25. In a World...
Sometimes it's less about how much you bite off, and more about how you chew it. Lake Bell directs, writes, and stars as Carol, an aspiring voice-over professional struggling to crack into the male-dominated industry. It's a modest offering, but Bell delivers it with warmth and humor, poking fun at Hollywood's rampant self-obsessiveness without ever being disingenuous to her many three-dimenionally written characters. It's a charmer through and through.
24. The Hunt
One of this year's Best Foreign Feature nominees, The Hunt tells the story of Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a seemingly warm-hearted elementary school teacher who is vaguely accused of molestation by one of his students. The ostracizing that follows reaches far beyond mere suspension from his job, and comes to threaten everything in the man's life, all while we wonder at the truth. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg knows just how to string us along, dolling out facts at appropriate times, keeping us tantalized by the mystery while subsequently exploring the society's vast array of reactions. The ending knocks The Hunt down a couple pegs for me personally, but both the film's initial set up and slow-burning center are things to be reckoned with.
Disney's surprise mega-hit caught everyone by surprise this winter by slowly amassing nearly 400 million dollars state side, and it's not hard to see why. The story of two princesses (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel), two hunks (Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana) and a talking snowman (Josh Gad) is stocked with a bevy of throwback-style Disney musical numbers, the roster lead by Menzel's powerhouse centerpiece Let it Go. When the film isn't playing out like a broadway production, however, it finds clever and heartening ways to subvert genre expectations, expanding the mold rather than breaking it. The animation is top-notch too, making Frozen a treat in just about every sense of the word.
Philomena is a story about a mother (Judi Dench) on a search for her long-lost son, filled with fish-out-of-water humor, leering oppositional forces, and out-and-out melodrama. In other words, it plays like a 50's film that hopped in a time machine, flipped the switch forward 60 years, and then gunned it to 88 mph. Credit writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for knowing exactly how hard to push their agenda, eliciting genuine emotion from their audience in a way that most modern films wouldn't dare to even attempt. It's a film with its heart on its sleeve, Dench delivering a note-perfect performance as a woman who bumbles with the utmost grace. The welcome return 'The Weepie'; bring some tissues.
21. Iron Man 3
Five years in, and Marvel Studios still has yet to make a bad movie (though Thor: The Dark World sure toed the line, didn't it?). Iron Man 3 stands proudly as one of their very best, our old pal Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) again forced to use his considerable intellect and gargantuan piggy bank to save the day from corporate greed (Guy Pierce) and funny accents (Ben Kingsley). The franchise debut of writer/director Shane Black, this third installment is a gloriously unruly affair, opening to the sounds of Eiffel 65's I'm Blue, sending Tony on an impromptu road trip, and pulling off a twist that delighted know-it-all audience members and infuriated dedicated comic book fans. It's two straight hours of throwing caution to the wind, a rollicking, funny, energetic romp that features some of the finest action sequences the studio has dreamed up yet.
20. Before Midnight
I feel like a jerk for having this one so low on my list, the latest installment in Richard Linklater's magical Before series, but Jesse and Celine were just so damn hard on me this time! As always, the love birds/sparing mates set to endless discussion while walking around in gorgeous european locations, but the spark of fresh/forbidden love is nearly all gone, replaced with the type of resentments that build over time in... you know... real relationships. Credit everyone involved for the bravery it took to pull this thing off in earnest, especially Julie Delpy, whose performance here might be her best in the series. Is Before Midnight of a quality that merits a higher ranking than this? Absolutely. Is there something poignant and powerful about watching the deterioration of romance with razor-sharp attentiveness, and refusing to look away? Totally. Am I a baby for favoring the moony-eyed opening chapters over this one? Probably.
19. Drinking Buddies
Wait... Olivia Wilde can act? The actress has always been easy on the eyes, but even the token 'hot girl' character with which she's continuously saddled occasionally seemed out of reach. What a surprise then, to see her inhabit Kate so fully, a lively, charismatic, soulful, and unnervingly natural performance that will hopefully re-write the book on her career. Her every-girl character works at a brewery where she flirts and is flirted with mercilessly, though her interactions with fun-loving Luke (Jake Johnson) feature more than a little tension. Both are already spoken for, but when the two of them spend a weekend away with their partners in tow, fault lines begin to shift. The chemistry that Wilde and Johnson share glues your eyes to the screen as this 90-minute charmer plays out with a breezy realism that's awfully difficult to pull off.
18. Enough Said
I have yet to see any of Nicole Holofcener's films besides Enough Said, but on this evidence alone, I'd describe her as a thinking-person's Nancy Meyers. Sure, the film is stocked with the very type of furniture-cataloge aesthetic that you'd expect, but don't get too fussy; the posh amenities and vein discourses are constantly revealing aspects of Holofcener's wonderfully fleshed-out characters. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Eva, a divorced 40-something with a daughter about ready to jet off to college who finds herself falling for a schlubby sweetheart named Albert (James Gandolfini). For such a modest film, Enough Said has a lot on its mind, from the unique relationships that mothers have with daughters, to wealth and the expectations that it brings, and (most importantly) the way that the opinions of others can come to distort your own. The leads are utterly fantastic,
Louis-Dreyfus turning a potentially shrewish character into a warm, funny, flawed individual, while Gandolfini's mellow, old-soul warmth almost radiates off the screen. A lark to be sure, but a thoughtful, observant, warm-hearted lark at that.
17. Monsters University
Pixar might be down, but they're not out yet! Sure, Monsters University can't quite stand next to the studio's decade-plus string of classics, but it's worlds superior to the likes of Cars 2 and Brave, an ecstatic entertainment with an eager-to-please energy that's difficult to resist. Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) begin what we know (from Monsters Inc.) will be a fortuitous friendship on all kinds of the wrong foot, but are forced to team up in the titular school's annual Scare Games if they want to remain enrolled. The voice work is top-notch as always, newcomers Helen Mirren and Charlie Day livening the proceedings, and the animators expand the world of the original with a texture and vividness that would have been technologically impossible 12 years ago. There's even a fantastic message for young minds tucked into the fold, disposing of the tired 'you can do anything you put your mind to,' in favor of emphasizing individual strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to better oneself through them. Up, Toy Story, Wall-e, and Finding Nemo might not have invited MU to sit at the grown-ups table, but it's having an absolute blast eating with the big kids.
The film that finally takes online dating to the next level, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a kind-hearted but mopey introvert who develops a romantic relationship with his recently purchased sentient operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Spike Jonze debut as a feature film writer is an intricate affair, bringing up all sorts of questions about romance, addiction to technology, the imminent future, and what it really means to be alive. Phoenix, alone for much of the film's runtime, imbues his sad-sack character with an odd charm, his scenes opposite Amy Adams feeling impossibly lived-in. Just don't let the myriad of ideas on hand distract you from the sublime craft, from Hoyte Van Hoytema's sumptuous cinematography, to K.K. Barrett's Oscar nominated production design, to Arcade Fire's lovelorn score. Her is a think-piece that rattles around in your head for days afterward, a love story that openly questions what the heck a love story actually is.
15. The Great Beauty
The Great Beauty is a ridiculously lofty title, the kind of moniker that gains you instant attention, as well as free-flowing mockery if the flick doesn't live up. Thankfully, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's film prompts no such scorn, playing out like a Federico Fellini film transplanted into the year 2013. Toni Servillo plays the wonderfully wise pessimist Jep, an aging writer deeply entrenched in the high-life party scene who ruminates on his past, and the world around him. Those requiring a sensical plot to enjoy a movie will be left out in the freezing cold; this is a surreal affair, a richly detailed meditation that hops liberally from one thought or image to the next without ever looking back. The film appears set to take home the Best Foreign Feature Oscar this sunday, and more power to it.
14. All is Lost
How is it possible that I deeply appreciated this one-man show, but didn't especially like the one man? Trust me, I'm still trying to figure it out. Robert Redford's stoic performance might not be my cup of tea, but the things that J.C. Chandor does behind the screen completely cancel out any complaints I might otherwise wager. The movie opens with our unnamed protagonist experiencing nautical trouble that steadily increases through out the film's runtime, his yacht floating all alone in a vast and threatening ocean. The dialogue here is few and far between, Chandor creating something of a procedural in which mother nature throws one curve ball after another, and 'our man' has to fight like hell to bat them away. Certain scenes and images are enough to rattle your bones, somehow melding the rules of silent film into an action adventure with ideal results. Remind me not to go sailing on my own.
Stop me when you've heard this one before: a young child goes missing in a small town, and after law enforcement proves inept, it's up to the bereaved father become an vigilante, and save the day by any dastardly means necessary. So Prisoners might not have the most unique trappings of all time, but the way that it goes about its business is nearly masterful. Hugh Jackman, whom I've always found to be something of a one-note performer, arrives at his ideal one-note character, and rages ferociously for over two hours, a slew of other great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Paul Dano rounding out a thoroughly talented cast. Their coach ain't half bad either; Denis Villeneuve, the director behind 2011's sinisterly brilliant Incendies, is a maestro with tension, your hands balled up into sweaty fists for nearly all of the film's elongated runtime. And then there's Roger Deakins, that deity of camera work who passed up on the Coen's latest in order to turn this film into a positively endless feast for the eyes. Who needs to reinvent the wheel when you can drive like this?
12. Spring Breakers
By far the strangest walk from the theater to my car that I experienced in 2013, Spring Breakers is a brazenly irresponsible rush that hits the body like a drug in the veins. The premise is simple and familiar: a slew of attractive women party hard on warm beaches and ample booze, but what madman director Harmony Korine does with these trappings just about knocks your head off. By the time the film is over, every rule of normal story-telling lays shattered on the ground, vigorously tossed aside in favor of machine gun-toting piano ballads and mobsters played by Gucci Mane. As far as nutritional value is concerned, Spring Breakers might as well be a bag of Bugles, but since when was spring break about eating well, and cleaning up after yourself? The film rages like a wild beast, powered equally by Korine's unflinching bombast, and James Franco's almost-as-absurd-as-it-is-awesome white trash rapper, Alien. As soon as I got off the ride, I wanted to get on again.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen's latest has been described as an ode to human failure, and who better to tell that particular story that Joel and Ethan? The titular troubadour, played by Oscar Issac, is on a mission to make it in the early 60's Greenwich Village folk scene, though the universe is whole-heartedly against him. Perceived opportunities take Davis on a voyage to Chicago, the movie's surreal sequencing and logic finding the singer in the center of a unique type of odyssey, stuffed with enough symbolism to keep the picture on your mind for days. As always, the movie is packed with killer supporting performances, and the way in which the filmmakers recreate the entire world of five-decades-old New York is a dreamy marvel. A near-musical packed with beautiful songs of yearning and regret, ILD is replete with the brothers' signature dark humor, but this particular shade of melancholy is a new look for them, and they wear it well.
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