2013: Love/Hate List

It’s that silly time of year again. I’m not talking about the holidays; no, it’s the season of Top 10 lists that gets me down. All across the country, film critics are toiling in front of warm laptops trying to decide which movies were the best of the year.

I understand why these lists are popular among critics: they are fun to put together and provide good fodder for debate. But the purpose of the Top 10 list is not really to tell readers which movies were the best of the year – art is inherently subjective – but instead to offer some insight into the tastes and proclivities of the critic. How do you compare a film like 12 Years a Slave to, let’s say, Anchorman 2? The two have completely different goals, and whether a writer places Slave or Anchorman on their Top 10 lists says more about the writer than the films.

But I think there is a better way to suss out a critic’s tastes. In lieu of a Top 10, I offer my second annual Love/Hate list (you can find my 2012 list here). For new readers, this is a concept I stole from Matthew Berry, a fantasy football writer for ESPN. In a stroke of genius, he decided not just to list which players he thought would perform well on a given week, but to show his readers where he differs from his fellow pundits. So his “love” list consists of  players he thought would perform better than his colleagues did, and his “hate” list was full of players he was more bearish on.

That’s what I’ve done here. I don’t love every movie on the first list, but I think they deserve significantly more credit than my fellow critics gave them. As for the “Hate” list…well, let’s just say I didn’t see what they were going for.

 

Love

Thanks for Sharing

Critics found this rom-com about sexual addiction a jarring mismatch of form and function, or, as Chris Nashawaty of EW put it: “This tone-deaf misfire can’t decide whether it wants to be a broad comedy doling out raunchy slapstick laughs or a serious drama about our porn-saturated age of sensory overload.” I saw it differently. With sex addiction one of the last taboos in a society that seems to be growing more tolerant by the second, Thanks for Sharing used a familiar genre – the multi-character romantic comedy – to explore its challenging subject matter. There are laughs a-plenty, but the performances by Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, and Josh Gad as three addicts in various stages of recovery go to appropriately dark and honest places.

Parkland

Despite the propitious timing – it was released just a month before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination – Parkland barely made a dent in its theatrical release, grossing only $600,000 domestically. Upon further reflection, it’s easy to see why: audiences are still hell-bent on framing the assassination as a murder mystery, while the film rejects that perspective and instead shows us how the event affected some its minor participants, including the young doctor who attended to JFK at Parkland Hospital, Lee Harvey Oswald’s family, and Abraham Zapruder himself. Journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman has made an emotional film that forces us to re-live the trauma of that day; it’s a sizable shame that it didn’t receive the audience it deserved.

White House Down

Big, bloody action movies only work for me when they are aware of their own silliness. The concept of a terrorist attack on the White House could go either way; in fact,  a movie with the exact same plot – this year’s Olympus Has Fallen – took itself far too seriously to be effective. But White House Down is a return to the quippy, explosion-heavy action movie of years past. It was often referred to as “Die Hard in the White House,” a comparison that the film actually earns. Channing Tatum is key as this film’s John McClane. He can handle the action, and, as 21 Jump Street proved, he is surprisingly adept at humor. The ethics of the film are troubling – it claims a pro-peace mantle while blowing up everything in sight – but I summed up the film’s succinctly well in my original review: “[I]t’s sometimes unclear whether you are supposed to be laughing with the film or at it, but if you’re laughing, do you really care why?” I didn’t.

White-House-Down

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The Butler was liked by audiences and was also well-reviewed. It received a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where they aggregate all approved critics’ reviews, but even some of those who liked it felt it was a bit too neatly packaged. They felt that the Forrest Gump-style narrative, in which our protagonist merely drops in on hugely important events in history, was a shallow approach to civil rights. I disagreed. The brilliant script by Danny Strong dramatizes a discussion on civil rights that has been ongoing since the days of Frederick Douglass. Does the path to equality only have room for direct political action, or is there value in the work of butlers like Cecil Gains (Forrest Whitaker), who don’t cause much of a fuss but allow the oppressors to sympathize with him over time? The Butler makes the case that both have their place, while subtly commenting on the “white savior” narratives on civil rights to which Hollywood has clung for decades.

To the Wonder

So Terence Malick is, for many, a love-him-or-leave-him director. If you saw The Tree of Life – you know, the one with the dinosaurs – you probably have an opinion on him that will be tough to shake. And I don’t intend to try. But To the Wonder, which was released in April and then promptly forgotten, left a deep impression on me. As his first film set in contemporary America, Malick brings his keen poetic eye and focus on nature to the glum streets of the suburban Midwest. Ben Affleck gives a strong, nearly dialogue-free performance, and Olga Kurylenko is magical as his French lover who he brings to the states, where their romance immediately starts to fall apart under the rigid structures of American life.

To the Wonder 

Hate 

Short Term 12

This is where it’s important to remember the meaning of “hate” in this context. I did not “hate” Short Term 12, but nor did I fall for it the way other critics did, like my colleagues in the Online Film Critics Society who nominated it for Best Picture. First-time director Destin Cretton gets great performances out of Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. (Jim, to fans of The Newsroom) in his story of a pair of young adults who supervise a facilty for short-term foster care children, but I found its inquiry into the lives of these troubled youths far too shallow and its ending – just take a baseball bat to a car and you can get over any trauma you want! – overly simplistic.

Saving Mr. Banks

A vile, cynical piece of corporate propaganda posing as its complete opposite: a warm, charming family drama, perfectly suitable for the holidays. This behind-the-scenes story of the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins finds a miscast Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney, trying to please the prim P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the Poppins books, in order to gain the film rights to her story. There might be a decent story in here, but the filmmakers were clearly driven more by the purpose of promoting the Disney brand, and all you are left with is a vague but shallow feeling that you want to buy something. On second thought, maybe this is perfectly suitable for the holidays.

Saving Mr Banks

Pacific Rim

Critics and audiences were certainly not enthralled with Pacific Rim (it grossed a disappointing $101 million domestically and garnered a so-so 72% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I was bored to tears by it. It was the only film I walked out of all year, and I did it with only 20 minutes to go. This was a classic case of all style and no substance. I could not care less about action sequences when the film did not bother to create a single well-rounded character. Or to put it another way: when Idris Elba makes little impression in a movie, you know something is wrong.

The Purge

The surprise hit of the summer, The Purge  had a huge opening weekend ($34 million) based on its concept, but it tailed off significantly ($64 million total domestic) once people,  you know, actually saw it. I found the set-up intriguing – for the good of society, legislators created a 12-hour period every year in which all crime is legal – but I was surprised when the film devolved into a boilerplate home invasion thriller. I still think the concept has potential, but the filmmakers chose the path of least narrative resistance (i.e., it was cheaper to make this way). Still, there is a sequel coming next year, so perhaps the filmmakers will get out of the house and explore the terrain a little more.

Mud

The McConaissance reached fever pitch with this Southern drama from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). McConaughey the title character,  a wild and dangerous escaped convict living in an Arkansas swamp who befriends a local teenager (Tye Sheridan, who does most of the heavy lifting in the film). Most critics saw Mud as a more complex and layered character than McConaughey has played in some time, but I didn’t see him stretching much. Looked like Wooderson from Dazed and Confused had taken a few too many tokes one night and ended up in the swamp. McConaughey would more than make up for this lackluster performance with Dallas Buyers Club, but Mud just left me confused as to what all the fuss was about.

Mud

*                    *                    *

And now, here are some other things I loved and hated at the movies this year:

I loved that the writers/directors of The Way, Way Back finally found a role perfectly suited to Sam Rockwell’s unique humor and charisma.

After a rocky start, I fell in love with reserved seating, which has been adopted at one of my favorite art house theaters.. It’s a rough transition, but once you learn how their online diagrams translate to each theater, it’s a cinch. And best of all, it rewards those of who us care enough to buy our tickets in advance with the best seats in the house, without having to show up more than a few minutes before showtime.

I hated the way critics and bloggers piled on when Rex Reed walked out of V/H/S/2. I understand why they disagreed with his choice, but this also felt too much like the young pushing the old out of the way. Reed is from a different generation of critics, and his reviews serve an entirely different purpose. than ours. Read more of my feelings on the matter here.

I loved seeing Tom Hanks stun me with his acting again – as he hadn’t done in many years – in the final 10 minutes of Captain Phillips. Might be the best acting I’ve ever seen.

I loved the first third of The Place Beyond the Pines, which was heavy on the Gosling, but hated the latter two sections. I’m still not convinced of Bradley Cooper’s talents.

I hated that most of my favorite movies of the year are not even among the top 100 highest grossers of 2013.

I hate that 6 out of the top 10 grossers of the year are sequels.

I love that Gravity has made more than $600 million worldwide. I didn’t go nuts over the movie, but it’s great to see an original movie with a woman in the lead role make that kind of money.

I hated to see another predictably “quirky” performance by Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger. The success of Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies ruined the greatest actor of his generation.

Read my original reviews of Thanks for Sharing, Parkland, White House Down, Lee Daniels’ The Butler,To the Wonder, Short Term 12, Saving Mr. Banks, Pacific Rim, and Mud.

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