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2013 was a great year in film

Lots of strong performances in many great dramatic, comedic, action packed films. With some solid genre films, as well.

More and more independent films are getting made each year. Many of them good, even great. Still, most of the A-listers in 2013 came from major studios.

The films listed here represent only the ones I’ve personally watched. I can’t review/judge a film/performance I’ve never seen.

If I’ve missed something, oh well. I will make corrections/additions, if warranted, as my 2013 film exposure grows.

Chad, Jan 15, 2014

The top films of 2013 are:

Gravity

From the hundreds of films I’ve experienced in a theater over my lifetime, there have only been a few perfect moments. Attending a 3D showing of ‘Gravity’ on it’s opening day is one such moment. This Alfonso Cuaron directed, Sandra Bullock starring film is the only one deservedly rated as “Perfect” in 2013.

Completely ignoring all the technical wonderment that went into ‘Gravity’ and its outer-space survival one woman survival story, this is still a monumental film. The story is immediately compelling, the character of astronaut Ryan Stone is REAL and engaging. Bullock nailed this performance, bringing gravitas, humor, fear, vulnerability, desperation, intelligence, and strength to Stone and her fight to survive a horrific space catastrophe.

Of course, one can not and should not ignore the brilliance that Cuaron and his production team brought to this epic feat of motion picture making. Perhaps, the best 3D film EVER. From the very first frame until the very last we are brought into this adventure, from the breathtaking effects, visuals, and enthralling ambient sounds.

I can’t stop praising this film. It just has to be seen. The best of 2013, and one of the best in the history of film.

All is Lost

Robert Redford is a legend. He’s given us some of the best performances in some of the best films of the last 50 or so years. And now his best performance comes in the one-man film ‘All is Lost’. A survival film that takes place entirely on the ocean, with virtually no dialog.

His character doesn’t even have a name. Everything you need to know is in his very physical actions and in his wonderfully stoic face. With just a glance, or a raise of an eyebrow, or a slight frown you get everything. A personal, emotional, tragic, and hopeful story of a man who calmly survives moment to moment what must truly seem a lost cause.

The effects versus “reality” are seamless/perfect. The music and sound are extraordinary. And writer/director J.C. Chandor confidently showcases this epic rivalry: Redford vs nature.

The second best survival film this year. A must see.

American Hustle

Watching Christian Bale do his “thing” is truly amazing. He transforms his body to become a character, and then he transforms himself in being this character. The best method actor doing what he does (well except for perhaps Daniel Day Lewis). His Irving Rosenfeld, in the 70s crime drama ‘American Hustle’ is the embodiment of everything American: greedy, selfless, delusional, a cheat, hopeless romantic, shameless, noble, and woefully in-over-his-head.

David O. Russell seems content to keep making one brilliant film after another. Bringing virtually the entire casts of his last two films together allows for lots of talent cramed into 140 minutes.

As Rosenfeld, his partner in crime Sydney (the exquisite and sexy Amy Adams), his unbalanced wife (Jennifer Lawrence), and his FBI-agent-in-tow Richie DiMaso (a smarmy Bradly Cooper) seek to scam a local politician (Jeremy Renner) and hopefully bring down corruption and maybe(?) the mob. Rosenfeld is not a tragic character, he is out-and-out a criminal con-artist. His redemption comes from his loyalty to friends/family and his love of Sydney.

When DiMaso entraps Syd, Irving steps up and offers his “services”. This elaborate plot/scheme with all the crazy characters get completely out of control. But Rosenfeld has plan. I was entranced watching Bale, Adams, and Cooper dissolve into these larger-than-life people. The plot is nerve-wracking and in the end brilliantly, chaotically controlled.

Not as strong as Russell’s 2012 ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. But one of the better theater experiences I’ve had in awhile. A brilliant, subtly smart caper/thriller. ‘American Hustle’ is another Must See for 2013.

Rush

Hasn’t Ron Howard had enough success? His Formula 1 dual-biopic of James Hunt vs Niki Lauda, ‘Rush’, is a real testament to Howard’s staying power in Hollywood film-making.

Watching playboy Hunt fight to beat the perfectionist Lauda in 1975 Formula 1 is a thing of beauty. Chris Hemsworth plays James Hunt to a tee. But it’s Daniel Bruhl’s performance as the unlikable Lauda that completely dominates this rivalry and film.

The races are expertly staged and focused. Instead of watching cars go round and round for two hours, we watch two people go round and round for two hours, occasionally while on a race track;)

The rest of the cast is ignored–the real story is of these two men. A beautiful character drama masquerading as escapist fun. ‘Rush’ is a hugely entertaining film, and one of 2013’s best.

Captain Phillips

A simple story often makes the best story. While watching 2013 film ‘Captain Phillips’ starring Tom Hanks keep in mind that nothing director Paul Greengrass does is traditional nor boring.

Somali hijackers take over Captain Richard Phillips’ container ship, threaten his crew, and then desperately kidnap him after plans go awry. You can’t take your eyes away from this film. Tom Hanks as Phillips and Backhard Abdi as lead hijacker Muse give bravado performances of two men both striving to survive in this unfair world.

Greengrass keeps the film firmly on these two men and their struggles. Phillips must out-think to protect his crew and himself. Strong emotions, high-tension, harrowing events kept in authentic situations and with believable/sympathetic characters. By film’s end we may not like Muse, but we may feel sympathy for his hard choices.

Hanks and Abdi both deserve Oscar nods, as does Greengrass. Highly engaging thriller. Easily one of the best of 2013.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Not much to say about this modern-day Aesop fable. David Lowery has crafted a beautiful near-perfect piece of film-making art.

Every shot, every moment is staged, lit, photographed, and played to perfection. The performances by Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster blend together in building this world of dysfunctional love and tragedy.

Not so much a film to sit through and have fun, but a film to sit through in awe and sombre reflection. You won’t feel great after seeing this, but you will better appreciate the small moments in your life and the power of love to overcome.

Grand film-making. Another highlight of 2013.

The Best Offer

Geoffrey Rush’s odd-man loner Virgil in ‘The Best Offer’ qualifies as the most tragic character of the year. His consistently off-balance portrayl of this auctioneer with woman issues is extraordinary. Taylor-made for an actor skilled at extraordinary character performances.

Watch the relationship between him and the shut-in Claire develop is enticing. As he appraises her family’s home and its belongings, she remains locked in a secret room. They communicate through the wall and over the phone. Until Virgil sneaks a voyeuristic peak, that is.

Writer/Director Giuseppe Tornatore (‘Cinema Paradiso’) has created another fairy-tale like film about eccentric people. The shocking conclusion to this love-story/mystery may not make people happy, but it is sure compelling and a good fit for this film. Brilliant, creative, and a Must See!

The Way Way Back

The comedic and personal story of 14-year-old Duncan’s summer vacation and all the growing up he does surprised me–in all the right ways.

Excellent performances from Liam James as Duncan, AnnaSophia Robb as the “girl friend”, Toni Collette as his Mom, Allison Janey as the crazed neighbor, and Steve Carell as his Mom’s D-Bag boyfriend Trent.

But the real treat is from Sam Rockwell playing Owen, the carefree man-child manager of the local water park. Owen befriends Duncan, hiring and “apprenticing” him for the summer. Rockwell and his merry band of Park employees (including Maya Rudolph) run away with this film.

The relationship between Owen and Duncan is sweet, funny, and memorable. Making this film more than a traditional coming-of-age tale, and 2013 film gem.

The Conjuring

Director James Wan is the new King of Scary. ‘The Conjuring’ is one of the scariest films of recent memory. Using old-school tricks and methods to terrorize, without all the gore and graphic violence so popular these days.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as paranormal investigators called to help the Perrons and their possessed house. The production is classy, retro, and very cool.

Farmiga and Lili Taylor as Carolyn Perron both give dramatic and tension building performances.

The best horror film since ‘Poltergeist’ and easily one of the best of 2013.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Can’t ignore Peter Jackson excellent follow-up (part 2 of 3) to last year’s ‘An Unexpected Journey’. It won’t win an Oscar for Best Picture (ala ‘Return of the King’). But it is grand entertainment.

Unprecedented production values: High frame-rate, gorgeous 3D cinematography, perfect effect and design work. The action is exciting, much less “goofy” and the story much darker. Watching Biblo and company adventure towards the evil dragon Smaug and Gandolf go off on his own towards something much more dangerous was thrilling good fun.

Solid performances from Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, and new cast member Evangeline Lilly. Awesome stuff.

Before Midnight

We’ve followed Jesse and Celine through 20 years and now three films in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Trilogy’. Now married, this film shows us their most personal, most mature, and most dramatic story yet.

Two adults having a very adult conversation over an evening’s night out. Watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy light the screen up with raw emotion and honest words is electrifying. They’ve had two decades with these characters and they know them inside and out.

Not sure if this film wraps up the series, but I couldn’t imagine a better way to end it. One of the most AUTHENTIC romances you’ll ever see.

The Overrated (Not necessarily bad, just not part of the best of 2013):

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have collaborated on another near-classic film. ‘The Wolf’ has great comedy, great drama, and great excess. A tale of greed and all the craziness that follows living a life on the edge.

A stand-out performance from DiCaprio and solid direction from Scorsese. Unfortunately this morality tale has no teeth. Way too much broad comedy–taking a light tone when a darker approach would’ve been more appropriate. Still lots of fun, just not on the “A” list for 2013.

Prisoners

A film that asks all the tough questions, just never provides enough answers. Hugh Jackman as desperate father Keller Dover and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki both give emotional performances. And the story is compelling–small children are kidnapped and the father, in turn, imprisons a suspect to torture info out of him while trying to save his daughter.

I just didn’t connect with these nihilistic characters and the off-beat direction of the story. Another morality tale that doesn’t give any resolution. Lots of logic gaps and lots of unpleasant (and self-destructively not helpful) character decisions mare what could’ve been a classic film.

I should never leave a theater this depressed and frustrated. A good attempt, just not a very good film.

Frozen

Disney can still do great animation (even without Pixar). ‘Frozen’ is perfectly animated and voiced. Great songs, a fun story and lots of action and visual oomph.

But, the characters are a bit two-dimensional and the bad-guy is so completely over-the-top evil it turns to parody without the tragedy/gravitas needed for the best of Disney.

Entertaining, just not memorable nor impactful. ‘Snow White’ this is not.