I can't remember which Web site I read it on, but in prefacing his 10-best list, one movie-reviewing pundit expressed his wish that rankings of this sort be published 10 years after the fact, so he could have a full decade to digest, re-re-view, and potentially re-evaluate what he initially decreed were his favorite films for a particular calendar year. I love that idea, but would also be grateful for a just few extra weeks.
So much space is spent on superlatives in this annual "10 Most Enjoyable Movies of the Year" roundup that I almost feel physically compelled as a critic - a job for which the adjectives "bitter" and "cranky" and worse are usually attached - to begin with a burst of negativity. So: Damn our area for not being a big enough movie market, unlike New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, to (yet) book acclaimed and/or Oscar-bait-y titles such as Her and Inside Llewyn Davis and Blue Is the Warmest Color and August: Osage Country and Lone Survivor! [1/9 update: Blue Is the Warmest Color probably won't ever arrive, but the other four titles open locally tomorrow. Ah, the power of bitching!] Or many of the titles nominated for independent cinema's Spirit Awards! Or more than three foreign-language films total! Damn you, area! If you weren't so not-as-big as New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, I wouldn't be complaining right now!
And now that that's behind us ... .
Of course our market can't support the release of everything an area film fan might want to catch prior to a year-end, best-in-show recap. But we movie lovers were still, in many regards, treated more than kindly over the past 12 months' worth of cineplex entertainment - and particularly so if, like me, your favorite movie of 2004 (even after nine years of digesting, re-re-viewing, and re-evaluation) miraculously inspired your favorite movie of 2013 ... .
1) Before Midnight. There's a moment in this second sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise that, if you've watched and loved that splendid screen romance and 2004's even more marvelous follow-up Before Sunset, might easily chill the blood. Our fiercely intelligent, incessantly chatty protagonists - Ethan Hawke's Jessie and Julie Delpy's Celine - are spending the night at a charming inn in Greece, and after Celine complains about their room in the midst of one of the longtime lovers' many squabbles, Jessie, aiming for seductive, makes the mistake of saying, "I like hotels. I find them sexy." After just the tiniest of pauses, Celine, with a telling tonal flatness, says, "Yeah. I know you do." And in a flash, in terms of everything you think you know about the couple, your world turns upside down. Did Jessie have an affair? If so, how long has Celine known about it? And why the hell didn't we know about it sooner? Don't these people know that this affects us, too?! In 1995, of course, there was no way Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater - all of whom share Before Midnight's screenwriting credit - could know the profound effect that Jessie's and Celine's initial flirtation on a Venice train would have 18 years after the fact. But now, with this supremely artful, passionate, and, above all, moving outing, it's clear that American movies have never before produced anything quite like the trio of Before pictures. With utter honesty and inspiring understanding and empathy, the films' collective 270-ish minutes have managed to encapsulate, critique, and celebrate both an 18-year passion and (in what might be the more challenging achievement) an 18-year commitment, and in something approaching real time, no less. And while watching Jessie and Celine, here, duking it out and continually, tentatively finding their ways back to one another - and, as with that dropped hint about Jessie possibly cheating, always finding new ways to surprise us - you feel that you're getting insight into modern relationships in a way you never before have on-screen. Oh, and while Hawke and Delpy give intensely brave, vanity-free performances, it's to our enormous good fortune that they're also superb comedians; for all of its aching emotionalism, the movie is pretty freaking hilarious. I adored every single second of this film. May Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy please keep the series running every nine years until its characters' love has turned into Amour.
2) Blue Jasmine. You've no doubt heard how magnificent Cate Blanchett is as a fallen, gradually-losing-her-marbles socialite in writer/director Woody Allen's present-day homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, and will no doubt hear more in the weeks leading to the performer's eventual, hugely earned Oscar victory. So while agreeing that Blanchett's almost feverishly inspired tragic and tragicomic portrayal is, indeed, one for the ages - her character, in the story, seeming to collapse in tandem with the American economy - allow me to highlight a few other specifics that, following a second cineplex viewing of the film, helped turn Blue Jasmine into my new favorite Allen endeavor of the past two decades. (With apologies to Midnight in Paris, which held that title for all of two years.) Sally Hawkins' and Bobby Cannavale's loving, frisky rapport as Allen's Stella and Stanley Kowalski stand-ins. Peter Sarsgaard's horrified shock at his new fiancée's secret past, one bluntly recounted by a startlingly empathetic Andrew Dice Clay. The lucid complexity of Allen's narrative, with its flashback-laden structure allowing for two simultaneously realized breakdowns, and their combined emotional force suggesting less Tennessee Williams than Aeschylus or Sophocles. The dialogue that reveals both character and station with extraordinary succinctness and wit ("I don't know how people breathe with a low ceiling!"). And, lest I forget, that Chanel jacket that Jasmine flaunts with such blasé pride that you barely notice, until a second viewing, just how many scenes this nearly destitute woman wears it in, and what a horrifying state - pit stains and all - it's in at the climax, much like our tortured "heroine" herself. This is Woody Allen's 45th feature film. Maybe you have to direct 44 others to make one this good.
3) 12 Years a Slave. Director Steve McQueen's period saga about a free black man from the North - and the many, many disenfranchised blacks from the South - forced to endure the grueling horrors of slavery was only released two and a half months ago, and already its greatness appears to have been taken, by some, for granted. (Including, I'm ashamed to admit, myself at times: The movie hasn't even been nominated yet, but it does seem a bit like 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture ages ago.) Filmmaking this miraculous, however, can't possibly be undervalued. Working from John Ridley's exceptionally eloquent and heartbreaking script, McQueen explores the deplorable institution of slavery with such a clear yet furious eye and such perverse patience - oh, that minutes-long sequence of Solomon Northrup hanging from that tree ... - that you feel you understand its brutality, and weep for its victims, in ways you never thought possible. And with dazzling work offered by Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson (whose casual chucking of a glass decanter may be the movie year's most shocking act of unanticipated brutality), Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and numerous others, Chiwetel Ejiofor's searing intensity and frequently hidden reserves of anguish and mortification ache on reflection perhaps just as much as they do in the moment; I can't even think about the actor's final scene ("I apologize for my appearance ... ") without welling up. An instant classic, and a deserved one, and if its inclusion under a heading of "the 10 most enjoyable movies of 2013" gives you pause, I understand. On the strictest of terms, the film itself isn't "enjoyable." Yet watching dedicated artists of all stripes working at the height of their talents? Enjoyable as hell.
4) Enough Said. I guess you could characterize writer/director Nicole Holofcener's latest as "just" a sweet and touching romantic comedy, or "just" a spirited look at mid-life uncertainty and acceptance, or "just" a great chance to spend a couple hours with beloved TV vets Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, universally missed James Gandolfini. But those "just"s wouldn't come close to suggesting the gentle, humane perfection of Holofcener's achievement. A few uncharitable critics have described Enough Said's central plot - which, long story short, finds Louis-Dreyfus falling for the much-derided ex-husband of her new best friend - as "sitcom-y," forgetting, of course, that (a) some sitcoms are fantastic, and (b) the breezy, charmingly off-the-cuff exchanges that Holofcener writes for her film's comfortably privileged Southern Californians don't really resemble standard sitcom-speak in any way. To be sure, characters here find themselves in situations that are comedic (and, particularly in Louis-Dreyfus' scenes with screen daughter Tracey Fairaway, lightly melancholic), but the comedy always emerges as honest, and for the 100 minutes of indie-film mainstay Holofcener's finest offering to date, there's not a single inflection or reaction or observation that doesn't. I'll be revisiting this one plenty in the future, and once more viewers catch up with it upon its home-video release this month, I'm thinking plenty of others will, too. (This title, by the way, was one that never appeared at our area's first-run multiplexes, instead debuting locally at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas. Many thanks, Nova 6! Not to be ungrateful, but any chance now for All Is Lost or Short Term 12 or The Spectacular Now?)
5) Gravity. By contrast, and as much as I love the movie, I'm not sure how often I'll be revisiting director Alfonso Cuarón's singular space thriller in the coming years, if only because my home-theater viewings will never, ever be able to approximate the experience of seeing Gravity, for the first time, in 3D on a huge-ass cineplex screen, when my innards were in knots and my feet felt as through they were dangling off the floor. I will also not need to see Cuarón's visionary, epic-in-scope-if-not-length cinematic miracle to remember how frequently I was astonished by the film's staggering opening sequence that appears to run 15 minutes without an edit, or by the scenes of spacecraft debris hurling at us with terrifying - and, composer Steven Price's contributions excepted, silent - speed and violence, or even by the helmet-enclosed face of Sandra Bullock, her expressive fear and sorrow making dialogue irrelevant. In the end, I wish that Cuarón and his co-screenwriter son Jonás agreed with me more about the dialogue's irrelevance (while the visuals are ethereal, Bullock's and George Clooney's lines frequently thud), and the imagery suggesting both spiritual and physical re-birth, although gorgeously rendered, was a tad obvious for my liking. But it's a measure of the film's visual rapture that it's placed so highly in my top-10 rankings regardless; it's an almost unquestionable new high point for its genre, and it definitely offered more sheer enjoyment than any of 2013's other $200-million-plus blockbusters. Love the Marvin the Martian gag, too.
6) Fruitvale Station. With the exceptions of Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, and number seven below, I've thus far seen the movies on this year's list only one time each. But I don't think I'm looking forward to a repeat viewing of any of them more than this tough-minded and incensed feature-film debut by writer/director Ryan Coogler, whose simple, low-key, but powerfully affecting efforts here indicate the arrival of a major new voice. Using as his inspiration the seemingly mundane 24 hours of phone calls, texts, errands, and obligations leading up to the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on an Oakland, California, subway platform, Coogler demonstrates the extraordinary drama inherent in an "ordinary" life, with our knowledge of this true-life tale's outcome lending a horrible, heart-wrenching inevitability and dread to Grant's every action. (Even chores as theoretically throwaway as his buying grocery-store seafood are laced with portent and sadness.) Yet it's Coogler's brilliant strategy to also make this day in a life so suffused with contradictions - despite its frequently downbeat tone, there's room for laughter and surprise and familial and romantic joy - with star Michael B. Jordan making Grant so spectacularly vivid, so eager to make the right choices while attempting to sidestep wrong ones, that the phrase "gone too soon" feels both accurate and grossly insufficient. The audience with whom I saw the film remained glued to their seats during the end credits. Here's hoping that, in home-theater environments, many more will soon find themselves glued to their couches.
7) Prisoners. Is it wrong if, while discussing a bleak, deliberately paced film about missing and potentially murdered children, you can't stop thinking about how much fun the movie is? If so, is it equally wrong if you can't stop thinking about how unbelievably beautiful the movie is? Maybe. But after recently purchasing director Denis Villeneuve's dramatic thriller - one that explores, in painstaking detail, the aftermath of a particularly nightmarish Thanksgiving for two unlucky families - I'm not prepared to backtrack on either opinion. The "fun" part will certainly be a matter of taste, as Villeneuve's 140-minute kidnapping-procedural-slash-
8) American Hustle. It could have, and maybe should have, been an utter mess: Writer/director David O. Russell reuniting some of his Oscar-nominated and -winning actors from The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook for a madcap screwball comedy (with dramatic undercurrents) about Abscam, for heaven's sake. But from the gloriously tacky '70s costumes and hairstyles to the the motor-mouthed ramblings of ethically challenged characters who, hilariously, just don't know when to shut the hell up, I ate Russell's and co-writer Eric Warren Singer's December release up with a spoon and am definitely hungry for seconds. For all of the corrupt dealings and legitimate tension on display, the movie is fervently about play: Amy Adams playing with an intentionally erratic British accent; Bradley Cooper's deluded mama's boy playing the smoothie; the unexpectedly cheerful play-acting of Christian Bale, wrestling with what must rank among cinema's most (intentionally) aggressively awful hairpieces. Adding to all this inventive jocularity plotting that verges off in deliriously unpredictable directions, Jeremy Renner's man-of-the-people sweetheart, Jennifer Lawrence's laugh-'til-you-cry blowsiness (her reaction to Bale's gift of a newfangled "science oven" may be the cinematic belly laugh of the year), and Russell's freewheeling yet remarkably confident control over the dozens of balls he's simultaneously juggling, and American Hustle stands as this past Christmas' most thoroughly satisfying cineplex present.
9) Lee Daniels' The Butler. Now here's a film that, in many ways, actually is an utter mess - and I can't imagine wanting it any other way. Once a historical saga casts Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, you can be pretty well assured that verisimilitude won't be in the offing. But I still didn't expect director Daniels' tale of a White House employee who serves in silence through seven presidential administrations to be so unapologetically nuts, with its scenes of burlesque, near-slapstick comedy resting more or less comfortably beside scenes of unbridled emotionalism and pathos, and its potentially outrageous and offensive Forrest Gump structure somehow seeming like the most logical road map through the strange, singular tapestry that we call America. Through it all, Forest Whitaker gives a portrayal that, in its quiet way, is as multi-faceted and complicated as any on the actor's résumé, and if you threw a rock in Hollywood, you could probably smack somebody who gives an enjoyable performance in Lee Daniels' The Butler, with its huge cast featuring Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, and lots and lots of others in top-tier form. Bonus points to whoever thought to cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Papa Henry might be rolling in his grave, but while watching her hysterically pert and damned near perfect turn, the rest of us were rolling in the aisles.
10) Captain Phillips. With several titles jockeying for this list's number-10 position - among them the apocalyptic-satire two-fer of This Is the End and The World's End and even, I kid you not, the deliriously entertaining, guilt-free guilty pleasure that is Roland Emmerich's White House Down - I'm going with a relatively safe, relatively predictable option in Captain Phillips. And while, after its initially disheartening opening minutes, I had an excellent time at director Paul Greengrass' oceanic-hijacking thriller, I've chosen to include it here for one simple reason: Its last five minutes are among the most effective, memorable five minutes of the entire movie year. Once Greengrass' and screenwriter Billy Ray's seafaring adventure gets rolling, with its quartet of desperate Somali pirates (led by the hauntingly fine Barkhad Abdi) proving their mettle in the face of American might, the film never lets up: The tension is wonderfully sustained, the shocks are quick and frightening, and, despite the scope of the work, everything plays out on a shockingly intimate scale; it's a big-budget blockbuster with a human pulse. Yet once the harrowing fun of the experience is over, Greengrass and Ray give us a coda - a medical examination of Tom Hanks' title character immediately post-rescue - that is truly unlike anything I've ever before seen on-screen. In Phillips' involuntary shaking (it's more like a sustained seizure) and panicked replies, we're shown, for maybe the first time in a "traditional" action pic, the body's physical response to a stalwart über-hero's mental stress. And in Tom Hanks' astonishing performance in this scene, we're reminded that even the most lauded of actors, when presented with the challenge, can still deliver amazing surprises.
And, for a more complete view of my movie-watching experiences over the past 12 months, a handful of additional lists of 10 for your consideration ... .
10-Cineplex-Favorites Runners-Up: The Conjuring, Frozen, Mama, The Place Beyond the Pines, Spring Breakers, This Is the End, White House Down, The Wolverine, World War Z, The World's End.
10 Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up: 42, Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Don Jon, The Family, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Mud, Pain & Gain, Star Trek Into Darkness, Warm Bodies.
10 Favorites That Didn't Open at Area Cineplexes: 56 Up, Blackfish, Bridegroom, Dirty Wars, Frances Ha, Lovelace, Much Ado About Nothing, Nebraska, Room 237, Stories We Tell. (All are available on home video except for Alexander Payne's Oscar hopeful Nebraska, which I caught in Chicagoland over the holidays and hope will hit area cineplexes soon, 'cause it's wonderful.)
10 Titles That Are Easy to Sit Through Under Any Circumstances: 2 Guns, Admission, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Generation Iron, The Heat, Iron Man 3, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Monsters University, Parker, The Way Way Back.
10 That Are Easy Enough to Sit Through, Although Perhaps Less Fun Than a Good Book or Long Nap: Beautiful Creatures, The Best Man Holiday, The Call, The Counselor, Evil Dead, The Great Gatsby, Metallica: Through the Never, Out of the Furnace, The Purge, Rush.
10 That I Expected to Really Dislike and Actually (Mostly) Enjoyed: 21 & Over, Escape Plan, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Grudge Match, A Haunted House, RED 2, Saving Mr. Banks, Scary Movie V, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas, We're the Millers.
10 That I Hoped to Love but Wound Up Disliking (and, in a Couple of Instances, Hating): Carrie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, Now You See Me, Oz the Great & Powerful, Philomena, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street.
10 Sequels I Really Could've Done Without: Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover: Part III, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Insidious: Chapter Two, The Last Exorcism: Part II, Machete Kills, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, The Smurfs 2, Thor: The Dark World.
10 Movies That Were Exactly as Bad as I Feared They'd Be ... and Maybe Even Worse ... : Battle of the Year, The Big Wedding, Escape from Planet Earth, Free Birds, A Good Day to Die Hard, Jobs, The Last Stand, Runner Runner, The To Do List, Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
And, without further ado, the bottoms of 2013's barrel ... .
10) Olympus Has Fallen. Just like White House Down, except not thrilling. And not funny. And with Gerard Butler.
9) About Time. For what?, I ask. For the Sentiment Police to finally crack down on Richard Curtis? For 35-year-old Rachel McAdams to stop playing wide-eyed ingénues in formula corn? For Bill Nighy to realize that if he keeps doing such heavy lifting in movies that don't deserve him, he's gonna throw his back out? Yes, yes, and yes.
8) Grown Ups 2. Adam Sandler and his buddies went on vacation, and we weren't invited. We just helped pay for it.
7) Identity Thief. Or, Time Thief. Or, Melissa-McCarthy's-Dignity Thief. Or, What's-Left-of-My-Hope-for-
6) Kick-Ass 2. Jim Carrey famously disassociated himself from this thuggish bore right as its publicity campaign was heating up. Better early than never, huh, Jim?
5) After Earth. The answer to the question, "Where in the dictionary do you find 'empty,' 'enervating,' 'exasperating,' and 'excruciating'?"
4) Only God Forgives. Maybe so. But for this movie, even He might consider sentencing Drive director Nicholas Windig Refn and star Ryan Gosling to eternal damnation in boring-and-pretentious-art-
3) Delivery Man. Abort! Abort!
2) The Host. You know, that sci-fi thing by the author of Twilight that left in a couple weeks and starred that girl from Lovely Bones who just looked lobotomized? Not as lobotomized as we suckers who watched the damned thing, but ... .
1) Movie 43. And if this were instead a ranking of the all-time worst movies I'd ever seen over 19 years in this job, I'm not sure my pick would be any different.