Movie Mayhem – The Best and Worst Movies of 2013

I’m by no means a professional movie critic, and because of that, I only see a fraction of the hundreds of movies that come out each year—either because I’ve got to much going on, the film isn’t released in one of my three local cineplexes, or I outright refuse to see it (or at the very least, don’t have any interest in wasting my money on it). That still doesn’t mean I don’t see a lot of them, and this year, I had the pleasure (and the displeasure, in a lot of cases) of seeing 127 of them—at the movie theater, mind you. I’m sure I saw dozens more on cable (like the gloriously retched SyFy originals), premium channels (such as the pretty terrible (vampire?) flick The Colony on OnDemand) and of course regular TV.

But when it comes to compiling the best and worst movies of the year, I stick exclusively with films that were released on at least 500 screens nationwide (anything less and it usually means that it didn’t see the light of day in any of my theaters). And as you’ve probably seen from my weekly reviews, I have a very extensive palette when it comes to movies, so you can bet there’s a pretty good mix of offerings in my top ten.

Now I already know that everyone will have an opinion; you’re all going to agree with some of my choices and vehemently disagree with others. So, if you do have any passionate thoughts of any movies I’ve left off (possibly because I simply didn’t see them), or ones that shouldn’t even have been on here in the first place, please feel free to argue with me on the validity of my choices in the comments section. Believe me, I have no qualms about defending my position on why these fifteen movies are where they are.

So without further ado…

BEST FILMS OF 2013

10. Mud
Matthew McConaughey excelled in a series of films this year (including Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street, where for five brilliant minutes, he made sleaze sexy), but Mud excelled in areas where his other films did not. This coming-of-age drama (which was very reminiscent of  Stand By Me in a lot of ways, including the aura of River Phoenix slipping through Jacob Lofland’s Neckbone) is about coping with the loss of a love you fight so hard to protect. It gives us impeccable performances by not only McConaughey, but also his miniature co-stars, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who spar with him like two young thespians teaching him a thing or two about the craft. Each frame of the film isolates the characters in their own little worlds, yet allows their vulnerabilities to guide them away from those restrictive parameters to learn the hard fought rules of love, life and friendship. Mud is a great example of pure storytelling craftsmanship.

9. The Way, Way Back
Another coming-of-age film, The Way Way Back wasn’t quite as heavy as Mud, but delivered the same amount of gravitas and fortitude with just that extra light sprinkle of charisma. Liam James plays Duncan, a boy so lost in himself, he can’t enjoy a beach side vacation with his doting mom (Toni Collette) and condescending stepfather (Steve Carrell, providing a welcome change to his usual performances) until he gets a part-time job at the local water park, where he opens himself up to new experiences and learns how to be adventurous. The shining star in the ensemble is Sam Rockwell as the manager of the water park who takes Duncan under his wing. The man is as funny and heartwarming as he’s ever been and gives purpose to a young man that he sees a lot of himself in. There are no groundbreaking moments, or new revelations, but it’s fun and caring, and does everything a film like this is supposed to do; it gives us all a chance to be young again.

8. Frozen
Even though they are basically the same company, Disney finally delivered a better movie than Pixar (whose entry this year was the enjoyable Monsters University), creating a heartwarming fairytale that can and will sit comfortably alongside such classics as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast (or even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). It’s got romance, brilliantly written characters and enough heart to melt even the coldest of hearts. As Elsa retreats to the mountains because it’s the only way she feels she can live a peaceful life without scorn and ridicule, her sister Anna tries desperately to hold onto the cherished bond she once shared with her sister, regardless of the differences Elsa may possess. There is a lot of quick wit sprinkled amongst the solid story and clear, undeniable message of tolerance and acceptance. And lest we forget the moment Elsa builds her new ice-palace, one of the most visually pleasing scenes (and one of the best songs in the film to boot) in any movie this year.

7. Now You See Me
Not as original in its conceit (a crew of magician thieves are always one step ahead of the cops) as it is in its execution, Now You See Me is one of those films that seems old-hat on the surface, but really carries its tricks off with a delicate hand and a smart tongue. Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson play off one another like brothers trying to one-up each other and the fun in watching how the crew is able to perform their tricks is definitely a sight to behold.

6. Saving Mr. Banks
The first of two Tom Hanks films that landed in my top ten gives us a delightful look into the making of Disney’s own Mary Poppins. And though I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the singing nanny, Saving Mr. Banks is an outstanding fictionalization of the events that happened to bring P.L. Travers’ character to life. Hanks does a superb job navigating the charm and wit that Walt Disney used to mask the frustration, temperament and darker secrets he holds deep down. But he’s no match for Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers (or as Paul Giamatti’s wonderful driver liked to call her, “Mrs.”) and the way she is able to command every little word that comes out of her mouth. She fights, she bickers, she agitates, and insists, but we know deep down, there’s a reason. The origin of Mary Poppins is revealed through some very well-crafted flashbacks that never get in the way of the main narrative and add just enough weight to Travers’ reluctance to having her creation become just another happy dancing cartoon that we empathize with her instead of despising her. Even if you aren’t a fan of Mary Poppins the film, you’re sure to be a fan of how it came into being.

5. Iron Man 3
Robert Downey Jr. remains in fine form in the third (and potentially final) solo outing for Tony Stark and Iron Man. Though a lot of big comic book fans hated how they treated the Mandarin character, I didn’t know anything about him before the film, so I thought the twist the filmmakers used for this character was one of the best (and funniest) twists this year. That and it gave us a shockingly new performance from Ben Kingsley, who relished every bit of it. Add to that a middle section in which Stark must come to terms with who he is as a man and as a superhero after his near-death experience in The Avengers (including his little interlude with Ty Simpkins that just livened up the film), and a final battle in which Stark, master villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce)—and even Penny Potts—jump from one suit to another in a frantic ballet atop an oil drilling platform and you got one killer superhero movie.

4. Star Trek Into Darkness
Most would say that the whole Khan thing was a cop-out of sorts, and that J.J. Abrams, by making Khan his big bad, wasn’t being at all original. I say Benedict Cumberbatch is welcome back any time. His portrayal of Khan was one of quiet subtlety and resolve, and he carried it off extremely well. And given that the timeline was altered in the Star Trek reboot, it was fun to watch how the events that occurred in The Wrath of Khan were altered in the new timeline (i.e. Spock and Kirk flipping places to save the Enterprise). The action was as exciting and well-thought out as any other action piece this year, and I have to give the movie extra points for having a tribble on board. The cast still blends extremely well together and I can’t wait to see where the new filmmakers will take the series from here on out (since they can’t really Search for Spock in the next one).

3. 42
Chadwick Boseman does a stellar job portraying Jackie Robinson in this respectful look into the life of what made Robinson not just a great ballplayer, but a great person as well. The supporting cast (including Harrison Ford and Lucas Black) are all on par with Boseman’s performance and the baseball sequences, though sometimes short, are well executed. I was captivated from beginning to end and really did feel like cheering him on as he slowly found the courage to become the legend we know today.

 2. Thor: The Dark World
Better than the original, Thor: The Dark World gives us what we expect from a Marvel movie plus a whole lot more, including Loki, who steals every scene he’s in with his smarmy, arrogant charm. The action sequences are bigger with a light Star Wars style appeal, and everything seems more important and grandiose. When we finally get to the final battle, and we watch as Thor and Malekith hopscotch across worlds (completely confusing Thor’s hammer to great comical effect), we can only marvel at the complexity and the eye candy involved with sheer delight and pleasure.

 1. Captain Phillips
The final five minutes of Captain Phillips is enough to score Tom Hanks a third Oscar. The richness in his performance is so nuanced and so subtle that he captivates you with just the slight squint of his eye. And he isn’t the only one that demands attention in a film of controlled chaos. Paul Greengrass in his own stylized way, puts us right at the center of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, grabbing us by the balls and refusing to let go until those first credit titles are up. And even then, your breath is still lost among the shock so wonderfully depicted by Hanks. On the other end of the spectrum, the Somali pirates aren’t to be trifled with, either. As complete newcomers with no acting experience, the hijackers are as believable as any actor out there, capable of standing toe-to-toe with the veterans. To have delivered such unique and rare performances without an ounce of prior training speaks wonders for their ability as actors. It’s no wonder Barkhad Abdi scored a Golden Globe nomination as the leader of the group, as his intensity on screen alone was worth it.

WORST FILMS OF 2013

5. Stand Up Guys
How could you lose with a movie that brings together Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin as old crime buddies? The first of the geezers looking to bring back their youth movies (see also, Last Vegas and Grudge Match), Stand Up Guys was the most grating and uninspired of them all. Everyone, especially Pacino, chewed the scenery until it resembled a giant ball of stale old bubblegum in a story that didn’t lend itself to much but a way to see what might happen if you let these guys loose for a night on the town. It lacked any heart or emotional resonance, leaving it to sit and wallow in the old, abandoned memories of what it might have looked like thirty years ago.

4. Spring Breakers
This awful excuse to over indulge in hot young girls running around in barely-there bikinis for ninety minutes isn’t bad because of the blatant girls-gone-wild premise, the gratuitous shots of girls ripping off their bikinis while bouncing on top of a horde of ripped studs guzzling kegs of beer on the beach, or even the sleazy night-lit three-way in a pool. It’s bad because it glorifies the violence of young people with guns, the recreational use of drugs and the overall high that comes along with them both. Selena Gomez is sorely miscast (as she was in Getaway) as a would-be rebel (who is actually the most sane of the bunch) and the whole film feels like an acid trip a prepubescent might have as he experiences his first bought of puberty.

3. The Counselor
Cameron Diaz’s car molestation aside, this whole film was a mess from the very beginning. And not necessarily because of the actors, who all gave decent performances with what they had to work with. It’s simply that the movie tried to be too many things all at the same time and got lost in how to make them all work cohesively. It’s never clear who is aligned to whom and every scene goes on for two-minutes too long without an ounce of intrigue to tie it all together.

2. The Last Stand
The Last Stand was the first starring vehicle in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback after leaving the California governor’s mansion. And after watching it, you have to wonder if the Governator really had any thing left to prove—and whether he should have just retired altogether (though that changed with his turn in Sylvestor Stallone’s Escape Plan and the trailer for his next hard-R action piece, Sabotage). The silliness of the plot and the action sequences can’t overshadow the silliness of the script, which tries to shove as many gawd-awful “Schwarzenegger” one-liners into ninety minutes as it can without ever thinking about why or if it even should. Adding Johnny Knoxville to the mix as some spaced out retired junky who wants to be a deputy only adds salt to the wound.

1. Movie 43
Distasteful, foul and nasty. Three words that best describe the worst movie I saw last year, Movie 43. The film is a series of vignettes written and directed by several different people that try to be as raunchy (and outrageously funny) as they can—with no limits. However, in spilling over the limits, the filmmakers go too far and try too hard to be shocking that it all becomes a vomit-inducing train wreck. Almost all of the skits are grotesque and inappropriate and go on far too long after the punchline is revealed. The only saving grace (if you can say that) is the main thread, “The Pitch,” in which Dennis Quad tries to sell these “ideas” to Greg Kinnear’s agent (eventually resorting to gunpoint). These two guys are funny together and deliver the best scenes in the film (except for maybe Terrence Howard’s racist coach). I give kudos to the actors who wanted to try a little something different (Hugh Jackman, Common, Kate Winslet and Halle Berry among them), but there had to have been better ways they could have spent there time than this.

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Next week, new movies include The Legend of Hercules and Lone Survivor. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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