31 December 2013

The Top Ten Films of 2013

Ooh. This year was a good one.

Yes, there were truly vile things to be seen in theaters in 2013 too.

There was a leaden, nihilist Superman that super-sucked up our money. We had a by-the-numbers, still surprisingly lifeless “Hunger Games” sequel. “Oz” became the Disney corporation’s latest total package of expensive, heartless CGI and marketing.*lets out long sigh* Apologies.

Folks, there were a ton of sensational movies released in 2013. This was a year where it was a ton of fun to go to the theater again. The secret? See the stuff with little to no commitment to financial obligations. I'm talking movies with fast food and toy company ties. Once you got past the priority properties with gigantic price tags, the quality rose to the surface.

While this list is always subjective, the quality and depth (don’t think I didn’t contemplate a top 20, or change this list dozens of times), of movies in 2013 makes me proud just to be sharing and discussing them with you. So please, read. Let me know what you think. And as always, come at me bros.

These were 2013’s best:

“Gravity’s” been generally, inarguably heralded as a technical triumph. To reiterate, it really is! It has these sustained, far out aesthetics and game-changing depictions of humans  trying to interact with no gravity in space. The characters are so close to earth, yet so deep in the vast blackness above the earth, hanging on for dear life. Clearly, it's impossible to film such things, and digital work is necessary, but the digital aspects are so masterfully handled. Alfonso’s Cuaron’s micro-focus adventure about astronauts trying to survive and get home safely after a catastrophe depicts outer space in ways we’ve never seen before. Treacherous and serene, it is a stunning film to behold. It is film that immerses you and stays with you. But great visuals can easily take precedent over what matters most. 

What streamlines and perfects already stratospheric cinema is a terrifically simple story. “Gravity,” underneath all the wizardry and must-see movie-making making, is a stripped survival scenario uplifted by virtuoso visuals. “Gravity” is a movie about hope against all impossibility. Under Cuaron’s very technical veneer is a rousing and touching human drama. We hold our breaths and whiten our knuckles hoping and praying that a vulnerable but determined Sandra Bullock can somehow just make it. It is to “Gravity’s” credit that it sustains our intense focus by any means possible in movies. That is its power.

From its opening titles declaring life in space impossible and its holy cow 17-minute continuous first shot, to its exhilarating and unforgettable final moments, “Gravity” featured some of the best qualities of films. It had ambition, integrity, memorability, and most impressively it even invented its own cinematic language for depicting this kind of story. It wanted to show viewers sights never seen on film, but stills tell a story that we could emotionally invest in.

Gravity was a total film. It was a seemingly impossible, intimately enormous masterpiece. “Gravity” is the best film of 2013.

Watching Jennifer Lawrence bounce around to Wings' "Live and Let Die" alone allowed the Homer Simpson in me to emerge. I wanted to scream at the screen, "GIVE THAT WOMAN THE PRIZE!"

But that was just a great moment in a film over-stuffed with them. "American Hustle" is the best of excess.

This dizzyingly fun, somewhat fact-based farce about AbScam (FBI agents entrapping politicians by dressing up as Arabs...) stands out as a giddy screwball extravaganza. David O. Russell, channeling Scorsese, Mike Nichols, and even James L. Brooks, pulls off a caper film with hysterical panache. Everyone involved, especially the film’s five exciting leads, is at the top of their games, especially Christian Bale as the satirically schlubby con man Irving Rosenfeld. “American Hustle” shows Russell for the gifted and witty writer-director he has become.

To describe “The Act of Killing” as a documentary about Indonesian death squads, and Anwar Congo’s wire killing techniques barely even scratches the surface of this meditative, innovative film on people's ability to develop memories as safety nets. 

Congo is asked to reminisce on his killings and is given the chance to depict his life stories on film. Congo makes a historical gangster film that's all over the place, and Joshua Oppenheimer assembles a mixed-up collage of memories. With that, “The Act of Killing” becomes a bold, shocking, and revelatory experiment on perspective, and the art of staging the past.

Paul Greengrass has become known for perfecting ripped-from-the-headlines drama with his breakneck pacing and surprising sympathy and, well, “Captain Phillips” continues to show that. An intelligent, breathless thriller that takes you to the edge, “Captain Phillips” challenges our understanding of masculinity and global economics by pitting together Somali pirates with blue-collar sailors and large organizations.  

In what could have been an insensitive action show, Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks ground the film with humane and non-standard performances brimming with intensity and brevity. This is a rare and conscientious kind of thriller.


What a splendid reminder that teenagers and stories about teenagers need not require pandering.

Sweet, silly, and yet so very serious, “The Spectacular Now” is a story about young love and everything that can come with it. It’s a film that looks at how romance can emerge, however nonsensical it may seem or how difficult it can be when you’re young and aren’t sure how the world works yet. 

Say hello to two young, charming talents in leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. 

Alexander Payne’s nimble small town road movie nails its black humor and kitchen sink melodrama. See Bruce Dern in a performance of stunning frailty, as his ailing old man character Woody Grant goes on a trip with his son to Nebraska to claim a totally bogus million dollar prize. 

Greedy friends and family, lost dreams, and poignant moments all get picked up during the trip, all leading to miniature revelations. This film has a lot of heart. And it’s one oddly shaped beating heart.

“12 Years a Slave” is a momentous work of historical, polemical art. With an unflinching eye, Steve McQueen tackles slavery through the tragic, expressive eyes of Solomon Northup. This is a film of extreme importance, viscerally depicting years of human degradation to show the pure horror that slave ownership was. Yet, it is not a film meant to punish viewers, but serve as a reminder and jumping off point for a still very important reflection.

A very strong, 76-year old Robert Redford gives a total performance in this low budget, high impact survival story at sea. It’s simple. Redford is alone at sea, trying to salvage his boat and save himself when pitted against extreme obstacles, and near hopelessness. And what an involving story this is. Always considered the handsome leading actor, Redford strips himself and gives everything he has left to depict a man just trying to survive.

I thought I had this pegged as some sort of “Girls”-influenced hipster dramedy in the first five minutes.

But then the film – fast and spazzy as it can be – takes small steps towards being an honest movie about a young woman struggling with maturity. “Frances Ha” is an indie gem about young people and the dumb stuff that they (*cough* we) do. Noah Baumbach’s confidently acerbic direction jives perfectly with Greta Gerwig’s affably immature ingĂ©nue.

Oscar Grant III’s life was tricky enough. As a young twentysomething he was struggling to get by, raising a young daughter, trying to maintain a relationship with his mother and girlfriend, and working to get on and do right after time in jail. But at the end of the day, he seemed like a good enough kid. He was trying.

Then, in a flash, it was all taken away from him. “Fruitvale Station” is a tender, earnest, and shattering reminder that life is not fair, and Grant's story reminds to think harder about other people.

Enjoyed and/or Awesome and of Note:
  • Mud - A rousing, boys adventure on the river, with the best aspects of Twain mixed with the sentiment and skill of Spielberg. Let's keep up this McConaughey Renaissance, yeah?
  • The Hunt - Groupthink gone to nasty extremes as a kindergarten teacher is accused of the molestation of a child. Star Mads Mikkelson's struggle is devastating.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis - Another chilly, soul-crushing Coen brother concoction about a smart-ass folk musician at the right place, always at the wrong time. 
  • Behind the Candelabra - A dazzling, off-beat romance with historical liberties (or facts, who knows?), Steven Soderbergh has fun with Liberace and his lover.
  • Rush - A sports film that features very little sports action. This is a film about brooding male egos in formula one racing, featuring two tremendously charismatic leads.
  • Blackfish - This doc was a moving consideration of the aquariums, and the entire process of caging animals. What happens when we put confined animals on display?
  • Philomena - A rightfully angry movie that turns in to a journey about forgiveness for one Irish Catholic woman.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street - A pulsating, potent, if not problematic condemnation of big business.
  • The Sapphires - Quick, feel good fare about Australian Aboriginals creating a soul group in Vietnam.
  • Only God Forgives - Art-house homage that was also totally nutso and beautiful to behold. Or berate.

Amusing Enough:
Touchy Feely
This Is The End
Computer Chess
Spring Breakers
Upstream Color
Clear History
The World's End
The Way, Way Back
The Heat
Room 237
Lone Wolf McQuade... whoops! That's 1983, but I saw it this year and Norris breaks some dudes.

Not that good. Hell, even bad:

Oz the Great and Powerful
Hunger Game: Catching Fire
Anchorman 2
Dealin' With Idiots
Jack the Giant Slayer
Thor: The Dark World

The Great Beauty
Before Midnight
Touch of Sin
Short Term 12
Side Effects
Pacific Rim
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Stories We Tell
The Bling Ring
Blue Is The Warmest Color
Enough Said
To The Wonder
That stupid-looking Walt Disney movie.
You're still here?

Go home. Enjoy your New Year!

That's it.

Thank you and I look forward to films with you in 2014. ESPECIALLY you.