Matt’s Best Movies of 2013

#1: American Hustle

The film begins with a bold and simple statement: “Some of this actually happened.” With that opening salvo, we begin a rollicking journey of crime, con men, politicians, government agents, lies, and betrayal that explores the blurred lines between right and wrong.

Based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, “American Hustle” tells the story of con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who are used by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to lure elected officials into accepting bribes – so that the Bureau could capture it all on videotape. A string of politicians are ensnared by the trap and convicted, but the film asks the question: in a game of deceit, who is the real villain?

Easily my favorite movie of 2013, “American Hustle” is an example of first-class filmmaking. The ensemble cast (rounded out by Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner) inhabits the characters and breathes life into the history. The story is well-constructed and laced with observations about loyalty, relationships and the human condition that are both wry and apt, leading to some of the best comedic scenes of any film this year.

#2: Before Midnight

In “Before Midnight,” we catch up with Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), the two lovers that met first on a train outside of Paris in 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and then crossed paths again in 2004’s “Before Sunset.” We learn that, in the time since the last movie, Jesse left his wife and moved to Europe to be with Céline.

In the first two movies, Jesse and Céline – who were not yet together — were still idealizing one another. In this movie, they are facing the reality of living together and feeling the pull of conflicting priorities. Loving someone from afar is easy; sharing your life with them is hard.

For Gen Xers, this new chapter in Jesse and Céline’s story is especially meaningful. We’ve grown with these characters over the last twenty years, and their story in some ways mirrors our own. And, because we’ve grown with them, their pain hurts us, too. “Before Midnight” is the rare film that feels so real that it aches.

#3: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
One of the troubling side effects of the Internet’s omnipresence is that we are now so accustomed to receiving our news instantly that much of what engages us on a daily basis has begun to feel disposable. In fact, one might argue that much of modern pop culture has been reduced to daily memes or soundbites that light social media ablaze today, but are forgotten tomorrow. There have been many casualties of this instantaneous culture, including countless hard-copy magazines that have died off in the wake of the Internet revolution.
Connecting with the world and with other people has never been easier, or harder, than it is today. When we can “visit” another country or meet people with the click of a mouse, it is all too easy to stop trying to personally connect with people or places. But there is no substitute for reality; there is no better way to feel part of this world than traveling and experiencing it for yourself. This is the lesson of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Bearing little resemblance to the short story by James Thurber, the Walter Mitty in this movie has lived inside his own head for most of his life, but circumstances force him to leave his comfort zone and experience Life for himself. During his travels, Walter learns a great deal more than books, magazines, or his computer can tell him – an experience that resonates with anyone who considers him/herself a traveler. Ultimately, this movie is about the value of personal connection and experience in a modern world that makes it possible for us to avoid those things.

#4: Starbuck

Did you see trailers for that Vince Vaughn movie, “Delivery Man?” It was actually a remake of “Starbuck,” a little-known gem of a film from Canada (in French, with subtitles). “Starbuck” tells the story of David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), a ne’er-do-well fortysomething with a good heart. David discovers, due to a mix-up at a fertility center to which he donated when he was a young man, that he has over 500 biological children. The children sue the center to learn his identity (which has been kept secret), while David learns more about them and acts as a “guardian angel” to each of his kids.

While “Delivery Man” wasn’t a bad remake, it bothered me a little that it was even considered necessary (why won’t U.S. audiences watch movies with subtitles? A fear of having to read???). What bugged me even more is that they felt like they had to dumb it down for U.S. audiences, making moments that were quietly comedic into pratfall-driven mishaps. Are Americans allergic to subtlety?

“Starbuck” is a comedy about what it means to be human: it’s about connection, love, loyalty, friendship, belonging, and, most of all, family. While it’s touching and heartfelt, it’s also easily one of the funniest movies of the year. I challenge you to watch this movie and not get choked up by the ending, which is profoundly sweet without being artificial or cloying.

Everyone I’ve ever recommended this movie to has loved it. Get over your aversion to subtitles and you will, too.

#5: Nebraska

A cantankerous elderly man (Bruce Dern) receives a come-on solicitation in the mail from a marketing company informing him that he “may have won $1 million,” and he immediately starts hitchhiking to the company’s head office in Nebraska to claim his prize. After first trying unsuccessfully to talk his dad out of the misguided mission, his son (Will Forte) decides to drive him there, hoping that he can use the trip to bond with his father. The road trip takes the pair to the father’s home town, where he crosses swords with his family, friends, and former business partner.

“Nebraska,” a film that looks both lovely and stark in black-and-white, is another home run by director Alexander Payne (“Sideways” and “The Descendants”). The cast is memorable, featuring a number of unknown, first-time actors that add to the authenticity of the movie; everyone has someone like “Uncle Ray” or “Aunt Betty” in their own family, and their living room feels like our own. Like many of the other movies on my list this year, “Nebraska” is about loyalty, family, and the bonds that tie us together.

#6: All Is Lost

Robert Redford plays a man alone on a yacht in the middle of the ocean, left to battle a chance accident and the elements using only his wits and the few supplies he has on hand.

Being a frequent moviegoer, one of my principal frustrations when watching a movie is when the filmmaker treats me like an idiot. Instead of leaving me, as an audience member, to do the work and figure things out for myself, the director decides to spell it all out for me and make it crystal-clear. I don’t like to be patronized or played down to. “All Is Lost” does none of that.

What I loved about this movie is that you learn almost nothing through dialogue. You, the viewer, are forced to watch actively for clues to decide why the man is out there alone. You question his actions, and are forced to consider how you would respond to the challenges thrown his way. As a result, every viewer’s understanding of the movie is guided by his or her own experiences.

#7: The Sapphires

“The Sapphires” is another retread of that well-known story: four young Aboriginal women, facing massive racial discrimination in 1960s Australia, form a Motown-inspired girl group and tour war-torn Vietnam playing to U.S. servicemen. What, you say you’ve never heard that story before? Neither had I. I love it when I learn something new from a movie; it’s even better when the movie is as entertaining and infectious as this one.

Often, movies that deal with difficult subjects have an atmosphere of emotional gravitas that can leave the viewer drained. It is exceedingly rare for an inspiring film about overcoming adversity to also be infectiously optimistic and fun to watch. Somehow, “The Sapphires” manages exactly that.

Roger Ebert once said “no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” While that is true of almost all of the films on my top 10 list, “The Sapphires” was the 2013 movie that most surprised me when the credits started rolling – the 103 minute running time flew by, driven by charismatic performances wrapped around delightful musical performances that left me wanting more.

#8: The Kings of Summer

Joe is a teenager living with his recently-widowed father, a gruff man who uses his biting wit as a defense mechanism to cope with his own loneliness. Joe and his two friends, each of whom are dealing with their own problems at home, decide one summer to run away from home and live in a ramshackle house they build in the woods near their hometown. Enjoying their newfound freedom, the boys live the summer happily in the house until a girl enters the picture, when jealousy and pettiness threatens to destroy their friendship.

My favorite movie of Sundance 2013, “The Kings of Summer” is a coming-of-age film that is both incredibly funny and poignant in a way that feels authentic and natural. It’s a fun an easy watch, perfect for movie night at home (but it’s not for young kids or pre-teens). And watch for “Biaggio,” one of my favorite movie characters of 2013.

#9: Rush

“Rush” tells the story of a vicious rivalry between two Formula One racers in 1970s Europe: the handsome ladies’ man James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the homely Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). These men, matched on the racetrack, could not be more different in personality. James is reckless and a risk-taker in life, while Niki plays it safe; but it is James’s charisma and appeal that leads, indirectly to an accident on the track that nearly costs Niki his life.

A glimpse into a world I know nothing about, “Rush” is less about Formula One racing than it is about sportsmanship and respect between rivals. Director Ron Howard is working at the top of his game, balancing the stories of these men and their lives off the track with heart-pounding recreations of the races that defined their careers. While it was not successful at the box office, “Rush” is destined to join the pantheon of great sports movies.

#10: We’re The Millers

One of the hazards of seeing 200+ movies a year is that you see a lot (and I do mean a LOT) of previews. And you see them over… and over… and over again. Some previews you get absolutely sick of (I’m talking to you, “Grudge Match” and “Out of the Furnace”); others are a joy to watch every single time.

Paradoxically, when it comes to comedies, the trailers that make me most wary are the ones that are really funny – the ones that I don’t mind seeing several times. You know the type: the jokes come fast and furious, and leave the audience members guffawing in “huge gales of hillbilly laughter.” Why am I so circumspect about those previews? Because, in my experience, the funniness level of the trailer is inversely proportional to the humor in the actual movie. Most of the really funny stuff is spoiled in the trailer, foisting upon the eager moviegoer the leftovers: a series of limp, tired jokes that don’t live up to the promise of this preview.

Happily, “We’re The Millers” was an exception to this rule. The preview, which was one of the few that I enjoyed seeing multiple times, didn’t spoil most of the great jokes in the movie. My favorite comedy of the year, “We’re The Millers” had all the elements of a great comedy: likeable characters, an engaging plot, and actors (particularly Jason Sudeikis) that have that perfect mixture of timing and delivery that give the lines comedic impact.

Listen, recommending comedies is difficult because so much depends on the viewer’s sense of humor, which is completely subjective. What I find funny may not be what you find funny. So don’t be angry with me if you watch this movie and don’t laugh. Also, be warned – this movie is a hard “R.” If you’re easily offended, avoid this one.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Disconnect
The Great Gatsby
Man of Steel
Filly Brown
Pain & Gain
Thanks for Sharing
The Armstrong Lie
Captain Phillips
Girl Most Likely
New World
The To Do List
Side Effects
Wadjda
World War Z

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