This week’s list of movies to watch is not inspired by a single new release, because there isn’t anything big enough out this weekend to warrant such a focus. Instead, I’ve got a year-end feature for you inspired by the entirety of 2013 in film. I can’t sum up every title released this year with only ten recommendations, but the movies I’ve selected are, I believe, the best representatives of the more notable titles and trends seen in the past dozen months.
Most of the selections are familiar. Chances are you’ve seen more than a few. But obviously this edition has to involve more popular fare because they have to be influential movies to have informed so much of this year’s crop, even if unintentionally. Just take it as a call to watch them again, along with whatever you haven’t seen before, as a special sort of year in review of the most important movies of 2013 released before 2013.
Martin Scorsese’s quintessential gangster film has a legacy of quality and style that even he can’t seem to live down. His latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, has been compared to the 1990 classic since the first trailer arrived and made it seem like a re-imagining where Henry Hill is a member of the stock trade rather than the mob. Scorsese gets a pass because it’s his own movie. And also until we see it the comparison is mainly the issue of critics and fans who actually would love for the director to keep making Goodfellas over and over. But also out this month is David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which has received an even greater share of comments likening it to the earlier crime film. I’ve seen this one and can say it’s actually the worst Goodfellas wannabe since Blow, to the point that I think to compare it to Scorsese’s work is an insult. Then there’s another movie this year more that directly connects to Goodfellas on purpose: Luc Besson’s The Family, which involves Scorsese’s movie in a certain plot point resulting in Robert De Niro’s character watching a Robert De Niro movie. Finally, there’s the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about unheralded backup singers, including Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, both of whom are prominently audible on the soundtrack, as are many of their peers.
The Running Man
Given this year marked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s official re-entry into multiplexes, and rather disappointingly so with The Last Stand and Escape Plan, we have to include something from the prime of his career. We could go with the one most directly related to his first 2013 feature and pick Raw Deal, or we could go with one his best films, either The Terminator or Predator. But The Running Man is the one that goes further to relate to other releases of this year. Most obviously it’s a great predecessor to The Hunger Games franchise, both of them dealing with violent game shows of the future, and it is even more similar to Catching Fire than the first installment due to the ways the whole system begins to be taken down from within the game. I also previously included the Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) adaptation as a movie to watch after seeing Ender’s Game, because of both films’ involvement with deceptive propaganda videos.
Available on Amazon Instant Video (to buy only)
Return to Oz
I still think it’s weird that my first film history professor showed us this on our last day of class, as his choice of something to represent 1980s cinema. But I did at least agree with him that it’s an underrated movie, and I think this should have been the year we fans pushed for its reexamination. After all, we got another new L. Frank Baum-inspired live-action Disney feature in Oz the Great and Powerful, which made so much more money than Return to Oz but which was so much less clever. It was also oddly more faithful to another studio’s version of Oz than its own (yes, Return was also a Disney production), which had itself been more true to the words and illustrations of the original books. Additionally, that other studio’s version, the classic The Wizard of Oz, was re-released in 3D this year. I’d have rather watched Return brought back in the format — just imagine the depth inside Jack Pumpinhead’s noggin, the contour texture of the Nome King’s various incarnations, the scene with Dorothy floating through his psychedelic underground dominion of precious minerals… I also recommend The Wiz, which turned 35 this year and also would make a fantastic 3D re-release if only I wasn’t one of about five people who would go see it.
Not only is this action classic 25 years old this year, but it also continued to prove its influence after two and a half decades with the similar knockoffs White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. The irony was, of course, that an actual Die Hard installment also came out in 2013 but was unrecognizable as such. And after watching that sequel, titled A Good Day to Die Hard, we all just wanted to go back to the beginning and see what a finely crafted thrill ride the original was, to be even more aware of how far the series has strayed from it initial themes and premise. I’m crossing my fingers hoping that this kickoff to a whole new subgenre is recognized by the Library of Congress later this month with its latest additions to the National Film Registry.
There is one 2013 release in particular considered to be a total ripoff of Duncan Jones’s 2009 film, which became an immediate cult classic if not mainstream hit. Its critical and small audience favor also signaled a new interest in original sci-fi, an explosion of which we saw this year via tentpole titles like Oblivion, After Earth, Elysium and Pacific Rim (and maybe Gravity to a degree) and indie flicks including Europa Report and The Last Days on Mars. Most of them were terrible, though, even if they almost all look amazing, which makes the retroactive appeal of Moon even greater at this point. There is one thing it has that relates it to quality films of 2013, and that is its isolation of a single character, something we see in the space-set Gravity and the sea-set All Is Lost.
One of the strategy games that Matthew Broderick’s character finds on a hacked military program in this 1983 teen thriller is chess. Yes, that’s right, like Computer Chess. And we assume the computer in this movie, WOPR/”Joshua,” could likely have beaten a master (it is “his” suggested game, after all). But on a more general level, WarGames is relevant to any recent movie relating video gaming to the actuality of combat, whether hands-on or hands-off. Like Ender’s Game, for instance, which also shares with this 30-year-old movie the idea of a kid saving the world. I also kept thinking back to WarGames while watching Spike Jonze’s Her, though there’s not a whole lot of parallel except for the back and forth with a talking computer. Joshua may not be an artificial intelligence, though, so much as an algorithmic system, and he doesn’t even have voice recognition. Broderick keeps having to type his side of the conversation, which separates it from Her‘s world immensely. But maybe they connected for me because WarGames was the first movie I’d seen that really dealt with computers in a way that is now very prescient. If Broderick’s David Lightman is around in the near future that Her takes place in (and he probably is since they seem very much linked by time and logical technological progress), he’ll definitely be falling in love with an operating system.
The obvious reason to include this 1980 Superman sequel is that Man of Steel features the same villain, General Zod. And it’s a good movie to rewatch if you’ve complained about the Metropolis fight in the new one — I know, Superman II implies no deadly harm, but that doesn’t mean the threat isn’t there while it’s happening. Additionally, though, there’s Thor: The Dark World, which is like a mash-up of both Superman II and Man of Steel. The latter influence, intended or not, is in the way Loki fills the role of Lex Luthor to a tee. He’s the original villain who is now out of prison but secondary in the plot to a new villain, and he winds up assisting the superhero in defeating that new baddie through an act of treachery. There is a difference regarding the technicalities of that assistance, but the two characters feel very similar between the two movies.
Harry and Tonto
I have to confess, I haven’t yet seen Inside Llewyn Davis, but with all that I’ve seen and heard about its scene-stealing cat, I can’t not be reminded of Paul Mazursky’s 1974 film. Apparently in spite of that cat being named Ulysses there’s not much of an odyssey had in the new Coen Brothers movie, unlike the journey taken here by an Oscar-winning Art Carney and his own orange kitty, Tonto (and I don’t want to stretch things, but if you’ve seen a new movie this year with a character by that name –ahem, The Lone Ranger – then there’s a bonus reason to take in this antidote). There is a 2013 release that does involve an old man on a cross-country road trip where he sees family he hasn’t seen in a long time. I haven’t seen Nebraska yet either, but again it too easily reminds me of Harry and Tonto. Maybe I’ll regret including this film once I catch up with the unseen new releases, but probably not. You should just watch Harry and Tonto for any reason or no reason at all.
Available on Netflix Watch Instantly
Any Western With Native American Antagonists (Stagecoach, Maybe)
In my movies to watch post tied to the release of Riddick, rather than compiling a simple list, I made the case that the sci-fi thriller was such an amalgam of Western tropes that it was best to simply recommend any movie in the genre. I did get specific in non-list form, however, recognizing certain titles, for instance, that related to the part of Riddick‘s plot involving the holding down of a fort while (indigenous) aliens overwhelmed with a massive attack. In many old Westerns, these “aliens” would have been Native Americans. There actually weren’t any Westerns of note in 2013 (ahem, The Lone Ranger), but there is a great reference to the genre in the documentary The Act of Killing. In that film, about the still-reigning winning side of a genocidal purge, who reenact their massacres as entertainment for the movie cameras, we’re reminded that we still reign in the U.S., the winning side of the wiping out of Native Americans, and have reenacted our massacres as entertainment for movie cameras, too. The difference is, of course, that we eventually revised the approach of villainizing the “indians” and reveling in their onscreen deaths. Stagecoach is one of the best films of its genre ever made, though the Native American attack is on the negative stereotyping side. The further back we go, the more likely we’re to find such depictions. One interesting Western to check out, though, is D.W. Griffith’s 101-year-old The Massacre, which seems to pay some sympathy towards the Native Americans who are brutally slaughtered in the middle of the two-reeler. Watch it below.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone
Speaking of The Act of Killing, which is finishing out the year as the most necessarily seen doc of 2013, I’m going to once again — and forever — champion this other shocking nonfiction film to everyone who tells me they’ve seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning look at remorseless mass-murderers in Indonesia. Directed by Marc Wiese, Camp 14 features interviews with remorseless mass-murderers from North Korea, where the bad guys are also still in power. Those interviewees are former officers involved in labor camps like the one in the title, which is the birthplace of the film’s main subject, an escaped prisoner named Shin Dong-hyuk. His story is incredible, and the inclusion of the different viewpoints on the camps is remarkable. One of the officers talks of killing a pregnant woman like it was just a normal part of any job. The sad thing is that human rights tragedies like this are constant subjects of documentaries because they keep on happening. You see people happily involved in hate crime killings this year in God Loves Uganda, too. There are probably others I haven’t seen.
Available on Netflix Watch Instantly