Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 10 of 2013

2013 is closing its doors and another year of movies is right around the corner. As always around this time, I like to take a look back and reflect on the year in film with a Top 10 list. Sure, every blog out there does some type of a year-end list and rightfully so, when you watch a lot of movies and write about them, what else would you do? What sets mine apart from all the rest? I do. These titles are films that A.) made an impact on me this year, B.) had an impact on cinema that should be recognized, and C.) films that I'd re-watch on a regular basis.

At the time of posting this, I have watched 392 films in 2013, 218 of those were first time views and qualified to be on this year-end list. We all have our own rules or qualifications for a year-end list and mine are pretty simple, a film must have had a limited release in New York and Los Angeles for consideration. This qualification leaves out films that only had runs at film festivals or foreign titles that have yet to find U.S. distribution within the calendar year.

Honorable mentions: Berberian Sound Studio, Pieta, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Short Term 12, and War Witch.

10. Sightseers
The state of comedy at the movies is sad, most comedies tread through the same material repeatedly. Half of them are romantic comedies and the other forty percent are high school comedies focusing on the same predictable arcs of guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl back. Studios annually throw new actors together like athletes in a fantasy draft hoping for a decent box office return. This formula needs to be taken out to pasture and "Sightseers" does an able job of breaking the mold. It is an anti-comedy. It is a film that tests the boundaries of what you find funny. The English black comedy directed by Ben Wheatley follows Chris, a caravan (that's motor home for us Americans) enthusiast who takes his girlfriend Tina on his dream vacation. Along the journey Chris and Tina find themselves confronting everyday events that put a damper on Chris's "dream" vacation. Boiled down, Chris and Tina become vigilantes fixated on living out this ill-conceived dream holiday, no matter who gets in their way. The couple Chris and Tina are hilariously played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Oram comes off as the British counterpart to Louis C.K. and Alice Lowe nails that awkward comedic tone that makes Sightseers so much fun to watch. On top of acting, the duo co-wrote the dark comedy together. The writing team along with director Ben Wheatley group together a number of sequences that audiences will easily connect with. These scenes are blended with outcomes that test our traditional boundaries of acceptable behavior. The end result is a highly recommended film. It is honest, dangerous, shocking, and totally re-watchable.

9. The Grandmaster
Towards the end of every year there are a number of needed films that I try to see before the year ends. Films that I had either missed in theaters or heard enough buzz to make a point of seeing. Every so often one of those movies shakes up my year end list. "The Grandmaster" is that movie in 2013. Graceful, stunning, and stylized, this was a historical martial arts biography I was longing for without realizing it. Being a history teacher, I was elated as I realized this film was much more than stylistic action flick, it had authentic history behind it. These were real characters in situations that I taught on an annual basis in my World and United States History classes. Luckily enough for non-history buffs, the film does an able job of keeping its audience informed of all the characters and locations through the use of subtitles. On the surface, The Grandmaster chronicles the Wing Chun grandmaster, Ip Man from the 1930s up through the Second Sino-Japanese War and beyond to his death. On a deeper level, the film is a heartfelt rebuttal to the longstanding gender roles and traditions in Chinese culture. The film uses a sympathetic lens to condemn the cultural system that allowed one of the greatest experts of martial arts to never carry on her family's legacy because she was a girl. As for the fights, they are some of the most graceful fighting sequences I have seen since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Sparring matches that are jaw-dropping and eye-popping. Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography captures the skill and flare of each fighter in sensational form. This is an action film that highlights the skill and craft of this art.

8. All is Lost
Ever had the desire to go sailing? You might want to watch J.C. Chandor's gripping survival adventure "All is Lost" before you run out and get yourself a sailboat. It is a terrifying look at what could potentially happen to even the most skilled sailor out in the ocean. Nature is majestic but it is also unforgiving and All is Lost is a cruel example of exactly that. Robert Redford carries the film without ever really saying more than a few words. He keeps the audience immersed in his every move, so much so you can feel his emotional weight just through raising a brow or a silent reflective pause. Redford is so good there are moments where you can't blink fast enough, as so you won't miss a single second. This is a white knuckle ride that rarely allows the audience, or its focus, a break from all the stress. Optimism is vital in a tale like this and Chandor is nice enough to his audience allowing a glimmer of hope through portions of the film. Still, let me blunt in saying, the events endured throughout All is Lost are wholeheartedly grievous. On a technical level, this movie deserves accolades for its practical work done in the water. I'm sure some digital effects were used as well, but there's no denying when you see the 77-year-old Redford underwater, he's underwater. This minimalist survival story reminds us how small and at the mercy of this planet we really are as humans.

7. Before Midnight
I had not seen any of Richard Linklater's Before films prior to "Before Midnight" releasing this year. I am not a real big fan of romantic films and I'd previously steered clear of the two earlier films. After the release of Before Midnight and all the acclaim it earned, I figured it time to finally settle into the now trilogy. What makes Before Midnight so good is the daring nature to turn the tables on Linklater's romantic fantasy. Let's face it both "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" are typical American romance fantasies. Think about it, a person travels to Europe only to end up having an amazing one-night stand in the first, and in the sequel that same person writes a book about the beautiful one-night stand then during a book tour, the person you wrote about finds you ending up in another sexual interlude? Come on, total fantasy. What makes those two films better than most romantic dramas is the exceptional dialogue and chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. 'Midnight' however is a whole different beast, Linklater and company took a risk placing our romantic couple in the middle of a real marriage with all of the fantasy wiped away. Instead of watching our couple have flirtatious and theoretical conversations over coffee in a cafe or stroll through cobblestone streets in France, they duke it our over real issues that effect, not only both of their lives, but the lives of their children. Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy deliver performances that warrant nominations. It only helps the impact and reality of the portrayals that these two actors have been working together playing this couple for 18 years. There is no doubt in my mind what makes these films so excellent is the growth that comes in the nine years in between filming, there is growth in the actors and the director that transcends on to the screen.

6. Stoker
"Stoker" is the kind of film that keeps its audience in total suspense as it unwraps itself. Once completed, you'll want to start it all over again just to re-run through its scheme. Director Chan-wook Park uses simple foreshadowing to set the table, but it is done with such a light hand, the audience isn't pressured into wondering how it fits into the mystery. Park weaves an intricate thriller that allows its audience to enjoy the unraveling, ultimately becoming the most rewarding horror of 2013. Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska are arresting as newly acquainted family trying to feel one another out. Wasikowska delivers another performance that will keep her on a short list of actors in high-demand. She's got a natural talent and director Chan-wook Park quickly has me realizing she's perfect for more playtime in the horror genre. Goode on the other hand comes across just curious enough that the audience can never quite place if they should trust this charmingly well-dressed male. Creative and technical choices are a big reason Stoker is on my year end list. The sound editing and sound design alone make this film worth watching and studying. In the kind of fashion that could earn nominations, Park uses sound to build-up the plot within his notable mystery. Set and costume design are also equally imaginative and complex. Attention to detail is not something Stoker takes lightly. It is certain in fact that everything we see is timed, not to mentioned placed in its intended position, for full effect.

5. Spring Breakers
Probably the most misunderstood film of 2013 is "Spring Breakers," a neon candy-coated techno induced fantasy that turns the cameras on college students and their annual spring break rituals of debauchery. On the surface, the film spends its time parading the extreme indulgences college students hold on a pedestal like a rite of passage, subversively director Harmony Korine is illustrating his condemnation of this youth-culture. Spring Breakers is an alarming look at the video-game mentality too many teen to twenty-somethings have taken on. Korine follows a group of girlfriends who carry out a robbery in order to go on spring break. Korine cunningly took well known teen actors and put them in less than desirable roles. A sinister trick on the director's part, but one that works flawlessly. Teen girls who grew up watching and idolizing Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens went out to see this movie, instead of wanting to be like them, these girls were having the opposite reaction, they were disgusted by them. James Franco delivers the best performance of his rising career as Alien, a local drug and arms dealer who sees value in the group of care-free girls. Alien seduces the girls with his bad-boy demeanor and "look at my shit" mentality. He lures them in with his expensive toys and illicit drugs pushing the girls further into a spiral of video game mentality. For the girls, Alien matches the lifestyle playing out in their fantasies. It is surreal, Alien isn't worried about the future, he is living in the now. The disturbing part is Alien's representation in our society. Again Korine is flipping the camera on its audience, there's a stark look at the under belly of capitalism at play. Spring Breakers is a film that pushes its audience and their own moral compass. Audiences that came in hoping for a 90 minute film glorifying the ritual of spring break were slapped in the face with quite the opposite, they were made to feel like their ritual wasn't so cool. They were shown the reality of it. Director Harmony Korine furthermore plays with his audience leaving this film in an ultimate fantasy state, as if it were nothing more than a drug-induced dream or a video game that was played. The acclaim is in the fact that every audience member realizes, this is a fantasy and those audiences members seeking the same fantasy as the girls or Alien ought to think twice, because it is unobtainable.

4. Gravity
The greatest movie-going experience I had in 2013 was with "Gravity." Hyperbole or not, it is true. Going to the movies at five-years-old  for the first time and seeing "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" is one of the moments that made me into the film enthusiast I am. Just like a home double feature of "Alien" and "The Thing" my dad had with me when I was 10 years-old. He tells me I slept in his bed for a week straight following that double bill! Those experiences forever changed me. Gravity did the same, it changed my perception of what can happen in a movie theater and on film. I've been going to IMAX movies for well over a decade, but this is the first time a film has taken on the true persona of a theme ride. This is a genuine experience, not a gimmick. Rarely do I tell someone to see a film in 3D or in IMAX, but this film truly set a precedent that it must be experienced in the most optimum 3D environment. This is a movie that audiences will request to be re-released in theaters as to once again experience in the largest format possible. The film itself is a simple survival story set during a fictitious space shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope. The small American crew is struck by a space debris cloud caused by a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite. The debris destroys the shuttle and crew leaving Dr. Ryan Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski drifting in space without a vessel. By every stretch of the imagination this is a terrifying experience, one that had my heart racing and palms sweating. Dr. Ryan Stone (powerfully played by Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) devise a plan that sees them leap frogging through space in the hopes of making it to safety at a nearby space station. Each dilemma along the way forces the audiences' heart to skip a beat and there's more than a few times I caught myself holding my breath in utter fear of what would happen next. James Cameron said that "Avatar" would change people's perspective of what could be done with CGI and green screen. While Avatar didn't change my perspective it certainly changed director Alfonso Cuarón's, and am I ever thankful it did. Cuarón took on the challenge of working with 3D and a nearly-entire CGI environment and dude did a bang-up job. I mean this guy showed James Cameron what's up. If making 3D CGI movies was a slam dunk contest, Alfonso Cuarón would be in first place.

3. Mud
Being swept away to a foreign place, culture, or thing is part of the joy I find in watching movies. "Mud" is a perfect example of that in 2013. The setting is not out of this world or even off this continent, but instead right here in the United States, in De Witt Arkansas to be exact. We are introduced to two teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone, whose livelihood is the Mississippi river. These boys and their families live off the Mississippi river and due to recently passed laws will be eventually evicted off their houseboats. Director Jeff Nichols does a flawless job of placing his audience within this setting. I was immediately engrossed in the characters lifestyles, customs, and plight. It helps that director of photography Adam Stone does a poignant job of capturing the poor southern setting. The focus of Mud is actually a coming of age film about trust, not river rats being driven from their floating homes. Ellis and Neckbone befriend a fugitive who is on the run. The two meet the fugitive while traveling to a small island along the Mississippi river where they found a boat stuck in a tree (it is assumed that the boat was there from a hurricane). Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a fugitive who makes a deal with the teens to help him carry out a plan that will reunite his girlfriend with him. This is without a doubt Matthew McConaughey's most vulnerable performance. It is also his best. McConaughey is raw as Mud. He lets his guard down and pulls off one of the most exposed performances of his career. Unfortunately, this performance will be neglected come award season, in the long run however, people will remember McConaughey's performance in Mud more than they will his performance in "Dallas Buyers Club." Why? Because it is the first time he's not just playing another pompous male with sex appeal. Like I said, McConaughey strips down to his most endangered in this performance. Yes, more so than a stripper in "Magic Mike," and more so than a homophobic stereotype who attracts AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis
There's a song in "Inside Llewyn Davis" called The Death of Queen Jane that didn't take complete effect on me until after seeing the movie. The song is sung at, what would seem like an extremely important point in the film, at an audition that may lead to a break Llewyn needs. The song is about the Queen of England wanting her maids and also husband to carry out a cesarean section after nine days of labor that would kill her but see her baby survive. Without listening you can probably guess the song is a downer, and the decision of Llewyn Davis to sing that particular song at that particular junction of his career is the heartbreaking core of the Coen brothers latest folk-drama. This is who Llewyn is as a musician, he can't be some other musician allowing factors to chip away at his craft. Those are things he despises. He will not allow his soul to be tarnished or cheapened. He could have easily chosen to play a song with more spunk and pep, something that didn't force the audience into a state of grim despair, but instead he played his soul. Inside Llewyn Davis is the most infectious film of the year. It's hard to watch at times being such a dreary tale, but the Coen brothers counter so much of the doldrums with excellent characters, music, and dialogue. T-Bone Burnett deserves heaps of praise making an addictive soundtrack. The soundtrack and movie are essentially one giant folk song, there's an opening verse called Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song), three or four great tales (or verses) of woe in the middle and a return to that opening verse of Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song). The Coen brothers always being so lyrical with their dialogue and characters, it is not shocking these guys pulled off such a resounding tale of artistry. It is clear the Coen's have a great love of folk music and Inside Llewyn Davis is a sublime letter to reflect that.

1. Her
"Her" is the best science fiction movie in a long time. More specifically it is my favorite science fiction since "Never Let Me Go" in 2010. The number one reason being the science fiction within Her is so subtle and yet so believable. This is not a science fiction that treks our unexplored galaxy, instead it treks through our own human (and non-human) hearts. This is a science fiction that approaches the technology we use today on a regular basis and ups the ante, both a social and romantic level. Our story follows Theodore, a lonely writer who has just bought the latest operating system on the market. A brand new artificial intelligent or A.I. system that is designed to meet the purchaser's every need. As time passes between Theodore and his new operating system, they begin to develop a relationship together, more so a romance. As you've read earlier on this list, I am not a big fan of romantic movies, that said Spike Jonze delivers way more than a run of the mill romance. Her is an earnest tale of our fears and joys, in and out of a romantic relationship. Jonze creates a beautiful balance between comedy, romance, and heartbreak. Let us not forget this is a romance between a human and a computer, regardless Spike Jonze does an incredible job of making this story feel as believable and as complex as our own everyday relationships. The entire cast of Her is exceptional. Joaquin Phoenix reminds us what a true talent he is and why we are lucky he is still here. Scarlett Johansson deserves a nomination for her voice work as Samantha, the A.I. operating system Theodore buys. Never for one second did I feel that Samantha wasn't a tangible being that Theodore could fall in love with or vice versa. Which brings me to the next aspect of Her that I cannot get out of my brain, a computer falling in love. This is some next level we need to talk about this over pie science fiction. Humans fall in love, yes. Animals fall in love, yes. Computers falling in love, I never thought about this and it kinda blew my mind. Her does an fantastic job of illustrating the joys and sorrows of falling in love we all know, but from the A.I.'s perspective. This process stirred up emotions of learning these feelings all over again and the result is a combination of delight and heartbreak.

Thanks for reading, feel free to share your favorites of 2013 in the comments section below.