Shadows and Light

The Top Films of 2013

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 781   By: Mark Leffler

05th December, 2013     0

The moviegoers of 2013 were treated to a menu of films heavy on remakes and franchise sequels, and this list of favorite movies reflects this reality.  Consequently, this list is not necessarily representative of the “best” films of 2013, but merely focuses on the films that I enjoyed the most. So, in no particular order:
 
Star Trek Into Darkness
I’ve seen all of the Star Trek movies going back to the god-awful first film starring the cast of the original TV show. William Shatner, for all his faults, is a tough act to follow as Captain Kirk, and the rest of the original cast left some large shoes to fill. Still, J.J. Abrams reboot of the series was a fine film, and I looked forward to seeing what he would come up with for a sequel.
Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto portray Kirk and Spock respectively and they do a nice job of replicating the human/Vulcan relationship that Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had in the original cast. The casting of the rest of the crew is also spot on, assembling a fine group to go up against Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as their villain. I won’t reveal who he turns out to be, so as not to spoil one of many references to past Trek films.
 
Abrams has transitioned from TV producer/ writer into an excellent director, easily handling the million dollar special effects that made Into Darkness such a joy to see on the big screen. Abrams seems well prepared to take over the reins for the Star Wars movies he has been selected to direct. Star Wars fans should rest assured he brings strong skills to the new episodes of that beloved franchise.
 
Man of Steel
After writing and directing the recent Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer set their sights on another iconic superhero franchise: Superman. Moviegoers young and old wistfully remember the Christopher Reeve Superman films, so the bar was set high, but coming off the massive success of the Dark Knight trilogy, fans were expecting a more somber and serious Superman movie this time out.
 
While the Nolan film gained only mixed reviews, much of the reaction to the movie can be attributed to what one’s expectations of Superman movies are. There was none of the lighthearted fun of the Reeve series, but that tone decayed over the series leading to the truly awful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
 
That was not a problem with Man of Steel, which tells the story of how Clark Kent adopts the role (and costume) of Superman. The movie begins with Kent as a drifter, after leaving his parents back in Smallville. Like the earlier Superman II, General Zod escapes from the Phantom Zone and this time is determined to use Earth to recreate Superman’s birth planet of Krypton.
 
Much of Man of Steel focuses on Superman’s two fathers: Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. While the plot is not nearly as engaging as Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and General Zod isn’t nearly as charismatic as Heath Ledger’s The Joker, the movie is well paced and the special effects leave those of the Reeve series in the dust. Comic book fans were divided on this new take on Superman, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and can’t wait for the next movie in the series, which will combine for the first time on film, Batman and Superman.
 
Kick Ass 2
While foul mouthed adolescent costume wearing crime fighting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, some of us haven’t outgrown our love of the superhero genre, and I’d been looking forward to Kick Ass 2 ever since seeing the end of the original film and reading some of the sequel comic, which like the original was written by veteran comic scribe Mark Millar with art by the legendary John Romita, Jr.
 
Jeff Wadlow wrote and directed the sequel and he did a fine job of continuing the action packed pace of the first Kick Ass, but added enough new elements that it didn’t just seem like a rehash of the best parts of the first film. Jim Carrey had a nice small supporting role as a fellow citizen crime fighter, Col. Stars and Stripes.
 
It should be pointed out that the language and violence in Kick Ass 2 make it completely inappropriate for young viewers and it is a hard R film. Good luck to parents trying to explain that to young children who expect it to be another Spiderman.
 
Skyfall
Every great James Bond movie features a great villain, and the 23rd Bond adventure had a great one in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva. Daniel Craig’s third bite at the Bond apple is a more serious, leaner and meaner Bond than Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan, and he carries the film with grace and confidence.
 
Technically, this is not a 2013 film, coming out in November of 2012, but it’s my list and I get to make exceptions. Skyfall merits making this list because its acclaimed by many as one of the best Bond stories yet.
I’m not sure I would go that far, and I might rate Craig’s first outing as Bond in Casino Royale just a bit higher, but Craig has settled into Bond nicely and he’s a lot of fun to watch as he rampages through the film. All things considered, it was one of the most fun movies of the year and left me hungry for more Bond soon.
 
Iron Man 3
You have to give Robert Downey, Jr. credit. First, he’s managed to maintain a healthy sobriety since being released from prison in 2000 (after multiple drug episodes) and has starred in some of the most successful films made since then. And since 2000 he’s appeared in six films that have earned over $500 million and two, Avengers and Iron Man 3, that earned over a billion dollars worldwide.
 
Forbes Magazine listed Downey, Jr. as the highest paid actor of the past year, pulling down $75 million. And he’s worth every penny. Downey, Jr. is the most charismatic of all the superhero actors in films today.  Iron Man 3 had him spending much of the film outside of his famous Iron Man suit, scrambling to repair it after coming under attack from Ben Kingsley’s villainous Mandarin
 
Superhero films are perfect for 3-D and Iron Man 3 was a feast for the eyes. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle reprised their roles as Pepper Potts and James Rhodes, with famed scriptwriter Shane Black taking over the directing chores from producer Jon Favreau and co-writing the script.
 
Fans of the Iron Man series have likely seen the last film in the series, but Downey, Jr. is signed to appear in the second and third Avengers films, which is something to look forward to.
 
Gravity
While Gravity featured two of the biggest box office draw in movies, the real star of the film is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki whose eye-popping visuals made this my favorite 3-D film of the year. I can only imagine how awesome it would have been in IMAX.
 
The film opens with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts performing a routine maintenance spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope. What happens next is one of the most jaw dropping visual sequences I’ve seen in a movie, as space debris from a destroyed Russian satellite hurtles toward Bullock and Clooney and destroys their space shuttle Explorer.
 
Bullock and Clooney begin a struggle to make their way to the International Space Station, which is about sixty miles away. While you realize that the zero gravity scenes are digital special effects, this viewer was astonished at how real the scenes felt. From start to finish, the movie was an adrenaline filled ride as the astronauts attempt to find a way safely back to Earth. The film was a box office and critical hit and one of the most visually stunning movies of the year.
 
Lee Daniel’s The Butler
The Butler is a serious and sometimes somber look back at the recent history of civil rights and the advancements of minorities by focusing on the life and 34 year career of a White House butler played by Forrest Whitaker.
 
The film follows the story of Cecil Gaines and his family as he gains employment at the White House during the Eisenhower Administration. The Civil Rights movement is shown first at the Eisenhower White House, whereAfrican American staff is paid less than their White co-workers. The film follows Gaines and his family through the following administrations including the presidential election of Barack Obama.
While Whitaker is the focus of the movie, it offers a terrific supporting cast including a great performance by Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’ wife.
 
The Hangover Part III
Say what you will about the silliness of the man-child shenanigans of the friends in the Hangover trilogy, they are the first films to prominently feature the brilliant Zach Galifianakis. The group of friends is brought back together once again when they are grabbed by crime lord Marshall (John Goodman). Alan (Galifianakis) is the only person who has been in touch with their old pal Chow, who has stolen a shipment of gold meant for Marshall. Once again one of the group is held hostage while Alan and his pals Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) go off in search of Chow.
 
The plot of the movie is largely beside the point in these movies, and they are at their best when allowing the audience to gasp in astonishment at the pitfalls and comedy of errors that results as the trio tries to rescue their friend. And Galifianakis is just a joy to watch in every scene he has. Unlike dramas that require quality to move us, these types of comedies exist to amuse and make the audience laugh. And I laughed a lot at The Hangover Trilogy. 
 
The Lone Ranger
Critics trounced this film so audiences stayed away. I mostly enjoyed the movie, as I do most Johnny Depp films. When it was getting so much bad press upon its release, I called one of my cousins who urged me to see it anyway, since he predicted I would like it. I followed his advice and liked most of what I saw.
 
The main problem I had with the film is that instead of a heroic Lone Ranger, the creative team decided to have lead actor Armie Hammer play the Lone Ranger as a clumsy doofus who is saved time and time again by Depp’s Tonto, reversing the formula from the classic TV series.
 
Still, it was The Lone Ranger, man. And while this film was a humorous take on the classic origin story of the character, it had terrific and thrilling stunts and featured a great performance by Depp as the Masked Man’s faithful Indian companion. Some critics grumbled that the producers should have found a Native American to fill the role, but Depp claims to have Indian ancestors and that he wanted to reverse the traditional formula and give the lead in the movie to Tonto. It made for a refreshing change and a fine movie - not one expected to win a bucket full of awards, but an enjoyable time at the movies. Hopefully that will be revealed to movie lovers who check it out on DVD.  
 
This is the End
Josh Rogan and his writing and producing partner Evan Goldberg served up a hilarious apocalyptic comedy featuring Rogan and many of his real life actor friends playing comedic versions of themselves.
As Rogan and friends gather at a party, outside their imminent circle and vision of merrymaking, the end of the world is taking place, which the friends are slow to admit until they start to see people ascending to heaven in shafts of bright light. And since only good-hearted believers are going to Heaven, what chance do Hollywood actors have? Not much, apparently.
 
It's rare to see a comedy with earthshaking special effects, and This is the End did an excellent job of pacing the film, alternating hilarious comic scenes with scenes of cosmic catastrophes. Plus the film took us all the way to the Pearly Gates, offering up a glimpse of what Rogan and Goldberg imagine Heaven is like.
 
 

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