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Monday, December 30, 2013

Kyle's Top 10 Films of 2013

Another year has come and gone, and before we take a look at the 2014 cinematic landscape, it's time to reflect on some of the best and brightest of the year behind us. 2013 was a year of surprises, where some of our more reliable filmmakers stumbled, and we beheld the mainstream breakthrough efforts of burgeoning talents. My Top 10 list isn't reflective of any particular theme this year, other than a general rejection of the Blockbuster Season, where in 2013, Studio tentpoles were weaker than ever.

Before I begin the countdown, there are a few films worth of honorable mention that did not quite crack this list of 10. Be it the utter joy of Frances Ha, the study in sticky excess within Spring Breakers, the sheer spectacle of Man of Steel, the Sisyphean journey of Inside Llewyn Davis or the love story that just won't quite leave me in The Spectacular Now; all of these are films that shaped the more positive end of my 2013 cinematic experiences. And yes, I am one of the few people that continue to champion Only God Forgives and Elysium, the former for its attempt to bring the sensibilities of Tokyo Drifter to the 21st century (as well as some stunning craft) and the latter for being the blunt metaphor that America needed to see, even if they didn't necessarily want it. Neither made the Top 10, but they're in great company.

It's worth noting, that while my review grades go into consideration for what makes the cut, it's not gospel, as opinions evolve over the course of months.

(Additionally: Spike Jonze's Her has not screened in Atlanta yet, so it was not eligible for this list. I will provide an update in the coming weeks if it lands a place on the list).

10. Blue Jasmine 
Woody Allen's homage to Tennessee Williams echoed much of the charm of 2011's Midnight in Paris, but this time brought with it a stand-out central performance. Cate Blanchett's turn as a woman of leisure fallen on hard times due to bad luck and bad decisions is the finest performance given by a lead actress in 2013, with a final shot that is utterly haunting. For the first time in a long time, it feels like Woody Allen is back at the top of his game. Read our review.

9. Gravity
I'm not sure if Alfonso Cuaron's Early Autumn sensation will hold up on the small screen, or upon repeat viewings. But for one night, in the throws of a 3D big screen, I was enraptured by the visual spectacle he produced. The story is secondary, though Sandra Bullock does yeoman's work as a sort of "new millennium Ripley", but it's the immersion of space that makes Gravity so affecting. When asteroid remains came flying towards the screen, I had to close my eyes to avoid the blast that never came. I was that pulled into the experience, for at least one night anyway. Isn't that what cinema should always strive for? Read our review.

8. Mud 
There was a point in time when Jeff Nichols' spin on Huckleberry Finn was a contender for my top spot; but unfortunately, as is usually the case for movies that release earlier in the year, a bunch of stronger contenders came along and supplanted it. That doesn't change the fact that Matthew McConaughey gives probably his strongest performance of the year, and in a just world, this is the film he's be nominated for rather than Dallas Buyers Club. Tye Sheridan equally impresses, and gives a star turn that leaves me very excited for what may come next in his career. Mud is a moving portrait of an unusual friendship, and a study in masculinity that I just can't shake. Read our review.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street
It's too long, it's not for everyone, and outside of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kyle Chandler, I can't say I was in love with really any of the supporting performances (though Matthew McConaughey does grab the screen by the collar in his all too short appearance). On the other hand, I had a genuinely good time at the theater with Martin Scorsese's look at Jordan Belfort. Every shot crackles with a sense of perverse energy, and rather than the somewhat relaxed Scorsese that we dealt with in Shutter Island and Hugo, this is a return to the man who helmed Goodfellas and The Departed, amongst other masterpieces about corrupt souls. This is a film that has alot to say, and if you can bear the spectacle of it all (this is as hard an R rating as I can imagine a film getting), it's worth the journey and hopefully a repeat visit. I look forward to delving into it again. Read our review.

6. The World's End
With so much "serious business" on this list, it's time for a little levity, and the best comedy I saw in 2013 is Edgar Wright's The World's End, the third installment of his "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy". What Wright has crafted here is his own take on a Douglas Adams style tale. All the elements are here: a pub crawl amongst old friends, an entire town taken over by extraterrestrial robots, and maybe the most surprising ending a film could have given me this year. This ensuing whackiness is supported by genuinely laugh out loud moments and a pretty touching set of performances by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who knew the latter had it in him?). Most importantly, The World's End proves that Wright continues to be one of our most creative filmmakers, blending genre with a madcap shooting style that is all his own. 2013 was filled to the brim with terrible comedies, The World's End was an oasis in that desert wasteland. Read our review.

5. No
A film sadly missed by most audiences, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's study of the 1988 Plebiscite on whether General Augusto Pinochet should stay in power or not is a stirring look at the power of advertising in political campaigns and how a fearful people can be motivated into action when those in power use threats and intimidation to remain there. It's blend of historical fact with humor and a thrilling sense of forward momentum harkens to last year's Argo by way of Mad Men and the latter's attention to period detail, including being filmed on stock akin to VHS tape. Gael Garcia Bernal gives a wonderfully reserved performance as the head of the "No" campaign, and continues to hold his place as one of the finest bi-lingual actors working today. No hits me with just the right kind of power. Read our review.

4. American Hustle
I am no fan of David O. Russell generally, and I thought last year's Silver Linings' Playbook was amongst one of the bigger overblown success stories of 2012. But, with American Hustle, Russell captured some kind of lightning in a bottle that reeled me into its charms. It may have something to do with his pulling together the stronger bits of his past two films' casts (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper). It might be the great performances given by all four, that are laced with humor and just the right amount of ambiguity (particularly Cooper's very Russell inspired characterization), or it could just be that I like the movie because it's an homage to the better films of Scorsese's oeuvre. American Hustle is an experience that is as propulsive as its soundtrack is rollicking. I've already seen it twice, and I look forward to a third time when it comes around. Read our review.

3. 12 Years A Slave
When the credits finally rolled on Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, I was a puddle of emotions. Going on the unflinchingly brutal journey of Solomon Northrup, a man captured and enslaved in the south, left me shaken and in tears. It's a terrifying tale of man's inhumanity to man, and rather than the sweeping notes you might get from a more saccharine filmmaker, McQueen makes you feel every moment even down to the horrifying lashings. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the breakthrough performance that his career, long in supporting, has deserved and it may very well net him his first Academy Gold. McQueen, with Hunger, Shame and now 12 Years A Slave is 3 for 3 in my book. This is an experience that might just stay with me for years on end, particularly in how it ruminates on the darker side of human nature. 12 Years A Slave cannot be dispelled. Read our review.

2. Before Midnight
2013 brought two cinematic experiments to the forefront that aimed to play with real-time. The first of which is the third (and final?) installment of Richard Linklater's Before series. With Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy returning to the roles they left behind 9 years ago in Before Sunset, we get a chance to see Jesse and Celine after the fantasy has worn thin and real life begins to take hold for the couple. While the couple is as wonderfully chatty as ever, this time we've seen that they've grown accustomed to some choppier waters including paranoia around infidelity and fears surrounding a future together. The complexity of both characters bores a cinematic truth that some documentaries can't even match. The Before series is a triumph, and Before Midnight might be its crowning achievement. Read our review.

1. 56 Up
And, here is the other side of the real-time experiment. I've long argued that Michael Apted's Up Documentary Series is the most important cinematic achievement in modern times, there is certainly nothing that comes close to the level of insight into the human existence and class systems than what this series offers. 56 Up turned its focus to a bit of a rumination on mortality and lost opportunity as its participants in this social experiment have all turned 56. This creates an experience that provides a sort of audience reflection that lasts long after its credits have rolled. Where has life taken us individually at this point? Is it too late to change? Have we come to peace with the fact that we'll one day lose our loved ones? The individual stories are compelling and are as arresting as some of the finest drama, but its the sense of familiarity, as we grow older with these individuals that makes 56 Up, and the series before it, such an essential experience. Read our review.

And here, just for fun, maybe argument's sake, and with minimal comment are my 5 Most Disappointing Films of 2013

5. Nebraska
It's half a good film, unfortunately the half that Alexander Payne clearly loves dominates the proceedings and leads to tedium, and terribly unfunny situational humor. A great performance by Bruce Dern feels utterly wasted. It's a film that simply didn't connect with me at all, and I've grown up in areas not far afield from this setting.

4. The Bling Ring
Everything this film does, Spring Breakers did far better, with stronger craft, scripting and shockingly, better acting. I continue to hope that Sofia Coppola will return to her Lost in Translation high-point, but each successive release is another nail in that coffin. The Bling Ring is one of the bigger shrugs of a film I've had to endure this year.

3. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth needs to find a partner. He clearly has a wonderful skillset behind the camera, and a brain that can handle large scale concepts well. Where his strengths do not lie are in storytelling at the script stage and acting. If he could find that person that could meld his ideas into something enjoyable, and find a lead performer that could translate that work more kinetically, Carruth might be able to fulfill the promise that he's so often ascribed. 

2. Star Trek Into Darkness
This one was a heart-breaker, but imagine putting Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the first Abrams Trek in a blender and forgetting anything that made either work so well and you'd get Star Trek Into Darkness. It's a movie that due to massive script flaws, reveals that are meaningless and nonsensical, and badly placed political allegory squanders any good will left behind in its previous entry. When the next Trek rolls around, you can probably count me out unless a new writing team takes over.

1. Trance
A disaster through and through. Trance's storyline revolves around stolen painting, hypnotism, and pubic hair. Danny Boyle tried his best to make his own version of Inception and instead made a film so laughably stupid that the audience I attended with broke into near cat-calls when the credits hit. It's not the worst film to be released in 2013, but given the pedigree of the filmmaker (one I generally admire), this is a shocking low. One can only hope for a bounce-back in his next project.
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  1. Wow almost forgot trance came out this year to even consider it a disappointment. Just feels so forgetable in the long run.

  2. Kyle,

    I have not seen a single one of these films, sad to say. These reviews are positively inviting, you really have a knack for this! I saved the list and will get my movie groove on-- See ya, Max

  3. @Troy:
    I mean, let's be honest, this is a movie where Rosario Dawson's lady-bits were a plot point...sadly, that's about the only thing about the film I remember, which is a shame for an Oscar Winning Director's output.

    Thanks so much again! Let me know if you end up catching any of them! Would love to chat with you about it.


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