KIKO MARTINEZ, EDITOR/FILM CRITIC
Before anybody asks, yes, I saw “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Those films, along with the other 193 new movies I was able to check out over the last year, made for a busy and very interesting time at the theater. From the 1960s folk music scene in Lower Manhattan to an unusual romance between a lonely man and his computer (a new way to consider cybersex, perhaps?), here’s a look at my 10 best films (and a few honorable mentions) of 2013:
Minimal in its delivery but brimming with heart and bittersweet moments, director Alexander Payne’s film about a father and son’s road trip to claim a bogus million-dollar sweepstakes prize makes for a tender dynamic between well-written characters pulled straight out of the American Midwest.
9. Fruitvale Station
A stunning and sympathetically rich film that paints a compelling picture of a 22-year-old man who loses his life in 2009 after being shot by a public transportation officer. First-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler has created a three-dimensional character in Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) that is both flawed and easily relatable.
As Saudi Arabia’s first-ever submission for Academy Awards consideration (and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa Al Mansour), this groundbreaking film takes an insightful look into the country’s societal ideologies through the eyes of a little girl trying to raise enough money to buy a bicycle. There’s a sense of hope that resonates with a character as confident as Wadjda that can’t be ignored.
7. Captain Phillips
Director Paul Greengrass keeps the blood boiling at high levels in this true story of a merchant mariner who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in April 2009. With Greengrass at the helm and two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks on board steering the ship, it’s the year’s most well-crafted dramatic thriller on both a technical and emotional level.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
If 1960s-era folk music isn’t playing in your iPod right now, leave it to filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen to make you fall in love with the genre in an instant. Set in 1961 Greenwich Village, everything comes together beautifully in this plotless dark comedy by way of its expressive soundtrack and a noteworthy lead performance by Oscar Isaac.
5. Frances Ha
A carefree character piece by filmmaker Noah Baumbach, actress Greta Gerwig drives the comedy into a place where very clever and high-spirited dialogue prevails. In an industry that has forgotten how to write full-fledged female characters, Baumbach’s B&W film might be an easy target for hipster detractors, but Gerwig is the type of actress who can charm the skinny jeans off anyone with her adorable smile and talent.
Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, this British drama about a woman searching for her son who was taken away from her when she was a teenager takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false sentiment. Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench is miraculous, giving the title character extraordinary depth and resonance.
3. 12 Years a Slave
From its significant subject matter to Steve McQueen’s fine direction to a script that pits man’s brutal nature against the persevering human spirit, this harrowing drama set in the Antebellum South has all the elements for a Best Picture win at the Oscars this year. Capturing the harsh realities of the era, the film is extremely powerful and should be considered essential viewing for everyone.
Coming from the exceptional mind of writer-director Spike Jonze, this touching romantic dramedy set in the near future about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his technologically advanced operating system (think Siri with a conscience) is the most unique script produced in the last five years. Remember it next time you choose a screen (computer, TV or otherwise) over real human interaction.
1. Short Term 12
If all films were as affecting and authentic as this indie masterpiece by director/writer Destin Cretton about a group of teens and caretakers at a short-term group home, the moviemaking industry would be a better place. Deeply moving and featuring extraordinary performances by both first-time and established actors, this feel-everything drama is one of those honest and intimate scripts that come out of nowhere to say something incredibly meaningful and memorable.
Honorable Mention: “The Act of Killing,” “After Tiller,” “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Enough Said,” “God Loves Uganda,” “The Hunt,” “Mud,” “Narco Cultura,” “The Past,” “Prisoners,” “Upstream Color”
JERROD KINGERY, FILM CRITIC
10. The World’s End/The Wolverine (tie)
These are two movies I loved until they faltered at the goal line—“The Wolverine” much more so than “The World’s End”—that also represent two different sides of my life at age 35. “The World’s End” openly mocks Simon Pegg’s Gary and his insistence on living in the past, treasuring things like old cassette tapes and crappy cars from high school instead of growing up and moving on with his life…some of which hit so close to home with this developmentally arrested packrat that it stung a little. On the other hand, “The Wolverine” featured the best big-screen version so far of Hugh Jackman’s near-immortal mutant badass, one that felt truer than ever to a character I’ve loved since my days in middle school and made me unashamed to want to dig back into the long boxes of comics I keep in my roomful of collectible toys.
For whatever reason, I’ve re-embraced the Disney mystique in the last few years (a trip to Disneyland may have been the catalyst), fondly revisiting classics from my youth like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” While it’s no secret Disney animation lost its way for a decade or so, “Frozen” is proof that the magic is back. The tried-and-true formula—big musical with princesses and wacky sidekicks—felt fresh for the first time in a generation. Parents, get ready to see the characters from “Frozen” every winter of your kids’ childhood from now on.
Director Alfonso Cuaron is a technical genius who sometimes falls just short in the storytelling department. “Gravity” is the most amazing film you could have seen in 2013, and it’s a real shame that the bare-bones plot doesn’t live up to the truly stunning visuals. That’s not to say the film is a disappointment; it’s beautiful and absolutely worth seeing on the largest screen possible.
7. American Hustle
Director David O. Russell channels Martin Scorsese and brings “Silver Linings Playbook” stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence along to scheme with and against Christian Bale and Amy Adams. While Lawrence may be too young for her role and Cooper too pretty for his, the performances of all the leads will keep you invested in this twisty, true-ish story based on the FBI’s Abscam sting of the late-‘70s.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese channels Martin Scorsese of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” for one of the most surprisingly funny, invigorating tales of a true American criminal asshole, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter cook up an epic tale of greed, sex, drugs, and corruption that leaves you feeling kind of dirty when you realize people are still getting away with crap like this.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers deliver another of their patented mostly-plotless comedies about a put-upon man struggling through a difficult world of his own making, only this time with a relentlessly catchy folk music soundtrack. I dare you to see this movie and not seek out on iTunes, at the very least, the cover of “Fare the Well (Dink’s Song)” that plays over the montage of Llewyn’s (Oscar Issac) travels across New York City with a wayward housecat.
This lo-fi, black and white father-son road trip tale from director Alexander Payne shows us the fate we all might face: confronting the fact that our parents are deteriorating and it may be up to us to make sure their lives wrap up in a dignified way, fending off their old rivals and your dirtbag cousins when they get a whiff that there might be money to divvy up.
3. 12 Years a Slave
A harrowing yet approachable tale of the unspeakable horrors a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the north faces when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. Outstanding performances from Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender as the cruel slave owner anchor this drama other critics are calling essential—for good reason.
Writer/director Spike Jonze could have easily made “Her” into an unsubtle indictment of the isolated way we live our lives today: noses buried in our smartphones, constantly communicating via Facebook and other social networks in lieu of real personal contact. Instead Jonze veers the other way, giving us a world wherein a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) can fall in love with an artificially intelligent operating system and have it seen as the natural evolution of human relationships, not the laughable misadventures of a sad sack.
1. Short Term 12
A small, deeply affecting drama centered on the difficult plight of children placed in group homes and foster care, often for reasons that can shake your very faith in humanity. The film is profoundly personal to me, as my family was a foster family growing up and I have siblings that were once in the system. That said, “Short Term 12” is no lecture or pity party. The movie stands on its own merits, with performances and an uplifting script that show there’s a way out of hell for some of these kids, and that they can, one day, find family that transcends blood.
CODY VILLAFANA, FILM CRITIC
As I finish up the last of the 165 films I watched in 2013 and construct my top 10 list, I cannot help but feel like this was an exceptionally weak year. So weak in fact, that this is by far the toughest time I’ve ever had constructing a top 10 list. It wasn’t merely a problem that nothing this year was an unequivocal favorite, but so many of the films melded together in terms of quality and it was hard to make the order. If there were a theme to this years cinema, it would be the year of the overrated film. Nonetheless, there were some very good films this year and you’ll find the
list below. As always, (and moreso this year given the circumstances) this list is subject to tinkering.
Special Honorable Mention: Our Children
Even though this Belgian drama didn’t hit theaters in the US until August, it was a Best Foreign Language Oscar submission last year which disqualifies it from our 2013 top ten lists. It’s a shame because this powerful and harrowing film about a true story of a woman who murdered her five children would have came in somewhere around 4-7 on my list this year. Not only is it an incredible psychological character study, but it also features one of the most devastating and depressing endings I’ve seen in a movie in years. If you can stomach downer movies, be sure to check this one out.
As far as publicity goes, no documentary this year got more attention than “Blackfish,” the documentary about killer whale captivity in Sea World theme parks. Though it perhaps isn’t as thorough as it could be, “Blackfish” is a brilliantly packaged, informative and extremely damning look at the practices of Sea World and whale captivity in general. San Antonians, take note. It might not deter you from making your summer visits, but this still feels like required viewing for park goers. This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix instant.
9. What Maisie Knew
In the 9th spot is the little seen or heard of indie “What Maisie Knew.” Adapted from a 100+ year old novel, the film tells the story of a bitter separation and nasty custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl. While the ensemble cast is great, the film is carried by the performances and the chemistry between Alexander Skarsgard and newcomer Onata Aprile. As sweet as it is heartbreaking, the looks at parental arguments and separations as well as the constructions of extended families make “What Maisie Knew” one of the timelier films of 2013. This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix instant.
8. The Kings of Summer
As a fan of his 2010 short film “Successful Alcoholics,” I was really looking forward to seeing what director Jordan Vogt-Roberts would deliver in his first feature film. What he brought was a subversive, odd, unique and completely hilarious film that was easily the best comedy of 2013. The premise is simple. A few kids who become fed up with their lives at home decide to build a house in the woods to live in. What makes “The Kings of Summer” so great is its fantastic cast (Nick Robinson and Nick Offerman especially) and its immensely quotable script. Its sense of humor might be a little too idiosyncratic for some, but this sweet and funny film is one of 2013’s hidden gems. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a name to watch down the line and while all the talk regarding coming-of-age films this year might be about “The Spectacular Now” and “The Way, Way Back,” I’ll take “The Kings of Summer” any day.
7. Short Term 12
While this film didn’t impact me as much as my fellow CineSnobs, the talent present in all facets of “Short Term 12” is unquestionable. This film about life in a foster care center completes the trifecta of strong writing, direction and acting. While much is being made about the performance of Brie Larsen (who is very good), for me it was the performances of Kaitlyn Dever and especially John Gallagher Jr. that really hold the film together. There is a certain rawness to “Short Term 12,” both in its low budget and its approach to serious subjects. At the same time, there is an underlying level of love, affection, and connection that makes this film one to seek out.
6. The Crash Reel
For the second year in a row, I walked into a film I knew nothing about at SXSW that has ended up on my top 10. This time around, “The Crash Reel,” a documentary about professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce who had a devastating crash while training for the Olympics and his subsequent traumatic brain injury, absolutely floored me. The amount of different narrative sections of this film is staggering. There’s the rivalry between Pearce and fellow snowboarder Shaun White, there’s the heartbreak of his crash and his road to recovery, there’s the dynamics of a family trying so hard to protect someone they love, and in one of the films better storylines, there is a parallel with Kevin’s injury and his charismatic brother David, who has Down syndrome. This film packs a serious emotional punch and I can safely say that no film in 2013 made me *feel* more than “The Crash Reel.” It made the shortlist of potential Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees. Though unlikely, I can’t help but hope that the Academy recognizes the best documentary of the year with a nomination. This film is currently available for viewing on HBO On Demand and streaming on HBOGo.
Following up my personal favorite film of his in 2011’s “The Descendants,” director Alexander Payne returned this year with a slight, simple but solid and funny film. “Nebrska” is about a man who while clearly being scammed, is convinced that he has won a millionaire dollar prize sweepstakes. As his son who humors him and drives him across state lines to “claim his prize,” Macgruber himself Will Forte is a piece of inspired casting and more than holds his own against Oscar hopeful Bruce Dern, who is very good in his role. I was struck with just how funny “Nebraska” was, and much of that can be accredited to actress June Squibb who completely steals every scene she is in. Shot in black and white (a fine choice, in my opinion) and featuring many non-actors, Payne captures the spirit of the Midwest and delivers a film of well-executed simplicity.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
With “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the consistent directing duo of the Coen Brothers brought us a glimpse of the 1960’s Greenwich Village folk music scene. Light on plot but heavy on character study, Llewyn Davis (loosely based on folk musician Dave Van Ronk) is a prototypical Coen Brothers character with sarcasm, cynicism and the feeling that everything is coming down on him. Carrying the lead role, actor Oscar Isaac is nothing short of a revelation. Not only is his acting performance pitch perfect and one of the finest of the year, but his talent as a musician is simply astonishing. Performing all of the music live (mostly old folk songs), Isaac’s voice and guitar skills are on the level of someone from that era and that of a professional, seasoned musician. The Coens make use of long form performances of full songs and in my opinion, “Inside Llewyn Davis” features the best usage of music in a film since 2007’s “Once.” The opening scene in which he performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is my pick for the best scene of the year. The film features an odd 15 minute passage featuring John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund that feels completely out of place and briefly derails the film. However, the film regains its momentum and finishes as one of the finest of the year. Good luck trying to get the soundtrack out of your head.
Somehow, in the span of two years, Matthew McConaughey became one of the best actors working today. In one of his three great roles this year, McConaughey is fantastic as the title character in “Mud,” a film about two boys who help aid a man who is on the run from the police. One of the things that I like most about “Mud,” other than the deft writing and direction from Jeff Nichols is the Southern feel to it. Everything from the lifestyles of the characters to the accents helps immerse the audience in the world on a river in Arkansas. McConaughey is obviously the best member of the cast, but recognition should be given to teen actor Tye Sheridan who stands toe to toe with McConaughey in every scene they share. It’s a shame that this film came out earlier in the year, because I believe it is being lost in the awards shuffle.
Based on the true story of a woman who had her child sold to adoption by nuns, told no one and attempted to reconnect with him 50 years later, British film “Philomena” was one of the years most pleasant surprises. The film is anchored by Judi Dench, who is brilliant in the role and gives my favorite female acting performance of the year. Perhaps most surprising is that Steve Coogan, who is known primarily for his work in comedy, is right with Dench every step in the way, providing for a certain “odd couple” that carries the film. Coogan’s comedic sensibilities obviously came in to play in writing the films script, which is filled with witty humor and one of the better screenplays of the year. Funny, sad, and sweet, “Philomena” is well made, strongly performed and one of the best films of the year.
1. Dallas Buyers Club
What a year for Matthew McConaughey. Along with the previously mentioned “Mud” and his scene stealing performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” McConaughey saved his best work for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Losing a tremendous amount of weight to play a man with AIDS, McConaughey disappears into his role as a homophobic cowboy who is coming to terms with his illness and impending death. Unflinching in its nature towards people’s bigotry, discomfort and perception of AIDS, (especially in the South) makes “Dallas Buyers Club” a powerful experience. McConaughey’s career best and award worthy performance, his characters journey, and the storytelling of the prominence, fear, and confusion surrounding AIDS in the 1980’s make “Dallas Buyers Club” feel like the most complete package and the best film of 2013.
CINESNOB.NET FILM CRITICS’ COMPOSITE LIST:
10. The Wolf of Wall Street & The Crash Reel (tie)
9. Frances Ha
7. Dallas Buyers Club
4. 12 Years a Slave
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
1. Short Term 12