2013 marks my fifth year working as a film critic and reporter and I’m proud and very thankful to say it was the best yet. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work alongside some fiercely talented friends and colleagues, interview some of the most esteemed talent in the industry, attend events like SXSW, San Diego Comic Con and Cinema Con, and, perhaps most importantly, see a number of films that I’ll carry with me well beyond 2013.
I am endlessly grateful to spend each and every day doing what I love and am thrilled to celebrate cinematic achievements like these …
“VHS” put the horror anthology format back on the map, but “VHS 2” solidifies it as a feature structure that can rival traditional narratives. The wraparound component still isn’t quite there, but all four shorts in the sequel are highly creative, entertaining and memorable. Adam Wingard delivers a typical haunted house scenario but within a new, intriguing framework, Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez put an entirely fresh spin on the zombie genre and Jason Eisener offers up a stunningly stylized alien invasion that rocks some of the feature’s most unforgettable sounds and visuals, but the best of the bunch is definitely Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven.” You think you’ve seen it all? Evans and Tjahjanto put the large majority of third act massacres to shame. “Safe Haven” is the one that will blow your mind, but all four short films are impeccably structured and loaded with remarkably unique plot points, turning the full feature into a beautifully sick and twisted film that’ll give you a good scare and/or having you shouting something to the effect of, “No way!,” the entire way through.
Great Quote: “Papa.”
“Gravity” isn’t just a film; it’s an experience. All the movie needs is a physical component similar to Disney World’s Mission: Space ride and you might actually start to believe you’re out in space alongside Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski. It’s unfortunate Alfonso Cuarón didn’t use that as an excuse to nix Dr. Stone’s unnecessary backstory, but by the point that threatens to slow the film down, you’re already far too engrossed in her fight to survive. “Gravity” doesn’t just hold your attention from beginning to end; it doesn’t even permit you to turn your head. This is one instance where 3D can truly enhance the experience. Between the additional dimension, pristine sound work, convincing performances and strong cinematography that produces strikingly multi-layered visuals and ensures you’re always oriented, the film literally sucks you in. Similar to 3D, IMAX and the fleeting high frame rate craze, Cuarón’s cinematic language in “Gravity” deserves to become the next big thing.
Great Quote: “Do you copy? Please copy.”
What Ron Howard achieves in “Rush’s” 123-minute running time is astounding. Not only is there an incredible amount of information on Formula One and the driving culture, but then we also get two robust big screen versions of James Hunt and Niki Lauda as well as added context through their dynamic rivalry and friendship. Both men have assets and flaws and they rode two completely different work ethics to the top, but Howard never colors one right and the other wrong, just as he never entices the viewer to root for one driver over the other. “Rush” is about getting to know two Formula One icons, understanding and accepting their motivations, and then watching as unforeseen events tip the scale. The characters and their connection are remarkably engaging and so is the action of “Rush.” When Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth get behind the wheel, you’re right in the car with them thanks to the combination of brilliant shot composition and impeccable sound design. “Rush” is an all-consuming watch in every respect.
Great Quote: “Watching you win those races while I was fighting for my life, you were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.”
As someone who tends to shy away from romantic comedies, the promotional campaign for Richard Curtis’ “About Time” left me indifferent, but fortunately I wound up giving it a shot at New York Film Festival because the actual feature is so much more than the trailers suggest. This isn’t just some cheesy tale about a guy who jumps back in time to win the girl of his dreams. Well, it is, but that basic description only scratches the surface of the narrative because Curtis gets you so invested in Domhnall Gleeson’s character and his quest to find “the one” that every other element of the film, even something as outrageous as time travel, feels so natural. Perhaps it’s because I’m also at the point in my life where I wouldn’t mind finding my own “one,” but “About Time” has a profound ability to stick with you because it’s so poignant. Rather than use the time travel component as a cute shtick, Curtis weaves it into Tim’s arc in a way that encourages you to assess very real situations from new perspectives, and that makes it truly enlightening.
Great Quote: “I thought this phone was old, but suddenly it’s my most valuable possession.”
If you don’t like Disney’s “Frozen,” it might be because you’ve got no heart to warm. Admittedly, I still take issue with Anna’s split-second decision to marry Hans and acknowledge the fact that the film’s antagonists are ineffectual, but neither are a match for a snowman sidekick that professes his love of warm hugs and two enchanting sisters coming into their own. Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” was a long time coming, but it’s worth the wait because Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s decision to turn the Snow Queen into a conflicted hero is part of the reason “Frozen” is a standout. Anna makes for a strong, cheery lead to take you through the adventure, but then Elsa steps in to give the film an impressive amount of depth through her very real and relatable problem. No, there aren’t many folks out there who can conjure wintry elements with the flick of a wrist, but having to hide who you are in order to fit in is another story and now, thanks to “Frozen,” you can tell yourself to “let it go” and just be who you are. It sounds silly, but it’s messages like that paired with exceedingly charming characters and vivid visuals that rock the power to brighten your day and that’s why “Frozen” makes this list; simply put, it makes me happy.
Great Quote: “Some people are worth melting for.”
As someone with a major fear of being unfairly treated, losing everything I’ve worked for and having it effect my loved ones, celebrating Jordan Belfort’s bad behavior by giving “The Wolf of Wall Street” the #5 spot does feel wrong – but also so right at the same time. Terence Winter’s adaptation of Belfort’s novel is a warped character piece. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort is despicable through and through, as are his cohorts, but, at the same time, their con game and outrageous behavior is undeniably infectious. You can’t turn your head because you can’t bear to miss what Belfort does next. The possibilities are endless and that makes the 180-minute running time a breeze. Even though you’re downright disgusted with each and every decision Jordan makes along the way, he’s a natural charmer and his showmanship is highly convincing. The incessant speech-giving and Quaalude-popping should grow dull and repetitive, but instead, you’ll find yourself rooting for more and more just to see how big Jordan can go and in that respect, he definitely doesn’t disappoint. The film is bound to leave you wary of your investments and with some serious suspicions regarding the finance industry, but from an entertainment standpoint, Belfort’s antics are big screen gold. You can live it up for three hours and then it all goes away. (Again, this is with no disrespect towards the people the real scandal affected. This assessment is purely from a cinematic standpoint.)
Great Quote: “When you sail on a boat fit for a Bond villain, sometimes, you need to play the part.”
If you’ve seen “Her,” clearly human-OS dating has its problems, but I still wouldn’t mind if we were heading towards Spike Jonez’s version of the future. In an industry oversaturated with robotic and space-themed representations of the future, this unique combination of novel new technology, fresh yet familiar environments and clothing styles with a retro flare is like nothing you’ve ever seen before in this type of narrative and that makes it endlessly fascinating. However, at the same time, the looks are also grounded in the familiar, making the world easy to adapt to and the same goes for OS1. Obviously there’s no such thing as an intuitive operating system available in the consumer marketplace, but we’re close enough that the concept feels tangible and thanks to Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s work, it’s highly appealing, too. Johansson really does deserve that Best Supporting Actress nod. Even though she’s never seen on screen in the flesh, Samantha is as close to a living, breathing character as any. And not only does Johansson merit a significant amount of credit for that achievement, but Phoenix does, too. For the large majority of the film he’s performing with nothing more than a digital wallet-like object, but not for a second do you doubt his feelings and motivations. Jonez’s shot selection is also a masterful component of the feature. He doesn’t have the luxury of running with standard wide shots and singles to sell a one-on-one relationship. He’s come up with a language of his own to bring this man and this operating system on the same plane and the results are unprecedented.
Great Quote: “And then I realized that I was simply remembering it as something that was wrong with me. That was a story that I was telling myself, that I was somehow inferior. Isn’t that interesting? The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
As one of few who were well versed in The Hunger Games back in 2009, I was instantly assigned to keep an eye on the adaptation that could spark an epic franchise. Four years later, I could not be more proud and honored to have the opportunity to cover the series to such an extent. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t a desperate blockbuster aiming to sustain a fad; it’s a high quality film that’s earned every drop of hype, attention and cash that’s come its way. The original Hunger Games is still an excellent film, but Francis Lawrence took the additional funds afforded to him by that installment’s success and put them on screen in the best ways possible, turning Catching Fire into a far superior piece in a number of respects, and the same goes for the cast. There’s no coasting here or leaning on pre-established character details. Each and every player from Peeta to Effie to Cinna and beyond shows off a significant amount of growth and that change amplifies some of the most powerful beats of the story. And then of course there’s Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss. Almost every element of this film is tremendous, but it’s her heartfelt and intimate portrayal of a girl in the middle of such an extreme situation that puts the movie on another level.
Great Quote: “Want a sugar cube? They’re supposed to be for the horses, but who cares? They’ve got years to eat sugar, whereas you and I, well, if we see something sweet, we better grab it quick.”
“Short Term 12” has more heart and emotion than any other 2013 release and that’s because it’s so incredibly immersive. It doesn’t just tell the tale of one particular challenge during Grace’s time at the facility; this is a fully realized representation of her life. She’s got loads of responsibilities at Short Term 12, but she’s also got concerns of her own and Destin Cretton’s ability to flesh out every single one of them turns Grace into someone you feel like you know. And of course a good deal of the success of the character comes from Brie Larson herself. She’s far from an industry newcomer, but her work here could and should be a game changer. Her performance feels effortless, but it’s also clear that she’s done the work to completely give herself over to the role, giving Grace an outstanding amount of texture. At Short Term 12, the task at hand may be to take care of Jayden, but Larson never lets you forget the effect her job at the facility has on her relationship with Mason. It’s that constant interconnectivity that turns “Short Term 12” into so much more than a viewing experience. It’s something you feel like you’ve lived through it and that makes it stick with you.
Great Quote: “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
James Wan did it; he made a horror movie for everyone. Whether you’re a diehard genre fan or only dabble in scary fare every once in a while, “The Conjuring” has something for you because Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes took such care with each and every element of this production. The film’s got well-earned jump scares, psychological shocks, a slew of multidimensional characters, stunning cinematography and true roots that make you wonder if Ed and Lorraine Warren’s work actually could be the real deal. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson strike the perfect balance between offering a sense of comfort via the Warrens’ warmth and expertise and then letting that composure crack to highlight serious threats, giving “The Conjuring” a unique pace loaded with surprises. There’s no night-by-night progression forewarning you of a one-way build. The entire narrative is peppered with fresh feeling scares that are so well woven into the story that there’s no need for blood and gore. A scene during which Joey King just stares into a dark corner of her room, essentially at nothing at all, is incredibly unnerving simply because it’s well-performed and you care about the character. My fingers are crossed that Wan decides to continue on with this franchise because his authorial expressivity would be sorely missed and also because the Warrens’ files offer a wealth of cinematic opportunity.
Great Quote: “Everything you see in here is either haunted, cursed or is being used in some kind of ritualistic practice. Nothing’s a toy. Not even the toy monkey.”
Honorable Mentions: Fast & Furious 6, Thor: The Dark World, Captain Phillips, Lone Survivor, American Hustle, Nebraska, The Kings of Summer, Mud
PERRI’S WORST 5 MOVIES OF 2013
5. A Madea Christmas
I’m not a fan of Madea movies, but I get the appeal. Even though her features have totally nonsensical plots, her behavior can be mildly amusing and she does have an undeniably warmth to her. Trouble is, the character can’t carry a film on her own and in the case of “A Madea Christmas” more so than most, Tyler Perry seems to have forgotten that. Not a single one of her outbursts are funny because the jokes within them are lazy and her knowing, motherly appeal is squandered by ridiculous, unearned character arcs. And don’t even get me started on those tacky, digital holiday-themed scene transitions.
4. Argento’s Dracula 3D
“Dracula 3D” is an abysmal movie, but the worst part about it is that it comes from the man who brought us “Suspiria,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and more. How does Dario Argento not have some sort of right-hand to tell him that putting an enormous CGI praying mantis in your Dracula movie is a terrible idea? And letting your daughter die a melodramatic death in the fakest fire imaginable? You might be better off skipping that bit, too. It’s hard to say this without sounding callous, but this film is proof that Argento has just totally lost it.
3. The Last Exorcism Part II
Now here’s where the worst of the year selections get so bad that they make me angry. “The Last Exorcism Part II” had all the potential in the world. The first film was a solid scare and then the concept of a sheltered Nell being thrown into the mainstream was an opportune way to continue to build the character and broaden the world, but Ed Gass-Donnelly and co. do nothing with it – literally nothing. Nothing happens in this film and then when Gass-Donnelly realizes he only has a single act left, he figures it’s time to toss in the obligatory third act exorcism, and to no effect.
2. Out of the Furnace
Even though there’s a film I dislike more than “Out of the Furnace,” this one is the ultimate snooze of 2013. Not only is it a painful drag, but the content is also depressingly bleak. There’s no reason to like the characters so there’s no reason to care when their lives are threatened. And on top of that, director Scott Cooper offers no access to Russell while he’s on his rescue mission because we never see the guy make a decision. It’s as though he’s following the blueprint laid out in the trailer and nothing more.
1. The Host
If only Stephenie Meyer and Andrew Niccol had just teamed up to make a trailer. Whereas the promo for “The Host” takes the time to introduce you to the main player and deliver the basics of the situation, the full feature does no such thing, throwing the viewer into a new, complicated and unexplained scenario before you’ve even had the chance get to know and understand the protagonist(s). Wanderer’s connection to Melanie is the driving force of this story. You’d think the filmmakers would have taken the time to pinpoint the optimal way to bring that relationship to screen, but what we get is downright laughable and between that and the fact that this might be the most absurd YA love triangle (square?) in cinematic history, “The Host” solidifies itself as the poorest attempt at filmmaking of the year. What a waste of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”
Happy and healthy New Year, everyone! Looking forward to another film-filled year in 2014!