My 10 Best Films of 2013

  1. Nebraska—The characters that populate Nebraska are people you and I know. Bruce Dern’s Woody reminds me of my own stubborn elderly father. This nostalgic visit to small town America in flyover country is another classic from director Alexander Payne.
  2. The Wolf of Wall Street—Leonardo DiCaprio is at his best as stock swindler Jordan Belfort. Based on fact, but presented with outrageous hyperbole, this story constantly entertains. Director Martin Scorcese has delivered one of his best (and that’s saying something).
  3. 12 Years A Slave—Beautifully directed by Steve McQueen but sometimes painful to watch. This true story of human cruelty—from Solomon Northup’s kidnapping to the horrifying torture he is forced to perform—will net many awards. Possible best actor is Chiwetel Ejiofor.
  4. Blue Jasmine—Woody Allen has written and directed an excellent movie that’s inspired by the Bernie Madoff scandal. Cate Blanchett is this year’s best actress as one of the many victims of her husband’s fraudulent financial misdeeds.
  5. Inside Llewyn Davis—Like Coen brothers classics Fargo and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Inside Llewyn Davis is one that will be enjoyed more with each repeat viewing. Oscar Issac in the title role can act and sing.
  6. Dallas Buyers’ Club—Two of the year’s most amazing acting performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto fuel this story of dealing with AIDS in the 80’s. Based on true events.
  7. Captain Phillips—Another story rooted in real life. Whether the facts are accurately depicted or not (some of the real life crew have disputed this telling of events), it’s a fascinating story. Tom Hanks stirs emotions as an unlikely hero. And the young Somali natives who play the pirates are impressive.
  8. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints—This oddly-titled film of love and crime set in the mid-century American plains has strong acting from Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine. Director David Lowery—a filmmaker to watch—gives the film a dark, almost monochrome look.
  9. The Place Beyond the Pines—Clever plot structure and solid acting from top to bottom. Ryan Gosling creates another indelible character. Even Eva Mendes shows that she can be more than just eye candy. Its early year release date kept this film under the radar for many movie fans and will limit its awards chances.
  10. The Way, Way Back—A coming of age story about a 14-year-old boy but there’s plenty of comedy and drama among the grownups. Good to see Steve Carrell shed his nice guy persona to portray a total dick. Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette also shine.

Honorable mention: Enough Said, Philomena, American Hustle, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Frozen

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort is the 21st century Charles Foster Kane. He is one of the most over-the-top, outsize movie characters in years. Kane made his fame as a newspaper publisher; Belfort, as a rules-bending stockbroker. Both relish influence, control, riches and a lavish lifestyle. Both are fitting archetypes of their eras.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of 2013’s best movies. In director Martin Scorcese’s vast film canon, this is one of his most memorable and most entertaining efforts.

Leonardo DiCaprio takes this juicy role handed him by Scorcese and milks it for all it’s worth. Sex and drugs inspire Belfort to earn ridiculous amounts of money. But he is a man who can’t be satisfied: the more sex, drugs and money he gets, the more he wants.

Belfort (DiCaprio) is the dominating centerpiece of this excellent movie, but his partners in crime complement his greed and debauchery. Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is Belfort’s top sideman in scamming and in living the high life. The cast includes Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, Jean Dujardin (of The Artist fame) as a Swiss banker and Mathew McConaughey as one of Belfort’s early mentors.

The film is based on the books of real life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who has written about his reckless, risky behavior. Considering that Belfort was under the influences of cocaine, Quaaludes and booze much of the time, his memories of what happened may be a bit spotty.

Whether the tall tales he writes regarding his exploits are completely true does not really matter. The story we see on the screen is big, loud, outrageous and entertaining. TWOWS is not a movie to be taken totally seriously, though it should be seen by anyone who buys stocks through a stockbroker. The movie’s narrative is obviously filled with exaggeration and hyperbole, but that only makes it more entertaining.

Special note: The Wolf of Wall Street contains a large amount of graphic nudity and sexual content, much of which may be shocking to see in a mainstream Hollywood film at your multiplex. But most of the sexual content is not of an erotic nature, and some of it provides many of TWOWS’s funny and OMG moments.

As Belfort lived his life at full speed ahead, so does Scorcese in his telling of the story. The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3-hour movie and, except for a few respites, it unspools with compelling episode after compelling episode.

The Wolf of Wall Street should be in the running for multiple Oscar nominations. Best actor, best director and best movie are good possibilities. Brace yourself and enjoy this amazing, outrageous—and maybe even partly true—story.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Strong enough for a man, yet gentle enough for a woman, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty almost feels like a chick flick. But it’s not a chick flick. Let’s just say this PG-rated film is light entertainment. You can take your mom (or even your grandma) to see this film and be assured she will walk out happy.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a shy, wimpy guy with an amazing fantasy life. That fantasy life is depicted hilariously in several episodes in the first half of the film. The director of the film, also named Ben Stiller, changes direction in midstream and takes Mitty into outlandish adventures in his real life. (Okay, his on-screen real life.)

Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) is Mitty’s co-worker and romantic interest. She’s involved in Mitty fantasies, as is Mitty’s jerky new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott at his smarmiest). Walter’s mom (Shirley MacLaine) provides her son with support and important guidance. MacLaine, as usual, is excellent and provides another reason to take your mom to this movie.

Maybe the best supporting player is Patton Oswalt as an online dating counselor, whose work as an unseen voice in TSLOWM is as strong as his brief onscreen scene.

Mitty is a photo editor for Life magazine, which is preparing to publish its last issue. Photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends Mitty a photo for the cover of that final issue, but Mitty can’t locate the pic anywhere within the package.

The quest to find that photo takes Mitty on a trek to exotic locales, where he does things he’s never imagined. Okay, he has imagined being part of outrageous events, but never thought he’d actually live them.

Stiller is charming as the nerdy nebbish. His adventures, both real and imagined, are fun to watch. Credit goes to director Stiller for giving us a film that looks good and leaves us with a feel good, upbeat ending. Wiig also brings wholesome charm to her role, which is more substantial that the caricature she plays in the current Anchorman film.

To make a solidly entertaining PG-rated movie for a grownup audience is rarely attempted in today’s world of edgy filmmaking and even more rarely achieved. Congrats to Ben Stiller the director and Ben Stiller the actor for delivering a movie that’s fun to watch without all the dirty business.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is sweet and cute. If you can handle that kind of thing, don’t miss it. And take you mother.

Saving Mr. Banks

How could Saving Mr. Banks be anything but a home run? The story of a beloved movie musical, featuring a beloved actor portraying a beloved entertainment icon would appear to be a slam dunk, no? Oh, and most of the movie is set in a place that almost all Americans of a certain age have visited or fantasized about visiting.

Sorry to report that Saving Mr. Banks is not a good as one might have expected. The making of Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, set at Disneyland is a tedious story that could have benefited from a more streamlined script. The movie brings some big fun but also is overloaded with the dour disposition of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Walt’s best efforts to charm Travers into letting him make Mary Poppins into a Disney movie are met with strong opposition.

A movie that initially promises light-hearted fun adds in an overly long backstory that reveals why Travers is the way she is. Not that the fun stuff isn’t fun—much of it is. The songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) provide many of the film’s highlights. Travers seems to be slowly warming to the efforts of everybody on the Disney team, including her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), only to bolt back to London without agreeing to sell the rights to her beloved book Mary Poppins.

The back story, featuring Colin Farrell as her alcoholic father, is set in century-ago Australia. The flashbacks show us the real life inspiration for Mary Poppins, amid circumstances that are definitely not light-hearted.

Eventually, Disney travels to London in a final effort to close the deal. In the climax of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney tries to relate to Travers on a more personal basis. It’s a touching scene and audience tears will be shed.

We know going in, of course, that the film Mary Poppins was made. It was made the way Walt and his team wanted it made. Saving Mr. Banks serves as an excellent promotional tool for the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins. SMB adds to the legend of Walt Disney and is likely to increase awareness of Walt among younger generations. (There’s plenty of longtime love for the man among boomers.)

Saving Mr. Banks will likely earn Emma Thompson a best actress nomination. She’s great in a mostly unsympathetic role. And, because the industry loves movies about movies, don’t be surprised to see SMB get a best picture nod. Just don’t go to your theater expecting movie magic. It’s a solid film, but it could’ve been much better.

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell doesn’t really have a repertory company, but all four of his lead actors in American Hustle have worked for him in either 2010’s The Fighter or 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. They all perform at a high level in American Hustle, working from a script that gives each of the four opportunities to shine. On January 16, expect a name or two or three from this ensemble to receive Oscar noms.

The root word of con, as in con man or con game, is confidence. In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) gains the confidence of marks who believe that he can get them loans for 50K. But first, they have to give him negotiable checks for 5-thousand to get the ball rolling.

After Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party and discovers they share a love of Duke Ellington, they become lovers and partners in crime. Sydney joins him in his con game. She fakes a British accent and implies that she can get money from friends in high places in the UK banking world.

When the con man and woman are caught by the feds, they are enlisted to aid the FBI in scamming politicians. American Hustle is not the story of the Abscam sting, which saw politicians accepting bribes. But true-life events inform much of what happens in AH.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the agent who runs the sting and becomes enamored with Sydney. Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) seems at first to be a shallow, unaware housewife but later is revealed to be more clever than initially revealed.

Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner with a pompadour Conway Twitty would’ve envied) is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who wants to help his state get the money to help develop Atlantic City. While setting him up for the sting, Irving finds that he actually likes Carmen—which makes things interesting.

Another Russell alum (who appeared in Silver Linings Playbook), Robert DeNiro, plays a Miami mobster gets involved when a fake Arab sheik is presented as the deep pockets money man. Louis CK has a small role as agent DiMaso’s boss.

American Hustle has all the elements a movie needs to succeed: a compelling story, interesting characters and a clever telling of that story. It’s not the best movie of 2013, but it will show up on numerous top ten lists for the year, as it should.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) a good guy, a jerk or just a victim of circumstances? He’s a folk singer in NYC’s Greenwich Village in the early 60’s. Life keeps punching him in the face but he keeps getting up and chasing his dream.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie about a particular character in a particular setting. The film’s story is almost superfluous.

Music is the fuel that powers ILD and its characters. Most of the performances are top notch; all are, at the very least, passable. Oscar Issac can sing and he can act.

Llewyn has left the merchant marine to sing. He was part of a duo, now he’s a solo act. He’s good but not great. His world includes club owners, record company execs and fellow musicians. Chums Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) are a couple who occasionally vocalize with Llewyn.

They’re among the many who give Llewyn a place to crash. Jean has also been intimate with Llewyn who, on learning of her pregnancy, arranges a then illegal abortion (which she wants). At one home where he sleeps, the cat follows him out as the door locks and he takes care of the kitty (sort of).

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, share writing and directing on Inside Llewyn Davis. As with many of their lead characters, Llewyn is conflicted. Does he stick with music or go back to the merchant marine? Does he stay in New York or hitch a ride to Chicago to pursue his dream? Can he tolerate his family or is a clean break necessary? Does he want to perform the songs he sang with his former partner or leave them behind?

John Goodman appears in his 6th Coen brothers film as Roland Parker, an obese, sickly, eccentric musician who gives Llewyn a ride to Chicago. The roadtrip provides a change of scenery and provides Llewyn with a frank appraisal of his potential.

I’ve seen the music biz (performance venues and record labels) chew artists up and spit them out. I’ve seen artists who may have found the path to success rocky and gave up too soon. I’ve also seen artists who refuse to give up, despite clear signs that they should move on. Llewyn has the desire and the tenacity. Which may or may not be a good thing.

As referenced above, don’t go to see Inside Lllewyn Davis for its story. Go for the setting—the time, the place, the mood. And go for the characters, especially Llewyn.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a review-proof movie. The promotion for this film has been non-stop for months. Many tickets will be sold on opening weekend, no matter whether A2: TLC gets thumbs up or thumbs down from critics.

The current status of the 2004 release Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy as a highly quotable cult favorite has added to the anticipation.

Now the new movie is here. And the gang from the 2004 Anchorman is back. Along with Burgundy, the news team members are Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and Champ Kind (David Koechner). Also returning is newswoman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who is now (tiny spoiler) Mrs. Burgundy.

This time the news team is moving from San Diego to New York to join a CNN type operation. Upon arrival, they’re told that they’ll be working the 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift. Burgundy deviates from the prompter copy and, despite the poor time slot, ends up making the show and himself a huge hit.

Burgundy’s rival at the network is anchorman Jack Lime (James Marsden) whose ego and vanity rival Ron’s. News director is Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), an African American, whose relationship with Ron leads to an uncomfortable but funny visit with her relatives.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has some hilarious bits and some that fall flat. But credit Ferrell and his co-writer and the movie’s director Adam McKay with keeping stuff coming non-stop. While some of the humor is low, much of it is clever.

If you’ve seen the film’s trailers, you’ve already seen some of its funny stuff. You’ve also seen at least one scene (involving a gay character) that was in trailers, but didn’t make the final cut.

You did not see the film’s many great cameos, which I will not list… so you can be surprised! (Will other reviewers show such restraint? I hope so.) Many of the cameos happen during a classic scene that occurs when Burgundy is on his way to his son’s piano recital. (Again, I won’t spill the beans describing the scene.)

This funny sequel does not surpass the original, but comes darn close. A2: TLC is a worthy successor to A: TLORB. Stay silly, Ron Burgundy!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The visual effects in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug are incredible. The movie looks great from first frame to last. But the movie lacks the perfect mix of peril and playfulness that made last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey one of my top ten movies of 2012.

The second movie of any planned trilogy has a primary function: to set up the concluding episode. TH: TDOS does that. And it entertains along the way.

The dwarves and their hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue on their journey to reclaim their homeland, addressing dangers along the way. The Orcs pursue the dwarves on a river chase that is one of the all-time great movie chase scenes. A bit of welcome help comes from new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who has excellent battle skills and looks gorgeous.

Tauriel adds tastefully sexy eye candy for the guys and offers real girl power for female fans. The appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a Lord of the Rings character, may be another ploy to make The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug more appealing to women.

Following a visit to the village of Laketown, the clever Bilbo manages to find his way into the mountain lair of Smaug. The dragon Smaug is frighteningly menacing in appearance and, importantly, in sound. (That’s Benedict Cumberbatch providing the Smaug voice.) While Bilbo deals with the dragon, the wizard Gandolf (Ian McKellan) is off on a different mysterious path, leaving the dwarves behind.

As with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, much is accomplished in this second segment, but plenty more is left unresolved. To be continued, as they say, in 2014.

I mentioned to a movie promotion person that, while I did not enjoy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as much as last year’s Hobbit film, I can’t wait to see this new one again. Last year’s film felt somehow fresher, yet TH: TDOS has much to offer. See it and make your own comparison.

 

 

Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.