Top Twenty Films of 2013: Part I

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke star in “Before Midnight.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke star in “Before Midnight.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Audacity reigned at both mainstream multiplexes and art house theaters in 2013, proving once and for all that cinematic storytelling is best experienced on a big screen with a large audience. Filmmakers took big gambles this year, pushing the form into uncharted terrain and, in many cases, succeeding in spectacular fashion. There were times in the critics’ screening room when I felt as if I could hear the exuberant applause of the late great Roger Ebert, who I fondly remember clapping during the end credits of his favorite pictures. Here’s my chance to give a round of verbal applause to twenty films that set my moving-loving soul on fire over the past twelve months. Some of these are easier to find than others, but they are all well worth seeking out…

20. Gravity

Weightlessness as it is experienced by astronauts hovering above our planet has never been portrayed on film with as much visceral power and miraculous ingenuity as Alfonso Cuarón’s technical masterpiece. Delivering on the promise of their jaw-dropping extended takes in “Children of Men,” Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki developed their own groundbreaking technology to simulate space sequences of startling authenticity. The film works as both an action-packed thriller and a rather poetic meditation on the struggle of a depressed soul caught between salvation and the void. Cuarón and Lubezki’s achievement is so grand that it easily transcends the hokey script, flat acting and intrusive score that would’ve rendered a lesser film squirm-inducing. It also may very well be the best 3D film ever made.

19. All Is Lost

Whereas the excessive dialogue in “Gravity” stuck out like a sore expository thumb without digging beneath the shallow surface of its heroine’s tormented psyche, the silence in J.C. Chandor’s gripping survival tale speaks volumes. Its unnamed hero, played with masterfully restrained nuance by Robert Redford, barely utters more than a few words as he awakens to find himself in a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. After the dazzling verbal duels in Chandor’s debut feature, “Margin Call,” it’s exciting to see the director work well outside his comfort zone, while his 77-year-old leading man fearlessly performs his own stunts without even a smiling beach ball to keep him company. What this film illustrates above all is that dialogue is simply not essential in conveying the essence of a story. Sometimes all you need is lights, a camera and expressions.

18. Nebraska

Shot in a stark black and white richly evocative of the desolate rural landscapes in “The Last Picture Show,” Alexander Payne’s latest bittersweet slice of endearingly fractured family life is one of his very best. His mischievous eyes clouded by a cocktail of booze and dementia, Bruce Dern resists sentimentality at every turn as Woody, a stubborn codger clinging to the belief that he’s won a million dollars, thanks to a sweepstakes letter he found in the mail. His son, David (a pleasingly subdued Will Forte), believes the prize is bogus, but decides to take him on a Quixotic odyssey to claim it, if only to make one last stab at reconnecting with the old man. Stealing every one of her scenes is June Squibb (Jack Nicholson’s ill-fated spouse in Payne’s “About Schmidt”) as Woody’s exasperated wife whose long-winded rants garner the film’s biggest laughs.

17. Frances Ha

After a series of problematic vehicles aiming to break her into the mainstream, indie queen Greta Gerwig received her finest screen showcase to date, courtesy of her real-life sweetheart, Noah Baumbach. It’s obvious that his camera is head-over-heels in love with her, and it’s hard for viewers to not become equally smitten, especially when Gerwig dances down crowded city streets while David Bowie’s “Modern Love” blares on the soundtrack. Exploring subject matter similar to HBO’s “Girls” (created by Gerwig’s friend and former roommate, Lena Dunham) in its own entirely distinctive way, Baumbach’s film is a warmhearted valentine to twentysomething confusion triggered by half-formed identities. Gerwig is so beguiling here that she evokes “Annie Hall”-era Diane Keaton, and the film’s very last scene (revealing the title’s meaning) is utter perfection.

16. Mud

“Failure to Launch” certainly sums up Matthew McConaughey’s career during the first decade of the 21st century. His willingness to act solely with his abs like an overgrown Taylor Lautner caused many to forget he had any talent at all. The actor’s recent decision to grow up and tackle challenging roles again parallels the maturation of his titular character in Jeff Nichols’s marvelous coming-of-age fable. His stagnant life is literally confined to an island with a boat lodged in a tree. Only after he makes peace with the past does he have a prayer at redemption. McConaughey channels Paul Newman’s rugged charisma, but the picture belongs to his teenage co-star, Tye Sheridan, as an adventurous boy who gets his first taste of puppy love followed inevitably by heartache. The film’s box office success came as no surprise to me. This is first class entertainment.

15. The Hunt

The Best Actor prize awarded at Cannes to Danish star (and former Bond villain) Mads Mikkelsen was entirely deserved. His portrayal of a good-hearted teacher wrongly accused of molestation in this excruciatingly tense drama from Thomas Vinterberg (director of the Dogme 95 classic, “The Celebration”) is absolutely shattering. With the incriminating words of his precocious student, Klara (a scarily good Annika Wedderkopp), taken as truth by practically everyone in his tight-knit community, Lucas (Mikkelsen) suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of public outrage. This tragic turn of events endangers his budding romance with a fellow teacher, as well as his attempts to gain the custody of his estranged son, Marcus (well-played by Lasse Fogelstrøm). Rarely has white-knuckled paranoia been as potently unsettling. This is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

14. The Wolf of Wall Street

David O. Russell’s wildly overrated (and only fitfully entertaining) conman comedy, “American Hustle,” has been praised for its “GoodFellas”-esque posturing, but this darkly satirical gem proves that no one does Scorsese like Scorsese himself. Clocking in at an appropriately indulgent three hours, this adaptation of disgraced Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir (brilliantly scripted by “Sopranos” scribe Terrence Winter) is a galvanizing mosaic of untethered greed, a timely horror show of capitalism gone frighteningly awry. It’s also one of the year’s funniest films, anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio’s most ferocious performance of his career (it’s also his best since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”). The slapstick setpiece in which a drug-addled DiCaprio races home before paying homage to “Popeye” is destined to become a classic.

13. Stories We Tell

At the outset, Sarah Polley’s achingly personal documentary seems to have a rather simple story to tell, as its writer/director grapples with her past by recounting family history with her father and siblings (her deceased mother is glimpsed only in what appear to be grainy archival footage). Only as the film continues to unfold does the genius of Polley’s work come into full view. This is, in fact, a labyrinthine dissection of the ways in which our minds choose to remember the past, and how these mental hybrids of fact and fiction manage to shape our understanding of ourselves. Editor Mike Munn seamlessly intertwines imagery both natural and contrived, while Polley tirelessly questions the validity of her own perspective, subverting expectations at every turn. It elicits more gasps than any doc since “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father.”

12. A Hijacking

What a great year it has been for Tobias Lindholm. Not only did he co-write Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” he also made a sensational directorial debut with this claustrophobic thriller about a Danish cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Even more malevolent than the crew’s ruthless captors are the maddening negotiators at their shipping company, headed by a CEO (steely-eyed Søren Malling) more afraid of squandering cash than losing lives. Lindholm allows equal screen time for the action occurring on land, upping the suspense as the fate of the shipmates become increasingly uncertain. Pilou Asbæk is enormously moving as a cook who gradually loses faith in his bosses back home, while straining to stay alive for his wife and daughter. Infinitely more effective than Paul Greengrass’s fine yet overhyped “Captain Phillips.”

11. Before Midnight

Above all, 2013 has been a stellar year for romances as uninterested in studio-approved clichés as they are in tidy happy endings. Three of them cracked my Top 10, and this one nearly did too. Who would’ve guessed in 1995 that “Before Sunrise” director Richard Linklater would continue to explore the romance of his young lovers, a cocky American (Ethan Hawke) and a radiant French woman (Julie Delpy), every nine years? Or that both actors would contribute to the screenplays, infusing every line with arresting insight and hard-won wisdom? Rather than reunite the leads for a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, this intensely involving third installment finds the middle-aged characters starting to face the consequences of their whimsical actions, causing them to reevaluate whether or not they are right for one another. I’m already counting the days until 2022’s “Before Next Sunrise.” These films just keep getting better.

Stay tuned for #10-1, posting soon…

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