Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 10-best movies of 2013

Despite a mostly woeful summer, the usual stream of bland romcoms, a ton of shriveled comedies and some less-than-stellar animation, 2013 turned out to be a good year for movies, so good -- in fact -- that I had difficulty narrowing my year-end list to the 10 best movies.

Moreover, any of my honorable mentions could have replaced several of the films that made my cut.

At the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival, I moderated a panel about the ways in which the best of TV seems to have surpassed so many movies. It's true: We seem to be living in a Golden Age of television, at least when it comes to the finest work.

Still, this year's best work made me wonder if maybe the movies still can hold their own. Heading toward 2014, I'm hopeful.

1. Gravity

Director Alfonso Cuaron's deceptively simple space adventure earns the top spot on my list because it not only builds tension, but reintroduces us to the experiential wonders of moviegoing. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts who find themselves cut off from Earth after being bombarded by debris from space junk. Cuaron, who wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas, makes room for a subtle emotional subtext about a life reborn, but the movie also can be appreciated as pure, pulse-pounding adventure.

2. American Hustle
Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) may not make the most penetrating movies ever, but he sure makes some of the most enjoyable. Christian Bale -- as New York con man Irving Rosenfeld -- headlines a terrific cast that features stand-out performances from Bradley Cooper, as an ambitious FBI agent, and from Amy Adams, as Rosenfeld's mistress. Jennifer Lawrence scores big as Irving's aggressively vocal wife. Loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, Russell's comedy finds a bit of good in all of its sleazy characters -- and is all the better for having looked.

3.12 Years A Slave
Director Steve McQueen makes the most disturbing movie yet about the South's so-called "peculiar institution." With Chiwetel Ejiofor starring as Solomon Northrup, McQueen brings the brutal reality of slavery into a big-screen culture that too often has been guilty of avoiding hard truths. Ejiofor gives a bravura performance as Northrup, a free man who was sold into slavery during a visit to Washington, D.C. Based on the book Northrup wrote after his escape from slavery, 12 Years a Slave has undeniable, frightening and essential authenticity.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers seldom fail to push boundaries. As a consequence, their movies almost always display an abundant supply of cracked originality. Musically, Inside Llewyn Davis -- the story of an aspiring folksinger laboring to make it in the 1960s -- isn't as good as the Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it boasts the kind of bitter trenchancy that makes the Coen Brothers a treasure for those of us who admire their sometimes grim humor and their always idiosyncratic voice. A bitter pill of a movie, but one worth swallowing.

5. The Great Beauty
If you're going to squander your life, there are worse places to do it than Rome. Director Paolo Sorrentino's astonishingly gorgeous movie follows the exploits of a dissolute writer (Toni Servillo) as he parties his way through a life in Rome. Sorrentino pays homage to Fellini, but his movie proves to be a highly engaging look at a man who is unapologetic about never reaching his potential. Most importantly, Sorrentino's amazing imagery proves a refreshment for eyes tired from too many special effects and too much banal moviemaking.

6. The Past
If you're a fan of the Danish movie, The Hunt, you can substitute it for The Past. The Hunt is a terrific study of what happens when a falsely accused man is subjected to a town's bigotry and hysteria. I opted for Asghar Farhadi's The Past because the Iranian-born Farhadi(A Separation) has a knack for putting characters into complicated situations without compromising their humanity or drowning them in melodrama. In The Past, Farhadi looks at an Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) who returns to France to complete his divorce from his estranged wife (Berenice Bejo). Mosaffa's Ahmad has been gone for four years, and Bejo's Marie has taken up with another man (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaner whose wife is in a coma. Farhadi displays a rare ability to create informed empathy for characters who never seem anything less than real.

7. Her
Director Spike Jonze adds to his gallery of oddball films with an odd, often whimsical look at a young man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system, voice supplied by Scarlett Johansson. Set in the near future, the story gives Jonze an opportunity to examine the way solipsism undermines romance. Jonze's sweet, sometimes funny movie leaves you with plenty to mull - like what the world may be like when artificial intelligence becomes a little too real.

8. Fruitvale Station
First-time director Ryan Coogler's sad and powerful film focuses on Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on Jan. 1, 2009. Coogler's movie, which left me speechless and stunned, derives its power from the ways in which the director brings us close to a troubled young man, making sure we understand both Oscar's strengths and weaknesses. Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights and The Wire) makes it heartbreakingly clear that this young man was trying to listen to his better angels. Had he lived, he might have heard them singing.

9. Blue Jasmine

I wouldn't call Woody Allen's entry into the 2013 cinema parade a masterwork, but Allen riffs on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire without sinking into parody. Allen tells the story of a woman (Cate Blanchett) made desperate by the arrest of her finagling Wall Street husband (Alec Baldwin). A supporting cast that includes Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard adds interest, but Blanchett's performance as the mentally unstable Jasmine is nothing less than an Oscar-worthy wonder.

10. The Act of Killing
This startling and original documentary makes the stock phrase "man's inhumanity to man" sound like something from a Hallmark card. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks some of the worst offenders of a year-long Indonesia killing rampage to tell their stories. The 1995 genocide resulted in the murder of a reported one million people, most of them accused of being Communists. Some of the killers stage reenactments of their crimes while imitating what they've seen in American movies. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this deeply disturbing but undeniably powerful movie.

Honorable mentions: Before Midnight, Cutie and the Boxer, Short-Term 12, The Spectacular Now, The Square, and Wadjda.

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