2013 Best in Cinema: Features

Though we’re well into the new year, I’m officially wrapping up 2013 by reflecting on my favorite films of the past 12 months. I’ve spent much of these weeks into 2014 not only thinking about how to curate this list, but how to communicate why these 10 films resonated with me so much. The delay in posting this list is because writing about film, while decidedly fun, is the most challenging for me. Not only in thought, but in how to best articulate those thoughts in such a way that entices those who stumble across these words to understand what makes these 10 stories unique out of the other 55 films I saw last year. (Clearly, it was a slow year for me at the movies). The truth is, as I suspected this past summer, many of my top films were established earlier in 2013 and remained there even as we moved through the more Oscar-worthy films positioned later in the year. I do want to note that as of posting time, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see Her, which I know is doing quite well on the award-circuit currently. So, barring this film – here are my top 10 feature films of 2013:

10. the way way back

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There are those films that radiate a nostalgic feeling in such a way that no matter what happens along the journey you’re going to connect. I knew this would be one of those films about 5 minutes in. The Way Way Back endearingly depicts summer in a way that any person who has survived the complications of youth would understand. While circumstances differ in every person’s journey, many can relate to being young with 3 months of too much time on our hands, the weight of the world on our shoulders, and friction with our parents. Crafted in such a way that highlights equal amounts of humor and truth, while set in the alluring backdrop of Cape Cod, this film captures the epitome of all things summer, celebrating its uniqueness and doing so in a way that just takes you back.

9. gloria

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It’s a valid criticism that American made films don’t give voice to women over forty. It’s as if once a woman finds her happily ever after at age 28 in a formulaic Hollywood romantic comedy, she retires into domestic bliss with the man of her dreams and then dies. Her story is over from that point forward. Chilean cinema eclipsed Hollywood twofold in 2013 – not only by giving that much-needed voice and on-screen presence to woman in her late fifties, but by examining something a little bit deeper than finding your happily ever after with a man. Ultimately, its finding that happily ever after with yourself; a lesson that seemingly that takes a lifetime to learn – and one we must learn over and over again in stages as we age. Sebastián Lelio’s Gloriaaccompanies our title character transitioning to a different phase of her life. While her happily ever after didn’t lead to a successful, life-long marriage; she has raised children who are starting families of their own, is in relatively good health, has a job to pay the bills and a comfortable place to live, but most importantly – she has the spirit to keep trying. We first meet Gloria as she’s making the club circuit looking for a good time. What has the makings of a possible cliché “later in life” happily ever after refreshingly is onto something more as the story unfolds. There’s a loneliness to Gloria as she moves through her circumstances that’s authentic and tangible. And though we see periods of her story where she falls into the traps of behavior you’d expect from a woman half her age (i.e. continuing to forgive a man when all signs point to devastation) there is something redeeming in her choices because of her palpable solitude. The good news is that through Gloria’s comedic, yet dramatic character arc; we see that with age comes wisdom – we do better and bounce back quicker…even if we have to re-learn that lesson later in life yet again. And p.s. Paulina García is pure magic.

8. to the wonder

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When it comes Terrence Malick, I’ve learned over the years to approach his films from a pure visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second. This is largely because while I don’t always appreciate the execution of the plot, I enduringly appreciate the pictorial grandeur of how he uses cinema, creating some of the most alluring imagery you’ll ever see on-screen. Most surprisingly then, To The Wonder was the first time I’d seen one of Malick’s films where I found solid visual and narrative attributes. Aside from effectively communicating the circumstances of the plot without much dialogue, but with the lyrical poise of intricate camera work to drive the story forward, To the Wonder is best described as a dance. The eloquent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki keeps the camera in a near constant state of motion, literally dancing around the actors, through spaces, and sequences. Like a magnet, you’re drawn into the emotion of the film through the camera unlike any experience I’ve had. Yes, this is still a Terrence Malik “art film,” complete with a visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second – the formula I’ve come to expect from him. Yet this time, the visual expression is accomplished in such a way that propels and assists the narrative, rather than merely outshine it.

7. dallas buyers club

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There’s an old saying that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Admittedly though, there were several volumes on this particular shelf that included “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Failure to Launch” – not exactly leaving room to do much other than to judge. And don’t get me wrong, we all have to pay our dues in this business (then our agents) so there’s no shame in doing what you have to do to find your footing, establish your name, and then go for projects that really show what you’ve got. Ladies and gentleman, Matthew McConaughey has arrived. While there were already several films under his belt that did more than project a pretty boy exterior, there was something about his bold (and physically dangerous) performance in Dallas Buyers Club, that surprisingly elevates McConaughey to one of the formidable talents working today. And in some ways this makes me utterly happy. I do like it when someone pegged a certain way reveals another layer of themselves, gracefully giving the finger to those who dare typecast them. Along with a stellar performance by Jared Leto (who very much has my vote for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar night), Dallas Buyers Club is not merely an outstanding, though solemn portrait of how one of the worst diseases in modern history ripped through our culture, but is a representation of what you find looking beyond the surface. The harmonious thing about this film is that just like Ron Woodroof’s character who surprisingly leaves his “playboy” persona behind and becomes an advocate for finding medication for AIDS patients, Matthew McCounaghey has also won a battle against what people likely perceive him to be.

6. like father, like son

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Presenting a devastatingly complex situation while commenting on socio-economic juxtapositions relative to raising children and building families, Like Father, Like Son was the highlight of my 2013 AFI experience. Director, Hirokazu Koreeda masterfully creates an examination of what defines family, underscoring the age-old dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. Is blood really thicker than water? When our main character, Ryota, a highly successful and strict, traditional businessman learns that his only son was switched at birth due to a hospital discrepancy, the film sets about how to best navigate a path with no road signs. Do the two families simply swap the young boys, hoping that biology will take care of building a connection with their natural birth parents – or does the fact that 6 years spent with a child that you’ve been raising as your own make it that straightforward? What resonated with me about this film was not merely the engaging scenario that ultimately would never yield satisfying results no matter what these families do, but in how we see Ryota pushed to the breaking point just before breaking through. Everything that Ryota relies on as a man cannot readily iron out his predicament: not his money; his strict, controlled nature; nor his traditional beliefs. Essentially, we see Ryota surrender to what is, rather than what he thinks it should be; a lesson we could all learn from the cards we’re dealt with in life, yet don’t know how to play. From there, it really doesn’t necessarily matter what happens between these two families, because once reality is accepted better choices for all involved can be made.

 

5. fruitvale station

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Of all of the films I saw during the summer of 2013 – this was the only one that hit me in such a way that I couldn’t readily let go when I left the theater. It sparked a need to really evaluate my thoughts on Oscar Grant’s story and the film that took on the complicated task of telling it. You can read my full analysis on Fruitvale Station, here. What I take away from this film and its real life story is that there are indeed always two sides to every story, and it’s typically the mistakes found on both accounts that lead to unfortunate and even fatal consequences.

4. all is lost

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Without the gravitas of Robert Redford, I question how a film such as this would ever get made if pitched to a room of execs, let alone be one of my surprise favorites of 2013.  Everything about All Is Lost is a risk, destined to complete failure if not precisely executed. Filmmaking 101 leads many artists to believe that solid character development is essential to creating a successful motion picture, and I would argue that this assertion is absolutely correct…until I saw this film. All Is Lost follows Robert Redford, simply credited as “Our Man” as be battles for survival alone at sea after hitting a shipping container floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We’re merely inserted into his day just before crisis hits.  This is all that we know of our protagonist. We don’t know his name, why he’s traveling alone in the middle of nowhere, where he’s going, and what circumstances in his life brought him to this particular journey. And yet, we root for him. What Director, J.C. Chandor achieved with this gem is by making the decision to cast Redford. Redford’s incredible range as an actor was more than crucial when carrying a 106 minute feature-length film that came down to a mere 33 page script. This is because while the events of fighting for survival drive the story, it’s Redford’s facial expressions, and these expressions alone, that hold the audience and pulls sympathy for our nameless protagonist. What little we do learn about our character is trickled only through how he handles his abhorrent situation as a skilled sailor. These pieces of information provide context for Redford’s character and is an inspired way to connect to the viewer, however small, without relying on a typically wordy or flashback driven model to achieve this. All Is Lost challenges artists alike to think outside of how we cultivate character development and how storytellers actively gain an investment from their audience without depending on the overly used prototypes in filmmaking. All Is Lost does so flawlessly.

3. blue jasmine

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As far as I’m concerned, the Best Actress Academy Award winner was chosen just as Cate Blanchett disturbingly makes her way to a park bench, sits down, and starts talking to herself, a completely and utterly broken soul at the end of Blue Jasmine. In June of 2013 after seeing this film, I made this assertion well before we even approached awards season and I stand by it – I would have a hard time being as convinced of a person’s mental breakdown unless it happened right in front of me. Simply put, Cate Blanchett’s performance made this film. Period. And though Woody Allen’s writing and direction are to be commended, along with excellent casting of supporting characters, I cannot say with confidence that I would have such esteem for this film if it weren’t for Blanchett’s extreme and consuming immersion into the instability she created in Jasmine.

2. 12 years a slave

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There are films crafted so impeccably that you lose yourself in them in such a way that you don’t get back, and if you do – it’s certainly not immediate nor in the exact same way entirely. This was my experience with 12 Years A Slave. While it’s no secret that the history of the United Sates is forever saturated in shame for the oppression of more than one specific race, there was something about following Solomon Northup’s harrowing account that left me a little more faithless in humanity, because it hits close to home. This story, more than any other of the year, highlights how undeniably cruel and unjust humankind had, and therefore has, the capacity to be. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece was far and wide the most expressive and demanding film of 2013. It embodies an equally enthralling and heartbreaking subject manner, ambitiously depicting a time not long ago. Outside of consistent, unblemished performances from every single character you encounter in this eloquently executed saga, I couldn’t suspend myself from thinking that this was America only 173 years ago today. The demands of McQueen’s accomplishment, position the viewer in an emotional state of constant despair, never wavering as many Hollywood tales often do to dilute harsh experiences. In fact, we’re placed in as much of a comparable state to our characters, who are perpetually inundated with torture and despondency, as much as we possibly can be sitting in a theater seat hundreds of years later. You feel the atmosphere, because you feel the characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ghastly ability to say more with his eyes than a line of dialogue, paired with Michael Fassbender’s capacity to create such a disgusting human being that in his own right is fighting demons deeper than is ever revealed, makes the characters that come out of this film layered; and even if only on the smallest of levels, relatable. While I’m not at all suggesting that anyone couldn’t connect to the anguish of this narrative, I almost instantly felt an emotional attachment to this story as a black female being re-acquainted with ancestry. The reason that I didn’t entirely get myself back after experiencing 12 Years A Slave, aside from being such a well-made film, is also in part because I think about how wildly different my life would be had I been born only 142 years earlier.

1. before midnight

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Before “Sunset” (2004) there was “Sunrise” (1995) just after “Midnight” (2013). If someone where to ever ask me what film has a sequel that is better than its predecessor, I would emphatically answer that I can now name two – and they’re both from the same series. I cannot think of another series of films that so eloquently depicts a nearly 20 year journey of the complexities when building an intimate relationship with another person.  These films have developed a formula, a narrative structure, and cinematic style that illicit a breath of fresh air every time. Before Midnight explores Jesse and Céline’s relationship 9 years after the last film now with 2 kids and the insecurities that come with finding your forever. I cannot find a better word to describe this film other than “poetic.” It never falls into deep clichés or loses an authentic connection to the viewer. I simply adore the dynamic of Jesse and Céline’s relationship; their intense connection abundant with humanity, open communication, and true friendship. It is that foundation that leads to some the best and most sophisticated dialogue I’ve ever heard on-screen, creating two of modern cinema’s best characters.

Please check out my favorite documentaries of 2013, here!


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2 thoughts on “2013 Best in Cinema: Features

  1. I just watched Fruitvale Station this weekend and agree. Great film! Blue Jasmine, All is Lost, and Captain Philiips are all being released to DVD (Amazon streaming) this week so I plan on catching on the rest of them. Agreed with Jared Leto as best supporting actor. I liked the film and the acting, but it left me feeling a tad bit empty at the end. American Hustle was the biggest disappointment. Good acting, but I struggled with how long and boring and not to the point it was.

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