Sam's Top Ten Films of 2013
Best of 2013: Film

10. The Spectacular Now

I tend to stray away from coming-of-age stories, yet my year-end list ended up having three. Not bad, I’d say. The Spectacular Now works thanks to the breakout performances of its two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. While the film is mostly about Teller’s Sutter, Woodley’s Aimee provides a nice counterbalance to the struggling, alcoholic boy. Director James Ponsoldt found some beauty in the American High School story without sugarcoating it. While I’ve often found teens figuring out “who they are” difficult to translate to the screen, I was happy to join Sutter and Aimee on their journey.

9. Frances Ha

After a rocky opening third, Frances Ha brought me back strong. Greta Gerwig’s performance was one of the year’s best as a dancer who’s just trying to figure out what to do with her life. At first, Noah Baumbach’s latest entry felt like a capitalization on Girls’ portrayal of lost (and often awful) 20-somethings in the city. But there was a charm and sweetness to Baumbach and Gerwig’s script that made her sympathetic. Frances’ wandering never felt self-indulgent, she really seemed lost and when she found some peace it gave me some hope too. Sometimes doom and gloom rule the art world, but Frances Ha’s brand of hope is something just about everyone can get behind.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

There’s been much debate about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Does its portrayal of the wild excesses of late-80s early-90s Wall Street glorify or at least let the “Wolves” off the hook while ignoring those who lost everything? I’d say Scorsese offers every example of how wretched, wild and disdainful the (mostly) men of Stratton Oakmont were. Scorsese portrayed a world where the wealthiest one percent did whatever they wanted without repercussions. When they were caught, they got essentially a slap on the wrist. Driven by Leonardo Di Caprio’s best performance of his career, The Wolf of Wall Street was the perfect condemnation of a financial system that lets Wall Street criminals off easier than those with lighter bank accounts.

7. Nebraska

The trials and tribulations of middle aged white men would make for eye-rolling premises in most cases, but Alexander Payne has made mastery out of capturing the pain and uncertainty of growing older. Brue Dern has rightfully been praised for his performance as Woody, an elderly man who believes he’s won $1 million in one of those fake magazine sweepstakes, sets out to go to Nebraska, passing through the town in which he grew up and eventually left with his wife, also played wonderfully by June Squibb. Will Forte may have delivered the year’s most surprising performance, straying from his usually brand of wacky comedy and trading in for a role as a concerned son, looking out for his broken father. Nebraska is a worthy addition to his filmography.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers remain to be among the most consistently great filmmakers working today. Rarely do they have an outright miss. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they’ve made another work that audiences will grow to love even more with multiple viewings. While many expected a film with more fun and whimsy, Inside Llewyn Davis is a somber film about a man stuck in a cycle of self-hatred and, when he’s not down on himself, he’s down on the world around him. There’s no room for phonies. Oscar Isaac provides more than just a great singing voice, he gives us someone who is both unlikeable, yet completely compelling. Maybe no other movie I saw this year warrants multiple times like Llewyn Davis.

5. Blue is the Warmest Color

While news of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s nasty, unprofessional conduct on set of Blue is the Warmest Color certainly tempered my goodwill toward the film, the final product is a fantastic work. While most of the attention for the movie has come from either the director’s reported misconduct or the extended sex scenes, Blue is the Warmest Color makes for an unforgettably raw portrayal of love, passion and loss. Adele Exarchopoulos’ character, also named Adele, is put through the wringer, discovering who she is and when the one woman she’s ever loved hurts her she tries to move forward with (at best) mixed results. Sometimes uncomfortable to sit through, the power of the story is undeniable.

4. 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen has established himself as one of the best new filmmakers. While his story of a sex addict, Shame, gave me mixed feelings, his talent was undeniable. McQueen reaches new heights with 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man from the north who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film is rightfully brutal and easily the most difficult film to watch this year. McQueen gets amazing performances out of the rest of his cast, especially his regular cohort Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. McQueen’s gift for producing beautiful images comes in stark contrast with the horrors of slavery. Unforgettable, 12 Years a Slave tells a story of perseverance that would be so easy to screw up, yet it lands in just about every single aspect.

3. Gravity

Somehow Alfonso Cuaron lived up to his film’s title. Gravity is truly BIG. Sandra Bullock is at her best as an astronaut, detached from her ship, trying to stay afloat in the vast emptiness of space. Guiding her his George Clooney, playing an astronaut version of himself. I’ve long been a critic of 3-D, but Gravity demands to be seen in IMAX 3-D. Cuaron utilizes the technology to its full effect. While Cuaron may be known as an “art house” type director, he really made an ideal summer blockbuster with Gravity. More than anything, Gravity was proof that originality does not need to be cast aside in the summer months. Cuaron utilized the grandeur of The Movies --- an era of cinema where the silver screen provided larger than life entertainment. What better way to showcase that grandeur than making a film about the TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT? I’ve never been able to say that with a straight face about a film until Gravity, which deserves the praise.

2. The Act of Killing

With The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer created what may be a benchmark in documentary film similar to that of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Forgoing traditional talking-head storytelling, Oppenheimer enlisted former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their crimes in Hollywood-esque recreations. What transpires is one of the most shocking films I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure how many times I wondered to myself during the screening, “How is this happening? How is this in a movie? How is this access possible?” What was most disturbing was how willing the killers were able to gleefully recount the killings. They were super stars. In addition to telling the history of these men, Oppenheimer explores how American films are viewed abroad and their far-reaching influence on how violence is accepted into the culture.

1. Her

For a long time, The Act of Killing, was ticketed as a slam dunk Number 1 pick for this year. But Her came in, just days before the end of the year for me, and blew me away. Director Spike Jonze took what sounds like an eye-rolling premise, in the not-too-distant future a man (Joaquin Phoenix, who is award-worthy) falls in love with his super-intelligent operating system (Scarlett Johansson who may be even more award-worthy) and made it one of the most focused studies on love. Many talk about how its about love in the modern world, but I think it goes beyond that, sure Jonze provides a beautifully rendered future, but the film explores how love goes beyond the flesh. At times funny, at times tragic, but always poetically insightful, Her may just be Jonze’s masterpiece.

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