After a deeply uninspiring slate of summer movies (one that, at least judging by Super Bowl ads, looks to get even worse this year), I have enjoyed the living hell out of this awards season, which means I am a deeply middlebrow type of motherfucker and I am OK with that. And thanks to screeners reliably leaking out online, I’ve been able to see just about all of these movies without actually leaving my house, which, as someone with small kids, is a thing I appreciate. For the first time since I started writing these about movies, I saw more than 10 actual good movies during the last three months of 2013, and this is where I’ll shout out Captain Philips and Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Conjuring and The Wolverine, all of which I liked a lot but none of which made it onto the list. Also, I disqualified Inside Llewyn Davis and Her because neither one opened in Charlottesville during 2013 and because, as a person who doesn’t live in New York or L.A., I really hate the whole staggered-release-schedule thing. And there’s plenty of stuff I haven’t seen yet; I am vaguely disgusted with myself for missing my chance to see Homefront in the theater.
1. Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron). This movie was drugs to me. This movie did things to me that I wish every movie did to me. I probably held my breath for the first half-hour straight, even if that’s not remotely physically possible. The inanimate space-garbage in this movie was the best villain I’ve seen in forever, and everytime it reappeared, my entire nervous system tensed up. I love that Cuaron managed to translate his endless-tracking-shot style into CGI animated space-moves and still made it look impressive, and the simple, direct smallness of the story made the vast scope of the visuals more impressive, not less. For weeks, I’d’ get angrily protective every time I read any piece of criticism about the movies. It’s true that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were being straight-up movie stars the whole time, and that Clooney was even being a bit glib, but they are great movie stars, and Clooney’s charm worked with his character and with the story. And if you were bothered — like for-real bothered — by Bullock’s whole dead-daughter storyline, I honesty believe that you do not know how to watch movies. Parenthood has made me especially susceptible to this sort of thing, of course, but I was straight-up bawling during that one scene. Movie of the year in a motherfucking walk; nothing came close.
2. Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach). Essentially the same movie as Gravity, except with Adulthood playing the role of Space. And Expensively Ill-Advised Flight to Paris filling in for Desperate Voyage to Russian Space Station. (And Bills instead of Space Garbage? I am pushing this analogy too far.) I’ve seen and hated so many movies about dipshits who make terrible decisions, but here’s one about someone making terrible dipshitty decisions but never losing audience sympathy (or my sympathy, anyway) along the way. Part of that is the terrible unrelenting realness of the actual situations that Frances faces in this movie, the death of childhood dreams and the slow erosion of friendship and the grown-up bullshit that piles up before you’re ready to deal with it. But a huge part of it is also Greta Gerwig radiating charm in every direction. That final bit of eye-contact in the final scene was the most perfect ending I’ve seen in a long time.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese). If you want to look at this as just an epic stoner movie for cokeheads, which the people who worry about it seem to be doing, then cool, I’m still fucking with it. But the real fascinating thing about this, to me, is that Scorsese has figured out a way to make a movie about his single worst-ever protagonist, a figure somehow way more repellant than the actual murderers he’s built movies around before. The guy is still compelling, since Scorsese can’t not make his heroes into compelling and charismatic figures unless he’s making movies about actual historically significant figures (The Aviator, guh). But the way it works is to turn this guy’s self-image into the phantasmagorical wealth-accumulation dream-logic thing. The scene where Jordan Belfort refuses to step down and the whole office freaks out and starts singing was just so horrifying and absurd and alive; it knocked me out. Also, you could put the super-Quaaludes scene into an American Pie sequel or something and it would still be amazing.
4. American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell). It’s fake Scorsese and the 70s signifiers are sometimes obvious and the plot doesn’t really hold together and the whole thing comes off like a light and inessential lark. Doesn’t matter. I loved it. American Hustle is just a fun movie, like Oceans 11 with nuclear-level acting or Out of Sight with more wigs. A lot of critics seem to be getting annoyed at this one because it’s movie stars playing dress-up, but why shouldn’t movie stars play dress-up? That’s one of the things that movies are! And if you’re going to spend a whole movie playing dress-up, “70s con-man-movie dress-up” is a good kind of dress-up to play. And if the whole movie is just a contest to see who can eat the most scenery, then that’s good too. (Jennifer Lawrence wins, I think, but really everyone wins.) David O. Russell might be the one steadily-working director who seems incapable of making a bad movie, and the little moments here, like the shimmy Amy Adams does upon entering a fancy office, are the sorts of things that replay in your brain when you close your eyes.
5. Drug War (Dir. Johnnie To). This one starts out as a fascinating crime movie: The Wire in the People’s Republic of China, the idea of drug-mule roundups going down in a Communist country, all this stuff that would be totally fascinating if given a straight-up treatment. But it slowly cranks up until it’s just a batshit Hong Kong shootout-fest, the sort of movie that To does better than anyone else right now. To also has a whole lot of fun with the whole reluctant-hero archetype, the criminal pressed into changing his ways, the dance of whether or not you can trust someone. And there are some amazingly tense undercover-cop negotiation scenes in there, some great character-actor faces, and some shootouts where you honestly have no idea how many major characters are going to make it through. This belongs in the pantheon of movies where every single character is a terrifying badass, and I love movies like that.
6-10. You’re Next (Dir. Adam Wingard); Enough Said (Dir. Nicole Holofcenter); Man of Tai Chi (Dir. Keanu Reeves); 12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen); Frozen (Dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee).