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.
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.