Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

10. Spring Breakers (tie) The Bling Ring

Harmony Korine and Sofia Coppola's dark meditations on girls gone wild are kindred spirits. In each of their own uniquely stylistic ways -- Korine's hyper-fantasy spring break turned nightmare and Coppola's deceptively vapid fact-based retelling -- these auteur writer/directors hold a microscope up to a youth culture gone mad. And there's no denying the performances from James Franco as the dread-locked, gun-toting rapper Alien ("Look at my shit!") in the former and "Harry Potter" alum Emma Watson's scalding queen bitch in the latter.

9. This Is the End

The flat-out funniest movie of the year. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's raunchy mix of comedy and horror is delirious, outrageous and smart about its obvious stupidity. Chock full of actors playing themselves and more uproarious cameos than you can shake a stick at, these guys even squeeze in something to say about the status of celebrity and the nature of faith.

8. Short Term 12

Brie Larson is an absolute break-out in this heartrending powerhouse, among the most emotionally raw films of the year. Dustin Cretton's debut surprises with unexpected moments of poignancy and, even in the darkest moments, bursts of humor in an unflinching look inside the staff of a youth-at-risk center.

7. Enough Said

The most commercial effort from writer/director Nicole Holofcener also happens to be her best. The romantic comedy starring the delightful combination of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini is witty and compassionate, diving into truths about adult relationships, trusting one's instincts and having faith in love. Holofcener's biggest concern with the film was making sure the plot twist didn't come across as "stupid." Rest assured, it plays out smart as can be.

6. Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron's masterful space odyssey is a film that commands audiences back to the movie theater. It simply cannot be seen any other way, in full glorious 3D, easiest the most groundbreaking visual landmark since James Cameron's "Avatar." The stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki transports viewers into space with the characters (namely Sandra Bullock in a career-best performance), floating adrift in the inky black expanse filled with existential dread.

5. Nebraska

Alexander Payne delivers another masterwork with his funniest film to date. "Nebraska" is a fable of middle America that finds absurdity and poignancy in the mundane of the everyday, in large part thanks to a first-time screenplay from Bob Nelson. June Squibb is an absolute hoot playing the wife of bitter, drunk and possibly senile Woody Grant. Both she and Bruce Dern give career-topping performances in a film that puts on grand display Payne's trademark commitment to both drama and comedy.

4. Blue Is the Warmest Color

Adele Exarchopoulos gives the performance of the year in Abdellatif Kechiche's intimate three-hour saga. She plays Adele, a young lesbian who blossoms into her sexuality and sense of self through a passionate but tumultuous relationship with the blue-haired Emma, played by Lea Seydoux. It's enthralling stuff and plays out like reading a rich novel, dense with themes on female sexuality and gender norms. Lingering in the mind long after the credits roll, you don't just watch these characters; you live and breathe them.

3. Her

In his fourth feature, writer/director Spike Jonze has taken a surrealist dystopian gimmick and finessed it into a deeply romantic and sad film. Through a seemingly impossible relationship, Jonze makes us believe and turns it into a meditation on how we look to find connections with each other, what keeps us from it and how we live today. Joaquin Phoenix gives a grand performance of pure isolation while an entirely off-screen Scarlett Johansson is inspired and soulful.

2. Frances Ha

Writer/actress Greta Gerwig and real-life boyfriend writer/director Noah Baumbach have proved a dynamic dream team in the independent film realm. Their "Frances Ha" is honest and telling, funny and smart, wry and sad, effervescent and fulfilling. The story of Gerwig's bumbling heroine Frances paints themes of post-college anxiety and the complexity of female friendship, which combine to draw even deeper meaning about coming-of-age at a time when someone's supposed to have already come of age.

1. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's harrowing and wrenching slave drama is the very best film of the year, an instant American classic. Against the backdrop of our nation's darkest chapter in its history, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt -- coupled with an equal parts blistering and moving score from Hans Zimmer -- find absolute beauty and poetry within the ugly, brutal horrors. Not to mention extraordinary performances across the board from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson and first-time actress Lupita Nyong'o (on her way to an Oscar) in the year's best ensemble.

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