My 2013 retrospective is dominated by strong character pieces, where an individual rises or falls due to the extraordinary circumstances of their surroundings. No other film encapsulates this philosophy more than Steve McQueen's brilliant adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, which kicks off my 10 Ten Movies of 2013. Without further ado, here is the rest of my list.
Top Ten Films of 2013
Steve McQueen's adaptation of Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave is the best film of 2013 and the best movie ever made about slavery in the United States. Chiwetel Ejiofor wins the Best Actor Oscar as Northup in this true story of an upstate New York musician who is lured, drugged, and sold into slavery. A harrowing story, 12 Years a Slave is not a brow beating epic with grand visuals and lengthy monologues. It looks at the small story of a free man's brutal incarceration of servitude in the antebellum south. Michael Fassbender also shines as the terrifying plantation owner who sees no difference between a slave or a beast of burden. 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch, but an important examination of a not too distant era. I firmly believe that every child in school should watch this film to understand to the criminal magnitude of slavery.
Brie Larson is exceptional in Destin Cretton's moving tale of troubled youth. Larson stars as Grace, a counselor in a home for at risk children. The discovery of her pregnancy forces Grace to deal with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Short Term 12's plot weaves around three stories that are told by characters in the film. One in particular is so telling and engrossing, it will linger in your mind for days. Short Term 12 is a tribute to the people and children in the foster care system. It is powerful and compelling storytelling that shines a light on the youth that society simply sweeps under the rug.
Alexander Payne continues to astound with his great films about small town America. Bruce Dern stars as an irascible octogenarian facing dementia. He's convinced he's won a million dollars in a Publisher's Clearing House type contest and will stop at nothing to collect his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska. Will Forte costars as his youngest son who decides to take his father on a road trip to show him the folly of this endeavor. Incredibly sad and absolutely hilarious at the same time, Nebraska is a great journey of understanding and reconciliation. June Squibb steals the show as Kate, the acerbic wife and mother that dominates the family.
Alfonso Cuarón delivers an all killer no filler quest for survival in space. With incredible special effects and sound editing, Sandra Bullock stars as a grieving astronaut who loses her entire team in a terrifying shuttle collision. Running at a lean ninety-minutes, Gravity absorbs you into the desperation of the situation in nature's most hostile environment. State of the art filmmaking takes you to a new peak in the IMAX and 3D format. Gravity succeeds in melding a singular story set against the limitless backdrop of space. A few geeks in the blogosphere wined about technical inaccuracies. Get a life nerds, it's a movie, you know, willing suspension of disbelief. Do you really want to see Sandra Bullock in an adult diaper in space? Didn't think so.
Martin Scorsese and his muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, reach greatness in their fifth collaboration. DiCaprio is fantastic as the deplorable Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer that made millions pumping and dumping stocks in the early nineties. An unabashed look at greed, sex, and rampant drug use; The Wolf of Wall Street takes no prisoners in showing hedonism and unfettered debauchery. Some will be offended by the objectification of women and drug addiction, but I applaud Scorsese for not holding back. At a whopping three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is immensely entertaining with zero lag time, no easy feat.
In the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009, Oscar Grant III was gunned down at Fruitvale Station by police officers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Writer and director Ryan Coogler's debut film recounts the last day of Oscar's life before he was murdered. Michael B. Jordan has a star making turn as Oscar, a complex young man who's been in his fair share of trouble, but earnestly wants to make it as a father and family man. Fruitvale Station is not a race baiting film about this terrible crime, but a poignant recollection on the promise of a young man that will never be fulfilled.
Big hair, bell bottoms, and braless, David O. Russell takes us back to the glorious seventies in style. Christian Bale is unrecognizable as the fat and balding con man, Irving Rosenfeld, who gets caught up in the FBI's infamous ABSCAM busts with his wily, temptress girlfriend (Amy Adams). A brilliant ensemble of Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence rounds out the excellent cast. American Hustle is sure to swindle come awards season.
Matthew McConaughey is superb as Ron Woodroof, a womanizing electrician stricken with AIDS in 1985. Refusing to lay down and die, Woodroof started importing cutting edge AIDS treatments from other countries. He battled the FDA, ignorance, and homophobia at a time when AIDS was a new threat ravaging the nation. Giving hope and extending the lives of hundreds of people. Jared Leto wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his tragic performance as Rayon; a kind, drug-addicted transsexual who befriended Woodroof and helped him approach the LGBT community in Dallas.
Spike Jonze takes romance beyond the digital level in Her, a sweet and possibly prophetic story. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a divorced professional letter writer in near future Los Angeles. Unable to connect with anyone, he falls in love with Samantha, his new operating system. Voiced by a sultry and tender Scarlett Johansson, Theodore finds happiness in a program, that does its best to physically connect in reality. Her paints a wistful and astonishingly creative scenario of having a serious relationship with a non-corporeal being. What's more impressive is the way the film also handles the inevitable difficulties that arise from such a pairing.
Robert Redford stars as a sailor facing daunting circumstances in Director J.C. Chandor's gripping tale of survival. After colliding with a container at sea, the sailor uses all resources and ingenuity imaginable to battle the unrelenting ocean. All Is Lost probably has ten lines of dialogue at most. The entire film is a silent struggle against the elements. There's no time to cry or contemplate when fate is inexorably coming.
11 The Worst Film of 2013 - A Good Day to Die Hard
Alas my childhood favorites continue to be bastardized into garbage by the profit driven greed of the Hollywood franchise system. A Good Day to Die Hard is a soul crushing and pathetic end to a great franchise. Sweet, glorious, ass-kicking action, wrapped around tight plots and great villains, this was the legacy that Die Hard left us. I remember as a kid sneaking into Die Hard and having my eleven year old mind blown to pieces by the stupefying awesomeness of that film. Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, John McClane jumping off an exploding building, yippi kay yay motherf**ker! That line resonated throughout cinema...until now. A Good Day to Die Hard is the death of all that was great and beautiful. Bruce Willis collected another multimillion dollar paycheck and forced me to sit through a nonsensical, boring, run of the mill, cheese whiz action flop. I almost wet myself laughing when the baddies released a gas that magically sucked up all the radiation at Chernobyl. Are you freaking kidding me? They should have just written in an action fairy that keeps John McClane impervious to bullets and radiation. There's no end to it now, I wouldn't be surprised if we see John McClane fighting aliens or traveling back in time in a Delorean. The absurdity of A Good Day to Die Hard clouds the greatness of the first film. It was released twenty-five years ago, so there's a good possibility that most younger audiences will never see that film. But have to sit through the pile that is A Good Day to Die Hard and believe that passes as a John McClane story. For the love of all that's holy Bruce Willis, you've made a fortune, please stop making these movies. The legacy is already tarnished.
12 Years a Slave is a film without demagoguery and grandiose visuals, 12 Years a Slave is a searing reminder of the injustice of slavery and the bitter dehumanization of a troubled era. Its window pane view of a free man's injustice against servitude should be seen by every child in school. In a completely different context, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, where Sandra Bullock struggles to survive a deadly accident in space, is by far the best studio blockbuster of the year. It will surely win every technical award with its dazzling special effects and realism. A small independent film that barely registered at the box office, but ranks second on my best of list is Destin Cretton's Short Term 12. Brie Larson delivers an Oscar worthy performance as a youth counselor struggling to overcome her childhood abuse while helping other troubled children. Two industry stalwarts, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese, also released excellent films this year. Payne's Nebraska is a brilliant comedy drama about relationships in small town America. Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly the most risqué film on my list with its unabashed portrayal of greed and debauchery. The latest entry is Her from Spike Jonze, a sweet and most likely prophetic tale of a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system (Scarlett Johansson).
Best actress and best supporting actress were the most troubling categories for me. Cate Blanchett is probably a lock to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Her turn as Jasmine, a deluded socialite facing poverty in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, is a career best performance from one of Hollywood's finest. She's simply magnificent and worthy of all accolades. That said, I chose Brie Larson as Grace, a deeply troubled but strong woman in Short Term 12. Larson is utterly captivating in an emotionally gripping role. She should be familiar to audiences as a character actress, usually playing supporting roles in comedies or teen genres. Larson breaks out here with an affecting, memorable character.
Supporting actress was a touch choice. Lupita Nyong'o is the odds on favorite for Best Supporting Actress as Patsey, the heart wrenching slave girl in 12 Years a Slave. She faces horrific beatings, rape, and unimaginable helplessness. Nyong'o dominates the screen with sadness. On the other hand, June Squibb is a comedic delight as Kate, the saucy matriarch of Nebraska. Award season tends to overlook comedic performances for heavier fare. Squibb steals Nebraska from the primary leads with her acerbic wit. Great work from both women, but my choice for supporting actress is the venerable Amy Adams. Adams had three great roles in 2013, unique characters in very different genres. She was tremendous as Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Adams brought a twenty-first century heroine to one of comics most famous characters. She certainly was no damsel in distress or plucky reporter. Adams torched the screen as the sexy con artist Sydney Prosser in David O. Russell's period drama, American Hustle. Baring more side boob shots and plunging v-lines than any actress I can remember, Adams gives it her all in a daring and racy performance. It seems unimaginable after seeing American Hustle, to watch Amy Adams as a geeky programmer that also develops a friendship with her computer in Spike Jonze's Her. It took me several minutes to recognize her. She's so frumpy and understated, it's like you're watching a different actress altogether. Adams may not win any awards because the competition is so steep, but she had an amazing 2013 and genuinely deserves recognition for these three completely different roles.
My choice for best foreign film is Kar Wai Wong's poetic martial arts drama, The Grandmaster. A bit plodding at times, I thought the epic nature of the story, fight choreography, and cinematography bested Abdellatif Kechiche's lesbian love drama, Blue Is the Warmest Color. That film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and generated a lot of controversy by its graphic sex scenes. An intense, engaging drama running north of three hours, I thought the sex scenes were completely a sham, a heterosexual man's view of two nubile French women. The fallout from the primary leads regarding the director's handling of said sex scenes reinforced the way I thought the film was inartfully depicted.
Disney's Frozen is my favorite animated film of the year. Cinephiles may duly trash me for going with the pop marketing juggernaut instead of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. But honestly, Frozen left me with a big smile on my face and a bounce in my step. It's a musical about Nordic princesses with a talking snowman and no people of color whatsoever. Seems ridiculous, but is a beautiful film with a great message. Miyazaki is the god of anime, and if The Wind Rises is his swan song, then it's a great film to go out on top. I just don't think the length and subject matter regarding Japanese historical fantasy would resonate with all audiences. That movie is meant for adults and fans of anime. Frozen, though directed at children, is a film that all audiences can love and has serious staying power for future generations.
The worst film of 2013 was probably the easiest to pick, A Good Day to Die Hard. I take the gloves off in trashing another hack attempt at milking a few dollars more from a dedicated fan base.
- Best Director - Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
- Best Actor - Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
- Best Actress - Brie Larson, Short Term 12
- Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
- Best Supporting Actress - Amy Adams, American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel
- Best Screenplay - John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
- Best Cinematography - Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
- Best Editing - Mark Sanger & Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
- Best Score - Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave
- Best Soundtrack - American Hustle
- Best FX - Gravity
- Best Foreign Film - The Grandmaster
- Best Documentary - A Band Called Death
- Best Animated Film - Frozen