Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 Top Movies and Television

Top 15 Movies/Top 10 TV Shows 

of 2013

(in no particular order)

Les Miserables. Lacking in directorial creativity, but a solid, soaring epic all the same. I would have enjoyed it more if it had thought more about the novel than the musical, drawing in some of the smaller scenes to add to character development. Anne Hathaway is stunning. Hugh Jackman has the wrong sort of voice for Valjean, but her certainly looks like a convict. Russell Crowe wasn't as bad as everyone said he was.

Warrior. I'm not a fan of sports movies, except when sports are only the medium to telling a great story. That's the case in Warrior (as in The Blind Side.) It's not really about the prize; it's about the characters. I found this film incredibly moving, and the last few scenes completely and unpredictably resolve the central tension of a rivalry between two brothers who happen to be MMA champions, pitted against one another. As a warning, it does have some rough language, but the ending strongly reminded me of Michael Card's line "Love will fight us to be found." Also loved The National's soundtrack.

The Dark Knight Rises. Despite its flaws, this movie truly evoked the eucatastrophe - at least it did for me. Tolkien's "sudden joyous turn," when the good arises, leapt up inside me whenever I heard the Batman theme surging against the background of Bane's tyranny. Based very loosely on A Tale of Two Cities (Bane knitting! Storming of the Blackgate Prison! The Tribunals! Gordon's eulogy!), its strongest points are when it sticks to that powerful source, and the divergences from the novel cause the greatest moral problems of the film. Also, Miranda Tate was just...why?

Father Brown. A surprise delight, this 1954 film is little like the original stories, but does manage to capture the whimsicality of Chesterton's detective. Alec Guinness is a wonderful Father Brown, and he and charming jewel thief Flambeau (Peter Finch) have great chemistry. Compared to the most recent adaptation of The Blue Cross, this is thankfully friendly to Christianity, and does not flagrantly betray the source material. Again, it would have profited by adapting more of Chesterton, but still quite good. Guinness captures well the foolish wisdom of Brown, and the film's simple conclusion is somehow pitch-perfect.

The Elephant Man. Somewhat predictable, and with few memorable characters besides Merrick and Treves, but still a very moving picture about what it means to be human. Watch it here.

Adam's Apples. This one I hesitated to place on the list. Bizarre, farcical, and littered with obscenities (in Danish), there is, nevertheless, something captivating about this black comedy. Adam is a Neo-Nazi, just released from prison. He's sent to a halfway-house run by Ivan, an optimistic priest who takes blind faith to an extreme. In a play on the book of Job, Ivan is convinced he's at war with the Devil. Adam can see that Ivan is really deluded, and he is determined to convince him of the truth. This film alternates between wildly funny and shockingly dark, often within a few seconds. It's nowhere near theological orthodoxy, but as Jeffrey Overstreet says in his book Through a Screen Darkly, sometimes we need a "holy fool" to remind us of the bizarreness of truth and grace in a world that runs by the principles of brutal nature. Watch a (clean) trailer here.

Arranged. I'd never quite realized how dramatic most actors are until I saw this movie. Every single character in Arranged felt almost disturbingly authentic - they didn't seem to know they were on camera. Despite its status as a light romantic comedy, the unusual method - arranged marriage - made for interesting viewing. Unlike most modern films, it refused to condemn arranged marriage, presenting it as a part of an honored tradition on the parts of both Muslims and Jews. It is somewhat too glowing in its representation of arranged marriage, but compared to our usually Disneyfied view of it, it's a refreshingly new perspective. Watch it here.

Children of Men. Dark and brutal, this film is mainly on here for its Christmas spirit. Yes, I'm aware it's rated R. And I don't mean the Christmas spirit you're thinking of (probably). The Christmas spirit I'm talking about is the one where an entire town's children is slaughtered by a mad king and a trio of refugees flee across the border to an uncertain future, but bearing an indescribable hope. While falling far, far short of the book, I can understand why Alfonso Cuaron made some of the choices he made. P.D. James's original novel wouldn't have adapted well. Taking it on its own terms, it's good, though certainly not perfect.

The New World. The difficulty is not to gush. Gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, there's little I can criticize about Terrence Malick's massive epic historically shaky American love story. There were a few moments that I felt were a little repetitive, despite accepting the injunction that this is the Slowest Movie Ever. Colin Farrell was good, though not as good as Q'orianka Kilcher, who, at fourteen years old, was magnificent. She takes Child Acting (often a cringeworthy category) close to the realm of Empire of the Sun's Christian Bale. Speaking of which, Bale was also excellent in The New World, and Christopher Plummer's part was brief but solid. The music. Ah, the music, by a bloke named Wagner, was lovely.

Tree of Life. Another Terrence Malick film, this is a huge mass of potentially good stuff. In fact, there's so much of it that it finds itself lacking the time to resolve it all. Malick is known for his stream-of-consciousness film making, but this one pushes it a bit far. Of the many plot strands, there was only one that I felt really delivered, the two others that come to mind ending with the thoughts "I don't buy it" and "Why did that story line even happen?" Nevertheless, it's extremely original, and the kids had lovely, authentic Southern accents. The one story that really did capture my interest was powerful and moving. I enjoyed the references to Job.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. Though it's not as good as the first film, relying on slapstick and cross-dressing jokes, it was a fun Robert Downey Jr. movie. And Jared Harris was a great Moriarty.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days Movie PosterSophie Scholl: The Final Days. This German film is a chilling reminder of what it's like to live under a totalitarian government. It is also a welcome highlight to the many Germans that weren't taking Nazism sitting down, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl's group: The White Rose. Julia Jentsch and Alexander Held are both wonderful actors, and since most of the film features their interactions in a bare room, that's a good thing. It's not exciting, and it moves slowly, but much of the script is pulled directly from the transcripts of the real-life interview, and it's a slow-burn to true drama. Many might find its overt Christianity preachy, but again, it's straight truth; this is exactly how and why it happened. Watch it here.

3:10 to Yuma. Perhaps it's not as good as the original, but since I haven't seen it, I can't say. I loved it, all the same. There were things I would have changed - Evans's spinelessness grew wearing, and the final note did little to relieve the overwhelming violence and moral ambiguity of this vision of the wild west - but I grew to care for the characters, and the action scenes were excellent. The music was great.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Well, I enjoyed it. Don't judge me. While after film one my demand was Kill Radagast, this time it's More Martin Freeman. At least I'm wanting more instead of less. My review here.

Joyeux Noel. A dramatic, cinematic, beautiful French film, the true story a ceasefire in the trenches on Christmas during WWI. While I didn't find myself caring a tremendous amount for the individual characters, the central conceit was tremendously believable as cautious overtures of peace were made between hostile forces. My only complaint would be a brief, marital sex scene that adds nothing to the plot and makes it so I can't let my siblings watch it alone. Watch it here.

  TV shows:

Endeavour. Last year I became a fan of the Inspector Morse series, which ran back in the 80's and 90's. On the tail end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Morse ushered in the big police procedurals, while sticking to the classic buddy cop format. Endeavour is an excellent continuation of the form, with Morse and Inspector Fred Thursday slipping easily into mentor and sidekick/hero. If another prequel were commissioned, I'd watch Fred happily.

Inspector Lewis. Predictable and politically correct, but as a fairly typical whodunit, not bad. Robbie Lewis has always been the Everyman character, and he can't manage to quite charismatic hero. His sidekick, Hathaway, sometimes makes up for it, drawing from a background in theology and occasionally quoting C.S. Lewis (I Approve.)

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett's Holmes had always struck me as ridiculously dramatic and over the top. Now, after watching a good chunk of episodes, I still think he's ridiculously dramatic and over the top, but I've come to like it. If Michael Kitchen is the master of underacting, Jeremy Brett is the king of overacting. On the other hand, he sometimes has moments of silent tenderness that almost redeem the shouting and dashing around. Of the two , I prefer David Burke's boyish Watson to Edward Hardwicke's more restrained, dour Watson. Watch it here.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Starting off with promise, this show can't quite decide whether it's a kids show or an adult drama. Sometimes, mostly thanks to Clark Gregg, it works. For the first few episodes there's a Hobbitesque lack of real danger, and thus no suspense. Then it switches to a heavier drama, which overall works, forcing the cast to mature, but it's interspersed with casual sexual activity and network cursing. The writing is atrocious. That said - Clark Gregg.

Brideshead Revisited. I seldom say a film is as good as its adapted book, but in this case, while I loved the book, but I might as well have been reading the screenplay for this eleven-hour adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's beautiful novel. There's hardly a scene it cuts. Even walking. And Jeremy Irons narrates most of the prose, so it's nearly a book on tape with pictures. But because of this, watching it right after finishing the book, I found it often boring and slow, so that's why I'd recommend viewing it first (warning: several scenes with nudity). Though...on second thought, I found much of the Christian subtext much more clear in the book, so it's probably best to have a good understanding of that before plunging in. Perfect cast - especially Anthony Andrews as Sebastian (and Aloysius), gorgeous scenery.

Doctor Who - New Series. Despite my philosophical objections, its reliance on Deus ex machina, and the wildly varying quality, Who has its moments. Eccleston's Doctor was my favorite (of the new series, which is all I've watched), since he played him like an adult, and not a man-child, or, as Terry Pratchett said, "an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ...and Tinkerbell." Less Tinker Bell, anyway. As an idea, Who is brilliant. Time travel + space aliens + a hero who never dies. It's always changing. We meet Charles Dickens and Vincent Van Gogh. An assortment of lovely British supporting cast - David Morrissey, Derek Jacobi, etc.

Last of the Summer Wine. This is possibly the funniest show I've seen all year. It's a classic British setup - old folks acting like kids in a small village (a la Waking Ned Devine). Foggy, Clegg, and Compo have to be one of the greatest comic trios of all time. Foggy is a retired military man, with razor sharp instincts, and a dry delivery that's a perfect parody of every soldier Alec Guinness ever played. Compo dresses and looks like a tramp, and has been romancing the rotund, grumpy Nora Batty for years. Clegg, played by the voice of Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit), is an Average Joe just along for the fun. Toss in a clutch of gossipy old ladies, a tightfisted shop owner named Auntie Wainwright, a depressed Charlie Brown-esque old duffer named Smiler, and a pair of adulterers named Howard and Marina who make such an amusing mockery of soap operas that one can't take them seriously, and there's the longest running sitcom in the world.

The Mentalist. Another of the few American shows I watch, this is quite clever, though it ultimately falls into most procedural conventions. Patrick Jane is an ex-psychic. He turned detective on the brutal murder of his family by a serial killer he taunted on his TV show. Like Sherlock Holmes, he's a frequently annoying consultant to the local police. Unlike Holmes, however, most of his quirkiness is somewhat pointless, just quirkiness for quirkiness' sake. Holmes's eccentricity often is part of his investigation, but Jane will sometimes do odd things for no reason but amusement. His desire for revenge on "Red John" is a constant, but rarely evinces itself in a tangible way, which is a bit of a disturbing trend on television - that one can have such a destructive passion and still be a lovable, lighthearted person. I've never watched any of it, but Dexter seems similar in that respect. All the same, Patrick Jane is a fun character, and it's easy to fritter away the time with a few episodes of The Mentalist.

Les Miserables - 10th Anniversary Concert. Over the summer, I've become quite familiar with the various versions of Les Mis. While the new movie was very good, this Valjean/Javert pairing really can't be beat. Colm Wilkinson probably couldn't really lift a cart, but his Bring Him Home is truly the best, and Philip Quast both looks and sounds the part. The rest of the cast is good, and the encore is amazing, but it's really these two that make the show. They're astounding.

Phantom of the Opera - 25th Anniversary Concert. I've mocked this show for years. Partly, I admit, was because my impression of it was a mix between a vague knowledge of the atrocious 2000 movie and cowboy band Riders in the Sky's hilarious parody, Phantom of the Chuckwagon ("Where are the horses? The cattle? The beans?! Don't you wish Andrew Lloyd Webber had been born a cowboy?") The reality was quite different, or it was in some ways. It did have some of the same weaknesses - the 80's rock vibe seemed ridiculous at first, though I eventually got used to it, and it could've used some horses and cattle. But this particular cast is spectacular, taking on not only the music but a tremendous job of acting. I'd always thought the story was indulging the seductiveness of darkness, but in fact it's much more complex than that, as the last fifteen minutes - a piece of riveting drama from which I could hardly tear my eyes - show.

Sorry for the long list - thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet, I've become a thorough cinephile this year.

Next year's list.



  1. Couldn't agree more on Agents of Shield. But I had a glimmer of hope when I noticed that Ward got shot at the end of the cliff-hanger. Can it... could it be... that they're killing him off? Hurrah! One down, everyone else but Coulson to go. Then again, Coulson already died. Har-har. I'd nearly forgotten, needed that obligatory "did you hear the one about how I got stabbed through with an Asgardian spear" line every single episode to remind me. I'm worried that he's been kidnapped, he's the ONLY thing that makes the show tolerable. I don't know if I'll keep up with it. I'm a Person of Interest girl myself. Now there's a show with some good writing, if predictably PC at times.

    1. Ugh, it's so predictable! Same as Elementary - witty at first, but after a few episodes...blah.

      That said, Clark Gregg is a good actor, and he's about the only one. He was great in Much Ado.

    2. Yes, loved him in that! Gregg is similar to Martin Freeman (except American!) in that he can switch easily between comedy and drama. I have a friend who's a former actress and says in her experience, the best comedians are typically also good dramatic actors. Because, she reasons, if you can't even make people laugh, you definitely can't make them cry!

      BTW, your mention of Brideshead reminds me, have you seen Anthony Andrews' Scarlet Pimpernel? It combines material from both of the Orczy books, but it is SO good, and Andrews is amazing.

      On Brett's Holmes---I agree that he's over-the-top (Sherlock Holmes rolling his r's, really?) and yet he can get eerily close to the Holmes of the books. I think he's played less immature than the Sherlock in the new series, which isn't Cumberbatch's fault since he's a brilliant actor, more a writing choice. Just the bit in the trailer for Season 3 where Mycroft says "[John] has moved on with his life" and Sherlock says "What life? I haven't been in it," is one example of the sort of shallow, childish throwaway line the real Holmes would never say. However, I think my very favorite Holmes ever was neither Cumberbatch nor Brett, but Basil Rathbone. I think he perfectly captured the restlessness, energy and intensity of Holmes without being over-the-top or making him an Asperger's man-child.

    3. Chesterton once said "It is much easier to write a good leading article in the Times than a good joke in Punch." He was quite right. Comic timing is a gift.

      I have seen his Scarlet Pimpernel! My first introduction to the character was the Richard E. Grant version, which I quite liked (he was so witty), but who is obviously quite different from the book's character. My thoughts on Andrews were that while he overplayed the foppishness, when he did take on the seriousness of Percy Blakeney, he was wonderful. And of course, you know. Ian McKellan. Young Ian McKellan. Couldn't help but like that. As for Brideshead, I'm still somewhat of the opinion that it's rather boring, though the production was so lavish and the cast so prestigious, it feels blasphemous.

      I might write a piece on the evolution of Holmes. Like most modern characters, the Cumberbatch Holmes must have a bundle of insecurities and very little maturity to counterbalance it. We are in the century of the Man-Child (see David Tennant's Doctor). That line in the trailer was very irritating. I had hoped that Sherlock would have retained some of the purpose and character he attained in Reichenbach Fall. After a great deal of immaturity, he did learn to place value on self-sacrifice (though, of course, it wasn't really self-sacrifice, was it?) I do have hope, though. He has begun to learn some form of morality, and John's stabilizing force is welcome. The writers have commented on that, saying that they do intend to continue that change in the character. Also, I'm very interested to see how the whole John and Mary thing works out...


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