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The Year in Movies 2013: Joaquin Phoenix Returns and the Films of the Year

We look at the year a man fell in love with a phone and a whole lot more.

Before MidnightRichard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke made a painfully articulate movie about a couple, together for years and now raising kids, who hit a big bump in the road. These are characters many of us have loved since Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise. To see them so unhappy is excruciating; to see them pull through, as it appears they do, brings not just relief, but hope for the rest of us sorry souls.

Stories We Tell — The book world has gone memoir-crazy, an unfortunate development: It's exhausting to be asked to care about so many not-that-interesting lives. But Sarah Polley's movie-as-memoir is something else, a strange and wonderful little picture that considers the myriad ways in which a single family's story can be told — only to conclude that there's no such thing as one definitive story. This is a film unlike any other.

20 Feet From StardomMorgan Neville's beautifully constructed documentary isn't just a movie about backup singers, the unsung heroes of at least 1,001 records you love; it's also a meditation on the joy and possible heartbreak of singing out for the love of it, rather than for the glory.

Joaquin Phoenix is lovelorn in Her.
Amanda Demme
Joaquin Phoenix is lovelorn in Her.
Rooney Mara stars with Phoenix in Her.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rooney Mara stars with Phoenix in Her.

Despicable Me 2 — Some like their animation tasteful; others go for the id. Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's follow-up to 2010's delightfully disreputable Despicable Me is the antidote for those who don't worship at the feet of Miyazaki. This rambunctious exercise in ridiculosity features a terrific voice performance from Steve Carell, and a bonus: about 50 percent more Minions!

Dark Skies — In the 1990s, the era of The X-Files, we couldn't get enough of alien-abduction stories. But almost nobody went to see Scott Stewart's Dark Skies, a well-made, melancholy little picture that takes the measure of our current national anxiety just as Joseph Ruben's dream-family nightmare The Stepfather took the Reagan era's. Dark Skies didn't screen for critics, an increasingly common practice that still leads people to assume a movie is "bad" — another kind of alien brain-hijacking, when you think about it. Lovers of the wonderful J.K. Simmons, in particular, should have a look: He plays an alien specialist and crazy cat-daddy, though, in the end, he's not so crazy after all.

And don't forget: David O. Russell's American Hustle for its disco-ball dazzle and Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby for sheer braggadocio; Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas's semi-autobiographical sketch of a kid growing up in Paris, post-1968; After Tiller, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's morally complex documentary about the few remaining doctors in America who perform late-term abortions; The Butler, from Lee Daniels, a mini pop history of black America from circa 1950 to 2008; Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sweet, sure-footed directorial debut, Don Jon; Best Man Holiday, Malcolm D. Lee's sequel to The Best Man, a comedy-drama with tons of life packed into it; The Past, in which acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi gets in touch with his inner Douglas Sirk; Paul Schrader's The Canyons, messy, problematic, but alive, thanks to Lindsay Lohan's scraped-raw performance; Paolo Sorrentino's lush, mournfully poetic The Great Beauty (and guys! Take some style tips from impeccably appointed leading man Toni Servillo).

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