Finally, we’ve arrived to our final destination. And just in time for Oscar week! I don’t know how most film fanatics feel about 2013, but as I look back on it, I feel it was an especially strong year for films. Actually, I tend to feel that way every year, as I grow more and more in love with the films that arrested my imagination. For those who have been paying attention, my top five films are likely transparent, but I hope all of the film’s I’ve listed have inspired you to watch them. Or, in the very least, bury them on your Netflix queue with zero intent to watch them.
5. Captain Phillips (Click for Original Review):
Paul Greengrass is a filmmaker dedicated to crafting intelligent action films. His masterwork, United 93, a sobering retelling of the famously doomed Washington D.C. bound flight on 9/11, is a prime example of his ability to craft layered, emotionally engaging films without relying on a bevy of big stars and exploitation. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is another exercise in hand-wringing and moral complexity, as it dutifully recalls the story of a boat hijacking gone awry. The two men at the center of our story is Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, Captain Phillips’ eventual captor. The performances from the two actors are seismic, with their confrontations making massive waves. Abdi’s performance is especially significant because he turns a potential stock villain into a human being pushed to the edge of reason, acting not out of temptation but desperation. From beginning to end, Greengrass keeps the heart pumping well above its resting rate, and he does so without dumbing it down.
4. 12 Years a Slave (Click for Original Review):
I think any decent human being automatically recognizes the atrocities associated with slavery. Even though we recognize it as a dark time in our country’s history, we’ve never truly experienced the barbaric nature of the slave trade. More specifically, whether it’s school or cinema, we’ve never encountered anything but the whitewashed, abridged version of our country’s ownership of human flesh. Steve McQueen changes our perspective with 12 Years a Slave, the horrific, oppressive, and hopeful tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man tricked into slavery. Steve McQueen, ever the realist, doesn’t spare us from the gore. Lashings, verbal and physical, crackle in front of us, as monstrous behavior goes unpunished. Most films would find justice before the credits roll, but what we’re left with is the sad realization that Solomon was the exception, not the rule. Because of this, 12 Years a Slave is a vigil for all the voices silenced in the cotton fields.
3. Gravity (Click for Original Review):
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is an immersive experience, featuring technical wizardry we haven’t seen in any film. From zero-g to the destruction of satellites and space stations, Gravity is an unrelenting visual feast. The directorial prowess on display is also on another level. Cuaron confidently floats his camera about, often making use of nauseating long takes that are as majestic as they are visceral. As the camera dips and dives along with our protagonist, we inevitably feel tethered to her plight. But the beauty of Gravity is its focus on the human condition. One of the biggest arguments against the film is its simple plot and thinly veiled dialog, but Sandra Bullock’s one woman show is spellbinding and heartbreaking, denying our need for any other narrative threads. Frightening, picturesque, and life affirming, Gravity is the rare blockbuster that launches us into stars without our feet ever leaving the ground.
2. Before Midnight (Click for Original Review):
Before Midnight is the perfect sequel. Where most sequels exist for capital gain, Before Midnight is the kind of film that builds upon its predecessors, deepening our experience with the characters we’ve grown to love. Through invasive, heartfelt, and funny scenes, we see a fairy tale romance, one established over two films, inexplicably falling apart. The chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is once again intoxicating, but their long walk and talks are no longer about the future. Instead, they ruminate on death, the lasting power of love, and wasted youth. The darker, more cynical observations don’t prevent Before Midnight from being one of the year’s most hopeful and passionate films. Boasting magical performances, dexterous dialog, and a searing romance that’s inescapable, Before Midnight is the perfect ending to one of cinema’s greatest trilogies.
1. Her (Click for Original Review)
The story of a man falling in love with his operating system reads like the logline for a high-concept comedy. In lesser hands, it’d probably feature Jack Black trying to fornicate with an iPad. Fortunately, it isn’t a cynical and comedic look at our society’s growing attachment to technology. It’s a piercing look at one man’s loneliness after a devastating divorce, and the means in which he recaptures his faith in romantic relationships, if not all relationships. Taking place in a utopian future, one buzzing with a kaleidoscope of colors, Her is a film exploding with possibilities. Pants rest above the waist, video games are fully interactive, and relationships grow at the press of a button. Sincerely written and directed by Spike Jonze, the film is a finely mixed cocktail of melancholy and sweetness, eliciting both somber reflection and riotous laughter. Embodying Jonze’s sincerity are tremendous performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Their union is believable and natural, as both actors create characters that reflect a piece of ourselves, even if there is a distinct physical distance between the two. And that’s the beauty of Spike Jonze’s dizzying cinematic creation: much like reality, love transcends space, time, and reason.