Movie Reviews

2013 in film

Sandra Bullock makes Gravity a winner photo: © warner bros. entertainment

Even though I can’t abide awards competitions in the arts, I still find myself reflecting on the cultural highlights and lowlights of the previous 12 months at the turn of the year. ‘Tis the season. And I write this column for the Marina Times as well as review movies on the air and the web every week, so I’m expected to weigh in on the best and worst films all the time.

The social endeavor and immersive experience of “going to the movies” (especially for the blockbusters and the niche repertory features) suggests that reports of the cinema’s demise are premature. Too bad the economic crunch has deemed that Hollywood is either green-lighting the big franchise movies featuring properties that have already passed the proof-of-concept test in other media and can provide massive worldwide box office, or the studios are financing or buying up low-budget independent films — usually those with positive festival buzz — in hopes of a little prestige. Midrange offerings, once the industry’s bread-and-butter, are, like the middle class, getting short shrift in the current climate.

Thank the muses that filmmakers are still releasing some wonderful work, regardless of the moneymen and their agendas. If you’re looking for recommendations, look no further. Though I left out some goodies like Stories We Tell, The Wind Rises and The Wolf of Wall Street, the following are among my favorite movies of 2013.


American Hustle: Based on an actual sting attempted by the FBI in New York and New Jersey during the 1970s, this inspired and witty mix of character study, caper film, period style, and comedy from filmmaker David O. Russell offers astonishing, against-type performances by Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and especially the chameleon-like Christian Bale as a Long Island scam artist overwhelmed by his greed, lust, and fear.

Big Sur: Writer-director Michael Polish’s evocative and surprisingly faithful adaptation of Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac’s diary-like account of his attempts to escape fame while in and around San Francisco and the Central California coast during the early 1960s is grounded by Jean-Marc Barr — terrific as the complex, tortured Kerouac.

Blue Is the Warmest Color: Despite all the notoriety generated by the explicit love scenes between actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, this three-hour French drama is one of the best coming-of-age films in quite some time, depicting the sexual awakening of a teenage girl and her passage into young adulthood.

Blue Jasmine: Anchoring one of Woody Allen’s best films in decades, Cate Blanchett is phenomenal as the desperate and pitiful Jasmine — a social climber whose life is shattered by her husband’s actions, which force her to relocate from New York to San Francisco and move in with her decent working-class sister.

Europa Report: When it comes to hard science fiction with a gritty edge, it would be hard to find a more compelling and clever example in quite a while than Europa Report — a found-footage feature set on the first manned flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Kind of The Blair Space Project, only better executed.

Frozen: The Disney animation unit carries on the tradition of great fairy tale-inspired animated musicals with a charming, prickly, visually stunning, computer-generated 3D look at love, sisterhood, and empowerment spun out of the Scandinavian fable The Snow Queen.

Fruitvale Station: The real-life tragedy of a senseless New Year’s Eve killing at a BART station frames a moving and gritty look at one troubled young man’s odyssey on the day of Dec. 31. Michael B. Jordan is a revelation in the role of the man in a quest to change his life for the better.

Gravity: Plucky astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock face a terrifying crisis while in orbit as director Alfonso Cuarón orchestrates the most phenomenal and realistic-looking movie imaginable about a shuttle mission gone wrong.

Nebraska: An estranged father and son — more specifically, an aging, surly alcoholic (Bruce Dern) and his offspring, a hapless electronics salesman (Will Forte) — embark on a misbegotten road trip from Montana to Nebraska in Alexander Payne’s darkly comic look at family bonds.

Pacific Rim: With modern special effects at his disposal, director Guillermo del Toro makes over-the-top magic in his tribute to those vintage Japanese science-fiction extravaganzas that depicted giant monsters battling giant robots.

Philomena: Poignant, funny, and even a little political, Philomena is based on the true story of an unwed mother who, while living at an Irish convent, reluctantly gives up her son for adoption. Years later, when she’s a senior citizen (Judi Dench), she tries to find her offspring with the aid of a cynical journalist (co-screenwriter Steve Coogan).

Short Term 12: This heart-breaking, unflinching Sundance Award-winner concerns young foster care caseworkers who look after troubled teens while dealing with their own issues. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. do brutally honest work as two of the caseworkers trying to navigate a romantic relationship in difficult circumstances.

The Great Beauty: Elegant, amusing and emotionally satisfying, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s story of an Italian journalist who learns a secret from his past in the wake of his 65th birthday is also a celebration of Rome, the eternal city, in all its magnificent, sprawling beauty.

20 Feet from Stardom: A moving, joyous investigation into the lives and careers of some of the most accomplished backup singers in pop music history, with amazing performers and performances and interviews with some of the biggest stars on the planet: Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen.

Upstream Color: The second feature film from artful idiosyncratic writer-director-actor Shane Carruth is an enigmatic, unconventional, nonlinear, disturbing, and visually stunning love story about a damaged man and woman and their strange fate.

What Maisie Knew: This contemporary reimagining of Henry James’ novel is a deft and deeply affecting examination of a little girl’s struggle for grace and comfort in the midst of her self-absorbed parents’ bitter custody battle. With Julianne Moore as the diffident rock star mother and Steve Coogan as the smug art-dealer father.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture every week on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show, and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at YouTube and Digidev TV. Follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster