Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best of 2013: Number 11



I started naming an 11th best film two years ago. The idea was to reserve a special recognition for mass-market popcorn films of high quality that failed to make the final cut. For example, past winners include 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and 2012's Skyfall.

But this year, I found myself stuck. I boiled the candidates down to World War Z and Iron Man 3 – both great films that I enjoyed – but neither of which felt right to sit, ostensibly, as one-slot-away from the Top 10 films of the year. World War Z ends with a cleverly creepy third act, but that only serves as a reminder of how uneven and – pardon the pun – lifeless the rest of the film is, as Brad Pitt's character hop-scotches around the globe getting out just in time and magically landing exactly where he needs to be. It's essentially 2012 without the cheesy acting.

Iron Man has the opposite problem. The first two-thirds are excellent, trading impressive action sequences with witty humor and culminating in a gonzo reveal, only to then devolve somewhat disappointingly into an over the top explode-a-thon that sees Guy Pierce's villain literally breathing fire and the most predictable non-death in Marvel Cinematic Universe history.

As I wrestled with the decision, my mind kept being drawn to my drafted Top 10 list, which had one title too many. A title I knew would likely be knocked out entirely once I finished screening all of December's releases. A title that I couldn't bear to leave off the list, having given it a perfect A rating and having enjoyed it so thoroughly.

"But it's an indie movie," I said to myself. "The Wood's Stock 11th Best is for big-budget popcorn films and mass-market flicks. A movie shot on a shoestring budget, in which the actors recite Shakespearean dialogue, is the antithesis of this category."

But then I remembered that I AM Wood's Stock. I MAKE the categories. I AM THE LAW!

And so, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the 11th Best Film of 2013 is...

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Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and shot in a minimalistic black-and-white over the space of a few days at Whedon's family home in California, Much Ado About Nothing sees all of our favorite Whedonverse friends (Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, etc.) spouting the Bard's prose in a modern take on one of Shakespeare's best comedies.

The story, for those of you who skipped English Lit in high school, revolves around two couples: the sweet, young Claudio and Hero and the independent and disdainful Benedick and Beatrice. While gathered together at the home of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, friends conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together while enemies plot to drive Caudio and Hero apart.

Setting aside the pure delight that this movie is, the existence of a film like Much Ado About Nothing in the current cinematic landscape is something that demands attention. This year saw many seasoned film veterans (including Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) lamenting the state of modern film-making and forecasting a dire future as more studios look toward the ballooning budgets of so-called "tentpole" films for their survival while choking out quieter, more artistic storytelling.

Soderbergh announced his retirement (we hope he's not serious) and Spielberg predicted that a few big-budget losses would start a chain reaction leading to an "implosion" of the studio system. He said that in June, right between the releases of After Earth and The Lone Ranger, which went on to be two of the biggest flops in box office history.

Which brings us back to Much Ado. Joss Whedon made the Avengers in 2012. It was the most successful film of that year and the third most successful film of all time with a worldwide gross of more than $1.5 billion. It cemented his status as nerd demigod and creative overlord of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all but extended the keys to the Hollywood kingdom into his hands.
So how did he follow up that success? By calling up a few of his friends for a weekend getaway where, what the heck, let's make a movie.

I would imagine that making Much Ado was essentially one big party, and that energy pours from the screen and infects the audience. The film moves along with such a sense of effortless charm and playful ease that you feel like you're among friends, giddily participating in the ruse that brings Benedick and Beatrice together and anticipating the final reveal where things are made right between Claudio and Hero.

It was one of the smallest of 2013's films and also one of the best, a master class on intimate, emotional storytelling. Here's hoping other directors were taking notes.

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