Our Favorite Movies of 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time.  Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.

spring breakers

2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.

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Short Takes: Out of the Furnace, Kill Your Darlings and Drug War

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Out of the Furnace- This unremittingly bleak drama centers on deeply flawed brothers in Pittsburgh.  Russell (Christian Bale) is a heavy drinker who kills a woman and her kid drunk driving and lands in jail while his brother (Casey Affleck) serves several tours in Iraq.  Once he is out of jail, his brother goes missing after a series of increasingly brutal organized fistfights to pay off debt.

Director Scott Cooper makes no effort to give the audience a payoff.  The (plentiful) violence is treated as deeply troubling and is never without consequences.  Although a lot of the story is absurd and simplistic, there is an honest humanity that makes it surprisingly effective. Grade: C

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Kill Your Darlings- An uneven but thrilling attempt to capture Beat writers in the act of inventing themselves.  The story centers on Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) leaving a turbulent home life for an even more turbulent time at Columbia.  He is drawn to Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and the two form the chaotic, and ultimately tragic, core of the movie.  Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) also show up in drug-fueled flashes.

Kill Your Darlings treats the period with much affection, but director John Krokidas also injects crucial visual flare as well as modern music.  There is too much repetitive literary quoting underlining the theme over and over, but Krokidas brings an exhilaratingly reckless, chaotic vision to material that would otherwise seem stuffy and pretentious.  Grade: C+

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Drug War- One of the most intense and entertaining movies of the year.  Drug War is an action movie examination of China’s obscene drug policy.  Rather than overcrowd their prisons with drug offenders (like in America), people who possess more than a certain amount are just executed.

Johnnie To’s movie is about a meth dealer caught in between the police and those higher-up in the trade than him.  He offers to help the cops take down the others in exchange for prison time instead of a death sentence.  To creates organic, often breathtaking action sequences throughout, shaming most Hollywood releases on a fraction of the budget.  Grade: B+

REVIEW: A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan and Wang Bao

Tiger, ox, snake and rooster- these four animals, symbols on the Chinese Zodiac calender, are key to understanding the central character in each of the four chapters in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.  It illustrates the clashes and cohesion of tradition and modernism as it applies to those people, who operate in four distinct areas of that industrial and economic superpower.

It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is regulated by the government.  The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.

The first is the story of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled miner.  Confronted with poverty after corruption and greed privatizes his mine, he becomes a working-class avenging angel, wielding a shotgun and a pitiless dead-eyed gaze.  That gun is wrapped in a tiger-imprinted cloth, and a loud growl precedes his rampage.  Wu is a commanding, ferocious screen presence.

Next is the ox, a gun-loving migrant worker who returns to his family in the southwestern city of Chongqing.  His act of violence is the murder of a wealthy couple so he can snatch the woman’s purse.  In fact, nearly all of the carnage in A Touch of Sin is spawned by economic injustice.  There is the snake, a spa receptionist bullied to brutality by a rich man looking to use her for sex.  And, finally, there is a young man searching for economic opportunity, unaware of endless dead ends and vast corruption.

This is my first encounter with Zhangke’s work, and the boldness and skill he executes each chapter is astounding.  His characters are not defined by their respective zodiac animals or by their violence.  Both of those are overt contrasts with their attempts at normalcy in modern China.  There are glimpses of labor factories, train crashes and ruthless economic disparity; things that do not make headlines in state-run newspapers but that Zhangke clearly wants to the world to see.

Grade: B+