Posted January 17, 2014

 

Confession time. 

Making a Top 10 list is always a frustrating process for me.   

Unlike compiling lists of the worst films of the year – which I oddly love doing, as it gives me one last parting shot at the year’s most putrid movies – sorting through my feelings as to what the ten best reasons were to enter a movie theatre in the last 12 months is an unqualified challenge for me.  Perhaps not so much so that I don’t know what films deserve worthy placement on it, but rather because of which films should not make the final cut.  During the first half of 2013 I was beginning to wonder if I would even have enough choices to make a fully realized Top 10 list, but the bottom half of the year – as was the case in 2012 – was back heavy with many superlative releases.  This always precludes, almost by necessity, a need to craft not just a Top 10 list, but also a Top 25, as it allows for me to acknowledge the other truly memorable films that failed to make the Top 10, but nevertheless were terrific enough to get honorable mentions. 

As with every year, I always aim for an eclectic mixture of choices here, and this new list is no exception.  My choices include a couple of sci-fi thrillers, a near-futuristic romance, a few fact-based dramas, a biopic, an outdoor man versus nature survival thriller, a murder mystery, and a heist film, to name some.  I think that this year in particular I was bolder with my choice for the number one film, seeing as it barely registered on any other critic’s radar for even Top 10 recognition.  Alas, my ideology behind these lists is, above any other imperative, to make it personal and subjective.  I'm not out to impress or placate anyone else with my selections…other than myself. 

One last thing: My home city of Saskatoon is notoriously late when it comes to getting many last-minute film releases from the year, which means that there still remains a few films that I have not screened yet as of the date of this article’s publication.  Once I screen those films – and if they warrant inclusion here – I will amend my rankings accordingly. 

So, let us begin!  Here are the 25 BEST REASONS why you should have actively went to the movies in 2013...but first...MY TOP TEN!

 

Watch me talk about some of my picks on CTV:

 

 
 

1.   THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

 
 

THE PLACE BEHIND THE PINES is my choice for the best film of 2013, primarily because of the quiet and transfixing power that its vast and epically rendered storyline maintains.  It also cements its 38-year-old director, Derek Cianfrance (who previously made the masterful BLUE VALENTINE) as one of the most important and skilled filmmakers in American cinema.

He's the kind of inspired and intrepid new breed of director that only comes once in proverbial generation, and one that takes noteworthy risks, avoids criminally overused Hollywood clichés and conventions, and forges ahead by telling unique and authoritative stories that feel both familiar and novel at the same time.  Much like, as odd as this comparison sounds, THE GODFATHER saga, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a sprawling family drama that chronicles how the sins of two sets of fathers have unavoidable consequences for their sons.  Cianfrance’s film is atypically bold in the way it tells a multi-generational story – in three separate vignettes, covering a period of two decades – and, in turn, simply, but brilliantly, shows how the first story arc segues into the second and, in turn, into the third.  There’s a dark undercurrent of Greek tragedy to the film, seeing as the unsuspecting sons of the narrative are forced to deal with the past indiscretions of their respective fathers, and it all comes to a head in the film’s mesmerizing final act.  There are so very few dramas that exist with the same limitless narrative ambition of Cianfrance’s film.  As I said in my review of it from last April, “I’m pretty confident that I will not see a finer film in all of 2013 than THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES."  

And I didn't.

 

2.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

At 71-years-old, director Martin Scorsese does not seem to be missing a creative beat.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – his fifth collaboration with star Leonardo DiCaprio – is proof positive of this assertion, and it just may be one of the most unabashed and chaotic films of the legendary director’s career.  3 hours long and made with headstrong and daring vision, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET tells the reality based story of Jordan Belfort, whom started his career modestly on Wall Street and then, when Black Monday occurred in 1987, he found himself reduced to peddling penny stocks to middle income families.  Yet, he got so good at swindling people he churned out his own business empire, which caught the eyes of the feds.  Much has been said that Scorsese’s film celebrates duplicitous minded and unsympathetic corporate crooks.  It doesn’t so much celebrate them as it does present them at their most deplorably self-serving, and DiCaprio is an unspeakable force of nature as the screaming and strutting Belfort.  From its opening shot to its rather hauntingly cynical end, Scorsese has us hooked, like a grand cinematic master that he is, in this deplorably amoral world.

3.  GRAVITY

What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said about the Herculean cinematic achievement that is director Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY?  Like the great technological watershed films – like STAR WARS and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY before it – GRAVITY imagines an on-screen world that’s impossible, yet made possible via the usage of mind-bogglingly immersive and cutting edge visual effects, the likes of which have not been seen in a film in an awfully long time.  During all of GRAVITY’S exemplarily paced 97 minutes (the perfect length for a film like this), I became less and less conscious of my theatrical surroundings and instead felt like I was an active witness to what was transpiring on screen (in this story’s case, an astronaut – played in her finest performance of her career by Sandra Bullock – gets marooned in space and is left all alone and with no help in sight).  Like all great works of pure, out-of-body escapism, GRAVITY audaciously and stunningly transports you away from the everyday outside of the cinema.  This is a film to stare at the screen…in endless awe and wonder…and how wonderful is it for a film to do that in this day and age when truly visionary films are so hard to come by.

4.  12 YEARS A SLAVE

Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, kind of akin to SCHINDLER’S LIST, is an unflinching indictment of a most dreadful and unjust social-cultural sin, in its case American slavery.  Like Spielberg’s 1993 film, McQueen here paints an unrelentingly raw and brutally harsh portrait of the inherent barbarism of its shameful subject matter.  Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name, 12 YEARS A SLAVE tells the story of Solomon Northup (played in a bravura performance by Chiwetel Ejiofer), a free black man and musician that lived in Washington in 1841, during which time he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  As impossibly horrendous as it seems, Northup would remain a slave for a dozen years until ultimately rescued and freed.  All of McQueen’s films focus on the dark underbelly of society (like SHAME and HUNGER, both making my Top 10 Films list of their respective years), and the director certainly carries that thematic thread forward in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which just might be the most emotionally shattering portrayals of slavery ever committed to celluloid. 

5.  HER

I can see how this film could have been an unmitigated and unintentionally laughable disaster.  After all, it’s a near-futuristic film about how a lonely and shy divorcee becomes smitten and falls in love with his – ahem – new artificially intelligent operating system on his computer.  Yet, writer/director Spike Jonze is no dummy, not to mention that he always takes calculate risks and creative gambles with his films (see ADAPTATION, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE).  The miracle of HER is that he crafts not only a great science fiction film with topical themes that resonate (humankind’s increasing reliance and fixation on technology versus real flesh and blood ties), but he also makes the central romance between his main character, Theodore (played with such endearing awkwardness and vulnerability by Joaquin Phoenix) and his OS Samantha (or "operating system", voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in a thanklessly great performance) feel as authentic and exploratory as any relationship between two people.  Johansson’s performance is arguably the trickiest, as she has to embody a character in mind, spirit, and voice only that learns like any human being can.  HER, despite its otherwise out-there premise, is one of the most memorably provocative films of the year, and one that has a considerable amount to say about the fragility of the human condition.

 

 6.  FRUITVALE STATION

FRUITVALE STATION was one of the most gut-wrenchingly sad and distressing films that I screened in 2013.  It tells the hellish fact-based story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man that was brutally shot and killed by a police officer while at the Oakland BART station in 2009.  What this film does – from first time director Ryan Coogler, a superb debut – is dramatize the 24 hours leading towards Grant’s shameful and preventable death.  Refreshingly, FRUITVALE STATION does not go out of its way to make Grant a hero (he was a deeply troubled man in his own respect), but there is not denying that he was a rather unfortunate victim in a pointless tragedy.  Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Grant elevates him as one of the new must-see actors working today, and Coogler’s build-up towards the film’s nightmarish climax is riveting.  FRUITVALE STATION is an undeniably sad film, but it’s an important one to see and one made with supreme confidence and tact.

  7.  UPSTREAM COLOR

I’ll be honest with you.  One viewing of Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR may not be enough to decipher its secrets, because I’m simply unable to describe to you precisely what happened in the film from a single screening.  The film, the long-awaited follow-up to Carruth’s own 2004 time travel mind bender PRIMER, makes that rookie effort look positively straightforward and simple minded by direct comparison.  Yet, despite the fact that his new film avoids traditional storytelling mechanics and never goes down a linear path, UPSTREAM COLOR has a hallucinogenic power and allure that so many 2013 films lacked.  Part sci-fi INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS-like parable, part love story, and part infection thriller...it's sort of indecipherably hard to define.  Yet, the film achieves a kind of brilliance because of the manner it teases us with scenarios, ideas, and questions that ultimately don’t have simple resolutions.  Carruth’s film works more as an experience that washes over us than it does as a traditional film to just passively watch, and it’s that kind of fearless ambition and boldness that makes it worthy of being placed on this list.   

8.   AMERICAN HUSTLE

 

Writer/director David O. Russell has made of career of penetrating deep into the flawed headspaces of his emotionally damaged characters (see SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER) and he does much of the same in AMERICAN HUSTLE, an epically plotted, wondrously stylized, immaculately acted, and oftentimes hysterical 1970’s caper/period film.  Of course, like all great heist films, AMERICAN HUSTLE contains, yes, an elaborately staged and implemented heist, but the pleasure of Russell’s film is in what an involving character piece it is; it showcases a menagerie of twisted crooks (both outside of and on the side of the law) that become entangled in predicaments that spiral out of their control.  The film is not only a crackerjack crime saga, but also an evocatively cast and performed ensemble drama.  And, sure, complaints have been levied that Russell’s overall style borrows heavily from the works of Martin Scorsese (GOODFELLAS in particular), but the similarities prove to be superficial at best, seeing as AMERICAN HUSTLE is a true American original, filmed with a dazzling display of craft and gusto by its director.

  
 

9.  PRISONERS

 

Many have forgotten about PRISONERS since it was released way back in September, especially on the awards nomination circuit.  I have not been able to get this engrossing thriller out of my mind since my initial screening.  Here’s a film about a man (Hugh Jackman, as ferociously empowered as he ever has been) that desperately tries to discover the whereabouts of his apparently kidnapped child, which leads him towards a suspect (Paul Dano).  When the police do little (only circumstantial evidence exists), the father takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps the suspect, after which time he brutally tries to torture the truth out of him.  What PRISONERS does with such a compelling and haunting impact is that it poses intricately tough ethical questions on viewers without directly answering them: When do the ends justify the means?  Does one’s insatiably search for the truth and justice cloud their sense of reason or actually give one a justifiable reason to take the law into their own hands?).  The film is a densely layered and masterfully constructed who-dunnit that trusts audiences.  It has moments or pure barbarism that will make you flinch and turn away, but there’s no mistaking this film’s hypnotic allure and power.

10.  ALL IS LOST

 

ALL IS LOST works effectively as the antithesis of GRAVITY.  Whereas Cuaron’s film is a tale of human survival in outer space, J.C. Chandor’s work is about human survival in the middle of the ocean.  Yet, like GRAVITY, ALL IS LOST is a harrowing portrait of a person battling the elements in a desperate effort to stay alive, and at the heart of Chandor’s sophomore effort (coming after his terribly underrated Oscar nominated MARGIN CALL) is its 77-year-old star, Robert Redford, who performs solo in the film.  He plays a nameless man that has his vessel struck by a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which causes it to very slowly and methodically sink into the sea.  What’s so mesmerizing about ALL IS LOST is how involving it is as a primal and visceral experience, and the film pays handsomely off of Redford’s iconic stoicism and inner strength as an actor.  It’s difficult for any actor – especially one at Redford’s age and career tenure – to completely hold a film together, but he does so with one of the more deceptively undercranked performances of 2013.  Redford, and this film, is simply a treasure to behold.

 
  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2013 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  MUD: From TAKE SHELTER director Jeff Nichols came this wonderful modern day homage to TOM SAWYER and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.   

 

12.  THE SPECTACULAR NOW:  One of the finest portrayals of young adolescent love that I've seen recently, featuring Oscar caliber performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.

 

13.  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS:  Tom Hanks' searing performance in this Paul Greengrass fact-based thriller made for an unbelievably intense and riveting thriller. 

 

14.  THE ICEMAN:  Michael Shannon gave one of the most fierce performances of the year in this true life tale of a hitman that killed over 100 men in his career.

 

15.  BEHIND THE CANDELABRA: Michael Douglas deserved his recent Golden Globe win for his portrayal of Liberace in the Steven Soderbergh directed HBO film. 

 

16.  NEBRASKA:   Bruce Dern and Will Forte (!) made for one of the most effective pairings in any late 2013 film; Alexander Payne's direction was note perfect.

 

17.  DALLAS BUYERS CLUB:  The career rejuvenation of Matthew McConaughey hit new highs in his unflinching performance as a man riddled by AIDS in the 1980's   

 

18.  ONLY GOD FORGIVES:  Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to DRIVE was one of the most beautifully shot and atmospheric films of 2013.

 

19.  OUT OF THE FURNACE:  Christian Bale continued to make a claim for being of the finest actors of his generation in this Scott Cooper directed family drama.

 

20FRANCES HA:  Great Gerwig is a pure and infectious delight in this terrific Noah Baumbach comedy.

 

21.  PHILOMENA:  Judi Dench gives an absolutely heartbreaking performance in this reality based tale of a woman engaged in five decades long search for her long lost child.

 

22.  SPRING BREAKERS:  Harmony Korine's button-pushing drug and alcohol imbued beach party film showcases a deliriously unhinged and Oscar worthy James Franco quarterbacking all of its inherent madness.

23.  THE WAY WAY BACK:  A witty and spot-on script for this spirited coming-on-age film made it a real winner.

24.  DON JON:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut - chronicling a man suffering from an addiction to Internet porn - shows that he has the goods of a natural filmmaker.  

25.  STOKER:  A stylish, dark, and macabre horror thriller, marking the American debut of revered South Korean director Chan-wook Park.

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
 

DEAD MAN DOWN:  Stylish, atmospheric, and deeply underrated thriller from the director of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.    

WARMS BODIES:  An infectiously likeably and unique blend of ROMEO AND JULIET with...post-apocalyptic zombies; amazingly, it works rather well.  

SIDE EFFECTS: Steven Soderbergh's last theatrically directed film is an inspired thriller typified by intrinsically fascinating themes 

STAND UP GUYS: The dream team pairing of stars Al Pacino and Christopher Walken made this mob-comedy rather memorable.   

ESCAPE PLAN: Speaking of cinematic dream teams!  Au-nald and Sly together - headlining an action film - was as predictably enjoyable on every schlocky intended level.   

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN: The only DIE HARD film worth seeing in 2013; BTW - skip 2013's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.

OBLIVION: A sensationally envisioned and directed sci-fi action thriller from the director of TRON: LEGACY 

UPSIDE DOWN: Compelling sci-fi romance regarding two topsy-turvy universes that coalesce with one another; visually breathtaking.    

MAN OF STEEL:  A well realized reboot of the iconic DC Comics flagship character took the hero in new directions while remaining relatively pure to his mythos.

THIS IS THE END: The literal end of the world as we know it has rarely been as side-splittingly funny as presented here.

WORLD WAR Z:: Yeah, yeah...this is nothing like the celebrated Max Brooks novel, but the film successfully uses its literary source material as a springboard to tell an exemplarily crafted and tense zombie thriller.

THE WOLVERINE:  A far cry better than the last WOLVERINE film, which wonderfully bridges the gap between popcorn spectacle and a more introspective and grounded portrayal of Marvel's most popular mutant.

ELYSIUM:  Criminally underrated sci-fi actioneer from DISTRICT 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp was stunningly realized and exceedingly well directed.   

DRINKING BUDDIES: A very atypically rendered dramedy that captures the daily transgressions of male/female relationships with a remarkable authenticity 

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE: One of the best pure sequels of recent memory, which took the established story and themes from the just-okay first film and wholeheartedly expanded upon them

GANGSTER SQUAD:  Rueben Fleischer's follow-up to ZOMBIELAND was a fairly well-oiled and great looking period action thriller. 

BROKEN CITY:  An intrinsically lurid and immersive city hall corruption thriller that never once was dull. 

THE LAST STAND:  Certainly not indicative of the finest action pictures of the Schwarzenegger of old, but this action flick had fun at the expense of the former California Governor's advancing years. 

DARK SKIES: This micro-budget sci-fi horror thriller drummed up enough tangible scares and story intrigue to make it stand out from the pack. 

SNITCH: Dwayne Johnson gave a nicely understated performance in this finely attuned action thriller.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL:  A colorful, spirited, and mostly endearing return the magical cinematic land somewhere over the rainbow.  

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE: Steve Carell and Jim Carrey were memorably amusing in this dueling-illusionists comedy.

PHIL SPECTOR:  Al Pacino is a true stand-out in this absorbing HBO film.   

QUARTET: Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, which explored the world of retired tenors, is sublimely enjoyable. 

JURASSIC PARK 3D:  A mostly unnecessary 3D upconversion (which is pretty well done) of Spielberg's groundbreaking 1993 classic still holds up well on the big-screen.

IRON MAN 3: A solid return to form for the Tony Stark-infused metal-clad super hero franchise, especially after a not-so-solid middle installment.   

TRANCE:  Danny Boyle's cerebral thriller is INCEPTION-lite, to be sure, but as a brain-warping exercise in pure showmanship from the stylish director, the film got the job done.

FAST AND FURIOUS 6:  The sixth - yup, that's SIXTH! - film in the long running auto-porn franchise still managed to find new and novel ways to present vehicular mayhem.  

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP:  A strong and assured return to directorial form for Robert Redford.  

ROOM 237: A mostly fascinating - if not frequently bizarre - documentary exploring the history, imagery, and themes of Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING.    

THE HEAT:  Very amusing female/buddy cop film featuring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy; a refreshing sight in a mostly male centric genre.  
 
2 GUNS:  B-grade bordering on C-grade action film trash, but it's proficiently made trash featuring a lively tandem of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.

THE EAST: A reasonably engrossing and wonderfully acted eco-political thriller.

CLEAR HISTORY: This Larry David co-scripted and starring HBO satire was consistently hysterical and appeased those most loyal to the CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM star. 

RIDDICK:  The third film in the RIDDICK sci-fi trilogy returned the franchise to its more satisfying, hard-R rated edged glory.

THE FAMILY:  This Luc Besson mob action-comedy has some deliciously amusing shout-outs to star Robert De Niro's past film resume.

RUSH: This Ron Howard directed / Peter Morgan scripted reality based sports film about the world of 1970's F1 racecar drivers contains astounding race footage and a scene-stealing performance by Daniel Bruhl.  

CARRIE:  De Palma's 1976 version is still the one to actively seek out, but this Kimberly Peirce remake offers some subtle tweaks to the original's story that's worthy of your investment.  

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING:  Joss Whedon-ized adaptation of one of the Bard's most cherished romantic comedies is low-key, stylish, and jubilantly acted.

ENDER'S GAME:  Endlessly intriguing thematic material and strong performances anchored this adaptation of Orson Scott Card's book. 

MAN OF TAI CHI: Whoa, this Keanu Reeves directed martial arts action flick proves that he has the chops of a shrewd and cunning filmmaker.   

ABOUT TIME:  New romcom from LOVE ACTUALLY director Richard Curtis spins laughs and pathos amidst its decidedly out-there time travel premise. 

BYZANTIUM: Director Neil Jordon returned to the world of vampires in 2013, and the results were a handsomely envisioned and intriguing addition to the genre.   

THE TO DO LIST:  Raunchy, vulgar, and definitely deserving of its R rating, but this Aubrey Plaza sex comedy was both boundaries pushing and sweetly sentimental all at once.     

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES:  Don't act like you were not impressed with this very funny sequel to the iconic 2004 original

47 RONIN:  A mostly effective and beautiful looking samurai film that blends history, folklore, and fantasy fairly well. 

 

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY:  A very sweet tempered story of self-discovery, picturesquely directed by Ben Stiller.   

SAVING MR. BANKS:  Sugarcoated, to be fair, but wholeheartedly engaging fact-based drama about Walt Disney trying to securing the film rights to MARY POPPINS.   

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY:  The film's remarkably empowered performances made this film about a toxically dysfunctional family all the more endurable.   

SHORT TERM 12:  This indie drama about at-risk youth care facility workers was a tad too short and underdeveloped, but the film packed an overwhelmingly powerful emotional punch.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS:  The Coen Brothers' beautifully shot and powerfully acted portrait of the early 1960's folk music scene.  

 

 

   

 

 
     
 

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