1) Gravity -- I gushed enough about this previously--it's the film that finally convinced me 3D was good for something. The interesting thing about #1 vs. #2 is how close the race is, and how completely and totally different the two films are. Gravity blends CGI and live performance so extensively that it could technically be termed an animated film; meanwhile, I would be fairly surprised if there's a single frame of CGI in American Hustle. Depending on the day of the week, I could flip-flop these picks.
2) American Hustle -- I'm not sure if this will go up before or after my American Hustle review posts, but if it's before, I'll come back and link it here. Let's just say that I was really taken with this subversive con man film, which is, but isn't really, about the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s. This is the kind of movie that could sweep the acting categories at the Oscars if the stars align just so.
3) Upstream Color -- Strange, beautiful, and affecting film. The combination of Malick-like cinematography and obsessive sound design create a coherent world to back a challenging story of identity, theft, and love. You can read my full review here, but it's probably simpler to just go see the movie right now on Netflix.
4) The World's End -- I didn't review this when Thaddeus and I saw it back in September, but for decent bit of time it had the distinction of both being the best action film and the best comedy I saw this year. While I didn't have the problems that Thaddeus did with the film's end--I really liked it, and thought it had a clever insight about our pop culture's current obsession with apocalypses, zombie and otherwise. I doubt anyone is going to give Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's performances the awards-type respect they deserve, but Pegg's great in a role that requires more dramatic heavy lifting than his other Cornetto trilogy performances, and Frost does great work playing against type as straight man/action badass.
5) No -- This story of political change and advertising philosophy in Chile deserved a full writeup. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, it portrays the advertising machinations behind a national referendum on the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Bernal, as an apolitical ad exec who wants to sell the anti-Pinochet campaign using the same iconography as soda commercials, must deal with oppression from the regime and distrust from his own side. Even moreso than the other films on this list (and that's saying a lot on a list with Gravity and Upstream Color) No had a distinct look. Shot on period videotape, the movie simulated the look of the late-1980s TV commercials that are at its center. The effect is frequently ugly-beautiful, but sometimes just plain ugly.
The rest of the 2013 releases I got to see:
Iron Man 3: I attended the same premiere Thaddeus did, and while I don't agree 100% with his excellent review, I didn't have enough to say about the film to do a review of my own. I enjoyed the witty Shane Black script, the humor, and the big twist, but was a little let down by the final action sequence, which should've been an all-time classic. Instead, it was ruined by variable-power villains (they go from indestructible to cannon fodder and back), false peril, and murky 3D direction. Nice, but non-essential.
Star Trek Into Darkness: My biggest surprise is that this is neither my most disappointing movie of the year nor the worst I saw in a theater. I've written about this before, and should damn well finish writing about it, but let's just say that with the 2009 Star Trek, J.J. Abrams opened the door to exciting new ideas and directions for the film franchise, and with STID, they slammed that door shut, revealing that they really don't have much, ideas-wise, to add to the Star Trek universe. With Abrams moving on to Star Wars, but his writing crew staying put with the Star Trek franchise, suddenly the future of cinematic sci-fi does not look bright.
Walking with Dinosaurs 3D: This is the most disappointing movie I saw in 2013. The disappointment is because on the recommendation of a dinosaur enthusiast at the Bronx Zoo, my kids and I saw various series of the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs on Netflix this summer. The BBC series used CGI and animatronics to create realistic speculative nature documentaries about dinosaurs. I was really looking forward to that getting a big-screen treatment. What we got instead was just another animated Disney-style movie, featuring talking dinos, wisecracking sidekicks, and a done-to-death coming of age narrative, because who wants to watch stunning, beautiful CGI animals and scenery without anthropomorphic voices and poop jokes? I don't think I've ever wished a movie theater had mute buttons before. Although I know it's irrational, because he neither wrote nor directed the movie, my anger is focused on John Leguizamo, who decided to give his prehistoric Alaskan dino-bird sidekick/narrator a heavy Spanish accent, because, y'know, whatever. In roughly two hours of nonstop chatter Leguizamo produced only two laughs, and one of them was closer to a chuckle. I should be able to let this go because my kids enjoyed the movie, but I just can't.
Meet the Small Potatoes: My kids also steered me into the worst movie I saw this year, one even they weren't able to enjoy. Director Josh Selig brought the world the Wonder Pets, one of the cuter TV offerings for preschoolers, but this limp, boring take on Spinal Tap (with anthropomorphic potatoes, obviously) was simply horrible.