I haven't put a great deal of thought into the precise order of this list, particularly past the first 15 or so entries. A week from now, might I be inclined to put Gravity at number 20 rather than 30 and Frances Ha at 28 instead of 22? Sure. I'm certain the first three are my top three (though I keep flipping the order around) and even more certain that the last entry belongs in the last spot, but beyond that don't read too much into ordinal rankings.
Numerical ratings are explained at the end of this post. Entries that end in * have been added since initial posting.
- All Is Lost: 9/10
- Her: 9/10
- Blue Jasmine: 8.5/10
- 12 Years A Slave: 8/10
- Enough Said: 8/10
- Inside Llewyn Davis: 8/10
- Nebraska: 8/10
- Dallas Buyers Club: 7.5/10
- Sound City: 7/10
- Muscle Shoals: 7/10
- Twenty Feet From Stardom: 7/10
- Dirty Wars: 7/10
- Fruitvale Station: 7/10
- The Grandmaster: 7/10
- Warm Bodies: 7/10
- Drinking Buddies: 7/10
- Prisoners 7/10
- Stories We Tell 6.5/10
- The Way Way Back: 6.5/10
- Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom: 6.5/10
- Cutie And The Boxer: 6/10*
- American Hustle: 6/10
- Frances Ha: 6/10
- Iron Man 3: 6/10
- The Hobbit: 6/10
- Philomena: 6/10
- Sunlight Jr: 6/10
- This Is The End: 6/10
- Behind the Candelabra: 6/10
- Captain Philips: 6/10
- Gravity: 6/10
- Olympus Has Fallen: 6/10
- The Lifeguard: 5/10
- Admission: 5/10
- Touchy Feely: 5/10
- Stuck in Love: 5/10
- Before Midnight: 5/10
- The To Do List: 5/10
- White House Down: 4/10
- The East: 4/10
- Side Effects: 4/10
- Dead Man Down: 4/10
- The Bling Ring: 4/10
- Movie 43: 4/10
- The Wolf of Wall Street: 2/10
All Is Lost: 9/10
An excellent, thoroughly captivating film that trusts and respects its audience. The broad concept -- someone trapped, alone, in a life-threatening situation -- lends itself to two obvious recent comparisons: 2010's 127 Hours and 2013's Gravity, both of which recieved the Best Picture Oscar nominations All is Lost was denied. That's a shame: All is Lost is the best of the three, and it isn't at all close.
127 Hours was pretty bad. Watching a guy trapped, alone, and facing possible death should’ve been a captivating and gut-wrenching experience, but because Danny Boyle made it - as is his habit - like a Mountain Dew commercial, full of punched colors and quick cuts and flashbacks and hyper energy where there should be thoughtful quiet, it just didn’t work -- not as a serious drama, anyway. If it was a bit more exciting, it might've been a decent action movie. Like 127 Hours, Gravity is a pretty film that has won undeserved praise for depth. Matt Zoller Seitz writes: "For all its stunning exteriors, it's really concerned with emotional interiors, and it goes about exploring them with simplicity and directness, letting the actors's faces and voices carry the burden of meaning." If only that were so. Instead, viewers are given a relentless patter of (often terrible) dialogue that obscures rather than highlighting the emptiness and dispair the charecters face. Again: A decent action-adventure movie, but that's about it.
Despite the broad plot similarities, All is Lost couldn't be more different. It's a delicate and sublte film. There's no clunky paint-by-numbers backstory tacked on to the beginning, no endless dialogue spelling everything out, no heavy-handed score or emotionally manipulative flashbacks. There are very nearly no spoken words at all. Instead there's just the simple story of a man on a small broken boat in a large ocean, magnificantly acted and beautifully shot. Robert Redford doesn't babble to himself about everything he's thinking and feeling; he just shows us. It's a far more impressive acting performance than Bullock's, but more importantly it allows time and space for the viewer to engage emotionally and intellectually. Redford's charecter faces potential death, and that brings introspection about the fragility of life, mistakes made, opportunities missed. But that introspection isn't just happening on screen; the film deftly leads the audience to it as well. The difference between Gravity and All is Lost is the difference between someone saying "I'm scared I might die" and someone asking you "What would you regret most if you knew you might die tomorrow?"
It's a great film. It's not the soul-crushing pit of dispair you probably fear. You should see it.
All is Lost is Writer/Director J.C. Chandor's second film; his first, Margin Call, should've won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012, but wasn't nominated. All is Lost should've gotten Picture and Directing nominations, and the fact that Robert Redford wasn't nominated for Lead Actor is deeply absurd.
Director Spike Jonze's best-known work is probably a Beastie Boys video, and Her is about a guy dating his cell phone, so some skepticism is understandable.
But Her is a remarkable movie: Warm and sensitive and thoughtful and charming and subtle. Jonze wisely avoids the distracting trappings of most movies set in the future: There are no hovercars or android housekeepers. This is a film about the future of relationships -- our relationships with each other, with the technology that plays an ever-larger role in our lives, and with ourselves -- not about the future of robotics. Maybe the year's best film. Should've recieved Oscar nominations for Directing and Lead Actor.
Blue Jasmine: 8.5/10
Woody Allen is, what, three decades into the “he isn’t what he used to be” phase of his career? And yet how many directors have made three films as good as Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Blue Jasmine in the last 10 years? Not many. And how many of them have a fourth as good as Midnight in Paris? So: He’s still pretty good. I can’t think of the last Allen film that rested so heavily on the performance of a single actor as Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett carried an excellent film with a tremendous performance. She's my choice for the year's best actress.
12 Years A Slave: 8/10
In the months since seeing 12 Years A Slave, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I don’t think it’s the year’s best film, I’d be perfectly happy to see it win the Best Picture Oscar. This despite my general view that the award should go to the year’s best film, not to the year’s best popular film or the year’s best feel-good drama or any of the other twisted rationales people end up offering in support of a film they know is not really the year’s greatest artistic achievement. (Which is not to say I think the Best Picture should always go to a highbrow drama: I thought, for example, that The Fellowship of the Ring should’ve won in 2002.)
But 12 Years is very good, and it’s very important, and that’s a potent combination. Not important in the fake-important way of recent movies like last year’s Lincoln. Lincoln challenged no one. It told us nothing we didn’t already know -- nothing we needed to know, anyway. Abe Lincoln was great, the legislative process is messy: Got it. That should be the case for 12 Years as well: Slavery was awful, to the point that attempts to describe its awfulness are doomed to fall short. But haven’t we all known that since, say, fourth grade at the latest? No, as it turns out, we have not.
Shortly after seeing 12 Years A Slave I encountered a Richard Cohen column about his recent viewing of the film. For those of you fortunate enough to be unaware of Richard Cohen’s existence, he’s an ostensibly liberal columnist for the Washington Post who loves torture, downplays the drugging and rape of a teenage girl, belittled Iraq war skeptics as “fools or frenchmen” and has reliably awful views about race in America. He is, in short, precisely the kind of conservative old white guy that large corporations like the Washington Post love to pass off as liberals in order to constrain the debate over public policy to the right half of the political spectrum. Anyway, Richard Cohen -- who declared his opposition to affirmative action a few years ago with the well-off white man’s certainty that “everyone knows” race “has become supremely irrelevant” -- saw 12 Years a Slave and learned that slavery was bad. I’m not kidding. Richard Cohen, who has for decades been paid to write a column about politics for the Washington Post, only just learned a few months ago -- by watching a movie -- that slavery was bad. Prior to seeing 12 Years, Cohen had been under the lifelong impression that slavery was “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.”
If Richard Cohen has lived for more than 70 years in America, earning a Masters degree from Columbia along the way, and writing for the Washington Post for nearly five full decades, without ever once learning that there was nothing benign about slavery, we obviously have a problem.
Enough Said: 8/10
Nicole Holofcener never disappoints. Nor does Catherine Keener. And, of course: James Gandolfini. I can’t help thinking that if Holofcener's first name was Ned instead of Nicole she’d have multiple Academy Award nominations by now. Enough Said deserved one for Original Screenplay, and in a relatively weak year for acting nominees I'm a bit surprised the Academy didn't give Gandolfini a posthumous supporting nod.
Inside Llewyn Davis: 8/10
The Coen Brothers' best since No Country For Old Men.
A very good movie -- the pacing, acting, and cinematography are all very good -- but a slight disappointment, as it wasn't quite on par with Alexander Payne's best work (Election, Sideways, The Descendants.) Maybe because it's the first Payne film he didn't write?
Dallas Buyers Club: 7.5/10
Jared Leto's portrayal of a transgender woman has drawn criticism for being "heavy-handed and stereotypical," among other things. My initial reaction upon seeing Dallas Buyers Club was that it was the rare film aimed at a mass audience that gave significant screen time to a transgender character, and did so in a way that invited audience empathy. That's Dallas Buyers Club in a nutshell: There are legitimate, thoughtful, important criticisms to be made of its handling of its subject -- but, on the other hand, how many pop culture works have you seen that address the inability of people who were dying of AIDS in the 1980s and '90s to get the medical care they needed?
Sound City: 7/10
Dave Grohl’s film is better than a documentary made by a musician about a mixing board (and, ok, a recording studio - but the mixing board is the film’s heart) has any right to be. It’s also better than my praise makes it sound. Grohl’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the Paul McCartney scene is, by itself, worth the rental fee. See it.
Muscle Shoals: 7/10
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?
-- Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"
Meanwhile in North Alabama, Wilson Pickett comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound
Meanwhile in North Alabama, Aretha Franklin comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound
— Drive-By Truckers, "Ronnie and Neil"
Twenty Feet From Stardom: 7/10
Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder talking about Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer? Yes, please.
Dirty Wars: 7/10
Documentary about Jeremy Scahill's reporting on America's covert military activities in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. See it.
Fruitvale Station: 7/10
Heartbreaking and infuriating.
The Grandmaster: 7/10
Beautifully-shot and engaging martial arts drama.
Warm Bodies: 7/10
The surprise of the year. Totally fun and charming zombie rom-com.
Drinking Buddies: 7/10
Another very pleasant surprise.
Gripping thriller deserving of its Cinematography Oscar nomination.
Stories We Tell 6.5/10
Sarah Polley's documentary about, basically, Sarah Polley. It's self-indulgent and unduly impressed with its own story, but interesting anyway.
The Way Way Back: 6.5/10
Cookie-cutter quasi-indie awkward adolescence flick. Go into it with moderate expectations and it's perfectly enjoyable -- if nothing else, Allison Janey and Sam Rockwell make it watchable. Expect more and you'll be disappointed. Steve Carrell's convincing portrayal of a guy who's basically a jerk seems to have surprised many, but he flashed this skill from time to time on The Office. To me he's much better in a role like this than in much of his overly broad comedic work.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom: 6.5/10
Pretty good. Not great. It's a biopic; it's exactly what you probably expect.
Cutie And The Boxer: 6/10
We saw an exhibit of work by Ushio & Noriko Shinohara at the Smith College art museum last spring; I wish I'd seen this engaging documentary first.
American Hustle: 6/10
Amy Adams is great. Can we all agree on that and stop acting surprised by it? She was great in Junebug, she was great in Doubt, she was great in The Fighter, she was great in The Master. She's great, and she choses great roles. She's a totally legitimate Lead Actress nominee -- I have her second to Blanchett among the year's best performances -- and that shouldn't be even a little bit surprising.
Other than Adams, American Hustle is ... fine, I guess. She's the best thing about it, by far, and it doesn't deserve most of its Oscar nominations. There just isn't much there there, and the nagging feeling that you've seen a half-dozen better versions of this movie limits its entertainment value.
Frances Ha: 6/10
I think I might be underrating this. It's been seven months or so since I've seen it; I really should start writing these blurbs immediately after viewing.
Iron Man 3: 6/10
Better than the second, by far; worse than the first, by far.
The Hobbit: 6/10
Better than last year’s installment. Still, I wish this wasn’t happening, or that I could resist watching.
Disappointing. Too many things tied up too neatly, too quickly and with too little effort. Not just at the end: Throughout the movie, obstacles seem to arise, only to be quickly dispensed with by fiat rather than resolved. Entertaining enough anyway. Judi Dench is good. I know: Shocking, right?
Sunlight Jr: 6/10
Someday Naomi Watts will win an Oscar. It won’t be - and should’t be - for Sunlight Jr, which is far from her best work, but still worth seeing. Watts and Matt Dillon are good; the script is just good enough.
This Is The End: 6/10
Funny, but kind of went off the rails in the third act.
Behind the Candelabra: 6/10
I had basically no interest in Liberace; had this been made by almost any other director, I wouldn't have bothered. But I'm generally fond of Steven Soderbergh's work ... this was fine. See it if you're interested; it's worth your time. Skip it if you aren't; you won't be missing anything essential.
Captain Philips: 6/10
I expected this to be the worst Best Picture nominee. Instead, it was 100 minutes worth of reasonably engaging thriller stretched out to 134 minutes. Nothing special, but much less awful than expected. The post-rescue scene was over-acted in a transparent bit of Oscar-bait that, fortunately, was not rewarded.
See All is Lost entry for the difference between Gravity and a great movie. A few loose ends: Bullock is good, not great. Mostly I wished she'd just shut up for a minute so the audience could feel something; instead, she narrated every thought that crossed her charecter's mind. The blame for that choice presumably lies primarily with the director, but it still diminishes the quality of the role and the performance. But it's a weak year for acting nominees, and I'm not certain there are five more worthy Lead Actress nominees (which is crazy and depressing.) But it'll be pretty ridiculous if she wins. Gravity's cinematography is often gorgeous, but 3D is still more of a distraction than enhancement; there were times when I felt like I was watching the movie on an old CRT computer monitor with some wrinkled plastic wrap spread over it. And other times when the film was visually stunning. Does that average out to a worthy Oscar nomination for cinematography? Yeah, I guess.
Olympus Has Fallen: 6/10
In the mood for a mindless action movie? Here you go. I understand this is generally considered the worse of the White-House-under-attack-movies-of-2013. It isn’t. It’s the better of the two.
The Lifeguard: 5/10
Wife & I recently entered the "watch anything with Kristen Bell in it" stage of our new Veronica Mars obsession. Bell is good; the movie is ... not awful.
Exactly what you expect.
Touchy Feely: 5/10
Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Allison Janey, Ron Livingston ... what's not to like? The script, mostly. Given the limited titles available on Netflix streaming, you could do worse.
Stuck in Love: 5/10
See entry for The Lifeguard RE: Kristen Bell. And the entry for Touchy Feely RE: Netflix.
Before Midnight: 5/10
Critics love these films, and it’s easy to see why: There’s a lot that’s impressive here, starting with the long, unbroken, dialogue-heavy shots. But I’ve never liked them much, and I finally realized why: That dialogue. Or, I guess, the characters speaking it. The movies rest on Jesse and Celine, and I do not like them. Not in the way that I do not like Breaking Bad’s Hank: That’s a good, believable character; I dislike him as a person, not as a character. Jesse and Celine, though … I don’t like them, and I don’t believe them, either. I dislike them both as people and characters. They strike me less as real people in (and out and back in) love than as what Mike Newhouse, the trying-too-hard-aspiring-intellectual in Dazed and Confused, probably imagines real people in love to be like. Anyway: There’s enough here that it’s a good film, and if I liked the characters it’d probably be a 7 or even an 8. As it is I'm tempted to give it a 2.
The To Do List: 5/10
Not very good, but Aubrey Plaza comes through for a few laughs.
White House Down: 4/10
If you see only one 2013 movie about an assault on the White House, see the other one.
The East: 4/10
Bad writing, often delivered badly. And a grating false equivalence - Sure, polluting corporations that destroy the planet for profit are bad, but radical environmentalists are just as bad! - as the central theme.
Side Effects: 4/10
Is there a class in film school where Lionel Hutz, the incompetent lawyer from the Simpsons, fills aspiring screenwriters with misconceptions about how double jeopardy works? I’m no lawyer, not even an incompetent one, but Side Effects’ application of the Fifth Amendment seems nearly as bad as that inflicted on audiences by the Ashley Judd vehicle 'Double Jeopardy' (1999). That’s the lowlight of a plot that just falls apart in the second half as characters make distractingly and unbelievably dumb decisions. I’m generally in the tank for Soderbergh, and I’m no stickler for true-to-life details in fiction -- I think we’ve fetishized that a bit too much in recent years (does it really matter if Breaking Bad presents a scientifically accurate explanation for Walt’s blue meth?) But this is just bad filmmaking.
Dead Man Down: 4/10
Like most Collin Farrell movies, I barely remember seeing this. Noomi Rapace was pretty good, I think?
The Bling Ring: 4/10
For about 20 minutes, this seemed like it could be a good, interesting movie. Then it wasn't. The end.
Movie 43: 4/10
A few funny moments. Many more that aren't.
The Wolf of Wall Street: 2/10
Just completely awful. Maybe I'll elaborate eventually but I'm already over 2,500 words and I'd kind of like to forget this movie ever happened.
N/A: Didn't Finish
I’m not sure this would’ve been bad, but it just didn’t hold our attention at all so we bailed after 15 minutes.
The first ten or so minutes primarily consist of Blake Lively doing an improbably bad job of delivering the worst-written narration you can imagine. (Actual Sample Dialogue: "I have orgasms; he has war-gasms." I swear I am not making this up.) I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea — or what happens next. We hit eject in what may have been our best movie-related decision of the year.
N/A: Haven't Seen Yet
Films I haven't seen yet but probably will: The Act of Killing, Adore, After Tiller, Beware of Mr. Baker, The Citizen, Inequality for All, The Punk Singer, The Square.
What am I missing?
My major award preferences, not confined to Oscar nominees
Best Picture: All is Lost, Her, Blue Jasmine, 12 Years A Slave
Lead Actor: Robert Redford (All is Lost), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Joaquin Phoenix (Her),
Lead Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Supporting Actor: I don't have any real preferences here. Like I said: Kind of a weak acting year. As long as the Oscar doesn't go to Bradley Cooper or Jonah Hill -- two actors I like, but who I don't think deserve awards for these roles -- I won't be too upset.
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o (12 years A Slave)
Directing: J C Chandor (All is Lost), Spike Jonze (Her), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Writing: Spike Jonze (Her), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said)
Cinematography: All is Lost, Her, Prisoners, The Grandmaster, Gravity
10: A truly extraordinary, Annie Hall-level film. I don’t see many 10s.
9: An excellent movie that I’m happy to see win major awards. Most years, the 1-3 best films I see will be 9s.
8: A very good film and a legitimate Best Picture nominee (in a 10-nominee field) but not something I think should win.
7: Usually a good, well-made movie of modest ambition, or ambitious, generally good movie with significant flaws.
6: An adequately enjoyable time-waster but not worth going out of your way to see.
5: Worth watching on a long flight, but that’s about it.
4: A bad movie, to be avoided even on long flights.
3: An awful movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. May involve Keanu Reeves or time travel.
2: An awful movie that has pretensions of greatness and depth.
1: Vanilla Sky.