Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Top 25 Films of 2013

Perhaps I've been wrong. Optimists tell you that viewing history as a series of ascents followed inexorably by irreversible decline is the wrong way to look at things. The optimists prefer the pendulum. They prefer thinking of history as something that swings one way only to reverse itself. In perpetuity. I have never been an optimist, but this year supports the pendulum idea.

After many years of drought, rain is falling. As I survey my favorite films of the year, I am struck by how many of them just 6 or 8 years ago would've usurped the top spot from whatever worthy film I cited. Is it the boom in quality TV? Has it shamed movie makers into getting their shit together to make films not justified solely by their profit margins? Maybe. Whatever the case, I am happy to report that 2013 was nearly a banner year for movies. 

As ever, I am doubtful this portends much for 2014, a year already overshadowed by the planned Tet Offensive Hollywood is gearing up for in 2015 (when almost every major movie franchise you've ever heard of is planning to release a deluxe episode). Then again, maybe resourceful producers and directors will make use of this moment when the bosses on high are focused on next year's blockbuster to get something good through the abattoir. 

No recap of the year is complete without citing Steven Spielberg & George Lucas' dire predictions about the future of the American film industry. Lucas imagined film becoming more like Broadway, pricing itself out of existence for many Americans with premiums and the lure of spectacle. Spielberg felt more on the mark for me when he imagined a studio being brought down by one or two unwieldy flops. 

It is impossible to say yet how much Spielberg & Lucas, the two men who have changed the American film industry more than any others and infected it with its unquenchable thirst for blockbusters, have changed the way the gatekeepers think with this gotterdammerung they see coming. Maybe it changed nothing. But as we enter 2014 and head to 2015 (a year that seems poised to deliver some hapless studio the deathblow Spielberg prophesied) I can't help but think those words echo. 

But rather than talk about the year to come, let's focus on the year that was. Third years are when decades really start walking on their own two feet having sloughed off the previous decade. Third years are the foundation. They set up the fourth year which typically is the first year the decade stands on its own. And what we saw this year was overwhelmingly preoccupied with a specific free-floating anxiety: institutions have failed us, and we are on our own. 

1. 12 Years A Slave - USA/UK - Steve McQueen
2. The Act of Killing - Denmark - Joshua Oppenheimer
3. The Wolf of Wall Street - USA - Martin Scorsese
4. Frances Ha - USA - Noah Baumbach
5. Top of the Lake - Australia - Jane Campion & Garth Davis
6. La Grande Bellezza - Italy - Paolo Sorrentino
7. Fruitvale Station - USA - Ryan Coogler
8. 56 Up - UK - Michael Apted & Paul Almond 
9. Enough Said - USA - Nicole Holofcener
10. Blue is the Warmest Color - France - Abdellatif Kechiche

11. War Witch - Canada - Kim Nguyen
12. The Attack - Lebanon/France - Ziad Doueiri
13. Before Midnight - USA - Richard Linklater
14. Inside Llewyn Davis - USA - Joel & Ethan Coen
15. American Hustle - USA - David O. Russell
16. Stories We Tell - Canada - Sarah Polley
17. Mother of George - USA - Andrew Dosunmu
18. The Punk Singer - USA - Sini Anderson
19. Spring Breakers - USA - Harmony Korine
20. Cutie & the Boxer - USA - Zachary Heinzerling

21. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet - France - Alain Resnais
22. A Band Called Death - USA - Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett
23. Like Someone in Love - France/Japan - Abbas Kiarostami
24. Room 237 - USA - Rodney Ascher
25. Blackfish - USA - Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Honorable Mentions: I'm So Excited, The Angels' Share, Apres Mai, No, Blue Jasmine, Dirty Wars, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, Behind the Candelabra, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, Mud

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Guillermo Del Toro
No one is throwing awards at Pacific Rim, but its particular brand of heart-on-its-sleeve movie love stood out in an otherwise dreary summer season. Not everyone responded to this film, but no one can criticize the way Del Toro staged the outsized kaiju fisticuffs. Action directing is in many ways the ultimate test of a film director. And Del Toro rises to the occasion. 

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: Bradford Young
This young cinematographer snatches the spotlight from the actors and the director of Mother of George, and delivered the most accomplished cinematography I saw this year. I didn't see Ain't Them Bodies Saints but the trailer makes it clear he's the MVP on that team also. 

The Alain Robbe-Grillet Screenwriting Award: Shane Carruth
I did not love Upstream Color but I admired it. It's a vast improvement over the incoherence of Primer, and you have to applaud Carruth for doing what people claim they want: he's committed to telling unconventional stories in an unconventional way.

The Chris Marker Documentary Award: Leviathan directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
This film achieves something truly unique without the usual documentary conventions of voiceover, interview or graphics. There are moments of beauty achieved through cinematography, sound design and editing. And you will never look at seafood quite the same way again. 

Great Moments
The ending of The Act of Killing.
The final shot of The Wolf of Wall Street.
The musical number from I'm So Excited.
The crime spree set to a Britney Spears ballad in Spring Breakers.
Solomon Northrup on his tiptoes in the mud.
Greta Gerwig running down the street to "Modern Love" in Frances Ha.
The combover in American Hustle.
The interminable party in which middle-aged European women on holiday thoroughly objectify a young Kenyan man in Paradise: Love.

Great Performances (in no particular order) 
1. Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street)
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
3. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
4. Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
5. Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine)
6. Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
7. James Franco (Spring Breakers)
8. Christian Bale (American Hustle)
9. James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
10. Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra)
11. Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra)

1. Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
2. Julia Louis Dreyfus (Enough Said)
3. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
4. Scarlett Johansson (Her)
5. Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake)
6. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
7. Amy Adams (American Hustle)
8. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
9. Sarah Paulson (12 Years A Slave)
10. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)
11. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color)

Acting Purple Heart (for performances that are better than the films they're featured in):
Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons

Best Trailer: Spring Breakers with Only God Forgives a close second

Disappointments: The Canyons, Computer Chess, Only God Forgives, Elysium, Mad Men Season 6, Thor: The Dark World, To The Wonder

The Big Damn Genius Award: Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
The company had a banner year with two original series that grabbed viewers forcefully, original stand up comedy specials and soon, documentaries. Netflix isn't just providing good content, it's changing the way we consume it. They're coming for you, HBO. 
Runner up: Vince Gilligan
Few pop culture phenomena were as huge and satisfying as the final episodes of Breaking Bad. Gilligan and his team set a new standard in serialized storytelling. 

Steel Drum Award: J.J. Abrams for his crass make-over of Star Trek which injected a dudebro 1980s ethos that reduced Kirk to a smug fratboy, belittled Spock until he started throwing punches and fairly betrayed Roddenberry's vision.
Runners Up: Ben Affleck- his bland mediocrity besmirched the DGA award.
Quentin Tarantino- 12 Years A Slave should make Tarantino issue a tearful apology for his childish crowd pleaser of 2012. He clearly has no idea what true horror is.