The "Best" Movies of 2013

2013 was a year of great change in the "film" and "television" "industry."  Traditional definitions of "film" and "television" became blurrier and the "industry"struggled to keep up with the changes.  Sadly, few of those changes applied to improving the state of story craft.  Growing pains abound.

My standard caveats apply here -- This is a collection of the films I liked best and I make no claim to scientific procedure, objectivity or non-bias.  It's a myth that they exist in Art.  Nevertheless, I call my annual revue a "Best of" because my perspectives are at least as valid as most, and because no one Googles for "Movies Tim Liked."  I can only include the movies I've seen, and I mostly see the movies that interest me.  So that's how that works.

This article may be amended as results filter in.

(Updated 1/30/2014 to include Dallas Buyers Club)


Dallas Buyers Club - 2013
Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

The theme of transformation runs deep in Dallas Buyers Club.  The three primary actors (Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto & Jennifer Garner) all transform themselves into their roles, certainly as far as our established expectations of them are concerned.  The men both lost a lot of weight for their roles as sufferers of HIV in the early (and particularly ignorant) days of the AIDS epidemic.  Leto further transformed himself into a man endeavoring to transform himself into a woman.  Garner transformed herself into a woman whose beauty and charm are not defining characteristics.  But the central story is the way that McConaughey's character, Ron Woodroof is transformed from a bird-doggin' cowboy & hustler (rife with bigotry and narrow definitions) into a man who discovers a passion for his own life and the lives of others.  He's made a life & lifestyle of being unattached and undependable, and through the process of forming, running and defending a medicinal buyers club for other HIV patients, he becomes attached to the lives of many, depended upon for their lives.  The acting here is simply extraordinary.  Their transformations are earned through the lives that they've led and the ways that they've been affected by others.  This is, bar none, the best, most honest character development of the year.  Bravo

The Wolf of Wall Street - 2013
Written by Terrence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorcese

I am surprised to find myself including this here, because I fully expected to hate spending 3 hours with such aggro asshole characters.  I'm also somewhat surprised to be classifying it as a Drama.  It's easily one of the funniest movies of the year, but I don't necessarily consider that comedy.  The laughs come from the stupidity and excess indulged by the characters, but in their proper context, these things should appall us.  It's a testament to Scorcese's abilities as a filmmaker that we can find such irredeemable scumbags so likeable.  In ways, it's even a horror movie where characters lose their minds and self-destruct, only to spread their zombie virus to a greater, unsuspecting population.  Whatever it is, it's deeply engaging, constantly entertaining and eventually leaves you with something to think about. 

Captain Phillips - 2013
Written by Billy Ray
Directed by Paul Greengrass

Greengrass' direction gives the film a constant sense of momentum that overcomes the viewer's foreknowledge of this recent event from the news.  He's the ideal director for what is essentially a 2 hour chase scene.  Even if WE know what happens, Tom Hanks portrays a Phillips who does not.



Her... - 2013
Written & Directed by Spike Jonze

If you have not yet made your peace with Joaquin Phoenix's face, Spike Jonze has made it his business to see that you do.  The reward for spending so much time with his face is that you also get to spend a lot of time with Scarlet Johansson's voice.  Jonze takes a simple idea -- a sad and lonely guy falls in love with the artificial intelligence in his computer's operating system -- and uses that to explore much more human themes.  If you start asking all kinds of stupid geek questions about the sci-fi, you've already missed the point.

Her... isn't about technology.  It's about humanity.

About Time - 2013
Written & Directed by Richard Curtis

About Time is the "Her" you haven't heard of.  Like Her, it uses a simple science-fiction conceit as a conduit for exploring themes of life, love and loss in a gently-paced, contemplative way.  In this case, the conceit is time travel.  Once they turn 21, the men in Tim's family are able to travel back in time, within their own lives.  There are no Terminators here, no slingshots around the sun -- no special effects at all, in fact.  It's not even about time travel, but about savoring life and cherishing what matters.  Posters tout the film as coming from "Love Actually" director Richard Curtis, but jaded skeptics can be encouraged that this is also Black Adder co-creator Richard Curtis.  It's a thoughtful and tender look at the lessons that Tim's special perspective affords him as he navigates through his young life.  Really, just a beautiful little motion picture.


In A World... - 2013
Written & Directed by Lake Bell

Oh wow, I just loved the crap out of this movie.  Lake Bell plays a woman with aspirations of making it as a voiceover actor in movie trailers like her industry-legend father, despite a male stranglehold on the business.  Why did I like it so much?  Well, it had a story with a beginning, middle and ending.  It's filled with endearing characters.  Even the unlikeable characters are likeable.  It's really the characters that make it.  I found that I didn't only care about the central plot, but the little subplots and side characters.  Heck, I hoped they'd all get lucky.  I would gladly spend more time in a world... written and directed by Lake Bell.

The Brass Teapot - 2013
Written by Tim Macy
Directed by Ramaa Mosley

Now I don't know about you, but I kind of thought that Juno Temple stole every scene in which che appeared in Killer Joe, which is how I found my way to The Brass Teapot.  A young couple that just can't seem to get it together discovers an ancient teapot that rewards its possessor when they cause themselves pain.  Hilarity ensues.  The story gets a little silly and the screenplay doesn't always follow the threads of logic, but it does so in service to its emotional themes and the laffs, of course.  It's like a really good game of "What Would You Do?"  Juno Temple steals the teapot, and the show.

The To Do List - 2013
Written & Directed by Maggie Carey

The To Do List is an early 90s teen comedy made by the people who grew up on them.  Aubrey Plaza finished high school as the expert in everything but irresponsible teen sex, so in characteristic form, she makes a list to address her personal enrichment.  This leads, as one might suspect, to many disastrous and painfully funny situations and all appropriate tripping over emotions.  Plaza is adorable, hilarious and fearless.


The Croods - 2013
Written & Directed by Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco

I tend to be a skeptic about Dreamworks Animation.  They don't aim as high as Disney and Pixar and as a result they hit the mark anywhere from marginally to drastically lower.  The Croods is one of their absolute best.  The simple concept of following the adventures of a caveman family as they seek a new home open the door for themes of family, love, fear and growth... as well as some pretty relentless hi-jinks.  It's kind of a wonder that the film  got past whatever department it is at the studios that worry what the Bible Belt thinks.  Beyond the obvious evolutionary themes, the metaphors about paranoia and ignorance run deep.  Extra points for a husky female protagonist without the slightest of royal leanings.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 - 2013
Directed by Kris Pearn & Cody Cameron
See link for writing team

The first movie turned a 30 page picture book with no actual plot into a surprisingly funny feature length adventure.  The sequel picks up immediately after and keeps the party going.  Flint and the gang are back, and out of their elements the regular world following the megafood destruction of Swallow Falls.  When the megafood goes wild - literally - Flint teams up with his childhood science hero, Professor V, to get to the bottom of things.  But is the threat what he thinks it is?  Dunt dun DUN!  Just as zany, just as funny as the original.  No princesses.

Frozen - 2013
Written & Directed by Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck

Bring on the princesses!

Disney's CG animation has really hit its stride.  The art quality (GORGEOUS) is second to none -- even Pixar -- and the content is all Disney.  Gender roles notwithstanding, Frozen's princesses Anna and Elsa each face their own unique struggles with loss, loneliness and sadness.  Much of this can be blamed on their STUPID, STUPID PARENTS who make one choice out of fear that very nearly destroys both their daughters -- but (ahem), that's not what the movie is about.  I found the story to be one the the most emotionally resonant in Disney's catalog.  While I, personally, do not need musical numbers in my animation, I understand and accept them as characteristic of a Disney production.  That said, the songs in Frozen SUH-HUCK  These are THE WORST songs in any Disney film that I am aware of.  Like, Top 40 radio bad... TODAY'S Top 40 radio.  At least the upshot of that is that they're forgettable.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - 2013
Written by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt
Directed by Francis Lawrence

Catching Fire succeeds in all the places where the first Hunger Games frustrated and disappointed me, and it does most of the things that the first did well even better.  Purely in terms of story, we get more and deeper from both the characters, and the bleak world in which they live.  I had a hard time enjoying the first because I simply couldn't get caught up in rooting for one victim over another.  I was frustrated by the lack of address to the problems of their society.  Catching Fire goes all-in.  The political landscape becomes central to everything that takes place.  There's much more context and meaning, and it makes the entire movie better.  This is one of the few occasions in which less Stanley Tucci is a good thing.  Further, the replacement of Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence is a great boon.  Ross' annoying-as-all-hell shaky cam is gone, giving us a camera that respects the epic nature of the tale.  It's a shame that Hunger Games didn't shoot with this team, but better late than never.  Catching Fire establishes the feverish momentum to propel the series into its 2-part conclusion.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - 2013
Directed by Peter Jackson
See link for writing team

Bigger, wilder, and more apocryphal than the first!  Chapter 2 sees the company of dwarves through Mirkwood to Mount Doom, setting the stage for the Battle of the Five Armies.  More than any of the Tolkien films before, this one feels like Peter Jackson has learned how to play with all his tools a good deal more.  What am I telling you for?  This is Jackson's 5th Tolkien film.  As a viewer, you know if you're in or out by now... but if you haven't gotten to this one yet, just know that it's more and better.

Elysium - 2013
Written & Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Blomkamp is back with his style of believable, near-future sci-fi.  Elysium is the name of a space station where the world's richest people have fled to escape the poverty, overpopulation and environmental crises from which they have profited for so long.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are pretty desperate and dismal for Matt Damon and the rest of the humans living under the robotically enforced thumb of Elysium's plutocratic leaders.  This is one of the most believable futures we've seen in years.  It is, in many ways, a horrific manifestation of our fears.  We know that we're on a path to a future like this, but we feel powerless to stop it.  I think that sensation gives Elysium a unique dynamic.  We're not merely concerned about the characters' futures; we're concerned about our own.

The corniness of the villains threatens some of the verisimilitude, but by mercy's grace, they make up a small percentage of the film.  Jodie Foster should be stopped from doing foreign accents henceforth.  It's like they really wanted Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton and told Jodie just to go with that.  She gnawed the digital scenery.  As did Sharlto Copley as the psychotic unfrozen caveman mercenary.  They both could have dialed it back about 50% and we'd still hate them just as much; just for the right reasons.


Warm Bodies - 2013
Written & Directed by Jonathan Levine

This is sure to keep me out of the Hardcore Zombie Lovers' Club, but then I never sent in my application.  Told from the perspective of a teenage zombie, Warm Bodies twists and violates several of the conventions of the traditional zombie movie, including the most unforgivable; having the gall to end with... hope.  It's been unfairly lumped in with the likes of Twilight for blending a classic monster with a teenage romance, but heart, humor and characters with more depth than Twilight's paper dolls make all the difference.  This is a strong contender for my favorite zombie movie ever, simply because it so refuses to be a "zombie movie."

The Conjuring - 2013
Written by Chad & Carey Hayes
Directed by James Wan

The Conjuring is a good, old-fashioned, crap-your-pants haunted house and possession story, told for modern audiences by James "SAW" Wan.  As such, it benefits in terms of some deep, bone-chilling frights, but it also suffers from a slightly overblown Act 3.  Most people won't care; the intended audience in particular.

Insidious: Chapter 2 - 2013
Written by Leigh Whannel
Directed by James Wan

Jennifer Lawrence and Matthew McConaughey are probably the only people in Hollywood to have had a bigger year than James Wan.  Not only did he have The Conjuring in theaters, but he also released Insidious: Chapter 2 (while filming the next Fast & Furious).  This sequel accomplishes the never-before-imagined feat of not only being as-good-if-not-better than its predecessor, but actually makes the first film BETTER by making more sense of its mysteries.

Unless Chapter 3 completely bones it, the Insidious films are on track to becoming future classics of horror.


A lot of these picks happen to have the same writer and director.  One suspects that that's no coincidence.

Rob Corddry is in both In A World... and Warm Bodies, and he gave really surprising performances in both.  It's really nice seeing him display tenderness and vulnerability for a change.

Yes, it's true that my own tastes tend to favor a certain kindness in the film's content.  I believe that this isn't JUST because I'm such an inveterate softy, but because so many of our films have become more crass and cruel.

The Human Equation

Eva - 2011
Directed by Kike Maillo
See link for writing team

Eva is a Spanish science-fiction film in a class similar to the likes of Her... or About Time.  While the fiction is based in a scientific conceit, it's not about the "sci-fi."  There are no laser battles, no one-dimensional villains.  It's about human behavior in the context of the impact of technology.

Young and ridiculously good-looking robotics protege, Alex Garel returns to his hometown after a ten year absence, stirring up all kinds of emotional conflict within and between him, his brother, his ex (now married to his brother) and his mentor.  Despite his brilliance, Alex has left a trail of unfinished projects and hurt feelings in his wake.  It's one of those projects that draws him back to the university.  His goal is to design a free-willed robotic child.  To get an exceptional robot, he needs to find an exceptional child upon which to base the personality profile.

Now, there wouldn't be much of a movie if he didn't find one.  The one he finds is Eva, a precocious and energetic 10-year old.  At their first meeting, she teases him about being a pervert for his interest in her.  She challenges his expectations and he finds himself fascinated by her, both professionally and personally.  The fascination is deepened once he discovers that Eva is the daughter of his ex-girlfriend and his brother.

Eva's mother, Lana, is a robotics professor and recognizes his interest.  She pleads with him not to pursue the matter (perhaps too forcefully) and he agrees, but Eva has become fascinated with him as well.  As they spend time together, questions about the past creep in, old feelings arise, and Alex entertains thoughts about the road not taken.

While Daniel Brühl is tasked with much of the heavy-lifting in the role of Alex, the movie wouldn't work without first-time actress Claudia Vega selling the idea of Eva as exceptional.  She's charismatic and precocious, waking up the narrative from Alex's disaffected melancholia whenever she's on screen.

This is also director Kike Maillo's first feature film, and he keeps it thoughtful but constantly engaging.  Everything on the screen is beautiful, from the actors to the snowy mountain town to the technology.

Having seen a few Spanish films recently, I've noticed that they look just like American films, except everyone is prettier.  The robotic technology of 2041 takes on a variety of forms.  Some are based on current experimental robotics.  Some look like extras from the Jawa scenes in Star Wars.  Many mimic organic forms including those that are thoroughly human in appearance.

The visual design of the computer tech may be completely illogical, but it's all for the sake of beauty.  The holographic interface resembles raindrops in a spiderweb, and individual apps spin in the air like glass tops.  Alex's personality programs bob and twirl in the air, echoing Jim Woodring's enigmatic jivas, which reflect the forms in Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur themselves.

Eva is an intriguing and involving science-fiction for grown-ups.  It's filled with beauty, but perhaps its greatest special effect is its humanity, and a debut performance that infuses the whole thing with life. 

2013 in Video Games

2013 was a pivotal year for the art and commerce of video games.

The financial model has become increasingly crass and more tightly controlled by interests who see only the dollar signs removed from any other context.  Over the course of the last console generation, we've seen the compulsive consumers not-merely cede, but outright throw away any notion of demand-based economics or sanity-based purchasing.  Online has become The All, and the heavy hitters like that just fine because it gives them more opportunities to nickel-and-dime the customers, while assuring that prices remain high and play-life becomes shortened.  In the true soul of insecurity, gamers are only validated when playing with other gamers.  Everything must be scored, measured ad ranked.  The single-player narrative experience certainly reached some high creative marks this year, but it's also been commercially marginalized in favor of the economics of compulsion.

On top of this, the new consoles came out, which lock-in the changes of the past generation and lay the groundwork for even more drastic changes.  Microsoft, in particular, overplayed their hand.  Their proposed plans for the Xbox One made it clear that it was designed first with the executive wish-list in mind.  The most drastic power-grab was the intention to lock game discs to specific consoles, thus ending the used-game market.  This would allow them to keep game prices artificially inflated for as long as possible.  The idea is that they should call all the shots, and the consumer should do what they're told.  That is not true capitalism, my friend.  Coupled with corporately driven legislation, that is fascism defined.  A low level fascism, sure, but also symptomatic of the direction of most American industry.  In a show of disgust that I frankly didn't believe them capable of, video game consumers balked at Microsoft's plans, and the company had to walk back a few of its "features."  But the hand has been shown, and one would have to be a fool not to see that these represent their goals for the next five years.  Whatever they don't phase back into the Xbox One, we can be sure they will do that and more with whatever follows it.

So my choice for Game of the Year comes as an antidote to these depressing industry trends...

A new Grand Theft Auto would always be in the running for Game of the Year, in any year it comes out, but GTAV wins this time not ONLY for the way its stepped up its game, but also for the way that it bucks and repurposes industry trends.

When GTAIII came out, it satirized American life through our crime movies.  But it's been 12 years since then, and GTA is now as much a part of American culture as the films to which it paid homage.  GTAV now goes directly for the jugular without any misdirection.  Thanks to its new 3-character narrative, this is the most intelligent, mature and nuanced GTA yet... and the most over-the-top.  It breaks further away from the traditional structure where missions are doled out by a series of crime bosses.  The missions are more directly tied to a narrative based on the characters' needs and desires.  They're more emotionally motivated and add up to a more authentic experience.  The world is also the most immersive and livable yet, and I keep catching myself, realizing that I can't do all the things it seems like I should be able to do.  Here's hoping the next game goes deeper rather than bigger.

While the series places the highest priority on continuing to be itself despite trends, GTAV does include an online element.  This too refuses to be "just another" and rather than a strictly controlled and monetized experience, it's offered for free and designed to empower players to create their own gameplay experiences to share with others.  It was unfortunate that so many entitled punk-ass brats threw such a mighty tantrum when it wasn't instantly perfect upon launch.  The beautifully stupid irony of it is that the game satirizes them mercilessly, and they respond in true ignorance.

On a personal note, I'm really hoping that Rockstar doesn't take us back to Liberty City anytime soon.  Since GTAIII, we've had 4 games set in their version of New York City, and I'm ready for something else.  I've written to them to say as much, and to plead with them to consider a 1970s San Francisco (San Fiero in GTAmerica).  Outside of LA and NYC, SF is our most unique city, and it was fertile ground for crime stories, both real and fictive, throughout the 70s.

My Disappointment of The Year #1 (other than the industry itself) was Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.  I'm not one of those people who lives to bitch about COD online.  I have really enjoyed their post-WWII games, and the first Black Ops has been my favorite of the series, so I was really looking forward to Black Ops 2.  Sadly, it seems to have taken criticisms of the series as a wish list.  Despite claims of more choice, this is the most funneled gameplay yet, and despite being funneled, it often does a poor job of heading you in the right direction.  It doesn't feel like a game often enough, and scripted moments pop up far too often and progress far too slowly, which really puts a dent in the narrative and the experiential flow of things.  Furthermore, it suffers from more of the same crappy scripting that made Black Ops irritating in places, only worse.  Also, the new "non-linear" RTS portion is terrible, and comes with the least intuitive control scheme of this console generation.

The thing that really damages the game as a whole, however, is that when one does get to play, there are several sections (if not whole levels) where there is just far, FAR too much shit on screen.  It gets hard to know what you're even supposed to be doing or who you're supposed to be shooting.  The level design, the interface and the scripting just do not work together here the way that they did in the first Black Ops.

And on top of all that, it's a stupid story (I use "story" loosely) terribly told.  It's also a grave insult to the lead character from Black Ops.  So, so disappointed.  Shame on you, Treyarch and Activision.

Disappointment of the Year #2

Ouch, this one hurts even more, but Assassin's Creed III is just a crime against the series.  The mission design, scripting and control interface are at war with each other, and the player gets caught in the middle.  Now, past AC games have certainly had their problems with glitchy code and occasional stupid deaths from things failing to work as they should were the price one paid for having such beautiful, code-rich open worlds with so many places to climb.  AC3 takes that as free license not to give a shit.  Every single mission I have played so far has included mission-busting code and/or design.

For example, let me tell you about what should have been a very simple mission requiring one to escort John Adams a few blocks across town.  First, he tells you to follow him... except he will only follow you.  Then, when you find that there are Redcoat checkpoints set up, he tells you that he will show you how to use underground tunnels... only he will still only follow you.  Lead character, Connor, says that he can get where they're going quickly by rooftop, which Adams specifically tells him not to do.  As it turns out, rooftop is the only way to get to the tunnel entrance without getting attacked by guards -- something that you are rewarded for avoiding.  Furthermore, while testing ways of getting to my goal while following the orders I was given by Adams, I did happen to get mobbed by soldiers and killed because the attacks that were supposed to come with a warning symbol, giving me the opportunity to counter.  No warning came and I took a thrashing. 

That's just one example of how the design, the scripting and the code completely failed to work together, but it's hardly an isolated incident.  There has been something wrong in every single mission I've played so far.  Without actually knowing, I'm just going to guess that this is one of those games that Ubisoft developed at multiple studios, splitting up tasks between people who spent very little time in contact with one another, assuming they even spoke the same languages.

In addition to magnifying the flaws of previous ACs, they attempted to tweak the controls and ended up making them even more problematic. Functions are oddly mapped, and sometimes double-mapped.  Escort missions map the Stay/Follow command to the same button one uses to drop from a ledge, so you can lead someone to a rooftop, but if you have to take them back down again, you'd best plan on getting creative.  Yes, it's as stupid as it sounds, and it's that flavor of stupidity that one will find throughout.

Finally, aesthetically, Colonial America is sun-baked ass next to Renaissance Italy & Turkey and the Medieval Middle East.  Tree climbing in the wild is nowhere near as fun as it should be, and too few trees are climbable at all.  It's really a damned shame, because it seems like there might have been a pretty decent story somewhere in there.  Shame on YOU, Ubisoft.  This is a vastly profitable series.  You can afford to treat it with some effin' respect.

There's more than one turkey in this photo

So, 2013 may very well have been the beginning of the end of video games (as we know them).  There's obviously some creative passion out there, but one really has to question whether that will continue to find fertile ground, untainted by chemicals fertilizers and genetically modified greed.

2013 in Music

I have never cared less about popular music than I did in 2013.  Let's all just admit it; most popular music sucks dog-ass these days.  Rock n' roll doesn't rock anymore.  I just can't work up half an ounce of give-a-crap for all the chanty, twee post-alt pop rock, and that's the inoffensive stuff. 

For my own part, I listened to jazz, funk and soul almost exclusively.

That being said, one name did pop up, and that name was Pharrell Williams.  Two songs grabbed my ear this year, and they both featured him.

Evidently he also had something to do with "Blurred Lines" but I like myself too much to allow that one in my ears.

Another Place and Time

The Place Beyond The Pines - 2013
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
see link for writing team

The first thing to understand about The Place Beyond The Pines is that most descriptions fail to explain it adequately.  From what I'd read, I expected some kind of protracted game of cat and mouse between Ryan Gosling's motorcycle-stunt-rider-turned-bank-robber and Bradley Cooper's ambitious-but-stalwart-cop-in-a-corrupt-department.  Sort of like a, say... Vanishing Point versus Copland or Heat meets The Departed... 'cept, you know, with motorcycles.

Well, it's not that.  At least not the way you think it is.

The Place Beyond the Pines is really three movies in the space of a movie-and-a-half.  The first act belongs to Gosling's character, Luke.  He is indeed a sideshow stunt rider who walks away from his job when he learns that he left more behind than tender memories the last time he passed through Schenectady, NY.  Eva Mendes is the mother of his child who can't decide what she wants.  In order to support his son and be involved (as his own father wasn't), Luke ends up robbing banks using his riding skills to get away swiftly.  When his partner (the brains of the operation) backs out on him, Luke's next job goes from bad to worse.

This leads to a fateful encounter with Bradley Cooper as Avery, a rookie cop with a law degree and big plans for the future.  The second act is his, as the fallout from the encounter brings him the kind of notoriety that could help to fulfill those ambitions, but also involves him with the inner circle of corrupt good-ol'-cops.  His intermittent conscience leads him into conflict with the cops, but for the time, ambition has all the answers.

The third act is set 15 years later and belongs to their teenage sons who are unaware of the history between their fathers.  The choices of the past ripple through the future, shaking the lives of all involved.

Each act is very different; not merely in perspective but in tone and momentum, but they do add up to a really impressive and satisfying arc.  It's an action crime flick, then a cop drama and finally a coming of age movie.  The film doesn't judge the characters or even really push the story very hard.  All the events flow naturally from a single choice.  It's an engaging consideration of the way that choices echo through time, giving particular attention (intentional or not) to self-defeating behaviors.  Luke and Avery are both haunted by their fathers in their own choices, which gets passed on to their own sons.

A Change of Tune

So I'm sitting here watching The Black Stallion and I noticed something curious.

In the climactic horse race at the end of the film, there is almost no music.  A good 2/3 of the race is nothing but the sound of thundering hooves and panting breath.  When music does finally enter, it's long, slow string tones tying the racing back to their time on the island.  It's a thing of pure beauty.

If that film were made today, the entire race would be bloated out to at least twice as long to give the director more time to manipulate the viewer, and it would be drowned out with some kind of tuneless and turgid Hans Zimmer score.  God damn I hate Hans Zimmer.  His dronefests are symptomatic of what is wrong with movies these days.  So much artistry and storytelling has been sacrificed for crass manipulation.  It's no longer enough to tell a story well.  Now you have to tell viewers what they're supposed to feel, and those feelings are no better distinguished than an emoticon in a text message.

Shorts on Film

My resolution for the new year (inasmuch as I believe in such things) is to update more.  Toward that end, I will be allowing myself to relax and share shorter impressions of more things, rather than getting bogged down in longer articles so much (I still have three unfinished from the past year).  If this seems to skew to the negative, it's because I'm also working on a separate list of the Best of 2013, and many of these are those that did not make the cut.

Escape From Tomorrow - 2013
Written & Directed by Randy Moore

The story behind the Escape From Tomorrow is really more interesting than the movie itself.  Much of it was filmed surreptitiously within Disney World, unbeknownst to corporate and park management.  That's pretty cool.  Sadly, the long, long segments of park-wandering lose their fascination for the viewer much earlier than they did for the filmmaker.  It was actually possible to watch much of it on fast forward without missing a thing.  The acting is just bad and the story wasn't really a story so much as a pastiche of weirdness and creeping dread.  There are some interesting and funny parts, but it doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole.  Think of it as a (what was once called) a "head" film for the digital age of paranoia.  It's a bad trip for characters and viewers alike.

Blue Jasmine - 2013
Written & Directed by Woody Allen

I have only myself to blame.

I was immediately put off by blurbs describing the story as "a troubled New York socialite imposes on her sister after her philandering Wall Street husband's indictment brings on a nervous breakdown."  Don't get me wrong.  I have nothing against nervous breakdowns, but vapid and solipsistic New York socialites really aren't my bag.  Then it started getting all kinds of awards attention, so I decided to give it a chance and received a stark reminder about trusting my instincts.  The characters are miserable and unpleasant.  No one learns anything.  All hopes are false.  The character arc is not-so-much an arc as a body tumbling down an incline, left for dead.

The acting is good and the photography is pretty.  It might even be a good movie, but that simply doesn't trump its unlikeability for me.  I may be done with Woody Allen.

Captain Phillips - 2013
Written by Billy Ray
Directed by Paul Greengrass

I didn't expect much from Captain Phillips.  I had a pretty good idea about the story, and while it's true that it held few surprises, Greengrass' way with cinematic pacing kept me engaged throughout.  I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Tom Hanks, and while it's true that his New England accent held few surprises, he really delivered the emotional intensity to keep pace with the third act.  I had a sense, watching the film, that the characters existed outside of the part of their lives that we're shown.  It wasn't so much a matter of the story, to suggest this, but their emotions and behaviors that showed us they were connected to things outside of the frame.  Obviously this is something we're meant to feel more often, from characters in films, but the fact that it stood out to me so starkly makes me think; maybe we haven't been getting what we should.  Involving and entertaining -- this is what we watch movie for.

12 Years A Slave - 2013
Written by John Ridley - Directed by Steve McQueen

In 1841, Solomon Northrup, a free black man, was kidnapped and sold into slavery.  This wasn't so uncommon at the time, but what is exceptional about it is that he was eventually freed and wrote a book about it.  That's not just a summary; that's pretty much the entire story.  12 Years A Slave offers no surprises and very little insight.  I watched Roots again last year, so this really felt like a reprise.  Where Captain Phillips held few surprises, it made up for it with its own kinetic momentum.  12 Years A Slave, however, has very little momentum other than the desire to see him free again, with a slow, languorous pace which I believe was designed to convey the sensation of 12 long years.  The film is beautiful to behold and performances range from the excellent (mainly Chiwitel Ejiofor) to the eye-rollingly melodramatic, and points between.  I'm not exactly complaining.  As long as the idea holds appeal to you as a viewer, this is an excellently made film and you should enjoy it much as you expect to.  If, however, you're looking for something that will enrich your understanding of the American Shame of Slavery, it's only going to tell you what you already know.

One thing I want to say about 12 Years A Slave is how I appreciate it telling its own story.  Last year, we had a bunch of whiny-ass writers and directors bitching about Django Unchained using slavery themes.  Steve McQueen DID something -- shared HIS voice and vision -- rather than gripe, and for that, I respect him even more.  Your turn, Spike Lee.  Deliver, or shut the hell up.

Also, can we talk about how fucking creepy Paul Dano is?  Guh! 

Saving Mr. Banks - 2013
Written by Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith - Directed by John Lee Hancock

Another short-on-plot, long-on-character piece of end-of-the-year obvious Oscar-bait.  In fact, I think this is a slot within that frame that comes around every year; the Gentle Biopic (often set in Old Hollywood).  It was Hitchcock last year and The King's Speech the year before.  Anyway, what we get here is the fairly light story of the strained relationship between P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and Walt Disney, who deeply wanted to bring it to the screen.  Emma Thompson really carries the film.  The filmmakers give us her extremely prickly character, and then actually bother to develop that, causing us to question why and lending the film its main momentum.  Tom Hanks does his affable Tom Hanks stock character here, which is endearing enough, but offers far less depth than Thompson (or indeed, Hanks in Capt. Phillips).  He does a nice job with the speech at the end that magically makes everything all okay.

American Hustle - 2013
Written by Eric Singer & DOR - Directed by David O. Russell

Great performances, especially from Amy Adams. The plot isn't particularly engaging and it falls to the characters to propel the film forward, which they do, mostly without falter.  However, I can't say that they ever give us much to care about.

I, personally, find it interesting that we're now calling David O. Russell a director with a "confrontational method" where back around the time of Three Kings we merely recognized him as an unbalanced asshole.

Enough Said - 2013
Written & Directed by Nicole Holofcener

I wanted so badly to like this movie.  It starts out as a sweet romantic comedy about adults-of-a-certain-age finding each other and negotiating the silliness of dating, all while enjoying funny conversations.  Then it turns on you like a good curry made with bad goat.  People stop acting like adults and the plot-like substance which emerges turns out to be a DEEPLY STUPID sitcom kind of set-up.  And then that just drags on, VERY, VERY UNCOMFORTABLY for the remainder of the film.  When Dreyfus' immature behavior catches up with her, it's hard to care because she's been such a cowardly a-hole.  I just wanted Gandolfini's character to get these HORRIBLE women out of his life.  As disappointing as getting a Fony GameStation 4 with Carl of Duty 9 for Christmas.

The Heat - 2013
Written by Katie Dipold - Directed by Paul Feig

I really wasn't sure we needed another comedic take on the buddy cop movie after Cop Out and The Other Guys, but The Heat delivers enough energy and silliness to make it a good, fun time.  The viewer is responsible for checking their higher sensibilities at the door.  It's obvious, when we see Melissa McCarthy chasing down a perp in her car (because she'd lose him in the length of a block on foot) that the idea of her as a badass break-the-rules kind of cop is laughable in an uncomedic way, but she sells it with the same goofball mania that she brought to Bridesmaids and her SNL appearance.  It's funny, and that's its job.