Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year in Film: 2013

Each film on the following list was available (whether in theatres, on DVD, or through streaming) to see in the Milwaukee area for the first time in 2013.  Due to the vagaries of international film distribution, some of these films were released in other areas of the world in 2012 (which explains how two of the films in my top 10 were nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards despite not being released in Wisconsin until January) and some won’t be released in other places until 2014, but for the purposes of this list these are 2013 releases since they were the ones that I had a reasonable opportunity to see for the first time this year.  Before getting to the main list, here are some quick lists explaining why certain notable films didn't make the cut.

Movies that I really want to see that I missed
Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany, 105 min.)
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 179 min.)
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm, Denmark, 103 min.)
Mud (Jeff Nichols, USA, 130 min.)
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 118 min.)
Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Monsour, Saudi Arabia, 98 min.)

Movies that I really want to see that haven’t yet made it to the Milwaukee area
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France, 95 min.)
Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 126 min.)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 112 min.)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 123 min.)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France/Italy, 130 min.)
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 126 min.)

1)  The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK, 116 min.)
The most mesmerizing, terrifying, and all-around audacious movie of the year is documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer’s unblinking look at the very worst of humanity.  In 1965 and ’66 the Indonesian military staged a coup in which they exterminated the nation’s Communist party (and anyone who they may have arbitrarily decided was a Communist).  Rather than being punished for their war crimes, many of the perpetrators have remained major players in the Indonesian political structure, and are even celebrated as heroes by the country’s media.  The provocative hook of Oppenheimer’s film is that he has encouraged these criminals to recreate their atrocities in the style of the Hollywood movies that they love.  Even while attempting to portray themselves as heroes, the self-described “gangsters” inevitably end up exposing themselves as vicious thugs, and much of the film’s queasy fascination lies in the way that these recreations make some of these men become self-aware of their awfulness for seemingly the first time.  In the film’s unforgettable conclusion, one of these fearsome killers, having portrayed the role of a victim in one of the reenactments, is reduced to a pathetic dry-heaving shell that couldn’t be further from the macho action hero that he’s always imagined himself as.

A-   Excellent
2)  Amour (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 127 min.)
Acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke’s best film to date is an unblinkingly realistic look at the way that human bodies inevitably fall apart as they get closer to death.  In past films Haneke has exaggerated the cruelty of human beings (and/or the universe) in order to make stern points about our capacity for destruction, but here he seems mostly interested in testing the limits of an elderly couple’s lifelong love as they deal with extremely stressful circumstances.  French New Wave legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva believably portray the relationship, which makes their attempts to hold on to their dignity as the latter deals with a debilitating stroke all the more devastating.
3)  The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA, 179 min.)
The trailers for Martin Scorsese’s latest film promised an over-the-top, adrenaline-fueled black comedy about outrageous excess.  The actual movie somehow sustains the intensity of the preview footage for a full three hours, matching the pumped-up bravado of criminal stock salesman Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) with an epic series of outrageous, vividly staged scenes of unchecked bacchanalia.  Scorsese doesn’t shy away from reveling in the stockbrokers’ amoral behavior, but he slowly turns their unsustainably corrupt business model into a nightmare, climaxing in a darkly hilarious Quaalude freak-out that is a tour de force for both DiCaprio’s marvelously outsized performance and Scorsese’s kinetic filmmaking.
4)  Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 92 min.)
Despite the fact that it’s set in the early ‘80s, and was filmed (or, rather, taped) on primitive tube cameras, Computer Chess feels like the freshest movie of the year, the one that’s least indebted to the films of the past and most open to the wide range of possibilities of the medium.  The large ensemble cast (made up of a mix of professional actors and old-school computer experts) is gathered together for a computer chess tournament, but director Andrew Bujalski treats that basic premise like a science experiment, isolating certain participants and forcing them to mingle with a New Age group that is having a conference at the same hotel as the tournament, having others interact uncomfortably with the rare female presences at the tournament, and following one ornery computer programmer (Myles Paige) whose room reservation was lost as he has surreal experiences in the hotel’s hallways.  The “action” of the computer chess tournament is hilariously deadpan, but the film is equally interesting when the narrative incorporates conspiratorial and science-fiction elements, or when Bujalski indulges in odd experimental tangents that test the tube camera’s various settings. Bujalski had already established himself as a talented artist with films like Funny Ha Ha (2003) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), but Computer Chess represents a quantum leap in ambition.  It’s a truly singular experience.
5)  Beyond the Hills (Christian Mungiu, Romania, 150 min.) 
In a monastery so shut off from the modern world that automobiles stick out like UFOs, Voichita’s (Cosmina Stratan) quiet life of worship is disrupted by the arrival of lifelong friend (and apparent lover) Alina (Cristina Flutur).  Emotionally fragile and frustrated by her best friend’s new lifestyle, Alina embodies real-world problems that the facility’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta) can only think to deal with in one way – by performing an exorcism.  The resulting tragedy might have played out as a simple anti-religious screed, but writer-director Christian Mungiu is after something much more complicated:  a layered tableau of personal and institutional miscommunications in which forces secular and religious, political and personal, are constantly talking past each other.  Without once breaking the film’s verisimilitude, Mungiu crafts a succession of gorgeous shots in which characters are framed in ways that emphasize how distant they can be even when standing right next to each other.
6)  Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 157 min.)
The fact that Kathryn Bigelow’s intense docudrama about recent US foreign policy blunders has been attacked by both liberal and conservative commentators suggests that it has struck a genuine nerve.  Zero Dark Thirty posits that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was an extraordinary but ultimately fruitless labor that wasted countless man hours, resources, and lives to achieve something that did nothing to erase the pain brought about by the events of 9/11 – and nothing to resolve the ongoing tensions between the United States and the Middle East.  Socio-political commentary aside, this is simply the most intense obsession-themed procedural since Zodiac (2007), climaxing in an almost unbearably fraught depiction of the titular mission.

B+  Special
7)  Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK, 92 min.)
A British sound mixer (Toby Jones) slowly loses his mind while working on a sleazy Italian giallo in this slow-burning mind fuck.  Director Peter Strickland (who previously made 2009’s massively underappreciated Katalin Varga) turns the horror genre inside out, keeping his camera away from the apparently graphic footage of the film-within-a-film and on the sound crew as they overdub screams or chop heads of lettuce to suggest stabs.  This perspective, held for most of the film, is so unique that the surreal Grand Guignol finale seems almost disappointingly conventional by comparison. 
8)  Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA, 109 min.)
Beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise, writer-director Richard Linklater, writer-star Ethan Hawke, and writer-star Julie Delpy have been meeting once every nine years to tell the ongoing story of a couple’s evolving relationship.  Before Midnight finds the duo married with kids, but struggling with buried resentments that come to the surface during a trip to Greece.  The filmmakers’ attempts to broaden the series’ viewpoint by including other prominent speaking characters (such as the ones found in an early dinner scene) don’t always pay off, but Hawke and Delpy’s scenes together remain electrifyingly authentic, particularly during a climactic argument that would be devastating even for viewers who don’t have two decades of history with the characters.  Before Midnight isn’t as perfect as its masterful predecessors, but it’s still an essential piece in the greatest ongoing film series of our time.
9)  All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, USA, 106 min.)
Gravity received a great deal more press attention, but this starkly uncompromising film was the year’s most compelling tale of survival.  Robert Redford is the unnamed protagonist and sole cast member of All is Lost, and he spends the entire film simply trying to survive after his ship begins sinking the middle of the ocean.  There is no backstory for Redford’s character, nor are there any flashbacks or contrived plot points to add unnecessary bells and whistles to his thoroughly engrossing struggle.  Director J.C. Chandor shows such admirable commitment to his no-dialogue, all-action aesthetic that the few benign deviations from the film’s basic stylistic template (such as Alex Ebert’s mostly non-intrusive ambient score) seem weirdly out of place.

10)  Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, France/UK/USA, 87 min.)
Though ostensibly a documentary following the dangerous exploits of a deep-sea fishing vessel, Leviathan has less in common with Deadliest Catch than it does with Gaspar Noe’s insane experimental feature Enter the Void (2010).  The camera seems completely untethered to the laws of physics as it swoops wildly around the boat, sometimes dipping in and out of the water, sometimes capturing passing seagulls from impossible vantage points, and sometimes simply observing such bizarre sights as recently-caught skates being chopped in half by huge machetes.  The spell is periodically broken by comparably generic static shots of the ship’s laborers struggling through their day, but overall this is the most viscerally physical documentary of recent memory.
11)  Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Germany/Netherlands, 115 min.)
Admittedly impenetrable yet undeniably stunning, Carlos Reygadas’ fourth feature offered one of the best pure sensory experiences at cinemas this year.  Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), Post Tenebras Lux mixes an intensely personal family story with metaphysical flights of fancy, and once again the combination is as awkward as it is fascinating.  The film may ultimately be less than the sum of its parts, but many of those individual elements – a CGI devil stalking around a live action house during a storm; a bathhouse orgy that is somehow simultaneously sedate and intense; an impromptu rendition of a Neil Young song that is all the more haunting for being completely off-key; an abrupt self-decapitation - are as sublime and as beautifully filmed as anything in recent memory.  The lightning bolt edit between the first two scenes single-handedly justifies the Best Director award that Reygadas received for this film at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. 
12)  This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan, USA, 83 min.)
Many popular works of art claim to be about redemption, but This is Martin Bonner is the rare film that actually deals with that subject matter in an adult, realistic way.  The story revolves around the titular social worker’s (Paul Eenhoorn) attempts to help a repentant drunk driver (Richmond Arquette) readjust to society after a twelve-year stint in prison.  Bonner is dealing with his own crisis of faith, seemingly related to some unspecified family trauma, and his own distance from his loved ones mirrors the ex-con’s strained relationship with the daughter (Sam Buchanan) who grew into a different person during his prison stay.  This material could’ve easily turned into melodrama, but writer-director Chad Hartigan favors an understated, humane approach that is perfectly complimented by the subtle, lived-in performances of Eenhoorn and Arquette.  This is Martin Bonner isn’t particularly stylish – it could probably be just as easily enjoyed on a laptop screen as in a cinema – but the lack of flash is appropriate to the story.  The film isn’t small, it’s life sized. 
13)  House with a Turret (Eva Neymann, Ukraine, 81 min.)
Set in a Soviet Union ravaged by World War II, Eva Neyman’s depressive drama brings considerable weight to the story of a child (Dmitriy Kobetskoy) who is forced to travel to his distant grandmother’s house alone after his mother (Yekatarina Golubeva) dies of typhus mid-journey.   The film’s perpetual grayness is mitigated by its child’s-eye perspective, which provides some light surreal touches, as well as some marvelously deadpan humor.  Though they are working very much in a familiar “European art film” aesthetic, director Neyman and cinematographer Rimvydas Leipus are masters of creating haunting black and white imagery, seeming less like imitators of Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky than peers.
14)  Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 168 min.)
Laurence Anyways is the type of wildly impassioned project that has such a huge scope and takes so many risks that it constantly seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its ambitions.  24-year-old writer-director Xavier Dolan (already on his third feature film) isn’t always in full command of everything he’s trying to do, but it’s impossible not to admire the stylistic chances he takes in telling the decade-spanning story of a man (Melvil Poupaud) undergoing a gradual sex change, and the girlfriend (Suzanne Clement) who struggles with adapting to his shifting sexual identity.  Poupaud and Clement’s excellent performances keep the story grounded even as Dolan indulges his most flamboyant artistic whims, including a splendidly goofy sequence where the couple walks through a storm of raining sweaters. 

B  Very Good
15)  Drug War (Johnnie To, China, 107 min.)
You’ve heard the story before:  an undercover police officer (Sun Honglei) coerces a questionably trustworthy drug dealer (Louis Koo) into betraying his fellow cartel members as part of an undercover sting.  But while it has the look of a standard Hong Kong-style shoot-‘em-up, there’s nothing generic about Drug War, which finds prolific action specialist Johnnie To working in peak form as he wrings every ounce of bizarre humor and sly social commentary out of a stock plotline.  The epic shootout finale rivals Anchorman 2’s climactic gang battle for over-the-top insanity, and suggests that To may be the supreme action choreographer of his generation.
16)  The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK, 109 min.)
Most modern film comedies are lazily constructed, utilizing a “point the camera at the improvisers” aesthetic that tends to create scattershot results.  In this context, a smartly plotted, visually impressive film like The World’s End is a refreshing anomaly.  Considering that they’d already previously collaborated on Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), it’s clear that stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost enjoy working with director Edgar Wright, but they thankfully produce results that feel like real cinema rather than just a bunch of famous friends hanging out.  Pegg and Wright’s latest script follows a group of old friends as they reunite to take a twelve-pub tour that they’d previously attempted as young men.  The only problem, aside from the group’s exasperation with Pegg’s immature tour leader, is that their old home town has been overrun by a mysterious cabal of pod people intent on both “Starbucking” the formerly distinct area bars and turning the populace into conformist drones.  The script’s structure is ingenious, in that it requires the characters to get increasingly drunk as the film goes on, making their behavior funnier even as the dramatic stakes increase.
17)  Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Brazil, 133 min.)
Few films in recent memory have had as fully a developed understanding of their setting as writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s feature film debut.  Filho follows the various residents of a Brazilian condo complex as they go about their daily business, with an undercurrent of class resentment and paranoia giving their interactions a tinge of subtle menace.  A rash of car robberies brings a mysterious security firm to the neighborhood, but the film is less concerned with this thin strand of plot than with beautifully capturing the ways that a neighbor’s blasting music or barking dog can disrupt a person’s whole day.  The film’s refusal to follow narrative conventions is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand it always seems as if anything can happen, but on the other hand it’s a bit frustrating that the tensions never really come to a head, and only really result in a couple of creepy nightmare sequences and a climactic revelation about one character’s motives.  Still, this is one of the most promising debuts of the year, and I can’t wait to see what Filho does next.
18)  The Rabbi’s Cat (Antoine Delesvaux & Joann Sfar, France, 100 min.)
An Algerian cat gains the ability to speak after swallowing the family parrot, setting the tone for this delightfully offbeat fantasy, adapted from co-director Joann Sfar’s comic series.  The film’s basic premise, which finds the cat using its newfound ability to question its master’s religious beliefs, is intriguing enough, but much of the film’s charm comes from the way that the story branches off into a series of increasingly surreal digressions.  Sfar’s rambling narrative is a double-edged sword, as certain passages feel less fully realized than others, but the exotic hand-drawn animation keeps the film transfixing.
19)  Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA, 85 min.)
One of the year’s nicest surprises, this tale of an aspiring dancer (Greta Gerwig) struggling to find direction in her post-college life is refreshingly free of knee-jerk miserablism, which is all the more remarkable considering that it comes from discomfort specialist Noah Baumbach.  The forced awkwardness of past Baumbach films like Greenberg (2010) is replaced here by a vibrant French New Wave-inspired aesthetic that matches the caffeinated energy of its protagonist.  Where some of the director’s previous films seem perversely contrived to be as confrontationally unlikeable as possible, Frances Ha realistically and fully captures the frustrations and joys of its characters’ lives, not just the button-pushing parts. 
20)  12 O’Clock Boys (Lotfy Nathan, USA, 75 min.)
Director Lotfy Nathan’s feature film debut is one of the most beautifully filmed and edited documentaries in recent memory.  With crisp slow-motion footage and an energetic hip-hop soundtrack, Nathan captures the grace and recklessness of a loose collective of Baltimoreans who perform insane dirt bike and ATV stunts on crowded public streets.  The film doesn’t commit fully to the gorgeous impressionism of its extreme sports sequences – and the brief asides about tragic accidents that some of the riders have been involved in feel like token nods to social responsibility rather than serious looks at the negative ramifications of the crew’s illegal brand of extreme sports – but overall this is an exhilarating look at a singular phenomenon. 
21)  Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA, 134 min.)
In 2009, freighter captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) took his ship on a mission through the dangerous Gulf of Aden, unaware that desperate Somali pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) was embarking on a speedy skiff the same day.  Captain Phillips is the intense true story of their battle of wills, captured with an almost sickening sense of verisimilitude by ace action director Paul Greengrass.  The demands of the action film framework ultimately overwhelm the filmmakers’ admirable attempts to depict the pirates as fully fleshed-out people, despite the realistic work of Abdi and the other Somali non-professionals in the cast. But Hanks’s vanity-free lead performance is a powerful corrective to the type of inhumanly stoic work that actors like Russell Crowe and Harrison Ford typically bring to this type of role, climaxing in an overwhelmingly emotional breakdown that feels like a reasonable response to the film’s events rather than fodder for an Oscar clip.
22)  Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, USA, 94 min.)
The year’s most confounding film takes the trashy aesthetic of MTV’s Spring Break coverage and haphazardly rearranges its tropes so that they become alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) pornographic, comedic, and horrific.  At times Korine’s refusal (or inability) to make a clear point with all of this provocation is frustrating – especially when the film periodically leans toward cautionary hysteria - but this is undeniably one of the most visually and aurally unique films of the year.  For some of the most purely audacious filmmaking of recent memory, check out the inventive staging of a restaurant stickup viewed entirely from the perspective of a creeping getaway car, or the way that a sensationally violent montage is timed to flow perfectly with a corny Britney Spears ballad.  James Franco’s deranged, semi-improvised performance as sleazy rapper Alien sums the film’s odd tone up nicely: he’s somehow simultaneously funny, seductive, menacing, and stupid.
23)  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 96 min.)
The plot of David Lowery’s moody folk tale feels both familiar and timeless:  there’s an outlaw (Casey Affleck), his faithful but distant lover (Rooney Mara), a kindly sheriff (Ben Foster) who takes an interest in the outlaw’s lover, and a wise old man (Keith Carradine) who knows that trouble is coming.  But while the film’s aesthetic is derivative of past classics like Badlands (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974), it’s hard to complain when the old tropes are presented in such a beautiful package.  Cinematographer Bradford Young’s shot compositions are so rich and iconic that the poetic dialogue feels like a nice bonus rather than a necessity.
24)  Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada, 108 min.)
Sarah Polley’s recounting of her family tree has more surprising plot twists and colorful characters than most of this year’s fictional films.  Too much of the latter part of the film is devoted to generalizations about the untrustworthiness of subjective memory, but Polley’s specific story is fascinating and gripping, and makes for one of the most purely entertaining documentaries of recent memory.
25)  No (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 118 min.)
In 1988, after fifteen years under military dictatorship, the people of Chile were asked to vote on whether Augusto Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years or whether there should be a democratic election.  No tells the true story of Pinochet’s opposition’s attempt to bring the public to their side through a televised ad campaign lead by a slick commercial veteran (Gael Garcia Bernal).  The film derives a lot of humor from simply re-airing a number of the actual ads, which utilized cheesy soda commercial techniques to make political activism seem fun and non-threatening.  But director Pablo Larrain, who also documented the repression of the Pinochet era in his underrated and intense 2008 drama Tony Manero, never lets viewers forget the very real danger that faced Chileans challenging the dictator’s authority, and his recreations of government crackdowns feel queasily realistic.
26)  American Hustle (David O. Russell, USA, 138 min.)
A real-life FBI investigation from the late ‘70s is turned into a broad, affectionate Scorsese parody in David O. Russell’s entertaining farce.  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence are clearly having the time of their lives in campy, scenery-chewing roles, and the fun is infectious.
27)  Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada, Japan, 117 min.)
Mamoru Hosada’s fantastical anime is a multi-layered coming of age story about a woman tasked with raising two wolf/human hybrids on her own after her shape-shifting lover is killed during a hunt.  The animation is fairly generic (though pretty), but the patient unfolding of the story is a nice alternative to the manic pacing of most children’s films, and the ways that the narrative’s events cause the children to either embrace or reject their lycanthropic heritage are surprising and touching. 
28)  You’re Next (Adam Wingard, USA, 94 min.)
Adam Wingard’s taut thriller doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the home invasion subgenre of horror films, but it does make every other film of its type seem weaker by comparison.  Anyone who’s seen The Strangers (2008) will instantly recognize the woods-surrounded house that provides the film’s setting, and the masked killers who serve as the antagonists.  Less familiar is the unusually well-constructed and witty script, which makes room for well-rounded characters, clever twists, and (most refreshingly for the genre) villains who are neither omniscient nor knife-proof.
29)  Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, UK, 98 min.)
Ben Wheatley’s third feature lacks the daring tonal shifts of his impressive previous efforts Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), but still features the careful attention to character and the stylistic swagger that set the director apart from the pack of young horror filmmakers.  This horror-romantic comedy hybrid follows a young couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, both hilarious) on an initially peaceful RV road trip that turns violent whenever they perceive that other tourists are slighting them.  The concept (a romantic comedy where the couple is made up of complete sociopaths) is fairly one-note, but it’s a note that Wheatley and his stars play exceptionally well. 
30)  In the House (Francois Ozon, France, 105 min.)
Having not been impressed by Swimming Pool (2003), the only other film I’ve seen by writer-director Francois Ozon, I had fairly low expectations for his latest meta commentary on the nature of storytelling, revolving around a teacher (Fabrice Luchini) who is increasingly sucked into the ongoing narrative of the writing assignments of his most mysterious student (Vincent Schmitt).  Fortunately the script (adapted from a play by Juan Mayorga) is as witty as it is clever, and Luchini is hilarious as the comfortably bourgeois teacher with frustrated artistic ambitions.  For a film that is commenting on the tropes of erotic thrillers, the film never becomes particularly sexy or suspenseful, but the light comic tone assures that it never suffers from the heavy handed pretensions that brought down Swimming Pool
31)  This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Germany, 118 min.)
Unfairly dismissed by many at its Cannes premiere as a mere piece of camp, Paolo Sorrentino’s road movie has a lot more going for it than its goofy premise initially suggests.  Yes, this is the movie where Sean Penn stars as a reclusive Robert Smith-style New Wave icon who travels across the United States to find the Nazi war criminal that tormented his father during World War II, and that is an undeniably unwieldy storyline that never fully comes together.  But the individual scenes – encompassing everything from an impromptu but highly competitive ping pong game to a beautiful live performance of the Talking Heads classic that gives the film its title - are all so inventively and passionately staged that the bigger picture seems almost beside the point.  Penn’s impressive commitment to his larger than life character holds the film together even as it consistently, and excitingly, dares to fly off the rails.
32)  Anchorman 2:  The Legend Continues (Adam McKay, USA, 119 min.)
A lot of the appeal of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s justly beloved Anchorman (2004) has to do with how shockingly bizarre its humor is.  Much of the surprise is inevitably lost in this belated sequel, which at times feels like a pale imitation of the original despite still being wildly Dadaistic by mainstream comedy standards.  But let’s not get too intellectual – this is still hands-down the most laugh-out loud funny movie of the year, and even the scenes that feel like minor variations on popular moments from the first film reliably feature at least one hilarious joke.
33)  12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA, 134 min.)
This slavery drama is somewhat awkwardly perched between its tear-jerking, prestige film ambitions and director Steve McQueen’s cold, distant aesthetic, but the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is so undeniably powerful that the artistic flaws in its telling seem almost beside the point.  During the moments when McQueen’s style does connect with the subject matter – as in a dispassionate tracking shot through a slave auction, and a brutally extended quasi-lynching – the film becomes truly overwhelming.
34)  Not Fade Away (David Chase, USA, 112 min.)
The radical social changes of the ‘60s are such well-trod dramatic territory that even a talent as singular as Sopranos creator David Chase can’t make it feel entirely fresh.  Still, the perspective of Not Fade Away, which is based around events from Chase’s youth, is specific enough to make up for the familiarity of tropes like the working-class father (James Gandolfini) who doesn’t understand his son’s (John Magano) new long haircut.  Chase’s elliptical narrative style and careful attention to period detail prevent the film from feeling like a costume party, as so many other movies set during the same era do, and nearly every scene is inventively staged and edited even when its content seems like it should feel rote.
35)  The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 140 min.)
Writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s crime saga is so ambitious that each of its three acts is practically its own distinct film.  The structure is fascinating but flawed, as each segment is a little less interesting than the last.  Ryan Gosling stars in the first act as a motorcycle stuntman who turns to bank robbery, a scenario that allows for both atmospheric romantic brooding and a visceral climactic car chase.  The second segment follows a cop (Bradley Cooper in a rare understated performance) seeking to bring down corruption in his precinct, a scenario that is intriguingly complicated by an unjust shooting that he is involved in.  The sons of the cop and the bank robber become the protagonists in the third and most problematic act, which labors too hard to create drama out of unconvincing generational connections.  While there is the sense overall that the film’s tricky structure might have worked better in the form of a novel or a TV series, Cianfrance’s sheer ambition is an achievement in and of itself, and there was nothing else quite like this movie this year.
36)  Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, USA, 130 min.)
After a bland-but-efficient first installment and a disastrous mess of a second film, there was little reason to expect the third film in the hugely popular Iron Man series to be as much fun as it turned out to be.  Following an explosive attack on his ocean-side mansion, Tony Starks (Robert Downey Jr.) is forced to spend a large chunk of the film without his superhero suit, and the shift in focus from generic action pyrotechnics to basic human storytelling simultaneously increases the dramatic stakes and provides more opportunities to enjoy the lead character’s acerbic wit.  It helps that co-writer/director Shane Black has taken the reigns from Jon Favreau, injecting some actual personality into the Marvel Films house style.  When the action does come, as in a thrilling mid-air rescue sequence, it illuminates Starks’ character arc as well as providing visceral excitement.  In all, this is the best of the Marvel films to date, superior even to The Avengers (2012).
37)  The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, USA, 146 min.)
Who would’ve guessed, after last year’s awkwardly visualized first installment, that the Hunger Games series’ second chapter would be one of the most genuinely exciting action blockbusters of recent memory?  With the introduction of a mysterious government official (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a new competition involving a large number of past Hunger Games tournament winners, the narrative is more knotty than ever, but the film jumps directly into action with a welcome minimum of audience handholding.  Though the allegory is still a bit of a mess, the island setting is much more richly cinematic than the first film’s dull CGI wasteland, and director Francis Lawrence gives the action sequences a genuine sense of suspense.
38)  The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Ireland, 136 min.)
39)  Enzo Avitabile Music Life (Jonathan Demme, Italy, 80 min.)

B-  Good but flawed or insubstantial
40)  Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 115 min.)
Leos Carax’s first feature film since 1999’s Pola X boasts enough ideas to suggest that he’d been working on it for the entire interim.  Unfortunately not all of the concepts are equally well developed, and the hit-or-miss nature of the entire enterprise makes Holy Motors feel like the art film equivalent of a sketch comedy movie.  The connecting structure of the film, which finds an enigmatic man (Denis Lavant) attending a series of different appointments in which he transforms into different characters, is intriguing, but only a few of his roles live up to their promise.  For example, a brief sequence in which the protagonist appears as an elderly beggar seems to exist solely to provide a stark contrast to the following, much more interesting appointment in which he performs a variety of acrobatic stunts while wearing a motion-capture suit.  Though the overall results are a bit scattershot, the film does find some consistency in its gorgeous cinematography and in Lavant’s marvelously physical performance(s).
41)  To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA, 112 min.)
With its mix of working-class family drama and vague New Age spirituality, To the Wonder feels like an epilogue to Terrence Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life (2011).  Individual moments demonstrate Malick’s continuing stylistic majesty – a lengthy montage in which Ben Affleck’s protagonist has a dalliance with Rachel McAdams’ character is as bewitching a combination of sound and vision as the cinema has ever produced – but after a while the many scenes of people frolicking idyllically begin to resemble perfume commercials, and the film’s religious content (represented by Javier Bardem’s conflicted priest) seems imported from another movie.  Any film with this amount of sublime Emmanuel Lubezski widescreen shot compositions is ultimately a must-see, but here’s hoping that Malick shifts his focus a bit in his next project.
42)  Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi & Kamboziya Partovi, Iran, 106 min.)
In 2010, the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to a 20-year ban on filmmaking due to the subversive political content of his films.  Closed Curtain is the second movie that Panahi has made in secret and had smuggled out of the country since then.  It begins as a compelling allegory for Panahi’s current life situation, with a writer (played by co-director Kamboziya Partovi) boarding himself up in his house so that the authorities won’t become aware of his dog’s existence (the animals are considered unclean under Islamic rule).  The sudden arrival of two mysterious people seeking shelter from the law brings exactly the type of attention that the writer was hoping to avoid.  This opening half of the film is exciting and tense, featuring brilliant use of offscreen sound as unseen assailants storm around outside the writer’s house.  Unfortunately, when Panahi himself takes over as the protagonist in the second half of the film (as if the allegory wasn’t already clear enough), the film turns into a clumsily symbolic retread of material from 2011’s far superior This is Not a Film.  Panahi’s focus on his current predicament is understandable, but hopefully he’ll find a way to make a film about any other subject next time rather than continuing to cover the same ground. 
43)  Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA, 102 min.)
Though it’s hardly Stanley Kubrick’s most cryptic film, The Shining (1980) has inspired an enormous amount of fan speculation about its subtext.  Several of those theories are explored in this entertaining documentary, which finds a number of unseen narrators explaining their theses while illustrative clips from the film play.  Frustratingly, director Rodney Ascher doesn’t really challenge any of the narrators’ ideas, giving equal weight to illuminating discussion of Kubrick’s subtle disorientation techniques and far-fetched conspiracy theories that insist that the film was Kubrick’s  elaborate apology for faking the U.S. moon landing.  Still, the documentary is never less than entertaining, and its most trippy section (in which one of the narrators simultaneously projects the film forwards and backwards, creating weird symmetries) is mesmerizing.
44)  Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 105 min.)
Some of the Coen Brothers’ films suffer from a scattered attention span, but Inside Llweyn Davis is a little too focused for its own good.  The film never leaves the side of the titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac), who can’t seem to catch a break in his personal or professional life since the death of his former musical partner.  The Coens accurately capture the feeling of being stuck in an endless loop of frustration and self-hatred, but since Davis pointedly ends up in the same place that he started the film in, there is no sense of dramatic progression.  Gorgeous cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and a meticulous attention to period detail keep the film modestly engaging, but it only really jumps to life with an extended cameo by John Goodman as an ornery jazz musician, and during a recording of goofy novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” both of which seem imported from a more lively Coens film.
45)  Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, France/Thailand/USA, 89 min.)
Only God Forgives is action specialist Nicolas Winding Refn’s equivalent to Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2010), in that it pushes all the best and worst aspects of its director’s aesthetic to their logical conclusion, resulting in a film that is equally masterful and idiotic at all times.  To find such consistently bold and expressive use of color you’d have to look back to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), or perhaps the Powell & Pressburger masterpieces of the ‘40s.  To find such consistently repellent subject matter and such moronic Oedipal themes you can refer to the lesser films of Oliver Stone.  In any case, this is not a boring film, and you have to admire Refn’s willingness to push every aspect of it to its ultimate extreme, even when it (frequently) makes everything onscreen seem completely ludicrous.  On a story and thematic level this may be the dumbest movie of the year, but as a pure sensory experience it has few rivals.
46)  The Counselor (Ridley Scott, USA, 117 min.)
The critical whiplash surrounding The Counselor (with a handful of commenters racing to its defense after some early reviews declared it to be an unmitigated disaster) is in some ways as interesting as the film itself.  Really the film, taken from novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay, is neither great nor terrible, but its stubborn refusal to satisfy crime narrative expectations is perversely fun, as if someone had somehow made a film entirely out of variations on the grave anti-climax of No Country for Old Men (2007).  The skeletal plot concerns Michael Fassbender’s lawyer, who immediately gets in over his head when he agrees to participate in some unspecified corruption involving a violent drug cartel, but the movie really exists so that a cast of superstars can deliver McCarthy’s rambling philosophical monologues.  Some of the performers handle the script’s mannered non sequiturs better than others – Brad Pitt is hilarious as a world-weary consultant who is constantly exasperated by Fassbender’s gullibility, while Cameron Diaz is fatally miscast as an icy femme fatale – but the film is certainly never boring, and its weirdness forces Ridley Scott out of the middlebrow funk that he’s been in for over a decade.  At any rate, The Counselor is no more pretentious, and far more entertaining, than Prometheus (2012).
47)  The Comedy (Rick Alverson, USA, 94 min.)
Tim Heidecker proves that he can believably play a serious role in this uncomfortably intimate character study, which, despite its title, is a bleak look at the limitations of ironic detachment.  At times the film strains credulity in order to pile on button-pushing misery – a scene where the protagonist blankly stares on as a sexual conquest has a seizure doesn’t seem enough like recognizable human behavior to be as disturbing as it’s presumably meant to be – but Heidecker’s uncompromisingly brutal portrayal of hostile misanthropy makes this a must-see. 
48)  Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, USA, 85 min.)
The real life police shooting of Oscar Grant III, which was captured on a cellphone camera, is unquestionably a tragedy, which makes writer-director Ryan Coogler’s attempts to valorize his protagonist by turning him into a hero all the more unnecessary and manipulative.  In imagining the hours leading up to the shooting, Coogler depicts Grant (Michael B. Jordan) throwing away the drugs he was going to sell and cradling a dog killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Fortunately Jordan, a veteran of The Wire, resists the script’s attempts to turn Grant into a simplistic hero and brings a mixture of volatility and vulnerability to the role, turning a potentially cloying film into a frequently powerful experience.
49)  Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA, 115 min.)
In a Midwest farm country so barren that it could only be presented in black and white, an elderly drunk (Bruce Dern) attempts to travel by foot to Lincoln to claim a publisher’s clearinghouse “prize.”  Half senile and bruised by the failures of his past, the old man has enough sentiment left to allow his son (Will Forte) to join him on his misguided quest.  The late-blooming father and son bonding session might have proven cloying in the wrong hands, but Dern and Forte (in a rare semi-dramatic role) underplay the relationship effectively, never going for easy tear-jerking moments.  Whenever the film threatens to get too maudlin or crowd-pleasing, the exceptional cast (which also includes June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach) gets things back on track.
50)  Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, France, 122 min.)
Though this early-‘70s period piece is reportedly based on events from director Olivier Assayas’ youth, its narrative suffers from the same stasis as his previous film, Carlos (2010); it is clear, literally from the first shot, that Assayas thinks that his student activist protagonists are poseurs.  Assayas may be in a rut as a storyteller, but thankfully he remains one of the most expressive and energetic stylists alive.  The fetishistic attention to specific “revolutionary” tchotchkes and fashions of the ‘70s keeps the film engaging even as Assayas seems to insist that we not invest in his characters. 
51)  Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, Spain, 104 min.)
Pablo Berger’s silent, bullfighting-themed variation on Snow White won Best Film at the most recent Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars), but, like The Artist (2011), it never really transcends its gimmicky origins as an homage to silent cinema.  The gorgeous cinematography and scenery are enough to keep the film largely diverting.
52)  From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, Japan, 91 min.)
53)  Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 131 min.)
54)  Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, USA, 132 min.)

C+  Decent
55)  The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 108 min.)
Wong Kar-wai may be the most passionately stylish director working in cinema today, but you wouldn’t know it from the Weinstein Brothers’ edit of Wong’s latest.  The awkward pacing and ridiculously truncated story make the severe compromises obvious even to those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see Wong’s international edit (which is 22 minutes longer, features far fewer explanatory intertitles, and shows many of the scenes in a different order).  Still, the Weinsteins’ butcher job can’t entirely disguise Wong’s artistry.  This is the rare martial arts film that focuses on the formal beauty of its fighters rather than the carnage, and the way that Wong playfully zooms in on and slows down the thrusting fists and flying feet is both unique and poetic.  Given his track record, Wong presumably brought a similar elegance to this film’s structure, but U.S. audiences may never know for sure.
56)  Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA, 91 min.)
Gravity was being hailed as a modern classic by many critics before it was even released, but it ultimately comes across more as a glorified tech demo than a compelling movie.  The film is undeniably a major special effects achievement, featuring the most sophisticated use of digital 3D to date, with ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki working seamlessly with a large computer graphics team to create a truly convincing depiction of space.  If only the distracting narrative, built around a cheesy backstory for an astronaut played by Sandra Bullock (in a typically muggy performance), didn’t get in the way of the potentially gripping stranded in space scenario.
57)  This is the End (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, USA, 107 min.)
Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic Hollywood satire is endearingly personal and quirky for a mainstream comedy, but it pales in comparison to the similarly themed, and much more tightly constructed, The World’s End.  The loose, improvisational vibe occasionally pays real dividends, as in a hilarious ejaculate-based argument between James Franco and Danny McBride (playing exaggerated versions of themselves), and the supernatural scenario gives the filmmakers license to get into some fairly unusual territory.  But Goldberg and Rogen, stepping behind the camera for the first time, display very little visual talent, and overindulge their superstar cast, making this feel like a film that was more fun to make than it is to watch.
58)  Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, USA, 109 min.)
Joss Whedon & co’s modern-dress adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies is almost literally a home movie, filmed at Whedon’s household during a hiatus from filming The Avengers (2012).  It’s clear that the Whedon regulars are having fun, and Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are charming as the central couple, but there is really no compelling reason for this umpteenth version of the story to exist.  It feels more like an extended DVD bonus than a theatrical feature.
59)  Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, USA, 143 min.)
Despite all of the (largely deserved) flak that Zack Snyder receives for brazenly appealing to the lowest common denominator of mainstream nerd fantasies, he has an undeniable talent for creating instantly iconic shot compositions, a skill that serves him well in telling a Superman story.  But while Man of Steel is one of the more visually spectacular action films of the year, it still suffers from the bloated running time and overly convoluted mythology building endemic to so much modern blockbuster filmmaking. 
60)  The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 161 min.)
61)  The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, USA, 113 min.)
62)  A Band Called Death (Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett, USA, 96 min.)
63)  The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker, USA, 108 min.)
64)  War Witch (Kim Nguyen, Canada, 90 min.)

65)  Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA, 96 min.)
The quality of surreal, dreamlike films is even more subjective than the quality of most art; you either get hypnotized by them or you don’t.  Having been mightily impressed by Shane Carruth’s previous film, Primer (2004), I was prepared to follow him pretty far down the rabbit hole on Upstream Color, but I have to admit that I couldn’t really get on the film’s inscrutable wavelength.  This could be because of my preference for the long-take, creeping dread of something like Mulholland Drive (2001) over the Nicolas Roeg-style non-stop fragmented editing Carruth employs here, or it could be because the obscure plot (having something to do with a mad scientist using a virus that infects the memories of its protagonists) seems less like a compelling mystery than a somewhat clich├ęd sci-fi story told from an odd angle.  Carruth certainly deserves credit for his industriousness – he wrote, directed, scored, co-edited, starred in, and even helped operate the camera on this film, and made a slick looking product on a shoestring budget.  I just wish that he had used his undeniable talent on something more compelling than footage of pigs milling around, or his lead characters arguing about which of their memories are real.  Aside from one mesmerizing scene in which the wormlike virus makes its way through the female lead’s (Amy Seimetz) body, the film is largely tedious. 
66)  The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, USA, 101 min.)
Rob Zombie is perhaps the most talented director working today to have never made a wholly successful film, and he continues to get in his own way with this occult-themed head-trip.  Sherri Moon Zombie stars as a disc jockey whose mind begins to unravel after she receives a mysterious recording containing subliminal satanic messages.  The film becomes increasingly surreal as the heroine’s mind continues to unravel, and Zombie (along with cinematographer Brandon Trost) gets plenty of chances to display his undeniable skill for creating fucked-up imagery.  The trouble is that Zombie can’t seem to distinguish his good ideas from his dreadful ones.  In the film’s insane Grand Guignol climax a genuinely menacing shot of a slowly approaching satanic processing is followed by an unintentionally hilarious shot of a Marilyn Manson type dry-humping the protagonist while wagging his tongue at the camera.  The contrast between the serious horror of the first shot and the unintentional humor of its follow-up sadly sums up Zombie's career as a filmmaker to date.
67)  Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, USA, 113 min.)
68)  Texas Chainsaw 3D (John Luessenhop, USA, 92 min.)
69)  Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, USA, 91 min.)
70)  Free the Mind (Phie Ambo, Denmark/Finland, 80 min.)
71)  Bound by Flesh (Leslie Zemeckis, USA, 95 min.)

C-  Below Average
72)  Reality (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 116 min.)
I was not as blown away by Matteo Garrone’s breakthrough film Gomorrah (2008) as most critics were, so I was looking forward to this goofy farce simply as a radical change of pace.  But while Gomorrah may have been too didactic for its own good, its single-mindedness at least gave it a certain forceful vitality that is completely missing from this slackly paced follow-up.  A fishmonger (Aniello Arena) becomes obsessed with appearing on a popular reality show, to the point that he ultimately gives away all of his possessions.   Despite the too-obvious satirical target of reality TV, this story might have worked had Garrone consistently amped up the lunacy to match his protagonist’s story arc, but stylistically the film works backwards, beginning with a party scene that suggests Fellini-esque carnival extravagance and then slowly settling into a dully respectable tonal register that just doesn’t work for comedy. 
73)  Hara-Kiri:  Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike, Japan, 126 min.)
Takashi Miike’s samurai remake copies many of the elements of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece Harakiri verbatim, but misses the touches that make the original so distinctive.  Ebizo Ichikawa’s wooden lead performance is no match for the grim reaper presence of Tatsuya Nakadai in the original film, and the generic string section score of Ryuichi Sakamoto is unmemorable compared to the original’s strikingly abrasive use of koto and woodblock.  Worst of all, the remake spends nearly half of its running time on an extended flashback that completely kills the story’s momentum, whereas the original ingeniously parceled out the backstory to build tension in the main plot. 

D+  Bad
74)  Bullet to the Head (Walter Hill, USA, 92 min.)

75)  The Rambler (Calvin Lee Reeder, USA, 97 min.)
This tale of a stoic drifter (Dermot Mulroney) attempting to reconnect with his family after a stint in prison aspires to be the ultimate midnight movie, combining the splatter humor of Evil Dead II (1987) with the nightmarish surrealism of David Lynch and the outrageous sleaze of a Troma production.  Unfortunately all of director Calvin Lee Reeder’s effects seem borrowed from better films, and the incompatible influences ultimately cancel each other out, making this just another pre-fabricated grindhouse wannabe cult item.  A scene where a succubus vomits on the shackled hero sums the film up nicely:  rather than seeming funny or scary or even particularly weird, it is merely gross.

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