Sean’s Top 10 Films of 2013

As per tradition, my top 10 list is almost always revealed the day before Oscar nominations are announced.  Part of this is because I like having my final say before they do, but mostly it’s because it usually takes me this long just to catch up with all of a given year’s releases.

 Even then, there is still a long list of films I would have liked to have seen, but simply didn’t have time for – All is Lost, Philomena, Nebraska, and Upstream Color among them.  And if I did wait until I saw everything I wanted to see, you wouldn’t be getting this list until the end of 2014.  As such, I did see a lot of movies this year – many of them terrible, some of them great.  These are the ones that stood out from the pack and left a lasting impression.  These are the best films of 2013 –

10. The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)

Sofia Coppola’s modern critique on white privileged youth and societal celebrity worship is at once dead-on accurate and disturbingly funny.  Coppola grew up in this world, and her observances cut deep.  Emma Watson’s vacant and self-aware performance hovers over the line of caricature, but that’s part of its playfulness.  Her line readings alone are worth multiple viewings.  Sarah Flack’s editing mixes music video montage-style cutting with excellent traditional comic beats to captivating effect.  The Bling Ring also represents the great Harry Savides’s last time behind the camera.  His usual aesthetic mixes beautifully with Coppola’s vision and it’s a fitting final picture in his all too brief, but already legendary career.

9. Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)

There has been a lot of pushback against this film from a section of the gay community in the past couple months.  The thought has been, “how dare they turn the story of AIDS into a straight hero narrative?”  Considering that the gay community fought long and hard for years to convince the country at large that AIDS affected ALL people, this seems a little short-sighted.  Yes, a straight male is the hero of this tale, but the larger narrative is about love, tolerance, and working together despite our differences — because in the end, everyone is human.  Surely that’s a message that everyone can get behind?  Mathew McConaughey is a revelation in the film, committing himself not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  He throws himself at the role and embodies this good ol’ boy from Texas completely.  It’s a great match between movie star personality and well-written material.  Jared Leto breaks hearts as a transgender woman dying of AIDS, and Jennifer Garner provides the moral center as a doctor caught between hospital-approved treatment and her own growing doubts.  This is an actor’s piece, but Director Jean-Marc Vallee keeps the pace buzzing along, even when the picture gets bogged down in the minutia of medical operations and the facts of the time.  It is one of the few “true stories” this year that held any weight.

8. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

If we were going with pure cinematic experience, nothing would beat Gravity this year.  A fully-absorbing thrill ride from start to finish and a bold step forward in motion picture special effects, with this film Alfonso Cuaron solidifies his status as a visionary auteur.  Combine his signature talents with the lensing of arguably the greatest living Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, and you have a breathtaking and unforgettable film going experience.  Months later I still can’t figure out how they did many of the shots in Gravity, including the opening 15 minute continuous single take that defies filmmaking logic.  The plot is perhaps a little too straightforward, but its tale of survival and the perseverance of the everlasting human spirit are universal.  Sandra Bullock gives it her all in a taxing physical performance, even if the emotional side isn’t quite there.  But this is Cuaron’s show from beginning to end and there is never a dull moment, whether he is marveling at the infiniteness that is space, or barraging his viewers in a 3D shower storm of fire and debris.  It is one of the great directorial achievements of all time.

7.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

I’ve said a lot on this film since its release, and I don’t quite feel like repeating myself.  Let it be known that this is bold and vital cinema.  It may not be one of my personal favorite films of the year, but it is certainly the most important.  It goes a long way in revealing the truth about our past; a past that Hollywood has never fully confronted.  And they still haven’t.  It took a risk-taking black British filmmaker to illuminate an American tragedy.  Thank god someone did.

6.  Prisoners (dir. Denis Villenueve)

Perhaps the most surprising film of the year, Prisoners is much more than the sum of its parts.  Directed with unflinching skill and a deliberate pace, the picture is at once a disturbing thriller, a police procedural and a domestic drama.  Villenueve is able to juggle all these pieces with the assistance of a solid script by Aaron Guzikowski and moody, atmospheric cinematography by Roger Deakins.  The violence is brutal and disturbing, but never overstated.  The film asks a simple question – how far would you go to protect the life of your child?  The film’s answers are unsettling to say the least.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career here, while Hugh Jackman continues to deliver strong work, even if he tends to give way to melodrama.  Despite a Scooby Doo-like climax, Prisoners never loses its edge and its ending is perfectly vague.

5. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Trashed by critics upon release, but embraced by audiences, The Great Gatsby is a wild and unorthodox adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.  It features extravagant costume and production design, as well as a hip hop-flavored soundtrack.  The performances embody the classic characters with great ease and even find facets missing in most adaptations.  As written here, Daisy and Gatsby are complicated and selfish individuals, but Luhrmann manages to make their love story as romantic and powerful as anything seen in his Moulin Rouge.  The style here is hyperactive, and the party scenes have to be seen to be believed for their lavishness, but Luhrmann also manages to nail the drama.  A scene late in the film involving a broiling hotel room filled with ice and fans remains one of the tensest moments in any film this past year.  Luhrmann uses his soundtrack to draw a parallel between the glorified excess of the 1920’s and today.  The results could not be more perfect. Luhrmann constantly shoots for the moon with every new project and while he doesn’t quite make it, his ambition has to be admired.  His divisive style either works for you or it doesn’t.  I would rather see raw ambition on the screen than much of the garbage I sat through this past year.  The Great Gatsby is easily the most underrated film of 2013.

4. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

Director Spike Jonze specializes in oddball features, continually knocking it out of the park with the likes of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.  But with Where the Wild Things Are he found his heart, and he continues that trend here.  Her is at once about our technological future while also being profoundly about the modern nature of love.  It is heartfelt, thought-provoking, and challenging material.  Joaquin Phoenix gives another in a long line of beautifully nuanced performances, while Scarlett Johansson exudes sexiness and quiet understanding with her voice as her only acting tool.  The performance provides a great example as to why critics and awards bodies need to broaden their understanding of what constitutes acting.  Jonze’s script goes to humorous and often dark, unexpected places.  The film ends on a bittersweet note, providing the audience with a complicated emotional release.  There are traces of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here, which should come as no surprise considering Jonze’s previous collaborations with screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman, but Her is its own unique animal.

3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Before Midnight marks the third in an unconventional film trilogy following the relationship of one couple, with each film catching up with them after nine years.  While the first was about love at first sight, and the second about rekindling an old flame, the third film is more dramatic in nature.  It follows its characters, Jesse and Celine, during that middle section of a romance once children are born and lives become routine.  The film asks, how do people keep a relationship together after so many years of personal sacrifice?  There is great warmth and humor to be found in Before Midnight, but it’s the films last 45 minutes that are the most uncomfortable and genuine as it follows an argument in almost real-time.  Richard Linklater lets scenes play out in natural rhythm, often employing long takes and letting the actors emotional beats dictate where a cut should be made.  He shares screenwriting credit with his stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who help give authenticity to these characters and the dialogue.  In fact, much of the picture feels improvised when in reality it is scripted down to the letter.  Hawke and Delpy do sensational work here and aren’t afraid to portray the uglier side of human nature.  These are complicated individuals who are given their due on-screen.  We can only hope that in another nine years we will receive a new film as heartbreakingly beautiful as this one.  Jesse and Celine’s enduring relationship has earned it.

2. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)


Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s 45th feature film, and it’s easily his best since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.  That’s saying something, considering Woody Allen is no slouch when it comes to directing.  Sure, with his output it’s not unusual for him to have a dud here and there, but for the most part (especially lately) he has maintained excellence throughout his long career.  Much has already been made about Cate Blanchett’s career-defining performance and everything you have heard is true.  It’s tremendous work, the likes of which comes along once in a generation.  Years from now it will be looked upon as one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid (it’s a good thing Allen still shoots on film!) — but it’s a testament to Allen’s richly layered screenplay that Jasmine works at all as a character.  Her selfishness and neuroses could easily be off-putting, but Allen is smart enough to give her humor and enough self-awareness to make the audience empathize with her.  Combined with Blanchett’s considerable talents, Jasmine becomes one of his most complex female creations.  The film also skewers the one-percenters that Allen used to have such a loving fascination with, perversely turning his work in on itself.  The ensemble is one of the strongest ever assembled for an Allen production, and the crafts work is top of the line, as we’ve come to expect from this living master.  Blue Jasmine shows that after all these years Woody Allen still has the capability to surprise and confound us.  Let us hope he keeps it up for many more years to come.

1.  The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

How could the number one spot possibly go to anything else?  At 71 years old Martin Scorsese has created his most energetic, brazen, outrageous, and controversial film to date.  It’s the work of a daring 30-year-old filmmaker coming onto the scene, not that of a director who claims he only has a few more films left in him.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a beast here, going through every possible scumbag impulse he has in his acting bag of tricks. His physical comedy is especially potent, and it’s a side of him that we’ve never seen before.  It’s a larger than life performance in a film reveling in its own depiction of excess.  Terence Winter’s screenplay is tightly wound, while remaining narratively loose and extremely vulgar.  Thelma Schoonmaker outdoes herself with the editing of the picture, epitomizing a life’s worth of work in one feature.  The Wolf of Wall Street holds a mirror up to our society and dares us to look closer and laugh at the absurdity that America’s love of money and greed has caused.  It also daringly provides no answers and instead asks the audience, what the hell are you going to do about it?  It is a modern American masterpiece from a visionary director who shows no signs of stopping, despite what he may say to the contrary.

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