For the second year in a row, the #1 Cinema chain in the UK, Cineworld, asked me to contribute my Top Ten Best Films of the Year list for the January Issue of their award-winning iPad magazine. The issue was released on December 21st and includes a special mention in the editor’s notes, an 11 page spread, and a link to my blog!
2013 was an eclectic year for cinema, but a common theme I saw surface time and again was one of hope- stories that explored the survival of the human spirit, the formation of unlikely friendships, self discovery, the power of family, transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and the innocence of young love. This cinematic year was something special, and a life-affirming one for movie fans. In 2013, I saw 114 films in the theater and 18 on DVD or on-demand, but the ones that resonated the most with me seemed to be these simple, smaller stories of hope. Following is my definitive Top Ten Best Films of the Year and Top 5 Worst Films of the year lists to debate and discuss in 2014.
TOP TEN FILMS of 2013
1. FRANCES HA
Shot in gorgeous black and white, this film feels like a contemporary look at a heroine straight out of the French New Wave minds of Godard, Rohmer or Truffaut. This story lovingly allows you to follow Frances as she stumbles through a period of her life in which she is searching for who she wants to be, and ultimately, discovers who she wants to become. Frances sees the world in her own clumsy, unfettered way, blinded by an optimism that sometimes leads to crushing disappointment when faced with the realities of life. I can’t recall seeing a film in the last few decades that so genuinely captures the strength of female friendship, or the struggles that come with navigating your 20s. In a perfectly nuanced performance, Greta Gerwig plays Frances with humor, subtlety and hope. Watching her spontaneously dance in the New York City streets against the backdrop of David Bowie’s, “Modern Love” was nothing short of transcendent, and what Frances herself might call “magic.”
The 13-minute tracking shot that comprises the opening scene of Gravity is completely revolutionary, setting the stage for a visual cinematic landscape unlike anything I have seen before. The experience of the film is stunning in every way. It immerses you in the sensation of actually being in space and provides countless indelible images, such as Sandra Bullock’s character drifting peacefully into the fetal position after escaping a near certain death, thus symbolizing her own rebirth, while also offering us a breathtaking journey exploring the beauty of life and our capacity to survive when all hope is lost. Gravity is a landmark achievement for cinema and for the visionary director, Alfonso Cuarón.
3. ABOUT TIME
This film is about so much more than its marketing campaign makes it out to be, and it’s by far the biggest surprise I had this year at the movies. This is a beautiful and heartfelt story about life, loss, and the power of family. The underlying time travel conceit is brilliantly woven throughout the film, allowing us to examine what it means to have a child, how it changes you, and how profoundly your own parents and siblings define who you are and the lengths you will go for one another. Its most moving message though is to embrace all the little things in life that you may not appreciate at first glance, because these are the things that make life worth living, and a film like About Time, something to be celebrated.
4. THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Every once in a while a film comes along that reminds you why you love movies. It can be a jaw-dropping spectacle or a film like this one, which quietly sneaks up and floors you. The screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who previously brought us the magnificent 500 Days of Summer, craft a tranquil coming of age narrative about two high school kids who form an unlikely friendship, which soon blossoms into radiant love. It’s astonishing watching Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley interact with one another, because their performances are so authentic and expressive. You get drawn into their lives, and entirely wrapped up in the essence of youth. These kids needed to find each other to help them take a different direction in their lives; and we needed to find this film to renew our faith in effortless storytelling.
5. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Martin Scorsese doesn’t pull any punches with this searing look at decadence and excess, spun around the true story of Jordan Belfort’s rise to wealth as a stockbroker in the ‘90s. It’s an absolutely captivating thrill ride that picks you up and doesn’t let go for its entire three hour running time, and I loved every second of it. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and the entire supporting cast embody their roles with such life, absurdity, and gusto was outrageously entertaining. Scorsese has taken great care in making each character fully-formed with depth, charisma and heart.
There has been a lot written about the controversy this film has created, and how some view it as glorifying a lifestyle that should be publicly scorned. To that, I point to one of my favorite essays by the late Roger Ebert on La Dolce Vita. He writes about how a film can have a different effect on you based on your life experience. Ebert explains how when he saw Fellini’s film as a young man, he admired the hero’s lifestyle; on a viewing later in life he saw him as a victim; and then later, pitied him. But he always loved the character, and that is what true works of art do for us. They challenge, shake us to our core, and delight us. And, ultimately, we can only view a film through the prism of our own experiences. Martin Scorsese is at the top of his game with his latest effort, and I have no doubt this movie will be debated and discussed for years to come, as all true masterpieces are.
6. BLUE JASMINE
This tragicomedy follows the very complicated Jasmine, who flies from Manhattan to San Francisco to live with her sister in an attempt to rebuild a life that has so quickly unraveled around her. Jasmine is played by Cate Blanchett, in an Oscar worthy performance that is the most superb and layered of the year. It’s flat out exciting to watch Blanchett switch from a know-it-all chatterbox, to a charming, well-educated socialite, to a lost soul whose eyes drift off into catatonic despair. Blue Jasmine is one of Woody Allen’s most intriguing films not only because it’s smart and unbelievably charming, but also because it’s filled with a cast of incredibly likable, yet flawed supporting characters, remarkably portrayed by Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K, and Alec Baldwin.
7. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
A riveting, true account of Captain Richard Phillips’ harrowing kidnapping and rescue from the band of Somali pirates, who take over his vessel and attempt to return to Somalia with their hostage in tow. Director Paul Greengrass puts us in the middle of the action, creating a gripping, edge of your seat film where we connect emotionally with both Captain Phillips and his captors, breathlessly waiting to see what each of them will do next. Tom Hanks delivers a powerful performance, culminating in the heart wrenching final scene where he achieves the best work of his award-winning career.
8. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Adapted from the play to the screen, this mesmerizing family drama is a tour de force of acting, writing and storytelling. After the family patriarch suddenly dies, his loved ones congregate at his house for his funeral and are forced to confront their own inner demons, unlock dark, hidden family secrets, and attempt to find a way to move on with or without each other. The story allows this talented ensemble of actors to showcase and tap into the intricate dynamics of their characters in their own way, and it’s simply a marvel to watch. Examining the human condition is a delicate undertaking for any filmmaker, but John Wells pulls it off beautifully with this fantastic film.
Set in the not too distant future, Her is a unique and imaginative sci-fi fable about a lonely man who finds a deep and profound love with a self-aware operating system. Director Spike Jonze delves deep into some complex themes, like what form our relationships with others take, how we evolve and learn from those bonds, and how palpable an affect they can have on our emotions and lives. It’s a thought provoking and heartbreakingly honest take on how we often times look to technology to fill the void in ourselves.
Set in Arkansas, this slow-burning and hypnotic character drama follows two young boys who discover a small motor boat stuck in a tree along the Mississippi River. They soon learn that a fugitive who calls himself Mud, played with a reserved Southern charm by Matthew McConaughey, has taken up residence in the boat, as he evades authorities. Mud promises to let the boys have the boat in exchange for food and despite their initial hesitation, they soon form a strong and unbreakable friendship and trust which leads to each of them putting their lives on the line for the other. This wonderful film washes over you and feels very reminiscent of a Mark Twain yarn, and it proves to be one of the true American gems of 2013.
Honorable Mentions: THE HUNT, NEBRASKA, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, DARK SKIES, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE CONJURING, AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE WAY WAY BACK, FRUITVALE STATION, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, WORLD WAR Z, PRINCE AVALANCHE, 20 FEET TO STARDOM, YOU’RE NEXT, WADJA, THE GREAT BEAUTY, ELYSIUM
TOP FIVE WORST FILMS of 2013
1. SPRING BREAKERS
Was this film a satire? Exploitation? Both? I hated every heinous second of it, so I don’t even have the will to debate the point. The filmmaking technique Harmony Korine utilized to show different angles of the same scene over and over, overlaid with the actor’s repetitive, grating dialogue, was absolutely unbearable. I felt like I was being suffocated by these pneumatic characters and the weak narrative, all of it set to a pulsating soundtrack with frenetic camerawork. But what I find most sickening is when I read any sort of commentary on this dreck that attempts to draw some parallel between today’s youth and the two lead female psychopaths in the film. The only cautionary tale we have here is to avoid pretentious, bloated fare like this, which hides itself behind the guise of high-minded art.
2. THE LAST EXORCISM PART II
I quite like the original film and found the ending to be clever and unique. So I was eager to see how the cliffhanger ending would translate into a sequel with more story to tell. But not only has the shaky cam and first person POV been dropped from this installment, so has any bit of scares, common sense, or life. It’s a dull, useless sequel that takes you nowhere and explains or adds nothing to the sweet, central character from the first movie. It’s a wasted opportunity and makes for an incredibly boring time at the cineplex.
3. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
I literally had no idea what was going on for the first 15 minutes of the latest installment of this action franchise. It was as if an intern had dropped the script pages all over the floor, and then proceeded to haphazardly put it all back together again, in no particular order, and the director decided to make that jumbled mess his shooting script. This movie is shockingly incoherent and the motivations of the characters are sloppy and unclear. I gave up trying to understand how or why John McClane and his son got from point A to point B and who or why they were trying to fight. In the end, my only conclusion was that this franchise needs to die a slow, painful death.
4. THE BLING RING
Sofia Coppola allows this ripped from the headlines story to unfold without any sort of judgment, commentary, context, or viewpoint, which I guess can be seen by some as bold and experimental. This detachment has worked in some of her previous films, but this time around it made for a pointless cinematic experience. I hated each of the characters, and I wanted to punch the ring leader, Rebecca, in the face. I would have liked some sort of a back story to explain how exactly these vapid kids came to be, or why they seemed to be lacking both in brain cells and a moral center. But, alas, Coppola does what she does, and gives us cardboard cutouts set to a fun soundtrack and expects us to swoon.
5. THE PURGE
The premise of this horror movie – that there is one night a year where you can commit any crime you desire, without any consequences – is so inherently flawed that it comes as no surprise that the film collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. It’s not fun, scary or subversive, and paints the entirety of the human race as nothing more than a marauding gang of sociopaths. The film completely forgets what makes a horror and/or slasher film genuinely good; the story needs to be set in some basis of reality, have a touch of humanity, and contain at least one character in whom you have some stake in rooting for, mmmkay? Instead we get this craptastic nonsense, leaving you no choice but to pray that everyone on screen might get wiped out in some sort of inexplicable planetary attack.