Hi, my name is Derek Moreland.  This is my first post here at zeitgeeks.

 For the past four years, I’ve been doing end-of-year movies reviews on my Facebook.  For my five year anniversary, I thought I’d take a shot at expanding my audience.

Normally, I try to challenge myself to watching at least 52 new movies released in a year.  I fell pretty far short of that goal this year, and I missed a lot of the big, award-nominated releases – I still haven’t seen 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, or PHILOMENA.  I didn’t really see any (recent) foreign films.  Still, as I’ve said before, there was a lot of great popcorn flicks released in 2013, and there are worse people to talk excessively about them than me.  So without further preamble – here are my ten favorite films released in 2013.  Thanks for reading.

 

Gravity

I hate space!

GRAVITY is not a remarkable film for using 3D to effect the actual feelings of weightlessness and hopelessness in space, though the 3D work visual effects are easily the most stunning use of the technique I’ve seen in film.  GRAVITY is not a noteworthy film for Alphonso Cuaron’s breathtaking camerawork, though his film is filled to the brim with astonishing visual symbolism and meaning.  No, for all the technical and filmic brilliance, GRAVITY is a film that rests on Sandra Bullock’s incomparable character work.  In a runtime a touch longer than most very special episodes of a TV drama and in strokes broad enough to fit into a Bob Ross painting, Cuaron and Bullock give us the complete, gut-wrenching character arc of a woman who has to literally face death alone to remember how to live again.  Every word of the handful of dialogue sprinkled haphazardly throughout the film serves the story, and all emotional beats, even the silent ones, resonate.  GRAVITY is a master class in filmmaking, and it’s my favorite film of the year.


Monsters University

You two have managed to accomplish something together no one ever has; you surprised me.
Mark my words, 2014 is going down as the year of Sequels to Good Movies That Still Manage to Improve On the Original.  MONSTERS INC was cute and clever, whip smart and fun, with enough story and material to keep parents entertained as well.  MONSTERS UNIVERSITY has all of that; it also has something to say about the importance of the spirit of competition, and teamwork, and friendship.  And amazingly enough, none of these messages overwhelm the film - its all there in the subtext, if you want it.  But if you just want a great movie about two men becoming best friends with the added twist that they're monster learning how to scare children, that's there too.  I feel confident saying that MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is genuinely the smartest "kids" film in ages...or at least since the last Pixar film came out, anyway.

 

American Hustle

You don't put metal in the science oven!
Did anyone else get a heavy GOODFELLAS vibe watching this?  I'm serious - the period appropriate music, the multiple voice-overs, the film starting in the middle and then backtracking to a far earlier point in the narrative?  Not that it matters - David O. Russell has crafted one fine crime dramedy here.  But i thought it was worth mentioning.

AMERICAN HUSTLE also sports the finest ensemble cast I've seen in ages.  Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale and a hilariously coiffured Jeremy Renner all command the screen, each one hilarious and histrionic as appropriate...and never once does one performance eclipse the work of the others onscreen.  We the audience are presented with a tight, well-oiled machine of story and character that never once falters.  And in a story about lies, liars, double crosses, triple crosses and personal betrayal, that's saying something.  Russell has also managed to nail the tone he's been working so hard to perfect over his last couple of films; HUSTLE manages that strange alchemical mixture of humor and high drama that I feel he missed the mark on in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, and is by turns ridiculously funny and surprisingly dark without ever feeling unearned or abrupt.  It's a film that earned every once of praise it has received.



Frozen

Oh, look at that. I've been impaled.
Gorgeous.  That one word sums up FROZEN as a filmic experience entirely.  The animation is absolutely breathtaking in its breadth and complexity.  The story is a beautifully sweet reversal of the traditional Disney formula - there's TWO princesses! and (ultimately) no prince! - that ropes the audience in at the start.  And not only is there not a bad song in the bunch, the single "Let It Go" is destined to join the likes of "Be Our Guest", "Under The Sea", and "Whole New World" as a perennial Disney classic.  (Off subject, but man - if Disney wanted to put out an album of Idina Menzel covering the 15 or so biggest Disney singles with full orchestra accompaniment, I would buy all the copies.)  Its a welcome return to form for Classic Disney musicals, and a hopeful promise of things to come.


Thor: Dark World

You told your DAD about me?
Speaking of sequels that out shined their (really pretty good) predecessors, who would have thought that the best way to get Thor to work on the big screen was to make his story into a romantic comedy?  Come to that, who could have guessed that one of the year's best climactic action sequences would feel so much like a Stephen Moffat DR. WHO finale?  Between these unique touches, Chris Hemsworth's goofily earnest title character and Tom Hiddleston's Tumblr- enchanting turn as Loki, THOR: THE DARK WORLD was just compulsively watchable superhero spectacle.  It’s pure joy from beginning to end, and a worthy addition to Marvel's expanding cinematic universe.


Elysium

Ate the fuckin’ grenade, eh?  His brain is fine, but he's gonna be *pissed* when he wakes up, eh?
God, I love Neill Blomkamp.  He clearly went to the Jack Kirby School of Subtlety, and he has the Point Hammer that had out to graduates to prove it.  Neill Blomkamp Has Something To Say, and he's saying it by Setting It In The Future So It's Allegory.  But he's also a brilliant and creative moviemaker, so while you are sitting in a film that is bluntly discussing the injustices of immigration policy, you're also watching a man in a mech suit tear-ass his way through a space station while a psychopath with a sword tries to gut him before he saves a little girl.  I honestly can't think of another director working who both clearly wants his films to capital letters Mean Something, but also has such a refined eye for visual effects.  It’s a combination that continues to thrill and excite me.  I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I am almost tempted to let you take it, if only to watch Oakenshield suffer. Watch it destroy him, watch it corrupt his heart and drive him mad... But I think not. I think our little game ends here. So tell me, Thief, how do you choose to die?

The second film in Jackson’s prequel trilogy improves on the first in pretty much every conceivable way, and I mean that as a compliment.  Gone are the endless shots of beautiful New Zealand countryside with that same damned Dwarven theme as our protagonists walked.  That’s been replaced with lots of scenes of Elves kicking eleven kinds of ass.  And yes, I’m aware the Elves are nowhere near as prominent in the actual novel, and that their presence (along with Gandalf’s pursuit of evidence of Sauron’s return) are there more or less to pad out the film and the trilogy both, but I don’t care.  No time feels wasted, and the film moves along at such a brisk clip that even at a near three hour running time, the audience is never bored.  Peter Jackson, the one we all wanted to see so badly after RETURN OF THE KING so many years ago, is back.

 

Gangster Squad

The whole town's underwater. You're grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling need to hook up, get married, and make millions of beautiful babies that will eventual take over the world with their attractiveness.  I, for one, salute our beatific underage overlords….

What was I talking about?  Oh yeah, GANGSTER SQUAD.

With shades of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and a cast of some of the hardest noses in film today (Josh Brolin AND Sean Penn?  Are you serious?), GANGSTER SQUAD is a crackerjack little cops and robbers story that rises above its humble roots and becomes something stronger than the sum of its parts.  The whole film just crackles with electricity, not the least of which is the chemistry between its stars – Gosling and Stone are the most obvious, but the whole cast cohesively meshes together.  And that’s before you get to see Sean Penn cut loose with a tommy gun at Christmas.

 

The Conjuring

Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.

I know I’m not the first person to point this out (not by a long shot), but – horror trends are greatly reflective of the fears that we as a populace are agonizing over.  In the fifties, it was irradiated monsters.  In the nineties, Vampirism were a sexually transmitted disease (BLADE was super on the nose about that one).  Zombies came back in a big way about ten years ago.  And now, since the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY made all the money printed in 2007, movies based around hauntings and possession have taken movie audiences by storm.  And in the midst of that onslaught, a true gem has been unearthed.  THE CONJURING is a genuinely scary, genuinely thrilling story that purports to be based on true events.  And even if they’re not, there’s still the fact that director James Wan has created a horror film with atmosphere and weight, instead of relying on the jumps and gimmicks of (my admittedly beloved) slasher films.  It feels like the spiritual successor to THE EXORCIST, a horror film that even casual moviegoers will be searching out for years to come.

 

The World’s End

What the fuck does WTF mean?”

When I first left the theater after watching THE WORLD’S END, I was disappointed.  I’d laughed, sure, but I hadn’t immediately fallen in the love with the characters and the world like I had in Wright’s previous efforts.  I was pretty much ready to write this one off as a misfire…and then I read this article, and I realized that I was wrong. Wright, Pegg and company were playing a much deeper game than I realized at first pass, and subsequent re-watches have revealed the true depth of hilarity and story of this film.  I’m glad I gave it that second chance, and the best part is – I know there are still more gems to discover the next time I watch it.  And the next.  And the time after that….