In 2013, the big screen of the darkened movie theater took a back seat to the decidedly smaller screen of the living room, as television shows asserted their dominance in the cultural conversation. Was there anything worth seeing this year? We dug deep, beneath the overblown action movies and mindless comedies, and found some gems.
Star Trek Into Darkness
With the dubious distinction of appearing on both our Best Movies and Worst of 2013 lists, Star Trek Into Darkness is not an easy movie to talk about. Was it a lot of Star Trek? Hell yeah it was! Was it maybe too much Star Trek? Kind of that too! Star Trek Into Darkness is the second film in director J. J. Abrams’ Trek reboot, and its wonderful actors absolutely own their roles, particularly Chris Pine as Jim Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock, whose on-screen chemistry is always a joy to watch. Add Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding villain, whose low, threatening voice seems to echo over the entire film, and Star Trek Into Darkness has enough talent to launch a thousand Enterprises. Whether all that is enough to make up for the film’s many plot holes and bizarre twists (does it count as a twist if we’ve been there before?), however, is up to each viewer to decide. Love it or hate it or some weird combination of both, Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that no sci-fi fan should miss. Even if just to gripe about the lack of colon between the “Star Trek” and the “Into Darkness” in the title. Because seriously, what’s up with that?
– Jill Scharr
Writer/director Harmony Korine has been responsible for putting a lot of shocking and bizarre things on film, often by manipulating little and filming what’s there. Spring Breakers is possibly his most nightmarish film: it is a neon, orange and shiny exhibition of the decadence and horror of spring break. It is a hurricane of repetition and images as the four young women go through the looking glass and into a what is initially to them a Wonderland of sun, sex, drinking, drugs, and Skrillex that soon turns into hell on earth. They learn to adapt and survive partially thanks to Alien, the eye of the hurricane played like a brain dead hip hop Looney Tune by James Franco. Some will love this film, some will absolutely despise it. What can’t be argued is that it’s a cult film through and through that will leave images burned into you brain. At times you will feel fucked up watching this even if you’re stone sober. And Alien’s mantra of “Spring breaaaak, Spring breaaaak forevaaaa” will rattle around in your brain long after Skrillex’s last drop.
– Michael Edwards
12 Years a Slave
Quite simply, it took a British director, Steve McQueen, to make American history reverberate. Based on the long forgotten memoir by Solomon Northup (played on the big screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor), the early Oscar favorite finally tackles slavery the way Schindler’s List covered the Holocaust. But it never felt like a dose of camphor oil. Instead, it’s a riveting, well acted, emotional gut punch that makes you better for having seen it.
– Ethan Sacks
Behind the Candelabra
HBO must’ve known Behind the Candelabra was something special before a single frame was even shot. With Steven Soderbergh at the helm directing and leads Michael Douglas and Matt Damon attached to play barely-in-the-closet piano virtuoso Liberace and his much younger boyfriend respectively, it was already a hit on paper. Still, I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the brilliantly opulent relationship study Soderbergh delivers with Candelabra. Michael Douglas’ monster performance is sensitive and revelatory in a way I’m sure many people might not have expected from Gordon Gekko or the detective from Basic Instinct. It’s a complete departure from the characters he’s played for the past thirty-some years and it just might be the role of his career. Damon matches his commitment with an incredibly thoughtful performance of his own, resulting in some of the most thrilling romantic drama of the year and a crowning achievement for HBO Films.
– Jay Pullman
And the Oscar for best comb over goes to…Christian Bale! Director David O. Russell has rallied his usual troupe – including The Fighter‘s Bale and Amy Adams, and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – and new recruit Jeremy Renner for a late ’70s dramedy loosely based on the FBI Abscam case. The real scam is that these actors also got paid for a romp, when you can plainly see how much fun they’re having even sitting from the last row at the multiplex. From the hair to the disco-era fashions to the cameo of the year, everything about this film looks fantastically over the top. Though Lawrence’s emotionally unstable housewife is gathering all the Oscar buzz, a special award should be given to Bale for packing on a very real 40 pounds to play the Long Island conman at the heart of the story. It was probably a lot easier than dropping one third of his body weight for The Machinist.
– Ethan Sacks
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Place Beyond the Pines begins with a long tracking shot of Ryan Gosling’s Luke walking through a carnival, ending with him riding a dirtbike inside a giant metal ball. At first, the story seems to be a pastiche of bad boy indie cinema tropes, but as the narrative focus shifts to Bradley Cooper’s Avery, the structure and true scope of the story begin to take shape. Director Derek Cianfrance tells a story about the sins of the father being visited upon the son. It’s an ambitious crime drama that approaches the uncomfortable intimacy and complexity of Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine while maintaining the scope of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Cianfrance uses the three act structure and applies it not to a single character, but to several characters intertwined by a chance encounter. It’s a challenging film, but well worth it at the end.
– Ian Gonzales
Horror movies haven’t made me uncomfortable in a very long time. Then I saw The Conjuring. Not only was it my favorite horror film of 2013, it was an exquisitely produced film in general. The acting was spot on and the story had a satisfying three acts. I feel like horror movies of recent years have been trying to cash in on the Christian fear-factor of possession and never really follow through with with a conclusion. Just because The Exorcist made people flee from theaters 40 years ago doesn’t mean shit anymore. Not only does The Conjuring rope you in with a series of creepy and unsettling concepts, it keeps you metaphorically nailed to your seat with story and film making. If there’s one thing that James Wan has proved throughout his career, it’s that he can make your skin crawl. The Conjuring is yet another example of how adept he is as a film maker. I’m excited for the impending spin off and to see where the franchise builds from here. Just promise me we’ll never play a game of Hide and Seek involving clapping, OK?
– Erik Weinbrecht
One small step for director Alfonso Cuaron, one giant leap for movie-making. It’s impossible to look away over the course of the film’s incredibly tight 90 minute run time in what may be the best 3D movie-going experience of all time as we’re whisked along with Sandra Bullock’s struggling astronaut in a struggle for survival. The technology had to be invented from scratch to make the visuals possible, but Gravity has achieved the final frontier as a rare popcorn film that deserves an Academy Award.
– Ethan Sacks
The World’s End
The shocking surprise in the final installment of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy had nothing to do with the plot. It was the depth of the performance by Simon Pegg. The lad’s always been good for a laugh and he’s the best avatar for the Gen X dork since John Cusack. But his turn as Gary King is revelatory, deftly painting a deeply human portrait of a nostalgic loser who uses questionable wit and puffed up self confidence as defense mechanism. King hides a deep wound that only his friends can lance and heal. And he’s just the kind of jerk to rope long lost buddies into a contrived reunion as a last ditch grasp at salvation. The genius of The World’s End is the way it carries this emotional Trojan horse in an intricate puzzle box of a genre mash up that manages to pay tribute to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Drunken Master, The Evil Dead and The Big Chill without seeming muddled or flighty. And, as ever, all these references are in service to character, helping make Simon Pegg’s King of the Humans a geek icon for the ages. Hail to the King, indeed.
– Gus Mastrapa
Movie of the Year: Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots fighting giant aliens. So awesome, right? If that’s all you want to see – and come on, who doesn’t want to see giant robots fighting giant aliens – then Pacific Rim has what you want. But if you want more, Pacific Rim still doesn’t disappoint. The film is full of tropes that you’ve seen a million times before – alien invasion, loner hero, vengeful heroine, strict leader, excitable scientist, snide rival, victories achieved through initial failure and sacrifice – but they’re all more archetype than cliche, each with its own personal twist that helps bring the movie to life. I could go on and on about nonverbal storytelling in Mako’s hero’s journey, Stacker’s struggle to balance his duties as a father and as a military leader, or the way Raleigh doesn’t get away with any of the shit that typical action heroes pull in every other movie, but if I did we’d be here for hours. Throw in Guillermo del Toro’s complicated visual storytelling, a musical score by Ramin Djawadi and Ellen McLain, Portal‘s GLADoS herself, as the computer’s voice, and the result is a movie that feels like the quintessential summer action flick you’ve always wanted to see.
– Jill Scharr