Sunday, February 23, 2014


With one week to go before the Academy Awards telecast, I am just getting this one in under the wire!

Yes, dear readers, we have now reached the mountaintop, or at least my personal mountain top as I am finally set to reveal my Top Ten favorite films of 2013. So, without any further hesitation...

10.5 "THE BLUE UMBRELLA" Directed by Saschka Unseld
Every so often, my personal lists do happen to contain what could be considered to be a "cheat," but as I always say, it's my list and I can do with it whatever I please. And in the case of this absolute stunner, I felt compelled to add it to the top ten list...sort of. As with all features from Pixar, there is an animated short feature that precedes the main feature and when I saw the wholly underwhelming, uninspired and money grabbing "Monsters University," one thing that also kept that film at an extreme arms length was the fact that "The Blue Umbrella" outshone it from top to bottom and in a fraction of the time. This beautifully simplistic yet visual euphoria is easily the finest Pixar short feature to date and it is also the best film Pixar has released since "Up" (2009). The gentle story of a blue umbrella pursuing his true love, which exists in the form of a red umbrella, during an urban rainstorm is the most visually forward looking feature Pixar has accomplished in far too long and fully represents why we fell in love with Pixar in the first place. This is not a film designed to sell lunchboxes and toys and nor should it be. Featuring a lovely score by Jon Brion and nearly Chaplin-esque in its presentation, Writer/Director Saschka Unseld has delivered a joyously conceived feature that shows what can happen when inspiration and imagination fuel creativity and not the bottom line at the box office. This film could actually represent a new and rapturous period in Pixar's future...should they want it.
(Originally reviewed July 2013)

10. "SOUND CITY" Directed by Dave Grohl
This was the very first film of 2013 to which I awarded four stars and throughout the year, I just knew that it would remain in the final Top Ten. Musician Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, in his directorial feature debut, has helmed a supremely confident and highly emotional documentary that begins to be about a titular and beloved recording studio but transcends its own subject matter to speak directly towards the importance of maintaining the human touch in our increasingly impersonal technological age. Gorgeously filmed but with a passionate purpose and intent, "Sound City" is an elegiac yet hopeful experience that skillfully merges realized musical fantasies with urgent torch carrying and the communal spirit that is a necessity for our souls as well as our art.  
(Originally reviewed March 2013)

9. "FRUITVALE STATION" Directed by Ryan Coogler
It hardly gets more up to the minute than this film when thinking abut the status of the African American male in 21st century society as well as the concept of being truly free actually means. Featuring a stirringly naturalistic leading performance by Michael B. Jordan, "Fruitvale Station" chronicles the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Julius Grant III before he was unjustly gunned down by police at the titular Boston train station. Utilizing a quiet, moody, matter-of-fact directorial hand, Director Ryan Coogler explores our current racial/social/economic landscape through the lens of the mundane and everyday only to show how instantaneously life upends itself into unspeakable and senseless tragedy. "Fruitvale Station" is a profoundly empathetic and humane character portrait of a young, Black man during an era in which young Black men are once again and overtly being seen as being less than human. A subtlety devastating piece of work.
(Originally reviewed July 2013)

8. "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" Directed by Francis Lawrence
The second installment in "The Hunger Games" film series not only improves upon the original and terrific first film, it broadens its canvas and deepens its own landscape, themes and concepts making for a dark and disturbing experience that transcends far beyond existing as a popcorn event movie. "The  Hunger Games: Catching Fire" explores the issues of totalitarianism, oligarchy, the politics of war and most importantly fear, plus further issues of rebellion, revolution, sacrifice, survival, our culture's relationship with violence, the soul numbing nature of "reality" television and our ever increasing and equally soul crushing obsession with fame at the expense of our collective humanity. As reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence again provides a sensational leading performance in a film that confidently straddles the precarious line of providing the requisite action thrills and set pieces while also maintaining the core morality of the story.  This is superbly compelling and exciting filmmaking on display in a film and genre that did not have to aim its sights so highly whatsoever.
(Originally reviewed December 2013)

7. "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS" Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers have triumphed once again with this prickly and often bleak character portrait of a struggling folk singer in the early 1960's New York folk scene. This is a wintry film, frigidly atmospheric and contains a visual plate that has seemingly been informed by the album covers of the era the Coen Brothers are depicting. But furthermore, what I think they achieved so masterfully is through the construction of their story and the actions and collective of characters and emotions we view and feel, what we are witnessing is essentially the Coen Brothers' version of a folk song--a song that is grim, haunting, and like an actual record, the film forms a continuous cycle of misery from which our struggling folk singer may never escape. As always, the Coen brothers have created their own film universe with "Inside Llewyn Davis," and while there is no lack of empathy, there is not even one saccharine or cloying moment to be found. And thankfully so.
(Originally reviewed January 2014)

6. "BLUE JASMINE" Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen is again working at the top of his game with "Blue Jasmine" easily his most volatile film since "Husbands And Wives" (1992). In an almost frightening, high wire of performance by Cate Blanchett, we are given a front row seat to the unraveling of a woman's mind as the life she thought she knew has crumbled completely around her feet. From grim statements and explorations about economic disparity, shattered dreams, a society's over-reliance upon alcohol, and debilitating mental illness, this is a non-judgmental and brutally uncompromising film that is often riveting, rattling and definitely leaves harsh bruises.
(Originally reviewed September 2013)
5. "GRAVITY" Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
What else can I say about this movie that has not already been said? With "Gravity," Director Alfonso Cuaron has created a titanic piece of filmmaking and easily his greatest filmmaking achievement to date with a white knuckle experience that leaves us gasping for air, much like Sandra Bullock (in a wallop of a performance) as she spirals end over end through the cold darkness of space straining for survival. Through flawless special effects and a level of tension that was often approached the unbearable, "Gravity" shows us all exactly and brilliantly what a film experience should be during a time when every major motion picture claims to be an experience. This is the real deal and then some...and certainly crashed any possible dreams I had ever housed for voyaging into space. I'll happily keep my feet upon the ground.
(Originally reviewed October 2013)

4. "BEFORE MIDNIGHT" Directed by Richard Linklater
For the third installment in the expanding love story of Jesse and Celine (beautifully portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), Director Richard Linklater gave us not only the best film of this series but also one of his finest works to date. "Before Midnight" is that extremely rare film that explores the ebb and flow of love during middle age, when that reckless abandon of your 20's turns to emotional caution in your 40s, all the while figuring out how to stay as blissfully in love as you have ever been. As with the two previous entries, this is also a film that explores a world of themes through the art of conversation and the conversations in this installment are the most riveting, captivating, provocative and unnerving to date. I hope to catch up with these two again nine years from now. 
(Originally reviewed June 2013)

3. "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET" Directed by Martin Scorsese
At the age of 71, master filmmaker Martin Scorsese has given us one of his most incendiary films with "The Wolf Of Wall Street," a three hour Bacchanalian extravaganza starring the great Leonardo DiCaprio in what may be his most feverishly unhinged and intense performance of his entire illustrious career. This is two-fisted, take no prisoners filmmaking and while there has been much controversy over its depictions of mega excess and unlimited debauchery, there is not one moment presented without purpose as Scorsese is pointing his severely critical eye at all of us in society who have all allowed and have remained complicit with an economic system that has long lost its soul and an environment in which the pursuit of endless fame and riches has sadly eroded our collective humanity. This film is not a morality play against the life of an arrogant stock broker who has successfully gamed the system. This is a stinging cultural critique in which we are all to blame. "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is unapologetically fearless, ferocious filmmaking.  
(Originally reviewed December 2014)

2. "HER" Directed by Spike Jonze
Director Spike Jonze has delivered his finest film to date with a disturbing and painful look at interpersonal relationships and how they have transformed into the very relationships we have with technology in "Her," a film set in an unnamed future but speaks precisely to this point in time in the 21st century. Joaquin Phoenix gives a compassionately recognizable performance as a man who falls in love with the voice of his new computer operating system (tremendously performed by Scarlett Johansson) and their relationship provides the fuel for a film that explores our increased fear of taking emotional risks with other human beings, therefore leading to a growing sense of societal isolation as we retreat into our machinery. Grueling, emotionally exhausting and profoundly sad, "Her" is as impassioned a plea for our humanity as I have ever seen. This film would have easily been my number 1 favorite film of 2013 if not for the following...
(Originally reviewed January 2014)

1. "12 YEARS A SLAVE" Directed by Steve McQueen
I said it back in November and I am saying it again emphatically, Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" is the movie of the year, hands down. Based upon the true story of Solomon Northrup (played with haunting power by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, elegant, and born free African-American family man and accomplished musician who is tricked, captured and placed into slavery for the duration of the film's title, "12 Years A Slave" is a poetic and agonizingly harrowing experience that, alongside "Fruitvale Station" and Director Lee Daniels' "The Butler," creates a portrait of he Black man in America during a specific historical time period and compares and contrasts it with today.

"12 Years A Slave," besides focusing so powerfully upon the African-American holocaust, focuses even moreso upon the true nature of what freedom means and how quickly that very freedom can be extinguished, leaving us trapped in worlds we never created for ourselves. Although this film is set in 1841, it speaks precisely to the 21st century as constitutional and human rights are being vigorously stripped away by the powerful few, and I seriously hope that this film forces each and every single one of us to perform some serious self-examination of ourselves, our country and our collective humanity to truly discover exactly what kind of a world do we wish to live in.

"12 Years A Slave" is indeed brutally difficult viewing as well as it should be as no film about slavery and dehumanization should be a comfortable experience. Again, this film creates a portrait of a time that I wish to believe that most of us would think to be unimaginable, but this happened and we cannot be afraid to confront our past in order to not repeat it. This is essential viewing, created with completely artistic filmmaking power and no other film of 2013 spoke directly to our souls than this one as we are forced to face down our individual prejudices, and discover that all human beings are deserving of tolerance, empathy and compassion.
(Originally reviewed November 2013)

And there you have it!!!! One week from tonight, we will see which films Oscar grants the cinematic crown, which means I have to crank out my Oscar predictions post haste!!! Stay tuned!

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