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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

"12 Years a Slave" was the best movie of 2013.

In Movies & TV Commentary

Robots plus beer plus laughs equals "The World's End."

In Movies & TV Commentary

"Gravity" was special effects-heavy Hollywood spectacle done to its greatest heights.

In Movies & TV Commentary

Even Robert De Niro looks confused to why he's in "The Big Wedding."

The best (and worst) movies of 2013


In total, I saw 205 movies at the movie theater in 2013. A lot of them were about the apocalypse. Even more of them were about the American dream, greed and how the two are depraved ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), shallow ("The Bling Ring"), tragic ("The Great Gatsby"), deranged ("Pain and Gain") or merely a glorified neon-soaked kegger ("Spring Breakers").

So yeah, it may have been a bad year for money and capitalism at the cinema, but it was a great year for fans of great movies. 2013 was a haven of terrific films, stories and moments from names both familiar (Cuaron, Scorsese, Allen) and fairly new (Cretton, McQueen). There were so many that limiting a best of the year list to ten selections seems to sell 2013 short.

But that's exactly what I'm here to do. Here are the ten finest in a particularly fine year in movies, as well as the most atrocious five (but the less said about them, the better).

Top 10 Films of 2013

10. "The Wolf of Wall Street"

No cinematic indictment of greed was as viciously entertaining or as invigoratingly told as Martin Scorsese's dark comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street," a gleeful and exhaustingly excessive movie about a gleeful and exhaustingly excessive lifestyle that had enough white powder in it to make "Frozen" look arid.

Leonardo DiCaprio bookended 2013 with two of his best performances: his riveting turn as Calvin Candy in "Django Unchained" and his crazed, coked-up comedic hurricane here as Jordan Belfort. And just like he did with "Goodfellas," Scorsese plunges the audience headfirst into Jordan's world, an intoxicatingly toxic frat/cult of grotesque debauchery and vulgarity. A place where even when these drugged hooligans lose, they win. Though some critics have disagreed, I don't believe Scorsese ever lets the audience forget how foolish these cronies are (you're laughing more at Belfort and company than with them) and how messed up it is for our system and culture to praise them and allow them to practically run free.

There's probably a sharper edit of "The Wolf of Wall Street" locked in the final product somewhere (even Scorsese's long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker hinted that she could've possibly used a bit more time), but even so, I can't imagine a better way to spend three hours.

9. "The Spectacular Now"

In the upcoming YA adaptation "Divergent," Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller play dystopian rivals. I can already tell this is going to infuriate me after seeing the effortlessly natural chemistry they have together in the aptly titled "The Spectacular Now." The coming-of-age story just feels … right, taking an unobtrusive, intimate look at a sweet fledgling high school relationship slowly coming together and soon coming apart because of Teller's alcoholism and quiet self-loathing.

Director James Ponsoldt (who previously tackled alcoholism and relationships in "Smashed") takes an unobtrusive, almost Linklater-esque approach to his lead relationship, letting it play out in long, unbroken conversations. He trusts his actors, and that trust is well earned. Woodley and Teller charmed my heart and then broke it with remarkably devastating power. In a crowded indie coming-of-age field, "The Spectacular Now" stands out not with flash or whimsy, but with genuine, real characters.

8. "Frances Ha"

Who would have thought one of the year's most delightful comedies would come from Noah Baumbach? The man behind acidic dramas like "The Squid and the Whale" and "Greenberg" puts down the barbed wire and salt that usually comprises his characters and, with the help of star/girlfriend/muse Greta Gerwig, creates a charming if directionless ramshackle of a person in Frances Halladay. The comedy is sharp and clever, the performances are sweet and earnest, and the black-and-white visuals are beautifully rich. "Frances Ha" feels like it follows its own light, bouncy beat, one – much like its main character ­­– that's hard to resist.

7. "The World's End"

"The World's End," the final piece of the Cornetto Trilogy, has more jokes in five minutes than most mainstream comedies ("Identity Thief," "The Hangover Part III," the list goes on) have in two hours. Better yet, they almost all hit.

Writer/director Edgar Wright makes movies that pop with verve and energy, and strike the perfect tone even with their bizarre genre elements (see: robots). "The World's End" is no different, using Wright's meticulously crafted joke-filled script (co-written by star Simon Pegg, who's secretly also great in the film) to create one of the year's best comedies.

Hidden amongst the sharp editing, snappy jokes and thrilling man-vs.-smashy-smashy-egg-men action as well is a surprisingly thoughtful and complex reflection on friendship and alcoholism. It's just one of the rewarding things to discover in "The World's End" (it plays great with multiple screenings), along with a whole pint full of laughs.

6. "Blue Jasmine"

Woody Allen's 44th movie is also one of his sharpest in years, telling the story of a formerly wealthy woman in the midst of a mental breakdown with bitter wit and insight. But Allen isn't the draw here; it's his star Cate Blanchett. She completely inhabits Jasmine, taking this drunken, neurotic mess of a character and finding a way to still make her human and even almost sympathetic despite her blindness to her faults, her new place in the world and her role in her own downfall. She's both tragic and terrible at the same time.

Blanchett, with all sorts of tics and confused chats to no one in particular, plays Jasmine with all of her nerves exposed. It's the best kind of big, all caps ACTING performance, one that fits the character and is both fascinating and entertaining to watch.

5. "Before Midnight"

It almost feels intrusive watching "Before Midnight," the third installment of possibly the least showy trilogy Hollywood's ever created. It certainly doesn't feel like you're merely watching two actors (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) wander around the modestly beautiful Greek countryside, conversing – occasionally with friends – about everything and anything, including their own trying marriage. Instead, it feels like you're watching a real relationship in action, with all of its sweetly charming flirtations and bitterly cutting fights. Somehow, in a summer filled with fighting robots, zombie hordes and train wrecks of all varieties, "Before Midnight" was more exhilarating than them all.

4. "Gravity"

Hollywood spectacle has rarely felt as, well, spectacular as it did in Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity." The "Children of Men" director spent several years finessing and perfecting his two-person space thriller, making sure the special effects and audio mix was right. The result was the most breathtakingly immersive cinematic experience I had in a theater this year, with some of the most exhilarating sequences of recent memory (I'm looking at you, unhooking from the ISS sequence). For a perfectly brisk 90 minutes, Cuaron did something that seemingly only NASA and Richard Branson could offer: He sent me into space.

3. "Her"

On paper, "Her" sounds like a terrible Adam Sandler movie premise. A man falls in love with his sentient computer. On film, however, it's one of the most mature, heartbreaking, honest, complex, bittersweet and true movies about relationships in quite a while.

Director Spike Jonze creates a fascinating sci-fi world that seems both familiar and new (complete with hipster pants). Meanwhile, stars Scarlet Johannson and Joaquin Phoenix develop a relationship that's incredibly real and touching – even more impressive considering they're never on screen together (and in ScarJo's case, never on screen period). A full review will come when "Her" comes to Milwaukee on Jan. 10. It's safe to say I'll be recommending it.

2. "Short Term 12"

Destin Cretton's "Short Term 12" is a small film that packs an incredible emotional punch. The indie drama, focusing on some particularly tumultuous days at a foster-care facility for at-risk kids and teens, can deliver a heartbreaking, emotionally raw punch to the gut and a few scenes later make the audience laugh with ease without either playing false at all. To quote the cliché: You'll laugh, you'll cry and both will feel truly earned. Also, Brie Larson's beautiful, deft lead performance is the kind of stuff stars are made out of. Get on it, Hollywood.

1. "12 Years a Slave"

Director Steve McQueen perfects his already impressive craft with "12 Years a Slave," one of the most punishing, as well as one of the most powerful, films of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o deliver incredible performances, while McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley unblinkingly capture the utter horror of a system designed to brutally dehumanize a group of people socially, physically and emotionally.

It's a difficult movie to watch (though McQueen never sacrifices humanity for sadism or exploitation) but also a stunningly crafted and incredibly moving one that leaves scars on the soul. It's also an essential film, a glimpse into a horrific crime against one's fellow man and why the resulting wounds have yet to completely heal over a century and a half later.

(Note: "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington" would've made this list, but unfortunately it was not released theatrically this year.)

Bottom 5 Films of 2013

5. "Grudge Match"

There's almost an interesting meta-reflection in "Grudge Match" about former pop culture titans like Stallone and De Niro growing old and embarrassing themselves, but still fighting on and trying their best. Unfortunately, only the embarrassing themselves part comes through in this sad, desperately limp boxing comedy. All of the jokes – and I mean pretty much all of them – fall painfully flat, like me taking a punch to the face.

4. "Safe Haven"

The bar is set pretty low for Nicholas Sparks film adaptations (I believe somewhere in between the mantle and the core), but somehow "Safe Haven" couldn't even sneak above that. This tepid romance film lifelessly recycles all of Sparks' tedious clichés, though this time with the addition of a dopey Lifetime-approved evil cop husband subplot and an utterly hilarious twist ending that is, to be kind, completely frigging nuts.

3. "Grown Ups 2"

To call "Grown Ups 2" lazy would be an insult to lazy things. Sandler and company half-heartedly mug awful jokes with no story, no characters, no effort and no respect for comedy, women or their audience. It's technically preferable to taking a brick to the face … but barely.

2. "The Big Wedding"

De Niro? Again? You're a two-time Oscar winner; you shouldn't have to do awful romantic comedy garbage like "The Big Wedding." Then again, none of the astonishingly overqualified cast (Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, even Katherine Heigl is better than this) should have signed up for this dreck, which tries to combine an overload of tedious cutesy rom-com clichés with unfunny, just plain unpleasant (and often offensive) vulgar humor. It's a marriage made in hell, and I think even hell would want it annulled.

1. "InAPPropriate Comedy"

I notoriously walked out about 75 percent the way through this offensive – and offensively awful – Rob Schneider/Lindsay Lohan sketch "comedy" (I cannot put large enough sarcastic air quotes around "comedy") back when it came out in March. Well, to be fair to it, I gave it another shot. And now that I've made it to the end credits, I can confidently say that it should be launched into the sun. It's almost impressive that director and ShamWow pitchman Vince Offer found something worse than "got arrested for punching a hooker for biting his tongue" to put on his resume.

Talkbacks

TosaJim | Jan. 1, 2014 at 11:02 a.m. (report)

What about the Butler....what a terrible movie....the actors who portrayed the various presidents were horrible...the who movie was bad.

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