177812-the-best-films-of-2013

The Best Films of 2013

After a shaky start, 2013 ended up a stellar cinematic year, covering subjects as varied as young love, '70s (and '80s and '90s) con men, our country's horrific history of slavery, and perhaps most importantly, giant robots battling equally elephantine alien monster.

After a shaky start, 2013 ended up a stellar cinematic year, covering subjects as varied as young love, ’70s (and ’80s and ’90s) con men, our country’s horrific history of slavery, and perhaps most importantly, giant robots battling equally elephantine alien monster.

 

Director: Francis Lawrence

Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-hungergames-catchingfire-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 35

Display Width: 200

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Lionsgate

Suzanne CollinsHunger Games novels increasingly foreground the fact that her world is a horrific, traumatizing dystopia as she goes, which seemed to get increasingly uncomfortable for some readers. The movie of the second book manages the rare feat of making the same move even as it’s more immediately pleasurable than its fine but lukewarm predecessor. It’s the best kind of adaptation, one that compensates for the unavoidable losses of translation (such as no longer having such a clear sense of our first-person narrator’s mind and heart) by staying true to the core of the story and adding its own pleasures (Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks, for example, add whole new dimensions to relatively minor characters from the books). Political repression, PTSD, the uses and costs of fame; these are the kinds of things it’s good to see box-office smashes smuggling into the conversation. img-1049 Ian Mathers

 

Director: James Wan

Film: The Conjuring

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/c/conjuringposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 34

Display Width: 200

The Conjuring
Warner Bros.

Leave it to director James Wan, who kicked off the “torture porn” craze when he directed the first Saw movie, to be the one to lead the genre away from gristle and gore again. His two 2013 horror movies, Insidious Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, rely more on mood and atmosphere to ratchet up the tension and deliver their haunted-house scares. Of these, The Conjuring is more traditional, and more successful. It uses scares we’ve all seen before — from a menacing music box to a creeptastic twist on hide-and-seek — but uses them effectively; muscles will start to tense the minute you someone winds the gears of that music box or starts counting for that game of hide-and-seek. Wan elevates these tropes with a some visual flourishes, including an excellent tracking shot that follows multiple characters as they zig-zag through the haunted house on move-in day. There’s also an unexpected emotional core to the story, since The Conjuring portrays the interaction between two families: The Perrons, a boisterous family of seven that moved into the cursed Rhode Island farmhouse, and the Warrens, the demon-fighting couple that pledges to help them. (The Warrens are based on real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.) It’s rare to see loving families depicted in horror movies — let alone two of them in one movie — which give stakes that are higher than every-teen-for-himself slasher movies since the characters have something important that they can lose (other than quarts of blood). Wan proves that you don’t have to be grotesque or shock to scare, so long as you have real people, not stock types, living in that haunted house. img-1049 Marisa LaScala

 

Director: David Gordon Green

Film: Prince Avalanche

Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Joyce Payne

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-princeavalanche-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 33

Display Width: 200

Prince Avalanche
Magnolia Pictures

With Prince Avalanche, you get the best of director David Gordon Green‘s two worlds: the lyrical prettiness and gorgeous compositions of his early indie movies (like All the Real Girls), plus the playfulness and humor of his bigger studio comedies (like The Pineapple Express). The film follows two lonely workers painting lines on a remote, fire-damaged road in the forests of Texas, and Green’s at his best when he’s working in this intimate scale. He’s a keen observer of human behavior, and he knows exactly what to slightly exaggerate for maximum comedic effect. Then again, there are parts of the story that are profoundly touching, especially when the main characters come across a woman who lost everything in one of the big fires. In this way, Prince Avalanche shows that you can do so much — evoke a whole range of emotions — with so very little — just two really strong performers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd), the bounty of nature, and a keen sense of the human condition. img-1049 Marisa LaScala

 

Director: Terrence Malick

Film: To the Wonder

Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-tothewonderposter-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 32

Display Width: 200

To The Wonder
Magnolia Pictures

Terrence Malick‘s To the Wonder is a deeply romantic film about the limits of romantic love. The central relationship of the film is that between Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck). Marina’s relocation from Paris to rural Oklahoma is expressed as a leap of faith, the results of which are less than ideal. But that simple plot opens the story up to the role of faith in lasting love. The film is another example of Malick’s poetic approach to narrative storytelling, with painterly cinematography, voice-over dialogue and discontinuous editing. Yet the clarity of the movie’s spiritual core is unsurpassed within his filmography.

Triggered by the question that begins the film’s second act (“What is this love that loves us?”), To the Wonder explores the difference between human love and divine love. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest, articulates the difference, even as he experiences his own bouts of melancholy and loneliness. Of the many unforgettable sequences in the film, none is more effective than Quintana’s carrying out the duty to love “the least of these” in his community. On the soundtrack, Bardem recites the Lorica of St. Patrick over Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. Malick has often been labeled inscrutable, but To the Wonder is a film that bowls us over by speaking directly to the soul. img-1049 Thomas Britt

 

Director: Errol Morris

Film: The Unknown Known

Cast: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/t/the_unknown_known_poster.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 31

Display Width: 200

The Unknown Known
The Weinstein Company

In The Unknown Known, Donald Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Errol Morris’ documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come. img-1049 Chris Barsanti

30 – 26

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Film: The Past

Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/t/thepastposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 30

Display Width: 200The Past
Memento Films

Acting like an unofficial sequel to A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past picks up where his Oscar winner ended. This time around we follow Marie (Bérénice Béjo) and Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), a couple who are about to finalize their divorce but get tangled in a dramatic postmortem of their relationship which includes secrets being kept by all the parties involved. A tense work from one of cinema’s greatest humanists, Farhadi’s film is an exploration of forgiveness and atonement through both pragmatism and implied spiritualism. Infused with brilliantly subversive touched of melodrama, it might be the finest moment in Farhadi’s already illustrious career. img-1050 Jose Solis

 

Director: Jeff Nichols

Film: Mud

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Bonnie Sturdivant

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/mud_poster.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 29

Display Width: 200

Mud
Roadside Attractions

Six years and three films into a remarkable career, writer-director Jeff Nichols has been quietly revealing himself as one of the most consistent and interesting independent American filmmakers currently working. Mud, perhaps his best work to date, is a return to the half-mythic Arkansas of his debut Shotgun Stories: a land both beautiful and foreboding, populated by characters whose hidden secrets, regrets, and desires weigh heavily on them. This time around, Nichols tells a moving coming-of-age story about two young boys tooling around a backwater stretch of the Mississippi in a leaky skiff and the small wonders that they find, including a boat in a tree and a lovelorn outlaw with a loaded pistol and a mischievous grin. Such familiar elements could tip very easily into schmaltzy Tom Sawyer cliche. The fact that Mud doesn’t is both a credit to Nichols’ confident direction and a remarkably mature lead performance by 15-year-old Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life). img-1050 Pat Kewley

 

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Film: The Great Gatsby

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Amitabh Bachchan, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/g/greatgatsbyposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 28

Display Width: 200

The Great Gatsby
Warner Bros.

Baz Luhrmann has built a notable career on films that construct a showy, vivid tableau vivant of opulent dissolution and indulgent superficiality, the decadent excess of which he climactically brings crashing down like a shattering palace of glass with a theatrical dose of final-act melodramatic tragedy. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seems purpose-built for Bazification, and both the sumptuous expressions of Jay Gatsby’s pride and his discomfiting fall are imparted with bold strokes of broad drama and luxurious sheen. DiCaprio takes on a second bloom of youth as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan is a desirable Daisy who doesn’t shy away from her character’s fundamental ephemerality. The absurd hyper-reality of Luhrmann’s sumptuous staging of the great novel simultaneously magnifies and cheapens the narrative’s emotional impact in a way that is consistently irresistible and memorable. img-1050 Ross Langager

 

Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel

Film: Leviathan

Cast: Brian Jannelle, Adrian Guillette, Arthur Smith, Asterias Vulgaris

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-leviathan-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 27

Display Width: 200

Leviathan
Cinema Guild

You see water from long distances, stretching across the screen into a disappearing horizon. You see water up close, splashing onto the camera lens, distorting your sight. Or, maybe not distorting so much as refining and reframing. For this is a film that offers a range of perspectives even within a single shot, presenting the sea as simultaneously gorgeous and daunting, thrilling and mundane. That Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s film does all this while granting precious little conventional access to the men who fish the sea and work with the wind is remarkable in its own way. You see men in fishing gear, certainly, in boots and coats and rubber pants, you see their tattoos, their muscled arms handling nets, dumping fish from nets into pens and buckets, slicing fish bodies so their bright red blood combines with the sea water, so that all of it turns shades of red. img-1050 Cynthia Fuchs

 

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Film: Pacific Rim

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/p/pacificrimpm3.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 26

Display Width: 200

Pacific Rim
Warner Bros.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a refreshing and renewing cinematic experience, an imaginative, muscular contemporary take on the monster-centric tokusatsu films produced in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s. Del Toro’s mighty cinematic canvas pits rampaging trans-dimensional monsters against the towering fighting robots constructed to protect civilization from them. The central set-piece battles are pupils-dilated, jaw-to-the-floor spectacle, staged in an awestruck style both magically epic and scrupulously real. Wonder and terror are inextricably mingled. But Del Toro never lets himself forget that below the grand godlike activity is a small, breakable human, cowering in fear, gazing in awe, and conceiving of methods to master even the seemingly unmasterable. Pacific Rim is never not Hollywood product, but if all such product was possessed of such astounding scope and resonant power, the epithet may not be so derogatory. img-1050 Ross Langager

25 – 21

Director: Sofia Coppola

Film: The Bling Ring

Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/d/dvd-blingring-cvr-200.jpg

poster.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 25

Display Width: 200The Bling Ring
Lionsgate

Sofia Coppola has a way with lost young adults. The characters in The Bling Ring, based on real-life teenage burglars who targeted celebrities (as depicted in a Vanity Fair article), are certainly lost, being either home schooled or in the “dropout school” for past bad behavior. But instead of wallowing in their unsatisfactory home lives, Coppola shows how they’re swept up in everything they don’t have: designer clothes, huge mansions, access to the VIP celebrity lifestyle, and attention from the press. Coppola is able to dramatize this excess—shots of sprawling houses and overstuffed closets (including Paris Hilton’s actual residence)—and use it as both a critique of celebrity-obsessed consumerism and as a way of understanding why a gang of high schoolers would want to break in at all costs to steal of piece of it. She also makes the best use of the a slo-mo walking shot since Reservoir Dogs, only instead of identical black suits her characters wear pilfered couture. img-1051 Marisa LaScala

 

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Film: The Place Beyond the Pines

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-placebeyondpines-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 24

Display Width: 200

The Place Beyond the Pines
Focus Features

For the viewer who approaches The Place Beyond the Pines aware that the film is a triptych, the opening action of three motorcycles chasing one another in a spherical metal cage might seem to portend a narrative structure in which story threads will interweave and collide. However, Derek Cianfrance has made a straightforward film that supports three consecutive plots with a single connective spine, which is the acceptance of responsibility. In the first, Luke (Ryan Gosling) tries to honor his duty as a father by robbing banks to support his son. In the second, police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) struggles with the perks and regrets of a supposed heroic act but is unable to quell his self-righteousness. The third plot involves the next generation of young men coming to terms with the influences of their fathers, as well as their own roles in a cycle of transgression and retribution. The film joins 2011’s Warrior as a modern American melodrama that expresses what is so often felt (but at times difficult to say) about the bonds of fathers and sons. img-1051 Thomas Britt

 

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Film: Computer Chess

Cast: Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Patrick Riester, James Curry, Jim Lewis

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-computerchess-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 23

Display Width: 200

Computer Chess
Kino Lorber

Computer Chess takes place over a single weekend in 1980, in a motel at a competition between programmers of computer chess software, and is shot entirely with vintage analog video cameras. In the hands of a less-graceful director, it could easily have turned into a gimmicky, mean-spirited comedy. But in the hands of mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski, it ends up being one of the most absorbing, charming, and uncategorizable indie films of the year. A lot of the viewing pleasure simply comes from Bujalski’s loving and painstaking recreation of the period and its characters: the bad haircuts, the refrigerator-sized computers, and the painfully-awkward interactions between the introverted programmers. But Bujalski is clearly after something more than just nostalgia, and his modest portrait of humans who act like computers trying to teach computers to think like humans is filled with poignant moments of genuine beauty, surrealism, and humanity. img-1051 Pat Kewley

 

Director: Woody Allen

Film: Blue Jasmine

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Canavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis CK, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-bluejasmine-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 22

Display Width: 200

Blue Jasmine
Sony Pictures Classics

Cate Blanchett is so magnificent in Blue Jasmine, that it’s easy to obviate the fact that she is in fact part of an equally great film. A pastiche of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and the Bernie Madoff scandal the film plays like a morality tale the likes of which director/writer Woody Allen excelled at during the late 1980’s (think Crimes and Misdemeanors). Blanchett of course owns the film as the shattered Jasmine, who is trying to find her place in the world after losing her husband and her fortune. With a cast so perfect that you seem to forget they’re acting, and Allen’s tightest direction since Match Point, Blue Jasmine not only serves as a terrifying reminder of the world’s indifference towards our misfortune, it also shines a light on the road to insanity in such a way that we’ll be afraid of talking to ourselves for days after watching it. img-1051 Jose Solis

 

Director: Park Chan-wook

Film: Stoker

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/s/stoker3.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 21

Display Width: 200

Stoker
Fox Searchlight Pictures

You could describe Stoker as a lot of things; a very dark coming-of-age story, a claustrophobically tense thriller, an even more brutal take on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, the world’s most oblique homage to Dracula, even Park Chan-wook’s English language debut. All true, but none of which really sum up the bracing, off-kilter pleasures of this movie. As the titular family, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman turn in excellently unnerving work; three people related less by blood or appearance (although those as well) as by their fracturing psyches. If I told you the very end of the movie out of context, it might sound outlandish; after the events of Stoker, though, it makes perfect, queasy sense. img-1051 Ian Mathers

20 – 16

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Film: Frozen

Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/f/frozenposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 20

Display Width: 200Frozen
Walt Disney Pictures

With its emphasis on personal responsibility and conviction and a collection of songs that will have you singing long after the final credits have rolled, Frozen is a decidedly defiant Disney experience. It breaks down established genre barriers while delivering the kind of uplifting message that will have mothers cheering for their often overlooked daughters. This is not to say that the movie is actively anti-male, it’s just that we become invested in the lives of these little ladies and don’t mind seeing them taking center stage while doing so. Bell and Menzel are so good in their roles, so capable of carrying to character and a tune, that you find yourself smiling every time the incidental music to another showstopper begins. img-1052 Bill Gibron

 

Director: Ruben Östlund

Film: Play

Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakité, Sebastian Hegmar, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Nana Manu, John Ortiz, Kevin Vaz

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-play-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 19

Display Width: 200

Play
Eye Film Instituut

“I bet it’s a dildo or something pervy like that.” Kevin (Kevin Vaz) is on a tram, leaning across the aisle to bother John (John Ortiz), who holds a small black case in his lap. Even as he resists, you know John will give in: behind him sits Kevin’s tall and intimidating friend, Abdi (Abdiaziz Hilowle), and flanking Kevin and John are three other boys, friends of Kevin’s. The shot remains still for long minutes, save for the increasingly distressing jostling of the tram itself, and the bars that form the vehicle’s interior architecture — yellow and grim metal, providing grips for riders and containing them within visually resonant boxes. John has no escape. And soon enough, he reveals what’s in his case, a clarinet. One bully doesn’t know what it is, but the others around him are gleeful, all pushed in toward John, his precious little space collapsing. Now perched on the bar in front of John’s seat, Yannick (Yannick Diakité) grabs at the clarinet. “Play for us,” he says.

John has no choice. Or, if he does, if he might appeal to one of the adults on the tram, or if he might refuse or get off the tram, he can’t see it. And at this point in Play, you have trouble seeing it, too. Ruben Östlund’s remarkable film has by now, about halfway through, immersed you in the vulnerability felt by John and his two friends, Sebastian (Sebastian Blyckert) and Alex (Sebastian Hegmar), as they’ve been cajoled into accompanying Kevin and his friends on a journey far from the mall where they first met. At each step of this journey, you wish the victims—two white kids and one Asian—might extricate themselves from their predicament. But they haven’t, and you know why: the boys accosting them are black. img-1052 Cynthia Fuchs

 

Director: Paul Greengrass

Film: Captain Phillips

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/c/captainphillipsposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 18

Display Width: 200

Captain Phillips
Columbia Pictures

After an ill-considered detour into Baghdad intrigue with Green Zone, Paul Greengrass returns to form with his sharpest, most affecting work since 2006’s United 93. Greengrass’s jittery, ticking-clock style marries perfectly with the real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates; the first of an American vessel since the early 19th century. There’s a lot else to treasure here, particularly the interplay of Tom Hanks as the titular captain (playing convincingly against type as a buttoned-down taskmaster) and the increasingly frantic pirates, nonprofessionals all. One of the few films about Western might meeting Third World desperation that doesn’t try to get you cheering for one side or the other. img-1052 Chris Barsanti

 

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Film: Blackfish

Cast: John Hargrove, Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre, John Jett, Mark Simmons, Dean Gomersall, Kim Ashdown, Carol Ray, Steve Huxter, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Lori Marino, Dave Duffus

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-blackfish-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 17

Display Width: 200

Blackfish
Magnolia Pictures

Some documentaries are intended to be didactic, so we can assess them for effectiveness as much as anything else. That there’s real world proof of Blackfish’s effectiveness will come as no surprise to its viewers; whether or not you fully buy its conclusions, as a piece of rhetoric Blackfish is mercilessly convincing. The filmmakers have both heartbreaking loss (to both humans and whales) as well as a pretty simple solution on their sides: leave these wild animals, who exist socially at least as much as we do, out in the damn wild instead of trapping them in enclosures where their needs — physically, emotionally, psychologically — just cannot be met, no matter how much their human keepers love them. img-1052 Ian Mathers

 

Director: Sarah Polley

Film: Stories We Tell

Cast: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley. Susy Buchan, Mark Polley, John Buchan, Joanna Polley, Harry Gulkin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-storieswetell-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 16

Display Width: 200

Stories We Tell
Roadside Attractions

Sarah Polley’s lovely Stories We Tell takes on the difficult task of chronicling the truth. In this case, Polley wanted to solve a mystery within her family left behind by her mother, who passed away when she was a child. In order to solve the puzzle she recruited her family and some of her mother’s closest friends who help her realize that there is no such thing as one absolute truth. Shot and edited like a psychological thriller, Stories We Tell offered more twists and turns than any fiction film in 2013. As Polley discovers facts that would seem to be important only to her, we come to terms with the fact that we might be sitting on similar stories all around us. Her dissection of the truth made for the one film this year that broke our hearts and stimulated our intellects effortlessly and for that alone, it remains completely unforgettable. img-1052 Jose Solis

15 – 11

Director: Ryan Coogler

Film: Fruitvale Station

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Ahna O’Reilly

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-fruitvalestation-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 15

Display Width: 200Fruitvale Station
The Weinstein Company

Like most of us, Oscar Grant celebrated December 31, 2008 with close friends and family. Unlike most of us, Oscar Grant didn’t live to see what 2009 would bring. Fruitvale Station is a powerful recreation of Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) last day before he was innocently gunned down by a police officer on New Year’s Eve. The film is tough to watch, but viewers are rewarded with three terrific performances by Jordan as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda. In addition, we are given a beautifully rendered glimpse into the life of a deeply flawed but ultimately human man whose life ended much sooner than it should have. img-1053 Jon Lisi

 

Director: Alexander Payne

Film: Nebraska

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Angela McEwan

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-nebraska-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 14

Display Width: 200

Nebraska
Paramount

Much of Nebraska will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen a couple of Alexander Payne movies: it’s set in the Midwest, it centers on a shambling road trip, and it courts the annoyance of many film critics by daring to deal in caricature for some of its laughs (which, as we all know, is completely unheard of in comedy). But this black and white movie about a mentally ailing father (Bruce Dern) whose son (Will Forte) indulges his fantasy that he may have already won a million dollars also feels like a pared-down mastering of what he’s done well before. Payne mixes hard truths with tiny victories, and the result is lovely, sad, and very funny. img-1053 Jesse Hassenger

 

Director: David O. Russell

Film: American Hustle

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/a/americanhustleposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 13

Display Width: 200

American Hustle
Sony

Like a boulder rolling downhill, slowly picking up speed and eventually smashing everything in its path, David O. Russell‘s resplendent American Hustle is unavoidable. It’s also an amazing motion picture. It’s big and ambitious, wild and unruly, living as much by its wit and clockwork plotting as it does its decade defining (lack of) fashion. Damn, did we really look this bad 35 years ago? Leisure suits and bell bottoms were one thing, but this greasy gigolo by way of three martini businessman whore couture is like a trip into a parallel universe. Russell makes the most of our unfamiliarity, allowing his details to wash over us like the lightshow at a dive bar discotheque. As the soundtrack mashes up genres and release dates, we get a wholly immersive experience, albeit one increasingly aided by the acting onscreen. img-1053 Bill Gibron

 

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2)

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche, Jérémie Laheurte, Catherine Salée

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-bluewarmestcolor-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 12

Display Width: 200

Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2)
Sundance Selects

Much has already been written about Blue Is the Warmest Color and its undeserved controversy. If the film’s initial reception has taught us anything, it’s that some people refuse to face the fact that other people have sex. This is a shame, because director Abdellatif Kechiche has created a beautiful coming-of-age film that deals with love, sex, and identity in startlingly original ways. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are fiercely committed to their roles as two young women who develop a deep, passionate attraction to one another. The film takes its time to introduce the world in which Adele (Exarchopoulos) inhabits before she meets Emma (Seydoux), and this makes Emma’s impact on Adele’s ordinary life all the more powerful. Emma saves Adele, but as with most intense romances, she also causes her downfall. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a profound film for anyone who has ever been in love. img-1053 Jon Lisi

 

Director: Edgar Wright

Film: The World’s End

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-worldsend-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 11

Display Width: 200

The World’s End
Focus Features

The third feature film collaboration between director Edgar Wright and comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost synthesizes and extends the themes of the English trio’s much-loved previous efforts. The film tells the tale of an unrehabilitated 30-something party animal (Pegg) who ropes his former high school friends into a pub crawl in their hometown, where something much more uncanny and sinister than mere recreational alcoholism is going on. The World’s End makes up for its underlying rote nonconformist tendencies with bursts of geeky wit and genre-lampooning satirical energy. Ultimately, Wright, Pegg, and Frost present a heartening defense of warts-and-all humanity and our sacred sovereign right to do what we want, even if that means repeated failure. The World’s End is this case’s Exhibit A. img-1053 Ross Langager

10 – 6

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Film: Short Term 12

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-shortterm12-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 10

Display Width: 200Short Term 12
Cinedigm

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton was inspired to create Short Term 12 after working at a group home for teenagers. When interviewed for the Washington Post about the film, Cretton said, “The biggest thing I learned while I was working there is that there isn’t a huge difference, at least in my experience, between… the people in charge and the people that are supposed to be being cared for.” Indeed, the through-line of the film might be described as “everybody hurts,” and the well-meaning protagonist of the film, Brie Larson’s “Grace”, is nearly undone by the dramatic conditions of her own life and the crises in the lives of those around her. The many conflicts of Short Term 12 occur among counselors, patients, and good and bad parents. A remarkable cast holds nothing back in conveying the characters’ pain. Yet ultimately the film is a model for compassion, as it inspires and uplifts with hope, healing, and forgiveness. img-1054 Thomas Britt

 

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Film: The Act of Killing

Cast: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Syamsul Arifin, Haji Anif

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-actofkilling-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 9

Display Width: 200

The Act of Killing
Drafthouse Films

When bad things happen in faraway lands, the normal response for the nonfiction filmmaker is to show up, tell the story, and marvel sadly at the tragedy. For Joshua Oppenheimer’s daring investigation of the death squads who massacred hundreds of thousands in Indonesia after the 1965 coup, he took a different approach: Have the accused (a stunning number of whom still walk around free) reenact their crimes in whatever cinematic genre they liked. The result is initially tasteless, seemingly allowing these butchers to glory in their past crimes, but ultimately revelatory in what it shows about evil and whether justice is ever truly possible. img-1054 Chris Barsanti

 

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Film: Inside Llewyn Davis

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Max Casella, Adam Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-insidellewyndavis-poster-200.jpg

poster.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 8

Display Width: 200

Inside Llewyn Davis
CBS Films
Some movies are easy to like. Other films are virtually unwatchable despite being impeccably designed. Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest artistic endeavor from Joel and Ethan Coen, falls somewhere in between these two categories — yet it’s also their best movie since No Country For Old Men. The most likable element by far is the film’s soundtrack, a sonically masterful collection of folk songs from Oscar-winning music producer T Bone Burnett. The most unlikable is none other than the film’s “protagonist,” a selfish, depressed lost soul portrayed in a star-making turn by Oscar Isaac. Somehow the two combine to form a film that sticks with you, and somewhere in that gray middle ground the Coens have found greatness. Again. img-1054 Ben Travers

 

Director: Spike Jonze

Film: Her

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Scarlett Johansson

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-her-poster-200.jpg

poster.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 7

Display Width: 200

Her
Warner Bros.

The beauty lies in the basics of Spike Jonze’s slightly futuristic, slightly sci-fi, wholly brilliant romantic study of our modern, tech-fueled society. Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, tells a story of artificial intelligence interacting with human intelligence, artificial emotions, human dependency, and the line drawn between reality and perception. The results bring up more issues than even your most philosophical friend could dream up, and Jonze presents each one within the compelling context of his characters. Aided by a clean, colorful production design by long-time Jonze collaborator K.K. Barrett and another new face from Joaquin Phoenix, Her is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating — a balance often impossible to strike and one worthy of our highest admirations. img-1054 Ben Travers

 

Director: Noah Baumbach

Film: Frances Ha

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Micahel Zegan, Grace Gummer, Josh Hamilton

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-francesha-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 6

Display Width: 200

Frances Ha
IFC Films

Along with Nebraska and Computer Chess, Frances Ha is part of a miniature black-and-white renaissance in American movies, and Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s comedy may be the most purely luminous of the bunch, both visually and in its all-around high spirits. That’s not to say that Frances Ha, a decades-later companion piece of sorts to Baumbach’s wonderful Kicking and Screaming, is pure unfettered optimism. Rather, it chronicles the bumpy romance of living as a twentysomething in New York with a perfect mix of humor (the dialogue is both snappy and spot-on) and quarterlife-crisis pathos. img-1054 Jesse Hassenger

5 – 1

Director: Shane Carruth

Film: Upstream Color

Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-upstreamcolor-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 5

Display Width: 200Upstream Color
erbp

Whether you view it as an examination of suburban unease, a descent into madness or an analysis of chronic anxiety disorders, there’s no denying that Upstream Color is a masterpiece. Using pigs, hypnosis and Walden to invert the tropes of films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer, Carruth creates a world just to the left of our reality, where the sense of paranoia and fear is palpable, personified in the PTSD-afflicted Amy Seimetz (who had quite the year, career-wise) as Kris. With his second feature, Shane Carruth, the auteur who gifted us with Primer in 2004, gives us all hope for not just the future of filmmaking, but for the unity and understanding of an undivided human race. The most human and humane work of cinematic art since Children of Men. img-1055 Kevin Brettauer

 

Director: Martin Scorsese

Film: The Wolf of Wall Street

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-wolfofwallstreet-poster1-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 4

Display Width: 200

The Wolf of Wall Street
Paramount

The Wolf of Wall Street is a choice change of pace for Martin Scorsese, a narrative where gore is replaced with gratuity and the nastiest tricks of the criminal trade swapped with bare breasts and candles up the ass. The hits these men procure are made up of various recreational pharmaceuticals and the only regrets come at the point of a subpoena, not a competing family’s gun. It’s one of his funniest, most frenzied efforts and at nearly three hours, it speeds by like a floor trader on amphetamines. The fact that Paramount missed the boat here means that, yet again, DiCaprio and company will more than likely be left out of the mandatory January through March gold statue brouhaha. No matter, it’s the movie that counts in the end and in the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a wonder to behold. img-1055 Bill Gibron

 

Director: Richard Linklater

Film: Before Midnight

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-beforemidnight-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 3

Display Width: 200

Before Midnight
Sony Pictures Classics

Across nearly two decades, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight have observed a relationship in stages. Less scientific than Michael Apted’s Up series, but perhaps as insightful in their own ways, these films have always existed within a sort of fairy tale context of romantic possibility. What distinguishes this particular ongoing tale, courtesy of writer/director Richard Linklater and actor/writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is its naturalistic use of time and space to reflect the changing circumstances of lives in progress. Before Sunrise was the free-wheeling, city-roaming night of youthful optimism that introduced audiences to Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy).

The conditions of Before Sunset were more confined, involving less time together, separate professional and familial obligations, and a stolen dalliance in an apartment. The natural result of that trajectory is Before Midnight, a movie in which the shared circumstances of getting married, having children, and aging create an urgency that tests the foundations of Jesse and Céline’s relationship. The initial acts of the film are revelatory for their reorientation of audience expectations. We observe parent/child interactions and discussions of careers as midlife beckons. And while the Grecian setting and relaxed conversations are pleasant, Before Midnight becomes what it needs to be: the final test of the fairy tale romance before the clock runs out. More confined than ever, this time to a single hotel suite, Jesse and Céline experience an eruption of suspicion, resentment, and confession that feels more consequential than most of the year’s action set pieces. An audience invested in the series of films is likely shocked that familiarity has bred such contempt, but by putting the hard work of marriage on screen, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have also created an unforgettable scene of dramatic recognition. img-1055 Thomas Britt

 

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Film: Gravity

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/film-gravity-poster-200.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 2

Display Width: 200

Gravity
Warner Bros.

It’s been too long since a bona-fide master filmmaker like Alfonso Cuaron has been able to get Hollywood to cough up the dough for a big-budget, big-idea drama that can play all across the world to all kinds of people without insulting anybody’s intelligence or leaving others scratching their heads. After the already famous 17-minute single-take opening where astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (both masterful) are marooned after their space shuttle is crippled, Cuaron’s white-knuckler is one survival test after another. There’s big-tent showmanship here in spades, as well as well-honed storytelling and brilliant autuerist touches (those claustrophobic point-of-view shots from inside the astronauts’ helmets). It’s hard to ask for much more. img-1055 Chris Barsanti

 

Director: Steve McQueen

Film: 12 Years a Slave

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/f/film12yearsaslaveposter.jpg

Display as: List

List number: 1

Display Width: 200

12 Years a Slave
Fox Searchlight

Thank goodness there’s British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen. After the stellar Hunger (about the IRA and Bobby Sands) and Shame (a film fixated on another kind of ‘bondage’), the UK auteur has delivered the masterpiece known as 12 Years a Slave. Based on the memoir by real life freeman turned indentured servant Solomon Northup and providing an unflinching portrayal of our country’s cruel history, this is, without a doubt, the best film about race and slavery ever conceived or made. It’s light years ahead of such spoon-fed pabulum as The Help, The Butler, and 42. About the closest anyone has come to this level of confrontation is Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List, or even better, Spike Lee with his incendiary Bamboozled. img-1055 Bill Gibron

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
APPLY APPLY