Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Best of 2013: Honorable Mentions

I'm just about ready to post my Top 10 movies of 2013 (I have two more films to watch, although Her is proving to be a challenge since it doesn't screen in Utah until January. Sigh) and as always, there are more quality films than I know what to do with. This year has seen an embarrassment of riches in Cinemas, which has made whittling down to a final 10 particularly difficult.

So in the spirit of recognition, here's this year's list of honorable mentions. As a note, these movies do not necessarily represent what would be ranked 11th, 12th, 13th and so forth from the year. Instead, they are standout films from various categories that deserve some kudos even while they may not have measured up for one reason or another (mostly because the best films this year were just so darned good).



Best January Surprise: Side Effects

January and February are the garbage dump of the Hollywood calendar, as the last of the Oscar season behemoths trickle into wide release distribution and studio execs turn their attention toward their awards campaigns. But ever year, one or two gems take advantage of the less competitive landscape to launch under the radar.

This year, that claim goes to Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh's twisty thriller about prescription antidepressants and the people who use them. The tagline for the movie was "In some cases, death may occur," a riff on the soft-spoken fine print in drug advertisements that foreshadows the fate of Channing Tatum's reformed criminal husband, the catalyst that sets off a cat-and-mouse game between Rooney Mara and her psychiatrist Jude Law where things may or may not be what they seem.



Best Documentary: After Tiller

There are only four doctors in the United States that practice late-term abortions and in After Tiller, we are treated to a day in the life of each of them. By zooming in with a lazer focus on the real-life people at the heart (literally and figuratively) of the Abortion debate, the filmmakers bypass the screaming protestors and demonstrate how the individuals undergoing and performing these procedures are just people, faced with difficult circumstances and even more difficult decisions.



Best Rom-Com: Enough Said

What happens when a masseuse learns that the man she's dating is actually the supposedly dead-beat ex-husband one of her clients has been gossiping about for weeks?

It's the kind of schlocky premise that would feel right at home in a mid-90s Sandra Bulloch movie, but played with extreme earnestness by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said is endearingly sweet, hilariously uncomfortable and poignantly understated. The fact that it was one of Gandolfini's last performances also punctuates the entire film with a sort of reverent melancholy that lifts the film above its contemporaries.



Best Superhero: Iron Man 3

Sure, the other Superhero movies this year were largely an indistinguishable mass of destructo-porn (I'm looking at you, Man Of Steel) but even with the weak competition that doesn't lessen what director Shane Black (who also made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a movie that if you haven't seen you should do so immediately) was able to do with the Iron Man franchise. Where most comic-book heroes are investing in the Michael Bay school of EXPLOSIONS AND MAYHEM, Black doubled down on RDJ's likeability, creating a sort of buddy-cop comedy where our Iron Man spends most of the screen time cracking wise, sans super suit, and making self-referential meta jokes. He also pulled off one of the ballsiest baits-and-switches with his Mandarin reveal, angering fanboys and making a believer out of me.



Best Indie: The Way Way Back

Screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash proved their moxie in 2012 by picking up Oscars for their work on The Descendants and parlayed that success into their directorial debut, a coming of age tale about a Waterpark of Misfit Toys. At moments heartbreaking and triumphant, TWWB strikes an emotional tone that speaks to the awkward teenager inside all of us and in Sam Rockwell's waterpark manager gives us the Mr. Miyagi of the hipster-millenial generation. It's delightful, pure and simple.



Best Head Trip: Prisoners

A lot of critics have put Prisoners on their Top 10 and while I don't think it rose that high, I can understand the point of view. Prisoners, about the kidnapping of two girls and the lengths their parents and a local detective go to find them, has a way of burrowing into your mind and staying with you for days.

After the two girls are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, a suspect turns up in the form of a quiet and possibly confused man played by Paul Dano. With no evidence, the police are forced to let him go, prompting one of the girl's fathers (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands by attempting to torture a confession out of the suspect. That's just one thread of the multi-layered story, which follows Jake Gyllenhaal's investigation that seems to only turn up more and more questions with few answers.

The movie poses a litany of morally ambiguous questions as your first identify with and are then conflicted about sympathizing with Jackman's character and his "whatever it takes" attitude. The underlying question throughout is "What would you do?" which you are left to answer on your own after the smoke clears and the complex maze takes shape.



The 2013 Wood's Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: This is the End

It's no secret that actors of a feather tend to flock together, giving rise to the multitude of 'verses' that critics love to write about above the heads of more casual film viewers (i.e. The Whedonverse, The Apatowverse, The Andersonverse, The Nolanverse). So what happens when a group of comedy actors and all their friends get together to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves struggling to survive the end of the world?

That, in a nutshell, is This is the End, but the actual film plays like a synergistic effect as the combined powers of all involved make a product greater than the sum of their parts. Presented almost as a series of mock-horror vignettes we see our key group of Franco, Hill, Rogen, Baruchel, McBride and Robinson performing exorcisms, battling demons, making a home-video sequel to Pineapple Express and getting robbed by an axe-wielding Emma Watson. It's outright absurdity and probably the funniest movie of the year.

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