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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Fruitvale Station

MV5BMTQ0OTU1MDkxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjI5OTA3OQ@@._V1_SX214_I’ve seen nearly 40 new films this year and I can’t think of one that left me so equally upset and melancholy all at once. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, in part because I have mixed emotions about the series of events. No matter what way I look at it, there’s absolutely no rationale that equates to the senseless death of a 22-year-old young man, young father…young human being.

Fruitvale Station follows the true story of the unfathomable shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle in front of hundreds of people on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station as it returned from San Francisco on New Year’s 2009. After a night of partying to ring in the New Year in the city, what started as a night of celebration quickly took a wrong turn. Grant got into an altercation with another passenger on the train that ultimately lead to the detainment of Grant and several of his friends. Given the tensions on the platform that night likely only fueled by alcohol, the atmosphere, remnants of anger from the fight that started on the train, and the reported aggression of the officers from the moment they arrived on the scene – the situation was bound to get out of control; because, unfortunately, it had all the ingredients to do so. All over what was later described, in essence, as a mistake.

Writer/Director, Ryan Coogler, in his first feature-length film boldly undertakes what is arguably one of the most controversial real-life cases in recent times; treating such sensitive material, still fresh in the minds of many, with grace and an emotional intensity that grabs the viewer from the first frame and doesn’t let go until the last. In a powerful move narratively, Coogler opens the film with actual raw video footage captured on a passenger’s cell phone of Officer Mehserle (though the name was changed for the film) pulling the trigger on Oscar Grant as he’s already being forcefully held down by a second officer. Though the footage is highly pixelated, the tension of the scene is palpable. Instantly, you’re invested wanting to know how we possibly got here.

Consciously saturated by the tension and uneasiness from the opening sequence, Coogler shifts the audience to a recreation of events and our journey toward impending collapse begins. Structurally, the film rewinds focusing entirely on Oscar Grant’s last 24 hours alive, carefully inserting the viewer into what Grant likely also thought was just another day – not his last. This significant approach immediately humanizes the film, shaping a more tangible and compelling narrative. Like Oscar Grant, the viewer in their seat is simply living through another day, never really knowing where life might take them at a moment’s notice.

The film, eloquently shot in many of the same Northern California locations where Oscar Grant himself spent his final hours, does a phenomenal job chartering solid character development given the short amount of time that we spend with the protagonist and his family. Actor Michael B. Jordan, who seamlessly melts into the portrayal of Grant, persuasively captures varied facets of a diverse human being dealing with the nuances of the day, both good and bad. Through Jordan’s performance, we see ourselves in Oscar Grant to the extent that, we too, experience a myriad of emotions in 24 short hours given the circumstances faced in a single day.

Pointedly, the film examines Oscar’s attempts to address some of his demons, namely his moral struggles with selling drugs as a means to support Sophina and 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Thematically, Coogler returns frequently throughout the story to Oscar’s redemption; seemingly highlighting his personal attempts to get his life back on track. This lays the framework for the audience to invest even more deeply into our lead because we see his sensitivity and his endeavors to right wrongs.

As a viewer, this is where I found weakness in the script and where I think “Hollywood” might have stepped in and perhaps lent their formulaic interpretation to the story. While the character is solidly defined within the ramifications of the narrative, something seemed amiss. More specifically, where I question the balance of the film is in the representation of Grant himself. Hollywood is notorious for reshaping events and modifying character traits in many “based on a true story” tales with the aim to tug at the emotions of the audience, and it almost always works. As such, it did cross my mind while entranced at the movie screen if Grant did spend the last 24 hours of his life reassessing his place in world as much as the film depicts? Did he really have a heart-wrenching experience of rescuing a dog who had just been hit by a car? Help a pregnant lady get access to a restroom? Engage in such a vulnerable conversation about promising to come home safely to little Tatiana? Did Grant head to the beach and contemplate his faulty choices in life just before dumping out drugs into the ocean in an attempt to start anew on the eve of his death?

While the film is far from portraying Grant as some sort of angel, devoid of any human flaws; there was a problematic element of coincidence in him finally realizing that he needed to make some serious life changes (and did) hours before he was shot. If this were true, it would make his death all the more tragic. Perhaps this ultimately was the case. It was New Year’s Eve, so it would be an appropriate time to reflect on where you see yourself going. Clearly not being there personally, one would hope that Coogler kept to the spirit of what actually happened as best as he could to honor the truth. The caveat being, that in the art of cinema, the goal is to connect with the audience; usually by painting the protagonist as a tortured hero.

Where I think the feature adaptation got it best, was during the narrative’s climax as the audience returns to the Fruitvale BART station, now more informed about Oscar Grant as a person and where he stood in the world. With an equal level of intensity introduced at the beginning of the film from the actual cell-phone captured footage; Coogler masterfully re-enacts the series of events, capturing the chaos, the tension, and the emotions flaring on the train platform that night to perfection. Surely, having hundreds of eye witnesses and raw footage to reference almost corners Coogler into retaining a high level of authenticity, but pressures everyone involved with the film to get it right.

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the parameters of the tragedy. Fresh off the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case just few days earlier, I went into the theater with a heightened sense of possible racial motivations leading to another case of injustice. As I watched the film, something became clear and this is where the mixed emotions I mentioned earlier come in. Ultimately, I was disappointed in the entire situation and everyone involved. It was clear that the atmosphere on the BART station that night was getting out of control. It was New Year’s, people were drinking, there was an altercation, and because of this the environment was naturally elevated toward hostility. While there was absolutely no basis for the officer to shoot Grant in the back (though his excuse was that he thought he was reaching for his taser), I couldn’t help but wonder why Grant and his friends didn’t just cooperate instead of resisting arrest and shouting epithets at the officers? Likewise, why were officers being so unnecessarily aggressive and shouting epithets at these young men? I cannot say with absolute certainty that Oscar Grant is no longer with us because of a bigoted cop who exclusively pulled the trigger on another urban youth out of pure hatred based on what I have seen of the footage and the interpretation depicted in the film. Part of me truly believes all of this could have been avoided if everyone involved had checked their emotions and calmed down. There’s fault all around in this, but at the cost of young life. This is equally upsetting and saddening.

The officer involved was sentenced to 2 years and served 7 months time in the shooting death of Oscar Grant. This is where I do question racial and social injustices. Would this officer only have served 7 months if Oscar Grant were not a young black male? If Oscar Grant where a wealthy, Caucasian-American youth, would a “mistake” like this garner more time in prison? Furthermore, I fail to understand why an officer of the law couldn’t tell a taser from a handgun? Given that Mehserle wasn’t in a life threatening situation, why wouldn’t he check which weapon he had in-hand or be level-headed enough to just be more conscious? Yes, it was a stressful scene, but as an officer of the law I would challenge his judgement. I’d argue that use of either mechanism; gun or taser, when your “suspect” is already pinned by a fellow officer seems like unnecessary force – accident or not.

Symmetrically, just as the film opens, the film also closes with real footage. This time, of a memorial tribute to Grant’s memory on New Year’s 2013, depicting a now older but solemn Tatiana, Grant’s only daughter. Book-ending the film with raw video of where Grant’s life took a turn for the worse and how it is remembered is a notable move by Coogler. This method of inviting and exiting the viewer to events of Fruitvale Station reminds the audience, that while you are watching a 90 minute Hollywood interpretation, a young man is still dead. This exit propels the viewer out from the screen and into that reality; where that reality is that many of life’s complications and subsequent turmoil are caused by emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment, that have consequences that last for a lifetime.

Stepping off the page and out of the movie screen, where things are left frustratingly unclear is in my research after seeing the film thirsting for details, wanting to know more about that night. I read that eye witnesses testified that Grant and his friends didn’t resist arrest, yet the officers were extremely forceful. Adversely, I read quotes from officers on-site that night that say otherwise – that the scene was one of the most intense nights in all their years in the field and the young men were resisting arrest. As a viewer trying to wrap my head around what truly happened, but finding contradiction in my investigation, only contributes to deeper mixed emotions and leaves more unanswerable questions that does justice to no one. While there are two sides to a story, there’s also the truth – and an even bigger contention that speaks more highly of humanity is that we have people who cannot come to a consensus of what that truth is despite a life lost. This is quite disturbing no matter what way you look at it.

Well-crafted, well-acted, with questionable motives in character development, yet ultimately fair, but still very tragic; Fruitvale Station is a reminder that one of these days could be our last and for no substantial reason other than an arguable “mistake.”

Let’s learn from this one.

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*image courtesy IMDB