Normally I integrate my recommending watching into my recommended reading in my year-end wrap-up posts, but my reading posts tend to get long and I know people’s eyes glaze over, so why should movies and television get short shrift by being tacked on to the end of a post about books and short fiction? I’ve blogged about many of these shows and movies before, here and elsewhere, but I still think they’re worth highlighting among my favorite things of 2013.
Orange is the New Black – I really can’t recommend this show strongly enough. It’s a compelling and well-written, brilliantly acted, and it has a female-centric cast. All of these things are sadly under-represented on TV these days. Shows tend to be primarily male-centric, re-enforce the cultural norms, and too often neglect acting and story in favor of shiny things that are shiny. Orange is the New Black may not be perfect – nothing is – but it never fails for lack of trying. It doesn’t take the expected routes through plots, it allows its characters (and thus actors) to shine, and it offers unflinching and positive portrayals of race and gender issues that are sadly lacking in the majority of other shows currently on TV.
Gravity - A female lead carries a major motion picture that is visually stunning, action-focused, and set in space. Sure, some character moments are a bit heavy-handed and the science is often inaccurate, but the movie is flat-out gorgeous, the performances are just as stunning, and it’s proof that a female lead can carry a movie and people will pay good money to see it. We need more movies like this. Plus, Gravity offers one of the most effective uses of 3D technology in recent memory. Rather than being gimmicky, it actually puts viewers in the characters’ shoes in a very tense and visceral way in addition to providing truly stunning ‘background scenery shots’ throughout the movie.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – This wasn’t a new movie this year, and while it was nominated for multiple awards, I still feel it deserves more attention than it got. The visuals are breath-taking and the fact that primarily unknown actors were cast really works to the movie’s advantage. I watched it back-to-back with the remake of Total Recall and holy crap was that to Total Recall’s disadvantage. One movie presented a slick and highly stylized movie version of what poverty will look like in the future, and Beasts of the Southern Wild presented a wholly plausible depiction of poverty based on the way people actually live. The surreal portions where the movie shifted into dream-like fantasy sequences worked for me, and oddly didn’t feel out of place with the realistic segments. The performances were truly incredible as well, especially Quvenzhane Wallis, particularly given her young age and, if you watch the film’s extras, what her acting process seems to be like.
Bernie – This movie provides an interesting contrast to Beasts of the Southern Wild in a far more complimentary way than Total Recall. While the movie boasts star power in the form of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black, it also employs non-actors from the town where the real events that inspired the movie occurred. Jack Black turns in a surprisingly sedate performance as a funeral director/mortician who befriends an old, rich woman who makes it her business to be disliked and nasty. His performance is subtle, which is a word I don’t usually associate with Jack Black, and Shirley MacLaine as the old woman turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance. What really makes the movie shine is the documentary elements combined with the fictionalized retelling where the real residents of the town are allowed to let loose with their theories as to what actually occurred. This is another movie that deserved far more attention than it received.
Robot & Frank – This is a perfect example of quiet science fiction. It’s a domestic story, focusing on family, with stand-out performances by several brilliant actors, but it’s also an incredibly plausible near-future scenario featuring a robot as one of two main characters. Frank Langella turns in a wonderful performance as an aging catburglar forced by his son to find a way to live with a robot caregiver. Really everyone in the movie does a wonderful job of conveying characters who are understandable even when they aren’t sympathetic.
Mama – Despite having Guillermo del Toro attached as producer and being a relatively big-budget film, I’m not sure Mama ever truly found its audience. It strikes me as one of those movies that was marketed as one thing, but at it its heart was really something else. It’s a creepy and effective movie, moody and gorgeous and all dressed-up in the horror genre’s clothing, but it’s actually a very sweet movie about chosen families and offers surprisingly positive depictions of motherhood. There are a few jump scares, but the best ‘horror’ moments of the movie are the subtle ones – what is implied through shadows and oddly enough through the crayon drawings underlying the opening titles. Watch the movie and really pay attention to that credit sequence – there’s some seriously creepy stuff going on.
Parks and Recreation – This one doesn’t need a boost, since I’m sure most people are aware of it, but it’s still worth mentioning. Beyond the charming cast, the show does several things that are worth highlighting. It focuses on a strong female friendship, never goes the cheap route by having them fight over a man to shoehorn in tension, and actually shows that women shockingly often have other things to talk about when they get together besides the men in their lives. The other notable thing the show does is avoid the typical sitcom beats. Characters on the show actually communicate with each other, allowing for more interesting plots than contrived ones that rely entirely on people misunderstanding each other, and which could have been solved in two minutes if someone would just ask a clarifying question.
Safety Not Guaranteed – A quirky movie that may or may not be about time travel, which is entirely sold by the actors’ charm and performances.
Source Code – A rather brilliant speculative fiction movie that didn’t get the attention it deserved. It combines big-budget sensibilities with high-concept and recursive/looping story-telling and knock-out performances by the actors.
The Artist – Okay, maybe it’s a bit gimmicky, but the Artist’s love letter to the silent film era is also charming. Plus there’s an adorable dog. What more do you want, really?
The King’s Speech – Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter being brilliant. ’nuff said. For bonus points, that thing I said about adorable dogs applies here as well – the royal corgis get their own cameo.