LISTFUL THINKING: The Top 10 Films of 2013

1 01 2014

Normally, I can come up with a unifying theme for my top 10 list.  But this year, I really struggled to find a common thread or through-line.  Ironically, even in the absence of some sort of angle for this piece, I would still consider 2013 to be the best year for movies in a long time, at least since 2010.

I suppose one commonality amongst this list is unforgettable characters.  The best cinema of the year entertained, engaged, and enlightened by bringing people to life before our eyes.  As they negotiated everything from familial regret (Philomena Lee) to career frustrations (Llewyn Davis) and even false enslavement (Solomon Northrup), their conflicts became real to me, captured my imagination, and hijacked my thoughts.

Though 2013 is over, my dealing with these films and characters is far from finished.  I will continue to wonder if Llewyn Davis will ever achieve success, if Ritchie DiMasso deserved to be screwed over, if Jasmine is primarily responsible for her own breakdown, if Lucas can ever return to any semblance of normality in his life, and if Epps is just pure evil at his core.

Without further ado, here are the 10 best films of 2013…

10) Enough Said

“Enough Said”
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, and Catherine Keener
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener

A well-known cliché regarding great comedic actors is that they could somehow make reading the phonebook hilarious.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus would not even have to utter a single word of the phonebook to have me in stitches; just a contortion of the brilliantly expressive musculature in her face makes me laugh.  In her first live-action role on the silver screen this millennium, she is the perfect vessel for writer/director Nicole Holofocener’s humor in an insightful look at the way people act against their own interests and desires in the name of self-preservation.  Intimately scaled and brilliantly observed, “Enough Said” makes for 90 minutes of the most perfectly realized cinema this year.

9) The Hunt

The Hunt
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, and Annika Wedderkopp
Written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

I first saw “The Hunt” almost 20 months ago at the Cannes Film Festival, and ever since, I have known it would make my top 10 list.  So needless to say, I’ve been waiting a long time (thanks for that release delay, Magnolia).  It speaks to the strength of the cinema in 2013 that had “The Hunt” been released in 2012, it probably would have topped my list of the year’s best.  Still, this drama of an innocent man put through the ringer stands high and mighty in 2013 thanks to the brilliant performance of Mads Mikkelsen, a screenplay that would make Arthur Miller proud, and the steady direction of Thomas Vinterberg.

8) 12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave”
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o
Written by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen

After making “Shame,” which I firmly believe will be seen as a defining film of the decade for tackling the largely unrecognized pervasiveness of sexuality in society, there was really nothing else the unflinching camera of Steve McQueen could capture except the brutality of American slavery.  What he creates in “12 Years a Slave” is a brilliant hybrid of an art film with a traditional historical narrative movie, clearly communicating a story for all viewers with haunting complimentary imagery.  It’s a film so powerful that it does not just remind us that we need to talk about slavery – it somehow makes us want to talk about slavery.

7) Philomena

Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, and Sophie Kennedy Clark
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Directed by Stephen Frears

Perhaps the unlikeliest (or at least the most unanticipated) entry on my list, “Philomena” screamed cringe-worthy Oscar bait from its premise.  Yet it pulls off the year’s strangest high-wire act thanks to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s tonally masterful screenplay, managing to be at once funny and tragic while always touching the heart.  Though the movie makes a play for your emotions, it never feels cloying.  Rather, you just embrace Philomena the character played with infectious warmth and forgiveness by Judi Dench and “Philomena” the film all the more.

6) Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine
Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and Bobby Cannavale
Written and directed by Woody Allen

I’ve seen every Woody Allen film, for better or for worse, and I don’t think he’s written a character as complex as Jasmine since Annie Hall herself.  And that was so heavily based on Diane Keaton, so he along with a fearless Cate Blanchett are discovering and creating in “Blue Jasmine.”  No movie has stuck with me more throughout the year than this one; the question of social forces vs. personal agency in Jasmine’s demise haunting my thoughts so much that I paid an obscene amount to see it again four months later.  The debate over her fall from grace will rage on forever, but no discussion is necessary to settle the claim that Jasmine has the right to stand next to such complex female characters as Blanche of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Nora of “A Doll’s House.”

5) Inside Llewyn Davis

“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I’ve always been a fan of the Coen Brothers, but it took “Inside Llewyn Davis” to make me truly come to terms with just how incredible they are.  Masters of their form with an unrivaled attention to detail in this era, they have bottled up their essence and transported it to the nascent stage of the 1960s folk music scene.  Featuring what might be the best soundtrack since – well, maybe even the Coen Brothers’ 2000 “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and a stunning lead performance by Oscar Isaac, the latest entry to their remarkable canon may appear slight at first glance.  But look a little harder into their script, which is just as carefully constructed as every shot in the film.

4) The Past

“The Past”
Starring Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, and Ali Mosaffa
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

Asghar Farhadi set an unfairly high bar for himself with the consummate “A Separation,” and he scales those heights again with “The Past.”  He once again shows his incredible command and understanding of human behavior, crafting characters with complex emotions and intricate facades to conceal their transgressions.  Everyone acts on multiple levels of motivation, and it’s searingly gripping to observe their worlds unravel.  Farhadi uses the searing realness of these characters, especially Berenice Bejo’s Marie, to show how the past influences and clouds not only the present but also the future.  These are hardly groundbreaking themes, but Farhadi’s impeccable knack for realism makes them worth reconsidering not only in the context of the film but in our own lives as well.

3) Spring Breakers

“Spring Breakers”
Starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens
Written and directed by Harmony Korine

I’ve been hesitant to write anything about “Spring Breakers” all year, partially because I don’t think my words can do it justice but subconsciously because I don’t want to demystify it.  The film came over me like a haze or a stupor, took me on the trip of a lifetime, and then released me in slack-jawed awe.  It’s a genius look at the way sex, drugs, and violence intersect in contemporary culture, filmed in simultaneous beauty and grime.  Korine somehow manages to criticize the dark underpinnings of the spring break mentality while also capturing the almost spiritual allure it has.  Misunderstood and misread as pure glorification by many, I’m proud to be a “Spring Breakers” fanatic since the first time I saw it.  I look forward to watching this become a cult classic and a landmark film for my generation.  Spring break forevaaaaa

2) Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley

The year’s most audacious boundary-pushing achievement, “Stories We Tell” is a beautiful documentary that tests the limits of the fiction/non-fiction binary that is currently established.  As director Sarah Polley probes her own story, she finds chaos and confusion amidst the many competing narratives of the past.  Somehow, she manages to find rhyme and reason to it all, presenting all the recollections of her late mother Diane in one giant story that reveals the large gap in between reality as we experience it and the way we ultimately remember and retell it.  Yet somewhere in that hole, she gets at the core of what makes us human, a true treasure gleaned from what could have been a family album.

1) American Hustle

“American Hustle”
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper
Written by David O. Russell and Eric Singer
Directed by David O. Russell

The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” showed us that David O. Russell had a mastery of coaching performance, and “American Hustle” is elevated to the realm of the sublime because Russell uses that understanding to create the ultimate performances of performance.  Everyone in the film is playing multiple games and shuffling between multiple identities to get what they want, yet their success comes with an accompanying yearning for a truly real human connection.  Though the characters may groove to Donna Summer and sport comb-overs or perms, this 1970s drama connects to the realities and anxieties of 2013, where many of us interact through various social media profiles and avatars in order to replicate but also mediate and mitigate real relationships.  But this is hardly a somber meditation on the present era, rather an observation of basic human nature: we’re conning, hustling, and BS-ing everyone – including and especially ourselves.  And while you chew this over, Russell will have you grinning from ear to ear as his movie brims over with joy.

REVIEW: The Hunt

30 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

I wasn’t invited to serve on Nanni Moretti’s jury this year, but if I had been, my vote for the Palme D’Or would have gone to Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” without question or hesitation.  More than any of the twelve competition films I saw, it captivated me from the outset and proceeded to shake me to my core all the way to its jarring ending.  Much like “In a Better World” or “The Class,” this film has the ability to play well in any country and in any language due to the universality of its story.

I quickly forgot I was reading subtitles as I got drawn into the film’s narrative.  Vinterberg’s film, which he also co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm, has echoes of Arthur Miller, one of the biggest compliments I can provide to a piece of writing.  This contemporary “Crucible” follows Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a Danish kindergarten teacher, as he must fend off accusations of indecent exposure to a young child and the ensuing social stigmatization.  While Lucas is reserved, Mikkelsen never lets us doubt for a second that his character is an upright man who is merely the victim of a child’s curiosity being spun into something untrue.

And Mikkelsen, rightful and deserving winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, keeps our eyes glued to the screen as we watch the harrowing toll of these false charges on his psyche as well as his estranged son.  The story unfolds rather predictably for the first two acts (no thanks to Arthur Miller), but Mikkelsen really goes unhinged in the film’s finale and absolutely kills it.  As the metaphorically hunted of the film’s title, he begins to strike back against those who defiled his reputation based on baseless and circumstantial evidence.

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Marshall Takes Cannes: Day 6

23 05 2012

Sorry for the delay, Internet woes abound in France. Monday was another uneventful rainy day – bad for you to read, but good for me to write.

Day 6 – Monday, May 21

I left my apartment for Cannes today at 12:15 P.M., which felt SO NICE. I got about nine or ten hours of sleep last night, and it turns out that was just what the doctor ordered. I hit my wall on Sunday, so I was glad to be really alive and experiencing Cannes again.

However, Mother Nature did not reward me with a bright, sunny day with my new found eagerness. Instead, it drizzled sporadically and the sky was gray. That is, on the other hand, the perfect environment to watch a movie and not feel guilty about sitting indoors for two hours.


And today, I watched my first movie of the festival in which I did not fall asleep or drift off even for a moment. That could be due to the fact that the film, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” was truly remarkable and easily the best moie have seen over the course of Cannes. It doesn’t have US distribution yet, but it really should. This movie needs to be seen.

Struggling to find something else to write about this day …. um, let’s see, I had a banana and Nutella panini? I bought a donut from a kiosk? I saw no celebrities? Hopefully there will be something more than a beautiful landscape in my next post.