2013. Ah yes. I’ll always remember you as that year that came between 2012 and 2014. Truly you were special. Many things happened within your 365 day span. Some of them I can actually remember. Just not right now. But I do remember your films. I saw 100 movies with your release date though not everything I wanted. I haven’t seen Her, Wolf of Wall Street, All Is Lost or Dallas Buyers Club. And while I plan on seeing all of those, they won’t count towards this year’s list. So enough chit-chat. Lets get to it.
10. Man of Steel
Almost certainly my most controversial choice but I put a lot of thought into whether or not I honestly felt this was one of the 10 best movies of the year. Obviously, I did. I loved the extended opening on Krypton. It gave us more detail and feel for the planet then we’d seen in any other Supes flick. I really appreciated the fresh take on the Pa Kent dynamic. It felt real. I love that Lois figures out the truth. Amy Adams is by far the best Lois to date. Actually, I liked all the leads. Henry Cavill is a great Clark, a great Kal-El, a great Superman. It’ll be fun to see him grow in the role. The film presented an untested man learning to be a hero at great cost. It shows how Clark Kent became Superman. Great acting, great score, great action, great effects. It’s plain great.
Director Chan-wook Park, in his American feature debut, delivers a nice mix of Southern Gothic horror and Hitchcockian suspense highlighted by stellar work from Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska. Nicole Kidman also does a pretty good job with a slightly underwritten role. The real meat of the flick is in the relationship between Wasikowska’s India and Goode’s Charlie. She turned 18 on the same day her father died in a car accident. Charlie’s the uncle she never knew she had who shows up mysteriously for her dad’s funeral. Kidman’s widowed Evelyn has more than a passing interest in her brother-in-law but he clearly has designs for his niece. It’s creepy, it’s sexually charged, it’s beautifully shot and composer Clint Mansell supplies a moody score. Here’s hoping Mr. Park spends some more time stateside.
8. The Place Beyond the Pines
The film is a very well done generational tale involving two men, their children and the fall out of one fateful afternoon encounter. The film opens by focusing on Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a carny stuntman, who has to settle down when he discovers he has an illegitimate son. His efforts at providing for his family will have dire consequences. There’s a sudden narrative shift after the first act as the film shifts focus to Bradley Cooper’s Avery, an ambitious street cop who finds himself a hero while mingling with some unsavory elements within his own police force. The third and most compelling act deals with the sons of these two men as they must deal with the sins of their fathers. This is pure drama, well acted and well told.
7. Captain Phillips
The film fell under some scrutiny and was subject to criticism for playing a little fast and loose with the details of the real life event upon which it was based. But films based on a true story rarely stick 100% to the facts so I’m not sure what people what people are complaining about. The plot revolves around two men, Tom Hank’s Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship, and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, a Somali pirate desperate for a big payday. Hanks is his usual stellar self, shining in material worthy of his attention. Abdi’s Muse is so much more than a bad guy. He’s a fully realized character with a conflicted and justified reasons for his actions. The final ten minutes feature a master class in physical acting from Hanks. Wonderful stuff.
6. Only God Forgives
The second feature to team director Nicolas Windig Refn with star Ryan Gosling is a highly stylized, minimalist masterpiece. It’s a very divisive movie probably because it’s so different from the pair’s earlier collaboration, Drive. And while I prefer that film, I can’t find anything to dislike about this one. The plot is a simple revenge tale that spirals out of control and leaves few unaffected. Gosling, with very little dialogue, is a soulless, emotionless man pressed into service by his domineering mother played to icy cold perfection by Kristin Scott Thomas. Vithaya Pansringarm is Lt. Chang, a Thai police with a biblical moral code. Chang is a fascinating, nuanced character. The film revolves around him and justifiably so. Refn’s on a roll. Hope he keeps it up.
5. Upstream Color
Every once in a while a movie comes along that is clearly the work of a unique and singular vision. This is such a film and that vision belongs to director/writer/cinematographer/editor/composer/actor/caterer Shane Carruth. His previous movie, the trippy time travel tale Primer, is a cult classic but this one should rise above that classification. It’s almost useless to describe the plot. It’s non-linear storytelling filled with vivid imagery and an aural landscape that brings to mind the very best of Terrence Mallick’s more esoteric work. The film is meant to speak to the viewer at a subconscious level, speaking to primal feelings of love and loss. And in that respect, it’s astoundingly successful. Carruth has only made 2 films in 10 years but they are obvious passion projects. If his next is as good as this, I’m willing to wait.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
The latest film from the Coen Brothers was criminally ignored by the Academy Awards voters but I doubt seriously they very much care. They’re gonna keep doing what they’re doing until they can’t do it anymore. I’m fine with that. This tale of a folksy rocker in the early 60′s proves that you don’t have to like the lead character to like the film. Llewyn is a bit dead inside since the death of his performing partner. He bounces from gig to gig, couch to couch, woman to woman. He can’t be bothered to feel anything because doing that would force him to feel everything. And that would kill him. He’s stuck in an endless loop of cynicism and apathy and frankly he deserves it. He makes beautiful music but his soul is as rotten as they come. This is classic Coen material.
Alfonso Cuaron, director of the magnificent Children of Men, delivers a stirring space movie that earned it’s spot on this list by reminding audiences of why they go to the movies in the first place. It’s a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible surrounded by an invested audience of fellow lovers of cinema. It features the some of the best use of modern 3D technology and incredible visual effects. The Oscar-nominated score by Steven Price propels the film as astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggle against all odds to survive a space walk gone disastrously wrong. The action never lets up and yet there’s time for some nice character development amid the spectacle. This is bold and beautiful film making.
This one is as small and as intimate as a film can get. It’s a Huck Finn for a new millennium, a classic coming of age tale steeped deep in the traditions and culture of the Arkansas riverbanks on which it was filmed. And it features another in a long string of fantastic performances by Matthew McConaughey. He is riveting as the swamp shaman exiled on an island waiting for true love to catch up to him and befriending two young boys looking for a hero. That no single character in this turns out to be exactly as they first appear is a credit to writer/director Jeff Nichols who is quickly emerging as one of America’s finest young filmmakers. It’s a rich vibrant movie that I’m certain I’ll watch again and again.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Solomon Northrup was a free black man born in New York during the height of slavery. In the 1840′s, he is torn from his family (a wife and two children) by two men and sold illegally into slavery in the South. The film recounts the next decade plus of his life as he is sold from plantation to plantation, master to master, trying to hide his education, trying to blend in, trying to survive. His ordeals are horrific. Director Steve McQueen challenges the viewer to look away as Northrup (portrayed brilliantly by Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) does what he must to get back to his family. The film is filled with great performances but none more great than those of Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender as Epps, who feels his right to own people is ordained by God. This is a masterwork of cinema and it’s the best movie of the year.