by Bob Devine
What are the best films of the past year?
I'll preface my list by saying that this thought brings to mind my dad, because my love for movies came from my father. Shortly after I was born my dad was critically injured in a vehicle accident when he was in the Army reserves. It took him years to learn again how to talk, walk, and resume normal life and job activities. I'm not sure he has ever regained the ability to be personally expressive with me, to a large degree. But one thing we shared was movies. He would take me and my brothers to see them on a regular basis. I remember seeing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and the original "Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" animated movies and so many others at the local art house theater where I lived.
What I think was so important about those days at the movies was that it was a way for me to feel connected to my father. Witnessing my father's movie choices were a way for me to connect with the things that were important to him, because he didn't just take us to any movie so much as taking us to movies that meant something or had a deeper idea involved.
So as I share what I think are the best movies of 2013, please forgive the absence of films like "Wolf of Wall Street," "American Hustle," "Blue Jasmine," and smaller movies like "Spring Breakers," "The Bling Ring," etc. Honestly, I couldn't help but leave the theater of the ones I saw, wishing that they all went to jail for a long time. I have tired of movies that have stories about undesirable characters even if they're in glorified, sexy, and enticing situations. There is little redemptive quality in watching how people should not act as they are wallowing in the excesses of society, even if they get their comeuppance in the end.
To me, great films have to have some underlying ethical or moral theme, or involve a winding tale that ends with some realization, or be about the portrayal of some noble quality. With that said, here are my 2013 favorites.
15. Tie: "Captain Phillips" & "Gravity" - These are two character studies that have good performances, and yet are significantly flawed or skewed, in the sense that "Captain Phillips" is all from the account of the captain himself, and doesn't take into account the 50 million dollar lawsuit by members of his ship's crew that are telling a story quite different from and far less flattering than the captain's account. And "Gravity" has stunning special effects and yet gaping holes in credibility, not the least of which is George Clooney and Sandra Bullock at the end of a tether in space, with Clooney thinking he needs to cut himself loose and drift off into space to die to save Sandra Bullock's character, and yet the lack of gravity in space would suggest that he wouldn't continue to drag them until the tether broke, but rather come back the other direction. Good movies, they are, but a little lower on my scale than popular opinion might afford.
14. "Saving Mr. Banks" - Walt Disney's personal biases aside, this film is a thoughtful look at the antagonistic relationship between an artist (P.L. Travers) and the merchandising mechanism (Disney) whereby her art (Mary Poppins) would get exposed to the world. A great look at the story behind the story of an iconic tale, particularly between the author and her father.
13. "Enough Said" - One of James Gandolfini's last films before dying, where he plays a divorced man who enters into a newly blossoming relationship with a divorced woman who happens to be a friend of the divorced man's wife. Once she figures out that he's the ex-husband her friend has been complaining about, her perspective on their relationship begins to change and he suddenly finds himself wondering why he's feeling judged in a way that reminds him of his ex-wife. Aside from the story, however, it's the performances by Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Catherine Keener that give this exploration of relationships, both heft and gravitas
12. "The Butler" - An enjoyable story about the development of civil rights in the context of a largely fictional character that was based loosely on real life White House butler Eugene Allen. Allen served eight Presidents, and was honored by Barack Obama, before passing away in 2010. But "The Butler" deviates from Allen's story, with a "Forrest Gumpy" sort of look at American History from Eisenhower to Reagan. Robin Williams, John Cusack and other popular actors play various presidents, which was both humorous and distracting, but I did enjoy the film and thought both Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey did a solid job in the lead roles.
11. "Disconnect" - A compelling drama about people who struggle to find connection in a world that is integrated electronically but where people are disconnected emotionally. Jason Bateman impresses as a serious actor whose family is ripped apart when a tragedy befalls their son.
10. "Warm Bodies" - An engaging comedy about a seemingly soulless zombie man who begins to have feelings for a human woman in a metaphorical tale about how disconnected, lost, and aimlessly wandering the people on planet earth can sometimes seem. that is until they find a purpose. To me, both "Disconnect" and "Warm Bodies" are different takes on a similar theme.
9. "42" - Perhaps the most glaring omission from this year's Oscar nominations was how Harrison Ford didn't get a supporting actor nomination for his role as Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who helped make it possible for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. An inspiring tale of the legend and his efforts to overcome racism and segregation, not only in baseball, but in life.
8. "Much Ado About Nothing" - Avengers director Joss Whedon took a group of acting friends to his own home and gave them a Shakespeare play to perform in modern dress, and the result is a witty and charming adaptation of a Shakespeare classic that is carried largely on the charisma of the leads, the strength of the dialogue, and the sense that those involved were truly having a good time.
7. "Dallas Buyers Club" - Matthew McConaughey brings his considerable acting chops to bear on this story of an HIV positive heterosexual man whose journey to keep himself alive also begins an underground network for other HIV positive persons to access the experimental drugs they need to fight the AIDS virus. The cross-dressing Jared Leto should win an Oscar for his supporting role.
6. "About Time" - This movie is a deceptive little sleeper hit that appears on the surface to just be another run of the mill romantic comedy, but instead it takes the idea of time travel and twists it into a man's journey to find himself, help his family, and yes, maybe even to get the girl along the way.
5. ""Short Term 12" - This poignant tale about the lives and struggles of social workers and the children they work to help comes alive on the strength of the performances from a cast of largely unknown actors whose interactions make you feel like you're a fly on the wall in a real halfway house for teens. This is probably the best movie made for the least amount of money in 2013. Definitely worth seeing.
4. "12 Years a Slave" - While you couldn't get me to watch this movie a second time, I think everyone should watch this movie once. Powerful performances underscore this story of Solomon Northup's journey from being a free man to becoming a slave and back again. It's harsh, not easy to watch, and yet a lesson in both humanity and inhumanity that reminds us of what we're capable of as a species.
3. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" - A celebration of "life" -- yes, the magazine and the reality, in case you missed the film's double entendre. A daydreaming LIFE magazine photo editor leaves his world of safety to track down a missing cover photo and begins to experience what he's only heretofore seen in pictures. Some people and critics wanted more from this film, but I felt that Stiller intentionally juxtaposed the larger than life scenes with the smaller, more intimate and emotional moments in a way that was masterful.
2. "Before Midnight" - Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have put together with director Richard Linklater an insightful, decades spanning trilogy (including "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset") that fully matures into some of the best dialogue scenes I've ever seen between a husband and wife struggling through their mid-life crises. This deserved more Oscar nods than Best Adapted Screenplay, but an early year release meant the newer films had an edge in the memory. But I, for one, did not forget.
1. "Her" - As the final credits began to roll I knew this was the most interesting, cutting edge, sometimes uncomfortable, but visionary and soulful film I saw in the past year... an absolutely enthralling film from Spike Jonze that explores the limits, or lack thereof, in forming relationships, be it with self-adapting intuitive software or with another person.
Other noteworthy films of 2013:
Inequality for All
The Way, Way Back
Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
The Spectacular Now
Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Notable Films I have not seen yet:
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis
All is Lost
Wish You Were Here
Bob Devine is the coordinator for the Pocatello Film Society.