Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2013

Because I feel guilty about not using my film degree, every Oscar Night I compile my ten favorite movies seen in a given year. Options tend to be a bit limited in KC, and art house stuff tends to come around these parts late in the cycle, but ultimately I feel like I saw everything I wanted to see. Also, because I absolutely cannot resist making lists and ranking the things I love. It seriously cannot be helped.

10. The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
God bless the new bildungsroman trend of not shying away from the uglier aspects of youth. I’ve already been charmed by Shailene Woodley’s effortlessly natural charm a couple times, but Miles Teller’s ability to make you root for his more alcoholic/jerkier Lloyd Dobbler was a tiny triumph.

9. Short Term Twelve
Directed by Destin Cretton 

Jenny worked in a group home when we started dating, and to this day she says it was the hardest job she ever had. It was definitely the only job she ever brought home with her, and she gave a thumbs up to this soulful depiction of an aspect of our society that tends to go unnoticed. Also, can Brie Larson just be America’s Sweetheart already?

8. Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass

What could have easily been a piece of rah rah American propaganda ended up being a deft study on the greater global conundrums. Well, subtly. On the surface though this is a masterpiece of tension.

7. Gravity
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
You can be dumbstruck by the technical marvels of Gravity all day long, but the greatest feat Cuaron pulled off was making Sandra Bullock palatable. Even writing that I felt a little bad. Ms. Bullock is America’s sweetheart, but I can’t help but feel like there are a handful of other actresses who could have made this film an emotional achievement on par with the film’s technical mastery. Still, Gravity is an experience on every level and as much shit talking as I’ve done on Ms. Bullock, I was desperately rooting for her to get the hell out of outer space safe and sound.

6. Nebraska
Directed by Alexander Payne 

A fine display of decay and dreams unfulfilled that avoids being a downer by being knee-slappingly hilarious. Though Bruce Dern is getting all the praise for his method performance as a really old guy, Will Forte should get more credit for finally finding the perfect balance between his affability and silliness. This was probably my favorite screenplay of the year because of how well these characters are constructed, especially Dern’s perpetually out of it Woody Grant, by what is left unsaid.

5. Upstream Color
Directed by Shane Carruth
The most elegant film about human connectedness I’ve seen in years. Also the most elegant film about pigs and parasites I’ve ever seen. Shane Carruth is a wizard holding the keys to the future of science fiction in his hands. Upstream Color is the product of a true auteur (Carruth composed the film’s riveting score in addition to serving as cinmatographer and editor), which seems rare these days and is utterly commendable. Especially since this film feels like a pure reflection of his soul.

4. 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
While 12 Years a Slave is sure to achieve Roots like status in American History classes across America (as it should), the real power of the film not from the greater conflict of the slave trade, but of the magnified struggle of a free man sold into slavery who effectively loses his entire identity (all handled with supreme gravitas by Chiwetel Ejofor who, let’s face it, is never not outstanding). The film’s bulging vein of injustice is prodded expertly by Michael Fassbender’s complexly sadistic plantation owner and Steve McQueen does that thing where I think all of America’s great tragedies should be handled by outsiders. 12 Years a Slave was spoken about in the same manner as eating ones vegetables. Something was difficult but knew was good for us, and while I expected to be moved and moved to anger, I didn’t expect the film to be this visceral. From the extended hanging sequence to every scene involving Lupita Nyong’o’s tragic Patsey, 12 Years a Slave is the film about America’s darkest days that we deserve.

3. Before Midnight
Directed by Richard Linklater

Francois Truffaut is one of my favorite filmmakers and his Antoine Doinel series is something very near and dear to my heart. The films chronicle the character Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) from childhood to middle age and as the character grows with the actor, Truffaut’s films achieve a real, undeniable truth. Richard Linklater has done something very similar with the third installment of his Jesse and Celine series. In Before Sunrise we saw their raw romance blossom out of happenstance. In Before Sunset we saw them grapple with the idea of going for it in earnest. In Before Midnight we see what comes after you go all in on true love and attempt to sustain a long-form relationship. The way Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Jesse and Celine go at each other in this one is brutal and exhausting. There is a sense of investment with these characters, and watching their relationship teeter on the precipice of destruction is deeply affecting. The hotel room argument scene is one of the most legendary scenes of 2013 cinema and it’s barely watchable. In the theater, I sat clutching Jenny’s hand as these two people ripped into each other, seemed to bring it down a notch and come back together before slowly digging back into the fight. It was too true. And though it was quite uncomfortable, and I enjoyed it throughly.

2. Her
Directed by Spike Jonze

This beautiful, beautiful film stirred emotions inside me that haven’t been stirred since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which to this day is my touchstone for the complexity and difficulty of human relationships. Spike Jonze took a “man falls in love with Siri” concept everyone probably laughed at and turned it into a powerful love story that less about our obsessive love affair with technology and more about the things we all do to feel complete. It’s also hysterical, and I don’t know if I laughed harder at any film this year.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
I can’t help but feel like the Coen Brothers’ latest film was sadly misunderstood. Relegated to mere best cinematography and best sound mixing nominations (that it won’t win) it feels like half the people that saw this film loved it and half didn’t get it or thought that it was slight. All of this is totally fine though, and a testament to the tenacity of the Coens who do whatever they goddamn please, whenever they goddamn please. And this is one of their little, thinky films a la A Serious Man or Barton Fink. It’s not a blockbuster, and neither is the film’s protagonist who, despite just not being able to hack it as a folk singer, soldiers on anyway. Llewyn Davis is an asshole. He’s depressed, a moocher, and yet through all the negative you really can’t help but feel sorry for him because he is tragically doomed. I didn’t think it was going to be my favorite film of the year when the lights came up in the theater, but I knew it had struck a chord (speaking of chords, the soundtrack is a triumph in its own right and the whole “Please Mr. Kennedy” recording session scene was one of the most joyous and enjoyable scenes of 2013). Weeks later I was driving home from work, still thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis. Months later I’m still processing this unassuming examination of the breaking point of the human spirit.  

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