People often ask me if there’s anything good to see out there, sort of implying that movies today are generally not worth the time and money.
If you’re not a fan of comic books or fantasy novels or animation or raunchy comedies or zombies or vampires, it’s true that Hollywood is not catering to your tastes as much as it used to.
But there are still films being made for people who yearn for character drama and human stories.
So the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is almost always yes. But — recognizing that everything doesn’t appeal to everyone, and that “good” is very much a subjective term — you have to search them out.
Even the most cynical observer of modern culture can usually find something worthwhile, and a look at some of 2013’s better movies bears that out.
It’s a requirement, of course, that each December, movie critics compile their top 10 lists of the year’s best and worst movies, and I did that for more than two decades for this newspaper — with the caveat that the choices were my favorites, not necessarily the best and worst. After all, who am I to say?
These days, I no longer see everything. In fact, I see less than half of what comes through town. Still, that’s a lot more than the average moviegoer sees. And it’s still fun to reflect on what the year has had to offer.
This may seem a week late, but I’m under no pressure to call the year’s bests and worsts.
In fact, you’ll find no worsts here. The very worst I didn’t see.
But here are some films that I enjoyed very much last year, and most of them would be on my “best” list if I were to make a “best” list.
These films are still in theaters:
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (PG), directed by and starring Ben Stiller. This adaptation is at face value far removed from James Thurber (much less Danny Kaye), but one could argue that it captures Thurber’s spirit and intent in a wonderfully whimsical way as this Mitty takes a leap of faith to fulfill his fantasies. And by the way, whimsy is something all too lacking in the modern movie landscape. But it’s also fair to say that the film’s offbeat sensibilities probably won’t appeal to everyone.
“Saving Mr. Banks” (PG-13), with Tom Hanks as a cheerful Walt Disney (with a secret smoking habit) in the true story of how the family movie mogul pitched a film version of the “Mary Poppins” books to grumpy author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who was extremely reluctant to see her most personal work Disneyized (we learn why in dramatic flashbacks). Witty and charming, with depth of character to spare.
“All Is Lost” (PG-13). Robert Redford deserves an Oscar nomination (and maybe the Oscar) for his performance in this one-man show, a struggle for survival in the middle of the ocean when his boat is damaged and eventually sinks. Holds attention from start to finish, no easy task for this kind of film.
“Gravity” (PG-13). Sandra Bullock does a similar one-woman show in this gripping space thriller, although there is some interaction with fellow astronaut George Clooney for a while. Bullock is incredible and undoubtedly has a lock on a best-actress Oscar nomination.
“The Saratov Approach” (PG-13). One of the best LDS films yet, with fully developed characters in a strong true story about two Mormon missionaries who were kidnapped and held for ransom in Russia. Corbin Allred and Maclain Nelson are excellent as the young missionaries and everyone else also shines — especially Nikita Bogolyubov as a reluctant kidnapper.
Also in theaters are the World War II melodrama “The Book Thief” (PG-13), which is notable primarily for Geoffrey Rush’s ingratiating performance, and “Philomena” (PG-13), the true story of an elderly woman’s search for the infant son she was forced to give up, buoyed by the luminous Judi Dench.
And these films that are available on DVD and Blu-ray:
“The Way Way Back” (PG-13). This is the sleeper of the year, a coming-of-age comedy-drama about an unhappy young teen spending the summer at the beach house of his mother’s controlling boyfriend. Well-drawn characters, and comedy and drama in equal dollops — until Sam Rockwell comes on the scene as a mentor to the boy and handily steals the show with a warm and hilarious performance.
“42” (PG-13). The true story of baseball phenomenon Jackie Robinson (a knockout performance by Chadwick Boseman), who broke the color barrier with help from Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (wonderfully played by Harrison Ford).
“Mud” (PG-13) is the name of Matthew McConaughey’s character in this dark comedy-drama where two young boys come across a criminal on the run in Arkansas and decide to help him. McConaughey is great and the film is filled with atmosphere and terrific supporting performances.
“The Company You Keep” (R for language) is another fine Robert Redford film (he stars and directed) that was rather overlooked this year, perhaps because it’s not merely a thriller. Redford plays a lawyer with a secret past who is forced to go on the run to clear himself. Sterling all-star support helps this thoughtful exploration of ethical behavior, responsibility of the press, and especially friendship and loyalty.
“The Sapphires” (PG-13), a winning comedy-drama with lots of toe-tapping songs, based on the true story of a down-and-out talent scout (Chris O’Dowd at his best) in Australia during the 1960s who signs a pop-singing quartet of Aboriginal girls and takes them on a tour of Vietnam to perform for the troops.
And though I’m not much for zombie movies, to my own surprise, I’m including two that deserve to be seen: the gripping, very scary zombie-plague thriller “World War Z” (PG-13), starring Brad Pitt, and the surprisingly well-modulated zombie spoof “Warm Bodies” (PG-13), which actually plays out as a salute to humanity, something you don’t expect to see in a film like this.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com