Hello Tumblr, my old friend. I’ve come to list movies again.
I started an amazing and demanding new job on December 2, which reaaaally ate into my awards season moviegoing. I’ve caught up with all but a few titles and I swore to myself I would get this posted before the Oscars, so here we go.
Speaking of the Academy Awards, this year I’ve decided to omit any Best Picture contenders from my list. I’ve seen eight of the nine (sorry Philomena) and liked all I saw, some a little (Nebraska) and some a lot (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). Odds are you don’t need to read 100 words from me about any of them.
Instead, here is my list of 10 films that didn’t make Oscar’s list but should be on yours, presented in alphabetical order.
The first and certainly oddest on the list is Computer Chess, the (fictional) story of an early ’80s gathering of oddball software programmers at the dawn of the computer age, and the strange encounters they have while ostensibly pushing the boundaries of machine intelligence. Director Andrew Bujalski captures the look and feel of the early ’80s with uncanny perfection, aided by the fact that he shot the entire thing in black and white on ’70s-era video cameras. (Undoubtedly, Computer Chess is the only 2013 theatrical release shot on analog video.)
The film observes its striving, seeking nerds and misfits with open eyes but without judgment. Look closely and you’ll recognize the straight line from their eccentric pursuit of chessboard dominance to the far more powerful i-gadgets we carry in our pockets today. The meandering story goes to a few surprising places but is in no hurry to get there. By its final frames, Computer Chess reveals itself as a very sneaky prequel to Her.
More black and white. Broke but privileged white girl in her 20s flails around New York City in search of artistic fulfillment, honest friendship and, you know, meaning. Sounds exactly like HBO’s Girls but is in fact Frances Ha. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s film takes its inspiration from Manhattan-era Woody Allen, capturing the spirit of the earlier era while updating the vision in a way that’s true to Frances’s time and gender. The one thing it does take from Girls is Adam Driver, who is excellent here, there and everywhere.
Adam Driver brings said excellence (and an excellent “OUTER…SPACE!”) to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s in the Coen Brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis. The Academy has a tenth Best Picture slot. They committed a grievous error by not bestowing it here. Oscar Isaacs is a revelation. The use of music is masterful. But I imagine the films melancholy charms run counter to the lavish spectacle and self-importance Oscar favors. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of sadness, loss and unspoken anger, of trying to make art when you’re good but not quite good enough, or maybe just good in the wrong way. There’s also a cat.
And we return to black and white with Joss Whedon’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a masterclass in effortless charm. It’s evident in every frame that the writer/director of The Avengers and his friends are having a ball playing dress-up with Shakespeare’s original screwball comedy. If I could, I would leap from my seat through the screen to join the party.
Matthew McConaughey, too, has charm to burn, and he puts it to good use in Mud as a larger-than-life fugitive who enlists the help of two boys to avoid bounty hunters are reunite with his one true love. Jeff Nichol’s previous film, Take Shelter, was one of my favorites of 2011. Mud is not quite at that level but it is an engaging coming-of-age story, anchored by McConaughey’s performance and featuring some of the best acting I’ve seen from Reese Witherspoon in years.
Short Term 12 is one of the films I didn’t catch up with until February. I’m glad I did, as it more than earns its spot on my list. Brie Larson stars as a young woman working in a group home for at-risk teens, coming to terms with issues of her own. The story could easily have slipped into “after-school special” territory, but writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton keeps it grounded, with a setting and cast of characters who feel real through and through.
If Much Ado is the party you dream of, Spring Breakers is the one that haunts your nightmares. (And probably vice versa, but if you’re on the other side of that equation let’s agree to never hang out.) There’s much more going on here than James Franco’s over-the-top, over-praised “Alien.” Harmony Korine bait-and-switches filmgoers with a candy-colored critique of youth culture, gangsta culture and twenty years of televised, bikinied youthful excess courtesy of MTV’s Beach House and Girls Gone Wild. This is a deeply subversive film that will sit like a Netflix time bomb waiting to blow the minds of unsuspecting teens for decades to come.
From a metaphoric hell on earth to a literal one: This Is The End, starring (among others) Academy Award nominees James Franco and Jonah Hill as themselves. This quintessential smart-dumb comedy starts off mining humor from the tabloid reputations of famous stars, and ultimately carries its apocalyptic premise to the most extreme places imaginable. Remarkably, it does so with a lighter touch than you might expect from such a bro-heavy ensemble. Still, your enjoyment of This Is The End will be predicated on your tolerance for large doses of Seth Rogen. Mine are just high enough.
Upstream Color is, to quote its wikipedia page, “a film written, directed, produced, edited, composed, designed, cast by and starring Shane Carruth.” I stand in awe of Mr. Carruth, who I imagine probably helped with the catering too. His outstanding feature debut, Primer (2004), is one of the smartest, knottiest time travel films ever made. Nine years on, his second film is even better. Another smart science fiction film without the usual sci-fi trappings (rockets, robots, explosions), Upstream Color can be loosely described as the tale of a couple whose brain chemistries are mysteriously altered unbeknownst to them, resulting in usual side effects including paranoia, telepathy with pigs and a surprising familiarity with Thoreau’s Walden. But more than any of that, Upstream Color is a profound and moving love story. With pig telepathy.
No pigs in You’re Next, but there are violent men wearing stark white tiger, wolf and sheep masks. A smart story and great characters sets this film apart from the run-of-the-mill “home invasion” movie (including the far inferior The Purge). You’re Next delivers well-crafted scares but it isn’t interested in dwelling on suffering and kills. Rather, it presents believable family relationship/sibling rivalry in the midst of a life-or-death struggle. It’s also got real laughs, something you wouldn’t know from the official trailer. Best of all, it showcases one of 2013’s most empowered heroines outside of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Honorable mentions: horror movies Here Comes the Devil and The Conjuring, Eraser Head-worthy weirdness in the Disneyworld-esque Escape from Tomorrow, and supremely dark but funny depravity in the soon-to-be-released Cheap Thrills.