I know you’ve all been on pins and needles waiting for my year end, best of list, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve waited until the middle of January to post it. Simple: there were some movies I had to catch up on before I made my picks, and it just so happens that the season that sees the release of The Legend of Hercules and I, Frankenstein is the perfect time to catch up on older movies.
Now, a lot of critics will tell you that a work of art can’t be quantified, and that trying to squeeze as complex a thing as a film and the spectrum of reactions it produces over the course its running time into some binary rubric of “thumbs up, thumbs down,” or to award arbitrary “points” to a subjectively interpretable medium is not only impossible and wrong, but it crushes the soul of the thing being evaluated. BUT HEY, SCREW THOSE HIPPIES, IT’S TIME TO MATH FIGHT! All of my choices outlined below have been decided by a proprietary algorithm developed by me and my mechanical wolverine, Tom-Tom. This means that they are mathematically infallible, and if you disagree with any them you are wrong and we must sword fight.
KNIVES OUT, PANSIES, IT’S TIME TO QUANTIFY INTANGIBLES!
10. Iron Man 3/Short Term 12
I know, I know, my first entry and I’m already cheating. Don’t worry, this list gets better further along as we get to the ones I like the most. But combining my most populist and most film criticky impulses into a single entry just felt right.
Now, I can understand hating the standard “trailer moment” set pieces of Iron Man 3 and a lot of the Paltrow storyline, but I honestly loved it. Two moments best illustrate why: First, the Mandarin reveal, which was probably the funniest and most surprising scene I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie (seriously, hate the movie if you must, but if you don’t like that scene you’re some kind of comic book fundamentalist killjoy). Second, the moment when a henchman says “Oh screw this” and walks off his job. I’m a total sucker for Shane Black movies, and little moments like that are why. He takes the standard genre set piece and rethinks it just a little, asking “Okay, what might actually happen here?”
As for writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (don’t worry if you haven’t seen Short Terms 1-11, they throw out the storyline for this one), it’s a lot like a modern, incredibly well done version of Dangerous Minds. I can’t decide how much to hold that against it, actually. It’s touchy feely and oh so emo, with characters learning to deal with abuse and depression, but the level of acting and craft is such that it feels honest more than it does manipulative. Cretton has the narrative finesse of a ballerina. I really wasn’t sold on it until the final shot, which was probably the most memorable shot I saw all year – the perfect, soaring ending that feels like an ending without wrapping everything up in a neat little bow.
9. Wolf of Wall Street (original review)
As I’ve mentioned on many occasions, I have some reservations about this movie. Not about it “glorifying” Jordan Belfort, which I think is a dumb question, but about the way it lets the real guy be an active participant in the story (Jordan Belfort had a cameo in the last scene, in case you didn’t know). And especially about Leo actively endorsing Jordan Belfort’s new job, where he gives aspiring entrepreneurs advice, which strikes me as about as wise as letting George Zimmerman train neighborhood watch leaders. “Aw, but he’s really sorry, you guys!”
But if I put everything I know about Jordan Belfort out of my mind, the film is like a really dark, brilliant version of Anchorman 2 – this ridiculous character does crazy shit and gets into wild situations. The two scenes that stand out most are the scene where Matthew McConaughey explains the stock market in about 60 seconds (awesome side note: that chest thumping chant thing he does wasn’t in the original script, it was something McConaughey did to pump himself up that they ended up putting in the movie), and the tangled phone cord/choking scene. In terms of physical comedy, that one set piece is as good as anything the Three Stooges ever did.
8. Blackfish/The Crash Reel (original review)
The answer: Animal rights exposés and profiles of athletes suffering from traumatic brain injury. (*holds envelope up to turban*) The question is, “what are two types of documentaries that I normally avoid like a guy with a clipboard outside Whole Foods?”
Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s exploration of orca captivity, and The Crash Reel, Lucy Walker’s study of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, both managed to take subjects that would normally feel important, but not much fun, like doing homework, and turned them into wildly compelling documentaries. And pure entertainment value aside, both films kept me up at night and will probably stay with me for years.
Blackfish didn’t start out as a film about whale captivity and The Crash Reel didn’t start out as a film about traumatic brain injury. I think something about the way both films evolved into something bigger as the directors were shooting them comes through in the final products, where they’re compelling because we’re learning and being surprised and compelled at the same pace as the director.
In a rambling piece for Vice, James Franco wonders if the dark, thriller-esque Blackfish uses the lurid appeal of brutal whale attack footage to create entertainment out of “the very whale/human killings that it purports to critique.”
To that I would say “yes” and “no shit.” That’s the craft of it. It’s entertaining through craft in the same way as The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s book about the financial crisis. Lewis tells the story chronologically, from the perspective of the few people who saw the crisis coming when no one else did, to make the approaching panic (which we already know happened) feel that much more climactic. Blackfish plays a similar trick with whale attacks. That’s not a perversion, it’s a simple trick of perspective, and it’s good storytelling.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Stories We Tell. I pretty much turned off Take This Waltz after Michelle Williams’ character related “I guess I’m just afraid of being afraid,” the most obnoxious white girl fake phobia I’ve heard since grad school writing workshop. So I put off seeing another Sarah Polley movie for most of the year. I shouldn’t have. The story of Sarah Polley’s own paternity related in The Stories We Tell was as compelling and layered as any novel (and a hundred times more Canadian). Polley seems to think the film is an exploration of the way people tell stories. Feh. That’s the kind of hollow intellectualizing art students use to dress up a nothing story. The Stories We Tell isn’t a nothing story. It’s an incredibly touching one, and it kind of has everything.
7. The World’s End (original review)
Who films the best fight scenes in cinema? Years ago, I would’ve said Michael Mann (and I mean years ago as in before Public Enemies). These days, I think it’s Edgar Wright. It’s interesting that it took a comedy director doing semi-parody to show the rest of us how it’s done, but if I was teaching film students to choreograph action, I’d make them study The World’s End (I’d also make them call me King Cheeseburger and fete me with fine croissants, but that’s another story).
In my review I wrote “It made me feel like a kid again!” is the go-to fanboy apology for loving a crappy genre movie, but The World’s End is a film that finally achieves child-like mirth without requiring child-like naivety.
It’s also a film that actually critiques the man-child nostalgia impulse that so many films of this genre just pander to. It’s not a scathing indictment or anything, just a mostly honest exploration of the impulse that underpins the entire venture. Why do we want to keep remaking eighties Spielberg movies, anyway?
Sure, I could’ve done without a few of the catch phrases, but I forgive them because it’s clear Edgar Wright is really striving to create a movie that has its own mythos, that has certain hooks, like a song, and that you can continue finding and appreciating different things about. Whether it’s art or food or a car, everything’s better when it feels like the creator cared a lot, and the entire Cornetto Trilogy feels like Edgar Wright carefully engineered it for maximum rewatchability.
6. Why Don’t You Play In Hell
You could call this my token non-English language pick and not be entirely wrong, but I stand by my choice completely. I admit I was a Shion Sono virgin before this, and this was like a baptism by fire. He’s, uh… not what you would call a minimalist. Blood lakes, spurting stumps, fights that seem to last forever… you could be forgiven for calling it “shrill.” But this tale of a filmmaking troupe (called “the f*ckbombers”) who get wrapped up in a Yakuza feud, thereby sending up organized crime and entertainment’s mutual, symbiotic admiration was like Mel Brooks meets Tarantino. It’s a film that could get by on exuberance alone.
But it’s not just one long slapsticky parody shot for parody’s sake. Sort of like in Rum Diary where Hunter S. Thompson creates his own avatar of the kind of writer he’d like to be, I read Why Don’t You Play in Hell as Shion Sono’s heartfelt ode to the kind of filmmaker he’d like to be, in the form of a satire about filmmaking as it is. As Sono’s protagonist Hirata says about the art of filmmaking, “Of course it’s bullshit, but it’s holy bullshit.”
It’s quite the experience. And I’m still singing that goddamned toothpaste song.
5. American Hustle (original review)
After American Hustle came out, someone asked me, “Isn’t it just an A-list Hollywood actor costume party?”
To which I’d say, Uh, yeah, but it’s an A-list Hollywood actor costume party starring the sexiest people in the world. This movie was pure sex. It felt like David O. Russell putting Scorsese on his bedroom boombox, cranking the volume to 11, and skanking around his room knocking stuff off shelves. Did it reinvent the form, or expand the possibilities of what a film can be? Not really, but it thoroughly seduced you with things you should know better than to be seduced by. Which, by the way, was what the entire plot was about.
4. Gravity (original review)
It seems like it’s gotten progressively more unhip to talk about Gravity as we’ve gotten deeper into awards season, but that’s just bloodless intellectuals trying to deny that visceral thrills are a part of cinema like they always do. Could Cuarón have made Gravity without Clooney and his Clooney-esque ha ch-cha cha cha dialog? Without giving Sandra Bullock’s character a dead son (spoiler alert)? Without a factual inaccuracy here, there, or perhaps everywhere? Sure. But none of those things took away from the larger point Gravity was trying to communicate – that space is cold, inhospitable, and pants-shittingly vast. If this film didn’t make your asshole pucker, you may not have one. Try checking with a hand-held mirror.
3. Her (original review)
In another year, Her would’ve been easily my favorite movie and I’d be completely okay with that. It’s such a wryly inventive view of the future. The high pants and mod collars stole the show, to say nothing of the blended Los Angeles/Shanghai skyline making everything look a little more futurey without going full-on flying cars.
It was just fun to watch Spike Jonze play in his futurish sandbox for a few hours. I take that back. It wasn’t just fun to watch Spike Jonze play with future stuff, but it would’ve been even if the story wasn’t as clever and relevant as it was. Usually when we watch sci-fi, we have to buy into some simplistic, black and white, Star Wars-style morality in order to enjoy all the aliens and ships and blue cat monkey ponytail sex and what have you. Even The Fifth Element, which is one of my favorite sci-fi movies, is a pretty simple story about good and evil and love, once you scrape away all the incredibly creative world-building that makes it so good in the first place.
With Her, you didn’t have to buy into some black-and-white moral conflict in order to enjoy the weird stuff. It was just a funhouse mirror take on modern dating that was sweet without being too full of shit. And it was relevant. A world where we can program empathy isn’t too far off, and so the idea that someone would want to screw his programmed empathy doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.
2. Act of Killing
Initially, Act of Killing co-director Josh Oppenheimer wanted to film a documentary about the Indonesian mass killings of the sixties by interviewing the victims. But he soon found that most of the victims were too terrified of reprisals to speak about them openly, given that the paramilitary groups that had done the dirty work were still part of Indonesia’s ruling class. But the very phenomenon that prevented Oppenheimer from filming that documentary ultimately necessitated an approach far more innovative and powerful.
“And someone had the idea, you should film the killers, because the killers will boast and will actually appear to be proud of what they did, and if you simply film that, you will see why exactly we were so afraid.”
The result is arguably the most remarkable glimpse into the psychology of evil ever caught on film.
Act of Killing to me is everything that 12 Years a Slave isn’t. Whereas 12 Years a Slave wallows in the constant wailing misery and degradation of slavery to drive home the point that slavery was bad, Act of Killing takes you on a absurd, lurid trip through the thought processes of unrepentant mass murderers. Not only that, it’s funny. Horrifyingly funny. I understand the process of dehumanization much better from two minutes of Anwar Congo gleefully describing garroting his victims than I do from two minutes of Chiwetel Ejiofor dancing around on his tiptoes to avoid strangulation while Spanish moss sways in the breeze in the background. And as an added bonus, it’s real, and it isn’t a chore to watch.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (original review here)
It was tough choosing between Inside Llewyn Davis and Act of Killing as my number one of the year. I think Act of Killing is more important to see, a mandatory watch, but in the end I went with Llewyn Davis because it was the only film I saw this year where I wanted to watch it six more times as soon as it was over. It’s like comfort food.
I’m slightly embarrassed to try to explain why this is my favorite film of the year, because my reasons for loving it are so personal. It’s like when I watch the scene with Pesci’s mom in Goodfellas (played by Martin Scorsese’s mom, who died in 1997), I see my grandma. Her facial expressions, the way she cringes and tisks and puts her hands up to her face when she hears Pesci’s story about running over the deer – that’s my grandma! I can’t expect you to see your grandma in her, but that’s a big part of the reason I love it so much. It’s the same with Llewyn Davis. I can’t tell you why it’s the best, I can only tell you why I love it. But that’s what movies are supposed to do. The best ones always make you feel like you have some personal ownership stake.
Where Llewyn Davis really sung (har) for me was in its depictions of what life is like for someone pursuing a creative profession, and of academia. Much like Scorsese’s mom, I have a tough time explaining what was so perfect about the Gorfein’s dinner parties if you’ve never been to one. But I’ve been to almost that exact apartment for what felt like the same party – the gregarious professor and his sweet natured wife, the cast of eccentric academics and dirtbaggy young artists, all hyper intelligent but sheltered from “the real world” in some basic way, coming together to interact awkwardly over exotic ethnic cuisine (“Lillian’s famous moo-sah-KAH!”). It was so perfect that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to accurately remember events of my own past, now bound up so inextricably with that scene.
More importantly, Llewyn Davis is the most honest depiction of “struggling artist” I’ve ever seen, and blows away decades of clichés that make me embarrassed to type “struggling artist” in the first place. As I wrote in my original review:
Llewyn Davis inhabits this world that’s fulfilling only in these fleeting moments, where freedom and uncertainty and beauty and heartbreak are all wrapped up with one another. When Llewyn sings, you get the sense that it’s strong and powerful and important and it means something. When other characters sing, it feels silly and shallow and uninspired (not to mention frequently hilarious), even when the diegetic audience seems to be eating it up. Incredibly, you sense this just through framing and Llewyn’s facial expressions, it’s never something acknowledged out loud. Through Llewyn, you feel that sense of confusion and jealousy and contempt that comes from being out of step with what the market seems to reward (“Am I taking crazy pills here?”). Llewyn’s only reward for his life of poverty and constant humiliation are the songs themselves, which is what makes them so sad and anthemic at the same time.
Movies about someone pursuing an art almost always give you either the talented underdog who just needs to stick with it, or the self-deluded, confused wannabe who should either give up or find a new niche (Frances in Frances Ha, for instance). Both takes offer an easy answer, eliminating the ambiguity and constant, crushing doubt that are the hallmark of that lifestyle.
Llewyn Davis gives you Llewyn Davis, in all of his confusion and aimlessly floating weirdness. Sometimes he plays to a rapt audience, sometimes he ends up in a stinky car with a heroin addict and a mute misanthrope who writes awful poetry. What can I say, I felt like I could relate. Did I mention I had to try to follow a performance artist who fake shaved his fake bleeding fake vagina onstage in front of Hannibal Buress the other week? Like I said, that may not be why the movie is great, but it’s why I love it.
[Top image credit: Terry O’Neill, Getty Images. Not sure who made that cat gif, but thanks.]
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.