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Top Films of 2013

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Some of our picks for the best films of last year!

Ah, the awards season is upon us, especially with regards to the film industry. It is that special time of the year when people we don't know, who belong to organizations we have no affiliation to, will vote on what they believe were the best films of the year...whether they've seen them all or not. 

After all, there is no requirement that anyone in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually view a specific number of the large pool of films that are eligible for an Academy Award. Thus, the entire charade involves behind the scenes campaigning by studios, financiers, and others in the industry to essentially lobby Academy members, press and critics on behalf of their own films. And the endgame is the dog and pony show known as the Academy Awards, where more time will be spent by the entertainment media covering the wardrobes that the stars show up wearing on the red carpet, than on the films themselves.

So, with that preface, let me offer up my list of the top films of 2013, as someone with no particular credits other than being a self-proclaimed film junkie.

Honorable Mention goes to New World, a crime/gangster film from Korea with some very vivid characters; to Magic Magic, a strange little indie film that plays out like an extended anxiety attack, culminating in an unbelievably creepy ending; and Place Beyond The Pines, a sprawling three-story arc that had good performances from Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling, but lost its momentum and strained believability in its overly-long third act; and lastly, A Single Shot, a backwoods thriller carried by Sam Rockwell, a slow-paced, atmospheric film that keeps the viewer uneasy the whole way.

10. 12 Years A Slave. Director Steve McQueen paints a gritty, at times difficult to watch portrait of the American slave trade in the mid-1800s. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender give gut-wrenching performances. This should definitely become a staple of history classes for its unflinching view of one of the more unpleasant eras in American history.


9. Mud. What starts as a sort of coming of age story about two boys turns into a well done thriller with some real Southern grit to it, taking place along the canals and backwoods of the Mississippi River. A great cast of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon makes this an easy movie to like.


8. Gravity. Big budget film with two A-listers in George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, released in IMAX 3D. Yes, parts get a bit schlocky and treacly, but hard not to enjoy the whole experience.


7. The East. The second collaboration between director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling, with both sharing writing credits, is not too dissimilar in theme from their first, 2011's excellent Sound of My Voice. An excellent look into cult-ish idealism without painting anything in black and white.


6. The Grandmaster. War Kong Wai returns after a long absence to make a visually exquisite, beautifully choreographed take on the Ip Man story. Anyone hoping for a fast-paced martial arts film clearly doesn't know Kong-Wai's work. Very deliberately paced, with great turns by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Zhang Ziyi; I was not disappointed.


5. Big Sur. There have been a few recent films involving various aspects of the Beat Generation writers, but none that really translated into captivating film. This one just slipped in and out of theaters without finding an audience. It finds Jack Kerouac (excellently portrayed by Jean-Marc Barr) in his post-On the Road years. Disenchanted and adrift, Kerouac goes back and forth between retreats in Big Sur and drinking in San Francisco. Kerouac's own writings of the time, the rambling, stream of consciousness verbiage really captures a man losing the plot, right before the subsequent demise and untimely death. Josh Lucas is also very good as Neal Cassidy.



4. Only God Forgives. The second collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling. The first was the overly-stylized and violent Drive from 2011. This, too, is a very stylized and violent film, but different in tone.

With absolutely gorgeous cinematography, the movie takes places in a Bangkok stripped of its bustling masses, constant traffic, and skyscrapers, and placed in a vacuum of neon. The pacing is sartorial, the dialogue minimal. This is all about atmosphere. Gosling brings the same Man With No Name shtick from Drive and Place Beyond the Pines but with a far different end result here.


3. Blue is the Warmest Color. Most of the press surrounding this French film focused on its NC-17 rating in America, 3-hour runtime, and its stars' subsequent war of words with the director. None of that takes away from this being a very engrossing and melancholic story of first love, with all of the inherent foibles, tunnel vision, and self-absorption that often accompanies it.

As is usually the case, the actual real-time minutes of the sex scenes is a very small percentage of the film's 3-hour length. Clearly, the film earned its rating not on any close-ups of genitalia or deviant sex acts, but because the scenes involved ravenous desire, passion and abandon. Personally, I found the overall film engrossing, well-paced, superbly acted and very tender.


2. Dallas Buyers Club. Tremendous performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lead this tough, terse film about one man's fight against AIDS, the FDA, and the medical establishment in the 1980s. While the "one man against the system" storyline may be nothing original, the execution and acting allow it to rise above its faults.


1. Out of the Furnace. There's been kind of a Southern gothic renaissance the last few years, with films like No Country For Old Men, Winter's Bone, and this year's A Single Shot and Mud. Taking place in a nondescript Rust Belt town, the film can easily be seen as a portrait of the current state of the Other America.

The story itself is nothing more than a modern day Western, but there are layers and layers to this film. The performances are nothing short of gripping, none more so than Christian Bale, this being perhaps his finest offering to date. He plays a slow-burn rage of a man slowly losing everything in his life with subtle, quiet intensity. It's all in the eyes. The surrounding cast of Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, and Forest Whitaker are fantastic. It all adds up to a tour-de-force that sticks around long after the credits have faded.


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