These past few years, I always find it a tad difficult to do a top ten list at the end of the year. Not being a professional critic I haven't seen everything. That, and I find that I often have to give certain films a second look before I can be sure how I feel about them. A lot of the time I enjoy a film more on the second watch. There's also the question I always face, which is, what films from this year did I truly love and stood out to me? What are the ones I'll want to go back and watch as the years go by? It's a difficult question, especially when you don't know how a certain film will age or how you'll feel in five years about a film you love now. All that being said, here are my favourite films of 2013, starting with number 1 and proceeding alphabetically.
1. Blue Is the Warmest Color
When I saw Abdellatif Kechiche's film back at the Atlantic Film Festival here in Halifax this past September I immediately thought it was the best film I had seen in 2013. While I may have seen better films over the next few months, this is still my favourite film of 2013, a love story both of our time and timeless, a film that captures the pain and joy of love better than many other films I've seen. It tells the story of a young high school student named Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) who falls in love with a fine arts student named Emma (Lea Seydoux). The two embark on a passionate love affair that changes both their lives. The film is seen through Adele's eyes, who, through her attraction to Emma, discovers her sexuality. While Emma has known her own sexual identity for years Adele is only beginning to understand herself.
The term "coming of age film" has become somewhat of a cliché but Blue Is the Warmest Color painfully and beautifully portrays a woman "coming of age" in ways both positive and heartbreaking. Exarchopoulos' performance is a big factor in why we feel Adele's transformation so deeply. Exarchopoulous seems to age and grow right before our eyes, and we feel we're on the journey with her. Sadly, Exarchopoulos probably won't be nominated for an Academy Award for her magnificent performance.
After viewing Before Midnight this past summer, the third in Richard Linklater's series chronicling the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), I walked away somewhat disappointed, despite admiring the acting and writing on display. I think it was due to wanting to see more in the style two films in the series, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, whereas I viewed this film as the "couple fighting" installment. I also felt the structure of the film was "off." It was only on a second viewing and third (with commentary by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy) that I truly came to appreciate how excellent this film truly is. Hawke and Delpy give lived in performances- they've known these characters for almost 20 years and surely Jesse and Celine have not only become their signature roles but integral part of their lives. It's hard to imagine any one else playing either of these parts.
What's fascinating about Before Midnight, in contrast with the previous two films, is while those films showed us the only two instances these characters met, Before Midnight picks up after nine years of living together, of conversations and complications. This is immediately clear during a extended long take during a car drive (a virtuoso feat of filmmaking with only one cutaway) where Jesse and Celine's conversation no longer feels like it's betwee just two young people who've jut me. Instead the dialogue captures the rhythms of people who've lived together and know each other well. There are still talks of philosophy that remind us of the first film- notably during a dinner at a writer's villa in Greece, where we're introduced to a few new characters- a change of pace from the mostly Jesse/Celine format of these films. But most of the conversation in this film between Jesse and Celine deal with their own personal issues as a couple, notably Jesse wanting to move to Chicago to be with his son from his first marriage.
I mentioned earlier that I was disappointed this film had Jesse and Celine fighting. I think I missed the way they talked in the first two films. But the hotel sequence which climaxes the film is truly amazing in how it's structured, the way the dynamic changes and how it tempts us in to choosing sides. But we really can't. Both Jesse and Celine are flawed people who both fight in ways that stop communication from flowing. Celine is overly passionate while Jesse is sarcastic and dismissive. Before Midnight strips away the idealized nature of Before Sunrise and shows us the organic evolution of this relationship, which can be almost painful to watch. But Before Midnight isn't really cynical about love and marriage, just honest, funny, and ultimately hopeful, albeit cautiously about the future.
One of the most effective horror films in recent memory, The Conjuring demonstrates how a talented filmmaker can take familiar genre elements and make them fresh and exciting. The Conjuring is based on a real life case from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) concerning the haunting of a house occupied by the Perron family. I love old fashioned haunted house films so The Conjuring definitely appealed to my sensibilities. Director James Wan crafts sequences that are as horrifying and nerve shattering as anything in the classic horror movie pantheon, all while allowing his actors to give well defined portraits of good people confronting evil.
I'm still not sure how well Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity works as actual movie but as an experience (I saw it in IMAX 3D) it's one of my favourite film going memories of 2013. In an age where blockbusters have numbed us and taken the wonder out of big budget spectacle, Gravity was genuinely mind-blowing. Love it or hate it, for better or worse, I think this film is a game changer and I can already see a young kid watching this film and sparking a passion for filmmaking.
While it's largely a technical achievement, the film isn't soulless. The film has a deeply spiritual core. Stranded in space, astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) goes through a rebirth as she struggles to survive, all while remembering the death of her young daughter. Bullock and George Clooney, perfectly cast as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski ground the film and give it humanity. Gravity is at once a revolutionary exercise in spectacle as well as timeless and inspiring tale of human survival.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers returned this year with a quiet triumph of a film. Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one week in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), circa 1961, as he struggles to make it big . Unfortunately for Llewyn, artistic success doesn't seem to be his future. This is before Bob Dylan came on the scene and ignited the folk music genre. Inside Llewyn Davis is essentially a film about being unsuccessful- but instead of being depressing it has a perfect sense of melancholy that never completely dips in to tragedy or optimism. I don't believe the Coens view Llewyn as a failure but they do believe- and demonstrate- that even a talented artist won't always become a legend. But while Llewyn may never become a legendary musician like Dylan, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film for the ages.
Asghar Farhadi's follow up to A Separation is, like that film, both a family drama and a mystery. In both films the mystery isn't simply a whodunit but an existential quest for truth and a exploration of morality and responsibility. It tells the story of Ahmad (Ali Mosfatta) an Iranian man who returns to Paris after several years due to his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo from The Artist) wanting a divorce. Marie is in a relationship with an Arab man named Samir (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet), whose wife is in a coma. Marie and Ahmad's daughter does not approve of Marie's relationship with Samir, which complicates matters. While The Past tells a somewhat familiar story and its plot can verge on what some naysayers call "soap operish," The Past is adult filmmaking at its best, examining the complexities of family dynamics and the inability to find an objective truth about events. And like A Separation it's also a very accessible film for those who haven't seen many foreign language films
The Place Beyond the Pines
While I knew the structure of The Place Beyond the Pines before viewing the film I was still quietly blown away and shaken by where this film begins and eventually ends. It's rare that films have this type of expansive scope. The Place Beyond the Pines explores a simple and old theme, that of persona; choices reverberating throughout the years, particularly in terms of fathers and sons. Motorcycle stuntman turned bank robber Luke (Ryan Gosling) and rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) cross paths one fateful day, changing the course of Avery's life and of Luke's newborn son Jason. Director Derek Cianfrance has crafted what may eventually be called an American film classic.
This Is the End/The World's End
Both This Is the End and The World's End are- on the surface-comedies about the end of the world and alien invasions- but at their heart are actually painfully honest films about broken relationships and wanting to get back what's now in the past. In This Is the End, Seth Rogen and Jay Barachel (playing versions of themselves) deal with Jay's outsider status amongst Seth's L.A. friends, including James Franco and Jonah Hill (also playing themselves). While Seth, Jay and others are holed up in James' house, tensions come to a head and the meta humour of the actors playing themselves gives us as the audience insight in to these men's lives
In The World's End, the final film in Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy, after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Gary King (Simon Pegg) wants to recapture his youth by finally finish a famous pub crawl he and his friends didn't complete after high school graduation. He gets the old gang, including Andy (Nick Frost) and Oliver (Martin Freeman), back together. While Gary's friends have grown up he still hasn't moved on from his high school days. As the film goes on we realize what a tragic character Gary is. While I don't love The World's End as much as Hot Fuzz, it may actually have the most depth of the Cornetto Trilogy. I think The World's End is a better film than This Is the End- it's a narratively tighter film- but both are two of the smarter comedies in recent memory.
12 Years a Slave
It may come across as cliché to call 12 Years a Slave an important film, as well as making the film seem stuffy, but 12 Years a Slave is truly an important piece of filmmaking by director Steve McQueen. Not just because it deals with one of the most horrific crimes against humanity in our history but because it's one of the most essential documents of American slavery on film. The film portrays the inhuman treatment of men and women in a brutal and uncompromising fashion. The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man born free in New York who was kidnapped and sold in slavery. Ejiofor, in the role that may win him an Academy Award conveys dignity in the face of inhuman treatment as well as the emotional toil life as a slave takes on him. Michael Fassbender, as one of Solomon's several masters, shows us a horrifying vision of true evil. While period pieces can sometimes feel a little dry cinematically, McQueen's visual style makes this a truly cinematic film. A long take of Solomon hanging by a tree may be the most unforgettable and powerful shot of the year. As the film ended, after Solomon is reunited with his family and words are unable to describe the emotions in that room, I was overwhelmed in a way I rarely am by a film.
DiCaprio gives what is arguably his best performance of this career thus far. As much as I like DiCaprio he can come across as trying too hard with some of his performances but here, as with last year's Django Unchained, His theatrical style of acting perfectly suits the character of Belfort. He creates a vivid portrayal of a man who in any other film would be self destructive- but as addicted to cocaine and sex as Belfort is, he never really gets his comeuppance or experiences any kind of moral epiphany. Belfort may not be the deepest character DiCaprio has played but it allows him to be freer as an actor. The "lemmons" sequence also demonstrates what a great comedic actor DiCaprio can be.
The film has been criticized a condoning the actions of Belfort and his cohorts. I think the film, while entertaining, ileaves it to the audience to both have fun watching the insane antics of these men but also acknowledge the immorality and stupidity of several of the characters. By doing this the film avoids being hypocritical and trusts the intelligence of its audience.
It can't be said enough how amazing it is that Scorsese, at 71, can still make a more exciting and purely cinematic movie than most filmmakers half his age. While one does feel the three hour length and it is a little meandering the film never really drags. The film is tinged with so much energy and hilarity that the three hours move by pretty quickly. The fast paced nature of the film is not only due to Scorsese's live wire direction but also the editing of frequent collaborator, Thelma Scoonmaker.
While I'm still partial to DiCaprio and Scorsese's last collaboration, the underrated Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a vital and bold film, and one of the most entertaining films of 2013.
Some other films I liked: Much Ado About Nothing, Drinking Buddies, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Insidious Chapter 2, Warm Bodies, The Heat, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Now You See Me, Mud, Evil Dead, I Give It a Year, To The Wonder
Still need to see: Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, American Hustle, Dallas Buyer's Club, Her, Fast and Furious 6, All is Lost, Nebraska
Looking forward to: Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Inherent Vice, Gone Girl, Godzilla, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Davies Awards:
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color
Olga Kurylenko, To the Wonder
Jane Levy, Evil Dead
Favourite Supporting Actors:
Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, Pacific Rim
Tom Hiddleston, Thor: The Dark World
Danny McBride, This Is the End
Matthew McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street
Favourite Supporting Actresses:
Kat Dennings, Thor The Dark World
Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Color
Terrence Malick, To the Wonder,
Nicholas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
James Wan, The Conjuring and Insidious Chapter 2
Favourite Cinematography: To the Wonder
Favourite Action Sequences:
The barrel sequence, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Plane rescue, Iron Man 3
Bullet train fight, The Wolverine
Superman vs. Zod, Man of Steel
Happy Anniversary Awards: The Exorcist, Badlands and Mean Streets, 40th Anniversaries, Die Hard, 25th Anniversary, From Russia With Love, 50th Anniversary, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, 20th Anniversaries, A Nightmare Before Christmas, 20th Anniversary, Return of the Jedi, 30th Anniversary.