25. The Kings of Summer: At the tender age of sixteen how many of us would have loved to escape from annoying parents, embarrassment, frustration, unwanted interactions and go live amongst friends in the woods somewhere? Many of us would. This vivid, sun-kissed little film takes that scenario and runs with it following three young boys venturing out to take the major leap of independence during the summer, living off the land and building their own house. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta capture an endearing oddball nostalgia, invoking the pleasure of endless possibility for exuberant, testosterone-filled youth. All the while making sure to back that up with some quirky humor and heart. These three young actors have pitch-perfect chemistry and they all give some pretty impressive performances helping to stick the landing of this unique coming-of-age story. It’s a fun quirky summer ride about growing up and realizing that things will never be the same, for better or worse.
24. C.O.G.: The first ever film adaptation of one of David Sedaris’ essays is pretty observant. An arrogant young man from Connecticut named David travels (or runs away) to Oregon to work at an apple farm; David is this year’s most frustrating protagonist. He's indignant yet fragile as he drifts from one job and odd situation to the next. The film follows him as he attempts to figure out life--but in the finality of it all, life is too odd and complex to find answers to--be it in a book by a acclaimed author or in organized religion. Life is just absurd and f***ed up; something different, like a change of scenery and people, isn’t always better or nor does it necessarily lead to a more pleasing path. A surprisingly truthful and smart adaptation with pathos that take a while to set in, but when it does, it makes the film worth the viewer’s time. The original essay is better of course but the performances from Jonathan Groff and company really give this film and its theme the breath of life.
23. Kill Your Darlings: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”--William Faulkner. A crisis of identity, of sexuality and of art is tricky stuff to explore in a film, especially for a first-time director. However, John Krokidas finds a way to spin gold out of what could have easily turned into a mess. It's biopic centered around the Beat Generation icon, Allen Ginsberg in 1944, during his years at Columbia University. All of it surmounts into a murder investigation involving him and his darkly charismatic classmate Lucien Carr and Beat author William Burroughs. Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan have a dark and frenzying chemistry that mostly carries the film--a film that is a mysterious and wild love letter to the Beat Generation. Ever wandering and wonderfully feverish, this atmospheric directorial debut is packed to the brim with ambition; a story about writers and writing, eclipsing the mainstream and tapping into something strange, but insightful and refreshing, no matter how dark. The superb performances from Radcliffe and DeHaan are compelling as young storytellers in the midst of this radical universe of poetry and violence.
22. Fruitvale Station: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.” There is an ugly heaviness to every frame of Ryan Coogler’s passionate film chronicling the true story of Oscar Grant on the eventful New Year’s Eve of 2008 which ended with a tragic turn when officers shot him down in cold-blood. The powerfully acted drama was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and it isn’t hard to see why. The intimate storytelling does not present anything new about the horrible incident (and no manipulation) but it does paint a very human picture of Oscar Grant, brought to life by Michael B. Jordan. The scene of the shooting itself is one of the most harrowing scenes in film this year and resonates as a troubling look at bizarre, senseless racist violence that seems be growing in this country.
21. Gravity: “Life in space is impossible” Alfonso Cuaron is one of my favorite film directors out there right now and his latest sci-fi drama proves that he should be one of yours too. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in the heart-pounding thriller that pulls the audience into the unforgiving realm of deep space. One of my worst fears is being lost in an everlasting dark void and space is that ultimate dark, mysterious void. Cuaron and his team do something visually and technologically unique that no other film accomplished this year. The cinematography and effects are truly spectacular eye-candy but that’s not the only reason to watch. Sandra Bullock brings a startlingly human element to the F/X showcase of space’s beauty and terror. The theme of persistent survival and the fight to live becomes elemental, highlighting the internal emotional battle that affects our protagonist on her journey. Glorious visuals, masterful sound design and musical score, a monstrous sense of suspense and poignant underlining human emotion make for one hell of an outer space adventure.
20. Stranger By the Lake: Is the search for sexual excitement and intimacy linked to death itself? This meticulously crafted thriller seems to think so. Those with prudish eyes ought to steer clear of this one. Sex acts and raging emotions are potently explicit in the French film that centers around Franck who enjoys a cruising spot for gay men tucked away on the shores of a lake. Franck has his eyes set on Michael, who he witnesses drowning his regular lover one late evening on said lake. Shocked, Franck is still nonetheless fueled by a dangerous passion for Michael. There is a quiet horror to Alain Guiraudie’s latest film that is unlike anything else I’ve seen. Certainly unflinching from anything that occurs on-screen, the camera captures everything with a sharp frankness that is without judgment. Watching the film, it seems like we’re waiting for an eruption of some sort. It never “cums” in the way one would expect. In an enclosed group that only refers to itself, morale can collapse. The genius of the film highlights how cruising for inauthentic thrills can break not only the self, but the whole as well.
19. The Wolf of Wall Street: This atrociously decadent spectacle is less than beautiful--dangerously morally bankrupt, but eccentrically realized nonetheless. It’s what makes it a gross masterpiece and a glorious look into the ugliest debauchery. In what is essentially a career-topper for Leonardo DiCaprio, we follow this pulsing story of New York stockbroker, Jordan Belfort as he goes from penny stocks to a life of corruption in the late 80s. Clocking in at nearly three hours, there isn’t a dull moment--everything is outré and outrageous in all of the (wrong) right ways. Depraved and offensive, the shameless celebration is captivating almost like a slow train wreck that the viewer can’t keep their eyes off of. Scorsese contributes his crassest, loudest and most ravaging filmic effort making it one of the best films of the year, but also one of the worst, which is no small feat. There is some dark humor injected in the solipsistic orgy of grim overindulgence and even some eyebrow raising observations concerning the pitiful reality of the characters (although, there may be too few of them). Overall, this is the American Dream turned into a vile horror show! Highly satirical, this is an outlandish ride. But please note that money does not give you or anyone else the right to be a caveman. Or a wolf.
18. Catching Fire: Katniss Everdeen’s journey becomes a more enriched and deep exploration of everything that is wrong with the world’s society. The popular book franchise adapts its second book into a more focused and thought-provoking experience. This is no action film--that’s not the point here, so if you think it is, just leave the fandom now! Besides the amazing performances all around (Jennifer Lawrence carries this film the same way she did the last) the franchise’s themes are widely explored. During the 75th Annual Hunger Games called The Quarter Quell, previous victors are pitted against each other, changing the face of Panem forever. The violence here is mostly all symbolic and existential making the experience all the more piercing and thrilling; the narrative is thematically rich and devastating--good luck watching the full two-hours and a half with dry eyes--Katniss continues to be the heroic idea that helps begin a revolution and you feel the fire of it rising! Fans and critics alike have called the film the Hunger Games trilogy’s “Empire Strikes Back” and that isn’t too far from the truth. We’re left off with a game-changing cliffhanger that has fans salivating for more.
17. August: Osage County: It’s an all out family battle royale in the for the big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedic play. The acting--the mother loving acting is beyond superb! This film has the best ensemble in any film this year as far as I’m concerned. The diverged Weston family consisting mostly of strong-willed women is reunited in the midst of family crisis. The result is a mix of glorious black humor, riveting drama and deeply touching emotion. Everything is theatrical and exquisitely melodramatic, but never campy nor ridiculous. As the family toxins rise, poisining the setting and the dramatic revelations are unveiled, the powerful blockbuster becomes a major tour de force--I seriously can’t praise the acting enough (I mean, you have Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale and more!) Plus, Benedict Cumberbatch sings! Witty, constantly entertaining, and dramatically brutal--yet somehow it's fun. It’s all so grimly compelling that the emotional carnage left behind after these two hours will end up being the best worst time you'll have watching a film all year.
16. Upstream Color: Pig. Maggot. Thief. Orchid. Sampler. Girl. Boy. It’s either the most minimal film of the year or the most complex and cerebrally challenging. Shane Carruth’s ethereal little film is potent with…something. The abstract narrative structure is perplexing unlike anything else pushing the boundaries of experimental art films. What is the overall genius of this head-scratcher? There is a fixation on the prose of “Walden”--highlighting David Henry Thoreau’s theory that nature is the key to understanding reality. The logic is intermingled amongst the electric emotional framework that is propelled largely by our two main protagonists or vessels, Jeff and Kris, who find themselves in a bleak romance that the film seems to imply is nature’s path. There are some fascinating technical achievements here; the cinematography, the sound editing and mixing are characters too. Carruth pays extremely close attention to all things visual and audible--all things which propel the story forward the most mystifying manner possible. What seems to be certain is that Jeff and Kris are faced with a critical hour that is at its most elevated and elemental. A delicate attack on the senses for a fully ‘felt’ film, Carruth’s second film is spellbinding.
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© Patrick Broadnax 2013