Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark

2013: The Year in Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There was plenty to complain about in 2013. Studios continued to bank everything on enormous, heavily advertised behemoths, which routinely underperformed. (Hopefully someone will learn a lesson from all this.) It was a mediocre year for animation, but a pretty good year for documentaries. Bad movies continued to explore new territories of badness, and I saw the worst movie of my life this year (see below). And as the summer of movies based on comic books passed into the fall season of movies based on "true stories," a few wonderful things appeared in the cracks. The following ten are my choices for the year's best (and not a comic book or a "true story" among them).

1. Gravity
I have never seen a movie quite like Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. It was a thrilling entertainment, and also a work of art. It was experimental, visceral, metaphysical, and spiritual, all at the same time. It found a balance between the bold, inventive, intrepid nature of man, and man's inherent fragility (our need for air to breathe, etc.). It cast a line between death and birth (and rebirth). Its technical achievements were truly groundbreaking, pulling off seamless effects that left the mystery of how they were done intact. Love her or hate her, Sandra Bullock was the movie's center, her great performance encompassing fear and doubt, while George Clooney represented life energy (who better than Clooney to do that?). It's one of the greatest films I've ever seen, and far more than just the film of the year. It's a film for the ages.

2. Her
Gravity is a hard act to follow, but Spike Jonze's Her does the job nicely. It takes a quirky idea -- in the near future, a man falls in love with his female-voiced operating system -- and turns it into a fearless, open-hearted exploration of love and connections. The movie's incredible design constantly emphasizes its theme, forever clashing the artificial and the beautiful. It could have gone so wrong in so many ways, but it sidesteps correctly each time. Jonze also took the chilly, guarded actor Joaquin Phoenix and guided him to the most giving, touching performance of his career.

3. Before Midnight
Turning Before Sunrise and Before Sunset into a trilogy can't have been an easy task, since all the blooming romance is gone and all that's left is the hard work. But Richard Linklater's Before Midnight -- co-written by stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy -- presents a fearless portrayal of a relationship in flux, with all the little doubts and desires that get in people's way. Expertly crafted without a bit of exposition, it flows through alternating moments of humor, sadness, and beauty. And it deepens what may become the cinema's greatest love story.

4. To the Wonder
Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is the much-hated sixth film by one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of our time, though I have yet to figure out why. Like Her, it explores the slippery and elusive nature of love and human connections. A man (Ben Affleck) falls for two beautiful women (Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams), but can't seem to sustain any feelings for them; he's still searching. In the meantime, a priest (Javier Bardem) has a similarly searching, uncertain relationship with God. Malick's sublime, dreamy visuals are also forever searching, alternately settling on moments of joy, reflection, or sadness before moving on.

5. Like Someone in Love
The great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami continues his investigation of the rest of the world with the Japanese-set Like Someone in Love. Telling the story of an old professor who hires a young prostitute for some unknown reason (nostalgia? lust?), and the reaction of her jealous boyfriend, it's less about a plot or a series of events than -- like some of this year's other great films -- the elusive nature of love and connection. As the title hints, they're "like" someone in love but not in love. Kiarostami's trademark meditative shots allow viewers to fully explore each moment.

6. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to his low-budget Primer, Upstream Color could accurately be described as an experimental film. It's not easy to pick up on exactly what's happening on a first viewing, but Carruth's strange, intoxicating rhythms make it absolutely compelling at every turn. It's elliptical, slippery, vaguely sinister, and brainy, but Carruth seems to respect his audience; it's one of the few films that presupposes some intelligence on the part of a viewer. Have patience: it actually does have a plot, and part of the greatness of this movie will be returning to it again and again and untangling it a bit further each time.

7. Nebraska
Whenever Alexander Payne has slipped up in the past, it has been from going too far or trying too much; Nebraska is his most stripped-down movie, rendered in simple landscapes, with simple characters, and filmed in simple black-and-white (it was one of four terrific black-and-white movies this year!). Bruce Dern and Will Forte make a wonderfully bittersweet father-son team, on a road trip for a hopeless quest. June Squibb matches them in a wonderfully fearless performance as Dern's cranky, long-suffering wife. The movie gracefully balances funny and sad, and the satisfying ending feels earned.

8. Drug War
Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been one of our most prolific and streamlined of action directors for two decades, and has turned in several outstanding, low-gear crime films -- he's like the Anthony Mann of our time -- but Drug War is a high point. Crafty and exhilarating, it's based on a simple premise that spins ever more wildly out of control. It was To's first film shot in mainland China, and it uses that disparity to brilliant effect, increasingly crossing the landscape with the action in more nefarious ways.

9. Computer Chess
Along with Upstream Color, Computer Chess was one of the year's most outstanding experimental films. Director Andrew Bujalski was an inventor of the so-called "mumblecore" genre, and while the other members of that club have gone more mainstream, Bujalski crafted this astounding, funny, and ultimately loony work. Created to look like a video documentary from the early 1980s, the movie takes place at a convention for programmers of chess-playing computers. But things get weirder and weirder, ultimately -- like Her -- asking big questions about the differences and similarities between technology and humans.

10. The World's End
Completing the so-called "blood and ice cream" trilogy (or the Cornetto trilogy), director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg have made the year's funniest film. Filled with genuine laughs and genuine sci-fi surprises, it ventures where Invasion of the Body Snatchers dared to go half a century ago, and tops it, asking even more complex and fascinating questions. In a year when sci-fi seemed to grow dumber, The World's End -- perhaps ironically -- gave us hope.

Ten Runners up (in alphabetical order):

Honorable Mention:

Great Performances

Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases
I no longer review DVDs and Blu-rays with the same vigor I once did, and there were several worthy releases that I did not get a chance to see. This list, while not comprehensive, comprises the best of the ones I did see.

Guilty Pleasures
Including all three of the year's Sylvester Stallone movies, plus three James Franco movies!

The Year's Worst Films
Sorry about this... I started making the list and it just kept going.

  1. InAPPropriate Comedy (the worst movie I have ever seen)
  2. Movie 43
  3. Upside Down
  4. Paranoia
  5. The Big Wedding
  6. The Hangover Part III
  7. Ass Backwards
  8. Scary Movie 5
  9. At Any Price
  10. Aftershock
  11. The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia
  12. World War Z
  13. Runner Runner
  14. R.I.P.D.
  15. Fast & Furious 6
  16. The Butler
  17. Red 2
  18. A Good Day to Die Hard
  19. The Last Days on Mars
  20. Pain and Gain
  21. We're the Millers
  22. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
  23. Romeo and Juliet
  24. Elysium
  25. Kick-Ass 2
  26. 47 Ronin
  27. Delivery Man
  28. Closed Circuit
  29. Touchy Feely
  30. C.O.G.
Movies Unlimtied