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Best Films of 2013 - A Personal List

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In anticipation of the Oscars on March 2, 2014, I look back at 2013 and review some of my favorite films.

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2013 was an amazing year for films. So amazing that twenty is barely enough, and I very well may have left off many other people’s favorites. To people who may find fault in my list, I will assert that this is my list of favorites and my list only. I hope however that you will be inspired to check out some of these films per my recommendation.

Honorable Mentions

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon
Dir. Hong Sang-Soo
Haewon is a beautiful girl who has abandonment issues and seeks to solve them by engaging in an affair with one of her professors. The film is slow, but thoughtful and Hong lets the viewer sit back and observe and really absorb the film rather than cram judgments down our throats.

Like Father, Like Son
Dir. Koreeda Hirozaku
A seemingly understated film about a family whose son was switched at birth and the natural progression of events once they find out this information. It is well-acted and directed, and the director is able to bring real humanity to characters that could easily have been two-dimensional or stereotypical.

20. Wolf of Wall Street, The
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a smooth-talking, amoral stockbroker who builds an empire on fraud in the Wolf of Wall Street, a film about truly despicable people and their truly despicable behavior. It’s disgusting and in bad taste, but it’s also brilliantly directed and acted and just because Scorsese chose to show this decadent behavior doesn’t mean he endorses it.

19. Short Term 12
Dir. Destin Cretton
A film that centers on both the workers and teenagers at a teens at-risk center, Short Term 12 is a beautifully acted and emotional film that actually doesn’t feel condescending towards the teenagers portrayed here. The film is also praiseworthy for making the workers actual characters with both strengths and flaws instead of saintly angels.

18. In a World
Dir. Lake Bell
A great comedy about a voice coach who tries to break into the male-dominated voiceover industry. In a World actually handles several subplots quite deftly, making this film feel more substantial than an ordinary underdog movie would.

17. All is Lost
Dir. J.C. Chandor
Robert Redford gives possibly his finest performance as a man who is stranded in the middle of the ocean on a sinking boat…without saying more than a few sentences throughout the whole film. It’s amazing how Chandor and Redford are available to involve us so deeply in a film that avoids almost every dramatic cue used in movies.

16. Spectacular Now, The
Dir. James Ponsoldt
A lovely film about growing up and understanding that the “real” world is so much more complicated and difficult to deal with. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so good that you would think they weren’t acting, but they really are.

15. Fruitvale Station
Dir. Ryan Coogler
An account of the infamous shooting at San Francisco’s Frutivale Station, Coogler brings a cool but empathetic eye by providing a full portrait of Oscar Grant (the excellent Michael B. Jordan), with all his strengths and flaws intact. This film is not meant to stir up hate but rather to remove the highly sensational event from blinding strong emotion and it succeeds.

14. American Hustle
Dir. David O. Russell
It’s Goodfellas lite but that doesn’t take away from this movie’s brash charm. Russell is basically the new Scorsese – he loves dramatic camera movements, colorful characters, meandering stories, not to mention, that he wins awards for his actors. (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have garnered 24 Academy Award nominations among them.)

13. Enough Said
Dir. Nicole Holofcener
A lovely but touching comedy about two middle aged divorced people who tentatively start a new romance with unexpected obstacles. Two actors known primarily for acting on TV (Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Seinfeld and James Gandolfini for The Sopranos) prove that they can break from their public perceptions and give subtle, nuanced performances while not losing their essential charm.

12. Blue is the Warmest Color
Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
This movie got buried in the controversy surrounding its explicit lesbian sex scenes. It’s a shame because this movie showcases an acting tour de force by Adèle Exarchopoulos as we see her develop from naïve and precious teenager to passionate adult.

11. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Dir. David Lowery
This may be Badlands/Terrence Malick lite (criminal couple as main characters, half-whispered dialogue, long, dreamy, naturally and softly-lit scenes), but it’s still pretty darn good. I look forward to his next work as long as it doesn’t inspire comparisons to other directors’ works and styles.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Llewyn Davis is the portrait of an artist, one who wants to stay true to his art, even as he alienates the people around him and seals his fate to be obscure. Not exactly a cheery plot, but the movie is also beautifully shot, the music is gorgeous and there are some truly bizarre moments that are to be expected from the Coens.

9. Computer Chess
Dir. Andrew Bujalski
A film made to look like a crappy ‘80s documentary ostensibly about a computer chess tournament, but is actually a sly comedy that observes human behavior and lets the viewer draw his or her own conclusions. While Bujalski gets everything from the camera style to the production design and wardrobe correctly, he also manages to juggle several subplots that delve into the possibility and implications of artificial intelligence and the nature of reality itself.

8. Gravity
Dir. Alfonso Cuáron
Probably the most visceral experience I had in the cinema this year, I don’t have much to add to the many accolades this movie’s receiving. Gravity is immersive cinema at its best, and definitely worth seeing in 3D (preferably IMAX).

7. Before Midnight
Dir. Richard Linklater
Jesse and Celine have grown up from charming ingénues to savvy adults and now we see them as tired and middle-aged, but still witty and fascinating, characters. Midnight treads the same territory as the previous two films did, but the film is a self-contained, intelligent and moving exploration of middle age, nostalgia and regret.

6. Nebraska
Dir. Alexander Payne
Woody (Bruce Dern) goes on a quixotic quest to collect an illusory million dollar prize, aided by his reluctant Sancho Panza, his son (Will Forte). Alexander Payne is able to bring out the humanity in characters some people would dismiss as hicks yet still create an entertaining comedy.
5. Mud
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Technically a 2012 release, Mud is too good not to put on this list. Matthew McConaughey continues to do excellent work; personally, I liked this performance as a mysterious drifter who takes on different roles in the eyes of the young boys who aid him while he is on the run from the law, more than his performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Mud is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted tale of growing up and the pains that it brings with it; McConaughey does his best work in this film.

4. The Past
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
A Separation director Farhadi returns in fine form with The Past, in which a man’s arrival into his ex-wife’s life sparks a series of revelations and clashes that are difficult (yet fascinating to watch). Farhadi is a master of the personal drama in that he challenges his audiences to look beyond characters as more than just two dimensional figures, but people who deserve to be understood on their terms.

3. Her
Dir. Spike Jonze
Her is a film that asks deep thought-provoking questions about consciousness and reality by wrapping them in a tender love story and character piece. Only Spike Jonze could have pulled off this balance of the cerebral and emotional without seeming twee.

2. Act of Killing, The
Dir. Anonymous, Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer
Unknown to most of the Western world, mass killings were carried out in Indonesia during the 1960’s to weed out “Communists” (i.e. anyone who opposed the government); the government would employ small-time gangsters to do their dirty work. In Killing, these gangsters are now respected, powerful men who are invited by Oppenheimer to re-enact their killings through filmed dramatizations, and their words and behavior condemn themselves better than anyone else could have.

1. 12 Years a Slave
Dir. Steve McQueen
Emotionally raw, beautifully photographed and well-acted, 12 Years a Slave should not be dismissed as another melodrama about slavery meant to induce guilt; it is so much more than that. Steve McQueen may be one of my favorite directors. (Shame was my number one film of 2011.)

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