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!

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The Lone Ranger

A movie review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Lone Ranger (B+).  Why is so much hate getting dumped on this movie?  I thought it was a perfectly good action/adventure movie, and any movie that can keep me entertained for 2 1/2 hours has to have something going for it.  Armie Hammer (The Social Network) has charisma to burn in the title role, and Johnny Depp (The Rum Diary) plays Tonto as a sort of anti-Jack Sparrow: impassive and laconic, but with flashes of acerbic wit.  The two team up after Hammer’s lawman John Reid is nearly killed in an ambush, but their partnership is basically one of convenience; they argue constantly as they pursue their separate but related paths of vengeance.  The big fight scenes are well done, the main villain is an appropriately leprous-looking varmint played by William Fichtner (Blades of Glory), and there are a few sporadic scenes of surpassing weirdness apparently just to shake things up.   Seriously, I do not understand why this movie has been panned so badly or why it has done so poorly at the box office.  Do take the PG-13 rating seriously; it is pretty violent at times.

21 Jump Street

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

21 Jump Street  (B).  I have never seen the late 1980s TV show that inspired this movie, and there may have been some inside jokes that went over my head.  But I still enjoyed this somewhat shaggy tale about a couple of rookie cops who go undercover as high-school students to try to bust a dangerous drug ring.  The buddy cops are good in their roles: Jonah Hill (Superbad) is Schmidt, who was an unpopular nerd in high school, and Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) is Jenko, who was a popular jock back in the day.  But a mix-up in their class schedules accidentally sends Schmidt to mingle with the cool kids and Jenko to flounder with the nerds in AP chemistry.  Of course, Jenko comes to regret his past as a mean jock, and Schmidt starts to forget his police assignment as he gets accepted by the cool kids.  Ice Cube (Three Kings) has fun chewing the scenery as the buddies’ angry police captain.  And yes, Johnny Depp (TV’s 21 Jump Street) does make an appearance.  Rated R for lots of shoot-em-up violence but mainly, I expect, for constant bad language and some crude sexual talk.

Dark Shadows

The Movie Snob gives you fair warning.

Dark Shadows  (D).  Who would have thought that a joint enterprise by director Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) and actor Johnny Depp (the same) could turn out to be so deathly dull?  Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy fellow in colonial Maine who gets turned into a vampire and buried in a chained-up coffin by a wicked witch (Eva Green, Casino Royale).  Fast forward 200 years to the early 1970s.  BC is set free and makes his way back to his ancestral mansion where the last few members of the Collins family live in a state of advanced aristocratic decay.  Oh, and the witch is still hanging around the area causing trouble for the Collinses.  Previews suggested that the film was a comedy, but it is not funny.  (Gags involving BC’s encounters with “modern” phenomena like lava lamps and the Carpenters inevitably fall flat.)  Nor is it exciting, scary, romantic, dramatic, or anything else that might make it the slightest bit interesting.  Avoid it unless you have 2 hours you really need to waste.

The Rum Diary

A new review from The Movie Snob

The Rum Diary  (D).  This movie is a total snooze.  According to a Q-and-A on imdb.com, it is based on an unpublished manuscript by journalist Hunter S. Thompson that Johnny Depp (The Astronaut’s Wife) found in Thompson’s basement in 1998 while Depp was living with Thompson in preparation for filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  If the novel is as dull as the movie, there’s a reason it had remained unpublished.  Almost nothing happens.  The year is 1950.  Depp plays Paul Kemp, a writer who responds to an ad and goes to work for a struggling newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  He befriends a sozzled colleague named Sala who raises roosters for cockfighting on the side.  He’s enlisted in a land-grab scheme by a slimy American played by Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole).  He falls in love with the slimy American’s fiancee, a sizzling blond named Chenault (Amber Heard, Zombieland).  And he drinks enough rum to knock out a horse.  Otherwise, nothing much happens.  Skip this turkey.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

New review from The Movie Snob

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (D+).  I would say that Captain Jack Sparrow has finally worn out his welcome with me, but then again, did I really like any of the three earlier movies in this series?  Maybe the first one was okay, but I can hardly remember.  Anyhoo, Johnny Depp (The Astronaut’s Wife) is on a new quest — this time, he’s looking for the Fountain of Youth.  Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech) returns as Jack’s one-time nemesis Barbosa, but the villain of this piece is none other than Blackbeard himself (Ian McShane, Scoop).  Penelope Cruz (Volver) adds the feminine element now that Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) has jumped ship. An extended introduction set in London could easily have been lopped off (although it did permit a humorous cameo by a very well-known actress), and the rest of the movie is a bunch of very purposeful-looking rushing about by the various people who are trying to find the mythical Fountain.  Frankly, I found it a little yawn-inducing.  And, predictably, it was way too long (about 2 hours and 15 minutes).  But it’ll probably make a killing, and they’ll probably make another one….

Rango

A new review from The Movie Snob

Rango  (C).  This is a bizarre animated movie with a traditional plot.  Rango (voice of Johnny Depp, The Astronaut’s Wife) is a pet chameleon who, by a mishap, is suddenly lost in the Mojave Desert.  He makes his way to the town of Dirt, a classic Old West town populated by the most motley group of settlers you ever saw.  They all live in terror of a marauding hawk, so when Rango accidentally kills the fiend, he is quickly made the Sheriff of Dirt.  But darker forces are at work; the town’s water has mysteriously run dry, and Rango has very little time to unravel the mystery before the townspeople will have to sell out to the unctuous mayor and move away.  But this traditional plot is festooned with all sorts of weirdness.  One weird thing is that the animation is really awesome, but the characters are truly ugly, including all sorts of varmints like a horned frog, a bird that somehow survives with an arrow shot through one eye, and a bunch of moles.  Why take a lovely gal like Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and make her voice an ugly brown lizard?  Beats me.  Anyhoo, it’s weird enough to be offputting, and yet somewhat compelling at the same time.  And be aware, it is rated PG for a few cuss words and adult references