Remember when everyone said going to the movies would go the way of rotary phones and black-and-white TVs?
Well, tell that to all those who, by the time the ball dropped on Jan. 1, had shelled out nearly $11 billion to sit in a darkened room full of strangers.
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracking firm Rentrak, told The Associated Press recently that he thinks 2013 may beat last year’s record $10.8 billion haul. “It’s going to be really close.”
Of course, some of that may be due to increasing ticket costs and Imax upcharges. But, by many accounts, people were getting their money’s worth, because it was a particuarly good year in cinema.
Narrowing it down to my 10 favorite films has been tough — but that’s a good problem to have.
1. “12 Years a Slave”
Steve McQueen’s searing portrait of antebellum America looks at slavery through a slightly different lens than many of the popular productions — “Roots,” “Amistad” — that have dealt with “the peculiar institution” in the past. Based on a 19th-century memoir by Solomon Northup, the film has as its central figure a free black man in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. The world of free African-Americans of that era rarely makes it onto Hollywood’s radar, and showing what it must have felt like to have that freedom yanked away and replaced with bondage and brutality lends a new dimension and depth to the film’s horror. That story is given even more power by McQueen’s starkly beautiful and painterly approach to filmmaking and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s layered performance. Simply amazing.
2. “The Attack”
Much like Northup, Amin Jaafari thought he had successfully navigated his way through prejudice and pain. A successful and celebrated surgeon at a Tel Aviv hospital with a beautiful wife and cool condo, he is a secular Muslim largely out of touch with his Palestinian roots. Then his wife dies in a suicide bombing, but she was no victim — she was the one wearing the vest. That’s when his life unravels. Turns out, he really didn’t know the woman he shared a life with, and now his colleagues and friends view him with suspicion. Directed by Ziad Doueiri (“West Beirut”) and based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra, “The Attack” — featuring a heartbreaking performance by Ali Suliman as Jaafari — puts the Israeli-Arab conflict into profoundly human terms.
Who said a 3-D movie has to be empty superhero excess? Director Alfonso Cuarón’s beautifully shot and suspenseful story of an astronaut adrift in space is a dazzling technical marvel — the space-debris sequences are jaw-dropping — but it also has emotional and spiritual resonance. In that sense, “Gravity” is reminiscent of another man-vs.-isolation saga, “127 Hours.” Sandra Bullock may not be the first actress you think of for a role like this — Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Marion Cotillard and Angelina Jolie reportedly were at the top of the filmmakers’ wish list — but she pulls it off largely because of her relatability. Cuarón gets extra kudos for keeping the film to about 90 minutes, proving that movies don’t have to be long to be consequential.
Matthew McConaughey is getting a lot of awards-season buzz for his role as an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club.” And deservedly so. It’s probably going to earn him an Oscar nomination. But this smaller film from earlier in the year shouldn’t be forgotten. For one thing, it’s an overall better movie in which McConaughey delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a criminal on the lam in the wilds of Arkansas. The only people who know where he is are two local boys, Ellis and Neckbone (played wonderfully by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), who stumble across his hideout. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has said he wanted to fashion a multidimensional Southern story that’s part Mark Twain and part Sam Peckinpah. With “Mud,” he succeeded.
5. “Before Midnight”
The third film in Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy — “Before Sunset” and “Before Sunrise” are the predecessors — follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on a Greek vacation where they find their relationship stuck in middle-age malaise. Defiantly conversational and wonderfully witty, “Before Midnight” — full of long, lesiurely takes at odds with the quick-cut approach of so many movies today — hones in on the truths between couples, even those who aren’t quite as quick with the glib comebacks. If this is the last chance for filmgoers to spend time with Jesse and Celine, “Before Midnight” is a great way to say farewell.
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Kevin Durand, right, in a scene from the film “Fruitvale Station.”
6. “Fruitvale Station”
Based on a real-life 2008 incident in Oakland, Calif., in which an unarmed 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, was shot and killed on a transit platform by a policeman, “Fruitvale Station” chronicles Grant’s last hours in gripping fashion. Michael B. Jordan, up until now best known for his role on the TV version of “Friday Night Lights,” turns in a powerhouse performance as Grant. And first-time features director Ryan Coogler manages to maintain tension and interest, even though the ending is well-known. “Fruitvale Station” was released during the Trayvon Martin controversy, giving the film an extra amount of cultural resonance.
7. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Martin Scorsese’s forcefully electric tour de force about shameless greed and warped ambition — based on the best-selling memoir by former Wall Street whiz-kid (and convicted felon) Jordan Belfort — may touch on issues the director has dealt with before but it still feels fresh and is often fiercely funny and relevant, especially as the economy is still woozy from the last financial crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio, who was wrong for the part in “The Great Gatsby,” one of the year’s biggest misses, redeems himself here, jumping into stockbroker Belfort’s skin with ease, turning in an athletic performance that ranks as one of his best. He’s blessed to work with a strong cast that also includes a hilarious Matthew McConaughey (in an appearance that’s way too brief) and a wild-eyed Jonah Hill (this may become his signature role). Yes, at three hours, it could use some trimming. But as a story about greed and excess, the running time seem quite appropriate.
“Lore” is one of those movies that came and went without any fanfare, but it deserved much better. A German-language film from Australian director Cate Shortland (“Somersault”), “Lore” takes place amid the rubble of a collapsing Germany at the end of WWII. Hitler’s dead, the Allies have invaded, and five formerly middle-class children of the Fatherland find themselves on their own after their parents’ arrest. In other hands, this might have been a simple inspirational story of survival but Cortland — who co-wrote the script based on a novel by Rachel Seiffert — turns it into something darker and more complex that’s absolutely haunting. Saskia Rosendahl, in her first feature, is phenomenal as the eldest of the kids. Well worth tracking down on DVD.
9. “The Way, Way Back”
This was a good year for coming-of-age films such as “Mud,” “The Kings of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now.” But “The Way, Way Back,” directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the writers of “The Descendants”), stands out for its blend of pathos and humor in a tale about a boy forced to spend a summer vacation with his single mom and the man she’s dating. It showcases a handful of exquisitely delivered performances — including Steve Carell who, as the potential new dad, proves he can play creepy as well as comic. Then there are Allison Janey, who really seems to be enjoying herself as an annoying neighbor, and Sam Rockwell as a free spirit who unwittingly becomes the boy’s father figure. At the center of it all is Liam James (best known from the TV series “Psych”), who wonderfully captures the uncertain trip between boyhood and manhood.
10. “The Hunt”
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, known to American audiences for big-budget dross like “Clash of the Titans,” returns to his native land for this riveting film about a man stuck in a nightmare from which he can’t wake. He is a divorced dad and beloved kindergarten worker in a small Danish town who is blindsided after one of his young charges accuses him of molestation. Mikkelsen is magnificent as a man tumbling deeper into despair as everyone turns against him. Director Thomas Vinterberg may be a founding member of Denmark’s controversial dogme95 philosophy of avant-gardist filmmaking (“bad boy” Lars von Trier is its best-known exponent), but “The Hunt” is an extremely accessible and rewarding film experience.
As always, there were many that almost made the cut and this year there seemed to be more than usual.
* “Spring Breakers”: Harmony Korine’s love-it-or-hate-it hallucinogenic mash-up of “Project X,” “Natural Born Killers” and a “Girls Gone Wild” video, was as much an attack on the culture of instant gratification as a celebration of mindless hedonism.
* “Captain Phillips,” Paul Greengrass’ claustrophobic and suspenseful take on the hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates.
* “The Sapphires,” the feel-good ’60s-era musical — based on a true story — about a Supremes-like Australian Aboriginal vocal group playing for the troops in Vietnam.
* “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s portrait of a woman in the midst of an emotional breakdown, anchored by a stirring turn from Cate Blanchett.
* “Short Term 12,” a low-budget indie set in the world of juvenile detention featuring a star-making performance from Brie Larson as a counselor with a troubled personal life.
And, as always, there are the overrated (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “American Hustle”) and the absolute dreck, too — from the multiplex (“The Counselor,” “The Lone Ranger”) to the arthouse (“Only God Forgives”). Many of the latter were as big a bust with the public as critics.
Sometimes there is justice in Hollywood after all.
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