Monday, December 23, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2013

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

I’ve had plenty of great experiences watching movies in 2013 and have just scratched the surface on what’s out there. Having missed so many key releases, it doesn’t seem fair to create a normal Top 10 list. Even narrowing it down to a Top 5 list wouldn’t be fair because it would come from such a small sample size. However, I would like to spotlight some of my favorites from the past year. The five choices below might not all qualify as the best films, but they were the most memorable choices for me. I’ve added three movies that just missed the list plus aspects of others that have stuck with me since the initial viewing. I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of the other 2013 releases in the upcoming months. The positive side of missing them originally is having a wealth of options for home viewing. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments section! I’ve also included quotes from my original review (with one exception) that summarize my original reaction to each film.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) – “It’s haunting to watch Jesse and Celine lose their way, but those problems make their lives more poignant.”
It seems incomprehensible for a film to rank as my least favorite in a trilogy and still be a favorite. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have such a clear understanding of what makes Jesse and Celine tick. The romance is still there, but the challenges of real life have made everything more difficult. Idealized love gets a lot more complicated when kids enter the picture. The opening hour shows the couple trying to re-kindle that passion, but hints creep up about issues beneath the surface. When chaos erupts, it’s a difficult but spellbinding experience. Delpy is especially good at showing Celine’s manic behavior, which might seem overboard yet springs from true assumptions. It’s a tough, intriguing continuation that expands the characters without betraying them.

LisaGay Hamilton in Go for Sisters

Go for Sisters (John Sayles) – “The personal challenges outweigh any political message, and that makes for a riveting experience.”
I’m a John Sayles apologist and can’t say enough good things about his films. Even so, I’ll admit that his output during the past decade hasn’t been as sharp. This trend makes the success of Go for Sisters even more refreshing. He creates two intelligent African-American female characters that are embodied with great depth. Yolanda Ross and LisaGay Hamilton both give excellent performances as high-school friends reconnecting under difficult circumstances, and Edward James Olmos shines in a supporting role. Sayles again reveals his ability to depict connections within a community that surround the main story.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) – “Whedon gets the chance to pull back from the blockbuster world, and the result is a joy to experience.”
After his gargantuan success with The Avengers, Joss Whedon thrives in the small-scale setting of this charming Shakespeare adaptation. It doesn’t hurt to have so many familiar faces on hand from his TV shows and movies. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof make a sharp couple as Beatrice and Benedict, and Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, and many others thrive in supporting roles. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for the classic tale even when it’s moved to a modern setting.

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Mud (Jeff Nichols) – “This slow burn of a film grows on you because the characters are so well-defined.
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) has only directed three films, but he’s already shown the ability to depict a believable community. His characters have depth and rarely explain their true motivations at the start. Matthew McConaughey’s Mud is intriguing to the boys because he’s a mystery. He lets them into his world as the pursuing forces surround him. Nichols gives characters their own arc while still moving the story forward. Tye Sheridan brings such heart to Ellis, who’s looking for any hint that love is possible while his parents drift apart. It’s a moving, effective tale that rarely hits the expected notes.

Sam Rockwell in The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back (Jim Rash, Nate Faxon)
One of my best viewing experiences this year was seeing this film in an empty theater on a rare night out with Erin. Jim Rash and Nate Faxon use the formula but supersede it because we’re drawn to the characters. Sam Rockwell injects such life into the story as the mentor who helps Duncan (Liam James) escape from the doldrums. Any film that can sell a ridiculous dance sequence and make me laugh out loud deserves a lot of credit. It wears its heart on its sleeve but never falls prey to the expected tropes.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

These three films just missed the top group and are equally deserving. Here’s a quick blurb from my original reviews about each one.

In a World... (Lake Bell) – “There’s a confidence and maturity that’s often missing from debut filmmakers.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) – “The pivotal factor is Gerwig’s performance, and she delivers the strongest of her excellent career.

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh) –“Soderbergh shows how idealistic visions of love can only go so far when the entire system is corrupt.”

Stoker

These films didn’t make the list, but they had elements that I really enjoyed. Here are some reasons they kept me engaged:
  • A celebrity culture that’s run amok in The Bling Ring
  • Found footage done right in the believable Europa Report
  • M83’s music that sets the tone in Oblivion
  • The epic visual scale and grand ambitions of Pacific Rim
  • The Britney Spears music interlude in Spring Breakers
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s looney performance in Star Trek into Darkness
  • The serene beauty that masks the villainy in Stoker
  • The parade of guest stars and dorky insanity of This Is the End
  • Upstream Color’s confounding and inexplicable mystery
  • A ladder of zombies piling into Israel in World War Z

What were your favorite films of 2013?

34 comments:

  1. Of your top films, I've only seen Much Ado and The Way Way Back. The latter will definitely be on my list. I really liked Much Ado but I draw a few issues with the source material (had the same problems with Branaugh's version). I'll watch Mud probably sometime this week. And I'm gonna watch the whole "Before" Trilogy in January.

    As for your runners-up... Side Effects, Pacific Rim, and This is the End are definitely on my list. And a few of the others you mentioned are on my worst list.

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    1. Nick, it sounds like we've had some similar reactions to some of these. In the bullets at the bottom, there are a few films that I didn't like that much overall (i.e., Spring Breakers, Star Trek Into Darkness) but they had some scenes that have stuck with me. Glad to hear that you also enjoyed The Way Way Back. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

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    2. Watched Mud last night. Great film!

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    3. Nice! I just watched it last week.

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  2. A great list to be sure, and I like the addendum of "films that had something to offer". Here's to a fine 2013 and even better things in 2014, good sir.

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    1. Thanks Ryan; same to you! I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of 2013 films, but it's a good start at least.

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  3. What I love about list like these are discovering new films to check out. For example, I had no idea, or possibly forgot that, John Sayles had a new film out!! I will definitely need to seek that one out. I still need to see The Way Way Back and In a World but pretty much enjoyed all the other films you mentioned.

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    1. Courtney, it's sad that Sayles' new film is getting such a small release. From interviews that I've read, he had a really hard time financing it. I'm glad that it was even made at all. Hopefully you'll get to check it out.

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  4. Nice list, Dan. I still need to see Much Ado About Nothing and Go for Sisters. My top 5 at the moment are Before Midnight, Gravity, The Hunt, The Place Beyond the Pines, and The Selfish Giant.

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    1. Josh, I'm sad to admit that I still need to see four of the five on your list. Gravity, The Hunt, and The Place Beyond the Pines are all on my radar. I've heard nothing so far on The Selfish Giant, so thanks for the info!

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  5. Great reading your list of top films for the year. Mud is definitely going to be among mine as well as Before Midnight. I've missed out on seeing a tonne of fantastic films this year has spit out, The Place Beyond the Pines, The Hunt, and loads more. Only went to the cinema a handful of times this year, sadly.

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    1. Jaina, it sounds like we're in the same boat with limited cinema trips. The good news is that there's a ton of great films to see. Glad you enjoyed the list!

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  6. Nice list here Dan! I haven't seen a few of these, but out of those, I'm most curious to check out Much Ado About Nothing. That is a stunning shot you chose for this post.

    I still haven't figured out which movies would make my list, I probably would have to do that soon. Surely there'll be a ton of honorable mentions :D

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    1. Thanks Ruth! I'm guessing that you have a lot of options judging by your site. I'll keep my eyes peeled for your list!

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  7. I've got 2-3 more 2013 films to watch for this year as you can see my current list which is going to change next year when there's more 2013 films I'll be watching in January/February.

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    1. That looks like a really strong list. There are so many on there that I want to see, including The Grandmaster, Fruitvale Station, and Nebraska. Great stuff!

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    2. If you're going to see The Grandmaster, make sure it's the 130-minute Chinese cut. Not the atrocious 108-minute U.S. cut.

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    3. Thanks for the reminder. I've heard that they really gutted the story for the shorter version. Do you know if the international cut is available on DVD?

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  8. Sam Rockwell was the best thing about The Way Way Back, his improvized performance reminded me of little-seen indie gem Box of Moonlight (1996), where he also played a memorable sidekick to the main character.

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    1. Chris, that's a good comparison with Box of Moonlight, which is an underseen gem. Rockwell definitely lifts The Way Way Back to another level.

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  9. I've seen almost all of these, which surprised me since I have so much left to see from this year. I just saw Much Ado About Nothing last night and pretty much loathed it.

    Right now, my current top 6 would be The Bling Ring, The Hunt, Lawrence Anyways, Stories We Tell, Frozen and Gravity. I also really liked Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Lore, Blancanieves, Enough Said, Frances Ha and Fruitvale Station, not to mention Cutie and the Boxer, Captain Phillips and Spring Breakers.

    This year has pretty much been AMAZING.

    You can see my complete breakdown of what I've seen so far as well as links to all my reviews here:

    http://afistfuloffilms.blogspot.com/2013/03/2013-movie-reviews-page.html

    I'll be posting my review of Much Ado About Nothing later this morning.

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    1. I totally forgot to mention Stories We Tell! That would definitely be in my top ten if I made a true list. I'll have to check out your breakdown plus your Much Ado About Nothing review soon. Thanks!

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  10. I haven't seen most of these because I missed the opportunity or because of the Norwegian release dates, but I have heard only good things and every single film is on my watchlist. Awesome stuff!

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    1. Thanks Elina! I know that international release dates can be all over the map, but it's great to hear that you've got these on the watchlist.

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  11. Nice list here, Dan. Glad to see you highlight Before Midnight, Mud and The Way, Way Back, all of which are among my favorites of the year as well. I'll have to check out Go for Sisters -- that one slipped completely under my radar.

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    1. Eric, it's cool that you're also a fan of those choices. Go For Sisters may not reach that status, but I think it's worth checking out. I'd like to see the performances get a lot more attention.

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  12. The Way Way Back and Before Midnight were on my "to look out for in 2013" post, so I'm glad you've listed them as favourites. They are deserving of the accolade.

    Haven't seen Mud yet but must check it out soon.

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    1. Dan, I'd definitely suggest checking out Mud, which has a great performance from McConaughey and an interesting story. Thanks for swinging by and have a great 2014!

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  13. Great list here, Dan. Love that Upstream got an honorable mention, but I'm most interested in Go for Sisters. I haven't even heard of that film. I'm all over it.

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    1. Alex, Go for Sisters definitely slipped under the radar and got only a very limited release. It's too bad but not a huge surprise given Sayles' limited box office potential. I hope you're able to check it out.

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  14. Just saw this post, but wanted to comment on it. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts about 'Before Midnight' in that it wasnt my favorite of the trilogy(that belongs to 'Sunset') but still really enjoyed the movie. Oh and Whedon's version of The Bard was a lot of fun.

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    1. Thanks Vern. It's hard for me to pick my favorite from the Before trilogy. It's still probably Before Sunset, but it's a very close contest! Glad to hear that you're also a fan of Much Ado About Nothing

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  15. Great list, Dan. Just like me, who didn't see as much as we hoped, our lists have a bit of a few different choices given our lack of viewing. Before Midnight would definitely be on my own list had I actually watched it. I own it. I have owned it for awhile now. But Before Sunset's ending is my favorite ending of all time so continuing the story is something I've been too reluctant to visit.

    Nice reflections at the end as well with some great titles. I was talking with someone about the year in movies and we agree that while it was a rather weak year for flicks, there were a lot of "average" movies that had exceptional scenes, soundtracks, or elements about them.

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    1. Thanks Nick. I do tend to shy from making a case that a movie year is weaker because there are so many films. You may be right if we just look at the big studio pictures (Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.). However, there still were a lot of great films even among what I saw. I have a feeling I've just scratched the surface too.

      I also wondered about Before Midnight because I'm such a fan of Before Sunset. I'm glad that I checked it out; it has some tough scenes, but the acting is just so good. I also really struck a chord given my current life (late '30s with kids).

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