by Matt Smith
I didn’t see Neil Jordan’s vampire flick until very late in the year, but I’m very glad I did. The visuals are lush, the performances grand, and the tone tender yet still chilling. The film centers on the mother-daughter vamps Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who stole their immortality from an all-male society centuries ago. The story unfolds in a piece-meal, somewhat labyrinthine fashion, with fragments of information periodically filling in the backstory of our protagonists. Refreshingly, Byzantium doesn’t feel like a retread of either the current vamp vogue or that now-classic other Neil Jordan-directed film Interview with the Vampire. Instead, the film takes a decidedly feminist slant, examining and interrogating the struggles of Clara and Eleanor against the patriarchal hierarchies inherent in the genre, and inverting the power relationships typical of the romanticism at play in stories about vampirism. Ronan is a knockout as Eleanor, delivering her second great performance of the year (the other being in the little-seen young adult apocalypse flick How I Live Now), proving that she is one of the most exciting actresses of her age group, and providing a counter to the equally-talented Emma Watson’s roles as she has attempted to shirk the Harry Potter behemoth from her back. Here Ronan continues her trek into strong female lead territory, with her standard softness which belies a visceral nature of violence lurking just underneath the surface. She’s an impassioned and compassionate character, but vicious when she needs to be. Byzantium is a gorgeous film that begs to be seen, and it was neglected by viewers upon its release. Now would be a good time for everyone to discover this gem. It’s the best thing I saw in 2013.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s big, ballsy, brash biopic of Jordan Belfort was one of the most controversial movies of 2013 because of its portrayal of a culture in which misogyny, cultural insensitivity, and general debauchery were ingrained in its very soul. Some people felt the parodic nature of the film’s over-the-top comedy veered a little to close to sympathy for the behavior of its bad-boy leads, drawing a line in the sand of decency and claiming the film itself was an endorsement of everything from illicit drug-taking and prostitution to mocking segments of the disabled community (the now-infamous Lemmon quaaludes scene). I say fuck that. The film is an excoriating account of a pretty outrageous situation which emerged in the heyday of Wall Street’s 90s debauchery, and which ended in Belfort’s stint in jail. If you watch The Wolf of Wall Street and feel that Belfort’s a nice guy instead of a scuzzy piece of shit who happens to also be charming, then I don’t know what movie you watched. Aside from interpreting the likability of Belfort, it should be viewed in context of other Scorsese pictures about similar types, namely Goodfellas and Casino, which form the first two parts of a sort of spiritual trilogy documenting the rise and legitimization of thievery, corruption and greed in America, but also Raging Bull, King of Comedy, or Gangs of New York, which all document the dark heart of the American male. But enough about that, you need to see this movie for two reasons: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Their chemistry is what makes the film work, even the Lemmon scene, which is a slapstick tour-de-force that has to be seen to be believed.
12 Years a Slave
This sobering, harrowing, bleak look at the blemishes of America’s history is essential viewing. Is it as depressing as critics have suggested? Yes, but not necessarily for the raw brutality experienced by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). I would suggest instead that the film’s depressing effect comes from the fact that not too awful much seems to have about race relations has changed in this country since the end of slavery. Director Steve McQueen, in his third pairing with Michael Fassbender, and his trademark cold distance while observing abject human violence is, in this film, slightly different, a bit more visceral and physically unsettling. McQueen remains relatively objective, however, though clearly there are very bad people populating much of the story of freeman turned slave Solomon Northup, and he is unsparing in their portrayals. A striking condemnation of a sickening history which has people glorifying it even today, 12 Years a Slave is every bit of the film it was made out to be during the awards season.
It is likely no surprise to anyone who knows me that this film made my top ten, as I’ve been obsessed with it for going on a year now, writing essay after essay on it for various classes, including my review right here on TheSplitScreen. The rare haunted house film that retains its creepiness and ability to scare the shit out of me not just the first time but upon multiple viewings, director James Wan’s ode to classical haunted house flicks is a true diamond in the rough. I’m particularly drawn to the portrayal of spiritual mediumship in this film and the gendered relationship between psychic mediums and technological mediums. I know, I know – nerd stuff. That said, I also think the film is amazingly constructed, thick with atmosphere and rich characterizations of its ghost hunting husband and wife duo Ed and Lorraine Warren while still allowing the family at the center of its haunting to become fully fleshed out and believable. A scary movie that actually pays off for the viewers? Novel.
Maybe the best film Alexander Payne has ever made. Bruce Dern is terrific as a curmudgeon who thinks he’s won a million dollars and embarks on a road trip with his son (Will Forte) to collect the prize in Lincoln, Nebraska. The cinematography – amazing digital black-and-white – is beautiful. The film is funny as hell.
Watching Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D is one of the best times I’ve ever had at a movie theater, and it’s the primary reason the film has made this list. While the robots vs. giant monster brawler is fun and engaging in a lot of different ways, the format was the selling point. This movie, on that screen, and in 3D, was a truly epic experience. I can say that I have never seen anything as impressive in expressing size and scope in a theater as this movie. It’s still fun, so check it out, but it deserves a revival run on IMAX. Shame on you guys for not going to see it the first time.
Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie’s sixth outing as a director may be his last horror film for a while, and he’s really gone for broke, delivering a movie that pays homage to all the great occult horror films of the past while remaining visionary and original. Radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne lives in an apartment building run by a coven of witches, and when she discovers and plays a mysterious LP on her late-night rock show by a band called The Lords of Salem, things get hallucinatory and satanic. The story, what little there actually is of it, is buoyed by what is surely Zombie’s most visually arresting filmmaking, relying on viewers to fill in some blanks, and going completely bonkers in a finale that leaves everything to the imagination. I was blown away by this horror film, and think you might be, too.
The World’s End
I liked this, a lot. It’s brilliant.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I originally had Dallas Buyers Club on this list, but after rewatching this second film in Peter Jackson’s LotR prequel trilogy, I bumped it down to “recommended.” A huge corrective for some of the problems many had storytelling-wise with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the action sequences are must-sees – the 48fps technology used to shoot the film (and project it digitally in theaters) was also greatly improved, and I will be so bold as to say that I am officially a fan of the clarity provided in 3D by the higher frame-rate.
In A World
An astounding debut as writer-director for actress Lake Bell, In A World tells the story of a female voice-over artist (Lake Bell) who becomes the new voice of the famous “In a world…” movie trailer intro, much to the chagrin of the male-dominated voice-over industry. Equal parts funny and touching, In A World is a strong indie flick which gets by on the charm of Bell in the lead, and on the strength of its rather amazing and smart script.
Dallas Buyers Club, Pain & Gain, Iron Man 3, This Is The End, The Bling Ring, The Grandmaster