Top 10 Movies of 2013

2013 was a memorable year for movies, with a lot of great stories told. But not a single “perfect” 5-star movie for me. It’s the only year since the 1970’s that I don’t currently have at least one 5-star film for the year. That’s kind of surprising to me now that I know about it. I’ve seen 60 movies that were released in 2013 so far, but none of them grabbed me as being worthy of 5 stars…at least not yet. Maybe one or more of these films will move up at some point down the road, which has happened for other years. But I’ll settle for the 40 great to outstanding films I saw in the 3.5 to 4.5 star range for now. That’s probably better than most years.

My Top 10 is an eclectic mix of mainstream and indie films that range in box office receipts from $800 thousand to $800 million. So there’s probably at least one movie that you saw and one movie that you didn’t see. It’s exciting to see movie making at every level each year, bringing small films that surprise me at the last minute along with blockbusters that are expected years in advance. 3 of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 actually made it on this list: Man of Steel, Mud, and 12 Years a Slave. Most of the other films I anticipated were very good, but they just weren’t good enough for this list. With all of this said, on to the list:

10.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (4 stars)

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9.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  (4 stars)

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8.  Kill Your Darlings  (4 stars)

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7.  Prisoners  (4 stars)

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6.  Man of Steel  (4 stars)

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5.  Mud  (4 stars)

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4.  Captain Phillips  (4 stars)

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3.  12 Years a Slave  (4 stars)

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2.  Disconnect  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Before Midnight  (4.5 stars)

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The best and most surprising movie watching experience of 2013 for me was the “Before” Trilogy of movies from writer/director Richard Linklater. I had not seen either of the first 2 films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), until a few weeks ahead of the release of Before Midnight in May. They just weren’t on my radar of interest until I saw the trailer for Before Midnight and heard the buzz out of Sundance. So I rented the first 2 films on DVD from Netflix and got to work. Before Sunrise was great (4 stars). But it was Before Sunset (4.5 stars) that really grabbed me emotionally and then made me appreciate Before Sunrise even more. And Before Midnight (4.5 stars) just cemented the trilogy into my heart and head forever. There’s something about these 2 characters, Jesse and Celine, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, that just capture something very real and human. Their relationship has gone through a roller coaster ride over 18 years and it’s amazing to see these actors age on screen and off in these roles and develop their lives as these characters and as actors. There’s really no other series of movies quite like the Before Trilogy. And that’s a big part of why Before Midnight is my #1 movie of 2013. It was a coin toss between Disconnect and Before Midnight, but I went with Before Midnight because of the weight of all 3 movies connecting with me.

Disconnect is a greatly under appreciated film that has been completely overlooked by critics during the end of year awards. Which is extremely sad to me because it’s both classic in terms of good storytelling and modern in its plot details and execution. The cinematography, music and performances in Disconnect are among the best of the year. Jason Bateman is fantastic as a frazzled father of a son who attempts suicide. And the rest of the ensemble cast deliver standout characters that feel fully alive and fleshed out as real human beings. Disconnect is the film I wish Crash (2004) had been.

As for the rest of my list, each film featured great scenes with incredible cinematic experiences. All 10 of these movies are stories I will definitely revisit over the years and experience again. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of these will endear themselves to me in a way that elevates them to “perfect” status with 5 stars. That’s the beauty of movies…the best ones almost always get better over time.

 

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Top 10 Movies of 2005

Solid movies from 2005. All are easily re-watchable and have improved with age.

10.  Hitch  (4 stars)

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9.  Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith  (4 stars)

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8.  Two For the Money  (4 stars)

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7.  Munich  (4 stars)

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6.  Batman Begins  (4 stars)

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5.  Prime  (4 stars)

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4.  A History of Violence  (4 stars)

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3.  The New World  (4 stars)

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2.  Cinderella Man  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Brokeback Mountain  (5 stars)

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While Crash (2005) won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, I know I’m not alone in championing Brokeback Mountain as the better film of the two. I like Crash and have given it 3.5 stars out of 5. But in my opinion it’s not in the same league as Brokeback. I’m definitely due to re-watch Crash since I haven’t seen it in over 5 years and I’m curious to see how it stands up now, almost a decade later. But I know that Brokeback Mountain stands up extremely well because I’ve re-watched it several times over the years, most recently in its upgraded Blu-ray format, where it really sings in terms of its cinematography, sound, music and production design…not to mention Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances. I didn’t love Brokeback initially as much as I do now. It’s a subtle, dark and sad movie that’s hard to really love at first. Looking back on Ledger’s sadly short career though, this is the performance I wish he had earned his acting Oscar for. I think it’s his best performance, with his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) next, and then as William Thatcher in A Knight’s Tale (2001).

The bottom line is that director Ang Lee made Brokeback Mountain at a time when nobody really wanted a mainstream “gay” movie, let alone a “gay cowboy” movie starring two straight leading Hollywood men. He broke down the walls of what a good love story could be, making Brokeback a movie that can appeal to anyone of any sexual orientation. It’s a testament to Lee’s incredible craftsmanship and commitment to telling great stories that he went around all the stereotypes that could have made this film a disaster, and focused instead on the characters of Jack and Ennis, humanizing them and helping us expand the boundaries of true love.

Top 10 Movies of 2012

Even though we’re a month into 2013, it usually takes me that long to catch up with and finish the movies from the previous year, as well as wait for them to be released in my local theaters. I like to see all the movies that I want to see and that I feel I should see (from critic’s POV’s) to fairly weigh in on my Top 10 Movies of any year.

I rate and rank movies both from my perspective and the perspective many critics take of what movies are important and relevant to cinema as an art form and “should” be seen by others. But to try and rate and rank movies without my personal bias for or against a film, as frivolous as that may be sometimes, seems like a completely fruitless exercise. At the end of the day, movies are EXTREMELY PERSONAL to each and every human being, and there’s no way to be some sort of unbiased critic picking “the best” movies for any other person or for the cinematic art form as a whole. So this Top 10 is and always will be my Top 10.

As of the writing of this post, I’ve seen 67 movies released in the U.S. in 2012, most of them in the theater on the big screen. And here are my Top 10 from that selection:

10.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower  (4 stars)

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9.  The Master  (4 stars)

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8.  Robot & Frank  (4 stars)

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7.  Skyfall  (4 stars)

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6.  The Hunger Games  (4 stars)

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5.  Safety Not Guaranteed  (4 stars)

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4.  Argo  (4 stars)

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3.  The Impossible  (4.5 stars)

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2.  The Dark Knight Rises  (5 stars)

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1.  Zero Dark Thirty  (5 stars)

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I’ve been torn between Zero Dark Thirty and The Dark Knight Rises as my #1 movie of 2012 for the last month. Flip-flopping back and forth between the two. And that’s the main reason this post is coming out now, seemingly so “late” in the season. The Dark Knight Rises was the only film seriously vying for the top of my list since I saw it twice in July. I kept waiting and waiting for a “better” and more “serious”, “critically important” movie to top it. It seemed like I shouldn’t have The Dark Knight Rises at the top of my list for so many reasons: it wasn’t as great as the two in the trilogy before it to most people (although I like it the best of the three), I’m 39 years old and shouldn’t love a superhero movie so much, I’m a serious dramatic character-driven movie fan, etc. But I flat-out loved the experience I had of seeing, hearing and feeling The Dark Knight Rises in digital IMAX twice this past Summer. It simply grabbed me so viscerally and emotionally and never let go. I still need to watch it a third time in my home theater to see if it holds up as well on the small screen. But on the big screen, it’s hard to beat in so many ways!

I’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty twice on the big screen as well. And the last 30 minutes of that movie are some of the best in movies, period. And now I’ve settled on Zero Dark Thirty as my #1 movie of 2012 because I think it has one little thing going for it that The Dark Knight Rises does not: the real history of the events at the center of the story (regardless of their supposed level of accuracy). While both movies have incredible villains at their core, there’s some kind of gravitas to ZDT’s hunt for Bin Laden in response to the terrible tragedy of 9/11. It just grabs me as being so relevant to my own life and the lives of everyone on the planet, which took a dramatic turn for different because of that event. The Dark Knight Rises is very relevant too, in a more abstract way. But over time, I predict Zero Dark Thirty will be a movie I choose to re-watch more than The Dark Knight Rises, and that is always a factor in ranking my films, as “arbitrary” and personal as it may be.

As always, there were a number or great movies that didn’t make this list of 10…at least not yet! Over time, a couple might sneak in…you never know. Here are 15 other movies that were in considered for this Top 10 and round out what would be my Top 25 Movies of 2012:

11. End of Watch  (4 stars)
12. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (3.5 stars)
13. Lincoln  (3.5 stars)
14. Prometheus  (3.5 stars)
15. Life of Pi  (3.5 stars)
16. Sound of My Voice  (3.5 stars)
17. Your Sister’s Sister  (3.5 stars)
18. The Lucky One  (3.5 stars)
19. Killing Them Softly  (3.5 stars)
20. Promised Land  (3.5 stars)
21. The Bourne Legacy  (3.5 stars)
22. Flight  (3.5 stars)
23. Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (3.5 stars)
24. The Grey  (3.5 stars)
25. Lawless  (3.5 stars)

Top 10 Movies of 2006

2006 brought a really interesting mix of movies, both big and small, covering a mix of genres. Some of these movies I’ve watched over and over multiple times, enjoying them more and more on each subsequent viewing, like Little Miss Sunshine and The Last Kiss. I own most of these movies on blu-ray and like to revisit them in regular rotation, escaping in to the worlds they so nicely create.

10.  Apocalypto  (4 stars)

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9.  Inside Man  (4 stars)

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8.  Notes on a Scandal  (4 stars)

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7.  Little Miss Sunshine  (4 stars)

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6.  Blood Diamond  (4 stars)

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5.  300  (4.5 stars)

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4.  The Last Kiss  (4.5 stars)

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3. The Departed  (4.5 stars)

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2.  United 93  (5 stars)

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1.  The Prestige  (5 stars)

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It’s a tough choice between The Prestige and United 93 for my #1 movie of 2006. Both films completely envelop you in their worlds and connect with you on so many levels. It wouldn’t surprise me if these two go back and forth for the title now and then. United 93 is by far the best film about the September 11 attacks on America still to this day. It’s absolutely riveting and chilling every time, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. British writer/director Paul Greengrass did something no American dared do, tell the story of 9-11 so that we can cathartically heal from it and understand it on a realistic level from many points of view and not just from the “Let’s go kill them there terrorists” George Bush line of thinking. That being said, The Prestige is another Christopher Nolan film that so justly shows why Nolan is simply one of the best working directors today. In the hiatus between his first two Batman movies, he popped out this magical mystery thriller with Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale. The cinematography, production design, acting, sound, music, editing, and every other possible facet of filmmaking is on gorgeous craftsmanlike display in The Prestige. And much like Inception, Nolan leaves us with a huge question mark at the end of The Prestige that sinks in to your psyche and never quite gets out. And each time you watch it, you get caught up in it again. The magic of Nolan is that he somehow keeps making fantastic films time after a time. He’s a real magician himself.

50/50

MOVIE RATING:  4.5 stars (A-)

On the surface, a movie about a late-twenty-something guy being diagnosed with and treated for a rare malignant tumor on his spinal cord is not the makings of a great comedy. Yet, 50/50 (2011) completely surprised me, much like The Kids Are All Right (2010) did, and had me laughing throughout its 100-minute length. I’ve watched 50/50 three full times, once in the theater and twice on blu-ray, and I can honestly say that I just flat out love this movie. Each and every time, I laugh, I cry, and I have an outstanding time. As good or better than the last time. And I think that’s mainly due to the very rich characters written by Will Reiser and brought to life by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, and Philip Baker Hall. That’s a hell of a deep cast! But they all bring such interesting and great nuances to each of their characters in this story, regardless of their amount of screen time.

50/50 is a simply story, following Adam (played by Gordon-Levitt) as he is diagnosed and treated for cancer over the course of 6-12 months. Along the way, he goes through psycho therapy and multiple roller coaster relationship rides with his friends and family. Riding shotgun is Adam’s best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen in a surprisingly good turn. Young director Jonathan Levine really put together a fantastic cast & crew to bring this relatively low-budget ($8 Million) flick to the masses in a way that harkens back to the incredible work done on the TV show M*A*S*H (1972-1983). What I’ve always loved about M*A*S*H, even still to this day in reruns, is how it could warp between laugh-out loud comedy and dry-your-eyes-out drama. All in a brisk 25 minutes. And 50/50 has that same kind of classic great writing and acting that makes a story eminently re-watchable over and over, without growing tiresome. I just know that I’ll be laughing and crying at 50/50 when I’m watching it 30 years from now, just like with M*A*S*H. I’ve probably literally seen every single episode of M*A*S*H a dozen times, and yet I enjoy them again and again. So it’s with high praise that I put 50/50 in that same company.

All the filmmaking pieces came together extremely well for 50/50. The cinematography by Director of Photography Terry Stacey and his camera team perfectly captures the Seattle vibe and the up-and-down emotions of Adam going through the diagnosis and treatment of his cancer in and out of the hospital. Stacey’s use of lighting at each location and in each set is masterful, usually in subtle but beautiful ways. On the surface, 50/50 looks and feels like a reality TV documentary almost at times with the “stark” natural lighting, but the cinematic artistry in the compositions and camera movements always reminds the viewer that this is a well choreographed movie.

The editing by Zene Baker keeps the movie flowing perfectly. It moves quickly when it needs to, but it isn’t afraid to linger when it needs to as well. It’s got a deft balance that I like in this kind of dramedy fare. The music is a great mix of original score by Michael Giacchino and popular music by Radiohead (“High and Dry”), Pearl Jam (“Yellow Ledbetter”), The Bee Gees and Roy Orbison. It all comes together and brings a powerful emotional depth to 50/50.

Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt showed his incredible talent in a movie with the numbers 5 and 0 in the title. 50/50 was one of the best movies last year, easily making it into my Top 10 Movies of 2011. It’s the kind of film that improves with each viewing as the characters comfortably become like members of your own family and friends. I feel like 50/50 brought together the perfect balance of comedy and drama, laughter and tears, and gave us all a story about cancer that hits home in all the right ways. I bet your odds of liking 50/50 are much higher than 50/50.

 

Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.

Top 10 Movies of 2008

2008 was an average year for movies. There’s really not much else to say about it. So I’ll just get to my list of the 10 best movies!

10.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona  (3.5 stars)

9.  Nights In Rodanthe  (3.5 stars)

8.  Revolutionary Road  (3.5 stars)

7.  21  (3.5 stars)

6.  Appaloosa  (4 stars)

5.  Doubt  (4 stars)

4.  Gran Torino  (4 stars)

3.  The Visitor  (4 stars)

2.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  (4.5 stars)

1.  Jumper  (5 stars)

Jumper might seem like an odd choice for my #1 movie of 2008, but while it looks on the surface like just another visual effects driven, high-concept, big budget blockbuster, there’s really a good dramatic story interwoven within it. And I think they were just scratching the surface of it in this film, hoping to go deeper into it with a sequel. But even if they never make another Jumper, I think this film stands on its own. When I first saw it, I liked it, but not enough to propel it ahead of most of the other movies in this list. But over repeated viewings, Jumper just really won me over. It kept getting better and better with each viewing. Director Doug Liman really brought a great team together for this project and it paid off. I’m hoping he’s able to do it again.

The Tree Of Life

MOVIE RATING:  4.5 stars (A-)

(Updated August 25, 2012 – Upgraded from 4 stars to 4.5 stars)

You can also read my “First Look” post on The Tree of Life.

One of the most mysterious and interesting auteur filmmakers out there right now is director Terrence Malick. No one else seems to inspire as many rumors, stories and myths about what they are up to as Malick. When will we see a new film from him? What will the film be about? What’s the title of the film? Malick’s movies tend to languish in the news for years simply titled as “Untitled Terrence Malick Film”. But 2011 saw the birth, both literally and figuratively, of a brand new Malick movie: The Tree Of Life (2011). This is only Malick’s fifth film in a career spanning over 40 years. But his five films are iconic pieces of filmmaking art. I’ve seen them all and I highly recommend you see each and every one to really understand any one of them. They cling together with a web of subliminal meaning that has taken me years to contemplate. My favorite, hands down, is The Thin Red Line (1998), the most masterful look at war, and man for that matter, ever made. It’s one of my Top 10 movies of all time. It took me years and repeated viewings to fully appreciate it.

Like all of Malick’s films, upon first viewing The Tree Of Life (in the theater a year ago), I was confronted with reconciling my very high expectations for the film with the actual film that Malick delivered. It’s taken a year of simmering inside me to really figure out how I feel about it. And after viewing it in its entirety for a 2nd time on blu-ray recently, I feel ready to discuss the film and my thoughts and feelings about it. While The Tree Of Life still makes me question its meaning and intentions, I appreciate it a little more than during my first time. It’s a movie that makes it hard for me to love because it goes way outside the box of normal narrative storytelling. I love strong dialogue driven movies. And The Tree Of Life is not that kind of movie. In fact, this movie probably has less dialogue than any other feature length movie I love. But the subtext in the visuals, music, and feel of the film really got into me during this second viewing because my expectations of wanting dialogue and narrative were gone. Instead of constantly waiting for the movie to give me what I want, like I did the first time, I accepted it for what it is and got something else. Looking back on all 5 of Malick’s movies now, I can see that they all do the same thing. None of them delivered what I wanted or expected from them the first time I saw them. But after letting that go, I was able to appreciate them on subsequent viewings. My initial rating for The Tree Of Life was 3.5 stars but I’ve since updated it to 4 stars.

I’m not going to try to provide a narrative summary or character descriptions for this film since it really means nothing to understanding this film. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and the three young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) who play Pitt and Chastain’s sons are all fantastic in their performances. They are not showy performances with scene-chewing speeches, but they are powerfully quiet and subtle performances rooted in deep character development. It’s so clear that they all lived in the shoes of their characters during production on this movie. Malick’s style of shooting demands that anyways from what I understand. I think Malick really nailed the casting on this film. Pitt and Chastain couldn’t be more different yet complimentary in their roles as universal representations of “nature” and “grace”. They just work together in this story. I actually think the 3 boys did the most with their roles. Their very naturalistic performances really brought my own childhood memories and feelings to life through their eyes.

As with every Malick film, the production design, cinematography, sound, music, and editing are simply the best. I don’t know what else to say. There’s no room for improvement in any of those areas and the craftsmanship on this movie is really beyond perfection, even though I know that’s not possible. But that’s the experience I get. It really is astounding to see Malick and his incredible team provide such a meticulous and beautiful film. It has a natural and organic feel to it, yet I know that every single frame of the film and second of sound has been masterfully thought about by someone. Somehow Malick’s style of filmmaking follows all the rules and breaks all the rules at the same time. When it comes to pure technical filmmaking craft, I give The Tree Of Life 5 stars out of 5. It’s only the story and the writing (assuming there was much), that knocks this film down a start for me. But it wouldn’t surprise me that if the “secrets” of this movie are revealed to me down the road, that I upgrade my score.

While I could go on and on talking about the details of this movie, I think it’s best to let it speak for itself beyond what I’ve had to say so far. The ideas, lessons, questions, and queries that I think it poses can’t really be talked about. I believe one has to internalize them like all philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. They’re are no real answers in my mind from The Tree Of Life to the questions it asks. It’s the questions that are the meat of it’s meal.

 

This movie trailer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It set my expectations sky high for The Tree Of LIfe. It points to a movie of such greatness that it’s hard to live up to. And it caused me to be frustrated when I first saw the movie. But now I appreciate the movie almost as much as this trailer.

 

Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.