Rick's Top Films of 2013
After such an incredible year in film during 2012 as well as the frantic movie-viewing pace that Brian and I keep up during Oscar season, it was months before I entered a movie theater this year. And then, during late summer, I saw two films in one day that have both made this list and I hit the ground running. 2012 saw a multitude of masterpiece films and there’s just no way we may see that again for years to come. But I can’t think of a better way to follow that up than with the large quantity of high-quality films like we had in 2013.
These kind of years, it can get frustrating to discuss films. With only a couple of stunningly brilliant works in the mix, it really comes down to personal preference (perhaps swayed by favorite actors, directors or even subject matter) as to which ones rise to the tops of different lists. In fact, most of the films on my Honorable Mention list are on many others Top 10 (some even in the #1 slot). So let’s not spend too much time bickering whether this one is better than that one. Let’s rejoice that this year, there was something out there for everyone. My list runs the gamut: from major blockbuster to small budget and from serious subject matter to rollicking fun.
1) 12 Years a Slave—Steve McQueen has not shied away from controversial topics in his feature films. Following up his first two pictures on the Irish hunger strike and sex addiction with one of the most brutal depictions of slavery, he brings us his finest film to date. McQueen’s strength has been eliciting excellent performances from his actors and with this huge ensemble cast, led by the incomparable Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has long turned in wonderful supporting roles and is finally getting his time in the spotlight) there is not a weak link among them. Yes, the movie is hard to watch at times and McQueen refuses to lessen the impact, but instead utilizes long takes, hanging on to some of the images long beyond the borders of our comfort zone. Hans Zimmer’s scraping bass or soaring strings give way to the real song of the South: the incessant chirping of cicadas, a haunting sound that furthers the tension throughout. But the film is ultimately about hope, rising from the depths of despair like a gospel hymn, and steadfast determination to do more than survive: to live.
2) Fruitvale Station—Ryan Coogler’s debut film about Oscar Grant during the 24 hours before he was beaten on the train platform of San Francisco’s BART system owes much of its structure, strange as it may seem, to the mother of all “Day in the Life” stories: Mrs. Dalloway. From spending the day getting ready for a party to a quiet reflection of his past, culminating in a gathering that brings together many of the people met earlier in the day and the death of a significant character, all the major elements of the famed literary work are there, elevating the film to a higher level than might be garnered at a casual glance. Superb performances by Michael B. Jordan, Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer anchor this quietly powerful film.
3) The Great Gatsby—Lush excess and bountiful charm are the epitome of Jay Gatsby’s lifestyle and that’s just what you get from Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel. Visually stunning and quite faithful to its source material (despite some anachronistic music choices), it also boasts an excellent ensemble cast, including standout performances from Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki. Luhrmann’s introductory shots of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio framed by exploding fireworks) and Daisy (Mulligan amidst billowing curtains, coming off the screen in 3D) are excessive and delightful, personifying the lavishness of the wealthy in the Roaring Twenties.
4) August: Osage County—One of the most lauded of the last few decades, Tracy Letts’ play harkened back to the great American plays of Williams and O’Neill. Like many of those works, the characters are more interesting than what’s happening to them; relationships and interaction are more important than action. It took about the first 10 minutes of the movie for the theatricality of the film to settle for me, but once I adjusted to its level (or perhaps once the actors found surer footing—I’m going to be looking at that in subsequent viewings), I fully entered their world. These are people that makes us feel good about our own family arguments, because the magnitude of their drama dwarfs our squabbles. The film boasts a top notch cast with many terrific performances, but it’s Julia Roberts (giving the finest performance of her career), Chris Cooper (fantastic, why isn’t he getting more accolades for his work in this?) and Julianne Nicholson (who may have finally found the role that will break her out of the “I always like her, what’s her name again?” rut) that truly shine.
5) Gravity—A superbly-filmed, tension-filled adventure to say the least. But for all its action-packed sequences and 3D effects, it’s the quiet moments that give the film an emotional impact. Sandra Bullock is at her absolute best and during her one-sided communication pleas for help or when a tear rolls off her face and floats into the vacuous space of the movie theater, it’s impossible not to feel tethered to her plight. But perhaps what makes her most relatable to us is when she sits in front of a huge shuttle bank of nobs and controls and reaches for the manual to remember exactly what to do in this scenario. It’s a simple moment, but it brings her spacewalk journey completely down to earth.
6) Frozen—A fairytale for the new millennium and the rare Disney film that focuses on the bond of sisterhood. Full of beautiful animation, energetic songs and delightful characters, the film is a genuinely funny adventure. But it also playfully mocks some of the hallmarks all the classic Disney films: love at first sight, the power of true love’s kiss and the characters of trolls, princes and princesses. Fantastic performances and singing from Broadway stars Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana are the ice-ing on the cake.
7) Saving Mr. Banks—I’m a Disneyphile, pure and simple. That alone might have elevated this not quite perfect film into my Top 10. But add exceptional performances by Emma Thompson (her best role for years) and Colin Farrell (with a charming grace) as well as fantastic cinematography that continually nods its hat to the Mary Poppins movie and it easily found a comfortable spot here. The screenplay at times feels rushed in its transitions and certainly no one watching the film ever questions whether or not Mary Poppins will be made or if Dick Van Dyke will be in it; but this isn’t about a destination, it’s about the journey. So, sit back and enjoy the ride.
8) American Hustle—When you put this many Oscar winners and nominees together on a film, it’s bound to garner the Academy’s attention. But this romp of a film is everything I always wanted Ocean’s Eleven to be: a group of extremely talented people having the time of their lives working together. Anyone who goes in expecting more “Oscar bait” fare are bound to be disappointed. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are fantastic, Bradley Cooper continues to shine when working with director David O. Russell and Robert DeNiro almost made up for the catastrophe that was The Big Wedding.
9) Mud—Two boys (one an orphan living with his father’s sibling the other in a strained relationship with his single father) stumble into an adventure in the Mississippi Delta involving an outlaw on the run—it’s not hard to see the influence Mark Twain had on Jeff Nichols’s third feature film (his second, Take Shelter, appeared on this list in 2011). Like Twain’s work, a strong appeal of Mud is its focus on simple storytelling and downhome, believable characters. Matthew McConaughey gives his finest performance of this (or any) year and without having to resort to unhealthy physical transformations.
10) Lee Daniels’ The Butler—Sadly, the qualities that make The Butler such a great film are also the same ones that weigh it down. Its all-star cast is certain to be a draw and most of them turn in excellent performances. But, eventually, it becomes almost a game of “Who will be playing the next President and First Lady” and “How good do they look?” (The standouts for me were definitely Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans.) Encompassing such a large scope to track all of the Civil Rights Movement means that every scene, in what could almost be classified as a series of connected vignettes, is a major moment in time, which ultimately diminishes their power when they continually occur one after the other. Sometimes, the quiet moments of a film are most effective and The Butler only has a few. But one of the best is Adrienne Lenox and Terrance Howard together on the porch. When he commands her to get him another beer and she eventually does his bidding, look at her face. She seems to be the only one that realizes strides are being made for the black community, but women have yet to find a voice. It’s moments like this one (and Forrest Whittaker going to meet Obama in the White House) that give The Butler its heart.
I toyed with how many films to include here (and was given a bit of flak for including so many). But since in a lesser year of film, any one of these might have made my Top 10, I’m essentially making this a Top 20 list:
Dallas Buyers Club
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Inside Llewyn Davis
Wish You Were Here
What Maisie Knew
As in past years, what I really want to list here are those films getting universal acclaim that didn’t resonate with me: Captain Phillips and Nebraska. I didn’t mind Phillips, though I felt it needed to be streamlined and edited down by at least 20 minutes, and I really appreciated the screenplay of Nebraska, but felt most of the actors were not able to produce a believable moment, leaving me completely unconnected to the story. But, in truth, neither film was near the bottom of my list. The two bottom slots were filled by: