Monday, January 6, 2014

My Favorite Movies and Albums of 2013

Every January I share my list of favorite movies from the previous year, so I thought I would begin my postings in this new forum with my list for 2013, and from there move forward to a new year of new movies. Below is a list of what I consider to be the 25 best movies of 2013, and it represents about a third of the movies I saw. I usually rate my movies on Flixster after I see them to remember my initial impression of it, but unfortunately the movies from the first 8 months of the year erased, so I had to rely on my memory of them and compare them to my more recent memories, which was a bit difficult. Any of these 25 could have been in the top ten for one reason or another, but I put in my top ten the ones I was most impressed and most satisfied by, all for different reasons. I am fully aware that about half of my top ten will not even be considered among the best movies of the year by award shows and critics, but I'm not really interested in anyone else's opinion on what I should or shouldn't like after I already saw it. Without giving a long review of my top ten, I will just briefly say why I included each above others and offer a few comments.

1. Gravity

I was privileged to view a pre-screening of this film, about 5 weeks before its release, and I even wrote a little about it on Mystagogy to encourage others to see it as well. Not only was it beautiful visually, but it is also one of the best movies in 3-D I have seen. Only two actors appear in the entire film, both of which were excellently portrayed, but this also added to the intensity of the danger and lonely claustrophobia of outer space as portrayed in the film. The great cinematography and direction of the film made it feel as if you were a character in the film as a viewer, and this is what made this movie more of an experience than a viewing.

2. A Hijacking

While Captain Phillips was a very good movie about a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, in my opinion the best movie this year on the same subject was A Hijacking. Technically this is a 2012 Danish film, but it wasn't released until 2013 in the United States, which is why I feel like I can include it here. Though this movie does not have the big budget of Captain Phillips, its intensity, realism and acting are far superior and it avoids action movie cliches.

3. Mud

This is another 2012 film, but it wasn't released until April of 2013. In the past few years there have been a series of excellent coming of age drama films, and this is certainly one of the best, enhanced by the fact that it was inspired by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Matthew McConaughey gave my favorite acting performance of the year in this movie, but he was later replaced by himself for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. What I especially liked about this movie was the juxtaposition of teenage and adult love portrayed by the two lead characters, in a heartwarming yet non-sappy way.

4. Before Midnight

A romantic drama film and the sequel to Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight takes place another nine years later and finds the romantic leads Celine and Jesse this time in Greece and married with children. Not only does it take place in a beautiful setting, which is actually near where my mother grew up, but like the other two movies it has compelling dialogue that leads the relationship from one phase in the beginning to another phase by the end. In this film the honeymoon phase is clearly over, and you feel like this love story that has taken 18 years to develop and which audiences have been invested in is finally coming to a tragic and frustrated end. All these factors together with the superb performances and chemistry of the two leads make this a great film.

5. Pacific Rim

The fact that the end credits show writer and director Guillermo del Toro dedicate this movie to Ray Harryhausen and Ishirō Honda, says something of the influence behind this epic film, the visuals of which were stunning from beginning to end. Though it may not have much substance to it, its beauty and sophistication is unique and action sequences masterful. If nothing but for the sense of awe this film evokes, like Francisco Goya's The Colossus, it certainly deserves a place in my top ten films.

6. The Conjuring

As one who has visited most of the supposed paranormal hot spots in New England, the private residence in Rhode Island depicted in this film somehow alluded me. I later found out that the reason for this is because the family is still suffering from the effects of what took place when they lived there over a ten year period in the 1970's, and have only recently come out about it at the prompting of Lorraine Warren, who played a role in the actual events. Andrea Perron, the eldest daughter, decided to write three books about her experiences in this house, and before and after the release of the movie she went out on a speaking tour talking about her experience. I've read the first book so far and saw her speak at a local college outside of Boston, and the story is quite fascinating. However, this movie is not based on her account, but rather on the accounts of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were authorized demonologists of the Catholic Church and wrote several books of their various experiences as paranormal investigators. Ed's dying wish to his wife was that a movie be made based on their experience in this Rhode Island house, because he considered it the most compelling case they worked on. I have read a few of their books and have a certain respect for their work, and I have long desired to visit their Occult Museum in Connecticut, though sometimes they could be a bit over the top, and most are probably familiar with them through the story of the Amityville Horror. Though Andrea Perron speaks positively of the film and says that it doesn't even come close to the horrors experienced in the house, she also says that it is embellished a bit to make the Warrens seem more heroic than they were. In fact, she says it was the Warrens who brought the demon into the home through a seance they conducted. I can say a lot about this movie and the actual events, but the compelling background elevates the status of this movie. Besides this, however, it is one of the scariest horror movies I've seen in a while, and it is done well. I saw this movie three times and each time I got something new out of it.

7. Blue is the Warmest Color

There are about a handful of movies I have seen that I categorize as being unrecommendable, mainly because they depict such extremes in either violence or sexuality, sometimes both, that you don't know how someone will respond to it; nonetheless, they are so good that you have to give them their due. One such film is the French movie Blue is the Warmest Color. This is another coming of age film, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. It is the first film to have the Palme d'Or awarded to both the director and the lead actresses. Adèle Exarchopoulos gives, in my opinion, the best female acting performance of the year in this film, who is pretty much in every scene of this 3 hour and 10 minute movie, which is mostly shot with close ups of her face to get every reaction and emotion. The critical consensus of Rotten Tomatoes says it best: "Raw, honest, powerfully acted, and deliciously intense, Blue Is the Warmest Color offers some of modern cinema's most elegantly composed, emotionally absorbing drama." For those offended by graphic nudity and intense sexuality, you may want to skip this one, or at least get an edited version. There is a lot of it, including a nine minute lesbian sex scene that is more on the pornographic side, and at the screening I attended it got uncomfortable to the point where there were a lot of giggles and a few walk-outs. Apparently the director wanted to capture such realism and passion in these scenes that he basically broke his actresses down to get the right shots, to the point that both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have since stated that they would never work with this director again.

8. This is the End

I'll be the first to admit this film is not great in elegance, but it was the funniest movie of the year and if the viewer looks beyond the surface of the crude humor, it actually has some depth that took me a few viewings to really get down in detail. There is actually an important moral to this story that I found to be quite strong for a comedy of this sort. Ultimately it is a mockery of Hollywood based on popular rapture theology, where judgment comes to self-centered Hollywood and by the end there is a message of redemption based on the Bible and the Book of Revelation. It's far from Orthodox, but it is interesting. One of my favorite parts in the movie is when they realize that the Bible is true, and if the Bible is true then there must be a God, and that this God is a Trinity, and then they try to understand the Holy Trinity. This movie is not for the easily offended, but it was one of my favorite movies of the year.

9. Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey gave the best male acting performance of the year in this film in which he plays Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 lived such a hedonistic lifestyle that he was diagnosed with H.I.V. and given 30 days to live, though refused to die and smuggled in illegal drugs to help him and others live longer. The power of this film is in the acting and how it examines the character and development Ron Woodroof.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street

I have found people to be divided on this movie, either loving it or hating it. People hate it because they think it is way over the top and unsympathetic to the victims of the real life scams this movie depicts. For me, I try not to moralize movies too much, but rather allow a filmmaker to offer a perspective that may not be agreeable, since this is usually how reality is anyway. Plus, by portraying it this way, I think it more harshly damns the scam artists. Having worked in sales for some years myself, this movie actually brought back a lot of memories for me, since I have worked for a few companies that bore similarities to the companies in the film, and worked with people like those portrayed, though they were not nearly as successful. So even if the movie is a bit dramatized, like all movies are, I don't think it's as over the top as critics would like to think it is. It is often unpleasant to watch, but this seems to be the reaction that is aimed at. The film closely follows the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, whom Leonardo DiCaprio portrays in a way that brought him out of his box since the days of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, so the movie is very up front on the source of the material. And if you hear Jordan Belfort speak today, he often speaks against his past behavior and now travels the world teaching people how to become rich the legal way through effective sales strategies. And having heard him speak a few times through videos online, I can see why he was as successful as he was. It was a great film with great performances all around, but I also include it here because it personally resonated with me and my experiences.

11. Beyond the Hills

12. American Hustle

13. 12 Years A Slave

14. Blue Jasmine

15. Star Trek Into Darkness

16. Her

17. Inside Llewyn Davis

18. Captain Phillips

19. The Place Beyond the Pines

20. Iron Man 3

21. Frances Ha

22. Nebraska 

23. The Iceman

24. Philomena

25. Fruitvale Station

If I were to recommend a list of 15 movies that are more palatable for Christian tastes, and have more apparent cases of virtuous representation, or at least contain a message Christians can learn from or cause them to think deeper on, these are the movies I would recommend in the order of which I would find most beneficial. For some of these you may have to look beyond the surface of the film.

1. The Book Thief - Explores innocence in the backdrop of a cruel environment.

2. 12 Years A Slave - Explores patient endurance and hope in the backdrop of a cruel environment.

3. Saving Mr. Banks - Explores the child within.

4. Mandela - Explores the power of forgiveness and how a leader can be a role model for good if the passions can be restrained.

5. Philomena - Explores the power of forgiveness for one's own personal healing and as a unique Christian virtue.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis - Explores how selfish ambition can bring hurt, yet when this hurt is returned with kindness and opportunity it has the power to transform.

7. The Conjuring - Explores what the the following quote from Ed Warren at the beginning of the movie says: "Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow."

8. This is the End - Explores the polarity between selfishness and selflessness.

9. Beyond the Hills - Explores how fear and superstition can bring harm in a Christian environment.

10. Gravity - Explores human perseverance, the fragility of existence, and the awesomeness of creation.

11. What Maisie Knew - Explores the affect divorce and irresponsible parenthood can have on a child.

12. Short Term 12 - Explores how teachers can be an inspiration and positive influence.

13. Temptation - Explores the ugliness and hurt behind infidelity and divorce.

14. The East - Explores the cult mentality and how anger fuels extremes.

15. Dallas Buyers Club - Explores the evolution of a character in the midst of suffering and being around others who suffer.

Below is a list of all the documentaries I saw that were released this year. All of them are very good and informative, but here they are in my order of favorites:

1. West of Memphis

2. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

3. Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain

4. Salinger

5. Blackfish

6. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

7. Jodorowsky's Dune

8. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

And finally here is a list of my favorite albums that were released in 2013, and why. I'm usually about a year behind when it comes to a lot of the new music that is released, so this list could change, but I can't say I was really impressed by a lot of what I did hear as far as entire albums are concerned. Half on this list are old favorites who continue to produce great work. Back in 2003, when male rock stars became a dying breed, I predicted that the future of good music is in the hands of women, who at least had the ability to explore their emotions in an honest way. Little did I know that women would produce my top three albums ten years later. All these albums stood out to me more than the others I've listened to:

1. Lorde - Pure Heroine:

Lorde managed to win me over in 2013 with an excellent album from start to finish. It is lyrically thought-provoking combined with striking vocals, critiquing modern youth culture and exploring themes such as social anxiety and romantic yearning. Though the single "Roylas" is critically acclaimed and a great song, my personal favorite on the album is "Buzzcut Season".

2. Goldfrappe - Tales of Us:

I first came to know Goldfrapp's music when I attended a concert of hers ten years ago in a small Boston rock club of about 300 people, having never heard her music. I was so mesmerized and blown away that I have become a big fan ever since. Though based in Great Britain, when she tours in America these days she usually only performs in New York and California. Since 2005 I have seen her perform three times in New York, usually every two or three years, in some of the most prestigious venues which sell out quickly, and it is a different concert every time that reflects the theme and sound of her latest album. Her latest album is a work of mesmerizing beauty, trading her traditional synth-pop for an orchestra. It can be a bit too slow and atmospheric at times, yet it is still a masterpiece.

3. Skylar Grey - Don't Look Down:

Though famously known for her collaborations with Rihanna and Eminem, this debut album made Skylar Grey a solo artist in her own right. I find her story to be a compelling one and this album reveals her many sides, though many probably won't have a lot of tolerance for the vaguely hip-hop-inflected homage to '90s pop.

4. Queens of the Stone Age - Like Clockwork:

I've been a fan of QOTSA since around 2000 and have seen them perform three times since 2003. Back then they were a small rock band, and today they are critically acclaimed selling out arenas. They are one of the few great and solid rock bands around today, sometimes incorporating elements of pop, and their latest album is probably the best out of their last three albums from start to finish.

5. Kanye West - Yeezus:

After being impressed by Kanye West's recent performance on Saturday Night Live, I decided to check out his latest album, and I remained equally impressed. Lyrically I find him to be a bit humorous yet compelling, and I like the feel and sound of his latest album.

6. David Bowie - The Next Day:

David Bowie is my favorite classic rocker, but its been years since he has impressed me with a great album. This album has elements of greatness, though it also has some weak spots. Yet for his age and time in the spot light, I find the album to be very enjoyable and nostalgic of his past great work.