The Top 10 Films of 2013

So much can change in a few days, even a few hours.  At the beginning of December I was quite indifferent about 2013's year in film.  There were a handful of movies that I truly loved.  There was the third "Before" film, "Before Midnight," John Krokidas's first feature film "Kill Your Darlings," and "Gravity," Alfonso Cuaran's blockbuster space opera.  The true standouts were "12 Years a Slave," a film like no other I had seen before and "Fruitvale Station," the one film that inspired me enough to come out of my summertime Oscar hibernation and actually write something.   I had quite a blast with both "Bling Ring" and "The Canyons" although I wasn't sure if I was partially swayed by my new Los Angeles setting when it came to "The Canyons" or my undying commitment to all things Coppola with "The Bling Ring."  And "The Butler" was highly entertaining, heart tugging, and honest with some very good performance.  But 8 films do not a top 10 make.

By year's end I attended one film festival (Q Films) in Long Beach, seeing two movies: the highly disappointing "G.B.F" and the slightly entertaining "Reaching For the Moon."  I had hoped to see more, but couldn't really take off days at my new restaurant job.  Without Tribeca Film Festival I was very behind on documentaries, and with no New York Film Festival I hadn't caught the Cannes favorites that often show there.  I did attend a couple of premieres shortly after moving to Los Angeles.  There was Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," which I think is his best since "Bullets Over Broadway," and the aforementioned "Kill Your Darlings." And I attended my first LA Academy screening with "Rush" a fantastic thrill ride I could hardly believe was helmed by Ron Howard.  10 films...only 10 films I actually liked after 11 months.

Then, on December 3rd I saw "Inside Llewyn Davis," the newest Coen Brothers film.  I remember being in NYC at my personal assistant job earlier this year and posting the trailer ...I think I watched about half of it...not thinking much about it.  But this is a Coen brothers movie...I should have known better.  Leaving the screening room I finally had that wonderful feeling.  My top 10 was suddenly alive.  There was a frontrunner for my top slot.  I knew deep in my gut that no film could possibly unseat it.  Yeah, right....

Around December 13th things started to change, rapidly.  I saw and was floored by "Dallas Buyers Club," I pretty much hated "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug,"  was a bit unsure about "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" and missed for the third time "August: Osage County" and "Her."  But I did manage to get into a screening of the Chilean film "Gloria" as well as get my hands on screeners of "Wadja" the first Saudi Arabian entry for the Academy Awards, "The Armstrong Lie" and Asghar Farhadi's "The Past."  When I finally watched the palm d'or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color" I suddenly had the tightest race for the top I had ever experienced and 2013 had gone from meh to spectacular.  

I finished 2013 by rewatching 4 films that were vying for the last few slots as well as finally catching "Her," early morning on New Year's Day.  My Mom and Dad always say that whatever you do on New Year's Day, you will do all year.  I started 2014 in the movie favorite place to be.  

1.  Dallas Buyers Club

Last year, seeing "How To Survive a Plague" I was reminded that although the story of the AIDS epidemic has changed over the years, the tale is far from over.  Understanding how we, as a collective country, managed to close our eyes to this murderer, is still as important as ever.  Especially as we easily, almost sadistically mob-bash pop stars and fake rednecks while (not to be a pessimist) actual evil lurks around the corner.  But, I do believe people can change.  Take Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof for that example.  Faced with the life ending illness that was the 1980's AIDS virus, he fought for a way to prolong his life, and eventually others lives as well.  "Dallas Buyers Club" shows us the terrible mistakes we made as doctors, activists, and human beings.  And it shows us with flawed characters.  Heroes, but not angels.

2.  Blue is the Warmest Color

"Blue is the Warmest Color" is one of the most beautiful depictions of falling in love I have ever seen.  A true work of art.  And it is absolutely anchored by the best performance of the year, given by Adele Exarchopoulos.  These are bold statements about a film that many have called daring and bold itself.  But I found it to be much simpler than that.  Is it daring to show true emotion and feeling on screen?  Perhaps.  But I never felt like I was invading something sacred watching this film, although it came very close during a fight between Adele and Emma (played by Lea Seydoux), the only moment I wondered just how far director Abdellatif Kechiche might have pushed his actors.  But that feeling was brief.  I quickly understood my unease was seeing two actors portray a truth I had witnessed in real life...experienced in real life.  Emma's absolute anger and Adele's absolute pain.  I have not stopped thinking about Adele.  And will not for some time.

3.  Inside Llewyn Davis

Although I have loved Coen Brothers films I have never been moved by one like I was with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Whether a good or a bad thing I absolutely felt a connection with Llewyn, a slightly jaded, talented, yet unsuccessful folk musician trying to make it as a solo artist after his duo act partner committed suicide. I was pretty much hooked from the start, loving every moment spent with Llewyn, watching him not quite appreciate all the people in his life who wanted to love, help and support him—the very unique characters (as per usual with the Coen's) we met along the way, from the record producer and his wife, Carey Mulligan's Jean, Justin Timberlake's Jim, Adam Driver's Al, and especially the Gorfein's (Robin Bartlett and Ethan Phillips). But it is Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn who makes “Inside Llewyn Davis” shine.  

4.  12 Years a Slave

It is not easy to qualify Steve McQueen's “12 Years a Slave.” Especially without using phrases like “important,” “never before seen,” “difficult to watch...” all the things so many other have said already. The acting is impeccable, especially from Michael Fassbender (who it pained me to leave off my top 10 performances of the year) Bendedict Cumberbatch, Sara Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o and of course Chiwetel Ejiofor. Perhaps it is the fact that such a diverse group of people, real people have never been portrayed so truthfully, each with multiple facets and layers telling a story of slavery. The truth can be painful, but it is something that needs to be faced, especially if we are ever to truly move on.


5.  Fruitvale Station

I knew the moment the film was over that I had seen a brilliant movie, and incredibly sad story.  But sad story doesn't really cover it.  And, although the film is brilliant on its own merits...the acting, the screenplay, the direction and the remarkable cinematography...after it is over it becomes something more.  Michael B. Jordan is riveting as Oscar. And supporting him are Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz (as Oscar's girlfriend and mother of Tatiana, Sophia) representing the heart of the film.  Saying too much here is not worth you missing out on the journey of "Fruitvale's" story.  

The true stars of the film are Ryan Coogler, the first time feature director and cinematographer Rachel Morrison.  With few exceptions the film uses incredible simplicity to convey real life struggle, tragedy, grief and hope.  Two scenes with Oscar and Sophia in the bedroom explore true intimacy and difficulty between the couple, showing the fine line between sexual desire and domestic disagreements.   And a simple shot of Oscar at the coast literally discarding his troubled past into the water proves that brilliant cinematography sometimes needs only to observe our surroundings.

6.  Before Midnight

This summer, while I was still in Mississippi I traveled up to Memphis, TN to see a wonderful double feature of "The Bling Ring" and "Before Midnight." If any of you out there have not seen the amazing "Before" trilogy, it follows the story of Jesse and Celine, who meet on a train in Europe, decide to get off the train, and spend the night together before parting ways, agreeing to meet again but not exchanging numbers or information...because that might destroy the magic.  Jesse is played by Ethan Hawke and Celine is played by the amazing Julie Delpy. (They also share screenwriting credit with director Richard Linklater.) Did they meet again like they said they would?  The 2nd film, "Before Sunset," set and made 10 years later, answers that question.  With "Before Midnight" we see where they are in their relationship based on the decisions made at the end of "Sunrise."  With dialogue that seems completely conversational and real (Delpy told me nothing is improv'd everything is scripted...even blocking at times...remember when she almost touches him in the cab in "Sunrise." Yes...that's in the script!) there has never been anything like these films.  "Midnight" is even better than its predecessors because of the added layers from the previous film.  You believe these characters have known each other for 20 years.  And everyone hopes to meet them again. 

7.  Kill Your Darlings

There is a moment early on in Kill Your Darlings when Allen Ginsburg, pre-published, pre-fame poet, having just entered Columbia University becomes completely enraptured by Lucien Carr, another student at odds with rhyme, meter and the norm on the stairs of their Columbia University dormitory.
Earlier, Ginsberg has observed Carr in the library on a new student tour, putting on a show for the room by quoting cock laden/banned poetry. And now, while the rest of the students are attending a social, Lu verbally seduces Allen for the first time, dangling the idea of a new vision for life and poetry in front of him. During the seduction Allen receives a call from his Mother, back at home in New Jersey, mentally disturbed and begging for Allen to return. The old life versus the possible.

Should Allen plunge into this new vision with Lucien, or does he stay on the strict path to ordinary success, forgoing the mundane and ride Carr’s anti social wave all the way down to Christopher St, the land of the fairies (as his new Arian jock of a roommate has described it.)…where Lucien will introduce Allen to the likes of William S. Burroughs and David Kammerer, an older professor turned janitor that Lucien has known for quite some time (and the murder victim we see being held by Lucien…dying at the very beginning of the film)?

That moment on the stairs of the dormitory when Allen decides to follow the Pied Piper is the same moment I became hooked as well. Allen’s heart must have been racing…because mine was.

8.  American Hustle

When I first saw “American Hustle” I wasn't sure how I felt about the film as a whole.  I knew for sure that I had had a blast...and the acting...yes...absolutely top notch.  But I felt a little indifferent about the whole thing, to be honest.  

Luckily I was able to watch it again before making this list and it became clear that I absolutely loved it.  There are nods to Martin Scorsese...which I tried to ignore the first time around, but this is not a Scorsese film.  It is David O'Russell through and through.  On a second viewing any messy bits of plot execution are completely ironed out...when Sydney tells Irving that she is going to get close to Bradley Cooper's Richie and he might not like it, I barely noticed the exchange the first time around, but on the 2nd viewing it landed more deliberately with a sense of foreshadowing that made the moments ahead so much more valid, leading to a very satisfying, even if predictable ending.   

9.  The Wolf of Wall Street

Speaking of Scorsese...the master himself lands at number 9.  I said on twitter the other day that I hate reading reviews of Scorsese films, mostly because half the critics feel like they have something to prove when attempting to analyze his work.  Scorsese is a master, plain and simple.  That being said, sometimes he makes better films than others.  "Hugo" and "The Departed" are recent stand outs.  "Gangs of New York," a film I loved...a little messy.  OK..a lot messy.  And so is "The Wolf of Wall Street."   But this is a good messy...and works for the film.  It is almost paced like one of the film's drug binges.  You ride high for a long time with Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio's stock broker), heart racing, watching him make millions, blow lines and have lots of sex.  Then there is a come down period, he gets the sweats, repeats himself and things start to labor just a bit.  And then, repeat...till the binges run out and consequences are faced.  But, who cares if the film isn't perfect.  It is its own unapologetic beast, 100% Marty.  And Leonardo DiCaprio is, yet again, amazing.  

10.  Gravity

If you have read Awards Wiz, my work on Awards Daily...or pretty much been in the room with me during the Oscars, you know about my frontrunner problem.  I really like a film.  Then I see something I really love.  That first film becomes the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture...and suddenly I hate it.  The prime example from recent years is "The King's Speech."  Well, I loved "Gravity" when I saw it. When I left the theatre I had to sit in my car for a moment to remind myself that I wasn't in space.  Then came about 40 other films and "Gravity" left my thoughts.  Preparing my top 10 I knew I had to leave off films that I really loved.  "Nebraska," and "The Bling Ring" were very difficult to add to the honorable mentions list.  And while I loved "Her," especially on an intellectual level, I was ultimately left a bit cold.  As "Gravity" landed on so many top 10 lists (the top of Kris Tapley, Ann Thompson, and Scott Feinberg's) I decided to revisit it.  I'm so glad I did.  Although it was a close race...Bullock holding the picture frame in space came very close to allowing "Bling Ring" this spot!  But the good far outweighs the picture frame.  The acting, the direction, pacing, visuals, is all so perfectly composed.  "Gravity" is a brilliant symphony.

Honorable Mention
The Bling Ring
20 Feet From Stardom
The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell
The Armstrong Lie
Blue Jasmine


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