Travis Leamons’s Top 10 Films Of 2013

In the past I’ve used my Top 10 list feature column as a way to recap some of the significant trends in cinema from the past year as well as call attention to special performers be it newcomers or established pros. However, feeling that visitors to the site would be turned off by reading, or pretty much scanning, my musings and reflections I’ll save those for another article which will be published subsequent to the one you’re about to read.

With my Top 10 feature last year I acknowledged that it was a great year for movies. This year I read an article that challenged the perceived idea of there being “Great Years” when it comes to movies.

Daniel Carlson, a critic friend of mine who is in essence Mrs. Deagle, the cat lady from Gremlins (if Mrs. Deagle looked like Seth Rogen), laid it all out in an article where he argued that “Great Movie Years” is an illusion. Key points made include looking at films autobiographically instead of chronologically and not to arbitrarily gauge years of cinema against one another. That first point registered with me when I sat down to watch Sweet Smell of Success for the first time this year. The film is close to 60 years in age, yet it remains one of the best films I saw in 2013.

That point made, the list and expository information that follows are from films this calendar year. They may not necessarily be of films that played in theaters or to wide audiences. Some may include films that have played only on the festival circuit, or may not make their debut in theaters until January.

I went back and forth with my placement of films, but there’s no true measuring stick when weighing these films against one another. All are worthy of the attention I’m giving them. This isn’t me giving you ten titles that I think define the year as a whole; these are ten films that I have continued to think about in the weeks (sometimes months) after having seen them. And I’m pretty sure I’ll still be thinking about them in the years that follow.

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10. The Wind Rises

To label this animated Japanese drama as Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong as a feature director is a disservice. This fictionalized account of Jiro Horikoshi’s life as an aeronautical engineer is brimming with flights of fancy, even if Jiro’s dreams of flying take him as far as the drawing board. While his designs would eventually lead to the construction of a weapon of mass destruction (the Japanese Zero used during the Second World War), the film is about one man’s passion for flight and not the endgame. Horikoshi is quoted as having said, “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Miyazaki has as well with The Wind Rises. The English-language version of the film opens in North America on February 21, 2014.

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9. Prisoners

When I reviewed Prisoners back in September, I called this “a mystery-thriller where the end justifies the means.” It’s a movie for adults and as such audiences didn’t latch on to it. That may be because the material is very dark and far from the escapist entertainment that we get from the big studios on a week-by-week basis. The narrative involves the disappearance of two girls and the actions that arise from a grief-stricken father and the detective investigating. Moral and ethical questions abound with how far you would go to protect the ones you love, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t go for the easy ending. Some might find the conclusion frustrating, yet as I stated in the beginning, the end justifies the means. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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8. The Spectacular Now

This is the little indie romance that fell between the cracks. Opening in early August in limited release and playing in a maximum of 770 screens, the film just never clicked with older teens. While it has the conventional teen roles we’ve come to expect after decades of teen movies it is the honesty of the storytelling that sets it apart from the rest. The writing is exceptional (from the duo that also penned the unconventional romance 500 Days of Summer) and lead actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley bolster the film with their performances. I became a fan of director James Ponsoldt after seeing Smashed and this film reinforces the fact that he is a great actor’s director, getting the most out of his stars. The film arrives to DVD and Blu-ray on January 14, 2014.

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7. The Act of Killing

Upon seeing this documentary, which has been championed by the likes of Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line) and Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), I thought to myself How is Joshua Oppenheimer [the film’s primary director] not dead? Shot over the course of three years, Oppenheimer gets the cooperation of former members of Indonesian death squads to recreate the mass killings of their past. With some of the members being influenced by the art of cinema and how fictionalized killings took place on screen, these recreations are done involving different cinematic genres. Oppenheimer doesn’t concern himself with this historical context of the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966 and instead uses his camera to explore the humans behind a specific period of genocide. The result is a thoughtful examination of the impact of killing in mass. This Drafthouse Films release arrives to DVD and Blu-ray on January 7, 2014.

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6. The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama is gripping in its depiction of what becomes of a man when those in his small community shun him. Mads Mikkelsen anchors the film in supreme fashion as Lucas, a Kindergarten nursery caretaker who is implicated as a sexual predator when a small girl testifies that he exposed himself to her. The adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” may be true, but words have the power to destroy somebody’s livelihood in extreme fashion. The power of The Hunt may lie in its final frame, which exposes the ugly truth about total absolution. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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5. 12 Years a Slave

I don’t mean this to come across as hyperbolic, but a part of me died a little when I saw 12 Years a Slave a second time. Even though I knew the atrocities I was about to bear witness again, I nevertheless cringed with every episode of violence depicted. It is a testament to director Steve McQueen to have this slavery drama be warts and all, and not sugarcoat the horrors. This isn’t a subject that is a wish-fulfillment fantasy the likes Quentin Tarantino delivered with last year’s Django Unchained. Chiwetel Ejiofor has been an actor that’s been on the precipice of breaking through as a leading man and he is commanding in his performance as Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. As strong his performance is though, the real star may very well be newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who gives one of the most courageous performances you’re likely to ever see. Still playing on limited screens; it will come to home video in early 2014.

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4. Her

Spike Jonze’s Her transports us to a world that, if given time, won’t be labeled as science fiction, it’ll be a reality. The premise involves a romance where a man falls in love with his computer. Actually, he falls in love with the female voice as part of the computer’s operating system. Having worked with the likes of Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation Jonze delivers a film that speaks volumes with how we’ve become too attached to our electronic devices. That we relate better to them than when interacting with other people. It’s a perfect meld of original story, beautiful direction and impressive score (by Arcade Fire). Her opens wide theatrically on January 10, 2014.

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3. Gravity

Typically, I try to keep my hopes in check when it comes to upcoming movies. Gravity may be an exception to that rule. This is a film I’ve been waiting to see for years. It all started when I first read an interview with writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) who said he wanted to make a film with an opening tracking shot of 17 minutes without a single cut. Intrigued, as I love extended and long shots, and the degree of difficulty it is to pull off, I waited, and waited, and waited. Then it arrived and I was absolutely floored. A survivalist tale in the grandest scene, Cuarón with one film seemingly reinvents the wheel of what is possible in cinema. Regardless of what people make of its lean story (not including credits it runs less than 90 minutes), Gravity is a supreme accomplishment by one of Hollywood’s most visionary filmmakers. Still in theaters; home video release to follow in early 2014.

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2. The Wolf of Wall Street

From the fight or die peril of space to the bulls and bears of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s satire of one man self indulgence has gained traction in recent weeks due to people crying foul with how The Wolf of Wall Street portrays extravagance. So energetic (and dare I say funniest picture I’ve seen this year) Scorsese’s latest makes a strong case for being in the discussion of the best of his filmography. Leonardo DiCaprio is crazy good as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker that rebrands his image after the events of “Black Monday” to lead a band of minion brokers as they target the wealthiest one percent. Part Wall Street, part Scarface, with a little bit of Caligula and Glengarry Glen Ross, Wolf is three hours worth of unadulterated lunacy. Now playing in theaters.

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1. Before Midnight

One could make many correlations to Richard Linklater’s Before series. In the past I compared it to Michael Apted’s Up documentary series. You could also include Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage or François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series of films in the discussion. While it’s not a prerequisite to have seen the previous two entries in Linklater’s series, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), it certainly helps. Picking up nine years after the events of the previous entry, as if Jesse and Celeste’s relationship evolved in real time, there’s the overriding sense that the Honeymoon Ending, which is a prerequisite ending of romantic comedies, has long passed and reality has set in. Lead stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy epitomize the term “emotionally naked” when it comes to their lack of guile. The centerpiece is the hotel conversation in the third act and the outbursts they levy at each other. It has an overriding sense of realism and it may hit too close to home for some viewers. But I respect that Before Midnight is brutality honest in this regard. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.