Here at last are our picks for the ten best films of the year — and they’re sure to be the cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth. One notable omission is sure to raise eyebrows and even hackles. I mean everybody is supposed to have 12 Years a Slave on his or her list, right? Here’s the thing (and I think I can speak for Mr. Souther, too), I have the utmost respect and admiration for the film. I think it is brilliant. I am cheering for Chiwetel Ejiofor to win that Best Actor Oscar, and I’ll be cool with it if 12 Years a Slave takes Best Picture. I think it’s a fine film and a powerful one, but something about the film feels just a little at arm’s length and keeps it from engaging me fully on an emotional level. That aside, here are the lists.
Ken Hanke’s Lists
To be honest, I’m not happy with a Top Ten. I could easily do a Top 20 this year, which is kind of funny because I hadn’t originally thought the year was that strong until I started sifting back through it. As a result, I’m splitting the difference and going with a Top 15 (at least online). You may expect a significant list of honorable mentions, too.
Without a doubt, 2013 seemed to attempt to corner the market on movies about conspicuous consumption and excessive people — and filmmakers — flaunting their excesses. They ran the gamut from the wayward romantic desperation of The Great Gatsby to the decadent desperation of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) to the tacky excesses of American Hustle to the horrifying ones of The Wolf of Wall Street. Fortunately for everyone, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Paolo Sorrentino and, especially, Baz Luhrmann know from excess. (Not like that rank amateur Harmony Korine with his obnoxious Spring Breakers, but I’ll turn my attention to that in the second list.)
It was also good year for horror, though, of course, there were also the usual horror crapfests — something to be expected with the genre, which is exactly why it continues to be ghetto-ized. Only two of them (and one is a borderline case) made my list, but I’ll give them a little section of their own.
1. The Great Gatsby. Anyone who is surprised by Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in the top slot just hasn’t been paying attention. I’ve said it wass the film to beat for months — and no one did, though some came close. In a year of movies about conspicuous consumption — depicted with conspicuous excess — I think this did it best. Better still, it made the topic understandable, even romantic. Unlike every other attempt to translate Fitzgerald’s novel to the screen, Luhrmann captures the authentic sense of desperation that underlies the “roaring ‘20s.” It also — with the help of Leonardo DiCaprio — manages to suggest that part of what dooms his love is that — like the parties he throws and the house he lives in and the clothes he wears and the cars he drives — it’s just too much. There’s no way to make Daisy a likable character, but the film does make you understand why Gatsby is just too overwhelming for another human being to bear. In the end, for all his swagger and bluster, Gatsby remains a tragic innocent.
2. In the House. Fracois Ozon’s film is probably the cleverest, slyest, most literate and most playful film of the year. A richly rewarding experience unlike anything else. Beautifully made and acted and as near to perfect as you’re going to get. This is one of those films that came absolutely out of nowhere for me. I wasn’t expecting it, and suddenly it just appeared. (That it has not shown up on many lists suggests to me that it wasn’t much seen — and that Ozon is not taken as seriously as he should be by English language critics.)
3. The Wolf of Wall Street. Yeah, it’s nasty, but it’s also grotesquely funny — and terrifying. And as filmmaking, really, it’s hard to beat. Scorsese at his best? No, maybe not, but the wow factor is undeniable in his craftsmanship and artistry. I have to admit that I was surprised — and I oughtn’t have been — by the controversy that the film “glorifies” its characters and their behavior. That never occurred to me. It still strikes me as a foolish stance
4. The Lone Ranger. Yeah, what about it? Gore Verbinski’s film was unfairly dismissed and trashed before it was even seen. Apart from everything else, it was the best action film of the year — and whoa — it was even about something. A few years from now, it will get a fair reassessment. The funny thing is that I know a surprising number of people — even critics — who champion the film. Personally, I think you have to be pretty humorless not to like it and pretty determined to attack it without recognizing its deeper themes. The whole anti-Lone Ranger campaign (and the whole anti-Johnny Depp sentiment, for that matter) just plain puzzles me.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis. Perhaps the bleakest film the Coen brothers ever made. It’s also one of the most darkly funny with an atmosphere of time and place that is second to none. It’s only now opening locally, and I’ll be curious to see how that goes. As I said in the review, it’s not an easy film to like, but it’s a hard one to ignore.
6. Byzantium This is a rarity because Byzantium didn’t even play here, but it should have. Here is where the always underrated Neil Jordan rescued — and slightly reinvented — the vampire movie from the abyss of Twilight. And he made a beautiful, longing, painfully romantic film in the bargain. There are few more lyrical horror films than this. Yet, Jordan never forgets that it is a horror film, which probably made it hard to market — too classy for the horror crowd and too bloody for the art crowd. If you haven’t caught this, you really should.
7. Stoker. Chan-wook Park’s Stoker got lost in the shuffle and came too early in the year to get much chance for reassessment. But then this elegantly-paced thriller — almost a horror picture — was never destined to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s too mannered, too stylized and ultimately too disturbing to have a broad appeal, but it really is a terrific movie.
8. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza). I’m glad I caught Paolo Sorrentino’s amazing film in time for this list. It was supposed to open this week, but got moved back, which means there’s a wonderful banquet of a movie to look forward to. In a way, I’m glad to see it moved, so that it doesn’t get lost in an already crowded week. There really is nothing even remotely like it out there, Even if you hate subtitles, this is a movie to go out of your way to see.
9. American Hustle. Another of the year’s exercises in excess — and probably the most inherently appealing in a broad sense. I don’t think I’m supposed to like both it and Wolf of Wall Street, but there’s nothing you can do about it. And that soundtrack is killer. Deep? Not in the least, but so entertaining and so pleased with its own playful lack of morality that it’s pretty hard to resist.
10. About Time. Richard Curtis’ supposedly final film (hopefully, he’ll rethink that) isn’t as grandiose as his other two films — Love Actually and Pirate Radio — but it comes close to making up for it in charm and cleverness. If this is to be his last movie, it’s a fitting climax to Curtis’ all-too-brief directorial career.
11. Trance. I had liked Danny Boyle’s Trance when I first saw it, but then it kind of drifted away as movies sometimes will. However, I was interested enough to give it another look — and it blew me away even more than it did the first time. It’s really not possible to fully appreciate its complexity and overwhelming stylishness in one sitting.
12. Dallas Buyers Club. This made the Top 10 part once. Maybe twice. It has two great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It’s magnificently effective. I even liked Jennifer Garner in it. Plus — as Mr. Souther notes below — all that T. Rex is a good point.
13. Frances Ha. This has been on the Top 10, too, and I really like the film. I like its look and its vibe and its soundtrack, especially, the way it employed Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner,” not to mention those Georges Delerue pieces. What I can’t get out of my mind is the question of how much my fondness for the film is colored by how much I enjoyed my interview with Greta Gerwig.
14. The Place Beyond the Pines. Another one I’ve waffled on. This was a movie I had little interest in seeing, because I hadn’t liked Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2011) at all. I’d grudgingly admired it, but even that faded in time. This was a different proposition altogether. I’m one of the few people, it seemed at the time, who actually liked the final third. In fact, it’s the final third that sold me on the movie.
15. I’m So Excited. No, Pedro Almodovar’s latest film is not among his best works, but it’s so goofy and pleasant and so utterly unconcerned with traditional notions of morality that it edged its way into this final slot.
There were other good films this year that I enjoyed a lot — to varying degrees and for various reasons. The Spanish silent film (since it’s silent it hardly mattered that it was Spanish) of “Snow White” entitled (aptly) Blancanieves was actually a contender. If the first third had been as good as the last two-thirds, it would’ve made it. And the French Renoir was another close call — if the film had quite lived up to what it looked like — and it almost did. The Danish film, The Hunt was good, too, but certain aspects struck me as forced and cliched. I liked Warm Bodies, too, and that failed attempt at a new tween franchise Beautiful Creatures I found very pleasant indeed. Unfortunately, no one else much seemed to. And then, there’s the other side of the coin …
1. Spring Breakers. Generally, I don’t hate movies. Hate is just too much emotion to invest in a crappy movie. It’s too much work, but I genuinely hate Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers — with the kind of passion I usually reserve for Fox News pundits. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because I hate his Gummo (1997), too. This is a vile, stupid, pointless movie with all the profundity and taste of a Girls Gone Wild video — and about the same level of production values.
2. Carrie. There’s this theory that TV has somehow — thanks to crime and zombie soap operas — elevated itself to the level of the movies. This drab remake of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) suggests that perhaps the movies have fallen to the level of TV shows. Chloë Grace Moretz — looking for all the world like Dane DeHaan in drag — is completely miscast in the title role, and everything that could go wrong did. The idea that this was a new interpretation of the novel was a joke. They hewed so closely to the original script that it’s credited. If anything, this rehash is about one exploding gas station away from being even less faithful to Stephen King’s novel.
3. Olympus Has Fallen. This appalling right wing fantasy for armchair warriors about renegade North Koreans taking over the White House is bad on every possible level. It does get bonus idiocy points, though, for have Melissa Leo dragged around by her hair while she screams “The Pledge of Allegiance.”
4. Scary Movie 5. What is there to be said about another of these?
5. Dark Skies Half-assed attempt at mixing the alien abduction sub-genre with the Paranormal Stupidity sub-sub-genre. The moral is that if a bunch of birds commit mass suicide by crashing into your house, someone is going to get taken away by proctologists from outer space.
6. The Purge. Bad horror films are a dime a dozen. Bad home invasion thrillers aren’t far behind. But when you get both in one movie that honestly seems to believe it has something important to say, you achieve a special kind of moviegoing hell.
7. Kick-Ass 2. I didn’t see the first Kick-Ass movie. Seeing the sequel guarantees that I never will.
8. Romeo & Juliet. Miscast, poorly conceived, flatly directed, and in short the worst version of Shakespeare’s overfilmed tale ever.
9. Identity Thief. Melissa McCarthy ruins Jason Bateman’s life and it’s supposed to be hilarious and heartwarming. The moral here? Sociopaths are cute and cuddly.
10. You’re Next. I went kind of easy on this when it came out, but the further away I got from yet-another-home-invasion-horror-picture that was mistaken for clever because it had a plot twist, the more I realized it was actually pretty awful.
Before closing out 2013 and turning this over to Mr. Souther, I do want to pause to follow up on my comment that this was actually — despite some evidence to the contrary — a surprisingly good year for horror movies. Not only did we get Byzantium and Stoker, but there was Rob Zombie’s very strange, very atmospheric art house horror picture Lords of Salem. I actually toyed with putting it on my list just for its mesmerizing perversity — and my desire for some Georges Melies wallpaper of my own. Plus, I was impressed by what a strangely touching performance Sherri Moon Zombie gave in the film. It may not exactly hold together — well, that happens when you evoke Dario Argento, you know — but it’s a film that intrigues me, and one I find myself returning to more often than I should.
It didn’t end there. While I cooled on James Wan’s The Conjuring pretty fast, I loved his Insidious: Chapter 2 — one of the best (and cleverest) sequels I’ve ever seen. Hell, it even leads up to an ending that suggests a perfectly logical third film. That Wan has supposedly sworn off the horror genre probably rules that out. Hopefully, it rules that out, if the answer is to turn that possible film over to some hack just to milk the franchise.
Also noteworthy, though perhaps not as much as it means to be, is Jim Mickle’s We Are What What We Are. I’m not sure that it has any repeat-viewing value for me, though. A film that does have repeat value, however, is Don Mancini’s Curse of Chucky, which I’ve seen three times already. Yes, I’m friends with the filmmaker, but since it’s a friendship that grew out of my review for his Seed of Chucky (2004), I was already an admirer. I think it unfortunate — and wrongheaded in light of the awards and praise Curse has picked up — that the film wasn’t given a theatrical release. It certainly warranted one. The great thing about Curse of Chucky — apart from its incredible stylishness and gorgeous production design — is that the film manages to create a straight and very effective horror film and then turns around to be at one with the more comedic Seed of Chucky. It’s a feat of cinematic legerdemain that I didn’t see coming — and one that thoroughly delighted me.
Justin Souther’s Lists
I spent most of 2013 feeling an overwhelming sense of mediocrity. It was not so much a year filled with terrible films, but one full of disappointments and forgetable nonsense. So it was a surprise when I sat down to write my Ten Best list that I had to — for the first time in a few years — make some tough decisions regarding what made the cut. I wanted to (and still want to, to be honest) add Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem — a trashy, often inherently goofy horror flick that I probably love more than anyone else on this earth. I also had to cut (at the last minute) Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, a unique, confounding little sci-fi movie that unfortunately never played Asheville, and that I adored for most of the year (it wasn’t till I started understanding what was going on in the film when — much like a David Lynch movie — much of its mystery and appeal faded). That being said, I should point out that my list still contains quite a few movies that I’m including now, but that I might regret in a few months. At this point, I feel comfortable with my top three (they’re the only movies here that touch on a kind of greatness). I already feel I’ve put The Lone Ranger too low and am still clueless as to where The World’s End truly fits in here. But these are the dangers of Top 10 lists, the pitfalls of awards season and the naturally silly idea of quantifying entertainment. Nonetheless, here are the ten movies I probably liked the most this year, followed by some I couldn’t stand.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers’ portrait of New York’s ‘60s folk music scene is a bleak, funny, occasionally touching and often complex character study, like Charles Portis butting heads with Samuel Beckett. A fascinating film either by itself or within the context of the Coens’ canon.
2. Frances Ha. As much star/co-writer Greta Gerwig’s film as it is director Noah Baumbach’s, Frances Ha mixes the former’s usual bitterness with the latter’s sweetness. The result is a touching little movie about growing into adulthood, and the losses and gains that come with it.
3. In the House. Structured like a thriller, Francois Ozon’s In the House is a small-scale journey into the depths of the human heart. A refreshingly literate, wonderfully intelligent film that’s simply a fantastic piece of filmmaking.
4. The Place Beyond the Pines. In a year defined by tales of the American Dream gone awry, The Place Beyond the Pines has been mostly overlooked. Perhaps there’s a reason — I really shouldn’t like this movie, and I definitely shouldn’t like it as much as I do, but here I am. A towering, ambitious film — filled with motifs and symbolism — that should fall apart, but manages to hold itself together by sheer force of will.
5. Mud. This journey into the modern South might’ve been exploitative in the hands of many, but Jeff Nichols creates a tale — grand in its scope — of looking for love in all the wrong places, but with a welcome sense of heart, humanity and dignity.
6. The Lone Ranger. Lambasted by critics and shunned by most moviegoers, Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is a flashy, gigantic film that reminds me why I fell for the movies in the first place. A true event that will age better than the reputation that precedes it.
7. American Hustle. A cross between ‘70s crime flick and David O. Russell’s usual meditations on dysfunction, American Hustle is both funny and surprisingly human. It also contains the year’s best collection of performances. Plus, that soundtrack’s spot on.
8. Dallas Buyers Club. A film that easily could’ve been gimmicky Oscar-bait transcends this thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s ongoing career renaissance, a surprisingly excellent turn from Jared Leto and a whole lot of T. Rex songs.
9. The World’s End. If there’s anything working against Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is that it’s maybe too complex -— at least on one watch. A funny, layered look at friendship, addiction and arrested development, all wrapped up in a sci-fi flick.
10. The Wolf of Wall Street. A depraved, nasty, over-the-top look at greed and success — and how we all want it no matter what. Stylish, clever and bitterly funny.
1. The Purge. The mere attempt of subversion does not make a good movie. The Purge thought it could tack on some social commentary to its junky home invasion premise and that alone would make it a good movie. The only thing lazier than its languid pace, dull execution and myriad contrivances are its ideas.
2. Salinger. An intellectually dishonest look at the famous writer that wants to be both biography and expose — and the definitive document on the man. It turns out to be none of these things. Instead, it’s long, boring and surprisingly incoherent. There’s a reason his mystique was one of the few appealing things about him.
3. This Is the End. This barely even qualifies as a movie. Thirty minutes of high concept is spread out over a barely coherent 100 minutes. And of course it ends up grossing $100 million.
4. Getaway. Making the much praised Before Midnight as well as The Purge and Getaway seems like the most Ethan Hawke-ish thing Ethan Hawke could have done. An entire movie predicated on exploding cars and Hawke’s mouth-breathing.
5. Grown Ups 2. Yeah, obviously Grown Ups 2 was going to be bad. It’s so bad it was destined to end up here. It’s so bad, I feel a bit guilty; it’s almost too easy putting it here. But yet, here it sits …
6. Paranoia. Perhaps the worst thing about these lists is going back through my reviews and being reminded of garbage movies I’d completely forgotten I’d watched.
7. Jobs. Makes the list thanks to Ashton Kutcher’s gross beard and need to be taken seriously.
8. Bullet to the Head. Consider this some sort of participation trophy for all the bad movies Sylvester Stallone was in this year. Why does this one get the nod then? Well, it did have Christian Slater in it, which is enough for me.
9. Thor: The Dark World. I guess there were worse movies to come out this year, but Thor: The Dark World gets included for what it represents, as the billions of Marvel movies we have to endure over the next hundred years get progressively more boring. You’ve got a giant Viking with a magic hammer fighting space elves and you still put me to sleep.
10. G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I realize this movie’s awful and everything, but I just realized that The Rock is a few years away from looking exactly like Abobo from Double Dragon.