My 25 Favorite Films of 2013

Already 2014, huh?

Like always, my end of the year list is comprised of the films I personally liked the most rather than which films are the best from a scholarly standpoint. There are already smarter people than me writing that kind of calculated piece and, honestly, most of these “best of” lists put out by major publications are the same criteria I’m using here.

25. 42

42

Sport movies and biopics are two genres of film that can be lazily put together and still turn a profit based on their subject. “42”, however, did well to capture the spirit of Jackie Robinson and the era of baseball he played in. Throw in a surprising performance by Harrison Ford and you’ve got something worth checking out. My original review can be found here.

24. Still Mine

Still Mine

This was a quiet little film that made roughly $1 million in only a handful of theaters, but the characters and feel of the movie were great. James Cromwell, in a rare leading role, plays an elderly handyman who wants to build
a house for his wife (Genevieve Bujold) whose mind is starting to slowly fade, but realizes along the way just how much the world has changed in his lifetime. The aging romance between Cromwell and Bujold and the rugged Canadian landscape make for a nice, small-scale story.

23. The Great Gatsby

Gatsby

When it was first announced that “The Great Gatsby” would be shot in 3-D and feature rap music throughout, I immediately thought it would be a failure. The new adaptation provided a fresh perspective on the film, though, and made things interesting. Leonardo DiCaprio is almost too easily cast as Jay Gatsby and Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan also turn in great performances.

22. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is another cheery tale from “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance. It runs a little too long and its message about fathers, sons and fate gets muddled because of that. On the other hand, it has a great score, is shot beautifully and features great performances from Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta.

21. Pacific Rim

In a summer that featured a lot of misses, “Pacific Rim” was arguably the best blockbuster of the season. I think I fell for this movie roughly around the time that a giant robot warrior swung a shipping vessel like a baseball bat at an alien monster. “Pacific Rim” had great visuals and breathed new life into the alien invasion sub-genre.

20. The Book Thief

The Book Thief

Stories about the Holocaust, much like slavery (spoiler alert), can be a little tiresome after a while because we feel like it’s often the same story re-told over and over. “The Book Thief”, based on the popular bestseller, manages to overcome this fatigue by keeping us from the concentration camps and showing us what life is like in a typical German neighborhood through the eyes of a young girl. Heartbreaking at times, the film features strong efforts from Emily Watson, the always charming Geoffrey Rush and relative newcomer Sophie Nelisse.

19. American Hustle

American Hustle

After the success of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, it should be no surprise that re-teaming with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and adding Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams would lead to one of the year’s best films.

18. Blackfish

One of the best indicators of whether a documentary is effective is to look at the changes it brings to its subject. After indicting the treatment of killer whales kept in captivity at SeaWorld, stories like this and this began popping up everywhere. If CNN ever broadcasts it again, don’t miss a free chance to watch a great documentary.

17. The Wolverine

The Wolverine

Bear with me here. By providing audiences with a more bare-bones superhero story, “The Wolverine” delivered a more personal touch than “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” could have ever hoped for. It wasn’t a perfect film, which you can read more about here, but there were a couple of great fight sequences and the best characterization of Wolverine put on film.

16. Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down

This noir thriller was the first film of 2013 worth seeing outside of a Redbox kiosk and, though it had a few faults, Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell make up for its shortcomings.

15. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Anything by the Coen brothers is worth giving a watch, but the somber tale of Llewyn Davis is an interesting look into the folk music scene featuring some great songs and a breakthrough role for Oscar Isaac. More on the film here.

14. All Is Lost

This old man vs. the sea drama snuck into the end of the year lineup and may earn Robert Redford an Oscar nomination soon. Its visuals are both haunting and beautiful and Redford does more with his facial expressions than 98% of the other actors this year did with an entire script. You can read more about the film here.

13. Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

This film has grown on me a little bit since I first reviewed it. Now that I’ve seen what this year has to offer, I think this modern-day pirate tale had the proper amount of suspense and filmmaking prowess to make it to number 13 on my list.

12. Nebraska

Alexander Payne is no stranger to these “best of the year” lists as both “The Descendants” and “Sideways” have been very popular in their respective years. This time he tells the story of a son (Will Forte) who is essentially forced to travel with his father (Bruce Dern) across state lines to pick up a $1 million reward he knows isn’t there. Along the way there are the usual discoveries made between a father and son and a few laughs to share.

11. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty

There weren’t a whole lot of family choices at the theater this Christmas (part of the reason why “Frozen” and “The Hobbit” are enjoying a boost in revenue), but “Walter Mitty” turned out to be the best bet for those who didn’t want to suffer through 506 F-words in “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Ben Stiller’s best directorial effort to date (and possibly his best acting) was lost on many critics but audiences are eating it up. It is a heartfelt film that is inspiring, funny, and features some of the year’s best visuals.

10. The World’s End

The World's End

I have been a long time fan of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright combo and they really didn’t disappoint here with the conclusion of their trilogy started by “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”. Complex characters, hilarious fighting sequences and an alien invasion plot? How could I not be in? Read more of my review here.

9. Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are an odd, but perfect, pair in this drama about a woman searching for the son she gave up decades ago. You can read more about this film in my last post before this list.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug

If you love “Lord of the Rings”, you probably love these movies. That’s basically what it comes down to. It’s understandable why book purists are upset over new characters and such, but when you turn an average-sized book into a trilogy of films it has to happen. This sequel delivers on the action and introduces a handful of new characters better than I imagined it would. A more in-depth review is here.

7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Two sci-fi sequels back-to-back? Don’t worry, I’m not saying either of these are “The Empire Strikes Back” (although they are new examples of sequels that out-do their predecessors). “Catching Fire” is one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen in recent memory and it is perfectly paced. More glowing words of approval can be found here.

6. Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Is anyone still reading this? Put down that pitchfork. While I understand the many problems people find with the film, I still think it overcame them and then some. “Man of Steel” is the first superhero movie to make me care about a character I previously hated. It’s also one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever made, as scenes like the Smallville fight prove. Here’s more on the film.

5. Frances Ha

Frances Ha

The second black-and-white film on my list comes from director Noah Baumbach and the love letter he made for the great Greta Gerwig. This quirky film about a quirky girl is not just quirky for the sake of being quirky (thanks for helping me win that bet with myself) but actually has a lot to say about growing up and how it affects the relationships around us. For a sneak peek, here’s the trailer. Also available on Netflix.

4. Mud

This was only the first of three films this year where there was Oscar buzz for Matthew McConaughey. A small film featuring a big cast (McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon), “Mud” gave Arkansas the Hollywood treatment and made an excellent crime drama. Here’s more on the film.

3. Gravity

GRAVITY

I love Alfonso Cuaron’s work as a director so I can’t skip over this impressive film that’s finally pushing him into the spotlight. “Gravity” features the best visuals of the year and manages to keep the suspense up for a solid 90 minutes. Throw in some great performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and you’ve got a winner.

2. Prisoners

Prisoners

I honestly don’t understand how little this film has been talked about the past month or two. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are electrifying and its one of the best crime mysteries since “Zodiac”. Just goes to show that the best films aren’t always found in November and December. Here’s more of my thoughts on the film.

1. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Like I said years ago when you started this list, movies about slavery can often be predictable or feel too familiar. It takes a special kind of film to reinvent the genre like this film has. I had a feeling when I first saw it that it would end up at the end of this list. The performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender are arguably the best of the year and the film is beautifully directed by Steve McQueen. Here’s some more reasoning on why I think it deserves the top spot.

If you made it through the end of the list, thanks for sticking around. Though January isn’t known for stellar new releases, I will be covering the Golden Globes and Oscars on here and Twitter at @VC_Reviews. Happy viewing.

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Best of 2012: My Top Ten Films

I have tried to put off making this list in an effort to see all of 2012’s best films. With the exception of the foreign film “Amour,” I have been successful. Putting aside that one missing piece, here is my top 10 for this past year.

10. Arbitrage

arbitrage

This little film was able to go under the radar pretty well this year. Aside from Richard Gere’s Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globes, there was very little buzz surrounding “Arbitrage.” Gere plays a financial wizard attempting to sell of his aging empire before an unfortunate investment ruins him forever. This is a smart, well-acted film that avoids several cliches found in its sub-genre.

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Zero-Dark-Thirty_1

The down side to all of these award-worthy films being released in late December is that the critics have already set the bar too high by the time normal people get to see a film. Although “Zero Dark Thirty” was hailed by many to be the film of the year, its awkward pacing and meandering script held it back from being anything more than my #9. It is a great thriller filled with several good performances (none of which gets as much attention as I would have liked). As much as I have enjoyed her past two films, I do hope Kathryn Bigelow finds new subject matter for her next film. “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” already share enough similarities.

8. The Avengers/The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

Yes, I’m a cheater. I didn’t feel comfortable making 1/5 of my list superhero movies, so I figured lumping them together couldn’t hurt. Both of these films show the new possibilities for their comic book genre. “The Avengers” showed studios that long-term projects that are faithful to their source material can also be very lucrative, while Christopher Nolan continued his experiment with his “What if superheroes existed in our world?” approach.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise-Kingdom-007

Wes Anderson’s quirky tale of adolescent love is a hilarious and stylish comedy. His films may be an acquired taste for some, but when he’s on his game, it’s hard to find a more enjoyable comedy. It would have been nice to see Bruce Willis get a little more recognition than he did for this role, but a lack of accolades certainly doesn’t hurt the film.

6. Django Unchained

django-unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s western revenge tale has sparked some with outrage over its brutal violence and depiction of the pre-Civil War South. While there is a heavy dose of gore and violence in the film, I have a hard time believing the conditions were anything better than what we see here. What really made the film for me was Christoph Waltz playing Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter. There are plenty of good performances throughout the film, but his character is probably my favorite from any film this year. Sadly, I think “Django Unchained” is one of Tarantino’s weaker films. The last 30 minutes are pretty flat compared to the rest of the film, so it drops to sixth on my list.

5. Silver Linings Playbook

silver linings playbook

David O. Russell’s romantic tale of sports fanaticism and mental illness won the hearts of the Oscar voters this month when “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. All of the actors in this film give inspired performances, even the smaller roles. It’s a film about relationships, human flaws and finding your silver lining. One of my favorites this year.

4. Lincoln

cn_image-size_-s-lincoln-movie-trailer

Another very well-acted film this year was the Steven Spielberg-helmed “Lincoln.” It’s already a commonly known fact that Daniel Day-Lewis is the ultimate actor. Toss in pretty much every other decent white male actor and you’ve got quite the ensemble. One thing that really helps the film is that we only see a few months of Lincoln’s life, as opposed to a long, bloated biopic that covers him birth to death. Solid direction, a great score and top-notch acting make this a good addition to 2012.

3. Skyfall

Skyfall

James Bond’s latest adventure is one of the best in the 50 year-long series. After being taken out on an assignment, Bond has to re-train himself to be the agent he once was. He also must deal with ex-agent and current terrorist Silva who’s stolen a list of undercover agent’s identities. The film delivers the same excitement of “Casino Royale” with a great villain and a very artistic direction.

2. Les Miserables

Les_Miserables

I went into this movie having not seen any of the other versions of Victor Hugo’s novel and came out wanting to watch them all. I love everything about this movie (yes, even Russell Crowe). Tom Hooper’s directing is a bit odd but I think the style works for this film. All of the actor’s do at least a decent job with both acting and singing (most excel at both) and the music is, of course, fantastic.

1. Argo

Argo

When I first saw “Argo,” I really liked it, but didn’t want to declare it my favorite film of 2012 just yet. Since then, I’ve seen pretty much everything else there is to see, and nothing feels as wholly complete as “Argo.” There are probably some films that have higher highs than this one, but from start to finish “Argo” knows what it is and excels at being that. Some people have problems with historical inaccuracies but that’s a minor detail in this film. I love how the film weaves together with stock footage of the hostage crisis and the look of the film is perfect for the time period. The only complaint I have is that I wish the characters were a little more interesting.

Also receiving votes: Cabin in the Woods, Flight, The Impossible, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Master, Brave, End of Watch, Dredd 3D, Wreck-It Ralph

So that’s it for the year of 2012. If you want to tell me how wrong my choices are or (preferably) how I’m exactly right, feel free to do so. Next up, I’m hoping to review the Russell Crowe/Mark Wahlberg film “Broken City.”

Happy viewing.

2011 in Review: My 10 Favorite Films

After a few days of putting this off, I thought it was about time for me to name my favorite movies of this past year. Better late than never, right?

Without further ado…

10. Barney’s Version

This movie REALLY went under the radar, as it was put into limited release during the Oscar season last year. For whatever reason, “Barney’s Version” got buried. It’s a shame because this movie was incredibly well-acted by Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and a host of other supporting characters. What probably didn’t help the movie was a horrible trailer that made it look like a weird romantic comedy instead of the lifelong character study of Barney Panofsky. Although the actors are spot on and the writing is enjoyable, the one thing that kept this from being higher on my list was that the film, based on a novel of the same name, just felt waaay too long. Still, “Barney’s Version” ended up being my sleeper favorite of 2011.

9. Attack the Block

There’s something to be saild for filmmakers with real imagination. Although writer/director Joe Cornish shouldn’t be considered an elite director yet, this little sci-fi film of his was a real surprise. The story follows a group of young hoodlums who must band together when an alien species lands in their government housing area. For a genre that has seen pretty much everything, it’s always nice to experience a fresh take. A strong protagonist and some imaginative creatures make the premise work.

8. Margin Call

Another surprise favorite of mine was this take on the Wall street crisis which stars Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker (tell me that casting list doesn’t give you goosebumps).

At the end of a long workday, an analyst at a financial firm discovers certain discrepancies that threaten to bring down the company. This begins a mad dash to fix the company’s bottom line before business resumes the next day.

What I loved about “Margin Call” was that its incredible cast was able to live up to the hype. Most times when a film like this comes along, big-name actors tend to get in each other’s way and the film feels a little disappointing. Each of this characters are fleshed out and everyone gets their time to shine. Combined with great pacing and a smart script, it’s a real winner.

7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I was wondering whether or not to include this since it’s a remake of a recent film, but I think its quality makes up for that fact. Besides, everything these days is based off a book, video game or TV show.

What made me love this one so much was the duo of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. They really sold their characters from the Stieg Larsson novel. Throw in some great directing from David Fincher and a good score by Trent Reznor and you’ve got yourself a great movie.

6. Warrior

I’m not sure if there was another movie this year that surprised me as much as this one did. I went in expecting something marginally better than 2008’s “Never Back Down,” but found myself loving this film.

What on the surface appears to be a movie about mixed martial arts unfolds to be a compelling family drama. The scenes in the ring are great, but what really sells the film is the family dynamic. The recovering alcoholic (Nick Nolte, whose performance is an Oscar nominee) and his two estranged sons (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) steal the show in what could have been a very forgettable movie.

And now for the top 5…..

5. Drive

Some people found this movie very slow and boring. I am very glad to not be part of that group.

Is it a little slow? Yes. Boring? Not in the least. The film had my attention by the end of the first car chase. What I really liked about “Drive” was the way each scene was shot. It seemed like everyone took their time and milked each moment for what it was worth. Films these days can be in too much of a hurry and I appreciate the careful craftsmanship of director Nicholas Winding Refn.

On top of that there are some great performances in the film. Most notably Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Oscar nominee Albert Brooks.

4. The Artist

Yes, it’s supposed to win all the Oscars and I have it at number 4. I don’t really care. Even though I gave the film a near-perfect review myself, I still wouldn’t say it was my favorite movie of the year.

“The Artist” checks all the boxes for award material and it IS a great little film. However, I don’t think it hit me at the core like any of the films in my top 3 did.

3. The Descendants

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I wasn’t too interested. It looked it was trying too hard to be quirky and George Clooney films are often overrated. The film turned out to be a bit of a surprise for me when I left the theatre, though.

I’ve said before that family is one of the most powerful elements a film can have and this film really explored the family dynamic. Clooney does a great job of playing the patriach trying to keep his head above water after his wife falls into a coma. Between hospitals, visiting family members and trying to raise his daughter his character is given a lot of wiggle room (which he does very well with).

Alexander Payne is also a very gifted writer/director and the film works wonders with him at the helm.

2. 50/50

I almost have to call the decision between this film and my number one a tie. They are both great and really made an impact on me.

“50/50” is about a twenty-something (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is diagnosed with cancer and everything that comes after this revelation.

The film dances on the difficult line of mixing comedy and tragedy and walks away unscathed. Part of how it does this so well is the smart script by newbie writer Will Reiser. The rest can be found with the film’s very good cast – Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall.

And for my top choice….

1. Hugo

If you had told me a year ago that my favorite movie of the year was going to be a 3D movie, I would have laughed in your face.

Some people say it feels too long or that it can’t decide what it’s about, and I get that. There are few times that a movie actually feels magical and this was one of those times for me. I was swept away by pretty much every minute of this film.

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are great together onscreen and the supporting performance by Ben Kingsley is fantastic. His scenes in both the present and his early filmmaking years are probably the best parts of the movie.

As for the directing, Martin Scorsese delivers a well-crafted love letter to cinema which can be enjoyed by anyone who has ever fallen head over heels while sitting in a theater chair.

That’s it for my ten favorite films of 2011. Did I miss your favorite? Let me know.

Check back on Sunday for my Oscar picks and follow along on Twitter as I’ll be covering the show at @VC_Reviews.

Happy viewing.

I Swear I’m Not Dead (My Favorite Films of 2011, Part One)

Let’s call this post “The Honorable Mention” list.

I try to not use the word BEST because this stuff is so subjective already and that way I can leave out your favorite movie without finding a horse head in my bed the next morning.

So let’s take a look at the movies I thought were good, but just fell short of my Top Ten.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

I know certain people will hate me for not making this the No. 1 movie of all time, but I can live with that.  I was a late bloomer on this series, as I hadn’t seen any of the movies until last year and I still haven’t read a page of the J.K. Rowling books. That being said, I enjoyed this movie more than any of the others in the series and it felt that director David Yates and the entire production team put out a fitting end for the series that coincided with many people’s childhood.

A Better Life

This one flew under the radar for many in mainstream audiences since it didn’t have any big names attached and came out this past summer when most people were thinking about “Transformers” or “Super 8.” I believe one of the most powerful dramatic elements of film is the family. We all identify with family one way or the other and there are a lot of different angles to take. This film focuses on the relationship between a father and son and really hits home at its emotional core. Some people are angry about Michael Fassbender not getting nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Shame” (and they should be) but I’m really glad the Academy remembered Demian Bichir at the time of casting ballots.

X-Men: First Class

This was not a perfect movie. There are questions about continuity with the Hugh Jackman franchise, a horrible performance by January Jones and confusing character motivations to say the least. However, the film was able to somewhat revitalize a franchise that I myself wanted to bury in a dark, unmarked hole after the mistakes of “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender also nailed there parts in my opinion. The latter finally gaining the mainstream attention he deserved was icing on the cake.

Rango

I have always hated how quickly the Western was thrown under the bus after the Clint Eastwood years in America. “Rango” was a great introduction to Westerns for the younger generation as well as a good animated movie. It may not have been Pixar-ian in its ability to connect with everyone on the same level but it was certainly better than that studio’s release, “Cars 2,” this year.

Mission Impossible 4

Action movies tend to be overlooked during the awards season with the exception of technical categories. While I’m perfectly fine with that 90% of the time, I do feel that its worth at least mentioning when a blockbuster does everything right and delivers a film better than the average cannon fodder.

Super 8

Despite his constant upstaging of my name on Google search results, I really like JJ Abrams. His work here did seem to unravel a bit as the film progressed, but it was a great homage to both monster movies and the kind of early start filmmakers had back in the day. In a different era and with a completely different tone, seeing the kids work with cameras and make-up reminds me of other movies this year that were about the filmmaking process.

The Ides of March

I don’t want to say this film is a disappointment (it is, after all, on my list), but given the cast it had (George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, etc.), “The Ides of March” could have been a grand slam. Instead it was a nice home run.

Well, that’s all for this post. Check back later this week when I’ll have the final list of my ten favorite films of 2011. Feel free to agree/disagree with my choices in the comments below.

Happy viewing.