By: Paul Zecharia | www.stonesdetroit.com
Well, it’s that time again.
Yes, these are the films of 2013 that I enjoyed the most. Now keep in mind that these are my personal favorites in order of how much I enjoyed them. I will warn some of you that you may not see some of your own favorites on here, either because I still haven’t seen them yet (like Philomena or Nebraska) or because I thought they were overrated and didn’t deserve to be on the list (like American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street).
So let’s get started!
20. Fruitvale Station
This was one of the big breakout indie hits of 2013 (by the way, there will be several indie hits on this list). Fruitvale Station is a dramatic recount of the final hours of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay resident, before his fatal death at the hands of a police officer on New Year’s Day 2008. The film actually begins with original cell phone footage of what happened to Grant on that day to set the tone for the entire film. Ryan Coogler makes his feature writing and directing debut, and a solid one at that. Michael B. Jordan gives a powerful performance as Grant and was one of many snubbed choices for the Oscars this year. Grant is portrayed as a regular guy with flaws just trying to get by with what’s happening in his life as well as finding some happiness. He deals with his girlfriend, daughter, friends, coworkers, strangers, and his mother, played wonderfully by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who was also a co-producer of the film. I will admit that the ending does get a little too manipulative, but if you’re willing to forgive it and look at the rest of Fruitvale Station as a strong piece with much realism and honesty, you’ll enjoy it. It’s another classic example of a morality tale that ends in tragedy rather than joy.
19. Saving Mr. Banks
Talk about being surprised. Despite my strong disliking for the classic Disney hit Mary Poppins, I rather found myself enjoying Saving Mr. Banks. The film is a dramatic and rather romanticized account of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, being persuaded by Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, to sell the rights to her books so he can make them into the film we all know today. Travers also reminisces on her childhood in Australia and how her own father inspired her to write the books. This is not only the first film that’s actually about the making of a Disney film, but it’s the first time Walt Disney himself is portrayed in a mainstream film. Despite Tom Hanks being one of my favorite actors, I was skeptical of him at first. But then he won me over with his charisma and seriousness and was able to make Disney both an inspirational genius and normal human being. Much praise goes to Thompson who nails it as Travers. She’s able to capture a lost and tortured soul with conflicting emotions and the inability to let go of what she’s been through. The flashbacks in Australia also definitely saved the film for me. Given how much the real Travers hated the adaptation of her books, I saw Saving Mr. Banks as a sincere and honorable apology to her memory. But I still don’t like Mary Poppins .
18. Short Term 12
According to Rotten Tomatoes, Short Term 12 is the best-reviewed film of 2013 with a 99% approval rating. And yet nobody saw it. This is another underrated indie hit that won the top prizes at SXSW Film Festival back in March. It’s centered around a foster-care facility worker named Grace, played by Brie Larson. and her experiences taking care of at-risk youth as well as being in love with a fellow worker named Mason, played by John Gallagher, Jr. They struggle to help several kids while at the same time, Grace deals with her own difficult past involving her father. One of the things that really works about Short Term 12 is its great ability to balance humor and drama without feeling forced or phony. A lot of this comes from the performances of Larson, Gallagher, Jr., and the rest of the cast. This is the second film from I Am Not a Hipster writer and director Destin Cretton, he manages to fully capture an honest depiction in the hardships and joys of growing up and working hard while battling your own demons. It ends up leaving with you with a positive feeling at the end.
17. Star Trek Into Darkness
2013 was a year filled with many so-so blockbusters. In my opinion, J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness is actually one of the few really great ones. Even though it’s following this common trend of sequels having to be dark (The Dark Knight, Thor: The Dark World) as well as villains being captured in the film and later escaping, the film manages to be a fun, intense, action-packed, dramatic, and sometimes funny sequel to an equally superior film. With Captain Kirk and his crew battling a psychotic villain played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness is just pure fun and entertainment. While my status as a Trekkie is still very low, I feel that this film can definitely pull in new fans into the Star Trek franchise. My only real problem with Into Darkness, without giving too much away, is the rushed ending. But I believe everything else is still solid. With characters questioning their motives and choices, great action set-pieces, impressive visuals, and a terrifying and cold villain, Star Trek Into Darkness is one you cannot miss. Even with all that lens flare.
Why hasn’t this one gotten any attention? Seriously, I feel like I’m the only person in the world who actually saw Disconnect. Regardless, this was one of the year’s more powerfully dramatic films with some great social commentary on the use of technology in today’s society. Three stories are interconnected with each other; one involving a lonely teenage boy who becomes a victim of cyber-bulling, one couple dealing with identity theft right after the loss of their baby, and a reporter investigating and fraternizing with a teenage sex worker. All are connected through Facebook, texting, and instant messaging in some way. Much like Crash (one of my all-time favorite films), each person and story affects each other in many ways to the point where they start questioning love and human interaction. And it makes the audience question these same things as well. With great performances from Jason Bateman, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård, Andrea Riseborough, and Max Thieriot, Disconnect is one of the year’s most underrated films. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so.
15. The Hunt (Jagten)
This is one of two foreign films on this list. The Hunt stars Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in a small Danish community who’s trying to keep a strong connection with his son and even develops a relationship with one of the fellow teaches. However, he becomes wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting a little girl who happens to be the daughter of one of his close childhood friends. Because of this, he becomes an outcast in his community, despite his innocence. The Hunt is a powerfully dramatic piece about misunderstandings, word-of-mouth, and manhunts. It’s shows how easily people can become judgmental and how far it goes. Friendships and relationships are tested and nobody knows what to believe in anymore. As the film progresses, you start to feel more sorry for Lucas and you just want to give him break. The character is innocent, but he is not seen that way. He’s remarkably restrained and gives off a real sense of believability. The Hunt is currently nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t win.
14. This Is The End
You’re probably thinking “What?” This Is The End was the funniest comedy of the year. Seriously, who would have thought that six celebrities being trapped in a house together trying to survive the rapture could be successful? Audiences did, and so did I. Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and starring Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, This Is The End was silly, ridiculous, outrageous, and vulgar. Yet it managed to be laugh-out-loud hilarious. Because it knew that it had to go that route rather than trying take itself seriously. Rogen and Goldberg knew what kind of comedy they were making and took every advantage of it with its jokes, self-references, visuals, and countless celebrity cameos including Michael Cera and Emma Watson (and two more which I won’t mention here). The actors have a lot of comedic energy and the right delivery to be as funny as possible. Even the dramatic elements are played for laughs. Nearly everybody got a kick out of This Is The End, critics and audiences.
13. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen is still going strong after all these years. The same can be said for the performances in his films. Cate Blanchett, in one of the best roles of her career, headlines Blue Jasmine as a wealthy New York socialite whose life falls apart after discovering her husband’s countless affairs and business scams. She goes to San Francisco to live with her poor adopted sister and tries to turn her life away. The all-star cast consists of Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, and Peter Sarsgaard, and they all manage to deliver strong performances with capturing the right amount of humor in their serious and tragic situations. Blue Jasmine has been compared to the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. If anything, it feels like an homage, or at least an updated version. Woody Allen manages to make the seriousness all the more entertaining with his classic trademarks of enjoyable dialogue and a satire of upper-class delusions. At times, the structure does feel uneven with some flashbacks, but the right tone is still there. If Cate Blanchett does not win Best Actress, we riot.
12. Dallas Buyers Club
According to the Internet, there is a “McConaissance.” Matthew McConaughey’s career has been on fire in the past few years. Instead of a Hollywood leading man in romantic comedies, he’s actually taking his career serious with some really good dramatic roles in really good films; his latest being Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a real-life electrician and rodeo cowboy living in Texas in the ‘80s who is diagnosed with AIDS. With the help of an AIDS-positive transgender woman played by Jared Leto, Woodruff manages to smuggle illegal pharmaceutical drugs to use for his own treatment and to sell to others who need it. Not only did McConaughey lose a ton of weight for this role, but he gives himself completely to the character as a hard-nosed man who loses everything at first, but immediately bounces back with his heavy determination into fighting this disease. Much of the weight of the film lies on him. Jared Leto is also splendid in his role, convincing us that he can be bold and funny. Dallas Buyers Club has the right execution for a story about a man learning from within and it manages to not be as preachy and heartwarming as you’d think.
11. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)
Despite the long title, many people have referred to this film as “the one with the French lesbians that’s three hours long.” This is the film that unanimously won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the highest honor it gives. Based on a graphic novel of the same name and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Colour centers around Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student who meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), a young woman with blue hair, and they eventually become attracted to each other. Adèle navigates through her life and starts finding and losing herself with every aspect of her life. This film has gained much attention for his graphic and long sex scenes as well as the harsh conditions and abuse by Kechiche during production. But controversy should not definite content. Our two leading ladies are excellent together and the film’s ability to capture a real sense of erotic drama without being “sexy” but instead being sincere and raw should be noted. This is a warm portrait of relationship exploration that feels and looks beautiful.
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
As much as I love The Hunger Games, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of an improvement Catching Fire was. The original book was, in my opinion, on the same level as the first one, but the film adaptation had better execution. It picks up right after the events of the first film, where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are being faced with the fact that their victory at the 74th Hunger Games has started a rebellion in the Districts of Panem. Not only do they have to deal with retaining their public images, but they are being forced back into the arena with the 75th Hunger Games. It’s surprising how Catching Fire does rehash some of the first installment with the actual Hunger Games portion, but it makes up for it with certain elements that should’ve been better addressed in the first film, such as the themes of government control, obedience, survival, and the influence of media. Several new characters played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer are a plus. And most importantly…the camera actually stays still this time. Thank you, Francis Lawrence.
9. Frances Ha
Yet another overlooked indie hit of 2013. There was something about Frances Ha that put a smile on my face. Maybe it was the simplicity of the story, maybe it was its relaxing tone, or maybe it was because of Greta Gerwig’s engaging performance. Actually no; it was all those things. Gerwig plays the title role as a twenty-something-year-old who aspires to be a dancer as she navigates through her life, friends, and the city of New York City. Shot in beautiful black-and-white and featuring a naturalistic tone, Frances Ha is another example of a touching portrayal of human life and its conditions. Gerwig cowrote the film with director Noah Baumbach. Gerwig’s performance alone is sure to put a smile on your face. I feel like this would be the kind of film to appeal to anybody in their twenties who is struggling to get by in life. Frances feels happy with what she does and likes to have fun despite her many insecurities. But that’s life, and the film knows it. There’s an awkwardness to life and a charm to the film’s simplicity.
8. Spring Breakers
Next to Man of Steel, Spring Breakers felt like one of the most polarizing films of 2013. Written and directed by Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers centers around four female college students that get arrested while on Spring Break but then get bailed out by gangster James Franco to do some dirty work. The reactions I get from this film are incredible. People either love or hate it. For me, it’s a rather unique film that has a lot of style but the right amount of substance to not over exploit the simple plot. There’s a lot of social commentary embedded in Spring Breakers about sociopathic young people and their drive to party. The film doesn’t ask the question “Do you want to have fun?”, it asks the question “How far are you willing to go to have fun?” Former Disney teen idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens prove that they can have range and Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are equally great. James Franco, however, steals the show with what should’ve been a more recognized performance this year. With its eclectic soundtrack and beautiful cinematography, all I can say is…Spring Break forever, bitches.
7. Captain Phillips
As I may have said before, Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors. Captain Phillips may not be one of his best films, but it’s one of his best performances. Captain Phillips tells the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009 and how Captain Richard Phillips himself managed to save his whole crew as he himself gets kidnapped by the pirates in a lifeboat. Director Paul Greengrass has often been criticized for his usage of shaky cam in his films, but there isn’t much in this one and when there is, it’s not that bad. There is a lot of dispute over the accuracy of the events that took place on the ship, according to former crew members. Many have said that Captain Phillips was not the hero the way the film made him to be. But I feel as an intense, dramatic, and suspenseful narrative, it really works. Hanks is stellar in his role, probably some of the best acting in his career, but the scene-stealer is newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate Muse. He started out as a limo driver in Minnesota and now he’s an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee. Congrats to him and to Captain Phillips for being amazing.
Gravity is the new Avatar. Both films were definitely heavy on style and its technology rather than the actual narrative itself, but both managed to be an enthralling experience on the big screen. When you’re watching this film in the theater and in 3-D, it really feels like you’re in outer space. Director Alfonso Cuarón takes Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on an adventure in space as they play astronauts work together to survive and get back to Earth after the destruction of their space shuttle. The film is mostly centered around Bullock’s character and her dark past, but she does prove herself worthy to watch. Gravity works in a way where a filmmaker can be allowed to use much creative technology and elements as possible to make their vision come true. It’s not just showing off what filmmaking technology can do just for the sake of being eye candy, but it allows the audience to be a part of the atmosphere that the film has created, especially with its cinematography and musical score. This film would make you not want to visit space in the same way Jaws would not make you get into the water.
Boy, did I fall in love with this one. Due to the many lackluster animated films of 2013, Frozen arrived as a blessed miracle of animated wonder. Disney has been coming back in a big way with its animated films lately. Many have called Frozen “the best Disney animated film since The Lion King”. In a way, it really is one of the best since the Disney Renaissance. Loosely based on the Hans Christen Anderson fairy tale “The Snow Queen”, the film is about a queen named Elsa who is cast out of her kingdom for her dangerous power to create ice and snow. Her younger sister Anna now has to bring her back so she can stop the eternal winter she accidentally created. Frozen has some incredibly memorable songs, some amazing visuals, a good balance between humor and drama, poking fun at traditional Disney trademarks, and probably best of all, it focuses on a different kind of love not often seen in Disney films: the love between siblings. If you’re looking for a film with strong and complex female characters, this is it. This is the major feminist film of 2013. Sure, Anna and Elsa are designed to look pretty, but they are still wonderful characters. Folks, this is Disney at its finest. Don’t let the annoying snowman get in the way.
4. 12 Years a Slave
People have been calling 12 Years a Slave “the Schindler’s List of slavery films”. In a way, I can agree. The latest film from Shame director Steve McQueen tells the true story of Solomon Northup, played by first-time Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was a free black man in the 1800s that was taken away from his family in New York and sold into slavery for (you guessed it) 12 years. He’s sold to many different slaveowners over the years, the most notable being the ruthless and sadistic Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender in his first Oscar-nominated role as well. Also nominated for the first time are McQueen himself for Best Director and breakout star Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress. What really works about 12 Years a Slave offers an extremely brutal and depressing look into slavery, but in a carefully handled way to make the film memorably powerful. Much of this comes from the strong performances and heavy emotionality. It’s a real stab in the gut, but it’s extraordinary with the gift of portraying the struggle of humanity and its mission to regain. This one’s a must-see.
3. Before Midnight
Is anybody else tired of typical Hollywood romances? Then stop watching them and start watching films like Before Midnight, which is the third film in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The first installment Before Sunrise, released in 1995, is one of my all-time favorite films. The second installment Before Sunset, is equally brilliant. Before Midnight picks up nine years after Sunset where Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) are spending some time in Greece with their children, friends, and each other, as they continue to examine their own lives and the meaning of love and commitment. The film is both very funny and very dramatic and the conversations are as engaging as they were in the first two films. You really get to know more about Jesse and Celine and what they’re going through in their respective lives. At times, it can be hard to watch because you really feel for these characters because of the naturalistic approach that the film takes when talking about life and dealing with their issues. This is another painfully underrated film that deservers to be recognized a helluva lot more.
2. The Spectacular Now
The Spectacular Now is 2013’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both films take a sweet and sincere but often dark approach into a typical coming-of-age story. It’s centered around Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior who parties hard and lives in the moment. His life is turned around when he meets a lonely “nice girl” named Aimee (Shailene Woodley). Thanks to the strong performances of Teller and Woodley, both on their way to be major stars, The Spectacular Now is a rather sensitive look into being teenagers and growing up. What I love is how the main characters start questioning their ways of life and what exactly they want to do once they finish high school. They examine each other, they enjoy each other’s company, and they fall in love in a way that high schoolers would fall in love. There are also the issues of avoiding commitment, relationships with family members, and your place in a social structure that are all handled maturely. Next to Perks, The Spectacular Now is one of the best teen drams I’ve seen in a long time. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s definitely spectacular.
Personally, the best love story of 2013 is between a man and his computer. Acclaimed writer and director Spike Jonze’s Her is my pick for the best film of the year. Set in the near future in Los Angeles, a lonely man called Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), nearly finalizing his divorce, develops a relationship with a talking operating system with artificial intelligence. He gives it a female voice who ends up developing her own personality and names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film is not only beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, but it provides some great social commentary about the exaggerated use of technology today. It asks us “How far can we go with technology?” Well, would it ever go to the point where we actually start falling in love with it? This is where the relationship between Theodore and Samantha come in. The core of the film isn’t the technology behind the love, but rather the love behind the technology. Even though Samantha is just a machine, she’s portrayed as a real human. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s delightfully entertaining. It’s the number-one best film of the year.