimately fragile and sentimental septuagenarian on a road trip with his harried son (Will Forte). Black-and-white photography has rarely been used less smugly, and June Squibb, as a say-anything mom, steals the show from the men.
5. Dallas Buyers Club. The more-or-less true story of Dallas AIDS patient Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) and his epic battle against the FDA to get helpful but unapproved drugs into the hands of HIV-positive people who need them. McConaughey’s fiery performance galvanizes every scene, but Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner have priceless moments.
4. Philomena. The year’s best-written movie — of any kind — is this charming two-hander about a jaded journalist (Steve Coogan) who takes on a puff piece about an elderly Irish lady (Judi Dench) looking for the son she lost to adoption 50 years earlier. Charming without being cutesy, heart-breaking without being cloying, angry without being venomous, it’s a perfect little movie, elevated by Dench’s career-topping performance.
3. Fruitvale Station. The last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant (a revelatory performance by Michael B. Jordan) were pretty much like anyone else’s life, and that’s the subtle genius of this true story about a man executed by traffic cops in Oakland. If there’s justice in the world, Octavia Spencer, as Oscar’s mom, should coast her way to another Oscar.
2. Gravity. The first 20 minutes of this film are so eye-poppingly unimaginable, it virtually reinvents the modern scifi genre in front of you. If that’s all it was, it would be Avatar, but the human scale is never lost, and Sandra Bullock’s performance grounds you, even as she floats weightless through the chasm of infinity. The movie is as humbling as it is electrifying.
1. 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen’s harrowing but restrained adaptation of a fantastical memoir about a free man of color kidnapped into slavery may be the best film about the enslavement of another man ever produced — a horror story that was all too real. Chiwetel Ejiofor led a spectacular cast, but it’s the storytelling that’s the star.
Nos. 11–20: The Way Way Back; Love Is All You Need; The Great Gatsby; August: Osage County; Her; Enough Said; Capt. Phillips; Lee Daniels’ The Butler; Before Midnight; Lovelace.
Memorable performances: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club; Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Judi Dench, Philomena; Meryl Streep, August: Osage County; Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color; June Squibb, Nebraska; Oprah Winfrey and Elijah Kelley, Lee Daniels’ The Butler; Tom Hanks, Capt. Phillips; Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha; Robert Redford, All Is Lost; Joaquin Phoenix, Her.
Worst of the lot: The bottom 10
10. Pacific Rim (noisy and pointless futurism, sad because it had promise). 9. Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare’s bubbliest comedy becomes a slogging drudge thanks to actors who speak without poetry in their hearts in Josss Whedon’s pretentious misfire); 8. Stoker (bad thriller is worse than cheap thriller). 7. The Host (proof Stephanie Meyer is a one-trick pony). 6. Smurfs 2 (granted expectations were low … but this low?). 5. Elysium (Jodie Foster’s worst performance ever in the summer’s mangiest dog). 4. Thor: The Dark World (has the Marvel magic run its course?). 3. The Counselor (Cormac McCarthy’s bleak outlook becomes an interminable sleaze wallow from Ridley Scott). 2. The Canyons (Lindsay Lohan’s comeback turns into a better-to-have-stayed-away). And the worst film of the year … 1. The Lone Ranger (in trying to give Native Americans their due, Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski made a loud, obnoxious and sloppy Western where Native Americans come off only as OK … and Chinese coolies become mute cannon-fodder).
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 27, 2013.