Jan 9, 2014

Tom’s Top 10 Favorite Films of 2013

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
When I look back at 2013, I see a year that didn’t quite compare to the cinematic heights of 2012. There was no The Master or Holy Motors to leave the viewer mesmerized in discussion. There wasn’t much necessity to go to the theaters as much. While there is plenty to celebrate in the year, summer blockbusters felt garish and the prestige films that make the Fall film season so wonderful felt reserved to the end of November and December. On top of my list reflecting instinct that quality peaked pre-July, it was just a year with a lack of top-notch variety.
I am kind of embarrassed that my list reflects a lack of diversity. It could largely be that it was a busy year for me outside of watching movies and there’s plenty that I missed. As it stands, my exposure to documentaries and foreign films from this year is sadly low and I have missed heavyweights like The Act of Killing and The Past. From what I did see, I definitely left with some new favorites, though a potentially redundant Top 10.
As A.O. Scott pointed out in his Top 10 list, there was a running theme in 2013 of the American Dream by way of greed. Despite covering various social classes and regional areas (though mostly east coast), it almost seems redundant to have more than one among my favorites. It is tricky to consider this list as a whole when so many of these films reflected auteurs with important messages. To an extent, the impressive amount of successful films addressing Civil Rights (The Butler, Fruitvale Station) seemed modest by comparison despite showing a progressive and much welcomed approach to cinema.
However, what this list inevitably came down to was not a “Best of.” I have yet to see all of the great films and I feel like this list will change over time. However, I am choosing to explore and explain why these films stand out as my favorites through my personal experiences with them.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

It is hard for me to hate a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, whom I feel are representative of modern Americana. Their absurd visions of this country are filled with cinematic beauty, bad hair, and kitsch. Their films get better with time, and their tale of a folk singer with a cat is likely to join those ranks quickly. The soundtrack alone crackles with life and makes their love letter to performers so authentic that it could be one of their best, thanks largely to a dynamic performance by Oscar Isaac and a cat named Ulysses. Further, it reflects two directors at the top of their game still having fun with the potential of how narratives can operate.

2. Stoker

This is essentially filmmaking at its most lively and exciting. Park Chan-Wook jumps to the English language realm and jabs it with adrenaline. No other film this year feels as striking as any moment between the perfect opening monologue to the haunting Emily Wells song “Becomes the Color” that finishes the film. It may blend horror, camp, and mystery to a point that none are distinguishable, but the results defy. This is a film that serves as an art piece with some of the best transition shots, most creative uses of sound and liveliest camera movement being used to tell an unsettling story of the Stoker family and some dark secrets. It is cryptic fun and with the brilliant Clint Mansell score, this may be as close to perfection as cinema has gotten in 2013.

3. Gravity

I saw this film on opening day and sure enough, I wasn’t ready for the ride ahead. The moment that I knew that this film was something beyond an outer space gimmick came quickly when Ryan (Sandra Bullock) gets tossed into space, spinning aimlessly. Artistry aside, it was the closest that I have come in years to being engaged without ability to predict the next move. In an era where blockbusters and lackluster feel synonymous, director Alfonso Cuaron made an intimate tale of survival that pushed boundaries and gave the big screen a reason for existence. It almost demands to be seen on the biggest, loudest screen in your area and having myself done that, I can attest that this is true. It is a film that demands to encapsulate you and while the story may not hold up, the visuals and trajectory of the events is beyond fascinating in ways that unfortunately might not hold up on DVD. Still, the thrill of seeing something unpredictable and new is quite an achievement, and this is one that will likely fuel conversations for years to come.

4. Frances Ha

The adoration that I had for director Noah Baumbach’s latest didn’t actually come from watching the film. It came midway through discovering The 400 Blows a few months later and noticing a piece by Jean Constantin called “L’ecole buissoniere” that was also featured in Frances Ha. It was a glorious period of discovering the 1960’s French New Wave movement and essentially falling in love with the encapsulating honesty and realism. Cut to the Criterion DVD release and revisiting the film only made me appreciate the incorporation of that style with the aimless nature of Greta Gerwig’s phenomenal performance. It is funny and poignant in ways that seem to capture a time and place for the 20-somethings so perfectly.

5. 12 Years a Slave

This is easily going to be the most relevant film released in 2013, as it is likely to be held up as a defining artistic statement about the horrors of slavery. It paints the south as hell and often through nothing but a close-up of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face; we get this struggling sense of survival. The film explores humanity in its various forms and through a defining performance as Master Epps, Michael Fassbender steals the show with a dedicated, vile hostile charisma. Even for those that consider the film exploitative, there is no doubt that the film has the power to singe powerful imagery that is unlikely to be forgotten. The film reigns as a cornerstone to a conflicting era in America’s history and paints a picture likely to be the reference point for cinephiles addressing slavery for decades to come.

6. Before Midnight

Much like most viewers this year, I came to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy a little late in the game and mostly saw the previous two because of the hype surrounding Before Midnight. What I didn’t expect was something so simplistic yet so powerful that it almost became overwhelming to not watch all three as one continual marathon. It does feel like the definitive depiction of romance throughout the ages and with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy giving tour de force performances, this manages to end their romantic story on such an accomplished, poetic note. Of course, it is just unlikely that a film of this nature would be so successful, but that is part of the film’s charm.

7. Nebraska

Having seen a plethora of films addressing elderly figures, it is unnerving to find one that finally hits close to home. I saw the film on Thanksgiving Eve and found myself engrossed in the film largely because Woody (Bruce Dern) reminded me so much of my grandfather, whom I was going to see after the screening. It is a surreal experience, though an effective one in making me appreciate him more as a person. The rural setting with gorgeous cinematography and great Mark Orton score was only topped by a sense of familiarity that made this film feel a little too relatable. It is funny and touching, and continues my belief that director Alexander Payne is one of the current greats when it comes to depiction of the forgotten side of America’s culture.

8. The Spectacular Now

In every sense of the word, director James Ponsoldt’s latest feels like a young adult version of his debut Smashed. This isn’t an insult, but rather praise. What makes this story so successful is that it features the most endearing coming of age story in quite some time. Through adorably complex performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, the typical high school romance comes to life in exciting ways by simply leaving in any awkward laughter or pause. This is a film that feels real because the characters don’t feel polished. Even the supporting cast feels effectively used, though admittedly brief. It is a story that explores love, alcoholism, and growing up in humanistic ways that make me hope that Ponsoldt is only going to keep getting better and make films that resonate as well as his first two features.

9. The Bling Ring

A lot has been said about the American Dream, but director Sofia Coppola was the only one who decided to take on the west coast. Maybe it comes from being a Southern California resident for majority of my life, but the opening scene of a robbery set to Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” is one of the most haunting images set to film. I have seen these types on my streets and went to high school with people more obsessed with celebrity than careers. It is all a shallow existence, and one that I feel is sucking up cities such as mine that are mere hours from these car totaling, house burgling people whose parents are only adding to the nightmare. I saw this film at a theater screen that was directly across from The Purge. The irony continues to amuse me, as I feel like this film’s accusations of being vapid are keeping people from appreciating the horror that your house isn’t going to be robbed by a masked murderer, but a teenager who will upload her crimes to Facebook.

10. Blue Jasmine

It is tough to consider what could possibly round out my Top 10 without feeling somewhat redundant. However, it came down to one film this summer that packed comedy with one of the best lead performances of the year. Cate Blanchett leads a cast that has too many singular memorable moments to list here. The film is Woody Allen fully realized and packs plenty of insight and creativity that comes and goes. While I argue that its depiction of San Francisco is mostly meant to be his cheap roundabout way of filming something European, it does seem to rekindle his imagination that gives life to a wonderful story with the year’s most enviable supporting casts, including Louis C.K. in one of two roles in 2013 that makes up for his lack of work on Louie.

Honorable Mentions: Spring Breakers, American Hustle, Fruitvale Station, Side Effects, The Place Beyond the Pines

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