Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Top 10 Films of 2013

All told, 2013 was a pretty spectacular year for film. For me, I managed to see a personal-best 55 new releases this year (not a major number, but considering the small market I lived in and limited funds, pretty impressive). Figuring out the ten best was not an easy task, either: I knew what my #1 would be, but filling out spaces 2-10 proved tougher than I imagined.

So without further ado, here are my ten best films of 2013. Clicking the titles will take you to the original review.

10. Gravity

There was actually a three-way tie for this spot, as Gravity, Frances Ha, and Fill the Void all earned the same score. They're thematically similar as well: each film concerns a woman struggling with a situation beyond her control. When it came down to making this list, though, the one I couldn't shake was the one with the highest stakes. Expectations were sky-high for director Alfonso Cuaron's long-awaited new film, and many of those expectations were unrealistic (mine included). But judge Gravity not on what it could have been, but what it actually was, and that's a thrilling action film with its star, a terrific Sandra Bullock, alone for the majority of its running time. For the most part, the film belongs to the visual effects team and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, who together present a stunningly gorgeous and terrifyingly empty depiction of space. But credit, too, belongs to Bullock, who takes the few beats she's provided for her character and finds the panic and panache in them. The film may not live up to all of its (or our) ambitions, but Gravity is nonetheless an awe-inspiring piece of cinema from a filmmaker who isn't afraid to dream big.

9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The first installment of this franchise made my top ten list last year, and this sequel was included on my most-anticipated list for this year. All of that is to say that, despite understanding that the Catching Fire book was the weakest of the three, and the fact that many sequels just don't live up to the first one, the Catching Fire film was a rousing success. And the film owes much of that success to being willing to be significantly different from its predecessor. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer) injects fresh vision into the proceedings, playing up this world's cracked-mirror version of our own reality-television and publicity-campaign society. And Jennifer Lawrence, returning to the role of Katniss, finds new depths within the character, making her one of the most interesting franchise protagonists of the blockbuster era. The film knows how to bring the razzle-dazzle, too, from the brilliantly elaborate costumes of the Capital to the expertly-choreographed action sequences once the Games begin. On its own, Catching Fire was a terrific film; as part of the franchise, it gives plenty of reason to expect great things from the Mockingjay films.

More after the break.

8. Frozen

For years, Walt Disney Animation has languished in the shadow of the studio's partnership with Pixar. However, in recent years, the latter's output has been mostly sequel-laden, while the former is turning in truly great work. The most recent - and best - example of this is Frozen. A return to princesses and musicals, the film is, on its surface, bright and peppy, much like Anna (voiced by Kristin Bell), the younger sister of Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), and features some of Disney's most beautiful CG animation to date. Beneath the surface, though, is an honest depiction of siblings that have drifted apart and need each other more than ever. To top things off is a terrific set of songs and score, with lyrics by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and music by Robert Lopez and Christophe Beck. After seeing it, just try to get "Let It Go" out of your head. Plus, it's refreshing to see a film - especially one in the Disney Princess canon - featuring two complex female leads whose conflict is not about a man. Frozen is, without a doubt, Disney's best film in years, and the best animated film of the year.

7. Captain Phillips

It's easy to imagine the film that Captain Phillips could have been: white American terrorized by evil Africans, the Navy comes in and saves the day, U-S-A! U-S-A!, fade to black. Thankfully, that's not the film that director Paul Greengrass made (and never intended to). Based on a true story, freight ship Maersk Alabama is boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is held captive in the lifeboat until rescue comes. This is, first and foremost, an action movie, and the film sizzles with almost-unbearable tension as the pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), realize how in-over-their-heads they are. Of course, credit must be given to Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray, who imbue the narrative with a thoughtful examination of the conditions and developed-world/developing-world contrasts that brought these men to this point. But what elevates Captain Phillips to one of the year's best films are the powerhouse performances from Hanks and Abdi. Hanks is, as always, brilliant - his scene just after being rescued may be the single greatest performance of his career - but the real revelation is Abdi, a first-timer who doesn't just hold his own against Hanks but also mesmerizes the screen, nearly stealing scenes from his co-star. All of this made the film one of the year's best.

6. Much Ado About Nothing

After the arduous shoot of last year's blockbuster to end all blockbusters, The Avengers, director Joss Whedon returned to his California home, gathered a group of actors who had appeared in previous projects of his, and quickly shot a new, modern adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The result is a fast, loose, and fun adaptation, transporting Shakespeare's original text to the present day while injecting its delivery with the snappiness one expects from a Whedon film. It certainly helps that all of the players, from Alexis Denisof to Amy Acker to Clark Gregg to Nathan Fillion and Fran Kranz, delightfully sink their teeth into this text, letting the meter sing while contorting each phrase to sound natural to modern ears. I wrote in my original review that Much Ado was one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies, and that I was practically destined to love this movie. It turned out to be even better.

5. Prisoners

A great mystery is always its own reward, even if it's never perfectly tied up. Prisoners is an excellent example of this: a pulpy potboiler about the kidnapping of two girls, the detective put in charge of finding them (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the unstable father (Hugh Jackman) who decides to take matters into his own hands. While the plot features plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings, what makes these developments palpable are the ways that they're rooted in character decisions. It makes sense that mild-mannered Franklin (Terrence Howard) would be coerced into being complicit in Keller's (Jackman) torture of a suspect (Paul Dano). A lot of the film's power belongs to its cast, particularly Gyllenhaal's quiet work as Detective Loki and Jackman's cranked-to-eleven intensity, but Denis Velleneuve's contemplative direction and Roger Deakins' evocative cinematography give the film a visual sheen as well. Then there's that perfect, take-your-breath away ending. Prisoners is a film that rewards multiple viewings, as any great mystery does.

4. Blue is the Warmest Color

In selling Blue is the Warmest Color to American audiences, the hype played it up as "the three-hour French lesbian sex epic." The truth is, this is a coming-of-age story, one that's at times painfully naked, both physically and especially emotionally. Adele Exarchopolous delivers the performance of a lifetime as Adele, the naive and confused girl whose relationship with artist Emma (Lea Seydoux) opens up worlds for her. Seydoux, too, is remarkable, perfectly aloof yet never too distant or unapproachable. Though director Abdellatif Kechiche has been accused of misbehavior on the set and of relying far too often on the male gaze in his direction (a very valid accusation), he never frames either of these characters as perfect people or, worse, merely an idea. They're flawed, and their relationship is messy, sometimes awkward, but never feels unrealistic. The growing pains of entering adulthood are raw in Blue is the Warmest Color, but they're also beautifully relatable.

3. 12 Years a Slave

The history of American films that deal seriously and directly with slavery is sparse, to say the least. And 12 Years a Slave, hailing from British artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, is technically not one of those films. However, it is one of the most somber approaches to the subject, exploring the 12 years that New York freeman Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spent enslaved in the American South. The film makes the argument that this subject needs an outsider's perspective, as McQueen's camera doesn't shy away from the brutality Northrup and the others around him suffered, most memorably in an agonizingly long sequence in which Northrup's toes scrape the ground as he hangs from a noose, barely keeping himself alive. The cast is uniformly terrific, from Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as a particularly sadistic couple to Lupita Nyong'o's tragically abused slave. But the film belongs to Ejiofor - who's long deserved a major breakout - as he plays Northrup with stoic tenacity. 12 Years a Slave is powerful cinema, and a necessary examination of one of history's greatest tragedies.

2. All is Lost

All is Lost is essentially pure cinema. The basic tenants of narrative storytelling - plot, character development, dialogue - are nearly absent here. What there is is a man (Robert Redford), alone at sea, with a hole in his boat and a perilous situation. The dialogue is sparse, but when "Our Man" speaks it matters. Redford, a consummate Hollywood star, holds the camera sheerly through his presence, and his performance here is magnificent. Director J.C. Chandor, whose only previous feature was the talky Margin Call, proves his capabilities as a filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future, crafting a truly visual narrative that may also be a parable for connection with the world. In short, All is Lost is an experimental, visceral film that's not viewed so much as experienced.

1. Before Midnight

There was never any question in my mind that Before Midnight would end up being my favorite film of the year. The true beauty of Richard Linklater's latest, and improbable, reunion with Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine is how well it works both as a stand-alone movie and as the latest iteration in an even-more-improbable franchise. By itself, it's a talky, introspective glimpse into the relationship of two people who have been together for some time, using a Greek vacation to get away from the distractions of their everyday life. But when taken in the context of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), when you know and understand the history behind this relationship, it just hits that much harder. The film is beautifully written, as always; Xenia Kalogeropoulou's early monologue about her fading memory is quietly devastating. Then there's the scene: the 20-plus-minute, knock-down, drag-out, heartbreaker of a fight that Jesse and Celine have in a hotel room. To fans of the previous films, it's like watching your parents fight: "these two are supposed to be together, how can they fight like this?" This fight, though, is the fight that people who truly love each other have: clearing the air, getting out their frustrations, knowing exactly how to get under each other's skin and push each other to the breaking point, saying stupid things that they instantly regret, but never going so far as to end the relationship. It's born of passion, but love preserves the bond. This made Before Midnight unlike anything else in theaters this year. To paraphrase an older Coen Brothers short, there's a helluva lot of truth in this film. Helluva lot of truth.

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