by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
I'm astonished at just how great a year, cinematically speaking, 2013 somehow morphed itself into. Back at the end of June, while I was struck at how solid things had been for independent and foreign titles, there were only two studio produced efforts, Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and Paul Fieg's The Heat, that were even part of the conversation. Now, six months later, the sheer volume of superlative film that has been on display this year is staggering and trying to compile any sort of 'best-of' list is a surprisingly difficult struggle.
Why? There's just too much good stuff! And, while I'm not complaining, I feel horrible that plenty of outstanding pieces of entertainment are undoubtedly going to be left out of the conversation, if only because it's impossible to list them all. Movies that in any other year would be a part of my top ten list barely scratch the 'honorable mention' category this time around, forcing me to rethink entirely how I compile these sort of recap articles in the first place.
Let's be honest, however. It isn't like any of us know for certain how time is going to judge a number of these motion pictures many of us in the critical establishment are heralding as masterworks. There's no guarantee we have another 1999 or 2007 on our hands, recent years widely considered to be magnificent. Additionally, I seriously doubt the 2013 lineup comes even close to equaling that of 1939, the year widely regarded as the greatest in cinema history. (Look it up and you'll instantly see why.) But that doesn't make these past 12 months at the multiplex any less stunning, and I for one am quite curious to see how history is going to judge a fair number of titles released this year.
Things to know before we get to the meat and potatoes of this recap: While Hollywood has much to be proud of as far as 2013 goes, it took until September before any real substantive risks were being taken, and for two-thirds of the year the volume of unadventurous sequels, reboots and lower-common-denominator also-rans was flabbergasting. More, it is in the world of the independents where true risk taking and innovation was found, a large volume of them hitting benchmarks the major studios could only dream of achieving.
There's more. This was a fantastic year for female characters in many ways: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Gravity and The Heat (those latter two featuring a 49-year-old Sandra Bullock) proving you could put a heroine front and center and still make major hay at the box office. Other hits included Identity Thief, The Conjuring, Blue Jasmine, We're the Millers, Mama and The Call, and while not all of those were exclusively female-driven, they're all close enough to being so, one would hope Hollywood will be smart enough to take notice all the same.
I could keep going on and on as far as over analyzing demographic and genre specifics of 2013's releases are concerned, but I should probably end things there and move on to announcing my picks for the year's best films. Instead of a top ten, I'm instead going to present a listing of 20 motion pictures I feel are without question the finest I had the pleasure to view this year, topped by two others I feel are 2013's best. We'll follow that with a slew of honorable mentions as well as the ten flicks I felt lurked at the bottom of the barrel.
Without further ado...here's my look back at a 2013 to remember:
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Her - Spike Jonze's character-driven, somewhat science fiction oriented romantic drama is a prescient, emotionally electric look at companionship, humanity, friendship and love, the likes of which boggles the imagination and enraptures the soul. Anchored with a performance from Joaquin Phoenix that's as multifaceted and as pure as anything I've seen this year, coupled with career-best work from Scarlett Johansson (in a vocal-only performance), Her is the type of blissful romance that stirs the heart while it also engages the mind. A smartly perceptive dissection of modern reliance upon technology and societal disconnect as we progress more and more online, Jonze also manages to construct a vibrant and involving human story easy to relate to and to fall in rapture with. As close to perfect as a movie can get.
2. Before Midnight - It shouldn't have been possible. Nine years since the last sequel, Before Sunset, and eighteen years since the release of Before Sunrise, director/writer Richard Linklater and co-writers and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy pick up the story of Jesse and Celine, with the pair on the cusp of 40 looking back at an almost decade of life spent together. Perceptive, insightful, moving and authentic, it's hard to imagine there has ever been a more exact and penetrating look at relationships and love over time than these three films. There is unrefined eloquence to what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have delivered that enraptures the soul, the truths they're all trafficking in ones every viewer everywhere can easily relate to.
THE REST OF 2013's BEST (alphabetic order)
o 12 Years a Slave - Director Steve McQueen's exacting portrait of a man thrust into the pits of slavery hell is as unflinching as it is necessary. In many ways, this is the year's most important motion picture. Lost in all the hyperbole, it's also one of its best, a movingly emotional drama acted to perfection by its incredible ensemble cast.
o Ain't Them Bodies Saints - Writer/director David Lowery's 1970s Texas-set small town criminal noir is a haunting tale of longing, forgiveness, friendship and love that echoes into the recesses of the soul. Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster give three of 2013's best performances sadly few are talking about.
o All Is Lost - Robert Redford is 'Our Man,' a lone sailor trapped in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a sinking vessel with no way to call for help. Filmmaker J.C. Chandor's epic tale of resilience and survival is a one of a kind action experience filled with delicate beats of emotion and nuance, transcending the simple nature of the narrative to become something universally timeless.
o American Hustle - David O. Russell's fictional take on the New York/New Jersey ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s is a freewheeling bleakly satirical con job that's as ribald and as uncouth as the story it is telling. Without a doubt, the best ensemble of the entire year, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence giving award-worthy performances certain to stand the test of time.
o Blue is the Warmest Color - A tale of longing, growth, maturation and sexual exploration that bends like a reed and floats across the skin like a brisk winter's breeze rolling in off a stormy coastline, Abdellatif Kechiche's Cannes prize-winner is an intimate human drama for the ages. A strong case could be made that newcomer Adèle Exarchopolous gives the performance - male or female - of the entire year.
o Captain Phillips - Director Paul Greengrass' involving and emotionally complex procedural is not so much a saga of heroism as it is a human story of a man willing to give everything he's got, including his own life, to ensure his crew makes it home to their own families alive. Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi are exceptional.
o The Counselor - Director Ridley Scott and author Cormac McCarthy's unjustly maligned and frustratingly ignored bleakly acidic character study of complicated people doing very bad things and meeting abhorrent ends is a malignantly fascinating morality play commenting on the here and now with pinpoint precision. A movie certain to stay with me for years and one I cannot wait to return to again.
o Dallas Buyers Club - Stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are superb in director Jean-Marc Vallée's true (well, true-ish) account of a homophobic Texas redneck who suddenly finds himself at the forefront of the AIDS crisis fighting for the lives and the rights of those who at one-time he abhorred. The glory of the film is that it never asks the viewer to forgive its hero (antihero?) for his numerous character flaws, showing him as he is and nothing more.
o Frances Ha - Director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig team up to deliver a sensational French New Wave-style character study of a twenty-something New Yorker coming to grips with the fact her life isn't turning out as she dreamt it would. Smart, funny, sad, emotional, but most of all authentic, this bubbly slice of a life coming into focus is a joyous exercise in pure cinema that can't help but make me smile.
o Frozen - Disney's stunning animated musical, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, is a superlative saga of sisterly love and devotion filled with sensational moments, winning comedy and incredible songs. The studio's best non-Pixar effort since Tangled, maybe even since 1991's hand-drawn Beauty and the Beast.
o Gravity - Sandra Bullock soars, in many ways quite literally, in director Alfonso Cuarón's jaw-dropping survival adventure. This photo-realistic story of a rookie astronaut pushed to the very limits of human endurance is a visceral and visual spectacle unlike anything else released in 2013. Unforgettable.
o Inside Llewyn Davis - Joel and Ethan Coen return with a drama of a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961 selfishly short circuiting every opportunity he gets for happiness at seemingly every turn. At the same time, he's a shockingly tender soul prone to random acts of blind kindness one doesn't see coming, making him a complicated drifter impossible to forget.
o Prisoners - A claustrophobically intense psychological thriller of two families torn to shreds when their little girls are abducted and the driven detective who finds maintaining emotional detachment from the intricacies of the case difficult as the chances of finding either alive dwindle away to nothing. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal give two of the best performances of their respective careers.
o Rush - Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are electrifying as 1970's Formula One superstars James Hunt and Niki Lauda in director Ron Howard's crackerjack adrenaline-filled drama of two athletes locked in fierce interpersonal battles yet doing so by still maintaining mutual respect for one for another. The movie gets inside the heads of its respective protagonists with mesmerizing efficiency, showcasing an ability to get the viewer's pulse racing with primeval ease.
o Short Term 12 - Writer/director Destin Cretton's feature debut borders on perfection, its story of driven twenty-somethings working at a Los Angeles short-term foster care facility one that feels immediate and alive in ways most films can only dream of coming close to, let alone equaling. The movie features a star-making turn by Brie Larson that's without question one of the year's finest.
o Side Effects - Steven Soderbergh's supposedly final theatrical effort (he claims to be retiring) is a suitably twisty - and twisted - Hitchcockian thriller that starts out looking like it is going to be telling one kind of story only to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer and actually be about something else entirely. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are in top-notch form, while the final third is a suitably fascinating bit of narrative sleight of hand that's positively ingenious.
o Upstream Color - Shane Carruth's marvelous dreamscape of inspiration, fantasy, science fiction, drama and romance is a beguiling mélange that morphs into multiple directions at once, its cryptic narrative devices fascinating and involving every step of the way. At the very least, I'll never look at a litter of piglets the same way ever again.
o The Wind Rises - Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki's final motion picture is a superlative effort chronicling, of all things, the birth of Zero Fighter, the Japanese airplane put to such devastating use during WWII. Miyazaki's genius is that he presents this human story with love, compassion and heartfelt understanding, never flinching from what this weapon will be used for, while at the same time celebrating the genius and passion it took to get it off of the ground.
o The Wolf of Wall Street - Martin Scorsese's fevered drug-addled dissection of Wall Street during the 1990s is an electrically charged curveball that's as audacious as it is eye-popping, its directorial excesses all part of a larger tale showing how unfettered resources bring out the worst in just about everyone. Leonardo DiCaprio is unhinged brilliance in the title role, his unfiltered stream-of-consciousness intemperance a sight to behold.
o You're Next - Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett take their talents to the next level, coming up with a nifty home invasion horror opus that has more tricks up its sleeve than a magician working the floor at a Las Vegas casino. The less known about this going in the better, just rest assured Aussie actress Sharni Vinson is on the road to becoming her generation's Sigourney Weaver, a very good thing indeed.
AN ADDITIONAL FIFTEEN (alphabetic order)
A Hijacking, Berberian Sound Studio, Byzantium, Fruitvale Station, Ginger & Rosa, Grabbers, The Heat, The Hunt, In a World..., It's a Disaster, Laurence Anyways, Mud, The Past, Prince Avalanche, Simon Killer
GREAT 2012 TITLES RELEASED DOMESTICALLY IN 2013 (alphabetic order)
Beyond the Hills, Blancanieves, In the House, Like Someone in Love, Yossi
1. A Good Day to Die Hard - By all accounts, a Die Hard movie made by people who has never actually watched a Die Hard movie in their entire lives. Unforgivable.
2. Identity Thief - Shockingly unfunny and borderline insulting road trip 'comedy' with Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy going through the motions doing everything they can to get the audience to despise them.
3. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Nonsensical potential franchise starter that's as stupid as it is unintentionally hysterical. Also makes the point that incest is just fine as long as you choose not to believe you're actually related. Fun!
4. Baggage Claim - Unwatchable romantic comedy that paints its main character as an absolute idiot whose worth is only ascertained if she happens to be married. Shameful.
5. After Earth - Smith family propaganda that potentially ruins one career (Jaden Smith), casts doubt on another (Will Smith), while attempting to nail the coffin lid shut on a third (director M. Night Shyamalan) ... an impressive trifecta indeed.
6. Argento's Dracula - Dario Argento used to be one of the most celebrated figures in Italian horror cinema. Sadly, those days are no more. This loose adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic is a cheap, badly acted and poorly constructed mess that should never have seen the light of day.
7. Romeo & Juliet - Misbegotten adaptation of the timeless Shakespeare play that is an astonishing disaster right from the jump, the whole thing a head-scratching mess that's more tragic than the doomed central lovers spiraling towards an unforgiving destiny.
8. Epic - An animated failure of, um, epic (sorry, couldn't help myself) proportions, this saga of a human girl shrunken down into a fantastical forest world of magic and imagination is equally devoid of both.
9. The Hangover Part III - The Hangover Part III is better than The Hangover Part II. Sadly, that's not saying all that much as this trilogy capper still ends up being nothing more than one of the worst films of the year.
10. Texas Chainsaw 3D - There was potential here; sadly, it was just never realized; and the final half of this direct sequel to the Tobe Hooper cult masterpiece is a silly, unbelievably stupid waste of time that repeatedly saws its own limbs at virtually every turn.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetic order)
Austenland, The Best Man Holiday, The Big Wedding, The Call, Free Birds, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, The Host, Kick-Ass 2, Kill Your Darlings, The Last Exorcism Part II, The Lone Ranger, Machete Kills, Olympus Has Fallen, Paranoia, Parker, Planes, R.I.P.D., Runner Runner, Spiders 3D, The Sweeney, Walking with Dinosaurs.
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