This is the third year in which I've kept a running monthly tally of the movies I see instead of just adding them to the master list. (Here are the round-ups for 2011 and 2012.) The movies that make the list are those that are new to me. I can see the merit of keeping a log of everything I see, including movies I've seen before, but one of the reasons I maintain these annual lists is to inspire me to keep seeking out new stories, new voices, and new movie-watching experiences. There are plenty of times I've watched personal favorites or comfort-food movies on Blu-ray or cable, but for this round-up, I want to focus on the discoveries I made. By that measure, I saw 79 films in 2011 and 68 in 2012. Respectable numbers, for sure — averaging more than one movie a week — especially considering that I don't do this for a full-time living. But my total for 2013 was 104, a major jump, and I'm happy with that number. I made more of an effort in 2013 to seek out and explore movies I'd missed or never heard of, and somewhere along the way I realized I could probably break 100 for the year if I tried. It was an arbitrary goal, and nothing would happen if I made it or missed it, but it motivated me to keep watching new or old or different movies, so I might set a similar goal for 2014.
A big chunk of the movies I saw this year were from before 2013, too. In 2012, I saw 49 new releases out of a total of 68 films, which means 72% of the stuff I saw was new. In 2011, I saw 50 new releases out of 79 films, so the new releases were about 63% of the total. In 2013, I saw 54 new releases out of 104 total films, which means about 52% of what I saw was new, and 48% percent was from last year or earlier. I'm really happy not only that I was able to see more movies this year than in the past couple years, but that so many of them were older releases. There's so much out there.
A final note on availability: Titles come and go online, so Can I Stream It? and Instantwatcher are great resources to let you know how to get your hands on a film. And don't fall into the trap of thinking that streaming is the only way to see movies. Netflix still has a robust disc rental service (for now), and it's worth the extra couple bucks a month.
The Naked City (1948): This is a fantastic noir that makes wonderful use of narration and tone. The closing line — “There are 8 million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” — became famous, and was used as the backbone of the two TV series that followed. The heart of the film is a crime story, but it’s got enough flourish to function as a broader look at the city. It’s gorgeously shot, too. The Long Goodbye (1973): Phenomenal. Elliott Gould plays Philip Marlowe as a man resignedly out of time — when a cop asks where he’s from, Marlowe answers, “I’m from a long time ago” — and hits just the right balance of cool and earnestness. Brilliant screenplay from Leigh Brackett, and typically perfect direction from Robert Altman. Witness for the Prosecution (1957): Based on an Agatha Christie play, the movie’s anchored by three amazing performances: Charles Laughton as an aging lawyer, Tyrone Power as a man accused of murder, and Marlene Dietrich as the accused man’s tricky wife. Fantastic plotting, wonderful acting, and great twists. Another reminder that Billy Wilder was one of the best directors in history. The Stranger (1946): Amazingly dark and intense. Orson Welles plays a Nazi war criminal hiding out in the U.S., hunted by feds led by Edward G. Robinson. The film’s famous for being the first Hollywood movie to show footage of concentration camps. Wonderful movie. Across 110th Street (1972): Not bad. The execution is pretty wobbly, but there’s some good stuff here about generational conflict and baked-in racism in New York in the early 1970s. I kept wanting to call Yaphet Kotto “G.” Gangster Squad (2013) Appointment With Danger (1951): Just OK. Some fun dialogue, but the noir is pretty lite. Alan Ladd's got some charm, though. The Lady Vanishes (1938): Fantastic. Just fantastic. Wonderful comedy, great suspense, amazing cast, and stellar direction from Hitchcock. I can see myself buying this to watch again and again. The Last Stand (2013) Sleep, My Love (1948): A tight, enjoyable noir from Douglas Sirk. Claudette Colbert plays a woman who thinks she’s going crazy, and Don Ameche is amazingly evil as her husband who (obviously) plays a major role in her decaying mental state. It’s also got a great supporting turn from Robert Cummings, who was a dependable player in comedies and dramas for decades. Trivia: Cummings originally played Juror Number Eight in the live 1954 teleplay of Twelve Angry Men, and he won an Emmy for the role. Henry Fonda played the character in the 1957 film version. His Girl Friday (1940): Fantastic energy and performances, topped off with stunning direction and editing. It’s a screwball classic for a reason. It’s also got a bracingly dark undertone, especially when dealing with how emotionally deadening journalism can be as a career. Stand Up Guys (2013) The Kennel Murder Case (1933): Cute mystery.
Side Effects (2013) A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) Pitch Perfect (2012): A sweet, fun comedy that’s essentially Bring It On for acappella nerds. A few scenes were too juvenile to laugh at — making a snow angel in a slick of vomit isn’t fun to watch — but overall it’s an entertaining movie and a nice vehicle for Anna Kendrick, who’s been great since Rocket Science. Kendrick is also apparently in the Twilight movies, which I didn’t know until I checked out her filmography on IMDb. In my mind, it’s just Rocket Science, Up in the Air, the problematic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and now this. I like my version of things better. The Lady Eve (1941): Fantastic, funny, and sexy as hell. It’s actually amazing to see the level of sexuality and innuendo Preston Sturges gets away with here, since 1941 was smack in the middle of the stupefyingly dumb Hays Code era, which legislated puritanical morality into movies in the early 20th century as a way to dodge local censors. The first draft of the script was nixed because of “the definite suggestion of a sex affair between [the] two leads.” Such rules forced filmmakers to bend over backward sometimes, but few could pull off such contortions like Sturges. The fact that he made this and Sullivan’s Travels within 12 months is astonishing. The Odd Couple (1968): Another one of those I never got around to seeing until now. Jack Lemmon’s been a favorite of mine for a while — he’s better at body language in comedy and drama than anybody else you can name — but I was surprised at how great Walter Matthau was. Not that I expected less. Rather, I’d gone in figuring him to be the standard slob and straight man to Lemmon’s neurotic divorcee, but he turned out to be much more interesting and nuanced than that. The character’s prickly but sad, and Matthau plays it beautifully. This story’s also the source of all those sitcom scenes in which the dialogue between two men is mapped onto a traditionalist male-female relationship (one’s upset when the other’s late for dinner, etc.), but those scenes really work here, probably because it’s not trying to ape anything. The movie’s also shot really well, too, and despite the klieg-light vibe that was still prevalent in the late 1960s, d.p. Robert B. Hauser makes great use of the frame. A great comedy, and nice to look at, too.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959): A fantastic drama and legal thriller, and especially notable for the way Jimmy Stewart’s character cares more about winning than telling the truth. Amazing performances, and the Criterion release has wonderful extras. Much Ado About Nothing (2013) We Cause Scenes (2013): My first night of SXSW, I arrived earlier than I'd planned, so I had time to check out a movie with some friends. We Cause Scenes is cute but forgettable, a documentary about Improv Everywhere and their history with staging public scenes/pranks/happenings. It's basically a prolonged interview with the founder, which makes the story feel one-sided and a little hagiographical. A Teacher (2013): A colleague strongly advised me to skip this one, and I should have listened. Turgid, overwrought, and suffocating, it's a drama about a female teacher sleeping with a male student and going through some kind of general existential crisis in the process. The Bounceback (2013): This comedy about two exes trying to get over each other had some cute moments, but it mostly feels like B-roll commissioned by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. I think the reason it premiered at the Paramount Theater at SXSW, instead of a smaller venue, was simply to show some love to the city. Upstream Color (2013): A truly great and challenging and interesting film. Writer-director Shane Carruth's first film since 2004's Primer, this movie deals with trippy sci-fi ideas and bizarre love stories in amazing ways. Carruth's got a synthetic approach to filmmaking — rather than work linearly, he jumps between stories so quickly that you let them wash over you until everything clicks into place. I want to spend some more time with this one. Before Midnight (2013) Mud (2013): A smart, warm movie about boys and friendship. Matthew McConaughey is great. It’s so easy to make coming-of-age movies feel cliched or dumb, but this one avoids easy outs. Awful Nice (2013): This was my Turkey Bowl moment at SXSW 2013: the surprising comedy that won me over. It’s a road trip movie about two sparring brothers who fix up an old family cabin, but the acting and the characters make it special. Go for Sisters (2013): Some good stuff here from John Sayles, but overall a little slow and ponderous. Don Jon (2013) The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) Dial M for Murder (1954): A solid thriller from Hitchcock. Not as great as some of his others, but some great scene work.
Trance (2013) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): There’s usually a winter/spring lull where I can see more movies at home via Netflix or Blu-ray, and 2013 was no exception. This always happens. I’m fired up by a new year and the idea of seeing more movies that I’ve always meant to see, but a few months in, I find myself hemmed in by work and other obligations, and my movie-watching declines a little. I only saw four movies in April, but I was paid to review three of them. I’m glad, then, that my one excursion into cinematic history for the month was with Kramer vs. Kramer. All I knew going in was that it was about divorce, but I’d expected it to be about the custody battle. That’s in it, but I had no idea the film would really be about a man (Dustin Hoffman) whose wife (Meryl Streep) leaves him, at which point he has to juggle work and fatherhood. It’s very late-1970s, but in a good way — everyone says “analyst” instead of “therapist,” and it’s clearly new ground for a dad to be so touchy-feely. The performances are wonderful, though, and you’re reminded of what made Hoffman such a star. Trivia: Hoffman won an Oscar for best actor here after a string of nominations, and he used his acceptance speech to attack the very premise of one actor being better than another. It’s amazing to see. (Though the speech didn’t stop him from accepting the Oscar, or the one he got for Rain Man almost a decade later.) To the Wonder (2013) Oblivion (2013)
The Great Gatsby (2013) Big Trouble in Little China (1986): A weird, hallucinatory movie. I didn’t hate it, but it did leave me wondering why so many people love it. My guess is it’s because they grew up with it. If you see this for the first time as a boy, it’ll probably stick with you as a nostalgic adventure. If not, well, there’s a little less on offer. District 9 (2009): I finally got around to seeing this, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a reminder that great sci-fi is all about characters, not effects. The effects here (CG and physical) are either slight or cheap-looking, but they totally work because the story’s so good. Gymkata (1985): Hilariously bad (which is why my friends and I watched it). Sometimes the movie goes for minutes on end with no dialogue, just gymnastics-fighting. A Face in the Crowd (1957): One of things I love about watching older movies is the way it reminds you that people have been making electric, challenging movies for far longer than you’ve been alive. It’s so, so easy to only see current movies, but more than that, to think that current movies are the only ones that can really speak to the human condition as we understand it. It’s a kind of generational prejudice that everyone deals with, no matter how old they are. I fight it all the time. Movies like A Face in the Crowd are the best way to combat that attitude. It’s a searing look at media manipulation and the politics of persuasion, and it features an amazing lead performance from Andy Griffith as an ex-con turned folksy radio star who becomes enamored of his own power. It was produced and directed by Elia Kazan, but it hasn’t held onto the public or critical imagination the way some of his other projects have, like A Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront. It’s every bit the classic those are, though, and it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Not nearly as enjoyable or fun as its 2009 predecessor. It’s too long, overly dour, needlessly complicated (everybody wants to be The Dark Knight), and worst of all, it tries to remake Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s not just that Wrath of Khan is a good film that didn’t need to be remade, but that the whole point of this rebooted universe was to get new stories featuring slightly different versions of the characters we used to know. What’s the point in riffing on Khan? Frances Ha (2013): Although Noah Baumbach’s debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, remains a wonderful and bittersweet look at post-grad life, much of his filmography throughout the 2000s was just plain bitter. I can’t stand the acid hate of Margot at the Wedding or the lumbering dissociation of The Squid and the Whale, nor the bitter shot he injected into The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I was happily surprised, then, to discover that Frances Ha was a funny, wistful, moving story about a woman coming into her own in the wasteland of young adulthood. Credit star and co-writer Greta Gerwig for the film’s successes. She’s perfect in the role, equally sympathetic and bull-headed. Mr. Mom (1983): One of those 1980s cable classics that I just never saw. Sometimes movies just slip by you. It’s a kick to watch this now; 30 years on, nobody’d really blink at a stay-at-home dad (well, Jimmy Fallon might), but even with dated gender politics the film still holds up thanks to its cast and verve. The Bling Ring (2013) World War Z (2013) White House Down (2013)
The Way Way Back (2013) Jack Reacher (2012): A surprisingly solid action-drama, and worth watching for the way it emphasizes story and motive instead of just brainless explosions and chases. I’ve never read any of the Jack Reacher books, but I know from the almost endless complaints online that Tom Cruise is much smaller than the fictional Jack Reacher was written to be. But writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote The Usual Suspects) has put together a strong movie, and Cruise’s cool persona is a nice fit for the genre. Ruby Sparks (2012): A frank and engaging look at the creative process, romantic delusion, and the dangers of trying to keep our partners boxed in. Zoe Kazan, who stars as Ruby, wrote the script, and it’s a pointed, funny, moving deconstruction of manic pixie dream girls and juvenile wish fulfillment. Definitely worth seeking out. Brubaker (1980): The structure here’s a little wobbly — Robert Redford says maybe five words in the first half hour — but the meat of the story, about a warden (Redford) trying to reform a corrupt and abusive prison, is great. It’s got what feels like every character actor from the 1970s and 1980s in it, too, as well as a brief appearance by a fantastically young and skinny Morgan Freeman. (Though Freeman was already 43 when the film came out.) Redford’s made so many interesting film choices in his career, and I always find his movies worthwhile. Night Train to Munich (1940): Modest. There’s a lot to like here, at least on paper: spy drama, tense chases on a train, Rex Harrison as a swaggering British agent. But the plot chokes on everything it tries to do, and the titular night train doesn’t show up until the final act. The climactic chase scene through the mountains has so much energy that you realize how dull the rest of the film was. No Way Out (1987): A great movie. It’s a little slow to start, and very much of its cinematic era (the love scene has its own terrible ballad written by Paul Anka and Michael McDonald), but around the half-hour mark it just explodes. The rest of the film is a fantastic ride based on a manhunt, a love triangle, and Cold War paranoia. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman are dependably great here, but Will Patton really brings the heat as a cunning and ruthless political operative.
The Women (1939): Part of the allure of The Women is the gimmick of its production: there’s not a single man on screen, in any role, during the film. But the film’s not some trick or exercise, and its casting and execution isn’t a distraction, but a way to underscore the focus on the lives and fluctuating relationships of a loose collection of friends (and enemies) in New York City. George Cukor’s direction is fantastic, and the entire cast is perfect, especially Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. Trivia: Some of the jokes from the original play had to be cut or rewritten to meet the standards of the Production Code. Suspicion (1941): I didn’t plan to watch three Joan Fontaine classics in a row (starting with The Women and continuing with this and Rebecca), but those are the kind of happy accidents that come when you explore old movies and follow rabbit trails from one to another. Suspicion is a wonderful suspense picture, but it’s also surprisingly soft in the middle, and a little duplicitous. If you suspect someone of harboring a secret, they aren’t going to start acting any differently just because of your belief. You might interpret their actions in a new light, but they won’t just start lurking in shadows, rubbing their hands together menacingly, and drifting off in the middle of conversations. It’s a bit of a cheat, even in a film, to push a character’s purported evil so hard and then reverse course just to manipulate the viewer. Still, the film’s well worth watching, and Harry Stradling’s cinematography is breathtaking. Rebecca (1940): This was fantastic. Moody, grim, weird, sexual, psychotic, and totally gripping. I attempted to read the book a few years ago, but I couldn’t quite lock in, so I moved on. (Which was disappointing simply because I’d spent so much time looking for a copy of the book that didn’t look like a cheap romance novel.) Hitchcock’s direction and control are masterful here, and the gothic aura is unforgettable. Lovelace (2013) The World's End (2013): The third film in Edgar Wright’s loosely related “Cornetto trilogy” is wonderful, sad, funny, and as engaging as you’d expect. It strains a little more than the others to make some of its points, though. Shaun of the Dead remains the tightest and funniest of the lot. Gone With the Wind (1939): For years, I’d resisted watching Gone With the Wind. I knew its place in movie history (most popular movie of all time), and I knew its trivia (first Oscar for a black performer), but it just never interested me. Yet I felt a sense of duty to give it a chance, and to see what it was about. Part of the fun and challenge of exploring older movies is not ruling them out categorically just because you think you know what they’ll be. So in that sense, I’m glad I watched Gone With the Wind. The scope and craft are evident, even if the final film feels a little too slickly produced and drained of any particular directorial voice. What’s weird, though, is the way the film is touted (usually in its own posters, like this or this) as a period romance, when in actuality it’s a dark drama about two terrible people who shouldn’t be together and who wind up destroying each other’s lives and just about everyone else’s around them. That’s not a bad premise for a story, either; the disconnect comes when the film’s style and tone treat these people as somewhat likeable rogues or admirable heroes for doing what they do. Scarlett O’Hara’s ruthless drive to survive means she’s willing to steal a suitor away from her sister just so she can marry into money, and this is one of those points the film just kind of glosses over in its rush to cram as much of Margaret Mitchell’s novel as possible into the confines of the movie screen. And even with the benefit of historical context and the reminder that films from different eras and localities are liable to seem shocking by today’s standards, it’s tough to watch a film that so blatantly peddles Lost Cause politics in the middle of its melodrama. There are some great performances here — Vivien Leigh has some astonishing moments — but the film’s weird tonal issues kept throwing me. It’s as if it didn’t want to admit how gruesome it really was.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): I've still got a few lamentable gaps in my Coen brothers viewing, so I was glad to rent this. It’s the kind of rapid-fire, stylized, magical-realist stuff that’s very much in the Coens’ 1990s style. Jayne Mansfield’s Car (2013) Blow Out (1981): DePalma’s spiritual successor to Antonioni’s Blow-Up is every bit a classic, from DePalma’s tongue-in-cheek jabs at his own critics with the movie-within-a-movie opening to the exhilarating suspense and chases. Quick, brutal, smart, and convincing. Thrillers like this are all too rare. A Single Shot (2013) The Living Daylights (1987): I’m not a big Bond fan. I’ve seen most of the Connery-era entries and a few others — my first was Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the role, GoldenEye — but for the most part I find them overplotted, overlong, and never as good as their opening sequences suggest they’ll be. The Living Daylights, though, turned out to be better than average. Part of it was Timothy Dalton’s performance: he seems slightly embarrassed by the corny sexcapades and way more interested in being a killer spy. It’s also a reasonably solid adventure story. The final act is about 20 minutes too long, but it’s still more fun to watch than some of the series’ less exciting entries. Weirdest part: an anti-Soviet action movie from the 1980s means the Mujahideen are sidekicks and heroes, which wouldn’t exactly make the cut post-9/11. We cycle through stock villains blindly, based on whoever we’re supposed to hate at the moment. Your Sister's Sister (2011): A great, refreshing, honest little film. Aside from the opening scene (set at a party) and a few shots in a small town, the whole thing is just three people: Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt. The romantic and dramatic tension is organic and believable, and after some summer misfires, it felt great to watch a movie with recognizably human characters.
Gravity (2013) This Is the End (2013): Broad comedies like this can play really well in a theater, and had I seen it on the big screen instead of on Blu-ray, I might’ve liked it more simply because of the communal experience. But watching it by myself on a weekend afternoon, I was able to see its flaws and strengths more clearly. It feels a little weak, stapled together from random ideas. Captain Phillips (2013) The Kings of Summer (2013): A strong, moving, often funny coming-of-age story. It occasionally tips its hand, though, shifting from jokes that make sense for the characters (funny interactions, lines, fights, etc.) to jokes that are a little broader and wall-breaking, as if to say to the viewer “Isn’t this a funny, wacky thing we’re doing?” When the film stays rooted in its own world, though, it’s fantastic. Running Scared (1986): A great buddy-cop movie that I was happy to discover. The comedy’s funny, the action’s serious, and the leads have good chemistry. A well-assembled piece of Hollywood product. 12 Years a Slave (2013) Call Northside 777 (1948): Call Northside 777 is based on a true story, and out of a desire to respect the facts of the case, the filmmakers opt for a heavily narrated, plodding, methodical reconstruction. It feels almost like a documentary or re-enactment, minus the drama. At 1 hour 51 minutes, it’s also easily 20 minutes too long. Had the underlying story been turned into an actual propulsive narrative, the finished product might’ve been better. Monkey Business (1952): Cute, harmless, enjoyable screwball comedy from Howard Hawks. There’s not a lot to it — scientist Cary Grant and wife Ginger Rogers drink a youth formula and act like kids and teenagers — but it’s fun, witty, and briskly directed. Well worth my time. The Counselor (2013) The Last Days of Disco (1998): It took me a little while to warm up to Whit Stillman, but I really enjoy him now. I think a big part of it was my inability to see the bigger picture when I was younger. His films are about insecure young people looking for a sense of identity, and when you’re actually one of those people, watching a movie about it can be grating. (His characters are tough to love, too.) But I really connected with this movie, and I was able to see the honesty and care with which Stillman explored the lives of these myopic recent graduates. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Iron Man 3 (2013): I never saw Iron Man 2, but I still wanted to see Iron Man 3. Maybe it was a sense of duty to see what happened in the year’s highest grossing movie, or just a desire to catch up with that particular corner of pop culture. So I rented the Blu-ray through Netflix. It was not completely terrible — Shane Black’s voice did manage to come through on occasion — but it suffered from the problems that plague most superhero movies. It was overplotted, hammy, and inherently duplicitous about its story. I don’t mean any twists or reveals about bad guys. I mean plots that flirt with the idea that Tony Stark might hang up his flying boots, as if we don’t all know that Marvel is gonna milk this cow as long as they can, or deus ex machina moments where Tony can suddenly call upon dozens of auto-piloting Iron Man suits to come to his rescue. What was missing was a real sense of danger and adventure. The first Iron Man film is still the best, and not accidentally is about one guy, in one suit, trying to stop a bigger guy in a bigger suit. It’s about a character’s struggle to find himself. This third go-round felt like a chore for the filmmakers. Smoke Signals (1998): Warm, funny, wistful, and a great change of pace from superhero movies. It’s also got some wonderful edits that work on multiple levels. An adult character will open a door, but a match cut to the other side of the door shows the kid version walking through, and suddenly we’re in the past. Or there’s the way the camera will slowly pan away from the young versions of the characters to pick up the action with their adult selves. Stuff like this is low-cost and effective, but it also underscores the film’s focus on the way memory bleeds backward and forward through our lives, so we’re always living in two places. The only misfire: a terrible wig given to one of the main characters after he cuts his own late in the film. It became impossible not to stare at it. It was hilariously bad. Manhattan (1979): After watching this, I realized it was already on my running list of every movie I’ve ever seen. But I had few (if any) memories of the film, and watching it again felt like seeing it for the first time. There was only one real moment of deja vu where I came close to remembering the film, and it was when Isaac is listing his favorite things about life. I trust myself and the list enough to know that I must’ve seen it before, sometime, but I really couldn’t recall the film. So it occupies a weird space between a fresh screening and a rewatch. Nebraska (2013) Breaking Away (1979): One of the best things about this film — written and directed by Peter Yates, a workhorse throughout the 1970s and 1980s whose varied c.v. includes The Friends of Eddie Coyle to Krull — is its resistance to certain plot twists or gimmicks that would strain the already potent drama that comes with growing up. For instance, young Dave’s tension with his dad feels natural, lived-in, and prickly on both sides; there’s no melodramatic ultimatum. They simply live and learn about each other. It’s a fun, very 1970s coming-of-age story, and the climactic bicycle race is fantastic. Fandango (1985): Another coming-of-age tale, this one starring Kevin Costner and written and directed by Kevin Reynolds. (Reynolds would go on to direct Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, as well as the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.) It’s a sweet, occasionally clunky, endearing road trip movie about a band of friends who go for one last adventure right after they graduate college, before a couple of them have to ship out to Vietnam. Trivia: the film started as a short about Reynolds’ alma mater, Baylor, but the school was changed to UT in the feature version. The film got almost no play when it opened in 1985, either, grossing less than $100,000 on a $4 million budget. Cinema Paradiso (1988): A rangy, heartbreaking movie about the power of film and the way love and youth conspire to haunt us all. I liked the film very much, and I was fascinated to learn that the version people watch is actually a shorter version than director Giuseppe Tornatore originally released. The short version cuts about half an hour out of the film, including a more bitter subplot that changes the meaning of some of the film’s final moments. I prefer the shorter cut. Stories We Tell (2013): A great documentary about the way we construct meaning from the stories in our lives, and how nobody ever remembers what really happened. For a longer look, go here. Prizzi's Honor (1985): A good film and pleasantly dark comedy, but not as winning as I’d hoped it would be. Muscle Shoals (2013): The music recorded at Fame Studios in the 1960s and 1970s is part of American pop culture history, and this documentary about the studio’s birth and growth is a great look at the music business. Short Term 12 (2013): I missed this at SXSW earlier in the year, and I was so glad I had a chance to catch up with it. It’s a small but searing story about emotionally damaged kids living at a foster-care facility. Brie Larson is wonderful, but the kids are just as outstanding. Keith Stanfield in particular blew me away. Enough Said (2013): I felt relief wash over me a few minutes after I started this movie. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “Movies about real people do exist.” Nicole Holofcener’s film is many things — funny, insightful, honest, bittersweet — but most of all it’s a reminder that there are creators and storytellers out there who know how to make films about recognizably real people, and who understand how to explore the interactions of relatable human beings. Sometimes, in the midst of the summer movie season, it can be hard to remember what those movies are like. Brooklyn Castle (2012): There’s nothing earth-shaking in this documentary, but it’s still a warm and interesting look at lower-income students who stand out by doing something most kids don’t do at any level: kick ass at chess. It sacrifices some narrative power for messaging purposes (this is one of those documentaries that ends with a website and call to action on screen), but it’s still worth the journey. The House I Live In (2012): Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight was a brutal and riveting look at the military-industrial complex, and he brings that same curiosity and acumen to his examination of the modern criminal justice system and its failed war on drugs. He explores poverty, class, American history, and the way drugs are ritually criminalized to penalize certain groups. It’s engaging stuff, if also a bit horrifying. The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013): I loved the way this film used Americana music, with its roots in mourning and family, to explore tragedy for its characters. Some of the most heartbreaking performances (musical and otherwise) I’d seen all year. It's as moving and sorrowful and loving as anything I've seen in a long time. I talk more about the film and its use of bluegrass music here.
American Hustle (2013) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) Out of the Furnace (2013) Frozen (2013): One of Disney’s best in quite a while. I didn’t like Tangled that much: it felt derivative and flat, with forgettable music and recycled storylines. But Frozen was charming and entertaining throughout, and it was anchored by better vocalists (like Idina Menzel) and much more memorable songs. I bought the soundtrack the day after I saw the movie. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that. Fruitvale Station (2013): Well-made and appropriately heartbreaking, though I think the film loses something by veering into documentary/messaging mode toward the end. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic, though. Monsters University (2013): Fair. It’s a cute enough riff on Animal House, but less original and entertaining than the first film. It’s hard to do a prequel where the stakes really matter. Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Man of Steel (2013): Hilariously maudlin. Superman doesn’t even look like he’s having that much fun when he learns to fly. There’s a refreshing premise here — Superman’s introduction to the world is as an alien who might be just as dangerous as the other ones that just showed up, so he has to earn the trust of the military — but director Zack Snyder is still trying to shoot generic ads that call themselves movies. (From a distance, Man of Steel looks like a Levi’s commercial that takes place entirely at sunset.) It’s also at least 45 minutes too long, and the final battle is plastic, ugly, and drowning in CGI. Plus the romantic plotline is so tacked-on it’s embarrassing. Live and Let Die (1973): Amazingly kooky. Bond’s riff on blaxploitation was probably already tone-deaf when it hit screens 40 years ago, and it’s only grown weirder since. When the film isn’t embarrassing, it’s just strange: there’s a huge chase sequence featuring shot after shot of boats jumping roads and cars, almost entirely devoid of music. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): A great, moody, darkly comic, sympathetic portrait of an artist forever on the fringes of success and happiness. I wrote more about it here. August: Osage County (2013) Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012): I was drawn to Ricky Jay before I even knew who he was: the first thing I knew him to be was the voice of the narrator in Magnolia. When I discovered he was a world-class sleight-of-hand artist, I was hooked. This documentary is a good look at the magicians who influenced his professional life, and it covers some of the same ground as this wonderful 1993 New Yorker piece. It's a breezy but entertaining look at the guy, and probably as deep as you can get into someone who steadfastly refuses to discuss almost all aspects of his personal life before age 18. The Trip (2010): A bittersweet look at middle age, careers, ego, and mortality, told through jokes and some improv between a couple of brilliant performers. (This is the feature film version released internationally, which was cut down from a six-episode series that aired on the BBC.) Not Fade Away (2012): A shaggy but endearing coming-of-age story about college kids trying to make their rock band hang together in the 1960s. I was gratified to see that writer-director David Chase (in his first feature) didn't try to shoehorn his characters into Forrest Gump situations; nobody here is going to accidentally wind up teaching Mick Jagger how to sing, or something. Some parts don't work as well as others, but overall it's a good little movie. It's always a pleasure to rediscover recent releases that seemed to come and go with little fanfare; this one came out in the final weeks of 2012, never played more than 600 theaters, and grossed only $610,000. Here's to hoping more people seek it out.
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 104 Documentaries: 4 Animated films: 2 Movies released in 2013: 54 Movies released before 2013: 50 Movies released before 2000: 40 Movies released before 1950: 13 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 6 Number of 2013 releases I reviewed: 31 Favorites (in no particular order): The Long Goodbye, The Lady Vanishes, The Lady Eve, Mud, A Face in the Crowd, Frances Ha, No Way Out, Rebecca, The Kings of Summer, Short Term 12, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Inside Llewyn Davis, Frozen, The Women