Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Top 15 Films of 2013

I like making year-end lists. It's nice to talk about the films you've seen over the course of the year and give props to the ones that some may have forgotten about. These types of lists also help to immortalize that particular year in cinema. When you look back at these lists in the future, it gives you a taste on the amount of quality that year had. 2013 will go down as one of the all-time best, I'm confident of that.

There are a number of films that have very narrowly missed the Top 15 cut. And I will revisit the list in late February after I have seen everything (or close to everything, there's just a handful of films that I still need to get to). In February, maybe I will do a top 30 or something. We'll see.

Anyway, it's been quite the year. I think I have become a better writer because of how great this year has been for the movies. There will be some changes in how I do things in 2014, but it's a continuing evolution of myself as a writer. Change is inevitable. I'm entering my fifth year of doing this, after all, if I'm going to continue to do this, I might as well get really good at it. Right?

Honorable mentions: Pacific Rim, This is the End, Mud, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, No, Nebraska, and Before Midnight. Surprisingly, they have all missed the cut. 

So I humbly dedicate this list to Roger Ebert who is no longer with us to give his own list and that feels so wrong to me. Without further ado...

15. Side Effects (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh's farewell to theatrical cinema may also go down as one of his most entertaining. "Side Effects" is lead by two very strong, confident performances from both Rooney Mara and Jude Law. This film is smart, sexy, and it takes you down a path that is consistently surprising. Using the pharmaceutical industry as the backdrop for a psychosexual thriller, "Side Effects" is the type of genre film that knows how to have fun with itself and lets you in on the fun as well.

14. The Place Beyond The Pines (Dir. Derek Cianfrance)

Perhaps "The Place Beyond The Pines" would not be on this list if it did not strike such a personal chord with me. Derek Cianfrance's much-anticipated follow-up to "Blue Valentine" is a long, straight-forward tale about fathers-and-sons and how the actions we make in the present can haunt us and forever shape our future. Some may call bullshit on such a premise, but I honestly feel that I know these characters. I understand this pain. This wasn't a film that necessarily appealed to me on an intellectual or emotional standpoint, it mostly hit me where it hurts the most: my soul.

13. Blue Jasmine (Dir. Woody Allen)

Woody Allen's best film in years may just contain one of his more heartbreaking and thought-provoking endings. Jasmine has been kicked out of her sister's apartment, her husband's in jail, her son won't talk to her, and her latest lover no longer wants anything to do with her. She has wound up all alone. She's a sad, miserable woman. She may have gotten what she deserved, but I still managed to feel sympathy for her. Cate Blanchett gives an outstanding performance.

12. Prisoners (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

We have a tendency to dismiss genre films once it gets to be the end of the year, but when a great thriller comes along, it deserves to be cherished. This is a film that still haunts me. These characters, lead by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, never give up the entire time they search for these missing young girls. Gyllenhaal's character gets put through the ultimate test in his young career as a police detective, while Jackman's goes through a moral transformation that he will never come back from. I initially thought the way the film ends was a little bit too obvious, but now that the film has made its way to home video, more people are asking "what is up with the ending of that movie?" Seriously guys? Did you forget what the title of the movie is? It makes me laugh when people don't realize that their reaction to such an ending is a good thing. You were engrossed in the film! It made you feel something, for God's sake. "Prisoners" is not a ride I will be as willing to take the second time around, but only because the first viewing was that powerful.

11. Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

The understatedness of "Frances Ha" is exactly why it appeals to me so much. This sharp, black-and-white, witty little comedy starring Greta Gerwig reminds you that independent cinema has the unique ability to charm and entertain you in ways that mainstream Hollywood just can't. "Frances Ha" feels so off-the-cuff, so alive, so energetic and fresh and yet it's shot in a very formal, classical style. Baumbach's camera (and perhaps, Baumbach himself) loves Greta Gerwig and, by the end of the film, you start to love her too.

10. Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth)

Maddening, twisted, unconventional, incomprehensible---and yet "Upstream Color" is the perfect example of just how powerful cinema can be when it's primarily focused on visuals. I am still struck by how the last half hour of the film features almost no dialogue whatsoever. The film forces us to put the pieces together from a purely visual standpoint. It forces us to watch the film the way we were supposed to watch movies in the first place: with our eyes and our brain, not our ears.

Shane Carruth first broke out with his 2004 film "Primer," but while "Upstream Color" also has a high degree of intellect in its concept, it's the love story between its two leads that makes the science-fiction elements more interesting. The way these two people are intrinsically connected to each other and yet they can't understand why---it's fascinating. This is a mind-bending jigsaw puzzle of a film that will always reveal something different about itself each time you watch it.

9. Fruitvale Station (Dir. Ryan Coogler)

Like a few other films that are on this list, Ryan Coogler dares you to go on this straight-forward journey despite you knowing exactly what the end result will be. Michael B. Jordan delivers an outstanding performance, humanizing Oscar Grant and helping us to understand who he was. He was far from perfect, but he was a man on the cusp of making positive changes in his life. "Fruitvale Station" celebrates a man's life (and the vitality of life in general) just as much as it wonders what could have been.

8.  American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell)

The next three movies are so ridiculously close together, they might as well be tied. David O. Russell's film is seductive. There may not seem to be much there beyond the surface when you really get down to it, but this is such a fun film to watch that it hardly seems to matter. Unlike another film on this list, "American Hustle" sees the good in its con-artists. Russell has a very romanticized vision of this world, not because he thinks con-artists are good people, he just wants to understand them as people. That's what we get here. "Hustle" is always funny, it's remarkably crafted, and as a piece of entertainment, it's impeccable.

7. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)

Spike Jonze's "Her" is not about what's there, it's about what's not there. It's about a marriage we only see in flashbacks, and a woman we can only listen to. Joaquin Phoenix manages to give Theodore Twombly enough layers so that he doesn't simply seem like a sad-sack. He's a broken soul, lost in an overly-digitized world. He suddenly finds himself connecting with someone in ways he's never experience before, but in the end, what he really needs is a connection that is palpable. Externally and internally. "Her" is one of the sweetest, most unashamedly emotional films of the year. I marvel at its simplicity.

6. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

"Blue is the Warmest Color" is another film that's not particularly ground-breaking in its subject matter, but the director portrays Adele's life with so much detail and nuance that the story manages to feel fresh. We get so caught up in her life from her struggles with her sexual identity to her torrid, passionate love affair with Emma, a woman who will forever change her life. At 179 minutes, we really do grow up with Adele, and when it's over, we can't help but wonder what kind of woman she will eventually become. I did not embrace this film right away because of my own prudish-ness, but "Blue is the Warmest Color" might be one of the best, most wholly-satisfying and realistic romance films I've ever seen...even if the sex scenes are slightly over-the-top.

5. The World's End (Dir. Edgar Wright)

As great as 2013 has been, this has been an incredibly weak year for comedy. "This is the End" narrowly missed the list and I just saw "Anchorman 2" which made me chuckle a few times (a review for that one will be coming soon). The team of Wright-Pegg-Frost is so solid that we almost take them for granted, but that will not happen in a year like this. Edgar Wright completes the Cornetto Trilogy with, perhaps, his most personal and mature film yet. "The World's End" includes a fantastic performance from Simon Pegg who plays Gary King, a sad, lonely individual so desperate to relive his glory days, he does not care who he has to screw over in order to accomplish this goal. But "The World's End" is not just about Gary King, it's about his friends too. King never points a gun to their head, and yet they still agree to the pub crawl anyway. Is it because they feel bad for Gary? Or is it because their own lives has lost a degree of luster as well?

 Ingeniously incorporating a Body Snatchers-esque plot that works on so many levels, "The World's End" is so hilarious that you may not even realize just how poignant it is. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Edgar Wright is the most talented filmmaker of his generation. He makes it all look so easy, and yet he keeps topping himself.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen)

As much as I greatly admired his first two films, I still was a bit apprehensive about Steve McQueen making this film. The trailer made things look a little too conventional, but watching the film, you realize that's what makes the film so powerful. McQueen tells this story in the most straight-forward and conventional manner possible, but by doing that, he subjects us to some of the harshest, most violent sequences that you will see all year. In order for us to truly understand the horrors of what Solomon Northup goes through, we cannot treat the torture and abuse lightly. McQueen never sentimentalizes, but he's still manages to be responsible for the most heart-breaking ending of the year

3. Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

Again, it's just a testament of how strong this year is, that the most technologically groundbreaking film of the year has been relegated to the #3 spot. Still, don't let its placement fool you. "Gravity" is the best theatrical experience that I've had all year, I just find the top 2 to be a tad more challenging and resonant. "Gravity" is a pure rollercoaster of a film with such incredible camerawork that left me in awe. You can't even fathom just how much work was put into this film, not just from the filmmakers, but Sandra Bullock as well. She responds to the challenge of this role by turning in the greatest performance of his career. I truly felt her terror. The filmmakers gave us just enough to make her a nuanced character but it stays primarily focused on the action at hand. This is a film that never lets you turn away, it never gives you an easy way out, it keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. "Gravity" is simply superb cinema.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. The Coen Brothers)

My initial thought, after I finished watching "Inside Llewyn Davis" for the first time, was that Llewyn was at the right place at the wrong time. He was a struggling folk musician at a time when that scene was just about to explode. After giving it some more thought, however, I don't think Llewyn Davis was ever meant to break it big. Llewyn represents every aspiring musician. He's the one who doesn't make it. He might be a great singer-songwriter, but his stubbornness and inability to have foresight is what cost him in the end. What Llewyn leaves behind at the end of the film are all these paths he could've taken, but somehow he managed to irrevocably screw it all up. He keeps making the same mistakes over and over, which is signified by the palindromic nature of the film. The film begins and ends almost the same exact way with the long, winding road trip being the centerpiece of it all. I initially thought the road trip ran on a little too long, but now I understand just how thematically powerful those scenes were. Llewyn is like the cat he picked up in Greenwich Village. He's lost. He's a stray cat. Yet his story feels so damn universal. Anybody who has ever had big aspirations for their life should be able to relate to this film. There are so many biopics about famous people, the ones who've made it. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is about the one who didn't make it. And thanks to the excellent craftsmanship of the Coen Bros, it's unlikely I'll ever forget about Llewyn's story.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

"The Wolf of Wall Street" just might be one of the greatest satires of our time. You want to know how I know that? Because it seems to gone over the heads of over half of America. After years of making wonderful, albeit rather safe/"crowdpleasing" cinema, Scorsese has come out in full force this time around. "Wolf" completes his historical crime epic trilogy, started by "Goodfellas" and "Casino," and he ends the trilogy in typically controversial fashion. What most people aren't getting is that the world that's being exposed here does not have the same sort of consequences as the worlds of "Goodfellas" and "Casino." These are the guys who do get away with it and it happens all the time. What happens when they get caught? They wind up teaching their methods at seminars across the world! Is that not a kick right in your ass? These are truly awful individuals.

Jordan Belfort does not care about you and he repeatedly makes that clear throughout his narration. This is a movie that  should make your blood boil. It should make you angry. But it also dares you to laugh and have a good time as well. That's the genius of Scorsese. He shows you a world that looks intoxicating and alluring, but from the beginning, he warns you that these are terrible people doing awful things. They begin the film throwing a midget at a bullseye for crying out loud. Do you really think the movie is advocating midget tossing?

This film kicked my ass. It sent a jolt right through my system. It's electrifying, it's mesmerizing, it's the closest I'll ever feel to being hopped up on cocaine, or quaaludes, or crack. Scorsese has mastered this type of filmmaking a long time ago, but it's still a pleasure to see him in "beast mode" yet again. Honestly, it's been a pleasure to live in the same era as Martin Scorsese, and here, he has made his most daring film since "The Last Temptation of Christ." As Richard Brody noted in the New Yorker, that final shot in "Wolf" is like him putting a mirror on us. Look at all the shit Jordan Belfort and his friends were able to do and he's still alive to tell you about it. He feels no remorse. He feels no pain. His only regret is that he was careless enough to lose his job. What are you going to do about this? All you can do is sit and watch. Sure, you can get up and walk away, but it does not change the fact that it happened. You can't shield yourself from this bitter truth forever. If this film makes you angry, then do something about it. Personally, I am too much in awe of this film to do anything right now. Worst of all, I'm thinking about seeing the film again before the year ends.

Dicaprio is the best he's ever been, Jonah Hill is the best he's ever been, and Martin Scorsese brings so much energy to this film, you'd think it was made by a 28-year-old. I watch so many movies per year. To find a new movie that can still make my jaw drop like this is really something to appreciate. So, thank you Mr. Scorsese.

No comments: