2013 was a year of exceptional quality for the movies (possibly the best cinematic year of the new century). Those who repeatedly comment on the death of cinema simply aren’t paying any attention (or are making the wrong moviegoing choices).
Early in the year, I may not have been as optimistic. No film on the 2013 list was released prior to June (9 of the 10 on my list were released in the Fall/Winter season; 3 of these 9 were released in the last ten days of the year). This isn’t reflective of any long-term memory issues I’m battling but rather the studios’ decisions to backload the year with premium releases (thus, increasing the pictures’ eligibility for Oscar consideration).
Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is the best film of 2013; my criteria for selecting this year’s best film was that which was the most transformative experience. Joaquin Phoenix plays perhaps his most grounded character as a recently divorced man in a not-so-distant future in Los Angeles. He’s a poignantly lonely guy who finds new love….with his smartphone’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Is this where our addictions with technology are taking us? Mr.Jonze has taken romance into the virtual realm and the result is the year’s strangest, most relatable (and yes, best) romance. The picture is beautifully photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Jonze’s long takes emphasize the importance of looking at another person in length. And the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson (who we never see but hear) are perfectly calibrated. Never before has a film so perfectly illustrated how technology connects everyone to the world but isolates us from true human contact. Following the screening of ‘Her’, I sat in a cafe taking quiet notice of the ratio of people staring into their portable device versus those having face-to-face conversations. ‘Her’ is what we talk about when we talk about greatness in film. Currently playing in theaters in limited release – opens wide on January 10, 2014.
2. ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ is about a young woman’s passage from curiosity to heartbreak as she falls in love with a slightly older woman. Great movies give viewers the opportunity to share the identities and experiences of its characters. For 187 minutes (and what appears to be 6-7 years in the life of the film’s protagonist), her life is your life. Yes, this is a controversial pick as much has been said about the film’s explicit sex scenes. I didn’t find them to be exploitive – Mr.Kechiche is intent on capturing the completeness of Adele’s experience; thus, sexuality is a critical component (as well as food, art, education, occupation, social class). Not only is the picture a master class of acting but it has the courage to tell us that it’s the end of love that shows us what we’re made of. Currently playing @ TIFF Bell Lightbox & will be available on DVD/BR February 11, 2014.
3. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
The Coen Brothers are among the best filmmakers on the planet and though ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ may never attract the universal adoration of ‘Fargo’, ‘No Country For Old Men’, or ‘The Big Lebowski’, these guys are still operating at the top of their game. The film’s protagonist is a self-defeating folk singer who spends a cold week in 1961 trying to figure out if he has a future in Greenwich Village folk beat (or anywhere else). Was he born too soon? Too late? Or is it just plain rotten luck? The musical performances from Oscar Isaac (who is first and foremost an actor) are hauntingly beautiful. Rarely has a ballad of bad luck and squandered talent felt so devastatingly real. Currently playing in theaters in limited release.
4. ’12 Years A Slave’
’12 Years A Slave’ is quietly, distinctly one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. When I saw this in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I said that this was clearly the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar and I still believe that to be true. This true story about an accomplished family man and musician in the 1840s who was kidnapped, shipped to the South, beaten, stripped of his name, and sold into slavery unfolds with startling clarity. I’m glad that this work of art is being embraced by mainstream moviegoers, which is proof that moviegoers have a craving for substance and meaning in cinema. ’12 Years a Slave’ is unquestionably hard to watch but I didn’t take my eyes off the screen – we’re merely in the audience watching a recreation of an unspeakable injustice and the worst shame in American history. Currently playing in theaters.
Though cinema has been around for over a century, there has never been a motion picture like ‘Gravity’ which is why it occupies the #5 spot on my list. Born of new technology, it provided today’s moviegoers with an experience previously unmatched; I wouldn’t exactly call it a perfect film; but it’s a perfect filmgoing experience, which is equally satisfying. I was blown away by ‘Gravity’. This is a gorgeous film and it does just about everything right in both big and small ways. From a technical standpoint, it’s astonishingly beautiful and intimately detailed; it is also an outstanding achievement in terms of precise tone and the controlled acting. I still don’t know how Alfonso Cuarón made this movie – how he made us feel as if we were actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggling for survival in space. But with a budget of $100 million, Mr.Cuarón was able to show us (ahem, Hollywood, take note) what wondrous things cinema is capable of. Currently playing in 3-D @ Cineplex Yonge/Dundas and will be available on DVD/BR February 25, 2014.
Director David O Russell only gets better (and calmer with age) – his ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence team up with his ‘The Fighter’ cast members Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Though clearly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’, I have to say Mr. O Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese’s 2013 release with this bravado tale of con artists and corruption. There were a number of movies this year about capitalism/American consumerism – ‘American Hustle’, to me, was the masterpiece of this 2013 sub-genre. Ridiculously entertaining in the best possible way, the movie joyously embraces the excess of its 1970s-era (from the spandex to the stashes to the bad hair) – all of these a reflection of the characters’ desperate reach for the American dream. I enjoyed having the rug pulled from underneath me and I look forward to revisiting the picture so I could see how all the pieces of the puzzle were assembled. Currently playing in theaters.
How rare it is for an actor to get the best role of his career at age 77. Especially when that actor is Bruce Dern – his filmography dates back to 1960! Shot in radiant black-and-white (and tones of silver and gray) and directed by Alexander Payne, ‘Nebraska’ rips the lid off the mythology that the people of the Midwest are hardworking, good-hearted folk – nope, they can be real a-holes too. Dern is effortlessly great as the prickly geezer who believes he’s won a $1 million dollar prize and makes the 1900-mile trek from Billings, MO to Lincoln, NB. Perhaps the best performance ever given by a Saturday Night Live alumni, Will Forte plays Dern’s son with quiet eloquence. On the opposite end of the spectrum (and also turning in terrific supporting work) is June Squibb as Dern’s acidic wife – her totally inappropriate commentary is hysterical. And of course, this haunting and wickedly funny middle-American masterpiece had to be written by a first-time screenwriter named Bob Nelson. Of course. Currently playing in limited release.
Directed by Noah Baumbach who co-wrote the script with leading lady Greta Gerwig, this low-budget charmer is about a 20s something lady wandering the streets of New York without a sense of purpose. But that’s exactly what she’s in search for – a purpose, an identity, a career. At times, she is her own worst enemy, but there is a rooting interest for this character; and the movie wants her to succeed, and so we want her to succeed and to find happiness. Gerwig is absolutely charming – striking the perfect balance between effortless verbal timing and physical comedy. I really believe this is the role she was born to play. Shot in black and white, Mr.Baumbach’s film is a throwback to the French New Wave, which also honed in on restless youth – and yet ‘Frances Ha’ is still very much its own contemporary thing. What a joyous experience this was – especially the film’s understated final moments which I will not spoil for you. Currently available on DVD/BR.
9. ‘Short Term 12’
One of the 2013 hidden gems was this small indie feature that stayed with me in a big way. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, ‘Short Term 12’ follows Brie Larson’s character, an early-20s supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers (she is far from untroubled in her own life). The entire thing feels natural and there isn’t a single inauthentic moment in the entire picture. Mr.Cretton is said to have worked in a foster-care home; this, coupled with the fact that he comes from a documentary background gives the movie its naturalistic feel. The picture provided Brie Larson with a long-overdue leading role – she is a major talent to look out for. The same could be said for Mr.Cretton – I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. This is one of the most honest portrayals of troubled youth I have ever seen. It provided me with the opportunity to truly appreciate the people who dedicate their lives towards helping the underprivileged. Thank you. Will be available on DVD/BR January 14, 2014.
10. ‘Captain Phillips’
Another tale of survival; another movie based on a true story. It’s also another Paul Greengrass masterpiece. For those who haven’t responded well to Mr.Greengrass’ signature shaky-cam kinetic style, at least his “seasick” approach is suitable here. Tom Hanks reminds us of how he became a movie star – this isn’t an action hero role; he is great at playing the smart, experienced, tough, stubborn worldly everyman. Here, he finds himself in a terrifying situation – as the captain of a cargo ship, his vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates. Hanks knocks his performance out of the park and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for his outstanding work. ‘Captain Phillips’ is indeed an intense, emotionally exhausting, unconventional action thriller – but behind Mr.Greengrass’ rigorous camera lens lays an immense compassionate heart. Will be available on DVD/BR January 21, 2014.
Honorable Mentions: ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘All Is Lost’, ‘Before Midnight’, ‘Broken Circle Breakdown’, ‘Computer Chess’, ‘The Great Beauty’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘The Spectacular Now’, ‘Stories We Tell’
The two major themes this year:
– Survival/Hope: 12 Years A Slave’, ‘Gravity’, ‘Captain Phillips’, ‘All Is Lost’, ‘The Hunt’, and ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
-The American Dream: ‘American Hustle’, ‘Pain & Gain’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, ‘The Bling Ring’, ‘Spring Breakers’, and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ though it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to the other titles