As 2013 comes to an end, it’s reflection time on a year that brought so many great flicks (and some bad ones as well). Compiling lists can be difficult, especially when there are so many films to sort through, but after many revisions I feel that this list best represents the films I enjoyed most this year (and not necessarily the best-made film). Unfortunately, there were many movies I missed this year that could have made this list (Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, Frances Ha, Captain Phillips and more), but still I find that this list is all encompassing. So without further ado…
Watching Blackfish serves as a reminder that we will never be able to tame nature, nor should we try. SeaWorld is know for it’s aquatic attractions, but none are more popular than their orcas (or ‘killer whales’ as they are more popularly- and wrongly- known as) Following the journey of Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, Blackfish examines the dangers of showcasing such large creatures for entertainment purposes resulting in the three deaths Tilikum was involved in. It’s obvious the allure such beautiful creatures as orcas possess, but also easy to forget just how powerful they can be. Both harrowing and frustrating, Blackfish raises necessary questions about animal captivity and the use of animals as entertainment.
#9. Don Jon
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut was a risky film, dealing with the taboo topic of porn. And yet the film is handled so carefully that instead of entering lewd territory, instead we get a intimate look at addiction, relationships, and family. That’s not to say that Don Jon doesn’t play coy, as nudity and pornographer take center stage, but Gordon-Levitt is able to craft a smart film that deals with heavy subjects. The use of humor helps offset the frankness in which porn is discussed and displayed, but underneath it all is the message that relationships are two way streets that require work and dedication. It may not be the most well crafted film on this list, but it is properly one of the more honest ones. More than anything, however, Don Jon has me awaiting Gordon-Levitt’s next directorial project.
#8. Dallas Buyer’s Club
Jean-Marc Vallée’s small film about a party-hard rodeo cowboy who contracts HIV showcases some of the best performances of the year. Jennifer Garner as a doctor who must choose between was is ethically and morally right and Jared Leto as a drug addicted transgender woman who is struggling to survive are both excellent at conveying the emotional depths of their characters. It is Matthew McConaughey who steals the show, as a foul-mouthed, homophobic entrepreneur who seems more concerned about making money than saving lives. Dallas Buyer’s Club examines a difficult time of American history- the AIDS crisis- and man’s inherit nature to survive.
#7. The World’s End
It’s interesting that Edgar Wright’s most grown up film of the Cornetto Trilogy is itself about growing up. With trademark wit and humor by Wright and Simon Pegg, The World’s End follows five friends who re-embark on a 12-stop pub crawl that they unsuccessfully attempted 20 years earlier. Over the years they’ve all changed, with past issues and present struggles coming to light as they learn that the town may be overtaken by robots. Growing older is difficult but Wright and Pegg manage to keep the whole affair entertaining yet moving.
#6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese continues to adapt to changing times, this time crafting an wickedly dark yet humorous tale of Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort. Once again pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jordan Belfort), Scorsese starts off with a bang and keeps the film rolling on a near 3 hour tour de force of drugs, sex, fraud, and debauchery. The fact that Scorsese is able to not only keep a film with such heavy material entertaining, but laugh out loud likable attests to the talent of one the greatest directors of all time. And while DiCaprio may get top billing, and much of the attention, it’s Jonah Hill who once again throws a curveball with an unbelievable performance as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s best friend and right-hand man. The timing of the film is perfect, with many Americans disillusioned buy the Wall Street machine, it’s no wonder that one finds themselves cheering against the like Belfort and his cohorts.
#5. Pacific Rim
Guillermo Del Toro’s go-for-broke approach to his latest film is impressive. Sporting building size robots battling other worldly monsters (called kaijus), Pacific Rim is a $190 million love note to all things Japanese. Del Toro proved in the past that he was capable of telling epic tales (Hellboy I and II) but nothing on the scale as Pacific Rim. But instead of treading into bombastic excess territory that plagued the Transformers films, Del Toro manages to balance the more personal stories of Mako, Raleigh, and Stacker as well as the survival of all mankind. Of all the big blockbuster films this year, Pacific Rim was the most fun I had all year at the movies.
#4. The Way, Way Back
With the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Way, Way Back was my favorite feel good movie of the year. Faxon and Rash use the ‘coming of age’ formula to great effect, creating many humorous and poignant moments. With Steve Carell playing against type-cast, Allison Janney as a cooky alcoholic neighbor, and Sam Rockwell turning in an Oscar worthy performance, The Way, Way Back proves that sentimentality can compete with this year’s darker films. But ultimately it is the story of 14-year old Duncan (and Liam James’ performance) and his search for acceptance that lifts the film to one of the best of the year.
Some films are remembered for their content, others for their achievements. Gravity may not have been the best-written or acted film this year, but all of that is made up by its smart direction and more importantly, its special effects. Utilizing stunning CGI and 3D, I think Gravity is one of the best examples of how special effects are just as important to storytelling, as well as showcasing how 3D can be more than a gimmick and actually enhance the story telling experience. Alfonso Cuaron’s ability to weave action and drama is again on display; filled with multiple extended single-shot sequences that help create one of the most suspenseful experiences this year. This was the ultimate popcorn flick- one that begged to be seen in 3D on the biggest screen possible.
#2. 12 Years A Slave
I really struggled with whether I should go with this film as my #1 pick. Time may show that 12 Years a Slave is the deserving #1 film of the year, and there’s no denying that status. No other film left me so conflicted following it’s viewing as did this one. Steve McQueen expertly intertwines moments of extreme brutality with shots of peaceful serenity. These juxtapositions kept me
12 Years a Slave is one of those films that everyone should see- much like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. But whereas Saving Private Ryan depicts America at it’s most bravest moment, 12 Years a Slave shines a light on one of America’s more darker periods (much like Schindler’s List does for Germany). Such atrocities are handled expertly by McQueen, who never shies from displaying the horrors of slavery and yet never allows the film to become preachy. 12 Years a Slave also showcases some of the best performances of the year- namely Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o. Definitely the hardest film to watch this year, it was also the most expertly crafted and one that will stick with me for quite some time.
#1. Upstream Color
Every year there are plenty of great films that cone out, but few of these are films that actually progress the technique of how films are made. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars- these are films that not only told great stories but fundamentally changed the way stories are told, spawning imitations and borrowed techniques ever since. Upstream Color may not be of the same caliber as those films, but what Shane Carruth achieves as the film’s writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and scorer is amazing. Upstream Color is what the heart of filmmaking is all about- experimental visual storytelling. Shane Carruth was able to prove that his debut film, the very cerebral Primer, wasn’t a fluke. And like Primer, Upstream Color was film that demanded multiple viewings- allowing more and more to be revealed with each successive watch. More than any other film this year, Upstream Color was not only a great film but a great experience- something that all good films achieve to be.