The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

The Great Gatsby

Mom Under Cover checks in with this new review.  (Spoilers, for those few who don’t know how Gatsby ends.)

The Great Gatsby – B

Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is not great, but it is worth seeing.  Fitzgerald’s prose is much of the novel’s allure which may be why Hollywood has not found a way to make a movie as memorable as the book.  Leonardo DiCaprio makes a believable Gatsby; his performance is one of the film’s highlights.  Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) shows promise in her first scene but quickly becomes blasé.  Mulligan looks the part, but her Daisy is way too boring to warrant Gatsby’s adoration.  Joel Edgerton plays a very good Tom Buchanan–cad that he is.  Most disappointing was this film’s Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire).  The movie opens with Carraway in a psychiatric treatment center recounting the events leading to Gatsby’s death.  I found this plot device to be really corny.  Maguire’s Carraway was so emotionless it is inconceivable that he was bothered enough by the tragedy to warrant counseling much less in-patient treatment.  Viewers who have not read the book will assume that Carraway was a main character rather than the narrator.  Perhaps it was the direction, but Maguire’s character was intrusive (that voice drove me crazy by the end of the movie) and flat.  Luhrmann fans will not be disappointed by the Baz-matazz, over the top visuals and music choices.

Australia

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Australia (A-). The newest film from director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) will not be to everyone’s taste. It is quite long (2 hours, 45 minutes) and unashamedly melodramatic. But if you have half a romantic bone in your body, can sit still for three hours, and have a huge crush on Nicole Kidman, you might just enjoy it as much as I did. Kidman (The Invasion), looking fabulous, plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who journeys to Australia on the eve of WWII to see what her ne’er-do-well husband is up to. Turns out he’s been murdered, and his remote cattle ranch called Faraway Downs is verging on ruin. A rugged cattle drover (Hugh Jackman, X-Men: Days of Future Past) is captivated by Lady Ashley’s flashing eyes and British pluck, and he agrees to help her drive hundreds of computer-generated cattle to the port city of Darwin, thereby breaking the beef monopoly of the unctuous King Carney. And, along the way, Lady Ashley becomes a surrogate mother figure to a good-natured half-aborigine boy named Nullah. So the cattle drive is like a whole adventure movie in and of itself. But there’s still at least an hour to go, and the stealthy approach of the Japanese military guarantees a whole second act full of even more romance and excitement. I heartily recommend it.