Sunday, March 02, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

As usual, here is my list of the best films of 2013. I try to do this sometime before the Oscars since a lot of limited releases don't make their way to Chicago well after the New Year, so I just that extra time to get caught up so that I can provide as comprehensive a view of a year. Without further ado, here are the movies that stuck with me the most in 2013.

1. 12 Years A Slave

The cultural significance of this movie will probably cement its place in the canon for years to come based on its unflinching portrayal of slavery, which was unmatched in its brutality. Importance and quality do not always go hand in hand, so as much as I would like to state that this is a great film because it gave an unfathomable reality to those only familiar with the relatively sanitized versions of the era delivered by Hollywood, it worked much deeper on an emotional level. There have been few cinematic experiences like 12 Years A Slave, the true story of freeman Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into captivity. The brutality of the film was a necessary truth that could not concern itself with what's palatable for audiences and every heartwrenching moment served as a reminder of America's dark history. Steve McQueen, whose previous films Hunger and Shame also didn't hold anything back, has once again proven adept at being an expert observer of a gritty world that holds little hope. His films resonate with you long after the credits have finished rolling, all without any significant flash and grounded in unforgiving realism. The trio of excellent, anguished performances from Chiwitel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender provided as close to a breathing historical document of the period as we've ever gotten and transcended it into art, conveying the torment and pain of past generations that no viewer will ever forget.

2. Gravity

Gravity would have cracked my list based on its technical achievements alone, giving as unique an experience in space for audiences in 2013 as those back in 1968 might have experienced when they first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. The world that Alfonso Cuarón created is so natural that it isn't until after the movie is over that you realize that there is no peer in film history when it comes to how outer space is depicted. What pushes it into the upper reaches of my top ten is the parable of survival and rebirth behind it. Anchored by Sandra Bullock, the film is a testament to the human will in the face of hopelessness. As first-time astronaut Ryan Stone, Bullock conveyed all the trepidation that comes with helplessly being adrift in space and the uneasy terror it brings. Some of my favorite movies work as both entertainment and art and films like Gravity give me some sort of hope that Hollywood will take notice and not be afraid to include both in their movies.

3. Side Effects

It's so easy and commonplace nowadays to be concerned with the execution of stories rather than the originality of them. The lack of surprises in a film should not count against it since practically the same stories have been told over and over for centuries, which is why I always cherish films like Side Effects that genuinely catch me off guard me with its plot. Here's what I can tell you: Rooney Mara plays the wife of an convicted white collar criminal and falls into a deep depression once her husband is released. Even this aspect of the movie is strong as Mara makes a case for her being one of the best young actresses around, capturing the emptiness that one sometimes feels with mental illness. How the movie slyly unfolds beyond that is a credit to the slick style and pacing of director Steven Soderbergh, who has long made a habit of crafting sharp films that thrill and entertain (Out Of Sight, Traffic, The Limey, The Informant!). If this does actually turn out to be the last theatrical release for him, he has left at a point that will have his fans craving for more.

4. Blanacanieves

This silent movie retelling of the Snow White tale set in 1920s Spain was every bit as enjoyable as its French counterpart, The Artist, but with more stylistic flair and fewer self-conscious touches. It's shot in gorgeous black-and-white and coupled with a terrific score from Alfonso de Vilallonga that also includes elements of flamenco. Those pieces only enhance the magical aspects of a fairy tale that is still told in the real world, giving off an aura of fantasy that mature audiences could welcome. Instead of Snow White waiting around to be rescued by her prince (or Blancanieves as she is referred to in the movie), the main struggle is between her and her stepmother, who has married her famous bullfighter father and mistreated her in the process. Her father's bullfighting traits and instincts are eventually passed onto her, which only help her gain popularity. As with The Artist, the storytelling is overly expressive within reason, and brings you back to the purity of filmmaking at its most enjoyable and its most basic.

5. Fruitvale Station

For a film with so many political implications, I respected how director Ryan Coogler simply let the story tell itself without an agenda, if only because the tale didn't need the help. The movie details the last day of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was fatally shot by a police officer on New Year's Day while he was handcuffed. During the course of the movie, we get to know Oscar for all his positive traits and even his flaws. He was complex, like any of us, and nowhere near the perceived threat that caused him to lose his life. What happened after his death is a topic for another time and place, but Fruitvale Station never lets us forget that at the center of all the controversy, a father's life was taken without purpose. Michael B. Jordan, who portrayed Grant, brought some of the same everyman sensibilities that got him noticed during his run on Friday Night Lights and was key to making his performance one of the most underrated of 2013. When the tragedy finally does occur, the intensity is still present despite us knowing the outcome, but mostly because we've been given an excellent portrait of a human life and are appalled to see it taken away so senselessly.

6. The Past

In Asghar Farhadi's previous film, A Separation (which placed at #2 on my 2011 list), he revealed very little in where his allegiance lay. There were no easy answers to the disputes and everything was covered in a shade of grey. The Past has pretty much solidified that grey is Farhadi's favorite area to work with, if only because it's where he's most effective. In his latest film, things get complicated when a couple tries to finalize the divorce, only to find that there are tensions old and new as the wife plans to remarry while it is difficult for the husband to completely leave his previous life behind. Berenice Bejo of The Artist gets a chance to show American audiences that she can act terrifically with more than just her eyes in an emotionally complex performance and matches up perfectly with stunning turns from Ali Mosaffa as her ex-husband and Tahar Rahim as the fiancé. We walk in thinking we're getting one kind of movie and taken to a heartwarming final scene that we wouldn't have predicted from the opening, but masterfully ties everything in to the movie's conflict of looking back and looking forward. While I've only seen two of his films, I've become convinced that Farhadi is on his way to becoming one of this generation's best directors.

7. The Great Beauty

At just about every point, the visuals onscreen are something to marvel at, whether it's a lively party featuring the social elite or the breathtaking scenery of a city with a history as rich as Rome. I actually consider the city itself one of the main characters in this story about an aging writer living off the fame and goodwill of a classic book he wrote years ago as he reflects on his life, mortality and career. Director Paolo Sorrentino handles the topic of death refreshingly in a way that's hardly morbid and we get a humorous, comprehensive look at what encompasses a life and how the best is made of it. The ruminations on life are just as lively as the surrounding spectacle making this film a treat for the eyes and the mind.

8. Stories We Tell

Here goes another movie that you can benefit from by knowing less about it and is also filled with twists. Actress/director Sarah Polley decided to tell the story of her family through interviews and old home movie footage. What may seem like an ordinary premise on the surface is made enthralling when the power of narrative and retrospection come into play. How much do we remember of our past? How accurate is it? Does its accuracy depend on who's telling it? These questions and many more that are brought up over the course of the movie turn a story that we've seen before into a cinematic treatise on the art of storytelling. For those that embrace stories and the creative process, this is one of the most intriguing films you can find.

9. No

In 1988, the Chilean government was mandated to hold an election to decide whether Augusto Pinochet should remain in power or not. The ballot was simply marked "Yes" to elect him as president or "No" for a regime change. The two sides were allotted prime-time television spots to make their case. No follows the story behind the campaign of the opposition, who used feel-good advertising techniques to get their point across. The movie is shot on a grainy camera similar to the quality one would find from that era, giving a film with such a serious theme an authentic feel and serving as a constant reminder the danger of opposing Pinochet. Told with equal parts humor and suspense, I found No to be more engaging than your usual historical film.

10. Prisoners

With a subtle, psychological intensity rarely shown in American cinema, Prisoners ended up being one of the most surprising films of the year with an A-list cast. The story centers around two families whose youngest daughters turn up missing and their suspicion of man with a low IQ as the culprit. Hugh Jackman, in what has to be one of his best performances, stars as the father willing to shed his humanity in order to have his daughter returned, while Terrence Howard is the other daughter's father who is not quite willing to go over the edge. At its foundation, the film works as an intriguing thriller, especially with Jake Gyllenhaal as the grizzled detective working to crack the case, but the movie's best moments come when we deal with the effects of a missing child within the family. As gutwrenching as the violence is, the most haunting moments are from the silence that comes with both hope and despair and the challenging of morality that is its result. I also want to put the spotlight on the great performances of Maria Bello and Viola Davis, who also have pained experiences, but in their own individual way.

11. Her
12. The Wolf Of Wall Street
13. Nebraska
14. Blue Is The Warmest Color
15. The Wind Rises
16. The Act Of Killing
17. Captain Phillips
18. War Witch
19. Spring Breakers
20. Blue Jasmine
21. Short Term 12
22. Inside Llewyn Davis
23. Dallas Buyers Club
24. Frances Ha
25. Philomena
26. Frozen
27. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
28. American Hustle
29. A Touch Of Sin
30. The Hunt
31. This Is The End
32. At Berkeley
33. Mud
34. Dirty Wars
35. The Place Beyond The Pines
36. The Sapphires
37. Star Trek Into Darkness
38. Saving Mr. Banks
39. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
40. I'm So Excited
41. The Best Man Holiday
42. Computer Chess
43. Iron Man 3

1 comment:

  1. Loved Gravity and Saving Mr Banks