Like all award shows, the Oscars are essentially meaningless. Not as much as the Golden Globes (which are actually kind of a scam, given the shady submission guidelines), the SAG (the most obviously self-congratulatory entry in a high self-congratulatory genre) or the Emmys (which are just obviously a huge joke, I mean come on), but still, the Academy Awards are mostly a big, empty ceremony.
Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t honor films! Far from it. I just think it’s important to keep things in perspective, and remember that while the medium of film is important, the way we make up meaningless awards and write up stupid little top-ten lists can sometimes be a distraction from the power of the art form and from life in general.
So, that being said, here are my top ten movies of 2013, alongside some awards that will go completely unrecognized by the public at large but in every other way are just as meaningful as the Oscars.
10. The Counselor
Sure, let’s start right off with the one that will make you not take me seriously.
A lot has been written about this shiny, cold, bloody and nihilistic film: Salon called it “the worst movie ever made”–reason enough to check it out, in my book–while Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci wrote an intelligent defense of it that is more persuasive than anything I could write. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but I don’t want to call it a failure, either, because it’s successful at what it’s trying to do… the problem is, part of “what it’s trying to do” is make you feel gross about the movie and disconnected from its characters. But if you love impenetrable, over-written crime thrillers with fatalistic, film noir plotting, The Counselor is right up your alley. If you’re not interested in watching Cameron Diaz have sex with a car, well, I get it, but you should probably stay away from this movie.
The best way I can think to explain this movie, aside from just showing you a picture of Javier Bardem’s hair, is to suggest that you think of it as spiritual successor to Cormac McCarthy’s earlier cinematic adaptation, No Country For Old Men. The plot of both movies follows the same general shape: the main character is a guy who makes a lot of bad decisions, but when he does one vaguely positive act, the whole universe collapses around him and a lot of very evil men hunt him to the ends of the earth. The only difference is, the wise old cop from Old Men is dead now and that dark future he foresaw is bearing down on us fast. At the end of the film, after we’ve seen an innocent woman’s decapitated body dumped into a landfill, one character implies that all the horrific violence we’ve just witnessed is only the beginning and that “the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.” Yeeesh.
Or, put it like this: at one point in The Counselor, Bardem describes a nasty cartel murder-device called the “bolito”, basically a unstoppable mechanized noose made of impenetrable metal. Once someone loops it around your neck, cord draws tighter and tighter, drawing in on itself and severing your head in the process. McCarthy paints a picture of society that is not unlike the bolito: an entropic circle of violence that is forever in the process of destroying itself and everything inside it.
Why Did You Make This Movie? (Runner-Up)
Y’know, I hesitate to raise the subject again, because everyone is tired of it and I’m not qualified to add anything to the discussion, but in the wake of the ongoing Woody Allen scandal, it’s easy to see The Hunt for what it really is: a paranoid fantasy written and directed by a man who seems to be completely detached from reality. A well-respected white man is accused of sexual abuse by a young girl, and his life falls apart? Boy, someone let me know when we live in that world.
The quality of the film isn’t just irrelevant to its offensiveness, it’s actually part of the problem. The Hunt is a well-made movie that gets under your skin, but at the end of the story, the viewer is left with the lesson, “think twice before you believe the testimony of an abuse victim.” And so I have to ask the director: why is this the movie you wanted to make? Wouldn’t it have been more productive to focus on the reality of unreported and un-prosecuted sexual abuse, rather than the extremely small percentage of rape allegations that turn out to be false?
The funny thing is, Thomas Vinterberg already made a movie that captures the way our society actually responds to abuse, with all the denial and mockery that the abused have to face: it’s called The Celebration, and it’s actually quite good.
9. Iron Man 3
How awful are nerds? I say this as someone who identified as a nerd for most of his life: they are the worst. I tried to never take the label too seriously, but I stopped taking any pride in it when I realized that the internet has turned nerd culture into this insular world where angry white guys can tape up the shutters and just stew in their own bitterness, spewing venom at anyone who dares to touch their precious toys. It’s getting a little better–in the last year, we’ve made some progress in dismantling the ‘fake geek girl’ ideology, which is minor in terms of world-wide problems but is emblematic of a lot of societal issues–but even if we get rid of the sexism and the racism, we’ll still have a lot of insufferable people who can’t deal with any change to their beloved property.
If you’ve kept track of the response to Iron Man 3, you probably know where I’m going with this. The Mandarin is an old-school Iron Man who is such a racist Fu-Manchu-style caricature that his name is basically The Chinaman. I mean, for God’s sake, just look at this guy. One of the cleverest things about Iron Man 3, all in all an extremely quick-witted and funny movie, is the way it turned The Mandarin into a giant gag. It was one of the movie’s best jokes, and it doubled as a fantastic twist.
… but of course, a bunch of nerds went crazy because it wasn’t the REAL Mandarin. People started claiming that The Mandarin was Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, which might technically be true in the comics, but only because Iron Man was a C-Lister for so long that they didn’t bother to give him an nemesis that wasn’t completely embarrassing. The one-shot follow-up, “All Hail The King,” only makes matters worse by doubling back and assuring fans that no, no, their precious racism is still well intact in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’m sorry, I know that didn’t have much to do with the actual movie, but this thing with The Mandarin has been bothering me for a while. Two quick reasons why Iron Man 3 is awesome: the plot is so well-constructed, particularly in terms of how the villain’s plan develops, that the whole story clicks into place with a single, wordless shot of a disabled little girl. Also, that kid that Tony hangs out with in Tennessee is the most likable child sidekick I’ve seen in a movie probably since forever.
8. Before Midnight
Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ series has turned from one of the most unthinkable franchises in film history to one of our greatest cinematic trilogies. When Before Sunrise first came out, the ending was a wonderfully ambiguous move, a rorschach test for whether you were a cynic (Jesse and Celine never see each other again) or a romantic (they meet up fall in love and have lots of babies). After such an iconic ending, Before Sunset almost seemed like a novelty movie–the tagline, “what if you had a second chance with the one that got away,” pretty much covers it–but it had the benefit of being fantastic, filled with the same romance and wit as the first one but deepened by the regret of the main characters and the urgency of their second meeting; Before Sunset had a depth that the first movie lacked, and it turned out to be the most suspenseful “real time” movie ever made.
But Before Midnight proves the talents of Linklater and his fellow screenwriters, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. With this entry in the ongoing saga of Jesse and Celine, the creative team has taken an idea that seemed as delicate as a dream or a floating bubble of soap and stretched it into a trilogy with growing thematic depth. The mere fact that the sequels aren’t terrible is kind of amazing, but Before Midnight might actually be the best yet. The focus is still squarely on Jesse and Celine, but by introducing a strong supporting cast (a first for the series), the filmmakers are able to expand their scope and subtly examine the way different relationships function and change.
Instead of ruining the unique nature of the first entry, the second and third films add perspective. Looking back on Before Sunrise reminds us how much history these two characters have together, while looking forward to Before Midnight makes Jesse and Celine’s infatuation in the first film even more endearing: as John Lennon might say, it’s real love — it’s re-e-e-e-e-eal.
Most Infuriating Conversation Overheard In A Coffee Shop
A note to the man decrying the unfairness of “Alone Yet Not Alone” being removed from the list of nominees for Best Original Song: first of all, while I take issue with your description of a racist Christian film with shady connections as “super, super indie,” technically, you are not incorrect. While the aesthetics and spirit of independent film are, even in their most self-indulgent, amateurish manifestations, of much greater artistic merit than the chintzy, moralizing, somehow-always-anti-abortion-no-matter-what spirit that most “Christian” films possess, Alone Yet Not Alone was about one-hundred light-years from a studio system. So, I’ll give you that one.
But your repeated complaints that Bruce Broughton was stripped of his nomination “just because he let people know about this movie he worked on” simply cannot pass. You are, again, technically correct, but Broughton’s seemingly-innocent message was not, as you seem to characterize it, an attempt to make up for the lack of an advertising budget. It was, in fact, a flagrant defiance of the Academy protocol, addressed to a group of members whose names Broughton would not have known if not for his long tenure as Academy governor. You see, “letting people know” that he worked on the movie goes against the way that Best Original Song voting is set up, a fact that Broughton would have known. This makes his email campaign less “grassroots” and more “slimy and underhanded.”
So, to the man sitting on the couch fifteen feet to my right and complaining loudly to his friend about this nonexistent case of anti-Christian persecution, please consider yourself hastily corrected. I only wish I could have gotten this message to you while we were both in the coffee shop. Instead, I will have to be satisfied with battling an imaginary version of you inside my head for the rest of my life.
7. The Wind Rises
I probably shouldn’t say much about this one, since my knowledge of Hayao Miyazaki is limited to Spirited Away (which I saw when I was too young to appreciate it) and one other Studio Ghibli movie directed by his son (From Up On Poppy Hill, a gorgeously animated snooze-fest with a lovely score). Still, I hope my status as a Miyazaki novice won’t diminish the impact when I say that this movie is masterful. The director integrates his skill for dream-like imagery into the real-life story of Jiro Horikoshi, avoiding the constrictions of a biopic by integrating elements of fiction that turn the movie into a true epic.
Much has been made of the movie’s view of the main characters actions, and while I have to admit that I have some concerns of my own, I think The Wind Rises is complex enough to recognize the hero’s complicity in the horrors of World War II and how his own narrow-minded view of his dreams lead to that place (after all, one of the first things we learn about him is that he’s near-sighted), while still recognizing the beauty of what he accomplished.
Also: I ended up seeing the English dubbed version as opposed to the subtitled version. I was prepared for some awful voice work, and while it’s occasionally awkward, everyone involved does a pretty good job. And Werner Herzog is in it! Which is nice.
The best part about watching The Wolf Of Wall Street on the big screen (besides the fact you get to experience the debauchery in all of its widescreen glory and the accusatory final shot in all of its uncomfortable directness — boy, that movie really is vicious) is the suits. All those double-breasted, pinstriped suits, with awful Italian silk neckties worn right up on the collar. Not to mention everything about Jonah Hill’s character, from that pastel shirt and high-waisted jeans combo to his unnaturally white teeth. The fashion in this movie is hideous, but like everything else about Wolf, it’s hideous to an end. And for fans of that unconsciously gaudy era when 80’s fashion was warping 90’s fashion, it is a thing of beauty.
6. Short Term 12
Fun fact: Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Short Term 12, worked in a group home for at-risk teenagers, much like the one featured in the film!
Fun fact #2: If you have seen Short Term 12, you don’t need me to tell you that, because the reality of Cretton’s experience shows in every frame of the movie.
Short Term 12 walks the fine line between giving a realistic, detailed, lived-in portrait of live in a group home and delivering a satisfying narrative, and it does it with finesse. I’ve never spent any time in a group home, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Cretton’s portrayal, but I do know a lot about movies, and I know the dangers of basing a work of art off of a real-life experience, and Cretton does it right. He’s clearly a talented filmmaker, and by letting his real life fuel his storytelling, he gave life to characters that, in less assured hands, might come off as two-dimensional “issues” rather than real people.
Despite the movie’s heart-shredding qualities, it does have an arc of healing and redemption, and man, you sure do feel it. I get emotional just running through all the fantastic moments in Short Term 12. The story that Mason tells at the beginning, contrasted with the story he tells at the end. Marcus’s rap. When Grace finally breaks down to Jayden. Oh, and Mason’s birthday party–a two-minute scene that gives you the character’s entire life story through detail.
If you need any more proof that the Oscars are irrelevant, consider the fact that this movie received no attention. Or, consider the fact that Academy members weren’t even sent screeners of this movie. I mean, seriously.