Dec 31, 2013

Listmania: The Top 25 Favorite Movies of 2013

Christian Bale in American Hustle
We did it! We made it to the end of 2013 and this year's Listmania in one piece. Now is the moment that I enjoy most about every year: compiling a list of the best films of the year. I will admit that for some reason, due to some other commitments interfering, it was hard to see everything I wanted this year, specifically foreign films (Like Someone in Love, The Past), documentaries (The Act of Killing) and smaller films (Her, Short Term 12). It is likely that in three months, this Top 25 will be unrecognizable. However, for the moment in time, these are the films that I saw in 2013 that I feel have something to say about our modern take of cinema. Some of it makes you think while others put you on edge. It may have not been as diverse as say 2012, but it did produce an intriguing mix of films preaching capitalism and the inevitable harsh times we live in. The following took some serious work to compile in an order resembling my personal thoughts, but the final product is something that I stand by. Hope that you enjoy.

Left to right: Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Carey Mulligan
1. Inside Llewyn Davis

It has been three years since Joel and Ethan Coen released a film (True Grit), and they did not disappoint with this year's folk singer with a cat story. The results are fully realized images of brilliance mixing the melancholy with the comedic and adding a touch of authenticity with a brilliant soundtrack supervised by T. Bone Burnett. The film hits all of the right beats and features a lot of the familiar troupe singing great covers of folk songs and exploring what exactly it means to be a performer. There's a lot of rejection and insincerity regarding ethics. However, it is mostly the only way for some to live. This tale may have a lot of failed moments, but it is essentially an honest love letter to one of the hardest professions out there.

Left to right: Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska
2. Stoker

Is it the best horror film of the year? The best coming of age story? The best soapy drama? Stoker is all of these things and more. Park Chan Wook's English debut is a nice reminder of what cinema can be when mashing genres together with a frenzy of disturbing images, fast camera movements, and the best transition shots in probably the past decade. It is definitive cinema at its best and from it's poetic opening monologue to the closing reveals that alter your perception, Stoker is a film that gets better with time. The more that you think about it and let it consume you, the more the twisted, dark brilliance will become clear and the more brilliant the nuanced, fully realized Mia Wasikowska performance will seem like the most realized performance she has given.

George Clooney
3. Gravity

It will be impossible for future viewers of Gravity to fully understand the appeal of seeing it on the biggest, loudest screen possible. Whether this is because of its accessibility on media platforms or every film to follow will imitate it, that should be seen as a compliment. Alfonso Cuaron's space journey is a brisk 90 minutes that show off his skills as a director with extended long shots and trick photography that makes each additional viewing more rewarding. What Cuaron has created is a ballet of movement and a powerful story of consequence and survival that reinvigorates the potential of films in space. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next move and getting the adrenaline pumping. It is a film so well crafted that all of its tricks will never be made clear to any cinephile out there. 

Greta Gerwig
4. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's tale of growing up and discovering yourself may be the most poignant, humorous look at being in your 20's this year. The indecision that makes France (Gerwig) and her wanderlust life makes for plenty of awkward moments that recall the best of the modern indie film scene and the French New Wave scene of the 60's. What is created is a work full of character and life with a performance that is demanding for attention. She may be a klutz, but she is also adorable, funny, and vulnerable. Frances Ha is one of those rare, brilliant movies that manages to blend styles while making something all its own and making the core all the stronger for it. 

Left to right: Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor
5. 12 Years a Slave

Easily the most relevant film of 2013 and the most accessible work that director Steve McQueen will likely make. This painfully detailed story based off of Solomon Northup's memoirs brings forth the discussion of slavery in ways that Django Unchained almost seemed to mock. The film is full of haunting, unforgettable imagery of humanity's evils that transcend violence and move into a strong, artistic statement. The film has almost seemed to become the definitive slavery movie, which is up for debate. However, the fact that it has raised conversation about America's troubled past means that the film was a success. It will go down as one of the most powerful historical dramas of the decade, if not in history. Its relevance will transcend the rest of this list in the pantheon of time, which may be its ultimate success.

Left to right: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
6. Before Midnight

The strangest success story is how a trilogy of films about two people talking with each film set nine years apart ended up becoming one of the ultimate depictions of love. On paper, it makes no sense, but one needs to just watch 15 minutes of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke talking to understand the chemistry and romance that these two characters share. In presumably the climax of the story, the romance has aged and there's a sense of maturity to their discussion as they discuss their problems with body images and marital affairs. It is a striking, funny, and sad tale that is all too true and when watched with the other two, makes for one of the most endearing commentaries on the progression of love likely to ever be committed to film.

Left to right: Bruce Dern and Will Forte
7. Nebraska

Finally. A film about the elderly and looking back that doesn't feel like it was done to humor them. Alexander Payne's story of senile Woody (Bruce Dern) going on a road trip to win a million dollars turns into a geriatric The Last Picture Show in all of the right ways. It is a story of family and how money influences perception. Packed with humor and a brilliant performance by Bruce Dern, this is a film that may be simple minded, but is essentially a love letter to those that time, or themselves, forgot and deserve a little more respect than they receive. It may not be as wonderful as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but the goals of Nebraska aren't that lofty. All Woody wants is to be a hero in his son's (Will Forte) eyes. By the end, he may not be rich, but his ending is more uplifting than any price tag could possibly be.

Left to right: Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley
8. The Spectacular Now

James Ponsoldt's second feature could easily be seen as Smashed with a young adult premise, but the results are far sweeter than that. With alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) falling in love with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), the two become one of the best high school couples in recent film history filled with awkward laughing and all of those small moments that most films cut around. What the film strives for is not to demean alcoholism, but explore how young love could really work. Ponsoldt has proven himself to be a director with promising potential with captivating performances that feel raw and some of the best supporting players of the year. It is a sweet story that will make you laugh along with the tenderness on screen. It will make you feel nostalgic and most of all understand the power of what coming of age films could be when done right.

Left to right: Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga
9. The Bling Ring

Probably the scariest film to tackle American greed is the tale of teenagers robbing the rich to give to their Facebook wall. They are idiots, clueless to their crimes, which makes their story all the more compelling. Sofia Coppola's latest film may be divisive, but it packs a punch in capturing the problematic future of America's youth who are more obsessed with image and materialism than productivity. As the Sleigh Bells song "Crown on the Ground" opens the film, it almost serves as an alarm going off, warning you of the hoodlums from Calabasas and their inevitable, desperate quest for popularity, even if it means gaining notoriety for people who were already famous for notoriety. The Bling Ring serves to be the more sophisticated, West coast cousin of Spring Breakers with better taste in music and more disturbing access to the internet. Be warned, America. The Bling Ring is happening in your backyard and your child may be the next victim.

Cate Blanchett
10. Blue Jasmine

Continuing a rather bizarre, mature latter years for Woody Allen is his first west coast film that almost seems to invigorate him with life. With one of his most enviably perfect casts, he leads Cate Blanchett into a mental breakdown that leads to some of his best monologues in years. It is a film that made Andrew Dice Clay seem like a reasonable actor and turned Bobby Canavale into a scary, aggressive boyfriend likely to be ignored at awards season. This film is packed with memorable, great moments that rank among the best of Allen's work. Even if San Francisco doesn't feel like a real place in the story, it seems to breathe life into the cast that also includes great performances by Sally Hawkins, Louis C.K., and Michael Stuhlbarg. Even when the film is hit and miss, it does it so poetically that it doesn't matter. Allen is an expert on characters, and these may be his best in quite some time.

Left to right: Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Selena Gomez
11. Spring Breakers

It will be strange to talk to future generations about what is essentially the hangover, drug fueled phenomenon that pissed off teenagers and mixed nudity and dub step with art house filming techniques. It is a film that defies logic to narrative and instead provides director Harmony Korine having a story that flows through time in bright colors and repetitive dialogue. It is hypnotic and features the best use of Britney Spears in quite some time. It may be sexy, uncomfortable, and feature a brilliant turn by James Franco, but Spring Breakers succeeds by making no sense and leaving open ended decisions on what it all really means. It is the film equivalence of an Andy Kaufman prank gone too far in a sadistic, bizarre way.

Jennifer Lawrence
12. American Hustle

David O. Russell comes back to cinema by combining the leads of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook into a brilliantly comic look at con artists and the problems with the self-image. The film looks authentically 70's and the costumes are so flashy that it could easily be mistaken for being nothing but surface level. Much like Christian Bale's hair, you don't actually want to see beyond the surface level because it is dark and sad. However, it does leave plenty of solid performances and stylistic language that exudes so much confidence, the film itself works as conning itself into being an enjoyable time. 

Michael B. Jordan
13. Fruitvale Station

In terms of breakout roles, none feel quite as successful as that of Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station. It was a small film about a man with quite a complicated personality. Even if the film takes place over a single day, Jordan brings to life the exploits of Oscar Grant as he deals with family, strangers, and his past. It is a performance rich with memorable moments and charisma that makes the somewhat problematic third act feel more sad than distracting. It is a great character study that even if it doesn't quite give weight to the events that the story is based around, it makes the central character feel more sympathetic and it is sad to part with him over the closing credits. Here's hoping that director Ryan Coogler continues to make compelling character pieces that push our understanding of the common man and breathe new life into them.

Left to right: Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum
14. Side Effects

Rumored to be director Steven Soderbergh's theatrical farewell (Behind the Candelabra does not count, as it was released on HBO in the United States), it is quite a fitting way to go. The film is itself a puzzle that chooses to take on the prescription pill society and who is to be blamed: the supplier or the consumer? Rooney Mara continues to be a captivating actress who plays nuanced/borderline insanity very well to Jude Law's paranoid medical expert. Recalling the best elements of Alfred Hitchcock, this thriller packs all the twists and turns while keeping it all heady. By the end, it is hard to say goodbye to an auteur of cinema, but at least he ended with one of his tightest, most engaging stories that continued to push boundaries and leave everyone questioning everything.

Ryan Gosling
15. The Place Beyond the Pines

It is tough for director Derek Cianfrance to follow-up the masterpiece that was Blue Valentine and expect to have an absolute hit again. However, where he fails is not in ambition or cinematography. This hefty epic that looks at consequences through the roles of fathers and sons has a lot of powerful, moving moments that show a confident director continuing to make thought provoking art. Due to its triptych structure, there are some problematic elements, depending on which actor you like better. However, as a whole, it continues to show Cianfrance as an artist with something important to say. It may not always translate, but with charismatic performers and a tightly written story, it works well enough to be successful.

Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill
16. The Wolf of Wall Street

This is the closest that director Martin Scorsese has directed an exploitation flick. Full of sex, drugs, and violence, this tale feels like the more aggressive version of The Great Gatsby with higher damage count and Leonardo DiCaprio being even more snarky and awful. It is an epic unlike anything he has done and while a lot of it is detestable, it packs so many punches that the dialogue alone will leave you dizzy. Even if it is problematic as an epic, it has so much going for it, notably DiCaprio and one of the best moments of physical comedy bits in years. It may be a very lax cautionary tale more obsessed with numbing you with hookers and blow while cash rains from the sky, but it is one you're likely not to forget real soon. It is stylish and sleazy and a little high on discomfort. It isn't perfect, but it is more-so than the characters it portrays.

Left to right: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Martin Freeman
17. The World's End

If there is one trouble with The World's End, it is that it has to live up to the expectations of being part of a trilogy conceived during the second film's junket tour. In that sense, it almost feels forced to be scrupulously examined. As a whole, that isn't a problem, as director Edgar Wright knows how to construct running gags, thrilling action set pieces, and a whole lot of pub humor. It may be a stretch to call this successful as a comedy or as the intervention drama that is hidden within it. However, the ambitions never can be too high and the sci-fi mixture is beyond brilliant as a group of friends visit their old watering hole only to find that aliens have taken over it. It is strange, crazy, and possibly lacking, but as a sci-fi film, it may be one of the strongest released this year.

Left to right: Ellen Page and Brit Marling
18. The East

Where majority of the films this year that people praised were about becoming rich, The East was about taking them down. The story follows Brit Marling as she infiltrates anarchy terrorist group who work as a cult to take down the economic landscape and restore the Earth's purity. It is a little unsettling and strange, but as the story unveils new mysteries, things become more perverse and strange. It is a rather effective thriller that pushes boundaries and questions which side is really worse in this great debate. In a sense, we are all bad and there is a need for change. Maybe it could be solved in better ways than those by the East, but at least they win weirdest depiction of a cult this year that are fighting for something beyond materialism. A nice change of pace from most other films out there.

Left to right: Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg,
and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
19. Pain & Gain

It is strange that Michael Bay could ever be self aware enough to make a movie that combines the vapidness of The Bling Ring with the excessive waste of The Wolf of Wall Street to make a satire of the American Dream, but he has done that. In a film surprisingly hilarious, he creates a landscape full of characters imagining their lives in Michael Bay films and instead failing miserably in disturbing ways. Along with warped views of goals, including how being unfit is unpatriotic, this satire is an unexpectedly effective look at masculinity and why that isn't always the best move. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson steals the show with his physical prowess and only adds weight to the story's already homophobic, sexist views. It may have a lot of repulsive elements, but with a bunch of dumb characters, Michael Bay has unexpected created a great black comedy that challenges his style in fresh ways and says so much about how backfiring motivational slogans can really be.

Left to right: Rob Corddry and Nicholas Hoult
20. Warm Bodies

It is impossible for me to get behind the craze that is the zombie movie realm. However, what 50/50 director Jonathan Levine has done is something beyond clever. He has made a zombie romantic comedy that is full of witty dissections of the genre and plenty of sincerity. The plot itself may feel like Romeo & Juliet skewed heavily, but the relationship between dead R (Nicholas Hoult) and Julie (Teresa Palmer) is unexpected brilliance. It is full of wit and charm and manages to create a beautifully strange story of overlooking each other's differences. The film is at very least, one of the funnest, most creative horror films to come out this year and even if it isn't all that scary, it at least does something ambitious with an already limp genre and makes an enjoyable, overlooked film.

Left to right: DiCaprio and Mulligan
21. The Great Gatsby

Easily the most underrated film of 2013. This adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel was as lush and lively as the story called for. Director Baz Luhrmann goes above and beyond by making the shiniest set pieces and the most gorgeous wardrobe to hit the screen this year. While it is arguably all that the film has to most viewers, it could be part of the mystique. The story of a man living in the past by hiding in wealth works tonally well in this tale and arguably the more dense Gatsby (DiCaprio) is, the more successful he is. Even if the film takes some liberties with the narrative structure, the film is essentially a great adaptation that looks as amazing as Fitzgerald's words and can easily be framed. It is a gorgeous film with an awesome song by Lana Del Rey ("Young and Beautiful") that analyzes the fleeting appeal of youth and why it is impossible to capture it for long.

Left to right: Alice Lowe and Kenneth Hadley
 22. Sightseers

By the end of Sightseers, the correct reaction is simple: what did I just see? This British dark comedy/horror film is quite a surreal experience by how nuanced in execution it is. A couple goes on a road trip in an RV and death follows them, presumably by Tina (Alice Lowe). The story is unnerving fun and features a rather inspired book-ending by different covers of "Tained Love." It is a simple film with plenty of surprise moments that make it a delight to watch. It is also rather unique and is best enjoyed with as little as possible known going in.

Sarah Polley
23. Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley continues to be one of the more ambitious, artistic directors currently out there. Following up the intriguing Take This Waltz, she turns the camera on her own family in a documentary that chooses to explore the form of story telling. The results present varying views on a mother who was rather promiscuous and lead to discovering relatives that they didn't know that they had. It is a brilliant example of how stories are passed down and influence perception of lives. The story itself may feel too personal to be interesting, but there's plenty to chew on in this documentary, which deconstructs the genre and finds new life in strange places.

Left to right: Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, and Lawrence
24. Catching Fire

Confession: I actually do feel like of all franchises currently out there that the Hunger Games may be the best one to support. Maybe the films have their own issues, but their messages and commentary on modern culture are staggeringly interesting. In a way that feels like an improvement over the last one, this story follows life after victory and sets the blocks for a rebellion. It is as much an indictment on reality TV and fake celebrity as it is about the titular games. With Jennifer Lawrence continuing to be a captivating force, this story may be a little redundant, but nonetheless packs a lot of relevance to the modern era by choosing to question what our morals are and what we should be watching on TV. The only question now is if the final chapters can make the story resonate in more powerful ways.

Left to right: Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, and Nick Robinson
25. The Kings of Summer

The film itself feels like a gimmicky premise meant to appeal to the boys who want nothing more than to go into the woods and be men. It is all of that, but loses the gimmicky nature and replaces it with poignancy and a tale of maturity filled with humor and those awkward moments with parents that define your childhood. It is a strange, quirky little film that is so stylized and fun that the company of its three main characters is enough for most of the film to last. Even if it isn't the best coming of age story this year, it definitely is one of the funnest and is so full of life that its take on becoming men may being one of the most sweetly naive and relative tales out there.

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