Sunday, March 2, 2014

Top Ten Movies of 2013

I thought the last year was a very strong one for films, with studios and independent filmmakers both producing quality movies. Below, my 10 favorites:

10) Captain Philips

Paul Greengrass uses his handheld camera-stye and verite cinematography to gripping effect in this thriller about the capture of an American cargo ship at the hands of Somali pirates. So much of the film is focused on just depicting the propulsive true-life narrative at its center that any kind of subtext or implications about the episode are glossed over, but what remains – a terrifying tale of suspense with some incredible performances – is still very much worth watching.

9) Before Midnight

The first two installments of the Before series were charming romances that either told tales of young love (Before Sunrise) or second chances (Before Sunset). Before Midnight, on the other hand, is about the tough stuff –the compromises, frustrations, and challenges that are required for any relationship to endure. The film works because the characters of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are so developed, so seemingly real, that their arguments and conversations feel vitally important even while appearing intensely particular. I left the theater a little disappointed that very few of the conflicts that arose ended up resolved, but in many ways that’s just a testament to how real and convincing their arguments are. Here’s hoping we see these two at least one more time.

8) Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s films tend to straddle the line between comic satire and emotional poignancy with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, he finds the right balance in Nebraska, a bittersweet road movie about an ornery old man (Bruce Dern, in an excellent performance) determined to collect his apocryphal lottery winnings. Sentimental without being maudlin and comedic without resorting to cheap laughs, Nebraska succeeds by finding subtle grace and humanity in the flawed characters at its center.

7) All Is Lost

JC Chandor’s nearly wordless All Is Lost is jarringly different from Chandor’s first film, the very talky (and very good) Margin Call. But Chandor demonstrates his versatility with this survival story of an amateur sailor lost in the Pacific Ocean. Robert Redford, who is alone on the screen for the entirety of the film’s 107 minutes, gives a commanding capstone performance to his accomplished career.

6) American Hustle

David O. Russell’s latest is not quite as coherent and moving as last year’s stellar Silver Linings Playbook, but it is wildly entertaining thanks to great performances from an excellent cast (Christian Bale and Amy Adams are the standouts) and Russell’s loose, chaotic directorial style. Very roughly based on the ABSCAM scandals that brought down several politicians in the early 80s, American Hustle demonstrates once again Russell’s ability to turn troubled characters into sympathetic movie subjects desperate for reinvention.

5) Her

I’ll be honest – I’m not quite sure if the love story at the heart of Spike Jonze’s futuristic film is meant to be completely genuine, mostly satirical, or, as I saw it, somewhere in the middle. At its heart, Her is fascinating meditation on our relationship to technology and its continuously advancing role as a substitute for connection and an enabler of isolation. But more impressively, the film is also an intimate dissection of the push and pull of relationships and what it means to evolve, emotionally and intellectually. It’s a story that has universal applications, whether you’re in love with Siri or someone more corporeal. 

4) Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s film about a directionless 20-something living in Brooklyn sounds like a Girls retread, but its outlook is far more warm and sympathetic than Lena Dunham’s. Greta Gerwig, as the title character, gives a pitch perfect performance as an adventurous, often flighty millennial, who more than anything else just wants to share her experiences with her estranged best friend (Mickey Sumner).

3) Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron will deservingly win this year’s best director Oscar for putting together this stunning marvel. A harrowing survival story told in outer space, Gravity is a thrilling showcase of cinematic advancements and a real breakthrough in what one can experience in a movie theater. While the emotional beats in the story are rather clich├ęd, the script is really secondary to the film’s true achievement – no movie this year better demonstrated the majesty of experiencing a cinematic event on the big screen.

2) Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ melancholy portrayal of a struggling folk musician in 1960’s New York features their patented quirky characters and odd humor, but the whole endeavor is infused with a surprising (for the Coens, anyway) amount of empathy and appreciation for the artists and time period they are depicting. Brimming with beautiful music and showcasing a fabulous performance by Oscar Isaac in the title role, Inside Llewyn Davis is a story of artistic struggle that manages to triumph even if never lets its protagonist do the same.    

1) 12 Years a Slave

The best film of the year is the most powerful film about slavery ever made and, accordingly, an absolutely harrowing cinematic experience. I’ve heard others complain that 12 Years a Slave is less a profound act of storytelling than a travelogue of horrible acts, and I’ll admit that the film is not looking to provide any deeper historical context about the outcomes of slavery. But what the film does with its clinical approach is lay bare the utter lack of humanity and shocking complacency that were inherent in the peculiar institution, thereby demonstrating how so many of the current problems that plague our country, from poverty to crime to racial injustice, find their source in America’s sordid history. 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch, but it must be seen as a reminder that even familiar history requires constant re-examination.  

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