Maybe “best” is a bit much, but there was certainly a noticeable abundance of acclaimed films in 2013, and more so than others.
At the end of every year and the beginning of the next everyone from serious critics to the random passerby begins to form a “top list” of the movies they had seen. It is a celebration of the merits of the films we enjoy and a means of people to have fun comparing and contrasting each experience they had at the movies. It’s not so much that these lists are some deep evaluation, but rather an entertaining way to group the stuff we like. While MY list summarizes my thoughts on SOME of the best films of the year, I will indeed be going more in-depth on most of these as we head towards award season, and when “spoilers” generally won’t be an issue.
So here are 10 movies (in no particular order) that HELPED make the case for 2013 as a strong year for films:
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s controversial biopic of notorious stock broker Jordan Belfort is more than just a scathing indictment of modern day wealth and decadence; it is also one of the cleverest and most entertaining films of the year. It can be argued that Scorsese’s Goodfellas was the auteur’s masterwork but a strong case must be made for this film as well. The movie is as assured in its craft as it is unforgiving about the subjects it takes meticulous time to explore (it’s a 3-hour film). The biggest bonus was discovering just how hilarious and downright fun the movie was. Like other Scorsese crime epics (Goodfellas and Casino in particular) the film is a commentary on the destructive nature of greed. Many viewers and critics make the argument against the film by claiming that the film refused to truly “moralize” the characters at all. Unfortunately, that’s the whole point. In the film we see characters behave like unruly scum and yet, due to their wealth and privilege: society does not punish them (something common in the real world as well). So why should the movie do that dramatically? The movie instead offers a different form of catharsis, because merely punishing the characters in a way removes the fact that the movie is actually about AUDIENCES LIKE US. The film accurately depicts the decadence and excess of grossly abused capitalism but instead of merely pointing fingers at the types of characters it portrays, the film is more interested in calling out our own obsession and temptation towards that life. The film never denies the possible pleasures such hedonism can bring. The final shot of the film has an audience of Jordan Belfort’s motivational speech as they gaze in wonder of his “accomplishments” and “wisdom.” And THAT scene almost immediately follows another one; depicting the FBI agent in charge of Jordan’s “downfall” sitting in a dirty subway train, observing the mundane people and surroundings with a look of regret, disgust but most importantly envy and longing: his life may be to attempt to bring justice to the corrupt, but there still exists a small part of him that wishes he could have lived as they did. Instead of simply going with “money is the root of all evils” the film is about how uncontrolled greed is the real evil. It also helps that the film is well shot, scripted and Leo DiCaprio in the leading man role definitely presents the best case for him being taken as a serious actor in this film and he gets bonus points for finally embracing a more comedic and lampoonish side of himself.
Director Harmony Korine has a very enigmatic reputation. The screenwriter for director Larry Clarke’s controversial teen-sex drama KIDS and the director of equally controversial independent films such as Gummo and Trash Humpers is known to some as an auteur and to others as a pornographer. Spring Breakers was marketed as an exploitative indulgence piece not unlike Caligula or Sucker Punch but instead the film is remarkably different. Yes, the film features several former “Teen Disney” girls behaving “badly” but the film is not about “shock value” nor is it painfully trying hard to be “edgy.” In fact the film is actually about a generation’s desensitization to “shock” and “edge.” Through dream-like repeating voice-over, hallucinogenic editing and an atmospheric soundtrack, Korine takes us into a new manifestation of the proverbial “heart of darkness.” Actresses Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson and Selina Gomez play four detached college co-eds as they embark on a spring break trip to Florida in order to simply escape from the reality they’ve been living in. They enter a new world, one that looks like an MTV interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah to some, it’s a haven of bare flesh and pastels to others. Korine manages to somehow make this place alluring and ethereal but surprisingly never exploitative or arousing. Korine paints a decadent landscape, a cacophony of sun-drenched neon and pastels, where youngsters come to partake in the carnal pleasures of nearly consequence-free debauchery in ways that are simultaneously all too real yet fantastical and unreal. A more conventional director would have used this journey to stage a simple morality tale…but Korine isn’t conventional. Instead of using this lack of moralization to indict some issue, Korine is more interested in presenting a world far removed from normative society; a world with its own rules that while not the same rules as the outside world, exist nonetheless. It is in this familiar yet fantasy world that Korine creates a demented fairytale of sorts. This is all defined by James Franco’s character, Alien. In other films, the gun-toting, cornrows and grillz-sporting tattooed “gangsta” would undoubtedly be the villain of sorts; a predatory criminal who indulges in the “gangsta” lifestyle while corrupting those around him. Instead Alien as he stands in the film is a twisted take on “prince charming.” Underneath the hip-hop and criminal paraphernalia and braggadocios lies a sort of romantic naivety about the world. He never takes advantage of the girls and it’s a testament to Franco’s performance that Alien’s “noble romanticism” comes across as absolutely sincere and genuine. When Alien calls the lead girls “angels,” HE ABSOLUTELY MEANS IT. The film was never interested in judging or punishing its characters, instead it was about challenging perception on reality. It does not wish to glorify either Alien’s or the girls’ descent into debauchery or crime either; much like Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, those acts are simply a matter of fact and seen as part of the human experience – indulging or engaging one’s own savagery-all while growing up. The film does not merely explore the hedonistic pleasures of going on spring break; it is about the act of literally breaking into a new reality and state of being. Normally the outside world would judge…the new world merely accepts. It is dangerous, it is insane, it is romantic and magical-it is merely spring break.
12 Years a Slave
Most movies that tackle history, racism, and America’s history of racism tend to be rather dry and matter-of-fact on the matter. Sure there is emotional struggle and pathos but almost always those things are loudly steaming on the surface. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has taken a subtly different approach to the subject: psychological horror. This film manages to outdo just about every self-styled horror film of the past decade when it comes to sheer visceral terror, uncertainty and pain. Sure there have been many films before that have explored the idea of the psychological toll of keeping humans as slaves being as exacting as the physical toll for BOTH the slave and slave owner…but never this effectively or nuanced. McQueen is showing us how the institution of slavery was destroying everyone involved, EVEN the slave owners. It presents slavery as a corrosive disease that eats away at the basic humanity of all, filling the void within them with a sort of cancerous evil. This is all made resonant through the harrowing performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the ultimate version of the old “wrong place, wrong time” character. This film tells a hideous yet necessary story about one of American history’s oldest and most remembered sins with such assuredness and sincerity. So much has been written on this film and much more will be in the future. It may be hard to watch, but it is never manipulative, and it is absolutely worth experiencing. On a lighter note, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave has a song on the album and that’s pretty cool.
If there was ever a case for 3-D in film, Alsfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi blockbuster is hands-down the best case in favor of it. Shot in a virtual single-take, Cuaron’s space thriller follows a medical engineer, played brilliantly by Sandra Bullock in her attempts to make her way safely back to Earth after some satellite debris destroys the space station she and her crew were performing maintenance on. That’s it. It’s a rather simple story, and sure there are some metaphors for rebirth and symbolic imagery but it’s really only about that one thing-AND THAT’S WHY THE FILM IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. In the age of convoluted action blockbusters it is so refreshing to see simple and efficient character-driven films. Gravity trims out much of the excess that seems to flood populist big-budget blockbuster films and opts for a more personal approach to the genre. This is a film where special effects and lush CG imagery are merely tools to tell a story rather than the primary attraction. Explosions? Yes, but not the kind you would see in a Transformers film. This is not a film that is original, innovative or even “deep” at all. This film is instead an exercise in economy and craft. There is an almost Alfred Hitchcock-level of control on the film. Every framing, every plot beat, every decision to have a “cut” in the action (there are’nt many), every time the film goes silent and every musical cue are all formed perfectly to engage the audience with a rhythm that would normally be reserved for the grandest of operas. There are films that tell us new ideas; Gravity is the kind of film that shows us there are new WAYS to tell familiar ideas.
“LAZY MILLENIALS!!!” is a phrase that often gets passed around a lot these days. And sure, a lot of us are lazier than a sedated sloth, but occasionally people find themselves stuck in that adolescent phase of confusion and naval-gazing where actually making conventional progress in their lives is next to impossible. Frances Ha (Greta Gerwig) is the latter. She overthinks things, she doesn’t think hard enough about others but most importantly…she really does not know what she’s supposed to do AND THAT SCARES HER. No, she doesn’t act like some perpetual insecure neurotic; in fact more often than not she tells people she’s just fine. For what is essentially a “slacker film” the movie presents a rather warm-hearted and sincere look at a woman who is both adrift and a “fuck up.” The movie isn’t casting a lot of judgment on Frances, this is a movie about her trying to define herself FOR herself. She’s not a total disaster, but she has very basic, relatable problems with work, and awkward social situations, and her living arrangements are as fluid as can possibly be for people in their 20s. And of course, Greta Gerwig is charmingly poised to be the next indie-film darling along the likes of Parker Posey, Chloe Sevingey and Maggie Gyllenhall. I have never liked films directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) but this is enough of an exception for me to reconsider his past work in a different light…or maybe I should just go watch Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO (the TV counterpart to this film).
“Who am I?” It is the question that is at the root of nearly every story in fiction. Find any story and you’ll see at the most basic level it is about characters identifying and defining them. Shane Carruth’s (Primer)surreal sci-fi tone poem is no different. For all its imagery of mind-controlling worms, experiments on pigs and Henry David Thoreau quotes ultimately the film is about two people struggling to find themselves internally and through each other. This is a challenging film with a very dream-like and non-linear structure that is bound to confuse and frustrate nearly everyone who watches it. I’ve seen this film multiple times and it still reveals more and more about itself little by little. This is definitely one of those films that are best experienced when one knows next to nothing about the “plot” as possible. This is because Carruth is not interested at all in “plot.” Narrative, story and characters are not always dependent on plot and structure and Upstream Color is certainly a good example of this style. Love it or loathe it, the film is designed to elicit pure thought and emotions from the viewer and that is pretty much guaranteed from its enigmatic imagery in the opening moments.
Blue is the Warmest Color
I once read a reaction to this film on Twitter that read “THIS FILM IS AS MUCH A LESBIAN FILM LIKE GONORRHEA IS A PRETTY TATTOO!” That may be one of the harshest things said about this film (and there are PLENTY of harsh things out there) but it’s not wrong necessarily. I’m neither a woman nor a lesbian woman so I can’t speak of any authenticity as to both the physical and emotional journey of the film’s leads. Neither is writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche and that’s part of the secret genius of the film. This genius is defined in a scene when teacher Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) and artist girlfriend Emma (Lea Seydoux) are having a party, and one of their guests has a lengthily discussion about artistic representations of female pleasure. This discussion is sort of a knowing self-commentary on the film’s own problems itself, and it is delivered with incredible nuance and self-assuredness. The character argues that female artists never depict female sexual pleasure the way men do because men cannot possibly understand what a woman’s orgasm and sexual rapture feels like. This leads to the “male gaze” where such experiences are shown through the eyes of men. This scene stuck with me more than the much ballyhooed unstimulated (often cited as pornographic) sex scenes, though laughably uncomfortable, gratuitous and arousing the latter may be. It stuck with me because it felt not only like a confession from the director who is aware of the inherent artistic hypocrisy in making this film but also as a commentary on the idea of creating adaptations of existing works. Blue is the Warmest Color is an adaptation of Julie Maroh’s critically acclaimed graphic novel (comic book). Maroh, unlike Kechiche, is both a woman and a lesbian. No matter who adapted her work, something was bound to get lost in the translation…as per the nature of translating a work of one medium to another AND Kechiche is most certainly aware of THAT. There is ALWAYS an inherent hypocrisy of art in that it takes take things which are intangible and subjective and set out to make them very tangible and objective. Through art there is an intersection of subjectivity and objectivity. Many viewers will most certainly refuse to agree (if not outright hate any and all of the physical or emotional depictions of love, confusion, lust and identity; let alone a same-sex relationship). Nevertheless, this film is certainly one to appreciate purely on the level of understanding the film’s intent. It is certainly an intelligent and nuanced exploration of the universal relationship drama and dynamics that, regardless of gender or sexuality, are at their core the same trials and tribulations we ALL face. This film poses so many introspective questions on love, lust, infatuation, identity and confusion and does so with a level of maturity nigh-unseen in most mainstream art. It’s also important to note that the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, the actresses and actors breathe impeccable life and reality to their characters and the script and pacing are very efficient (even given the 3+ hour run time).
Only God Forgives
“Time to meet the Devil.” That phrase absolutely sums up and foreshadows the film’s descent into a neon-lit hell of oedipal guilt, nihilism, sexual dominance and revenge. Slow-moving yet relentlessly atmospheric, Nicholas Windig Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive) completely subverts the kind of macho power fantasies he had been known for (Drive in particular) in favor of showing the futility of force and the destructive emasculation it can create. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a nearly-silent man who at first seems cut from the same cloth as Gosling’s Driver from Drive but is instead a stand in for the kind of braindead blind admirers of characters like Driver who all but fantasize of emulating that “hero.” Whereas Driver was sort of this silent force for harsh justice, Julian is the damaged plaything of his mother who only wishes he could be a man like Driver. The “hero” actually comes in the form of a Thai police officer known only as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) an almost ethereal force for retribution and catharsis in the crime infested neon landscape that the film depicts. All of the film’s themes and imagery are relatively simple and often obtuse but they come together spectacularly in an orchestra of madness and comeuppance. After his brother is murdered in response to his rape and killing of a 14 year-old girl, Julian is coerced into seeking vengeance by his criminal empress mother (played masterfully by Kristin Scott Thomas in the guise of an EVIL Donatella Versace). Never mind that Julian would rather spend his time admiring his own perceived power and masculinity (symbolized through his hands) and fantasizing about the alluring lady of the evening, Mai (Thai pop star and model Rhatha Phongam); Julian dutifully follows the direction of his mother as he always has and always will. Chang on the other hand, sweeps through the city, delivering swift justice to those who oppress and exploit the innocent and this puts Julian in his sights. What ensues is not Julian’s life merely descending into a personal hell, but coming to a crossroad. It’s all very moving yet hideous and savage at the same time. Was the film all Julian’s nightmare or was he recalling his past and future sins? Can Julian ever truly redeem himself? Well, only God forgives.
The Spectacular Now
Coming-of-Age movies will never go out of style. From The Breakfast Club to The Kings of Summer they will always be around for every generation. The Spectacular Now was the best one out this year. It was absolutely moving and brutally honest whereas most like-minded films rely on a sense of nostalgia and idealism. What really makes the movie work is the cast. This is really an “actor’s movie.” Shailene Woodely is definitely a fantastic new talent to watch for in the coming years as here in this film she displays an uncanny talent higher than peers twice her age. It’s a damn shame that her portrayal as Mary Jane ended up getting cut from the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2 (but hopefully not any further sequels) as her screen presence is truly something special. This is an age-old story that deals with nothing new. Issues of adolescent confusion and optimism have been perfected into studio cash-grabs by now. This film however is certainly the best this story has been told for this decade and for us pesky millennials. I look forward to seeing what comes from the people who will grow up with this film and who come to be inspired by it.
“Inspirational” was the first word that came to mind after seeing Disney’s latest and greatest musical fantasy. This was a fantastic film and one of Disney’s all-time best just in sheer terms of quality filmmaking and storytelling. The way it plays with ideas and archetypes from Disney’s “princess” tales was almost groundbreaking in its cleverness. It has the single best musical number in a Disney film since the 90s (tip of the hat to Idina Menzel’s powerful performance). And the animation was absolutely glittering in its beauty. “Problematic” is the word it seems others seem to think of. As inspiring and important the moral messages of Frozen are (familial love, accepting differences, being true to one’s self etc) people still managed to declare the film a failure for not including in-depth portrayals of other ethnicities, sexualities, body types etc. Obviously if the film was about race or sexuality or gender or body image etc. or if and when those things are directly tied in and relevant to roles in the story, then they absolutely matter. Otherwise, it’s not really relevant to the film on its own. Media representation is a very important issue and one that should never be brushed aside. Everyone and anyone should desire and support diversity purely from a moral standpoint. The problem comes in when that desire turns into angry demands that every film have a diverse cast REGARDLESS of what the filmmakers had envisioned for the characters and story; which gets unreasonable and runs the danger of becoming slightly mean-spirited. Frozen’s cast are entirely Caucasian, the leads are all designed to be traditionally attractive, there are no outright LGBT characters (though one could argue that Queen Elsa was an analogue to that) yet upon seeing the film, those are completely irrelevant complaints. NONE of those issues have anything to do with the actual film itself. If you were to add any of those checklist items to the film, it would have added nothing but surface level padding meant to appease. The kneejerk reaction of “P-R-O-B-L-E-M-A-T-I-C” completely ignores the statuses of the characters in the context of the film itself. In the context of the film there is a very smart journey about two sisters striving to salvage a strained familial bond; it also manages to be about one of the sisters’ journey towards learning to stop fearing her true self while fighting for acceptance in the world. Those messages in the context of the film are literally the only thing that matter at the end of the day. Personally, my primary concern is to whether a film is good or not (which is entirely my opinion) but I can empathize with the need to call out issues of media representation. However, at the end of the day these are works of art made by artists, and those artists can only do so much towards ambitious goals in this medium of expression without dangerously compromising their own visions. Frozen is also the first Disney film written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Lee, isn’t that special too?
So there you have it!
Those were ten of the many movies that helped to shape 2013 into a possible milestone for the cinematic arts and my thoughts on them. If you haven’t as of yet seen any of these, I can’t recommend these strongly enough. There are plenty of other films aside from these to see as well. MORE ON THOSE LATER!!!