Friday, January 17, 2014

10 Best Films of 2013

Well, the Oscar nominations have already been announced, so it's probably time I post my picks for the ten best movies I saw last year. I realize I never did one for 2012. Oh well. Remember this list is based solely on movies I saw; if I didn't see it, it won't make the list. It was very hard to narrow this list down, and some worthy films just didn't make the cut.This list is not in any kind of ranked order, but the order by which I saw them.

The Way, Way Back -- An independent movie, it follows a classic indie "coming-of-age" pattern. That may be a flaw, in that some of it is a little too cutely written. The plot concerns a boy on summer vacation with his mom and her boyfriend (Steve Carrell) who is kind of a jerk to him and says he's basically a loser and that he needs to work on that. He gets a job at a water park, where he's mentored by the owner. He starts a relationship with a girl staying in the cabin next door. It's a sweet, summery movie that does hit most of the obvious buttons, but does it pretty well.

Fruitvale Station -- Based on the true story of a young black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer at Fruitvale Station on New Year's Eve. Michael B. Jordan gives a really breakout performance as the movie takes us over the last day of this guy's life. He's not perfect, and the movie makes that clear. He's done some jail time. But he's trying. I like that the movie seems to go out of its way to not just make it a race issue. I felt less that the tragedy was about race than about power. It's not a "fun" movie, but it's a well-made character study and look at how tiny acts effect people's lives.

The World's End -- I thought it would be wrong to not have a comedy on this list. The World's End starts out as a movie about a bunch of old friends getting together for a pub crawl, but becomes something else quite surprisingly. Simon Pegg is wonderfully funny, but also puts in a very good performance. His character is self-absorbed and sometimes terrible, but I understood why. The supporting cast are all great, including Martin Freeman. Some have had a problem with the ending, but I think ultimately it works for the movie. It's a very wacky, out there sort of film, yet has genuine character moments.

Gravity -- Arguably not the best movie, but certainly a great movie-going experience. The story is less important than the visual ride we are taken on, especially in 3D. It's one of the best 3D films I've seen in a long time. I loved that it played out in mostly long takes, which I feel is the only way 3D really works effectively. In fact, I really hoped that the entire film would be one shot, but after about 20 minutes it goes to more standard edits. We can certainly quibble about scientific accuracy or realism in a couple of places, and one major event makes absolutely no sense to me in terms of space physics as I understand them. But it's an enjoyable ride with what are sure to be Oscar-winning visual effects. This is one movie that just won't play the same at home on TV.

12 Years a Slave -- A very good movie. My only real problem with it is that until the end I never really felt the passage of that much time. One could argue that's the point; the sameness of life as a slave where nothing changes. But when the title of the movie refers to the 12 years, I want to get more of a sense of 12 years going by. It's not like there is no sense of time, I just didn't feel enough of it. But it's still a very well made film. One might ask, "why do we need another movie about this?" but this one is done so well. The entire supporting cast is fantastic (with the possible exception of Brad Pitt who is serviceable but sticks out a bit; but as he's a producer who helped get the movie made, I guess they had to give him a part).

Frozen -- I really debated whether this one made the list. In some ways it's not as good as Tangled, but in other ways it is better. The music is mostly great, though at times some of the songs don't fit for me stylistically. It definitely has a few story problems, and is falling into the trap of Disney movies with twist endings. I'm not sure this movie needed a big "villain" because it worked so well as a character study. There are a lot of bright funny moments, the voice cast, particularly Kristen Bell, are good. This is a project that had been in development for a long time and while I like the finished product, it is a shame that some of the story issues weren't fully worked out. I did still enjoy it though, which is why it's on this list.

Nebraska -- A wonderful little character study following an old man who thinks he's won a sweepstakes and wants to go to Nebraska to claim his winnings. It's about determination, about loss, about staking stock of your life. It's about family and what we leave behind. Alexander Payne shoots it in this stark black and white which somehow makes it feel homier. And it can be very funny. Not in a jokey way, but in that true to life's awkwardness way. The performances from great actors like Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Stacey Keach are matched by a nice turn from SNL's Will Forte.

The Wolf of Wall Street -- A movie about excess, so it's no surprise that Scorsese peppers this movie with excessive amounts of drugs and sex, with some violence for good measure. This is not a movie for everyone. And it's not a movie that celebrates a certain lifestyle; if anything I'd say it's clearly a dark satire. The movie uses awkward edits, jump cuts, even breaks the fourth wall, all giving it a very different tone from other Scorsese works. Indeed, one almost consider it a comedy (as the Golden Globes did), if not for the truly harsh reality of some of the events toward the end. When DiCaprio beats his wife, nobody's laughing. There's a lot going on here, and it's a long film, but it's quite an experience. I liked that when the schemes got complicated, the movie didn't try explaining it but just said, "That doesn't matter. The point is, it was illegal."

American Hustle -- I felt like this was a lot like The Sting only set in the 1970s. There are great performances here, and I loved the sense of setting. The costumers and art directors did a great job. I wouldn't say it's David O. Russell's best, and while I love Jennifer Lawrence I thought she wasn't quite her best here. It makes for an interesting double-bill with Wolf of Wall Street, as it's also about not-necessarily-good people doing crooked things to get by.

her -- A light science fiction movie that focuses on relationships. I love that the not-too-distant future world here is based very much on technology we actually have right now. It's a much more believable future. The movie takes the old idea of artificial intelligence and centers on what sort of emotional impact that can have on humans and on their machine counterparts. Our protagonist falls in love with an operating system, and she seems to reciprocate. The movie brilliantly focuses on the blessings and pitfalls of relationships, particularly in this modern age where we yearn for connection while isolating ourselves. Seemingly cynical elements in the film like the fact that Theo works for, where writers are hired to write love notes for you and will print them out so they look handwritten, really make you think about the world we are building. When I was a kid, I would have looked at things like talking computers that you control with a wave of a hand or voice command as very cool. But now, I look at this movie and know I don't want to live in that world. Heck, I don't want to live in the world we have now. If nothing else, her is the most thought-provoking movie of the year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Who Watches the Watchers?

Today, I was walking to work and I passed the downtown police station as I do every day. And as I approached, I saw an officer leave the station and cross right in the middle of the street. For those who don't know the area I'm talking about, basically the station is one of only two buildings on the block on that side. There's a curb with a crosswalk maybe ten feet from the door of the station, really not far at all. And there is another crosswalk maybe twice the distance on the other side. We aren't talking huge stretches of street here; it would take maybe 30 seconds to a minute to walk to a crosswalk before crossing the street.

But this officer felt the need to just walk into the road, as so many moronic pedestrians do. I'm a pedestrian and it offends me ANY time a moron walks in the middle of the road, ignoring a perfectly good crosswalk. I think people like that deserve to be hit by cars and the driver not be faulted for it. But it's far worse when police officers are jaywalking like this. Again, I'm not talking about some stretch of road where there's no nearby crosswalk for half a mile. There's literally a crossing on either side of the station. This was not the first officer I've seen do the same thing. What gives them the right to flagrantly ignore jaywalking laws for their own convenience when it would take all of thirty seconds to safely cross in a crosswalk?

So as soon as the officer stepped off the curb, I said, "You've got to be kidding me." He turned at me sort of taken aback, but then kept going. And as he did, I sort of shouted, "You think just because you're a cop you don't have to use a crossing like normal people and flout the law with impunity?" Now by this point he had gotten to the other side of the road to his car or whatever he was approaching and gets all indignant and says something back at me. But I had earphones in, and couldn't hear him properly. Besides, I wasn't going to have it out with a police officer while he's standing in the middle of the road. Also, let's be clear, this was not some emergency "police business" issue. He was just crossing the street.

But what gives him the right to be all indignant at me for being offended that he ignored basic traffic law? It reminds me of a time maybe a month or two ago when a female police officer who was in the road directing traffic yelled at me for crossing the street in a crosswalk while I had a walk signal! Some car took a right turn ahead and could have hit me because of course drivers don't pay attention here. He turned even though there was a walk signal on and he's supposed to yield to pedestrians. Yes, the sign had JUST started blinking "don't walk", but I would have made it across in no time if Lady Interference hadn't felt the need to tell ME off for crossing a street I cross all the time in a crosswalk while a pedestrian signal was on. As if it were MY fault that a car wasn't paying attention to me. I just wanted to say to her, "I would have crossed safely if you hadn't stopped me here in the middle of the street!" I truly have no idea what prompted her to say anything apart from the fact she had a badge and probably felt like exercising a little power that day just because she could.

I'm a law-abiding citizen. I always cross on a signal or when it is safe for me to do so based on the traffic signal pattern. I know when I can cross and when I can't. I make a point of using crosswalks when I'm supposed to, and I do not appreciate cops thinking they are better than everyone else and just strolling wherever they feel like because moving 20 feet to a crosswalk is inconvenient. Police officers are not above the law, and they should abide by the same rules they expect the public to follow. That officer today should lead by example. But instead, I'm the crazy one for expecting law enforcement to abide by their own rules. We the public cannot stand idly by when things like this happen. I'm not expecting a lot, am I? The day we allow the enforcers to do as they please is the day we begin the treacherous slope to strip of the rights of the citizenry, and establish an oppressive oligarchy.

I say to those in power the same I say to the rest of us: don't step out of line, particularly of that line denotes a crosswalk.