By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
If there was any single feeling that summed up excitement in the movie world in 2013, surely it was eeriness that came over anybody sitting down to witness the beginning of “Gravity.”
We’re with astronauts, spacewalking. We’ve seen sci-fi movies before, but not like this. The camera seems to be floating weightless. We can’t see any fixed horizon. There’s no up or down, because how could there be? And in weird proximity, there’s the curve of the Earth, occasionally sliding into view as the main characters become aware that something might be going wrong.
I can’t imagine anybody not feeling goosebumps as this amazing world unfolded before our eyes.
“Gravity” was a technical advance and an old-fashioned survival story, but most of all it was evidence that the movies haven’t stalled out. We’ve still got adventurous filmmakers out there — some working on a big canvas, some tiny — willing to show us something new.
In other words, I thought it was a pretty good year for film, especially when the awards contenders began rolling in from October onward.
The summer was big box-office, but disappointing in its blockbusters — there wasn’t a good Batman movie or a giddy “Avengers,” but more like a trudge through superhero overload.
The year’s big winners included Disney, which had already set an all-time box-office record by the time the well-reviewed “Frozen” came out to ring up even more receipts in November. The company even indulged in celebrating its own mythology, as “Saving Mr. Banks” captured Uncle Walt himself and the making of “Mary Poppins.”
Documentary filmmakers did some amazing work. Some advanced the idea of what a doc could be (“Leviathan,” “The Machine which Makes Everything Disappear”), some did great muckraking work (“Blackfish” may well change public attitudes about keeping whales in captivity), some were joyful musical histories (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals”).
And as you’ve probably heard, it was an unusually good year for black filmmakers, with “12 Years a Slave” winning critics awards, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” cleaning up at the box office, and “Fruitvale Station” announcing a talented new director.
Let’s hope in future this is the norm, not an anomaly.
The year’s losers included the ’80s action stars. Sly Stallone bombed with “Bullet to the Head,” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback “The Last Stand” flopped badly. Oddly, their subsequent teamup, “Escape Plan,” turned out to be rather fun — but audiences were already turned off at that point.
The idea of a comeback for the Western took at hit with the widely panned “Lone Ranger,” although the movie actually did make enough money overseas to mitigate some of its costly write-off (it wasn’t a completely good year for Disney, after all).
And while it was not a good year for sequels, at least the second parts of the “Hunger Games” and “Hobbit” franchises showed improvement over their initial installments.
But let’s get to the best. Here’s a list of my faves. Your list will be different — and that’s how this is supposed to work. A free road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to the following:
1. “Something in the Air.” A loosely shaped, passionate tale of a college kid in the early 1970s who moves through stages of radicalism, heartbreak, disillusionment and love for art and movies. Gee, I wonder why I liked it so much? Director Olivier Assayas is in his groove here, gazing at his foolish romantics with just the right balance of sympathy and distance (he shows how some of that romantic foolishness results in people actually getting ruined, for instance). But he hasn’t lost his belief that art remains a salvation.
2. “All Is Lost.” A man — “Our Man,” according to the end credits — tries to salvage a catastrophe aboard his sailboat during a solo journey in the Indian Ocean. As director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) shows, with patient meticulousness, this guy does everything right, acts in a smart way and works hard. None of that will ultimately help, because the movie knows, in the end, for everybody, all is eventually lost. Robert Redford, beautifully cast, really does have the role of a lifetime.
3. “Gravity.” The cold blackness of space reflects an astronaut’s inconsolable grief about her earthly life. That’s a simple idea, but movies aren’t ideas, they’re experiences — and hoo boy, has Alfonso Cuaron created a cinematic experience like no other. The technical feat of astronauts floating in a horizonless frame is astonishing, but people were wrong when they said this film points to the future of movies. It actually returns us to film’s original sense of wonder, of seeing things in an unimaginable new way.
4. “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” A teenager, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), grows into a human being in Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour coming-of-age drama. And while her intense sexual affair with an older artist (Lea Seydoux) is an important part of that process, it’s not the only part — what really matters is Adele figuring out how she sees herself, rather than how others see her.
5. “Inside Llewyn Davis.” A struggling folk musician (Oscar Isaac) in 1961 Greenwich Village keeps going in circles, as the Coen brothers somehow make the tale of an unlikable jerk into a sad and funny fable. Each scene is so immaculately composed it almost becomes oppressive. Maybe that’s the way poor Llewyn feels, too.
6. “The Unspeakable Act.” Dan Sallitt’s micro-indie stuck with me all year as one of 2013’s true originals. A precisely-rendered Brooklyn household is home to a wry teenager (the unlikely Tallie Medel) who can’t get past “the I word,” as it’s called. She’s in love with her older brother, in perhaps the least melodramatic movie about incestuous feelings ever made.
7. “Nebraska.” Alexander Payne’s latest gets off to an awkward start, but once a self-deluding coot (Bruce Dern) and his exasperated son (Will Forte) begin their road trip, things click into very smooth gear. And the final 20 minutes, despite being rooted in grunty everyday reality, go aloft in a way that can fairly be called sublime. It’s all the more evocative for being in black and white.
8. “The Act of Killing.” Lots of strong documentaries this year, but this one might be unprecedented. Director Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia and got the murderers from that country’s mid-1960s genocide, inflicted on suspected communists, to participate in re-creating their acts for his camera. Sets, lighting, and make-up are included, and only occasionally does one of the killers pause to wonder about the strangeness of this. After all, they modeled their young selves on the gangsters they loved in movies; why not re-enact their atrocities? Yes, this is all as jaw-dropping as it sounds.
9. “Amour.” I know — wasn’t this a 2012 film? Yes, but Michael Haneke’s remarkable study of an elderly married couple facing the end opened hereabouts in 2013. And it’s still a great movie.
10. “Like a Rolling Stone” (music video). I realize this video, released in November, is just five minutes long. But since it consists of 16 different “channels” (and you can change channels as many times during the song as you like), it’s maybe feature length in its own way. The Bob Dylan tune is one of the greatest ever made, and the video’s inspiration is to have the folks in the different TV shows (some real, some fake) lip-sync the song. The effect leaves no one unscathed. How do you feel?
Many good ones just missed the list. Argentina’s young director Matias Pineiro made a wisp of a film in “Viola,” but it points the way to a new kind of movie. Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” deserves more acclaim than it has received, and Haifa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” is a brave and lively feature from Saudi Arabia, a country with no movie theaters.
Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” continues a beautiful multi-film exploration of a relationship, and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “The Kings of Summer” was better than more popular comedies. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is unforgettable in many ways, and the two big epics of excess at year’s end — David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” — are berserk enough to qualify as must-sees.
“Captain Phillips” is suspense done right (and a shattering Tom Hanks performance), while “Bastards” was suspenseful in a different fractured way, but also shattering.
I could easily list 10 more terrific titles, but we’ll stop there. After all, we’ve got to take a moment to punish the guilty. Here are the 10 movies that most deserve a lump of coal.
“Gangster Squad.” One of the first movies released in the year, and one of the worst. Cops and robbers in postwar L.A.; the jovial tone and copious violence blend about as well as Sean Penn’s prosthetic makeup.
“A Good Day to Die Hard.” The franchise goes to Russia, in this dreary sequel. Bruce Willis looks definitively bored throughout.
“Disconnect.” A collection of different stories, joined by the dangers of social media and the Internet. The movie’s dire warnings about all this will come as a surprise to no one.
“On the Road.” Some movies are bad, others especially annoying because they so completely botch a great book. (See also: “The Great Gatsby.”) This is one of the latter, as Jack Kerouac’s classic gets a bloodless treatment.
“Pain &Gain.” Michael Bay tries to do a Tarantino mix of violence and comedy. Not pretty, and in the process he manages to make two innately likable actors (Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson) repellent.
“To the Wonder.” I suppose this deserves some respect, at least, for coming from the much-revered “Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick — but nah, forget it. An indulgent and self-consciously poetic movie that rarely stirs to life.
“Closed Circuit.” A British political “thriller” that relies on allegedly smart characters doing stupid things.
“The Lone Ranger.” Nothing quite like a movie that wants you to root for its characters but also ridicules its own decades-old mythology. Even Johnny Depp with a dead crow on his head couldn’t help.
“The Hangover III.” I know moviemakers lose interest by the third chapter of these things, but this didn’t have to be quite this half-hearted.
“We’re the Millers.” You have to get the tone right for black comedy, and this movie doesn’t know how to do that — nor is Jennifer Aniston convincing as a tough stripper pretending to a be a suburban mom. And no, the movie’s not as interesting as that sounds.