Jeff Nichols | 130 mins | Drama Matthew McConaughey | Tye Sheridan | Jacob Lofland | Sam Shepard
Sometime between 2008’s Fool’s Gold and now, Matthew McConaughey transformed into the finest, most underrated actor in Hollywood. If all was fair in this world, he would win two Oscars this year – one for his magnificent lead performance as an electrician turned pharmaceutical dealer in the excellent Dallas Buyers Club and another for his supporting performance in Mud, which is an even better film.
In Mud, McConaughey plays a fugitive who is found on a deserted island by two teenage boys while on one of their adventures. The boys crave adventure and remind us that children – unlike adults – do not let fear trump curiosity. Mud plays out like a modern day Tom Sawyer, which is no surprise since the film’s director, Jeff Nichols, admits the inspiration for the film came from the works of Mark Twain. Like Tom Sawyer, Mud is a glorious adventure with a big heart and an even bigger mind.
9. Blue is the Warmest Color
Abdellatif Kechiche | 180 mins | Drama/Romance Lea Seydoux | Adele Exarchoppoulos | Salim Kechiouche | Aurelien Recoing
One needs to look no further than to the movies of 2013 to realize that love stories just aren’t what they use to be. Take the three best “love stories” of the year, for example: one is the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system; another is a middle-aged couple struggling to regain the feelings that they once felt and the third, Blue is the Warmest Color, has often been labeled as a three-hour coming-to-age lesbian love story with a well-earned NC-17 rating. But to define the Palme d’Or winner in such simplistic terms is both unfair and inaccurate, as there is much more to it than that.
The film tells the story of Adèle, a high school girl who falls for an intriguing blue-haired stranger. Over the next three hours – which pass surprisingly quick – the story somehow captures the joys of love along with its complications, struggles and pains. It’s not important that it revolves around two lesbians; these emotions are universal in every relationship and few films of any type capture them so delicately and honestly. Perhaps love stories aren’t what they use to be, but that isn’t a bad thing: it just means they’re not as predictable, formulaic or whimsical as they once were.
8. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen | 98 mins | Comedy/Drama Cate Blanchett | Alec Baldwin | Peter Sarsgaard | Sally Hawkins
You’d think it’s the seventies with how many critics have fallen head-over-heals over Woody Allen’s recent films Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. And although I admire each of those films, I’ve never shared the feeling that any of his recent efforts deserve to be grouped together with his best films – until now.
Blue Jasmine, led by the Cate Blanchett in what has to be considered the best female performance of the year, tells the story of a wealthy Manhattan socialite who is forced to move in to her sister’s humble San Francisco apartment after her husband is arrested for business fraud.
Blue Jasmine isn’t as lightweight as some of Allen’s other films, but it becomes more rewarding and entertaining with each twist and turn through its short 98 minutes. By the end, it’s obvious that this is Allen’s most accomplished achievement in over twenty years.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | 104 mins | Comedy/Drama/Music Oscar Isaac | Carey Mulligan | John Goodman | Garrett Hedlund
Inside Llewyn Davis is, in every sense of the words, a Coen-brothers film. What does that mean? It means it is filled with brilliant subtle humor and breathtaking cinematography. It means it has unique characters and unpredictable twists. It means it has great music and memorable performances. But most of all, it means it’s one of the best movies of the year.
In Davis, Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a struggling New York folk musician who has the talent but not the good fortune that it takes to make it in the music business. Isaac gives the most underrated performance of the year; he’d be a shoe-for an Oscar nod if he was better known, but instead may get unjustifiably left out. Perhaps that’s fitting since he plays a character that is repeatedly left unnoticed. Or perhaps the Academy should take a note from the film, and at least give the actor the break that both he and his character deserve.
6. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen | 134 mins | Biography/Drama/History Chiwetel Ejiofor | Michael Kenneth Williams | Michael Fassbender | Brad Pitt
It’s hard to believe that Hollywood allowed Roots to be the most accurate depiction of slavery in cinema over the first 110 years since its invention. Fortunately, that all changed in 2013 with Steve McQueen’s emotionally-wrecking story of Solomon Northop, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
Oscar-frontrunner Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a standout performance amongst a slew of unforgettable performances as the lead character, but this is really director Steve McQueen’s achievement. Each shot – although often unbearable to watch – is filmed with both delicacy and an eerie beauty that we only see in the greatest films in history.
The most recent comparable film that comes to mind is Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List, which was voted by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of all time, and there’s no doubt in my mind that 12 Years a Slave will be joining Schindler’s List on similar lists in the near future.
Alexander Payne | 115 mins | Adventure/Comedy/Drama Bruce Dern | Will Forte | June Squibb | Bob Odenkirk
I have to admit that I have no idea why Alexander Payne decided to shoot Nebraska in black and white. But I’d also never question the decision of a director of his caliber. Nebraska is his sixth film and arguably his most enjoyable and loving film to date.
It tells the story of a senile man (Bruce Dern) who is convinced that he won a million dollars after receiving a scam sweepstakes letter in the mail and his son (Will Forte) who plays along with it because he’d rather see his dad happy than rationally heartbroken. Nebraska boasts some of the year’s best characters as well as the year’s best final scene, which really proves that there are no limits to the unbreakable bond shared between a father and son.
4. Before Midnight
Richard Linklater | 109 mins | Drama/Romance Ethan Hawke | Julie Delpy | Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick | Ariane Labed
Some fans of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were turned off by the mood and challenges of Before Midnight, but I actually think that’s what makes the film great. The film takes place nine years after Jesse and Céline reconnected in Before Sunset and, as one should expect, their relationship is not exactly the same as it once was. The couple finds it easier to focus on one another’s annoying quirks and have gotten to the point in their relationship where the best qualities have become mundane and easily overlooked. As you can imagine, it isn’t always as enjoyable as its two predecessors, but it’s certainly just as accurate and smart.
So smart in fact, that I don’t hesitate to say that outside of The Godfather, there is not a better film trilogy in the history of cinema – I just hope Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t stop at three.
3. Short Term 12
Destin Daniel Cretton | 96 mins | Drama Brie Larson | Frantz Turner | John Gallagher Jr. | Kaitlyn Dever
If ever there was a film that theaters should provide tissues for, it’s Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s brilliantly touching film about a group of at-risk foster care residents and the supervisors that care for them. That’s not to say the film is a total downer; instead it manages to be both the most heartbreaking and uplifting film of the year at the same time. It’s the sort of film that you leave wanting to be a better person.
Much of the credit for making the film work belongs to Brie Larson, who plays a lead supervisor with a gift of making her residents feel special, but the inability to do the same for herself. If anyone deserves a lead actress Oscar nomination besides Cate Blanchett, it’s her. This film should jumpstart her into stardom the same way Junebug did for Amy Adams and Winter’s Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence.
Unfortunately, very few people saw Short Term 12 when it was released in theaters back in August. Hopefully it will be rediscovered when it is released on video later this month.
Alfonso Cuaron | 91 mins | Action/Drama/Scie-Fi/Thriller Sandra Bullock | George Clooney | Ed Harris | Orto Ignatiussen
You know a movie is one for the ages when critics have to go back 45 years to find a film to accurately compare it to. It’s even higher praise when the film it’s compared to is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that is often considered the most visually innovative film of all time.
In Gravity, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as an engineer and an astronaut who become lost in space after losing their space shuttle in a debris accident. And although the story is sufficient, it isn’t really necessary with visuals this stunning. The opening 17-minute take in which director Alfonso Cuarón lets the camera float without making a single cut is likely the greatest achievement in the history of cinematography. And even after the initial 17 minutes, it hardly lets up. Gravity left me awestruck and breathless like no film ever has before and deserves to be called one of the great science fiction films of all time.
Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Drama/Romance/Sci-Fi Joaquin Phoenix | Amy Adams | Scarlett Johnsson | Rooney Mara
According to a recent study, the average American spends five hours per day on his or her cell phone or computer. People do their shopping online, communicating online, dating online and even their work online. This obsession seems to be leading us to a point where relationships with other humans are a thing of the past, and Spike Jonze realizes it. Not only does he realize it, he turned the idea into the smartest, funniest, most original and all-around best movie of the year.
The film’s clever title – Her – is a reference to an artificially intelligent computer operating system that is programmed to be compatible with its user. The user in this case is Theodore, a down in the dumps greeting card writer who finds happiness after falling in love for the first time since his divorce. The only problem is that it’s with his operating system.
Obviously, the subject matter is risky territory, but Spike Jonze knocks it out of the park. He has directed great films before, particularly with the Charlie Kaufman-scripted films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, but this is first great screenplay that Jonze has penned.
Her is brilliant in the way that it is able to say so much about love and our relationships with technology while never feeling artificial or pretentious. Take, for example, the scene in which Theodore tells his best friend Amy (played by the wonderful Amy Adams) that he’s dating his operating system because he can’t handle a real relationship. Her response, “Is it not a real relationship?” is both thoughtful and sweet, just like the movie itself.
Her is the smartest, most original movie since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and my choice to lead an extremely impressive group of the best films of 2013.