What a year it has been. 2013 was, in my opinion, the best year for cinema since 2007 when the Coen Brothers won Best Picture for No Country for Old Men, beating other fantastic pictures like There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton. This year may have been more completely stacked from top to bottom with marvelous and diverse films and more vivid and wonderful performances. The Oscars this year should be a fantastic celebration of 2013, the bad part being that so many films and performances will be left behind.
Typically, I struggle to compile a top ten list, and the last couple on the list are significantly weaker than the top few. This year, my list could easily expand to fifteen films, maybe twenty, that deserve recognition. But I suppose, like the Oscars, I have to draw the line somewhere. Here goes...
10) Gravity - Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity was the definitive cinematic experience of the year, a technical marvel the likes of which we have never seen. I have never been a proponent of 3D movie watching, but this film begs to be seen in such a way. Sandra Bullock delivers a great physical performance as an astronaut/scientist who must fight space itself - as well as a rather nasty debris field - to make it back to earth alive. While the screenplay was flat and uninspired for great stretches, and George Clooney's character is nothing more than Clooney playing himself in a space suit, there is no denying the majestic cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki and the technical mastery of Cuaron. The score from Steven Price enhances the harrowing moments to a fever pitch. Gravity begs for the silver screen, and will most certainly lose something in home viewing.
9) Captain Phillips - It has been a long stretch of time since Tom Hanks delivered a performance we had once come to expect from Hanks. Teaming up with director Paul Greengrass, Hanks plays real-life merchant mariner Rich Phillips, whose freight ship was overtaken by Somali pirates. The energy of Greengrass' direction keeps the action immediate, and he allows the pathos of his characters to dominate the screen rather than having set pieces dominate. What is special about Captain Phillips, however, is that it takes time to develop the enemy, led by Muse (certain Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Abdi), where many action films of this nature simply keep the adversaries nameless and faceless. And the final emotionally devastating moments of Captain Phillips are where Hanks shines so brightly, like Hanks once did each and every time he appeared on screen.
8) All is Lost - The screenplay for All is Lost, written by director J.C. Chandor, is only 36 pages long. But I would love to read those 36 pages to see how he pulled off a film that has absolutely no dialogue. Robert Redford, spry and able at 77 years old, is the only character on screen, and aside from one or two cries of desperation, says nothing throughout the duration of his ordeal. Stranded at sea with a hole in his boat and all electronic communication severed, it is up to Redford to navigate his way through treacherous waters and to find help. What begins as routine preservation becomes almost helpless desperation over the run time of the picture, and Redford delivers the best performance I have seen from him in ages.
7) Mud - Matthew McConaughey has completely transformed his career from rom-com dolt and spaced out bongo player to one of the most prestigious and well-rounded actors of this generation. The metamorphasis is stunning to say the least. McConaughey is certain to grab a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, and he appears to be the front runner. While he is fantastic in Dallas Buyers Club, his best film of 2013 in my opinion was Mud, a smaller and more intimate film where McConaughey portrays a simple man with simple dreams. Mud is a mystery film, a suspense film, and a coming of age story surrounding two boys that McConaughey's enigmatic character befriends along the way. It is a simple tale of friendship and loyalty, wrapped in a complex narrative rife with solid work from all involved.
6) The Wolf of Wall Street - This is a film that is not for everyone, deceiving given its family-friendly Christmas Day release. The Wolf of Wall Street is rude, crude, sexist, vulgar, disgusting, and hilarious. It is the work of a legend in Martin Scorsese, teaming up for the fifth time with Leonardo Dicaprio. As New York stock scam artist and hedonistic monster Jordan Belfort, Dicaprio towers over a picture that seems impossible to outshine in excess. It runs three hours and is a non stop orgy of drugs, booze, debauchery, and actual orgies. Everyone is amped up to eleven here, including Belfort's right-hand man, played by Jonah Hill with capped teeth and a hilariously husky Brooklyn accent. The Wolf of Wall Street is completely offensive, but it is also a hypnotizing cinematic achievement from the best American filmmaker of all time.
5) Prisoners - Here is a film that has been criminally overlooked throughout awards season. Prisoners is a tense and gritty thriller with tough subject matter and even tougher performances from all involved. The story begins simply enough, as two children are abducted outside their homes on Thanksgiving. The parents, played by Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis, all try desperately to find their children. Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, an enigmatic investigator who slowly and steadily becomes the main draw of the picture. Gyllenhaal delivers an amazing performance, somehow besting the fiery and determined father by Hugh Jackman. The twists and turns in Prisoners keep the energy level up, though the end may not even be as impactful and satisfying as the means.
4) Upstream Color - For a long time this was number one for the year, and it's still the film I have seen the most. In each of my five viewings, much like the organism which overtakes the people in the film, Upstream Color evolves and enriches. What exactly is it about? Well, there are explanations out there from writer/director/star Shane Carruth, who waited nine years for this sophomore effort after blowing people away with 2004s time travel enigma, Primer. And while the explanation clarifies the very dense and complicated story, there are still outlying elements of the narrative that are open to interpretation. Aside form the complexities of the plot, Upstream Color is an involving thriller, a peculiar love story, and a haunting tale of what can control our body and mind. The opening sequence is as nerve racking as anything I have ever seen, and the organic flow of the picture matches the nature of the plot to perfection. Not many have seen Upstream Color, but everyone should, simply to see what they take from it in the end.
3) Fruitvale Station - Writer/director Ryan Coogler tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a troubled but genuinely goodhearted young African American who was wrongfully "murdered" at the hands of transit police on New Year's Eve, 2011. Michael B. Jordan plays Grant not as a thug, or a misanthrope, yet not as a pure hearted young man who makes all the right choices. Grant is both sides of the coin, and this is displayed in each carefully crafted moment in the film. Melonie Diaz, who plays Oscar's girlfriend and mother of his young girl, is fantastic, and Octavia Spencer is Oscar worthy as Oscar's tough-loving mother. Despite the fact we all know the trajectory of the film - real phone footage opens the picture - the emotional impact is no more or less hindered thanks to the powerful performances. Fruitvale Station was the breakout hit of Sundance, and while it didn't grab any Oscar nominations, it announced the arrival of Coogler as a wonderful new directing talent.
2) Before Midnight - The end of what might be the best trilogy ever written is the most emotionally and aesthetically engaging of the Before films. Before Sunrise showed our players, Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), as young idealists trying to find their way through life. Before Sunset showed us Jesse and Celine as young professionals who think they have found their place in life. But their day and night spent in Paris reveals their new life as merely the first step in becoming a true adult. Before Midnight, while it does fit the mold and style of the previous two, is the most unique story. Jesse and Celine have not been apart, but have started their life together since Sunset, so the dynamics of their relationship have evolved and passed the point of loving admiration. Emotions take new shape and discussions are heavier and more engaging as the two young lovers have since become middle-aged spouses. Before Midnight is, in my opinion, the most honest and touching portrayal of what it takes to love and be loved.
1) 12 Years A Slave - Despite my admiration for all the films on this list, namely the top five here, there has never been more separation between nine and one. 12 Years A Slave affected me more than any film has ever done. That is superlative, indeed, but hyperbole? No. To this point in my life and throughout my years watching and analyzing films, never before has a film gotten burrowed so deeply into my soul. The story of Solomon Northup, an educated, free African-American family man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, is a brutal and unflinching look at the darkest time in American history. Chiwetel Ejiofor is captivating as Northup, and Michael Fassbender is seething with wickedness as a plantation owner. Lupita Nyong'o is sublime and soulful in her Oscar nominated performance. Such emotion, such devastating sadness, and such wonderful filmmaking is this. 12 Years A Slave is a true experience I will never forget.
HONORABLE MENTIONS include the stellar acting of McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, the sublime love story - a sneaky technological romance - her, and the complex and compelling Derek Cianfrante film, The Place Beyond the Pines.