The best films of 2013

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This was the year for romance. Half of the films that survived into this year’s top 10 hail from the romance genre. The annual crapshoot has spoken.

So this is my second attempt at compiling a list of the 10 best films in a year. This year was far more difficult, possibly due to me haven seen more films within the year. In 2012, I accumulated a top 10 list from 136. This year, I had 180 to choose from. Knowing me, I’ll probably have more than 200 to dig through next year.

But alas, I once again am able to provide the ever so daunting task of singling out the 10 best films of the year, which is far more taxing on my mind than I wish it to be. Every film of this list is about on the same in terms of quality; in the end I had to chose my list based on which films I admired the most.

I’m also changing up the format a little this time around. Because I want to give a shout-out to more great films from the year, I have provided you with the top 20 films of the year, with 11-20 being in alphabetical order instead of ranked from best to worst.

So, here we go. Let the debates begin.

11-20 (In alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

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Director Steve McQueen has finally received mainstream attention for his flawless work on 12 Years a Slave, and deservingly so. He has created one of the most brutal and honest slavery films. It’s currently a favorite to win Best Picture on Oscar night, perhaps to make up for Lincoln and Django Unchained not winning last year. A great deal of this film’s success is due to Chiwetel Ejiofor. You know who he is. He’s always been that one guy from that thing, most notably in 2012SaltAmerican GangsterChildren of Men, Inside Man and Four Brothers. This role will forever be his landmark in cinema, as his presence on the screen is nothing short of magnetizing. 

Blancanieves

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2012 was the year that revived the ancient tale of Snow White, with the great Snow White and the Huntsman and the amateur Mirror Mirror. Neither film stands toe-to-toe with Blancanieves, which transforms the classic children’s tale into a silent epic centered around bull-fighting. This is significantly more daring than The Artist, which won Best Picture for 2011. Blancanieves is a full-scale epic that feels like it was found in a time capsule from the 20’s. And for the record, this was the last film to be cut from the final 10, so I guess you can consider this number 11, for whatever that’s worth.

Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen shows no sign of easing into retirement by challenging us with Blue Jasmine, another one of his personal character studies on the simple quirks of everyday people. Cate Blanchett’s title character is under the main spotlight, who proves right away she is deeply disturbed. Jasmine dresses like a million dollars but has a mind so warped she can’t handle a minimum wage job or casual conversation. Something remarkable has happened in this woman’s past, and we are slowly spoonfed details via flashbacks. We learn that she was once married to rich executive played by Alec Baldwin, who proves untrustworthy in several categories. Jasmine is eventually forced to move in with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is also shown to be married during the flashbacks to a hopeful entrepreneur, played by Andre Dice Clay, of all people. Allen continues to prove that he is one of the elite screenwriters of cinema history by consistently writing about people we can care about, the type of people who are hurt by tragedy and we willingly put our arms around for comfort.

Captain Phillips

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Captains Phillips is a superb, relentless thriller about Somali pirates taking an American cargo ship hostage. It’s all about character here, as most of the film is comprised of a verbal chess match between the title hero (Tom Hanks in another great transforming performance) and the pirate leader, played by Barkhad Abdi in a star making role. In a way I was reminded of another Tom Hanks movie, Apollo 13, where another group of men relied on sound teamwork to overcome daunting odds for survival. Director Paul Greengrass continues to show he can do no wrong after crafting fellow great thrillers in The Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone. This becomes the second consecutive year that Hanks has been robbed of a sure Oscar nomination after his polarizing work in Cloud Atlas last year. But one thing is certain: he makes acting look so easy.

Dallas Buyers Club

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Tom Hanks may have handed in another solid performance, but the Transformation of the Year awards go to Matthew McConaughey and Lared Leto for their contributions to The Dallas Buyers Club, which tells a true story of Ron Woodroof – a man diagnosed with AIDs in 1985 Dallas. He has the heart and determination of a lion, boldly working around the system to transport medications from around the world and sell them by any means, including smuggling, bribing or loudly disrupting town meetings. It’s essentially a parable to never trusting Big Brother and solely believing in your survival instincts. McConaughey and Leto are the front runners to win their respective acting nominations on Oscar night for assuming their characters so flawlessly.

Disconnect

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Disconnect is a film that offers its own opinions on social networking, questioning just how much it connects or disconnects relationships between people. This is a horror film in the traditional sense that it thrives on the audience’s fears, playing our emotions like a piano, as Hitchcock would say. Disconnect uses the Crash format of telling multiple stories between interconnecting characters. The most memorable is when a couple of teenage boys create a fake Facebook account, masking themselves as an attractive girl, and message their wallflower classmate, Ben (Jonah Bobo). Ben’s the long-haired loner in middle school, his ears often pacified by ear phones and his eyes often fixed downward to avoid human interaction as much as possible. My younger self relates to Ben in so many ways, so maybe my rating is a little biased, but isn’t that the point of films: to find ways to connect with and touch audiences? Disconnect made me so concerned for its characters, I’ve rarely ever felt so connected during a film.

Pacific Rim

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It must be fun to live in Guillermo del Toro’s mind. His ever-expanding imagination is so unlike most other filmmakers, I always look forward to escape into his films, most notably the Hellboy series and Pan’s LabrynthPacific Rim is somewhat of a crossover between Reel Steel and Cloverfield, although very superior to both films. In the near future, Earth becomes infested with giant reptilian monsters called The Kaiju. In response, humans built giant, mechanical fighting robots to defend their last hopes of survival. I know, I know, this plot seems simplistic and something borrowed from the Michael Bay Screenplay Factory, but del Toro does right by putting characters first instead of focusing on stuff being blowed up real good. I was further engrossed by the fun science involved, mostly communicated by Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), which backed up the story and gives the film purpose. The prime special effects and action sequences provide the perfect backdrop to the adventure, and what you’ve got here is a first-rate action thriller that makes Optimus Prime looks like a ukulele pick.

Philomena

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Philomena is one of the funniest, most charming films about a serious subject I’ve seen. Judi Dench is the title character — an shorter woman in her 60’s or 70’s, often blabbering about whatever is on her mind. We learn that she grew up in a Catholic convent in Ireland, and conceived a child who was taken away from her. She tracks down and hires narcissistic journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also wrote the screenplay) to aid her in looking for her long lost boy. What looks like a setup for another odd couple roadtrip picture turns out to be a sweet yet brutally honest portrait of how beliefs have changed in the past 50 years. Dench and Coogan are hilarious together, working off each other’s talents flawlessly, particularly Dench who plays a character who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is how comedy works. None of the dialogue seems forced, providing one of the most enriching experiences in a theater of the year.

Prisoners

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If Prisoners deserves anything, it’s an award for Best Ensemble. This is a relentlessly daunting thriller that immediately gives off a Hitchcockian aroma of a simple yet horrifying situation. Two families meet for a cozy dinner. A daughter from each family wanders off and don’t return. Hugh Jackman plays one of the fathers and knocks his Oscar nominated performance from Les Miserables out of the theater, portraying a ferocious, clueless man who just wants to know the answers. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective assigned to investigate, and hands in a third great performance in a row after Source Code and End of Watch. He embodies a darker version of his character from Zodiac, who also became obsessed with finding the culprit of horrible acts. This will be an entertainment to be remembered and cherished for years to come.

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Martin Scorsese returns to his roots of telling self-destructing tragedies about a once innocent man who eventually becomes corrupt and loses everything, much like his other great films GoodfellasCasino and The Aviator. He uses Leonardo DiCaprio as his centerpiece for the fifth time, and is their best collaboration since The Departed, most of the credit going to DiCaprio’s animated performance. He plays Jordan Belfort, who climbed his way up the Wall Street ladder and founded his own stockbroking company. He rewards his employees with so much drugs and hookers he is like a darker version of Jay Gatsby. Scorsese purposely edits the stoned scenes loosely, brilliantly replicating the world that Belfort believed to be his. I felt Scorsese took less risks on his picture than pasts ones, but that still doesn’t diminish the overall quality.

 

Now I shall list the 10 best pictures of the year, according to me, starting with number 10.

10. Fruitvale Station

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Fruitvale Station is based on the true life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young father on parole who wakes up one morning and senses something isn’t right. We assume he regrets all of the time he rotted away in prison instead of being there for his wife, daughter and mother. And so he lives this particular day to the best of his abilities, encountering strangers who become friends, enemies and victims of bad decisions, which is how we normally characterize the people we meet. Jordan provides a career-defining role, portraying Grant as a man still struggling to assume his adulthood and the responsibility attached to it. Jordan gives a virtuoso performance as someone who grins like a saint to his friends and transforms into a destructive monsters when he makes enemies. This film is a testament against stereotypes of ghetto residents, telling a heart-breaking story in the most honest way possible.

9. Rush

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What I felt was the most forgotten about great film of the year was Ron Howard’s eye-opening Rush, which recalls the true story of a catastrophic rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). These guys don’t mess around. Sports fans often refer to football and hockey as the most dangerous contact sports, but Formula 1 racing is on another level. Those who participated fully understood and accepted that they might die on the track, but they went anyway, because what else would they do? Lauda was obsessive over winning his races, upgrading every gizmo in his car to the best of his abilities, spending too many hours on studying his car and how it drives. Hunt was the pretty boy marquee of the sport, preferring to be a womanizer than focus too much on his gameplan. The film uses Lauda’s fueled hatred toward’s hunt to portray determination so unlike most other films.

8. Before Midnight

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The third and best entry to Richard Linklater’s “Before” series is Before Midnight, revisiting Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years after they reconnected in Paris in Before Sunset, and 18 years after they first naturally crossed paths on the train in Before Sunrise. Each film seemingly raises the stakes for these characters and their relationship, because that’s just how lives go as they age. The first film promised no commitments or consequences, with Jesse and Celine seeming so free and anxious. Now they have twin daughters, and Jesse lives in France with Celine. Before Midnight follows the family’s vacation to Greece, just another day in the lives of two people destined to be interconnected. Linklater utilized more long-shots this time, naturally watching Jesse and Celine talk in the car or while walking in the streets of Greece. It’s special how Hawke and Delpy effortlessly embrace their roles every nine years, like they were always destined to be interconnected themselves. Maybe they were.

7. Frances H

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I like Greta Gerwig. I just plain like her. When it comes to screen presence, boy, she’s just got it. Much like her awkward, eccentric character in Greenberg, Gerwig plays Frances as a bright but unconfident Frances who struggles to survive in the bowels of New York City. She doesn’t really live anywhere or have a prosperous career, but her dreams are as big as her heart. She camps on her friends’ couches and apprentices at a dance studio, praying to eventually catch her big break. Isn’t that what most post-graduate college students are doing these days? Greta Gerwig is one of the funniest new actresses working her way to the top. She isn’t Sarah Silverman raunchy funny, more like Zooey Deschanel only not as blunt funny. The decision to film in black and white is genius, keeping us from being distracted from the noisy, annoying New York City and allowing Gerwig to glow despite the absence of color. Being black  and white will stir people away from this film, which is a crime because the style allows us to see these people at their core. It especially speaks well to people of my generation, who feel lost in an unorganized America, and have to fight to even feel happy on a daily basis. I’m going to remember Frances for a very long time.

6. Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle)

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Coincidentally, I had a foreign film in my number six spot on last year’s list, Amour. That was a story of a long-seasoned love between an old French couple. Blue is the Warmest Color centers around a young French girl who finally discovers and interpret love for the first time. We meet Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) during her high school days, when girls and boys meet separately in groups to giggle and gossip about their crushes and who lost their virginity to who. I never contributed to those discussions in high school, but I know they happened everyday. Adele is asked out by a boy in her class. They date. They have sex, on screen. Adele looks dazed during it, as if something is still missing. Exacrhopoulos’s performance is spot-on throughout this picture, as she finds love in the rebellious woman, Emma (Lea Seydoux), with blue hair, and finally blossoms into the woman she was meant to be. While with the boy, Adele appears emotionless and conflicted. But with Emma, she discovers herself. This is the truest film about homosexuality I’ve ever seen. I don’t doubt gay people strife through similar predicaments every day. Then again, everyone goes through this regardless of sexuality, don’t they?

5. Her

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Her strips away the romance genre and strikes right for eroticism. No, it’s not what you think. There’s no nudity or sex scenes… well, at least not what you or I refer to as sex. Anyway, this is another masterpiece by director Spike Jonze, who challenges cinema more than anyone else in his field with films like Being John Malkovich and AdaptationHer takes place in the not-so-distant future, where the social media crisis seems to have won the war. Everyone can be seen connected to a device through ear plugs, their heads shrugged down towards the ground. Corporate skyscrapers are as high as the clouds and loom in the background for a darkened tone. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix in another virtuoso role) is recently separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He is Shakespearean with words when typing or talking to his gadgets, but is incapable of personal confrontations. This is no doubt Jonze’s slap to the face of today’s social media, particularly online dating sites. Theodore purchases the latest technology — a computer that establishes a personality based on the personalities of the user — Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. They establish a respectful relationship that eventually evolves into love, and exchange their love through their emotions and voice, as Samantha is only a voice, at least at first. The film eventually ends with one of the most outlandish endings that only Spike Jonze can concoct.

4. The Place Beyond the Pines

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When I wrote my sort-of best film list for The UB Spectrum in December, I tagged The Place Beyond the Pines as the best film of the year. After a little recalculating and watching a handful of films over again, it is currently ranked at number four. I may change my mind again later in life, but this is how I feel at the current moment. This is still a perfect film from open to close, with some of the edgiest acting I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling, one of my favorite actors, plays a motorcycle daredevil for a touring carnival troupe. He revisits a fling he met from a previous tour, only to discover for himself that she bore his child. Romina (Eva Mendes) slaves away at her waitress job, and has found a new boyfriend. Luke (Gosling) is obliged to pay his dues and help aid his son — robbing banks, working on cars, whatever. The events that eventually unfold I dare not reveal, only that a dedicated cop played by Bradley Cooper and a teenager played by Dane DeHaan become involved. In its simplest form, The Place Beyond the Pines tell stories of determination and sacrifice about people who want what’s best for their family. But at its core, the film asks its characters the all important moral question, “Well, what should you do now?” The characters’ morals are challenged to their limits. Did these people force themselves into these predicaments? That’s a question that can be asked about people everyday. Most of the time, the answer is yes.

3. Gravity

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Gravity is one of those rare gems that can only be fully experienced when seen in the theater. Like Life of PiAvatar and The Dark KnightGravity feels like a lesser film when off the big screen. Apparently Warner Bros. and Regal Cinemas agree with, since the film is still in theaters after its initial release on October 4. And like the three other films I mentioned, Gravity successfully utilizes 3-D technology to its advantage. If you are so desperate to see a 3-D film that won’t hurt your eyes or look blurry, look no further. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two survivors stranded in space when their spaceship is shredded by satellite debris in Earth’s orbit. This scene’s elegance can’t properly be described in words, although I will say I was clutching the armrest a a little tighter than normal. Films this exciting are so rare that I cherish them. The last time a thriller gripped me like that was the opening crash scene in last year’s Flight. Bullock provides transforming work here, her best role ever bar none. She plays a woman who has since felt distant from a life of material and physical things since the death of her daughter. She spends nearly 20 hours a day in a darkened, underground lab doing research, drives around to cope with her day, and reruns the routine the next day. She is a woman detached from all emotion, but will soon learn to cherish the life she has. I would just like to take the time to also mention that in my Spectrum article I correctly predicted that director of cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki would earn an Oscar nomination for his work. She should be a shoe-in to win. Director Alfonso Cuaron has probably made the best space thriller since Kubrick’s milestone 2001: A Space Oddesey. 

2. The Spectacular Now

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This film is perfect in the simplest ways. Two seniors in high school meet cute on a lawn one morning. Sutter (Miles Tenner) is a snarky, fun-loving dude from the party scene. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is a bright, genuine girl who isn’t a loner but is quiet enough not to be noticed by the popular kids. Sutter buds up with her initially for a ride home. They click instantaneously. A ride turns into lunch at school, lunch at school turns into math tutoring, and the rest I’ll leave you to guess. This film retells the stories of so many people, I felt like I was meeting them all at once. Sutter’s dad has been out of the picture of 15 years, and when Sutter and Aimee finally meet and talk to him, it leads to one of the saddest moments I’ve ever seen on film. It’s so clear Sutter and Aimee work well together, but Sutter still has lingering feelings about his last relationship. We’ve all been there. All of my best friends call recall my numerous pathetic attempts to reconnect with my first love. They inevitably reach the sex stage of the relationship, and its as honest as any sex scene you’ll see in a movie. We aren’t focused on tits or asses, or anything in particular. We are instead neutral witnesses to natural young love defining itself. I found myself leaning forward for most of this movie, because of its refreshing atmosphere and the credibility the actors bring to their roles. You can tell this project meant a lot to them. It means a lot to me, too. I was both of these people at one point.

1. American Hustle

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Now this is a movie. Somewhere about halfway into American Hustle I became convinced I was watching the best film of 2013. This will be an American film classic for decades to come. Why? Because it’s just so much damned fun. Director David O. Russell combines his main cast of The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) with the main cast of Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), and teams them up with Jeremy Renner for one of the best ensembles of the year. Each scene plays off the next in an web of deception between all of the players involved. The opening sequence says it all. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) struggles to give himself a comb over using glue, setting the tone for the whole film in a minute. These characters con others to survive. Well, what else are they supposed to do? Go to school and start a career? This film is a great character study, like The Place Beyond the Pines, about people driven by desperation that they create themselves. Amy Adams especially shines here, deceiving several people at once. For a while I couldn’t decide if she really was British or was only using that to help Irving. I’ll let you find out for yourself. Cooper hits all the right notes as an FBI agent who diagnoses government corruption like cancer. Lawrence has a high chance to win a second consecutive Oscar, although I don’t think she deserves it as much as last year. Adams has stiff competition against Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, but I’ll be pulling for her in March. According to Christian Bale, many scenes were altered and improvised. He told director David O. Russell, “You realize this is going to change the plot greatly down track.” Russell replies, “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” You have no idea how happy that makes me.