The Oscars are upon us yet again and just before the academy passes out their highest honors, here is my personal look back at the films of 2013. 2013 wasn’t a banner year for film but it was another solid year for the cinema. Not only has the independent films shined like they always do but some big budget affairs yielded some unexpected surprises. So enjoy the list and I hope you find some films to watch and discuss in the future.
All is Lost
Man’s will to survive and persevere is at the heart of two of the best films of the year. All is Lost is one of those pictures as Robert Redford gives a powerhouse performance even if he doesn’t utter more than a few sentences. J.C. Candor follows the masterful Margin Call with a harsh look at survival and man’s enduring spirit.
American Hustle is just a very solid picture. Great acting, solid filmmaking, and a screenplay that is both entertaining and thought provoking when it wants to be, this is David O. Russell’s second best picture behind The Fighter. Although it feels like Oscar bait, American Hustle is a worthwhile piece of filmmaking from one of the more consistent filmmakers around.
I won’t go into the whole Woody Allen debate here because I don’t have the answers for that. Allen is a filmmaker that has a very tumultuous personal life but his latest film is a engaging look at how we trick people into seeing whom we want them to see. Cate Blanchett gives one of the best performances of the year as a woman trying to become what she obviously isn’t anymore. Another powerful and engaging film from Allen.
Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips is an excellent thriller as well as a great look at leadership during extreme circumstances. It may not have been as faithful to true events as it could have been but nevertheless Greengrass is a master of the shaky cam and edge of your seat action. Tom Hanks is solid as well as the strong and courageous Captain Phillips.
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey is most likely gonna get his first Oscar tonight and even though their might have been another who deserved it more, it’s hard to argue with his touching and surreal performance as Ron Woodroof. This is an excellent companion piece to the powerful “How to Survive a Plague” documentary as it chronicles the fight to treat HIV and AIDS.
The Top Ten:
I really had no interest in seeing Philomena and to be honest if it weren’t nominated for Best Picture, I probably wouldn’t have, but I did and I was surprised by what I watched. Harvey Weinstein has a long track record of pushing a movie of his into the big Oscar categories, which has given way to other films more deserving missing out on a nomination. Philomena falls in that category. Even though Philomena suffers from the Weinstein backlash it is actually a very moving story about a mother looking for her son and a journalist looking for a story. Judi Dench and Steven Coogen give two passionate performances, as they are a fairly amusing odd couple that travels around Great Britain and America in search of Anthony. Both characters want different things and even when they do align their priorities, their approach teaches both of them about the meaning of closure. Philomena is a quiet movie that will most likely be forgotten in a years time but I found it to be a wonderful meditation on perspective, religion, and the way we deal with where we come from and where we go from there.
9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire/Star Trek: Into Darkness
I hate ties (actually I loathe them as I feel lists should follow certain rules) but I couldn’t place either film above the other. They are both the best of the blockbusters this year while also being the second film in their respective franchises.
Catching Fire should not have been this good. The second book in the Hunger Games series is great, but I also knew it would be hard for the film adaptation to get past the problem of having another hunger game. The film does this beautifully by primarily expanding the world around the characters and by making the main drama (Snow, Katniss, and revolution) more sinister and intense. This is the Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back of this year with a sequel that expands upon the narrative of the film that came before it while also succeeding in surpassing the thrills of the original.
Into Darkness has gotten a lot of heat for maybe being a “water downed” version of Star Trek. It might be but I found it to be an accessible and entertaining adventure into deep space. The film boast some great action scenes (Khan/Captain Kirk navigating around debris to board the enemy ship) and is both very dramatic and light hearted but it is the relationship between the characters that gives so much weight to what is going on onscreen. It is a great sequel to the original reboot as it moves the series forward while paying homage to what came before it.
Like most blockbusters these days, both films have numerous plot holes and flaws but like the very best blockbusters they are rich stories, with interesting characters and places, which just happens to appeal to the masses.
The best scene in her comes at the very end of the film when Samantha explains to Theodore what happens to most doomed relationships; how connections out grow each other, which in turn translates into something bigger, something brighter. It is a powerful scene and a touching reminder of how we all grow from the ruins of the past. Yes, her is that movie where the dude falls in love with his computer (although that isn’t a very fair descript….. well yea it kinda is) and yes the movie goes places that may be uncomfortable for some. In a world where accepting the unfamiliar is still a challenge, nobody wants to think about a man falling in love with his operating system but Spike Jonze uses that clearly as an analogy. Theo’s relationship with his operating system, which is named Samantha, is complicated like any relationship and Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson play off each other beautifully. There has been a lot that has been said about Johansson’s voice performance but Phoenix is the true star here with one of his best performances of his career. The future is bright in her with intense colors and everything looking like it was built by apple, but happiness with another person is still a mystery to some. her doesn’t have all the answers but it is a sentimental look at relationships and the elation, pain, and growth that goes into each one.
7. Computer Chess
Here is one of my pretentious picks for ya (even tho I’m kinda low on those this year) as Computer Chess chronicles a chess tournament where computer software and their developers battle it out to see which computer program is a better chess player. The film is shot almost as if it is a mockumentary yet still the camera lingers longer on its subjects than any documentary filmmaker would. This gives the movie a dreamlike quality as it moves in-between cut and dry realism to a state of total awareness. Within all this is our characters whose deep conversations and lively debates explore the possibility of A.I. and its place in the coming world. Much like her, which also deals with connections in the digital age, Computer Chess looks at our characters dependence on technology to compensate for their lack of social skills. Andrew Bujalski writes and directs this independent feature, which is a unique look at a moment in time when we were finally figuring out the potential for A.I. He crafts a unique feature that is both interesting and nostalgic while having a penny pincher budget. It may not be the most accessible film around but it is a great study of the computers who are beginning to think like us and the people who have made it so.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
I know, I know, I hear all the misgivings and complaints about Scorsese’s newest film and I totally agree with you, but I loved The Wolf of Wall Street. It is Scorsese unleashed as it tip toes the line between a hilariously good time and a horrifying look at greed. The cast is top notch here with the best performance of the year coming from Leonardo DiCaprio who is brilliantly confident as stockbroker Jordan Belfort. I honestly think it may be his best performance and he is helped by great supporting turns by Jonah Hill (who should win best supporting actor), Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie, and Matthew McConaughey. But just like with any great Scorsese film, it is him and his leading man who make the movie so much more than just a lesson on moderation. They make the screen come alive with a life style that becomes so ridiculous it is hard to watch and with characters that can’t keep up with their own ambitions. This is another moral tale but instead of censoring itself the film goes above and beyond to show just how ugly the American dream can become.
5. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen is a director that likes to take his time, set the stage so to speak, and let events unfold in their natural pace. 12 Years a Slave is a big picture because it is really one of the few American representations of its tragic and cruel past towards African Americans but McQueen doesn’t let the weight of such an important picture get to him. His newest film feels like his older films as it tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The movie is a fierce look at the evils that were committed but it doesn’t revel in the torture. The movie slowly shows Northup’s transition from a freeman to human property and the pain and hopelessness that follows. McQueen has made the Schindler’s List of American Slavery films but his movie focuses on Northup more than the lashings and the hangings. Northup’s story is an extraordinary one and a silver lining for a time in history that is still hard to understand. Ejiofor gives a tour de force performance as Northup but he is also complimented by two solid supporting performances. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Patsey and Fassbender is ruthless as the slave owner Edwin Epps. The other supporting cast is excellent as well as 12 Years a Slave boasts the best ensemble of any film this year. McQueen has assembled all the right people and the right story to make a meaningful and realistic historical epic. At the center of every tragedy is a human story and 12 Years a Slave gives both the tragedy and the story of Soloman Northup their due.
4. The Act of Killing
For most of the films running time I felt a sort of dull emotional attachment to it. I think that is because I really couldn’t comprehend that these were real people. That these people that were being filmed have actually brutally killed many people based on assumptions and a philosophy. It wasn’t until the movie focused on a gangster who gleefully reminiscences on how he would rape young girls during the military coup in Indonesia. That was the moment the film hit me the hardest and I felt true anger, anger that not only could this of happened but nobody has paid for it. The Act of Killing is a brave documentary about the gangsters who would kill suspected communists during the military coup. The film follows mainly one, Anwar Congo, who has said that he killed over a 1,000 people during the Indonesian killings. At first he is a happy man who lives a normal life, which includes his past of being an executioner. The film follows him and his associates as they recall and stage their killings for a film they believe will be made in their honor. This is film making at its bravest as Joshua Oppenheimer sheds a light on those that have taken the lives of others. He focuses his camera on the murders, rapist, and thugs who represent the worst of mankind and who are celebrated by their government as heroes and patriots. The only promising thing is that at the end of the film, one of them finally feels the weight of what they have done and all the lives they have destroyed.
Alfonso Cuaron’s science fiction thrill ride is probably the most important film of the year. It is a beautifully striking visual feast as we watch our hero try to survive the elements of space. Starting off with one of the best opening shots around, Gravity feels like the little brother to Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. As many sci fi films like to explore space as something that man or other intelligent life has conquered, 2001 and Gravity has explored it as an immersive and impossible terrain. Gravity shows the struggle to master what is beyond mans home while also showing mans will to survive. Technically there isn’t much else I can say that everyone else already has because it is just a beautiful realization of what it could feel like drifting above the earth. Cauron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make Gravity a more visual experience over say a plot driven one which is what I love most about Gravity (and All is Lost which is an honorable mention). Even though we get a little back history on the two leading characters, Gravity is about the experience, it is about the most powerful thing film has going for it; what you can see with your eyes.
An intense and daunting roller coaster ride that doesn’t end until the very final moments of the movie, Gravity is the type of film that celebrates what film was always meant to become. It is a visual feast for the eyes as Gravity is a film pop culture and film history won’t soon forget.
2. Francis Ha
Francis embodies that spirit that is starting to define the hipster generation. Careless ambition and carefree nights while trying to find every avenue to express oneself, this is Francis in a nutshell. Played by the charming Greta Gerwig, Francis doesn’t give a second thought as to what is going on around her even if everyone else is starting to grow up. Fashioned like a French New Wave film, Francis Ha matches the attitude and the sense of freedom of its main character. Noah Baumbach isn’t interested in making a statement or saying something worthwhile, he is interested in a lifestyle. The lifestyle of those that don’t understand (or care) what it means to grow up, be responsible, and live a life that is not always geared towards your wants and desire. This is a refreshing coming of age story, which is lead by the bubbly Greta Gerwig who is perfect as Francis. She plays the character with a naivety that can be frustrating at times and inspiring at others. The ensemble cast is great but Greta thrives on the atmosphere that Baumbach creates with a rich and exciting New York City. Full of life and passion, Francis is growing up at her own pace and on her own time.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
The 60s music scene is alive and well in the Coen brothers latest feature. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a young musician who is struggling to survive and get noticed as he travels to bar gig after bar gig. Llewyn Davis is not the most likeable guy as he lives off the gratitude of others and surprisingly keeps the friends he’s got. Llewyn is defiantly a talented musician but he can’t seem to rise above all the other acts that occupy the Greenwich Village folk scene which takes a toll on our main character. With many great musical sections, which leads to one of the best soundtracks around, the Coens infuse their character study with catchy tunes and interesting musical acts. We follow Llewyn who has to babysit a cat, causes destruction where he goes, and flirts with the idea with leaving music behind for a more steady career. Llewyn can’t help himself as he tries to live a life where music does all the talking. Like most Coen affairs the movie revels in ambiguity which can be frustrating for some viewers but for others it’s just part of the fun of dissecting one of their movies. It is clear that the movie explores the pressure of expressing your self through art and finding those that will listen to you. Like so many artists, Llewyn just wants to be heard but so many others are vying for that same attention. The Coens are also looking at a life with one of them out of the picture with an artist who most recently lost their musical partner. What is so great about Inside Llewyn Davis is that it is so dense like the imagery of a cat which Llewyn can’t help but hurt by his own selfishness or a husband who takes a grudge against someone who lashes out against his wife because of his own failures, this is just patient Coen brothers. But with that is the music that fills your ears and your senses all throughout the film. This is a great snap shot of the Greenwich Village scene as a familiar voice, that will change the music scene forever, ends the film. Another great film from the Coens and the best film I have seen in 2013.