Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 13 Movies of 2013

Personal journeys, isolation, the style of the 60's and 70's, self-destructive acts and debauchery, troubled romance, rivalries, and overcoming hardships - these were the major themes of the films that composed my list of the Top Movies of 2013. It turned out to be a strong year in movies as several films I thoroughly enjoyed failed to make this list. Rather than doing honorable mentions, I decided to stretch the list from 10 to 13 allowing me to include three more films I wanted to discuss but weren't otherwise going to earn a mention on a list of the Top 10 Movies of 2013. Here then are the The Top 13 Movies of 2013.

13. Documenting Family Secrets

In beginning the list with a documentary I'm going to give the edge to Sarah Polley's deeply personal family tale over The Act of Killing, which although far more innovative its effectiveness (at least for me) is lessened when you realize the bizarre nature of the project (having the subjects make their own Hollywood-style films describing their past brutal actions) is all a contrivance enforced on the project by the filmmaker. Instead I'm going to give the nod to Polley's fascinating look at how she exposes her family's deepest secret for the cameras with the consent and participation of various members of her family, including her father who helps narrate the piece. Stories We Tell is courageous filmmaking and an engaging true story that wouldn't feel out of place in Hollywood fiction.

Now available on DVD.

12. The Best Sci-fi Movie of 2013

As a longtime fan of Orson Scott Card's original story I had serious doubts as to its ability to be properly turned into a mainstream Hollywood film. Thankfully director Gavin Hood and star Asa Butterfield (leading a talented group of young actors that includes Abigail BreslinHailee SteinfeldSuraj ParthaMoises Arias, among others) soon put my concerns to rest with the best sci-fi movie of the year. Butterfield proves to be the perfect choice for the complicated boy genius who must bear the weight of the entire world on his shoulders while becoming the military commander the Earth needs him to be. I was impressed both with the film's visual style and its unwilingness to soften the more brutal personal moments of Ender's journey for a mass audience (although it does eliminate the Peter/Valentine subplot). Leaving me wanting more (in a good way) Ender's Game is a film I could have easily spent another hour with (making me hope for a Peter Jackson-sized extended cut with more scenes from Battle School).

Currently in theaters.

11. Blood on the Track

For his latest film Ron Howard turns his attention to Formula One racing and the mid-70's rivalry between the abrasive and focused Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and the beloved but flighty James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and how their rivalry would dominate the 1976 Formula One season. A contrast in personalities and driving styles, the true story makes for a near-perfect template of a Hollywood film including a tragic accident and triumphant return. Calling on the talents of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to provide some of the best racing scenes ever captured on film and screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/NixonHereafterThe Queen) to pen the tale, Howard delivers a terrific film carried by his two leads including some difficult to watch scenes concerning the aftermath of Lauda's famous crash and his long road back to the track.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 28th.

10. Girls Gone Wild

Released back in March, Harmony Korine's divisive Spring Breakers casts his wife (Rachel Korine) along with three attractive young Disney and ABC Family actresses (Selena GomezVanessa HudgensAshley Benson) in the roles of out-of-control young women who head south for spring break. The director certainly exploits the family-friendly cast for its shock value, but he also delivers a chance for each of the young actresses to push the bounds of what they have been allowed to do in film and television so far in their young careers. Benson and Hudgens are the standouts (making my list of the Top 10 Performances from 2013 You May Have Missed) along with James Franco as the low-level drug dealer who latches on to the group when they get into a spot of trouble. More gritty than fun, more drama than crazy party movie, and more insightful than you might initially suspect, Spring Breakers teases us with something akin to a hottie Hangover but quickly pulls the rug out from under our characters and delves into far more dark and interesting territory.

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

9. The Art of the Con

David O. Russell's latest about con artists (Christian BaleAmy Adams) forced to work for an out-of-control FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) trying to take down politicians and gangsters if more a character study than con artist or heist tale. Although messy in places, the film delivers strong performances across the board including Bale and Adams as bickering lovers, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's ridiculous wife, Jeremy Renner as the earnest politician who knows better than to get involved with these people, and the under-appreciated Louis C.K. (also on my Top 10 Performance List) as the lone member of the operation who sees how quickly everything is spiraling out of control. With this collection of great acting, a strong story, and plenty of 70's style, American Hustle is smartly-delivered comedic character study and very good film.

Currently in theaters.

8. Celebrity & Crime

Based on the true story of a group of high school students (played here by Katie ChangIsrael BroussardClaire JulienEmma WatsonGeorgia Rock, and Taissa Farmiga) who invaded and robbed several Hollywood homes (some multiple times without being caught) with the help of various tabloid and gossip blogs that informed them of when the celebrities were out of town, Sofia Coppola‘s latest is a smart indictment of our culture's obsession with celebrity and and a harrowing lesson of how easily one justify their actions. Beautifully shot by cinematographers Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides, The Bling Ring slowly unfolds by showing us not only an examination of moral ambiguity of the kids (who felt closer to the celebrities by invading their privacy and robbing them) but also a glimpse at the type of parenting they were receiving which is highlighted by the perfect casting of Leslie Mann (another Performance You May Have Missed) in a jaw-dropping role that should make everyone think twice about homeschooling.

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

7. The Lives of Brokers

It's too long. It's too derivative and unoriginal. Another movie about the evils of Wall Street, what's the point? Sure, there are plenty of reasons to knock the latest collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio, but it's also (by far) the funniest movie of the entire year. DiCaprio's journey as naive young stock trader Jordan Belfort to the drug-popping, money-stealing, whore-mongering, captain of industry he would become is a darkly humorous look at the evils of Wall Street highlighted by several big laughs and a strong supporting cast which includes Jonah Hill (as Belfort’s best-friend and partner) and Matthew McConaughey (in the far smaller role of Belfort’s mentor), Margot Robbie (as Belfort's second wife), Jean Dujardin (as Belfort's unscrupulous Swiss banker), and Rob Reiner and Jon Favreau (as Belfort’s father and attorney). I never laughed harder this year than while watching The Wolf of Wall Street, and even if it is too long, or somewhat derivative, it's also (easily) one of the best movies of 2013 by taking a story we know, amping up the crazy, and taking us all for one fucked-up ride.

Currently in theaters.

6. Folk Music for Assholes (and a Cat)

Oscar Isaac stars as struggling folk musician, and real son of a bitch, Llewyn Davis in a tale where the Coen Brothers expertly use setting, music, and tone (and a small tabby) to explore his world. The straightforward personal study gives us a glimpse at Davis' nomadic lifestyle, the friends who put up with him (Justin TimberlakeCarey MulliganEthan PhillipsRobin Bartlett), and a world in which, despite his obvious talent, he will never become a star. Not since Once have I seen a film that so perfectly blends its combination of beautiful music with a strong storytelling. Oscar Isaac and the cast of characters the the Coens surround him with in Inside Llewyn Davis (coincidentally the character's latest record that no one wants to listen to) truly inhabit the Greenwich Village scene that has a lived-in but cold feel that fits both the character and the journey that he refuses to let anyone take with him.

Currently in theaters.

5. Young Love

Speaking of three-hour movies, the single foreign film to make my list was adapted from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh telling the deeply personal the sexual awakening of a young woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos) dealing with her homosexuality and  the love of her life (Léa Seydoux). At times soft and sweet but also harsh and brutal, Blue is the Warmest Color features frank and honest storytelling from writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche along with some extensive, and explicit, love scenes. Offering us both the beginning and end of lovers' relationship, the film is bittersweet reminder that even great loves may fade. Highlighted by a pair of terrific lead performances from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, it's a tale that is worth spending three hours with. Leading with its heart, much like its lead character, Blue is the Warmest Color is passionate, heartbreaking, romantic, messy, and all-encompassing (as the best love stories must be).

Available on Blu-ray and DVD on February 25th.

4. Star-Crossed Lovers

Set in present day, shot entirely in black-and-white, and filled with performances of several of Joss Whedon‘s favorite actors, the director's pet project offers us a character-driven of version of William Shakespeare’s play highlighted by the performances of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker (another Performance You May Have Missed) as the quick-witted Benedick and the sharp-tongued Beatrice. Reunited on-screen for the first time since Angel's final episode, Acker and Denisof are terrific in every scene, both together and apart, delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with glee and with an unexpected level of physical comedy. The addition of Nathan Fillion heightens the screwball nature of the comedy while Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese carry the tragic story of Claudio and Hero. Filming the entire project in under two weeks in his own home while on a break from The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing is far less grand than Kenneth Branagh's lavish 90's version but no less entertaining.

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

3. Reuniting with Old Friends

In 1995 a small independent love story entitled Before Sunrise opened in theaters. And every nine years director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have reunited to tell the further adventures of Jesse and Celine. The first movie was the romantic meeting between the pair spending a single day and night together before going their separate ways. In 2004 the pair would reunite in Before Sunset after nearly a decade apart and reignite their romance. Instead of bringing the pair together for another reunion, Before Midnight offers us a look at the life the pair have built together since the first sequel. If the first two films in the series are about discovering and rediscovering that one great love in your life, getting to know them for the first and second time, the third film is about holding onto the that ideal of love even when life has done its best to crush the once grand romantic notions under the weight of years. This time around Jesse and Celine's love is a more complicated, very much lived-in, love than the highly romanticized version from the first two films. My only complaint is I'll have to wait another nine years to find out where they go from here.

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

2. Lost in Space

With Gravity writer/director Alfonso Cuarón offers a tense thriller, a moving character study centered around the single performance of Sandra Bullock as a NASA scientist lost in space, and a roller-coaster of an action film that produced the best movie experience (especially in 3D IMAX) of 2013. With amazing cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki framing Bullock's struggle to survive after she becomes untethered from her space shuttle, completely alone in the vastness of space, Cuarón offers a tense 91-minute film with several deft touches including casting George Clooney in a supporting role as a throwback larger-than-life astronaut who would have been right at home during NASA’s heyday. Throw in some amazing visuals, and a fight for survival against time and the emptiness (both literal and metaphorical) that surrounds Bullock's character, and Cuarón's amazing film easily earns the #2 spot on this list beaten out only by...

Still playing in theaters in select cities. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on February 25th.

1. The Best Movie of 2013

The only choice easier than slotting Gravity into the #2 spot was putting 12 Years a Slave on the top of this list. In nearly every aspect of filmmaking, director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley's retelling of the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free New England man kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years, is the best film of the year. McQueen’s film offers no easy answers for the circumstances Northup finds himself in. He chooses not to vilify the South as a whole but simply show how the practice of slavery was destructive to everyone it touched in one way or another. Against the harshness of the events which surround his character, Ejiofor’s humanity shines through as a witness to the sin of slavery. Without what he’s able to bring to the role the stark honesty of McQueen’s film would be difficult to endure. A terrific supporting cast includes slave-owners Michael FassbenderSarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch, a vicious slave master in Paul Dano, and Lupita Nyong’o's performance as a treasured slave who has captured the lust of her owner (and ire of his wife). An unwavering and honest look at the experiences Northup chronicled, 12 Years a Slave isn't always an easy movie to watch, but it is a triumph of in the art of filmmaking and without doubt the Best Movie of 2013.

Still playing in theaters in select cities.

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