The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Ten Best Films of 2013
A view from theater #2 in my favorite multiplex

My 2013 movie year kicked off with Texas Chainsaw 3D. That's obviously an inauspicious start, but I also knew things would get better. And they did. The thing that made 2013 interesting for me is that great movies were scattered throughout the year, not just shoved into the last two months.

Making a Ten Best list is, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, a helluva thing. Something always gets left off. Trying to rank one great movie above another of equal greatness often proves frustrating. And there's always the little matter of what to choose as the #1 movie of the year. My choice for 2013 will be extremely controversial. Some of you will know what I mean. Others may lose confidence in me. So be it. Here's the thing: I believe a list such as this should be interesting. Great movies in any genre are eligible, and in picking a #1 movie, I went with the one I feel in my heart was most extraordinary of all. Agree or disagree, my hope is that you will be intrigued by the fact that I chose it, along with the other nine titles here.

Every year, there are at least one or two “big” films that I am not able to see before deadline. This year, Warner Brothers, the studio releasing Spike Jonze's Her, made no effort to screen the movie for me. As of posting time, it was in extremely limited release and not yet playing in my market. No big deal. I love the films we're about to look at, and I'll give Her a full review when it goes into wide release.

Last, but not least, because I love celebrating great movies, I want to give you an added bonus: the runner-up films, which may not have made the formal list but nonetheless hold a special place in my heart. They are:

15. Lone Survivor - Mark Wahlberg stars in the harrowing true story of a Navy SEAL mission gone bad.
14. Pacific Rim - I grew up on movies about giant monsters, so Guillermo del Toro's tribute to the genre really struck a chord with the ten-year-old inside of me.
13. Frozen - 2013's best animated feature, filled with breathtaking visuals and memorable songs.
12. Anchorman 2 - The year's funniest movie, and also an amazing piece of experimental, next-level comedy.
11. Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen's best film in years, with a stunning performance from Cate Blanchett.

Now let's really get down to business. Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2013:

The Ten Best Films of 2013

10. All is Lost - Robert Redford gives a tour de force performance as the only person in this riveting, spiritual survival drama. He plays “Our Man,” a sailor stuck on a damaged catamaran somewhere in the middle of the ocean. With his communications equipment damaged, a boat that's taking on water, and violent storms approaching, he keeps finding resourceful ways to survive, even as survival becomes less and less likely. Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) makes the entire scenario look and feel authentic, and the ending can be taken one of two ways, depending on your personal point of view.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street - Martin Scorsese adds another jewel to his crown with this darkly comic adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort, a stock trader who becomes addicted to money and all its trappings: drugs, sex, power. The film hilariously tracks his debauchery-filled rise and eventual collapse. Every bit as big and sprawling as the '80s financial world itself, Wolf is a cautionary tale that avoids preachiness in favor of quietly indicting an entire system that allows white collar crimes to go reasonably unpunished.

8. Nebraska - Shot in black-and-white and featuring the unexpected pairing of Bruce Dern and Will Forte (in a dramatic role far removed from MacGruber), director Alexander Payne's latest is a poignant tale of fathers and sons. Dern's semi-senile Woody Grant heads to the titular state, believing he's won a million dollars in a sweepstakes. His son David humors him by going along. They get waylaid in Woody's hometown, where David learns a lot about his father that he didn't know. Nebraska is about the painful, personal details that parents never reveal about themselves to their children. It'll leave you pondering the things your parents never told you – or the things you'll keep from your own kids.

7. Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a cargo ship captain who is taken hostage after Somali pirates hijack his vessel. The man's real-life crew disputed the film's depiction of events in the weeks following its release (they claim Phillips, on whose autobiography it is based, spun the story to make himself look heroic), but that in no way detracts from the power of Paul Greengrass's ultra-intense staging. Admirably, Captain Phillips takes the time to explain why these pirates do what they do, and to comment on the economic desperation that exists in third-world countries. Hanks, meanwhile, gives a performance of quiet stoicism, before letting loose in an emotionally devastating final scene.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis - By now, saying a new Joel and Ethan Coen movie is great is practically a given, but they really, really have made another one with this tale of a folk singer (marvelously played by Oscar Isaac) who is his own worst enemy. Typically funny and quirky, Inside Llewyn Davis also features an emotional maturity that is newer to the Coen oeuvre. The plot deals with the importance of knowing oneself in order to succeed as an artist. Poor Llewyn Davis is trying to be what he thinks he should be, rather than what he is. Watching him face this cold, hard fact is even more fun than the film's signature “Please Mr. Kennedy” number.

The Ten Best Films of 2013

5. 12 Years a Slave - Here's a great example of how a movie can bring something new to a subject you think has been fully covered on screen. Steve McQueen's unflinching true story has plenty of examples of the horrific physical brutality inflicted upon slaves, as do most films on the topic. What's new is the sense of psychological brutality it offers up. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. 12 Years a Slave charts his ordeal, as he grapples with being thrust into a situation in which literally everything is taken from him. It's a nightmare, and McQueen makes you feel every horrifying note of it, while still earning a hopeful ending.

4. Dallas Buyers Club - Matthew McConaughey (looking shockingly emaciated) plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobe who contracts AIDS from casual sex, then becomes an inadvertent hero by bringing unapproved – but vastly more effective – medications into the U.S. He takes on the FDA by creating a “buyers club” wherein AIDS sufferers pay for a subscription, then get the meds for free. This is one of those incredible true stories that just suck me right in. McConaughey gives a career-best performance, as does Jared Leto as a transgender woman he strikes up an unlikely business arrangement with.

3. Short Term 12 - A long time ago, when I was in the early stages of trying to establish myself as a film critic, I worked in a foster care program for emotionally troubled kids and teens. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Destin Cretton's drama about just such a program gets so many things right: the seen-it-all mentality of the workers, the way some young people have a layer of vulnerability just below the surface of their tough facade, and so on. Brie Larson gives a take-your-career-to-the-next-level performance as the troubled lead counselor, who we come to learn has a reason why she's so dedicated to the outcast teens she's charged with. Smart, observant, and possessing shrewd insight into the nature of delinquency, Short Term 12 is a monumental work of compassion.

2. Gravity - Alfonso Cuaron turned in the year's most exciting adventure, a spectacular 3D epic about two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) adrift in space. Gravity has deep themes of emotional and physical perseverance, married to an almost unbearably suspenseful concept in which the characters are thousands of miles above the Earth with nowhere to turn for help. Technically accomplished and boasting 3D that enhances the story immeasurably, Gravity is first-rate Hollywood entertainment, and a thrill ride for the ages.

And my choice for the Best Film of 2013 is:

The Ten Best Films of 2013

1. Spring Breakers - I walked into Harmony Korine's film back in March, expecting little more than a cool, offbeat lark. I got so much more. Vastly misunderstood by its detractors, Spring Breakers is a scathing indictment of a culture that celebrates hedonistic activities such as spring break, as well as of young people who think being “gangsta” is something worth aspiring to. With its eye-popping day-glo color scheme, perfect use of electronic music, and intentionally disjointed storytelling, the film hypnotically traces the descent of four young women (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) into various stages of debauchery and moral decay, much of it at the prompting of James Franco's imminently-quotable drug dealing rapper, Alien. In the most memorable scene, the girls, wearing swimsuits and ski masks while brandishing guns, join Franco for a rendition of Britney Spears' “Everytime” that leads into a super slo-mo montage of them committing crimes. I saw Spring Breakers three times this year, and find new things in it with each repeat viewing. This is a provocative, subversive, inventive, risky, fascinating, substantive, beautiful piece of pop art.

So there you have it – my picks for the best films of 2013. Not a bad list, if I may say so myself. Here's hoping 2014 gives us plenty of movies with this level of quality.

Other Highly Recommended Films from 2013: Before Midnight, The Bling Ring, Blue is the Warmest Color, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, The Conjuring, The Croods, Don Jon, Drug War, Iron Man 3, Jug Face, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, The Spectacular Now, This Is the End, The Way Way Back, The Wind Rises

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