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Top Ten Films of 2013

The delay in me typing this up comes from the fact that there are still a few major films from 2013 that I have yet to see – American HustleHerInside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street (though I’m thinking I won’t see the latter due to excessive sexual content). That being said, I wanted to go ahead and tackle what I have seen before too much of 2014 passes, so just know that, if I see these films and find them worthy of this list, I will update it and let you all know.

2013 was a pretty great year for me. I saw more films than ever before, largely due to my involvement in The MovieByte Podcast with my friend TJ. If I totaled everything correctly, I saw 40 new films this year in theaters, so this list is drawing from a pretty wide selection.

An important note: this is a list of favorite films, which may conflict with my ratings. My ratings are usually based on a combination of both quality and enjoyment, whereas this list will mostly be based on enjoyment with quality mixed in just a bit. Click on the titles to see my reviews for each film. With that said, let’s get started with number 10:

thor the dark world

Honorable Mention – Thor: The Dark World

After the mediocre first Thor film, I was hoping for a much better second film, which we thankfully got in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth is an excellent Thor, made better by the fact that we’re not establishing an origin anymore. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to impress as well, this time as an ally, bringing an interesting twist to the character and allowing for a fun and occasionally potent brother-to-brother relationship. Brian Tyler’s score is just as fun as the movie itself, and Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is appropriately menacing, if a bit vague in intention.

frozen

10. Frozen

I love Disney films, especially musical ones, because they remind me of my childhood, when The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast (my review), and Aladdin were supreme. Frozen reminds me of those 1990s Disney movies, but this time with a nice twist at the end – which I won’t spoil for you. The voice cast is incredible here, namely Kristen Bell as Anna and Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman, with Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” set to be a surefire nominee for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards – and, I’ll call it now, it’ll win too. The animation is beautiful, the story is touching, and you’ll walk out whistling the songs, wanting to watch it again and again.

12-years-a-slave

9. 12 Years a Slave

This film is difficult to rank because, while it’s certainly a 5-star film, it’s also difficult to watch. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve long years. The film covers his incredibly painful time spent on a plantation in Louisiana, where he meets good people, bad people, and fellow slaves who are also struggling for their lives. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of slavery and how brutal the slave owners often were, making this film exceptionally powerful and a must-watch – if you can stomach it.

Enders-Game

8. Ender’s Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s classic book in anticipation of this film, so it was fresh on my mind when I walked into the theater. As expected, the book is much better and much of the content in the film is watered down, but that doesn’t stop the film from being pretty excellent on its own. For the most part, it keeps the themes of morality and unnecessary violence intact, and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender does a fantastic job of capturing the character, from his calm control in stressful situations to his intense emotional outbursts upon the realizations of what has happened to him. The visuals in this movie are gorgeous, with scenes from the book, such as the armies in the Battle Room, flying right off the page in a great way.

book-thief

7. The Book Thief

I also read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief before seeing the film based on it, and many of my criticisms are the same as for Ender’s Game in regards to the watering down of content and such, but that doesn’t stop this film from being an emotional punch to the gut. Sophie Nélisse is outstanding as Liesel Meminger, as are her parents, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The period setting of the film is well-done, and John Williams delivers as intimate and beautiful a score as ever. Bring a box of tissues for this one…maybe two.

Tom Hanks

6. Captain Phillips

In this film, Tom Hanks has the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Man, he continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors out there. Captain Phillips tells the true story of how Somalian pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama but were thwarted by Captain Richard Phillips, who not only protected everyone on board with his actions but also offered himself as hostage to continue that protection. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate, who isn’t portrayed as a bad guy but rather as a guy forced to do bad things due to unfortunate social circumstances. There isn’t a bad guy here, not really – at least, that’s not how the film portrays the pirates – but there is simply reality and suspense that rises from it. The long run-time never feels too long as you are caught up in the action from start to finish, and if Tom Hanks doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’ll only be because he lost it to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

SAVING MR. BANKS

5. Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson shines in this historical film about the making of the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers. Thompson’s portrayal of the stubborn author is both quirky and humorous, but it’s also heartbreaking in her remembrance of moments in her childhood that inspired her books. Colin Farrell plays her father in these flashbacks, juxtaposing a happy-go-lucky father with a down-on-his-luck drunkard, giving us insight into Mary Poppins and the Banks family that I was not previously familiar with. Tom Hanks plays an admirable Walt Disney, even if his performance doesn’t convince me enough that I am watching Walt himself rather than Hanks playing him. Still, the charm of the movie as a whole as well as Thompson’s performance knock this film out of the park. (You should probably bring tissues to this one as well.)

oblivionstarringtomcruise

4. Oblivion

I had a self-imposed boycott on Tom Cruise’s films for quite a long time, but since lifting it for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) he has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His performance here is great, as is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as his partner, but it’s the themes and questions raised by the film that bring Oblivion so far to the top of my list. Themes of asking questions, seeking answers, and the thirst for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are brought to the forefront, and, for some reason, it really resonated with me. The script is smart, Tom Cruise is as great as ever, and the score by M83 is energetic and fun, in the same vein as Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (my review), which was directed by the same man, Joseph Kosinski. This film not only shows off Tom Cruise’s continuing capabilities as an action star, but his talents as a dramatic actor as well.

the hunger games catching fire

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As far as book-to-film adaptations go, 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review) was one of the best I’d seen, but it still had problems. Director Gary Ross’ replacement by Francis Lawrence for the second film seemed worrying at first, but it seemed to pay off. Not only is Catching Fire a better film than the first one, but it’s also a better adaptation of its book counterpart, which is hard to believe. In fact, if I may be so bold, I think that I enjoyed the film more than the book, at least as far as the opening scenes involving the Victory Tour go, which I know is probably blasphemy. Jennifer Lawrence is surely one of the best actresses out there today as evidenced by her continued terrific performance as Katniss Everdeen. The stakes of this film are higher than in the first, and the character development is even better than the already-good character development of the first film. The shaky-cam is gone in favor of better choreographed action scenes, and, in fact, nearly every aspect of the first film is improved upon this time around. This is an excellent film whether you’ve read the books or not.

gravity

2. Gravity

If you didn’t catch this film in theaters, I’m sorry. You missed out. Maybe they’ll bring it back for a few extra showings before the Academy Awards, in which case you should buy a ticket as soon as they’re available. Though this film is great all-around, from the performance of Sandra Bullock to the music by Steven Price to the brilliant visuals of space, the real thrill comes from the thrill of total immersion. You seem to experience everything that Bullock’s character experiences, from spinning around in the vacuum of space to the rush of being trapped in a shower of incoming deadly space debris. The theater experience makes an already-great film even better by involving the audience fully in the action and atmosphere – or lack thereof – of space.

The Way Way Back

1. The Way, Way Back

I love, love, love this film. Love it. I caught an early screening about a month before it reached theaters and subsequently paid to see it twice more. I purchased it on Blu-Ray the day it became available and have watched it three times more since then, and I have yet to tire of it. The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age film about Duncan, played by Liam James, who is the most perfectly, believably awkward person I’ve ever seen onscreen, which is exactly how his character should be. The growth of his character throughout the film is equally fun and touching, contrasted by Steve Carell’s portrayal of Duncan’s awful stepfather, a role refreshingly atypical of Carell’s usual fare. However, the standout performance in this film is that of Sam Rockwell as Owen, a local waterpark owner who befriends Duncan and helps him to make his summer one of the best of his life. Rockwell brings many laugh-out-loud moments, but he also brings the most poignant moments of the film. The moral is great, and the ride is a great one. I don’t think I could possibly over-recommend this movie.

Well, there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with my list? What were your favorite films of 2013? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Here’s to 2014 – another great year for movies!

-Chad

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Despicable Me 2 (2013)

despicable-me-2

With the surprising heart and incredibly potent humor found in the first film (my review), Despicable Me 2 was one of my most anticipated animated films of the year. Thankfully, it largely entertains and rises up to the bar set by its predecessor.

Despicable Me 2 picks up after the events of the first film with Gru (Steve Carell), having given up on his life of crime, now in full-time father mode to Agnes (Elsie Fisher), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Margo (Miranda Cosgrove). However, things might change when he is approached by Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) and Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) of the Anti-Villain League, who need Gru to help them stop another villain who has stolen an entire secret research facility with a giant flying magnet. Deciding to help, Gru must discover who this mysterious villain is while struggling with his new role as protective father to three girls, and he might even find love along the way!

This film leaves me with a few disappointments. I am a bit saddened by the diminished role of the three girls here, especially by the lack of lines from Edith. As the middle child, she’s not the focus of the three; Gru is wary of Margo growing older and becoming interested in boys, which plays a significant part in the film, and Agnes as the youngest wants to have a mother, leaving Edith to only occasionally comment. If that seems like a lot, throw the girls trying to get Gru in the dating game and a plot involving Gru attempting to catch a villain into the mix as well, making this a short film with three significant plot points. I think the movie could have stood to be longer in order to fit all of these in without it feeling rushed (as it sometimes did); all of these are important to Gru’s character growth in the film, but it was sometimes too much. The final confrontation with the villain felt a little rushed as well, with the conflict resolving just a bit too quickly (and easily) for my liking.

All of these issues are forgiven, though, because, in spite of all of that, I had quite a bit of fun while watching. The humor present in the first film is back with a vengeance this time around, with the antics of the Minions being even funnier without it being too much of a good thing like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow has been in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Kristen Wiig is a welcome new presence as Lucy, with her slightly off-kilter character bringing a lot of fun to the screen and allowing Carell as Gru the opportunity to have a new character to play jokes off of. The relationship between these two characters builds well, with the chemistry working out quite nicely. Elsie Fisher is back as Agnes, and, though you can hear in her slightly older voice that it has been a few years since the first film, she’s as adorable as always.

Despite my disappointments and thoughts on the film being a bit cramped, this film is just too much fun to hold its problems against it too harshly. My screening of the movie was packed with children, and, although I was a bit wary at first, it made my watching experience even better…there are few things better than hearing lots of kids having so much (appropriate) fun at the movies. The jokes are still hilarious, the characters are still lovable, the heart is still present, and the music by Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira is just as lively, making Despicable Me 2 a worthy sequel.

-Chad

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG – for rude humor and mild action


Despicable Me (2010)

This is a movie that caught me completely off-guard; I didn’t see it in theaters because I didn’t expect much from it, but, after finally seeing it, it has now become one of those movies that I never tire of.

Despicable Me tells the story of Gru (Steve Carell), a middle-aged villain whose despicable crimes (such as stealing the miniature Statue of Liberty from Las Vegas) pale in comparison to the newest villain on the block, Vector (Jason Segel), who recently stole a pyramid from Egypt. Not to be outdone, Gru, along with the help of his fun-loving “Minions” and assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), devises a plot to pull off the “crime of the century”: stealing the moon itself. Along the way, he adopts a trio of orphan sisters in order to gain access to Vector’s heavily-fortified home, but he’s in for a surprise when he realizes that these children may be more important than simply being unknowing accomplices in his evil scheme…they may just change his life.

The voice acting in this film is superb on all accounts. Carell as Gru is hysterical, with his strange foreign accent providing lots of fun lines to imitate with friends, and Segel as the competing villain Vector brings plenty of laughs as well…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shouted his “oh yeah!” when around friends! Julie Andrews as Gru’s mother is an unexpected delight as Gru’s cruelly indifferent mother, and Russell Brand’s voice transformation from a higher tenor to a gruff elderly baritone as Dr. Nefario is unrecognizable. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the voice acting department, however, is in the talent from the three girls: the impossibly adorable Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the rebellious Edith (Dana Gaier), and the critical eldest child Margo (Miranda Cosgrove). In the presence of much more experienced actors, these three never miss a beat in matching their older colleagues step for step. The directors have guided them wonderfully.

One aspect of this movie that particularly surprised me was its heart; the growth of Gru as a character throughout the film is heartwarming and well-developed. At no point does it ever feel rushed or forced, with his transition feeling very natural and genuine. As likable as Gru is as a villain, his role as father to Agnes, Edith, and Margo makes him even more lovable, and the fact that his “evil” plot to steal the moon is just the result of a long-time dream to visit space brings an interesting twist to the characterization. The humor in the film is also well-done; with every re-watch, I never tire of the jokes, which seem to never stale or grow old. The Minions add quite a bit to this humor, with their tendency for slapstick comedy and inappropriate jokes appealing equally to kids and to adults, or at least to me as a young adult in his early twenties.

As I mentioned before, I was totally surprised by how much I loved this film. The script is smart and the dialogue is endlessly quotable, and it has become one of the few movies that I have no problems with watching again and again. It has a fantastic (and, unfortunately, unreleased) score by Heitor Pereira and Pharrell Williams, with Pharrell’s original songs being quite enjoyable as well, despite me not being too fond of all of the lyrics (they just seem strange at times). The likability of these characters and the humor brought by each of the vocal talents behind them make Despicable Me one of the best animated films of the past few years.

Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG – for rude humor and mild action


The Way Way Back (2013)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 11 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. I also talked about it with my friend TJ on Episode 61 of The MovieByte Podcast

The Way Way Back

Comedy films aren’t my thing, mainly because I don’t typically find them funny. In fact, I generally try to avoid them, but when you’re a film critic with an opportunity to see an early screening of a film for free, you hop on it, and hop on it I did! With The Way, Way Back, I figured that I at least had Steve Carell to look forward to, an actor whose humor I appreciated on the US version of The Office. I walked into the theater knowing nothing other than who was on the cast list – no trailers, no reviews, no brief synopses – and was pleasantly surprised.

The title of the film refers to the “way, way back” seat of a station wagon, which is where we are first introduced to the main character, Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a boy trying to fight all of the forces set against him: he’s incredibly socially awkward, his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is forcing him to spend the summer at her boyfriend Trent’s (Steve Carell) summer beach house with his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), who openly hates Duncan, and his father doesn’t want him around. He’s having a miserable time until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an eccentric man who manages a local water park. Duncan soon starts working at the water park, making friends with the other staff members and patrons, but his life at home with his mother and Trent is as miserable as ever as Duncan tries to find his place in the world.

This is one of the only Steve Carell roles I’ve witnessed that actually isn’t funny; his character is rude, selfish, and obnoxious. He fakes his affection for Duncan by “affectionately” (and repetitively) calling him “buddy,” a gesture that at first seems heartfelt but eventually proves itself to be artificial. In fact, Carell’s character as a whole seems to undergo a transformation the further the film progresses. His speech to Duncan at the start of the film seems genuine, but he becomes more and more of the “bad guy” the farther into the film we get. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sam Rockwell as Owen is side-splittingly funny…he makes it seem so effortless! His jokes are often inappropriate for Duncan’s 14-year-old ears, but it’s his honesty and tendency to not talk down to those younger than him that makes him such a genuine character. Owen isn’t only funny, though; he has a few serious moments, with the most poignant one taking place at the end of the film as he stands up for Duncan. Speaking of Duncan, Liam James, an actor who I’ve never heard of before, does a fantastic job. He is inherently likable despite his social awkwardness, and his growth over the course of the film makes you want to celebrate with him. Other cast members, including co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as two employees at the water park, Maya Rudolph as another water park employee, Allison Janney as Trent’s kooky next-door neighbor Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, Susannah, all do a great job of playing likable characters who bring the film both humor and depth.

The film is about Duncan and his coming-of-age, but the moral hits a wider mark: don’t let others change your opinion of yourself or who you want to be. Another lesson that runs parallel with this is to accept others for what and who they are. Owen becomes a mentor and father figure to Duncan, not because he forces his opinions on him or because he pressures him into doing what he doesn’t want to do, but because he treats him as a fellow human being who deserves to be heard. AnnaSophia Robb’s character treats Duncan similarly; though she may seem a little critical of Duncan at first, she realizes that he is who he is, leading to her interacting with him more and the pair becoming friends. Even Duncan’s mother eventually comes around to Duncan’s side, bringing the film to a wonderfully circular end (you’ll understand what I mean when you see the film). Originally a character who sits alone in the “way, way back” of the car, Duncan ends the film as a character with plenty of others on his side, with his position in the “way, way back” of the car carrying a positive connotation rather than the negative one it carried at the start of the film.

This movie is funny throughout, but it seems to me to be more of a drama with comedy splashed in appropriately than a straight-up comedy, which is why I think I liked it so much. All of the characters in the film (well, aside from the “bad guys”) grew on me quite a bit as I watched, with characters whose actions seemed false or forced at the start feeling very natural by the end, making me really care about them. Standout performances from Liam James and especially Sam Rockwell make the movie both amusing and emotional, with Steve Carell bringing a new kind of character (for him) to the table. Overall, The Way, Way Back is an excellent film with admirable morals, and it’s sure to entertain moviegoers of all kinds.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material