When I shared my Top 10 Movies of 2013, I noted I had skipped an inordinate amount of movies from the calendar year – the result of a move to Japan in late August. Over the course of these past three or four months, I was finally able to catch up with just about all of the award contenders. It’s interesting to watch movies with their reputations almost entirely preceding them. Anyway, I don’t want to revisit my previous write-up, so here’s a top 10 list comprised of all new entries. Don’t ask me to combine the two.
Apologies to Short Term 12 and Enough Said (I still haven’t watched Prisoners).
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac provided one of my favorite over-the-top villainous moments in recent history with 2010’s Robin Hood (“OUTLAW!”). As the titular character in Inside Llewyn Davis, he gives a performance at the opposite end of the spectrum, and is wonderfully nuanced as the titular musician who’s also kind of a shitty human being. The movie is incredibly funny at times – through the trademark absurdity of the Coen brothers – but remains grounded through the performances of the cast. The music is beautiful, the tone is melancholy, and through its simplicity (tracing a week in the character’s life), Inside Llewyn Davis manages to be incredibly perceptive and moving.
2. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete feels like a multiple-episode arc of The Wire. Taking place over the course of months, it effortlessly conveys the struggles of two kids left to fend for themselves in the projects. Director George Tillman Jr. not only does a fantastic job of showing how unforgiving life can be in the environment, but in so doing, presents the rationale that turns the titular characters (played by Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon, standouts by themselves but especially with one another) inwards when they need help the most. The movie is often heartbreaking, but not manipulative or saccharin, and never melodramatic (as say, 2009’s Precious, much as I liked that). It’s fantastic.
3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I loved The Hunger Games book trilogy, because I am apparently a teenage girl. But as much as I enjoyed the first movie, I was disappointed that it was ultimately much more about the events in the arena than the machinations outside it. The Hunger Games failed to engage a lot of Suzanne Collins’ meticulously constructed world, and in the process, deprived meaning from subsequent movies (once the action invariably graduated beyond the games themselves). But Catching Fire made up for its predecessor’s deficiencies. It is more intense, more interesting, and just bigger. Francis Lawrence effectively put the games in context, making a point of showing how the games interacted with everything else. It made all the difference.
4. 12 Years a Slave
I had the same experience watching 12 Years a Slave as I’ve had watching the most effective war movies. It’s insanely raw, taut with emotion, painful and intense. It’s something I would never want to watch again, and I mean that in the best possible way. Naturally, the movie cannot convey the entirety of the horrors for Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but Steve McQueen does a masterful job in the two and a half hours. The film’s script and structure are almost flawless, and the entire cast is stellar – even the much ballyhooed Brad Pitt cameo didn’t bother me too much. When the movie was over, I needed a breather; it felt surreal to walk outside and rejoin the world. That’s what 12 Years a Slave did.
5. American Hustle
As some of my readers – and all of my friends – may know, I love Amy Adams. Like, ‘I saw Leap Year on opening day’ kind of love. In that lens, the first 30 minutes of American Hustle is pretty much the greatest movie ever made in the history of mankind. Let’s leave it at that. But even putting the sideboob aside, American Hustle is flat-out one of the most entertaining movies of the year. The film moves incredibly briskly, the story is a lot of fun, and the performances are all-around terrific (the standout is Jennifer Lawrence, who is perfect as the mistress with simmering – then boiling – crazy). The twists aren’t too many, and quite transparent, but the crime caper is immensely watchable. Plus there’s Amy.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Speaking of fun and immensely watchable, The Wolf of Wall Street is kind of a curious beast. The characters are awful, the actions are deplorable. But this is hardly the lasting impression of the film. Martin Scorsese immerses us in the world of Jordan Belfort and Wall Street in such a manner that we almost come to take for granted the absurdity and temerity of the fraud and corruption. The film’s marketing campaign is true: it’s about more. And despite a few standout scenes, I’m not sure The Wolf of Wall Street is about anything beyond that. But it’s thoroughly entertaining, often (and surprisingly) genuinely hilarious, and Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of his career.
7. All is Lost
I don’t know that Robert Redford could have made All is Lost at any other point in his career. As the lone sailor trying to survive in the vast ocean, it’s the vulnerability and experience that accompanies age that makes the film as effective as it is. With minimal dialogue and no other onscreen characters, All is Lost rests entirely on Redford’s shoulders. And he carries it. You feel every frustration, every setback. The moments of deliberation, the moments of panic. It is Redford’s weathered face and body language and movement that makes the film as thrilling and emotional and visceral as it is. All is Lost strips cinema just about bare. And it works magnificently.
Despite the inherent silliness of the central concept, Her is ultimately about loneliness, about connection, about love and meaning and the human experience. Spike Jonze does a masterful job of depicting a world rife of technologies that seem like natural extensions of our own, and the result is that the slightly futuristic science-fiction setting enhances rather than distracts from the themes of the story. Yes, the film has its quirks (I’ll admit I giggled during the sex scene, and I wasn’t quite enthralled with the developments with Samantha), but the relationship aspects somehow manage to be quiet and understated, and at times deeply moving and profound.
9. Dallas Buyers Club
Two of my favorite cinematic scenes from 2013 take place in a supermarket. The first, in the Danish drama The Hunt, features accused pedophile Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) being assaulted when he tries to buy groceries. It’s intense. It’s gut-wrenching. The second, in Dallas Buyers Club, has Ron (Matthew McConaughey) defending Rayon (Jared Leto, as a trans woman) from one of his former friends. It’s a touching act, a deeply affective scene. For the audience, that moment – as in The Hunt – also serves as a microcosm for how much the characters have changed since we were introduced to them. And while Dallas Buyers Club is undoubtedly a showy movie, and somewhat rough around the edges (in direction and story), it is a very effective showy movie, thanks largely to the performance of the two lead actors.
Knowing nothing of the true story behind Philomena, I was taken aback by the poignancy of the narrative, as well as the revelation of a couple of wholly unexpected twists. The film also has an emotional depth that the marketing campaign belied almost completely. The characters, broadly drawn at first glance (the disgraced political journalist! the remorseful mother!), gain a great deal of nuance once they interact with one another in undertaking the quest. Both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are terrific, and the script does well to allow us to empathize with the perspectives of both characters. Philomena is a quiet gem.