Combining a couple of lists that were tossed together 15 minutes before a conversation was had about them, these are the movies that Sean and Tucker liked the most this year. What follows is some details as to why we liked them, and why we think you might like them as well.
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Playing the trick shot, Computer Chess tells the story of one of those moments where the future was on display to an audience of tens, while the rest of the world was rolling around on the floor, chasing fads. An 80's weekend spent at a computer chess tournament in a hotel that Bujalski's period-appropriate black and white tube video cameras renders as somewhat unpleasant, this isn't a setting with a huge amount of nostalgic potential (although there's always exceptions), leaving the movie wide open for a whole pile of cruelty comedy at the behest of a certain kind of nerd. Instead, Bujalski goes a the other, tougher, direction, landing whimsical jokes about period-appropriate sexism in a way that Adam McKay should pay attention to, gently putting blowhards in their place without resorting to cringe technique and scab-picking, leading up to a scene where escapees from an early 80's sex farce try to worm their way into the pants of what looks like a young David Cronenberg. It's right around there that Computer Chess makes its much talked about (on the internet, at least) shift, a change in tone and style that's as audacious as its technical choices. From there, the movie's jokes begin to fade and the characters become more abstract. (It's safe to say that no competition film has ever been this dismissive with the resolution of what it initially presented as its motivational plot). It's an excellent reminder of the possibilities available to low budget filmmakers coming up in an era where the cost of entry has never been lower. - TS
19. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and Ed Harris.
A brilliant technical achievement and an emotionally charged performance by a well liked movie star, Gravity is the first movie on this list to carry with it one of the biggest themes of this year in cinema: expectation. Responsible for one of the best pieces of onscreen science fiction in years (sit back down, Avatar), Alfonso Cuaron's first post-Children of Men film was always going to arrive bearing a lot of anticipatory baggage, and initial glimpses of what he'd been doing weren't that were exciting. But when you sat in a movie theater, you could feel every bit of it and it was impossible to take your eyes off the screen. Even as its plot neared the hoary cliche, Bullock's unshakeable commitment to the mess brought it ratcheting on back. "Everybody's gonna die," she says, "But I'm gonna die today." It's emotional terrorism, sure, but that's always been a victimless crime. - TS
18. Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski, starring Tom Cruise, Andre Riseborough, Olga Kurlenyko, Morgan Freeman, and Melissa Leo.
2013 was a year of huge blockbuster effects movies that seemed to push to a new level of both scale and unsatisfied frustration -- the year of Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger, Elysium, Iron Man 3, 47 Ronin, Wolverine 2, Stark Trek 2, Thor 2, Hunger Games 2, another one of those fucking Hobbit movies -- it keeps going. These huge, mainstream, auteurist properties. Pacific Rim was championed by everyone I think of as the wrong people, and the way it takes nearly an hour to get to amazing setpieces and dies whenever anyone has a conversation was ignored. It has greatness in it, but the best robot fight in the world can't hang when the story just isn't there. Man of Steel and Lone Ranger, these films could be astounding. Moments of love of not only cinema but weird personal expressions. Both are hamstrung by the need to cater to properties that had little to do with either director's interests. Zack Snyder's Dune and Dragonball influenced black metal teenager 9/11 apocalypse porn has no time for Superman; or Gore Verbinski's subsumed urge to do a poetic remake of Once Upon A Time in the West with a zillion dollar budget and a cast of thousands starring James Badge Dale instead of Native American minstrel show racism (wild west show racism?). Yet, there is poetry in those movies, where there doesn't need to be. It may have been what hurt the films for so many, for people who want the Shane Black of Iron Man 3 not The Last Boy Scout. The films contort and strain at their commercial demands. Feel broken, where similar films this year just feel like automatic teller machines with actors in them, making Pacific Rim, Lone Ranger, and Man of Steel feel like true artistic statements in comparison.
Oblivion finds a way to sidestep so many of these problems, and the many more that come with cgi and greenscreen big budget films. Sure there's the weird muted misogyny inherent in a movie aimed at teenage boys, the out of place Star Wars tributes, the way Tucker pointed out how it is beautiful but in the way a perfume commercial is, the story is too simple to not expect a twist (though I didn't guess the exact twist). What separates this film from the rest is practicality, in a way. Joseph Kosinski's choice to do as much practically as possible grounds Tom Cruise, who is such an intensely physical actor who cannot function without stuff to do. He acts from physical business inward, and casting him as a memory-wiped cog of a massive mechanized force is inspired. There is also an underlying nastiness to him. The resentful instrument of authority that Cruise has played going back to the first Mission: Impossible and Minority Report -- that has to stem out of being the type of actor doing the work that he does -- becomes the story's engine towards the end. Weirdly, it's a movie that still lives and dies on it's star, not it's director. That is strange in 2013. Gorgeous, tactile, post-apocalyptic sci-fi? The closest thing to a Prophet movie we'll ever get? Those mean little. What Kosinski has done is great, but those are afterthoughts to Cruise. Who else could curtly kill his grinning synthetic master with an earned "Fuck you"? Without him, it's the same as everything else. It's the only one of these movies where it matters who does anything. - SW.
17. 12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Benedict whatshisfuckingname, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, and Omar.
As David Hudson so aptly put it, it seems unlikely that any film has ever come this close to the depiction of America's original sin. In a year full of tension and pain, 12 Years A Slave was the most grueling experience, a movie that denied its own overly stirring trailer and delivered a montage of horror. Following a brief, upsetting sequence of labor, sex and discovery, the movie begins again, showing us a man and his family. He loves them, he takes pride in them, he laughs with them, and then he is stripped of everything and thrown into hell. The movie proceeds slowly through the demented psychopathy of slavery from there, traipsing through the toxic economy of buyers and sellers and the unending violence of whips, belts, clubs, landing in one plantation after the other, all terrible, before landing where it spends its majority, a diabolical, Bible-ridden field of evil that would be overwrought if it wasn't so obviously based in the real. It's an endlessly painful experience put on display, one whose depravity even its creator was reportedly surprised by. Through it all, three performers--Ejifor, Fassbender and Nyong'o--make it watchable, even if that watchability is one that strains under the weight of all this pain. Ejifor and Nyong'o are the two slaves we best get to know, the others are essentially interchangeable, unnoticed or attended by the characters, and it is through those two that the viewer suffers most. Even when the threat of violence is offscreen (when a character walks alone for a minute, for example), their smiles and easy breath hurts--we know it won't last, we know it will be stolen. It's a movie about slavery, but the sharpest way its lesson might be taught is what freedom actually is, by forcing us to feel what it's like when none is to be found. - TS
16. Apres Mai, writen and directed by Olvier Assayas, starring Clement Metayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez, and Hugo Conzelmann.
Yet another late early 70s coming of age movie, but done by Assayas, who makes eurotrash action movies, historical biopics, family ensemble dramas, paranoid techno thrillers as if those were completely untrod territory instead of genre staples. His films conceive of characters who behave nothing like people do in movies, that exist as complex personal and political humans. The difference between Apres Mai and Taking Woodstock is that Assayas' coming of age occurred in France post- May 1968. He is just as unsparing and without sentiment with the time as he was with Carlos. The way he pulls this off is in casting these teen characters with real teenagers, who all seem young enough that their decisions seem as desperate as any other teenager's. The trajectory, where these kids start off leaving school and go start a riot with the cops end up as adults with lives chosen for them by their decisions, each other, and real life forces beyond their control. The way the world becomes less ideologically political and becomes a series of compromises feels like it only could have been the text of Assayas' real life and friends. Christine idealistically joins up with a group of anarchist filmmakers only to end getting groceries and doing dishes because it's 1972. The cool anarchist friend goes from tagging high schools with slogans is radicalized to the point of disposing of evidence for gangsters. The idealist gets involved with rich American hippies (who are maybe the perfect depiction of just how silly 60s white American counterculture must have appeared to people who actually read books and acted on them) and decides to work in textiles after knocking one of them up. The Assayas' stand-in Gilles loses both his callings of art and film and the two women he's involved with through indecisiveness. He is unwilling to act on his convictions, and in waiting is forced into a subservient role working on a film that has none of his instincts at heart. The film feels both more and less personal than the baby boomer nostalgia that has come to define the era, in the unsparing way that Assayas allows his characters to be just as stupid as real people can be. - SW
15. The Heat, directed by Paul Feig, written by Katie Dippold, starring Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Marlon Wayans, Tony Hale, Michael Rappaport, Jane Curtin, Bill Burr, Kaitlan Olson, and Joe McIntyre.
While it's the funniest buddy cop movie since Hot Fuzz, it's not just the buddy cop standards that make it stand out, it's the strength of the bits--whereas Fuzz had Timothy Dalton mumbling through a wrought iron fence while blood poured out, The Heat has Melissa McCarthy throwing office supplies into Biff from Back to the Future's eyes. It's a movie constructed out of gags, what Rob Corddry might describe as a comedy machine. Not all of the humor is fresh--a refrigerator as armory, a let's-get-you-drunk scene--but all of it is delivered with a certain bit of unhinged gravity, as if at any moment a wall could fall down, and Bullock would discover she's on a movie set, one where Marlon Wayans is the bad guy after all. (Why was he in this movie, actually?) - TS
14. The World's End, directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, starring Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Consindine, Rosamund Pike, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Smiley, the guy who played Nathan Barley, and Bill Nighy.
Simon Pegg writing without Edgar Wright is all easy stereotypes and jokey emotional buttons, Edgar Wright without Simon Pegg is intricately structured and reference heavy to the point of being tiresome. They make better, funnier work together, and The World's End highlights what each of them are bringing to the show. The references to other films in World's End are more metabolized than the earlier films. It may be the first of these films where the non-genre scenes are the most successful. The speed and ease relationships are established through jokes without seeming like a series of bits is muscular, fully confident filmmaking. For the genre elements, John Carpenter looms large over World's End, the shift of the film from black comedy to alien invasion black comedy does so using the language of Carpenter -- ominous lens flare, paranoid characters turning on one other, science fiction ideas smuggling in ideas about economic realities, fight scenes that get realistic way too fast as they get going, the sidekick has more interesting adventures than the fuckup cocksure protagonist, machines as agents of seductive evil. There's a lot more -- Ghostbusters, Blues Brothers, Legend of Drunken Master, The Road Warrior -- but those are nods rather than the assimilation of Carpenter's style as a doorway into his themes and obsessions.Like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World's End has an uneasy relationship with nostalgia. Stylistically built on references but always aware of how poisonous nostalgia can be to people, and slides in and out of those positions as the story goes on. This is far more of an actor's film than the previous two, with Simon Pegg playing his grinning appeal as just a little off, the way Clooney used his failing charm in Michael Clayton. Pegg as Gary King lives on the line between the best person in the world and the most selfish human you've ever met. This is Nick Frost's film, though, and the way these two actors have changed their dynamic reveals that Pegg as the one who plays while Frost is the one who determines tone. Nick Frost as Andy Knightly is a man quietly holding in an endless supply of resentment, and the way he calibrates that from drunken physical comedy to Lau Kar Leung fights to unchecked rage is nothing we've ever seen Frost as capable of.
I can't decide if the the ending of the film is brave or cowardly. The way that the film puts itself out there in it's final 20 minutes, where Gary King argues for the fate of humanity. This isn't smart or cool or nihilistic, it's nakedly emotional. The argument made, to a stand-in for any number of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy characters, is that people are great because they are a bunch of fuckups. It's not Douglas Adams, it's a garbage argument. It also follows, the most difficult scene in any of these films. Two friends finally having the fight they should have had for ten years, this is the emotional core the film. Andy Knightly confronting Gary King for everything, and Gary trying to destroy himself for the sake of not having to live in a world past his life at 17 anymore. The opening of the film shows the other people in Gary's support group as the zombies from Shaun of the Dead. To him, it's death, it's sitting in a circle talking forever. Wright and Pegg, they dodge the possibility of having a scene that can only end with these two characters having to come to some sort of emotional conclusion. Is that as much chickening out as having the robots swarm in and kill them, or leave the two sitting together at an understanding, waiting for death, The Thing-style? I don't know. The World's End as a whole seems to be a maturation of nearly every aspect of this style. It's funnier, it's better shot, it's genre moves functions as well as the real thing, the characters are complex and don't shy away from the places those characters go that aren't fun comedy places. But... the way that scene between Andy and Gary is thrown away for something cute... something that even works? That feels like it's less committed to being the movie it is, than being another one of their movies. I still love it, but it feels like a cop out. - SW
13. Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Tom Papa, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Nicky Katt, AND PAUL REISER.
Steven Soderbergh's last movie. There is a strange sense that this film -- a biopic about a tragic, ostentatious, and closeted show business figure. Starring a hugely respected star making a comeback from illness, directed by a lauded director who is retiring -- should be oscar bait simply by existing. This film only being released on cable television underscores all the reasons Soderbergh has for leaving this industry right now. That he couldn't get this film made simply because it was a gay story is a good reminder of just how fearful hollywood is at the moment. So the muted political undertone of a film that is essentially about a gay divorce in a world without the concept of gay marriage, it feels too subtly handled to be a polemic move. But of course, Oscars, eligibility, and film releases have never had a goddamn thing to do with movies. Soderbergh's manipulation of depth of field to add gloss then disorientation then acceptance of the character's world is invisible and precise. Matt Damon's turn as a stereotypically taken dumb blonde is inspired, only overshadowed by Michael Douglas' scary disappearance into Liberace. A sympathetic creature of voracious appetites in all senses, his generosity revealing itself to be vanity. His palatial estate and the tour he gives to Damon sets the template of Norma Desmond and Tony Montana, of objects imprisoning the gullible and savvy alike. There are mirrors everywhere, and there's a reason that coke is done off of mirrors in all of these movies. The only selfless aspect of Liberace seems to be his urge to entertain on a massive scale, and his sense that his talent is only a gift for him to entertain people.
There is a sense that this is also a director eulogizing himself in some way. His own inverted All That Jazz. Though Fosse's paean to death as an entertainer didn't actually end with him retiring the way Soderbergh's is. The forgiveness of the characters for Liberace, the respect of his wishes instead of resentment -- it feels like an older director's acceptance of people being how they are. It is in some way aggrandizing the urge to entertain as paramount, given Soderbergh's shifting dual identity as a mainstream stylist and an idiosyncratic, difficult voice in film. Sometimes those voices would mean schizoid shifts between films and sometimes between scenes. There is a video of Soderbergh on the Che dvd declaring he doesn't believe that movies matter anymore, and when I saw that video it shook me. Harder than I thought it could because while I love his films I didn't realize how much he mattered to me. The way this film comes down, with an uneasy but loving portrait of a figure who felt that the only important thing was entertaining others, seems to have both those voices unable to reconcile, so they accept one another. Maybe these things don't matter, except to the people they matter to. That's as good a conclusion to a career as any. - SW
12. All Is Lost, written and directed by JC Chandor, starring Robert Redford.
11. Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Brian Cox, Chris Pratt, and Kristen Wiig.
The latest installment in Joaquin Phoenix's fortress of great performances, Her also served as debut of Spike Jonze as a writer. Never leaving Phoenix for any real length of time, Her is the story of a guy who falls in love with his computer, as played by Scarlett Johansson. With a speed that's probably record setting, Her moves from the introduction of the relationship's potential--which essentially begins the second Phoenix's eyebrows go up as he allows Scarlett to delete his old "funny" work emails, saving the 60-odd ones that are legitimately clever--to a head-over-heels love affair with nary a sense that there's anything weird about it. Progressing through the peaks and valleys of fights and confusion, the movie doesn't softpedal a single beat, making it abundantly clear that being in love with a computer doesn't make for a relationship that's any easier than one with a flesh and blood person. (The moment when you realize how much of this you've bought into comes all of a sudden, when a standard software upgrade disconnects Phoenix and you realize you have no idea whether she's gone for good, and you realize that you actually feel scared for him.) It's not a movie short of whimsy, but in the hands of Amy Adams, the entire movie is able to get away with it all. Her performance as our lead's only real friend, torn up between meaningless work and a fractious marriage is overflowing with spirit, and her wry, embarrassed admittal that she's gotten on the "life's too short, should probably just enjoy it" cleaves the movie in half. Who would've expected what looked like the most selfish movie of the year would be the one most about wrapping ones arms around each other? - TS
It's a Michael Bay movie so it's ultimately a movie with nothing to say? Aside from looking awesome, having great performances, being way too long, that's what Michael Bay movies are all about. Excess. That's the point. And not in the way that Behind the Candelabra and Wolf of Wall Street are depictions of excess, being about excess, Bay's films are excessive. The last Transformers movie was really just a series of swipes at James Cameron and Christopher Nolan for not being able to shoot action as well as Bay can? That really happened, and I was pretty into it because I am forever going to be a fan of creative dick measuring contests. Pain and Gain is Bay going back to his roots in a way, which means no cg, no kid actors no one likes, more everything else. Stip clubs, fast cars, cocaine, guns, an excessive force of swat teams moving in slow motion, character actors given absolutely no leash or restraint, male and female bodies pushed to weird victoria's secret commercial abstraction. Michael Bay who made Tony Scott movies for Jerry Bruckheimer when Tony Scott was busy making other movies for Jerry Bruckheimer (remember, Bad Boys and Crimson Tide came out the same summer, so did Enemy of the State and Armageddon). The Michael Bay who made Bad Boys 2 and Armageddon and The Island. That Michal Bay. My dude. This is Bay working on a small budget, and it feels much bigger than any of the effects movies he's been embroiled in for forever. The Rock as Paul Doyle is perfect, he's the perfect guy to appear in a Bay movie. He's up for looking silly, which he'd previously only been able to do in movies made for children or directed by the guy who wrote Domino (same thing), and has the ability to go deadpan like no one since John Cleese. The Rock is the guy you want in a movie no matter what it is, but his massive frame and pure chops are used better than he's ever been used before. I like pretty much everybody here, but no one gets near The Rock. Bay does get to something in Mark Wahlberg no one since Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten to (Pain and Gain goes straight for 90s as aesthetic source - Fargo, Pulp Fiction, and Boogie Nights are in its dna). This is Dirk Diggler, the stupid, gift-from-god shithead you don't want anywhere near your life. Daniel Lugo doesn't need to believe in his ability to get it up, though (that's shifted to Anthony Mackie). He believes in fitness. Which means he doesn't give a shit about anything but lip service, is down to torture and murder, and apologize without meaning it when he's caught. I guess you could say it's about America that way, but nah. This is a Michael Bay movie. Oh, and The Rock for best supporting actor or we burn Hollywood to the fucking ground. - SW
09. Bastards, directed by Claire Denis, starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Juli Batalle, Michael Subor, Lola Creton, and Alex Descas.
There's never going to be a better description of this film than when Sean texted to ask me "what if Haneke had directed a Liam Neeson movie", so feel free to skip past these sentences. A French crime movie that shows no interest in adding the word "thriller" to its future Netflix categorization, Bastards follows Vincent Lindon--another of those brilliant European actors who clearly knows how to drink whisky without tweeting about it, and probably works out in a gym that has asbestos in the walls--as he smokes and louts his way around the lives of a bunch of people with a level of purposefulness that's played close to the vest. It's a detective movie full of people too lost in themselves to do any detecting, from a director who uses plot elements the way Robert Altman used dialog, and in keeping with a pattern you'll see arise on this list, it's got an ending that'll leave you reeling for the light switch.
The thing about Bastards that makes it resonate isn't its nastiness, though. If that were true, we'd be in a Golden Age and the erection would never go away: nastiness abounds, it's everywhere you turn. Bastards is more than that, it's that other thing that: a triumph of filmmaking, a movie built from fragmentary scenes and silent gesture, a story that accumulates while so much else spills. It's a movie where the eyes of characters are often hidden or downcast--like the image above--because these performers would tell too much if you could see. Quiet, but never sterile; dormant, never comatose. You could know everything that was going to happen, but you'd still never be able to see it coming. - TS
08. Lords of Salem, written and directed by Rob Zombie, starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, Patricia Quinn, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Fancey, and Andrew Prine.
Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie's latest horror film. The plot is easy to grasp -- witches curse a witchfinder's bloodline, 200 years later the great granddaughter Heidi Hawthorne is chosen to be the mother of the satanic messiah. There is an exploitation-y hook, that Heidi is a late night dj and is playing a record over and over again as it drives her and the women of the town of Salem insane. That is what the story is, that is not what the film is about. The film is about women, and is the only radical feminist film to hit a multiplex in as long as I can remember.
Highly aestheticized violence is so far what Rob Zombie has proven himself to be great at, as well as filling his movies with actors from the 70s who haven't had decent roles since. Salem has little time for extreme violence, its horror vocabulary is built from Polanski's Apartment Trilogy, The Devils, Possession, The Shining, Antichrist, and barely even those films. Zombie is more interested in psychological tension than viscera this time. The time isn't perfect, and feels ramshackle at times (Richard Lynch, who had a major role in the film died after shooting only some of his scenes, forcing Zombie to make huge changes, many ancillary scenes were shot in a prop house). The film is beautiful, and precise despite this, possibly because of this. Aside from Sherri Moon Zombie, every woman who appears onscreen in the movie is a woman who has aged out of the hollywood star system, and nearly all of them play witches. This adds a secondary narrative, one where the conception of what a woman's role in a horror film is a patriarchal structure. From the perspective of Lords of Salem, the concept of Satan is a feminist rejection of the male conception of christian god. The Salem witch trials are represented as real, but also an assault on women. It is also portrayed as cyclical, as well, with the witches only acting against women when they return in the present. The modern men of Salem -- Jeff Daniel Phillips and Bruce Davison -- are shown as nice, well meaning guys who try to save Heidi. They are dispatched with little fanfare, because trying to save a woman is just as dismissive of them as killing them. It gives them no agency. The depiction of the witches plays into stereotypes both filmic and historical, but at the same time shows these actresses -- Meg Foster especially -- naked in a completely non-sexual way. The human body as frail and aging is the subject here. Shown in a way that these movies never even entertain the thought of doing so. The embrace of Satan is a foregone conclusion. No other choice is presented for these characters. In a way, this is a girl gang movie the way that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are. Those girls will grow old, and the lip-service fake sexual empowerment of half naked former disney kids those films traffic in will become real. It doesn't matter until Selena Gomez has grey hair, until Emma Watson has bad teeth. Maybe then it won't feel like I'm watching a movie where Harmony Korine has his dick out in the corner of the room. - SW
07. Shield of Straw, directed by Takashi Miike, starring Takao Osawa, Nanako Matsushima, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Masatō Ibu, Kimiko Yo, and Tsutomu Yamazaki
Takashi Miike doing a big, straightforward action movie is a big deal. It should be a big deal. Miike can do and has done almost anything in his incredibly prolific career. His aesthetic (of the fraction of which I've seen which is like 1/8? 16 of his films total) has lived in between extreme gonzo literalism and minimalist expressionism. Of course, in the west, people only expect gonzo from Miike, which misses the point. The other key factor is that Miike never has time or money, either by choice or style or from years working direct to video and/or low budgets. He seems to make decisions quickly, so a larger budget pushes him into a different feel for the material than he would normally bring. It seems extra perverse, espescially when the money here seems to be spent mostly on two huge sequences involving a convoy of police vehicles early on in the film. The plot is exactly like The Gauntlet, SWAT, or 16 Blocks -- a group of cops need to get a prisoner from one point to another and are constantly under assault by the general public. Miike is all about details -- the first Dead or Alive is my favorite Miike not because of the bathtub full of shit or the bird suit in the gunfight gonzo scenes, but the scene with the chef recounting the history of chinese cooking. His execution is everything. With Miike, the story gains new weight just through the characters. The truly gruesome, unrepentant pederast murderer. Mekari, the cop who recently lost his wife seems to be hallucinating instead of just being a Martin Riggs style cop on the edge. His partner Shiriwai, her only modes are flat pragmatism and hyper-efficient violence. The motivation is an enormous sum of money offered to anyone, but Miike consistently shows the way money acts as a weight on the disenfranchised. The rewards seem to just get cops killed. The more people die, the film focuses on about how any consequences of justice are meaningless in a capitalist system. The American versions of this story lead toward "everyone has a price" and run that up against duty and conscience. For Miike those take a backseat to everyone having a breaking point. Miike's approach obscures just accepting he is of humanity in his characters. He shows people at their weakest and how they move through that weakness. In Shield of Straw we get to see Mekari get all the way up the edge of destroying himself, telling the murderer he's guarding all he does is lie to himself to stop him from just to keep him from killing him. What makes this movie special is how he doesn't. - SW
06. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Michael Chernus, and Max Martini.
Although we just closed the book on a year where the greatest performance unquestionably came out of the concluding hours of one of the nastiest television shows ever made, 2013 was also a year packed to overflowing with smart displays of acting. The Rock in Pain & Gain, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in Her, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave, Amy Seimetz in everything--none of them had to go it alone, but if they had, they would've still shined. Still, it's not as if any of the non-Rock performances were a surprise--Phoenix and Ejiofor are pretty much never bad and the Amy's only suffer when the scripts do. When it came to surprises though, no one brought it like Tom Hanks. One of the most likeable movie stars around, Hanks has lived off his own charm and lovabaility for so long now that it's easy to imagine his movies as the record of one fantastic life, with Forrest Gump being that mentally handicapped guy who loves a mermaid, but will probably die in a volcano after he loses his dog, Hooch. His finest performance--the vanity-shorn Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia--remains a full 20 years back, and due to its double duty function as an AIDS and bigotry education, it hasn't aged well. But in Captain Phillips, Hanks found something else to become--an asshole, a middle American middle manager. Pissed off at his body, pissed off at his choices, and pissed off at the people around him, Greengrass' punchy, paunchy thriller throws Hanks into the maelstrom. Hanks, to his endless credit, doesn't crack a smile--there's no threat of the actor's bottomless charm making an appearance, here, his sincerity is dedicated to survival alone. Faced off against Barkhad Abdi--a Somali refugee the casting department found in Minnesota--Hanks' character is forced to deal with the kind of men he has long forgotten existed, if he knew they did at all. His intention is to survive, waiting for rescue.
All of that would have been made for a fine piece of thriller, one in the shadow of A Hijacking, were it not for the moment when that rescue arrives. Under the vaguely recognizable face of Max Martini (who has played this exact character in Person of Interest, The Unit, Pacific Rim, and will soon do it again in Sabotage), the Navy SEALS arrive. It's there that Greengrass makes his mark. Cruising past their faces to check the image along their dead eyed stares and steel cut mouths, one of the preeminent directors of here's-what-a-fight-feels-like chose to engage in the latest chapter of how cool our special forces are, but how terrifying they are. In one moment--a moment that begins the final, nail devouring half hour of the film--Greengrass seamlessly grounds the theme his prosaic opening scenes introduce, the idea that Phillips and Muse are essentially the same sort of men. Disgusted by the young and undisciplined around them, taciturn and stubborn isolators, but still human, the two men couldn't differ more from the SEALS, a group of men who seem to have stripped their individuality out so they could put more ammo where it had resided. And like Terence Howard's sniveling wreck in Prisoners, Hanks show what most of us would really look like, if the movie was about us: pissing ourselves in fear, screaming in the corner. This is the kind of honesty that's uncomfortable to watch, and that takes a special kind of courage. - TS
05. Upstream Color, written and directed by. Shane Carruth, starring Amy Seimetz, Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, and Thiago Martins.
As a story, it's no more abstract than Rabid. Discussing a film as straightforward as this as abstract feels irresponsible to me. A brainwashing story. Or a story about two people who are connected through means they don't understand. There's like 500 of those, right? I do feel like the writing about this movie has turned it into something it isn't, which is hard to grasp. It's not a puzzle movie (neither is Primer). Comparing the film to Malick, which is the other go-to criticism of the film, is a little more apt because it looks like his kind of transcendental approach to nature. That is deceptive, because he isn't as interested in portraying the unknowable in that way, he's interested in natural systems. The presentation of the narrative has more to do with David Cronenberg than anything else. Not just because of the body horror aspects of the film's opening. In the way Carruth presents a biological conceit for a standard science fiction idea, and then pursues the ramifications of that conceit rather than the metaphor, or the fake science behind it. The tropes here are brainwashing, psychic links, parasitic organisms. What Carruth uses them to discuss is the loss and rebuilding of identity, as systems occurring in nature. I feel like the Malick comparison has more to do with Malick releasing a movie in the same year (along with Upstream co-editor David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints) than anything stylistic. Maybe it's my personal affinity but this film feels like Cronenberg to me. It is not a distanced appraisal of an event the way Cronenbergs films are, and it is not a series of moments in a life the way Malick's are. The synthesis of a Malickian embrace of nature along with Cronenberg's sense of the body as something that happens to us as humans is something I've never seen before. Carruth has near complete control over every aspect of the film, but Amy Seimetz is where the movie lives and dies. Carrying every emotion, usually just on her face. Seimetz's Kris experiences her story in a reversal of a horror structure -- her personality and life are immolated, her body ravaged and self-mutilated, then she experiences a relationship and escalating psychological distress, loses something, and finds herself whole at the end. - SW
04. A Hijacking, directed by Tobias Lindholm, starring Soren Maling, Johan Phillip Asbaek, Dar Salim, Amalie Ihle Alstrup as Maria Hartmann, Ole Dupont, and Roland Møller.
A movie experience not too dissimilar to being strangled, Tobias Lindholm's Hijacking never bothers to even show the action described in its title. Instead, it put the audience directly into its onscreen fray, tossed back and forth down the empty chambers of ships and offices, left to follow the fear. No other movie was as dispassionate as this, a film about Somali piracy that cared as much about the stink of a plastic shit bucket as it did about the whiteboard in the corner. Relying on the crude realites of an office and kitchen instead of the badass computers and dungeon theatrics we've gotten used to for these types of stories, A Hijacking earned moments of shock and awe with a shitty fax machine and sheets of copy paper, scrawled upon by men whose handwriting wasn't much better than a small child. It was the kind of movie where you learned about the strength of a marriage by enduring the gaze of a wife who forced her husband to change a week old shirt, a movie that gutted all societal nicities and forced some men into beasts, only for those beasts to latch onto the pack to maintain some grip on their kindness. Language, behavior, plot--everything here was stripped to a skeletal core, and the result was the scariest movie of the year, and its saddest ending to boot. - TS
03. The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Christin Milioti, PJ Byrne, Ethan Suplee, Bo Dietl, Aya Cash, Kenneth Choi, Joanna Lumley,and like a hundred other speaking roles.
A full scale immersion in American greed--and as ancient as that particular vice is, few would argue that there's a purity to the American finance strand that's unparalleled this side of the Vatican--Wolf of Wall Street is a movie that plays so quintessentially Scorcese that one can't but feel a little like they're cheating on Robert DeNiro to be enjoying it so much. The best of the director's many dalliances with Leonardo DiCaprio (who executes the best piece of purely physical comedy this year, a lengthy period of drug-induced clowning that reminds one of the What's Eating Gilbert Grape performance that launched the actor's serious career), The Wolf of Wall Street wouldn't have worked without either of those two men's fierce, maniacal commitment. The criticisms of Wolf of Wall Street make a certain kind of sense--yes, this movie celebrates a certain kind of behavior, and yes, that kind of behavior is atrocious--but only so long as one imagines the movies to be a place where art should lead the way with instruction. Wolf of Wall Street is pure reflection: rich white men get away with whatever they want to, no matter if that's coke off an whore or punching their wife in the stomach. The Coach Taylors of the world ride home on the subway, because that's the kind of system we support: the one were the bad guys own the house, and the house always wins. Wolf didn't show a way out because we haven't found one yet, and no sickness goes uncured in shadow. - TS
02. You're Next, directed by Adam Wingard, starring Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Kate Lyn Shiel.
There is something really beautiful to me about anyone making a slasher movie in 2013. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, along with a cast full of low budget movie directors (Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Larry Fessenden, and Calvin Reeder) made a movie that sidesteps all the traps that these things always fall into. It joins The Strangers and Devil's Rejects as one of the few truly great American slasher films of the past decade or so (Or just horror in general. There's not more on that list than ten movies). You're Next was also my second best theater experience of 2013 (the first being the middle aged women screaming whenever Vin Diesel came onscreen in Furious 6), with a weird half-full audience that was super into it in a way they've been for no horror movie I've seen in forever.
All the directors (and Barrett) are marked for death too, which is one of the small ways this movie wires in its own rule instead of following the traditional ones. The genius of the film is that the outsider of the group is introduced signaling the long build of tension that leaves her alone that turns her into a final girl. They do all the work then throw it away by having her kill the bad guys so quickly and efficiently that she transforms the film from that moment on. Sharni Vinson, playing Erin, is the kind of actress who you immediately lock into watching do things. Vinson is an actor in her body, and carries herself in an almost silent movie manner where her whole performance is eyelines and movements. She doesn't explain what she's doing (and the one sentence where she does is one of the only bad notes hit in the movie), all lateral thinking and calm responses. Vinson is so good at killing people that she becomes the only threatening figure, no matter who is wearing a cool mask. She would be a feminist icon if anyone on the planet gave any sort of shit about the idea of the feminist aspects of horror films anymore. The core of her character is unflinching and unaffected. Surviving doesn't mean making it through the night the way so many of the greatest slashers are. Surviving means killing them first.
Slasher films are about the kills. The bad ones are anyway, because the kills are always inventive apart from the writing and direction. But they're really about structure, they're about the 90 minute runtime, and who does what when. The "rules" that Scream popularized they were always less important than the weird rhythm and pacing these movies are built on. There are film references in You're Next, but they are small, like a shot of a dead girls head thrown through a window, or a pot of boiling water on the stove. That is the real power of You're Next, which is walking the inherent meta-ness of modern horror movies back to where they could be good and smart without needing a degree in the damn things to parse them. This year's Evil Dead remake and The Conjuring, placed against this film, seem like the weird for-fans-only reworkings of other director's fetishes that they are. It can't be dismissed that great American horror movies, the ones from the generation that created slashers and zombies, were closer to the extremely low budget former mumblecore set than anyone who puts a trailer up on Bloody Disgusting. People who make a lot of movies really quickly, who learn their craft on the fly, whether the films are good or not. That's not just the territory of Cassavettes. Movies made for nothing with great scripts, strong actors, and no qualms about committing to fucked up choices. That's the real legacy of Carpenter/Craven/Romero/Cronenberg/etc. Not four seasons of The Walking Dead, not Platinum Dunes, not pre-loaded fanbases, not last minute Damon Lindelof rewrites of an already finished movie, not screenwriter to screenwriter racist trope jokes. Slasher movies have a rich history of being way better than they have any right to be, because rigid structure can create a space for idiosyncratic voices and variations. It was easier to make them and earn a profit with the economic layout at the time. It was always the place where art met commerce. You're Next, coming now when there is no more cash-in aspect, becomes a kind of love letter. Not just to these movies, but the people who made them and made them great. Real directors don't reflect back the common phrases of the language they've been raised on. They build something greater using that language. You're Next makes me love movies more every time I see it. - SW
01. Drug War, directed by Johnnie To, starring Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung, Gao Yunxiang.
2013 was about two things: expectation, and guts. And the story of Johnnie To at the beginning of 2013 was this--Blind Detective. It hit the net, it hit the critics, it went to festivals. Meanwhile, the film he'd finished first--Drug War, his first crime film set and filmed in mainland China--crept around on the sidelines, advertised outside of China with little more than word-of-mouth and a one-minute trailer that made it look like it had been shot in a garage. As the release date grew closer, an actual trailer arrived, making it clear that--despite the concrete walls of industrial China setting--Drug War was a real Johnnie To movie, complete with badass gunplay and jump cut freakouts. By the time it arrived, the excitement couldn't have been more intense, even more so when critics at Cannes pointed out that it was unlikely that any of the young American or French filmmakers would be even remotely capable of accomplishing what To was doing on a purely technical level. (They're absolutely right.)
The film itself didn't just have to be good to live up to the hype, it had to be great: it absolutely is. A twisted crime epic told in miniature, set over the course of a few days and spiraling out of a dogged, piss-denying stakeout, Drug War returns the crime thriller squarely back to the ex-Western/Greek tragedy replacement America's action and comic hybrids have all but abandoned, simply by setting it in a place where death is more real. (Not to take anything away from Pain and Gain, but if ever there was a director who clearly thinks it's realistically possible to live forever, it's Michael Bay.) You have drugs over a certain amount in mainland China, then you're dead--not in a ten years, right now, and Louis Koo's Timmy knows that down to his bones. His willingness to do what it takes to survive gut entirely the stop-snitching concept, an idea that only makes sense if you believe in lawyers, or Jesus, or on-the-yard-bench-presses. There's a gun to his head, and he has to squat on the floor of a hotel like a Guantunamo infant, wearing clothes picked for him out of a warehouse by people that despise him. Death, in Drug War, surrounds all of them constantly, and when it finally becomes active force--during a cross-cut double raid that stands as one of the most complicated pieces of editing anyone delivered this year--its as indiscriminate and savage as the newspaper makes it out to be. Leading to the best shootout since the streets of Heat (please let this be the rebirth of daytime gunfights in movies), Drug War's thunderous allegory for mainland China's repossession of Hong Kong stuck to the rules of Chinese Party cinema to a perfect T, with all of its bad guys dead on the ground. The fact that everybody was a bad guy--cops and criminals alike--does not go unnoticed, and it's there that the guts came in. To isn't a filmmaker with nothing to lose--he's a 58 year old man with a company, a home and a career--and that makes his choice to turn Drug War from a smart crime flick into a actual critique of his homeland, made while following strict adherence to the Party's censorship rules that much more amazing. Nobody took this kind of chance but To. From here on out, this is the bar that has to be met. Don't hold your breath. - TS
- Tucker Stone and Sean Witzke, Jan 2014
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To hear the reasoning for the rankings of the list, along with us purposely not understanding brackets, check out the podcast portion of our year end Best of over here.
01. Drug War, dir. Johnnie To
02. A Hijacking, dir. Tobias Lindholm
03. You're Next, dir. Adam Wingard
04. The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese
05. Upstream Color, dir. Shane Carruth
06. All Is Lost, dir. JC Chandor
07. Her, dir. Spike Jonze
08. Bastards, dir. Claire Denis
09. Captain Phillips, dir. Paul Greengrass
10. The Heat, dir. Paul Feig
11. Shield of Straw, dir. Takashi Miike
12. Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron
13. Computer Chess, dir. Andrew Bujalski
14. 12 Years A Slave, dir. Steve McQueen
01. Drug War, dir. Johnnie To
02. You're Next, dir. Adam Wingard
03. Shield of Straw, dir. Takashi Miike
04. Pain & Gain, dir. Michael Bay
05. Behind the Candelabra, dir. Steven Soderbergh
06. The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese
07. Lords of Salem, dir. Rob Zombie
08. Upstream Color, dir. Shane Carruth
09. Bastards, dir. Claire Denis
10. The World's End, dir. Edgar Wright
11. Trance, dir. Danny Boyle
12. Oblivion, dir. Joseph Kosinski
13. Apres Mai, dir. Olvier Assayas
14. Stories We Tell, dir. Sarah Polley