For movie lovers and movie critics, the end of the year brings an avalanche of "best of" lists to analyze, pick apart, and argue over. Here at CT Movies, knowing that every critic and every movie lover brings different tastes, interests, and perspectives to the table, we've decided to take a different approach.
Each of our regular critics came up with a list of "best" films in categories of their own choosing, and we'll be running them over the next week. These aren't necessarily the year's best films, nor even the best movies these critics saw all year—just a sampling of the riches of 2013. We hope you'll find something to love.
Best Resurrection Movie Disguised As a Zom-Rom-Com
(Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language)
I like zombie movies (1968's Night of the Living Dead, 2013's World War Z), and I like zombie comedies (2004's Shaun of the Dead, 2009's Zombieland). But I wasn't prepared to so thoroughly enjoy a zom-rom-com ("zombie romantic comedy") that it would end up being one of my favorite movies of the year.
Warm Bodies released just before Valentine's Day, and as it turns out, it's got a lot of heart. There's a poignant love story—playfully riffing off of Romeo & Juliet—at the center of this film. What makes it a "resurrection movie" is when the main character, a 20-something undead dude named "R," falls for a pretty (non-zombified) girl . . . and his heart begins to . . . come alive again. But he can't fully come back to life until she loves him in return—unconditionally, "dead" in sin. Just as he is, without one plea. It'd be silly to over-theologize such a sweet and simple tale, or to turn it into a sermon illustration, but it's all right there: Guy dies, finds True Love, and, well, you can guess the rest.
Best Pirate Action Flick Since Jack Sparrow First Graced the Big Screen
(Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)
I remember following this true story when it was in the news, and being amazed at how it played out—Somali pirates hijacking a large ship in the Indian Ocean, holding its captain hostage, and the incredible rescue by U.S. Navy Seals. Still, even though we knew how it ended, director Paul Greengrass's film kept us on edge throughout the entire ordeal. Special kudos to Tom Hanks in the title role, who turns in a typical solid Hanks performance for 98 percent of the film—and then, in the last 2-3 minutes, after his character is rescued, Hanks goes from good to out-of-this-world great, doing some of the best acting I've ever seen of anyone, in any movie. It was so breathtaking and intense, I was shaking from head to toe when the film ended. (Brett McCracken's review at CT.)
Best Film About the Leader of a Vessel at Sea That Wasn't Captain Phillips
All Is Lost
(Rated PG-13 for brief strong language)
While Hanks' performance in Captain Phillips was certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination, I believe the award should go to another man helming a craft out on the high seas—Robert Redford, turning in perhaps his career-best performance . . . at the age of 77! Playing a man on a long solo sailing voyage, Redford's character endures one crushing blow after another as his yacht takes a beating in a crash, several horrendous storms, and more. The entire film is shot at sea, onboard the boat, and Redford rarely speaks—but his facial expressions say it all. We see him scrambling for his life in the midst of the tempests, and, for long minutes at a time, we see him just sit and think, contemplating his next move. He's a longshot, but I believe Redford should win his first-ever Academy Award for acting. This is a brilliant study of a man fighting for his life, and we feel it every harrowing inch of the way with him. (Mark's review at CT.)
Best Documentary About a Cartoonist Who Quit in His Prime
Dear Mr. Watterson
Pronounce Calvin & Hobbes the best newspaper comic strip of all time, and you might get a few arguments, but not many. What creator Bill Watterson did from 1985-1995 was simply stunning—a decade-long masterpiece, if you will. But Watterson called it quits after that short run, because newspapers kept getting smaller and smaller, giving the comics less and less space, seriously cramping their style. Almost every other artist went along with it, but Watterson decided he'd had enough. This documentary is a fascinating study of the man himself, his principles, and his integrity. It also captures the magic of the strip itself, featuring a bright, wildly imaginative 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger, who becomes quite real when they're alone together. Calvin & Hobbes was beyond delightful, and so's this film about the man behind it all. (Mark's review at CT.)
Best Trio of Films About Nazi Germany That Aren't Totally Depressing
The Book Thief
(Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)
Wagner & Me
Orchestra of Exiles
Based on the award-winning New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief is worth watching not just for its story—about a young girl who moves to Germany to live with foster parents (the always wonderful Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) during World War II. But also its gorgeous cinematography, and for the exquisite, expressive beauty of its breakout star, 13-year-old Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who portrays innocence, wonder, and persistent curiosity in the title role.
The other two films—Wagner & Me, and Orchestra of Exiles—sort of come as a pair, since both documentaries focus on the role of music during the rise of the Third Reich. The first features host/narrator Stephen Fry exploring the life of Richard Wagner—and how his music influences not just Fry, but Hitler, and his worldview, as well. The second tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew and one of the world's finest violinists who managed to "smuggle" almost 1,000 Jewish musicians out of Germany—to form a new symphony in Palestine—before Hitler could exterminate them. Both documentaries speak to the power of music . . . both for good and for evil. (Mark's review at CT.)
Best Film That Shows Off Matthew McConaughey's Abs and Acting Chops
(Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking)
What do you get when Flannery O'Connor meets a coming-of-age movie like Stand By Me? The result might look something like Mud, one of the year's finest indie gems. Matthew McConaughey is quietly terrific in the title role (yup, that's the character's name), a guy on the lam for murder. He's hiding out on a river island in Arkansas when two middle-school-aged boys discover him, befriend him, help him, and even defend him. Reese Witherspoon is brilliant as Mud's troubled, white-trash girlfriend, and the story ends on a surprisingly redemptive note. (Bearden Coleman's essay on Mud and Southern film at CT.)
Mark Moring, a former film and music editor at CT, is a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.