I read more this year and watched fewer movies and TV. I also watched a lot more YouTube, in a year when the service devoted more resources to emphasize longer videos and video “channels” so that it can better compete against television for viewers. For this list of favorites, I picked only those that came out or were updated in 2013.
This year I turned forty. There were two movies I was looking forward to because of this: This is 40 and Before Midnight.
This is 40 was disappointing. I never could relate to the characters like I had expected, maybe because the movie focused on the couple in their forties as parents. The movie was also more concerned with broad comedy and scatological humor, I thought, than trying to tell us anything interesting about the age of forty.
I knew within five minutes of watching Before Midnight that it would be by far my favorite movie of the year. There is comedy here and drama, some romance and lots of suspense and tension, and, in a twist from the previous two movies in the series, an epic fight that is often very hurtful. This combination of various emotions demonstrates a concept I learned from my Elements of Craft writing professor this semester: the Variegated Terrain of Emotions (VTE). This technique in poetry draws together a variety of emotions and tones into a landscape to be explored by the reader. It is a bumpy and surprising ride across terrain that hides between this variation multiple possible meanings and even truths.
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater are not just concerned with using VTE to make their film more poetic and artsy. There really are important truths to be uncovered in the convoluted journey. Before Midnight spoke to me as a forty year old in a way This is 40 did not, telling me things about my own life and generation. For example, the big questions in Before Midnight are often about an uncertain future, both personal and global. You would think by age forty we would have a pretty good idea about where we are heading in our own lives, but in a complicated world of job opportunities, family issues, and long-term relationships, forty seems to be just the right age for stepping outside our current existence and reexamining all that came before, while asking if this is truly the direction we want to continue heading. Maybe we should have been making course-corrections sooner, but the first inklings of wisdom were gained by sticking with where we were heading through earlier years. By the end of Before Midnight, it is not exactly clear how things ended up this way, but decisions will have to be made, actions will have to be taken, and the future seems more uncertain than ever.
Before Midnight is structured like the previous two movies in the trilogy: long sequences of dialogue, few set pieces, and conversations while wandering through beautiful scenery. The dialogue is the source of action, tension and suspense. It contains within it surprises. There is this incredible scene early in the movie where Céline and Jesse are sitting with several other friends around the dinner table and the topic of technology and its impact on artists comes up. The oldest member of the group dismisses the idea that computers will ever create great art while everyone else at the table, all of them in their forties or younger, concur that technology will one day, probably within their own lifetimes, result in minds as intelligent, creative, and emotional as our own. It is a moment that is not meant to say anything specific about the Singularity or Artificial Intelligence, but it does suggest that Generation X and younger generations have an acute awareness of our future and place in it. This awareness is just one of many sources of tension Céline and Jesse experience throughout the movie, much of it related to their immediate future. What job should I take? What country should I live in? Am I doing right by my children? Am I sticking to my convictions? Does true love exist? What is commitment in a time of rapid change? While we still be together when we are old? What should my next book be about?
The movie demands further viewings, and I am especially looking forward to a day when I can time to spend six hours watching all three movies in the trilogy back-to-back. Of the three films, I think Before Midnight is my favorite, because the stakes are higher, the circumstances are more complex, and somehow the movie resonates with me not just because of my age but because there looms around it even bigger questions about our future.
You can read more about my reaction to this movie here. In a word: devastating.
Alfonso Cuarón changed filmmaking with his movie Gravity. It is not just that this movie is best in 3-D or that the special effects are nearly seamless; Cuarón uses these to create a new cinematic language. The movie is immersive in a way other 3-D movies have never been and it feels like a bridge to the coming Metaverse and its entertainment forms.
Thankfully, the acting is also fantastic, the plot is compelling, and the subtle messages about women, while complicated, generally take a step in the right direction.
Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in modern times but preserves the archaic language of the original. It works. Featuring a cast of Whedon regulars, the black and white movie moves swiftly through set pieces confined to a single residence and its surrounding lawns. Not since A Lion in Winter has the language spoken by phenomenal actors heard through my ears captivated my attention more than the visuals. I think Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof should start a vlog in which they read Shakespeare every day.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
There were very few blockbuster movies this year that featured a woman (and fewer that featured multiple women) as the main character and hero. The success of Gravity and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will hopefully lead to a rapid increase in genre movies led by female characters. Catching Fire managed to improve upon the great first movie while adding some very compelling characters including Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark continued to impress while Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne lived up to a meatier role.
Man of Steel
Man of Steel is a movie I was certain I was going to dislike, but I had to see it because Superman is my favorite superhero. I generally do not like movies directed by Zack Snyder (I did like his Dawn of the Dead remake, but mostly because it featured two of my favorite actors.) I was concerned that Man of Steel would emphasize spectacle over story or emotion. If there was emotion, I was afraid it would be like the hypermasculine melodrama in 300.
Instead, Man of Steel is a nuanced and emotional movie that captures all the best things about Superman: nostalgia, family, loneliness, alienation. The scene when Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) assures Clark that he is his son and the climatic scene when Superman (Henry Cavill) reacts to his own actions are both examples of fitting and earned emotions. The theme I like the best is that Superman is an alien, and this is the human race’s first contact with aliens. The movie captures the loneliness that humanity feels, us seemingly all alone in the universe with our intelligence and technology. When the credits rolled the first time I saw the movie I felt that loneliness more sharply than I have ever felt it before.
Yes, I’m pretty sure I got out of the film something different than most people, but what I found there made it one of my favorites of the year.
Arrow, now in its second season, is perhaps the most quickly moving story I have ever followed on television. The action and effects are fantastic for such a low budget show, the acting is generally fantastic and getting better, but it is the story that keeps the show moving at a rapid clip. Thankfully, Arrow also places itself firmly within the larger DC universe, thus bringing in various guest stars as villains and heroes to keep the show fresh and frantic.
Come for the big science fiction ideas that unfold over several episodes, but stay for the phenomenal performance by Tatiana Maslany. Not only does she play several different characters, she plays characters that change over time, and she plays characters pretending to be other characters in a thrilling loopiness that has yet to topple over into farce.
I did not really enjoy most of this latest season of Doctor Who. It was only when the series focused on the mythology of the Doctor and the Time Lords that it truly felt engaging. The last two episodes featuring Matt Smith were some of the best the show has ever produced, and I will greatly miss him. I hope, though, with the new actor coming the show will crawl once and for all out of the rut it seemed to have found itself in.
Not only is Whatever this is. a great web series, it is better than anything on television, and that includes my favorite TV shows listed above. The show was created by Adam Goldman and funded through Kickstarter. Like his previous web series The Outs, Goldman successfully combines drama and comedy in Whatever this is. It is a witty mix that can become sharply poignant at times. The plot is often unexpected even thought it focuses on the everyday lives of young people in New York City trying to succeed there.
I don’t like reality television. I don’t want to watch vlogs. So why did I spend so much time watching vlogs this year!?
shep689 [defunct channel]
Will and R.J. [defunct link] are a young couple who recently moved from Florida to Los Angeles, California. They have a lot of YouTuber friends. They recently got engaged (twice). They recently got a dog. There was perhaps nothing more compelling this year than when they were trying to get their new dog. I just can’t. But I do. Every single day.
It’s not just pure comedy, it’s shocking and witty comedy. Miranda is a character created by Colleen Ballinger (Colleen’s own personal vlog is often very funny and features a huge cast of family members and friends) and improved over time based on the clueless comments left on her previous videos by certain viewers who fail to understand that this is all a very funny joke. Even when Miranda is not singing in her videos, she is gaining a strange backstory featuring a fictional mother and uncle we never see but often lead to the most hysterical and absurd Miranda moments. My favorite Miranda moment of the year may well be when she was in Germany, and then some Germans were coming…
Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying from the popular a cappella group Pentatonix created their vlog Superfruit this year, which became an instant sensation. Constant (great) singing, made-up words and pronunciations (conveniently spelled onscreen), hysterical banter, special guest stars and a freaky-looking but adorable and much-loved cat named Wyatt Blue Grassi-Hoying all contribute to the vlog’s unique appeal.
Daniel Starke is a filmmaker in Arizona. I originally saw him in a shep689 video [defunct video] and later came across his short films [defunct channel] and vlog. He is very talented and it has been fascinating to see his progress over the past year.