Tag: 2013

2013 in Film List: 20-1

And now the end is near and so we face the final curtain. It’s the 20 best movies released in 2013. Only a month and a half into the next year! Hooray! No new additions, so let’s get to the list. As always, an asterisk next to the title means I saw it in theaters and every title will link to my full review. Let’s do this.

20. Europa Report

Europa Report didn’t get as much press as that other space movie, nor is it quite as groundbreaking as it, but it is a remarkably well made low budget thriller that highlights the excitement of going to space and exploring and discovering through a well-cast crew and a clever found footage conceit. That particular genre isn’t dead as long as filmmakers continue to write and direct movies as smart and interesting as this one, which uses stationary mini-cameras attached to the spaceship in addition to helmet-cams in addition to interviews done after the fact that sell this as a both a documentary and exciting space film. It’s available on Netflix Instant, so go watch it tonight.

19. Thor: The Dark World *

Thor is a great character, especially as acted by Chris Hemsworth, and I’ll happily continue to pay for films that feature the character in any way. He’s probably the best of the first wave of Marvel characters, though I’m super excited to see what Paul Rudd and Edgar Wright do with Ant Man. Anyways, this movie is really fun, probably in the top 3 of all the Marvel movies so far thanks to continuing awesomeness from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and the rest of the supporting cast. It looks good and Asgard is a hilariously over the top location that still works in the context of the rest of the film and the wider Marvel Universe.

18. Rush

Rush was a surprise for me. I’m not big into F1 or anything, and the prospect of a late era Ron Howard film wasn’t very appealing. It’s just another example of why expectations are dumb, and more proof than anything can be good. This one is helped along by a great script that pits the two main characters against each other both on and off the track and turns them into metaphors for two distinct styles of people, the head and the heart. Chris Hemsworth (again!) does a great job at being the heart, playing up the playboy nature of the man he’s being, and Daniel Brühl does an equally well with the super racing nerd who’s more technician than racer. It’s a fantastic story told with style and speed that really impressed me.

17. The Way, Way Back

This coming of age movie starts strong and continues its hot streak right through the emotional climax. It’s got a great cast to help it along, Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette and Steve Carell and Allison Janney are all wonderful as the adults surrounding the young boy at the center of the film. It’s funny and sweet and kinda sad, as these films are supposed to be. It’s an all around winner and it would have been higher in any other year, it just had the unfortunate luck to be released in 2013.

16. Stoker

Again, if it weren’t for that other space movie, I would confidently state that Stoker has the best sound of 2013. Mia Wasikowska has a strange hyper-alert nature that translates to the audience as hearing the rustles of a spider’s steps or the whispers of fingers playing a piano. The story is super weird, which isn’t surprising given the director’s previous films (Oldboy and the weirder, better Thirst) but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this gothic romance/drama/family feud thing the movie has going on. It’s not quite horror, but it gets close once in a while.

15. Captain Phillips

A career best performance from Tom Hanks drives this film, or is that captains? Anyway, he’s amazing throughout, giving life to the character, based on a real person who may or may not have been as heroic as he is here but also who cares about that. What matters is his journey in this film, poked and pulled along by Barkhad Abdi’s scary but human pirate, he saves his crew while being absolutely terrified. The last scene, though, is the high point. Maybe of the year, certainly of Hanks’ career so far. More of this, please.

14. The Conjuring *

Maybe the worst criticism of this film is also its selling point. It’s a throwback horror film, set in the 70s and using a lot of cliches of the time to get us all scared. Of course, if you’re a horror fan like me that’s liable to get your butt in the seat because movies like this “just aren’t made anymore.” Except, of course they are. The Conjuring is really really good, super scary and well acted. James Wan fulfills his promise as a director steeped in the old ideas and not afraid to bring them into new light. See the upside down shot for example, or the clapping game that forms the film’s scariest scene. Nearly everything works.

13. Short Term 12

Brie Larson. Pay attention to her. If the movie gods are benevolent she’ll be our next Jennifer Lawrence. She anchors this film in every sense of the term, bringing a weight to the role and forming the perfect center for the other characters to revolve around. Like few other roles this year she feels like a fully formed character, one which lives on after the camera stops filming. The movie serves her well, too, a small but important story about a group of young adults who run a short term foster care facility. The sense of community built in a short time is well observed and the dramatic shifts in tone are believable given the kinds of people the film deals with.

12. Her *

While it’s not quite as successful as I wanted and hoped it would be, it’s still a fascinating film full of futurism and flights of fancy that, thanks to Spike Jonze’s trademark melancholy, still manage to feel grounded in human folly and passion. Joaquin Phoenix reminds us that he can be funny in addition to his super intense mode and the movie works well as a romantic comedy thanks to the wonderful chemistry between him and Scarlett Johansson’s voice. The movie’s sci-fi ideas drive it and are actually its most interesting elements, especially its thoughts about the evolution of artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the rest of us lowly meatbags.

11. Evil Dead *

This may be blasphemy, but this is for sure the best Evil Dead film. Fede Alvarez avoids Sam Raimi’s loud silliness and instead opts for gore punctuated by wit and seeded with actual emotional weight. Unlike any of the three Raimi films, I actually cared about what happened to the people here and what kinds of horrible fates awaited them. There’s a clever drug addiction metaphor that carries throughout to the climax, 20 minutes of intense action and character development. Alvarez doesn’t just overload the gore, either, he gives it mass thanks to the confident camera work and well-thought-out use of space and frame. It’s not just a great horror movie, it’s a great movie.

10. Frances Ha

Count Frances Ha among the year’s surprises, and maybe the best in that category. Another strong woman carries it as Greta Gerwig flops and flounders around New Bohemia searching for something that will force her to grow up, whether she’s conscious of that or not. She’s a fount of charisma and we forgive her self-indulgence and general aloofness because we see that they’re coping mechanisms more than real facets of her character. The movie looks great, too, using black and white photography to give it a certain timeless feeling and a growing melancholic malaise (the Paris scene is special and so sad).

9. Gravity *

How much does the theater experience matter? A Great Deal, I’d say, and this is case study number one in that respect. I can’t imagine the movie working as well as it did for me in IMAX 3D at home, even on my pretty large TV. Nowhere outside a theater will you experience the enormity of the emptiness of space or the silence punctuated by cracks and bangs afforded by speakers bigger than I am. It’s proof positive that movies are meant to be seen as big and loud as you can get, or at least that some are. Oh, and it’s a pretty awesome movie, too. Alfonso Cuaron gets space, the axis-less void in which his camera floats and plays so delightfully. The movie is soft on the characterization and plot, big on the experience and action, and that’s fine. The final moments are spectacular, a shift from the weightlessness of the rest of the film that grounds the moment in something wonderful.

8. The Hunt

A call to compassion in the face of potential tragedy that works largely thanks to the always great Mads Mikkelsen. Here he swaps out of being uber evil on Hannibal (also awesome) and into being a normal loner who gets accused of some very bad things. What’s terrifying is the small town’s reaction to the accusation, turning instantly on a man who got respect if not friendship from most of the inhabitants of the town. It’s a horror film with no supernatural scenes and no real scenes of peril. It’s just so scary that things like this happen.

7. Upstream Color

The other big surprise of the year came from a place I’d written off long ago. Shane Carruth gave us the horribly boring Primer and followed it up all these years later with a totally great, engaging and emotional sci-fi film. Color me impressed. It’s still obtuse and there are parts of it I’m not sure I get even these months later, but the emotional through-line provided by the relationship between Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (though next time around he might want to keep behind the camera, he’s fine but nothing special) is what kept my interest even in those scenes of a weird guy collecting sounds to play to his pen of drugged pigs who are psychically connected to the main characters among others. It’s pretty as all get out, too, much more aesthetically pleasing than the fluorescent bore that was Primer. Keep improving, Carruth, and I’ll have to call you one of the best directors of our time.

6. Pacific Rim ***

Yeah, I saw Pacific Rim three times in theaters. Get over it! It’s nothing new or groundbreaking. It’s not even especially deep, there are some brother things and some global hand-hold-y ideas but it’s really the giant robots killing giant monsters that get my gears going. Guillermo del Toro is really good at the monster thing and the machine thing, so it only makes sense that he is able to imbue these creatures and creations with weight and thoroughly designed mechanics so that they feel real. These aren’t Michael Bay’s flimsy Transformers, they’re actual objects that have mass and momentum and flaws. The middle fight is a masterpeice of increasing awesomeness and just as you think del Toro has outdone himself he proves it’s only the beginning of his imagination. It’s not as moving as Pan’s Labyrinth or as funny as Hellboy, but it is what it is: super cool and too much fun.

5. The World’s End **

The first of two trilogy-enders to appear in this top 5 is really really funny. This is, of course, not at all surprising given the other two films in the thematic trilogy written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (who also directs), Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The World’s End packs the biggest emotional punch of the three as Pegg plays the loser character surrounded by incredulous childhood friends that have out grown his antics until he comes around again for one last go that gets interrupted by, well, the end of the world. It’s a friendship movie, an addiction movie, a sci-fi movie. It’s all things to all people, but most of all it’s really really funny.

4. The Act of Killing *

This is probably the highest a documentary has ever gotten on my year end lists. It’s not that big a shock either, since the movie is totally crazy. It gives some of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of the mid sixties a space to recreate their crimes against humanity using cheap make up and real fire. They think that they’re making a movie glorifying their actions but the documentary proves only that they’re totally messed up people. They rationalize much of their crimes and the wanton destruction of life with blithe comments about the cool bad guys in Hollywood movies whom they were just imitating. They’re no Elvis, though, as the film gets increasingly squishy and gross and terrifying. There’s a scene towards the end which shows that these recreations aren’t just harmless exercises, either, and that old wounds still hurt. It’s fascinating and frightening.

3. Before Midnight *

And here’s the other trilogy ender coming in at a fitting third best film of the year. It’s been another nine years since Before Sunset and Jesse and Celine are together (but not married) with two adorable kids of their own. That’s not to say all is well. After a few opening scenes the movie again settles into a long conversation that takes place as they walk around an idyllic European town and eventually in a hotel room. The philosophical debates return as well, this time grounded in discussions of what’s best for their kids (and Jesse’s own boy, whom he’s living far away from). As a child of divorce myself, I really connected with Jesse’s kid, seen only in the opening scene but used as a tool in the arguments later on, and through him cared even more about what happened between these two than I did last time around. The movie ends a little too unambiguously. A cut to black thirty seconds earlier would have been perfect and set us up for another installment nine years from now. I still hope it happens.

2. 12 Years a Slave *

Let’s talk about long takes, shall we? Steve McQueen has grown a bit of a reputation for using them in his films, from the 20 odd minute conversation with a locked down camera filming from the side in Hunger to the numerous examples here he’s confident in his control of a scene and a shot. Some are used to highlight the inhuman terror of a scene, as in the shot which sees Solomon (played expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanged from a tree with only inches of his feet squirming in the mud, while others demonstrate his disconnect from the slaves around him until he just can’t stand the sadness of his situation and begins to sing along with their rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll”. It’s a technique that he returns to just after that scene as Solomon stands in the middle of a field at sunset and looks into the distance until he turns and glances at the camera, acknowledging the history of slavery and his place in it. And of course, there’s the climax, an act of violence that shocks even more than it might thanks to McQueen’s boldly unblinking camera.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis *

That’s everything. 99 in total, at the time of this publishing. Follow me on Letterboxd to see what I think of the upcoming films from 2014 (one is already top 100 potential) and the latecomers to the 2013 party and everything else I watch. I’ll go back and edit the previous entries in this list so that it’s a continuous number sequence and put the addons back in place, plus I’ll put links to each section on the Lists page. See the whole list at Letterboxd here and see how many you still have to catch up with. Leave a comment here or there about what I got right and what I got wrong and if there’s anything I missed (probably some foreign stuff and a doc or two). And finally, stay tuned to this channel because there’s a lot more content coming in 2014 than there was in 2013 including potentially a read-along of Infinite Jest and some things that I haven’t even thought of yet.

2013 In Film List: 41-21

I’ve seen one more film from 2013 since last we spoke, so this part of the list starts at 41 instead of 40, giving extra space for In A World…. That being said, I think this part of the list represents the most idiosyncratic selections, movies that are mostly on the weirder side that I still very much enjoyed. As always, the titles will be links to the reviews I wrote after seeing the film at Letterboxd and the asterisk will denote a film I saw in theaters.

41. Sightseers

Boy, God Bless America was a joke, wasn’t it? This corrects all the problems that film had and transplants the story to England. I’m sure there are jokes that I didn’t get fully thanks to my yank heritage, but it’s still super funny and dark as night. Great use of song, as well.

40. In A World…

A pleasant film that has some funny elements but isn’t wall to wall hilarious or anything. It’s nice, it’s a neat insight to a world that we as movie fans interact with but never really think about, and it’s a confident debut from writer/director/star Lake Bell.

39. The Wolverine *

Another transplanting sends Logan to Japan to duke it out with ninjas and stuff. It works surprisingly well, both the fight scenes and the quiet conversations hold water. Some fantastic imagery makes this a worthy side story in the filmed X-Men canon.

38. Frozen

There are two big highlights in this film: the showstopping “Let it Go” number and the delightful snowman voiced by Josh Gad. Everything else is an interestingly quiet take on the typical Disney story of princesses and kingdoms which demonstrates that a movie doesn’t need a villain, really, to make for a compelling drama.

37. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug *

I wonder if these Hobbit films, like the last two in the Harry Potter series, will work better watched back to back. This definitely feels like a middle, with nothing starting or ending. Most of the criticisms, though, don’t carry much weight for me. I liked the romance angle, plus the action scenes were excellently done. People talk about necessity a lot with respect to these films, I’d ask, what movies are necessary?

36. Nebraska *

Nebraska doesn’t want to take over the world. It doesn’t even want to take over Nebraska. What it does want is to tell a nice, small story about a man and his father as they both try to cope with the elder’s fading mind and body. It’s also really funny, which helps.

35. Cutie and the Boxer

More interesting than the story of two artists is the story of a marriage which doesn’t work like most movie marriages work. This is probably due, in part, to the fact that this is a documentary instead of a fiction film, but both the husband and wife on display here exhibit some tendancies that viewers might balk at if their fictional counterparts did them. “Cutie” gets back at her husband, “The Boxer”, through comic vignettes which depict their lives in a pretty stark light. It’s a weird mix of cuteness and anger that makes for a compelling doc.

34. Saving Mr. Banks *

The film relies too heavily on flashbacks that take us away from the fascinating battle between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney to illuminate Travers’s background which has an emotional payoff, but not enough of one to justify the amount of time spent on it. Emma Thompson could have portrayed everything she needed to quite easily, given that she’s amazing, but a tear was still brought to my eye in the scene where she watches the film based on her book. It’s great.

33. The Spectacular Now

Miles Teller plays one of cinema’s best characters of the year in this film, a young man who’s angry and sad and covers all of this with a layer of cool that hides but doesn’t dispel those deeper issues. And he falls in love, of course, and it’s a teenage love story that keeps away from treacle and grossness and instead steers into some deep drama. Really well written and acted.

32. No

A great, Mad Men-ish take on a campaign to overthrow a dictator in Chile. Both parts are fascinating, the technical advertising things and the political thriller elements blend into one well put together film. Argo, take notes. Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic as always.

31. The Blue Umbrella *

The shorts that accompany Pixar movies are almost always good. This one especially so, as it wordlessly gets a lot out of everyday objects and even buildings that look a little like faces. Short and sweet.

30. Ernest and Celestine

French animation that feels like a storybook come to life, which is fitting given that Celestine, a mouse, aspires to be a watercolor artist. She rebels against the more capitalist tendencies of her society which thrives on stolen teeth while her opposite, Ernest, refuses to engage in his own capitalist society which seems to operate on a sweets based economy. Of course, it’s also just a nice kids movie about friendship coming from the place you’d least expect.

29. Philomena *

Like Saving Mr. Banks, this is a movie that thrives on the relationship between the two leads, here Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, as they try to figure each other out and get towards a somewhat strange goal. Dench’s Philomena differs from her usual whip-smart characters into a bit of a softer, more normal person, but one whom must be respected as much as M. Coogan, who also wrote the script, does well to not play up the humor, which still exists, and focuses instead on the heady emotional and intellectual consequences of the actions he and his charge are taking.

28. About Time

Domhnall Gleeson gives one of the best performances of the year in a role which doesn’t seem too difficult or abnormal. But that’s what makes it so great as he must show the gradual growth of the character as he jumps around in his own timeline, a gift passed down from his dad, the always awesome Bill Nighy. It’s less of a romance than the advertising would have you think. It’s just a nice drama with strong scenes throughout and a fantastic performance by an up and coming actor.

27. Drinking Buddies

I’m a huge New Girl fan, so anything with Jake Johnson will have me already in its pocket. Throw in a career best (so far, since it’s really just starting) performance by Olivia Wilde and you’ve got a pretty great movie. It feels so real, especially the moving scene, a characteristic accomplished by not really having a script and relying upon the actors to be real people. There’s some drama that doesn’t quite suit the understated nature of the rest of the film, and Anna Kendrick gets the short stick here, but it’s pretty great.

26. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire *

I was optimistic about this film. The book it’s based on does some interesting things that both diverge from and stick close to the formula set up in the first book and I liked the twist on the Games this time around better than the first incarnation. But would the adaptation figure out what it needed to drop from the first film and what needed greater emphasizing? Turns out, yes, very much so. The interpersonal drama gets a little hotter and heavier and the action is coherent and exciting. Jena Malone provides a much needed spark to lighten some rough scenes and the last shot is one of the best of the year. Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence is great, again.

25. American Hustle *

I am, as I’m writing this, getting flack from my friend for having this and the next film on the list “so low”. He should maybe check the number of stars I’ve given to the film just below them on this list (4.5 stars for Catching Fire). They’re very good. Sometimes great (Jennifer Lawerence, again, and everybody but Christian Bale). It’s just that I didn’t fall completely for them. Here everything feels so arch and conscious of itself that I couldn’t fully invest in what it was doing. Also, what it was doing wasn’t all that well done. But the acting was mostly great!

24. The Wolf of Wall Street *

Leo is undeniably great here. So’s much of the direction as Scorsese matches the characters excess with his filmic style. But three hours is too long, especially given that the last 40 minutes are no different than any other movie of this kind. If the movie is an exercise in topping itself from scene to scene the downfall doesn’t even begin to compare with the rise and peak. Jonah Hill, too, doesn’t do anything special. It’s Leo’s movie.

23. You’re Next *

It’s what would happen if indie filmmakers wanted to focus less on the interpersonal drama between their characters and more on the, um, murders of said characters. Notice I said “less” and not “not at all” because the character drama is what drives the murders and makes us care about the various ways they get dispatched. It’s funny, too, like the long, slow-mo run out a door into the unknown. What’s out there will shock and delight. New-ish-comer Sharni Vinson is great as the film’s final girl.

22. Much Ado About Nothing

The sometimes overly-talky quality of Joss Whedon’s films meets its match in this modern-ish adaptation of Shakespeare. I liked this version much more than just reading the play, as his use of his standard players serves as a shortcut to the characters. The style is slick for the obvious low-budget nature of the thing, and the funny parts are as funny as they should be. Much fun.

21. Side Effects *

Jude Law and Matthew McConaughey should be in a movie together about stars that were brushed aside but have a comeback of critically acclaimed work. Law’s great again here, digging around to figure out just what Rooney Mara is doing. The twists are silly, but Soderbergh and the actors treat them with respect so I totally went along with it.

That’s all for this part of the list. Tune in again soon for the last part, the Ultimate Entry! Leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

Best Books I Read in 2013 Part 1

I read 53 books in 2013, but a bunch of those were cheats. I count comic books in that number, though they often don’t take more than an hour or two to get through. So for this list I’ll combine the comics into series and we’ll see what the actual number is by the end of it all (37, it turns out). In all other ways, this will be much like any other list. Pictures, a quote, and a little review. And I didn’t hate a single one of these books, though those last five weren’t really very good. Here’s part one! Part two to follow later this week!

37. The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

“Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like day before yesterday,” said Apollonius. “I see your remaining days each as quiet, tedious collections of hours. You will not travel anywhere. You will think no new thoughts. You will experience no new passions. Older you will become but not wiser.”

I read this right after I read Something Wicked This Way Comes because I was told it’s a spiritual father of that story. I get that, a lot. The majority of this novella focuses on the weird stuff at a weird circus. It just doesn’t have much of a plot or really a reason for existing. Nice, but nothing I’ll ever think about again.

36. Dial H Vols 1 & 2 by China Mieville

China Mieville is one of my favorite writers working today and his take on a forgotten superhero should have been really interesting. Instead we get kind of boring things with moments of brilliance (see the chalk version of Batman, for example). Mostly disappointing, though.

35. Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge, and sometimes it never does. Still, with a plan, you only get the best you can imagine. I’d always hoped for something better than that.

Besides all the dead baby talk and the necrophilia, the story of this is a little less than what I was expecting. I love the idea of a haunted house real estate business and the idea of the song that will kill anybody who hears it is fantastic. I don’t even remember how it ends, though.

34. Railsea by China Mieville

People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There’ll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned-out lights.

Another semi-disappointing story from Mieville. I get that it’s for kids but UnLunDun proved that he could do that kind of thing while still maintaining a high degree of awesome. There’s room for improvement here, if he ever decides to return to the rails.

33. The Walking Dead Vols 1-8 by Robert Kirkman

Now I get why the TV show is so uneven. After years of hearing that the comic is better I thought I’d put that to the test. Turns out it is better, slightly. There’s still a lot of bad dialogue and the situations are sometimes quite silly. Still, as half a soap opera and half a kickass zombie story, it’s mostly interesting.

32. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

God, how we get our fingers in each other’s clay. That’s friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of each other.

The prose is uniformly beautiful. The pace, on the other hand, is super slow. Maybe five things happen over the course of the whole book. It’s robbed of its immediacy and therefore less scary than it could have been. Fortunately, Bradbury wrote another Halloween story…

31. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

You know how it goes, young woman travels to a fairy land in search of adventure, finds it. It’s well done and references those giants that came before it nicely. It’s good.

30. Prophet Vol 1 by Brandon S. Graham

Really pretty and mostly interesting story of the last humans flung across space. Here’s hoping it comes together at some point, because as of the end of Vol 1, there’s not a whole lot actually happening.

29. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The 1143-year-long war hand begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was “Why did you start this thing?” and the answer was “Me?”

The most interesting aspect of this story is it’s take on space travel and the time stretching and compacting that happens as the first intergalactic soldiers go out to the front line. It’s a Vietnam parallel and an obvious one at that, but it’s no less powerful for it. The sense of alienation in the middle segment is fantastic.

28. Lexicon by Max Barry

Good words were the difference between Emily eating well and not. And what she had found worked best were not facts or arguments but words that tickled people’s brains for some reason, that just amused them. Puns, and exaggerations, and things that were true and not at the same time.

Another book about the power of words but a lot more successful than Lullaby. Barry continues his trend of fast moving and funny books that feel like a really well done blockbuster movie. That’s a high compliment coming from me.

27. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

I had schooled myself since the war-days never to speak of my enthusiasms; when other people did not share them, which was usual, I was hurt and my pleasure diminished; why was I always excited about things other people did not care about? But I could not hold in.

There isn’t a whole lot of conflict in this story, the first in a trilogy about a small town in Canada, but it thrives thanks to the really great character work. The main character would have been a side character in any other story, and the choice to focus on him gives us wonderful segments like his war experience and his friendship with a Jesuit. It’s not exactly fun, but it is a really great read.

26. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?

Often recommended as a “what to read next” suggestion after catching up with the Song of Ice and Fire series, it shares that saga’s grime and plotting machinations. The characters are often interesting, even those that seem one-dimensional at first glance. I’m eager to catch up with the rest of the series.

25. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

Too many of us take great pains with what we ingest through our mouths, and far less with what we partake of through our ears and eyes.

My 2013 audiobook consumption was dominated by Brandon Sanderson, first with his book that appears later on this list and then with this one, the second in the Mistborn series. There’s maybe too much build up to the big siege scene, but boy does that scene deliver. Sanderson is a master at making a world and magic system feel entirely realistic and thoroughly considered.

24. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable or hostile but exhausted–the quiet of people who have a great deal to think about but not a hell of a lot to say.

Anybody with sense in their head might tell you that King writing a sequel to his beloved haunted hotel book, The Shining, which takes place 20 years later and concerns itself with psychic vampires and a death-sensitive cat would tell you it’s a bad idea. But he pulls it off, mostly. The bad guys are at once sinister and kinda silly. King justifies them remarkably well, though, and uses this opportunity to talk about alcoholism in a really great way. Danny Torrence was often overshadowed by his father in The Shining but here he, uh, shines.

23. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

A troupe learns to play like we all learn to screw, stumbling and jostling until everything’s finally in the right place.

I don’t know much about Scott Lynch’s personal life but the skinny on the ‘net seems to be that he was suffering until recently from depression and the end of his marriage. That makes a little bit of sense, as this is the least fun of the Gentlemen Bastards series so far. He again switches back and forth between a previous point in the characters’ lives and their current situation and again the “modern” story is a lot more interesting. Stop showing us the past, Scott! Despite all that, it’s still really good.

22. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.

The only reason why this is so low is because it was a re-read. It’s still one of the best books for young readers with a fantastic father-son relationship and superb writing throughout. It’s on my top 50 books of all time list for a reason.

21. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.

There’s a movie parallel to be made here with Stories We Tell. Both offer us the idea that we are who we say we are, and that the act of constructing ourselves is one in which we actively engage rather than just having it happen to us as we live our lives. There’s existential crises and a suicide and a really fantastic scene involving a river that runs backwards. And it’s so short I read it in an afternoon.

20. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The difference between childhood and adulthood, Vic had come to believe, was the difference between imagination and resignation. You traded one for the other and lost your way.

Much like his father’s Doctor Sleep, Joe Hill’s 2013 output is about a psychic vampire. Charlie Manx is a fantastic villain, both obviously evil and certainly demented. He steals kids and sucks their lifeforce to power his own in a pseudo-winter-wonderland from hell. Only one girl has escaped and now he’s out for her son. It’s big and long but it moves like a bullet and is quite well written.

19. Fables Vol 1 & 2 by Bill Willingham

I already love fables and fairy tales as a genre, so this comic series which imagines those characters we all know (The Big Bad Wolf and The Three Little Pigs, for example) as modern day refugees from the old world which was taken over by a malevolent darkness. Now they are private eyes (Bigby, the wolf) and communists (those pigs, also borrowing from Animal Farm). I’ll keep reading this series as long as Willingham comes up with clever situations to put these characters in.

18. The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Miraculously, smoke curled out of his own mouth, his nose, his ears, his eyes, as if his soul had been extinguished within his lungs at the very moment the sweet pumpkin gave up its incensed ghost.

Half adventure, half lesson, The Halloween Tree is a much more vital and exciting Halloween themed story than his more popular Something Wicked This Way Comes. Though I have no need to ever learn about Dia de los Muertos again, the rest of the historical instances of the celebration of death are fascinating. Bradbury knows what he’s doing.

Halfway there! Come back later this week for the rest of the list!

Top 27 Movie Discoveries in 2013 Part 2: 13-1

Part 1 of this list can be found here. This post will count down from 13 to 1 for all of the movies I saw in 2013 that were made in earlier years and to which I gave at least 4 stars on Letterboxd. Any questions? Remember, each title is a link to my full review.

13. Cabaret (1972)

It doesn’t get much better than the opening of this film. We’re thrust into a world of escape and sex and sadness all through the power of dance and music and the great framing. Liza Minnelli is a wonder in this film, a combination of razzle dazzle and loneliness that feels so real. But boy can she light up a stage.

12. Videodrome (1983)

Although videotape has long been obsolete, this film loses none of its punch thanks to a fantastic performance by James Woods and David Cronenberg’s patented body horror imagination. He creates a world that feels alive and breathing, thanks in large part to the seemingly alive and breathing television set that serves as the film’s centerpiece and most iconic image.

11. American Movie (1999)

Mark Borchardt is a character, man. He’s just a normal movie nerd trying to make a film with no budget and the help of his friends and family. This documentary doesn’t hide any of his flaws but it’s much more of a celebration of him and his dream than it is a biting look at failure. As such, and since Borchardt is so much fun, it’s a really entertaining and enlightening film.

10. Tesis (1996)

From the director of the fantastic gothic horror film The Others comes this earlier film that doesn’t stray into the supernatural but also doesn’t skimp on the scares. It’s similar to Videodrome in theme but different in execution as it uses some of the found footage tropes years before they became popularized by the likes of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.

9. The Fog of War (2003)

What ho! Another documentary! It’s like I was expanding my horizons or something last year. Anyways, this one is super great because Robert McNamera, former Secretary of Defense and subject of this documentary, is almost ridiculously intelligent and able to speak articulately about the triumphs and mistakes he made in his career. I’ve also been catching up with The West Wing and seeing the real deal makes that show all the sweeter.

8. The Seventh Seal (1957)

2013 was the year I started watching Ingmar Bergman movies. Don’t ask me why I took so long, I have no reasonable explanation for you. I’m just glad I finally got there. The Seventh Seal shows off his directorial abilities as he makes what might have been the depressing movie into an often comedic little movie about life and death. It’s all so great.

7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

You’ll notice this is the third musical on this list. Whenever I finally do my list of 2013 movies you’ll probably also notice that movies which feature even one musical scene often make a strong impression on me. So this really lovely tale of romance interrupted feels like it was made for me, even though I was more than 20 years away from being born when it was released. The last scene which takes place in a snowstorm at Christmas is just wonderful.

6. Sleuth (1972)

To say too much about this movie would spoil some of the fun of it. And make no mistake, this is maybe one of the most fun movies I watched all last year. You’ve got two of the best British actors working at the time matched up against each other with a hyper-literate script and some fantastic set design thrown into a pot boiling thanks to a fire of deception and lies. Fun fun fun.

5. Modern Times (1936)

Is there anything funnier than Chaplin at the hands of an automatic feeder machine? Or more thrilling than his blindfolded rollerskating next to a several story drop in a huge department store? Not really. Chaplin likes to stick up for the little man in his movies and this time it really works to sell the existential crises normal people were facing in the mid thirties. Also, it’s hilarious.

4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I’ve been told a few times that I messed up by having this be the first spaghetti western film I watched, since none will likely compare to it favorably. Well, if that’s truly the case, at least I got to see one amazing movie out of the genre. The title warns us that what we’re getting isn’t just a western by a kind of fairy tale version of the end of the old west. And what an ending it is, filled with standoffs and harmonicas and good guys and bad guys.

3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Not only is this movie consistently very funny, it also has a huge heart that makes it worth of standing alongside such holiday movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. It is probably the best Thanksgiving movie there is thanks (heh) to Steve Martin and John Candy’s fantastic chemistry. Of course, they can’t help but get in each other’s way but this film sells that thing better than most in the genre and the ending is a great topper to an excellent film.

2. Before Sunset (2004)

I caught up with the Before films just as Before Midnight was leaving the theaters (in fact, I caught the last showing of the last day) and I’m so glad I did. I liked this entry better than the first as it built upon the solid foundation laid by Before Sunrise with great dialogue and an amazing final scene. People often say it’s the more pessimistic of the first two films in the series but I don’t get that at all. Just look at the end and what happens in Before Midnight.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982)

The title links to my initial impressions, after which I wrote a two part blog post (Part 1, Part 2) proclaiming it as my new favorite movie of all time. So any of you following that kind of stuff probably aren’t that surprised by this choice or placement. It truly is a singular work of art, comparable to any masterpiece of any form, media, or genre. Somebody find me a better movie than this and I’ll eat my shoe.

And that’s the end. What were your discoveries last year? Leave a comment! Find the full list at Letterboxd. Stay tuned for a books list!

Top 27 Movie Discoveries in 2013 Part 1: 27-14

The first list of 2013 will be those movies that I discovered for the first time in 2013 but which were not released in that year. There are quite a few movies listed as 2012 or even 2011 movies on Letterboxd but which will count as 2013 movies for my own purposes (You’re Next, The Act of Killing, so on and so forth) so even more arbitraryness will ensue. Before we begin, a note on how I compiled this list. I looked at all the movies I reviewed on Letterboxd from 2011 and beyond and then eliminated anything with under 4 stars. So these are the 4, 4.5, and 5 star films I watched in 2013 that were not made in 2013. Each title is a link to my full Letterboxd review if available, or a blog post in the rare cases when I wrote a whole thing about it.

27. Twins of Evil (1971)

I watched a fair bit of Hammer horror movies this year and this was the best of those. Peter Cushing continued to be wonderful even at a less-than-youthful age and the two girls at the center of the film play the insane script admirably. Plus the bad guy looks like a Jimmy Fallon character.

26. Angst (1983)

This is not a movie you just pop in to have a good time with. It’s a remarkably ugly and unsettling film which uses interesting camera work and near-constant narration to get the audience inside the head of a psychopath. It’s very effective at something that isn’t often attempted.

25. Millions (2004)

This was one of the last Danny Boyle films I had to catch up with (Shallow Grave is still on the docket). It’s a heartwarming story about giving and learning to let go with some of Boyle’s expected kinetic style to keep everything moving. I also really appreciate a movie that lets itself be strange.

24. Sound of My Voice (2011)

Though not as straightforward as this year’s The East, Sound of My Voice shares some elements with its younger sibling. We’ve got charismatic leaders doing potentially dangerous things and inspiring cult-like devotion in their wakes. This one is a weird one but compelling nonetheless. It’s got a fantastic performance from Brit Marling and the ending will leave you thinking.

23. Ghostwatch (1992)

This is probably not quite correctly classified as a movie, but it’s on Letterboxd so it’s here. What starts off as a live broadcast of a tv special which is investigating a haunted house in real-time turns into a really scary early example of the found footage genre, technically. The final 10 minutes or so are really spectacular and a close rewatch will reveal things and sights you might have missed the first time around. It’s so good it inspired War of the Worlds type panic in England when it first aired thanks to some famous tv personalities of the day playing themselves. It doesn’t have that impact now but it’s still a really fun watch.

22. Charade (1963)

It’s difficult to screw up a movie starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau. Director Stanley Donen doesn’t and there’s plenty of identity flipping going on to keep me interested throughout. Are we who we are or are we who we pretend to be? And why was 1963 so darn colorful?

21. Eden Lake (2008)

Maybe the toughest watch on this list (and when a list includes Angst that’s an accomplishment) because it has not a single happy moment after things start going to hell. That’s fine and it’s so well done that you just have to sit back and admire it after you recover from the emotional wringer it sends you through. At least Michael Fassbender is there!

20. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

It takes some confidence to end your first film with a half-hour long scene during which people mostly just sit around and talk. John Huston obviously went on to have a fantastic career and his beginning is indicative of just how good he can be. Plus Bogart in a film noir.

19. Before Sunrise (1995)

This is my least favorite of the three movies in the trilogy which follows Jesse and Celine as they age and fall in and around love. And yet, it’s still on this list! That’s because it’s so darn good. It’s the least complicated of the three films, focusing mostly on semi-philosophical musings and the act of infatuation, but it’s no less satisfying for that. A truly great start for a truly great series of films.

18. The Circus (1928)

While The Circus isn’t quite as funny as another film that will show up later on this list, it’s still a really fun time at the movies. There are, as always in a Chaplin film, a few impressively hilarious scenes (the clown one this time around is a standout) and a nice little romance to go with them.

17. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

Klaus Kinski is some kind of supernatural monster of acting. He feels less like a human than a physical embodiment of the kinds of things Werner Herzog likes to make movies about: the destructive power of nature and the hubris of mankind trying to stand in its way. Late in the film there’s an invading species and Kinski’s reactions to the animals are hilarious and insane.

16. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Here’s the first musical on my list and it’s one I enjoyed quite a bit, despite my general lack of interest in glam rock or transsexual issues. Director and lead actor John Cameron Mitchell does well to make what could be an alienating character in a wacky story real and human so that anybody coming in with an open mind will likely exit with an appreciation for Hedwig and the ups and downs in the film. The music is often strong as well.

15. Another Year (2010)

I’ve always liked Jim Broadbent and it was really nice to see him play a normal older guy. He does over the top quite well often but his role here as one half of the “normal” couple in this film is fantastic. It’s a mellow kind of film which gets by on the strength of the characters and acting more than impressive filmmaking. Maybe that’s more impressive than the flash and bang that some directors like to work with.

14. The Apartment (1960)

If I hadn’t just watched this at the end of September it’d be near the top of my list for a Christmas watch this year. All the best Christmas movies have a certain air of melancholy about them and this is no different. It’s a movie about damaged people trying to put on a happy face but can only truly connect once those masks come off. It’s wonderful.

That’s all for part one, check out part two in a few days.