Search Film Reviews

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

by Joshua Handler

2013 has been a remarkable year for film, both independent and mainstream, which made making this top 10 list incredibly hard.  While I do have the films ranked, the rankings really don't mean much, as each film on my top 10 list is a masterpiece in its own right and represents the best that this year in film had to offer.  Don't watch my number three over my number nine just because they were ranked that way by me.  These films all deserve to be seen.

When compiling this year's top 10 list, I tried to watch as many top 10 candidates as I could a second time to see if they gave me as much pleasure viewing the second time as the first.  While I didn't get to see all twice, the ones I did re-watch were either as good, if not better, the second time.  My number one film would have placed lower had I not recently re-watched it.  I loved it the first time I viewed it, but the second time really showed me how highly brilliant and rewatchable it was.

This year I chose my top 10 from about 180 films that I saw this year.  I didn't include films that I saw at festivals that did not receive theatrical releases in 2013 (I have one exception that I will explain later).

While mainstream film was decidedly horrible this summer, the fall and winter offerings were superb (look at The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and countless others for good examples).  World cinema was especially daring this year.  Wadjda was the first film to come from Saudi Arabia – and it was directed by a woman.  Blue is the Warmest Color was a three-hour epic about a lesbian romance that was released with an NC-17 rating.  And, speaking of romance, love stories were especially good this year.  Before Midnight and Her, along with Blue, were two of the most insightful romances in years.

Enough blabber from me.  Here is my top 10 films of 2013 with a few other "best of" lists:

Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in THE GREAT BEAUTY
Courtesy of Janus Films

1. THE GREAT BEAUTY (LA GRANDE BELLEZZA) (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino) – Crazily stylized, stunningly shot, ambitious, entertaining, hilarious, bizarre, moving, electrifying, and the list goes on – Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is impossible to describe using one word or a million.  No film this year has felt as alive and has been as jaw-dropping as The Great Beauty.  It is a film that consistently surprises with every scene.  While there is a central narrative, the film is essentially a series of individual scenes, each one more entertaining or moving than the next.  The best film of the year, for me, is a film that makes me feel electrified and amazed throughout its running time.  It’s an indescribable sensation.  While I have loved many films this year, no film made me feel that sensation until I viewed The Great Beauty again.  When I saw it for the first time, I knew it’d end up on my top 10 list, but the second time was the clincher.  From Toni Servillo’s complex lead performance to Sorrentino’s unique direction, this film reaffirmed why I love film and showed me how a filmmaker could take an old story and make it feel fresh and new.  And, the party scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen.  I’m going to stop writing now – by you reading this post, it’s taking time away from you going to see it.  My full review here.

Left to Right: Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse
Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
2. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Dir. Richard Linklater) – Anyone who reads this blog or follows Roboapocalypse on Twitter or Facebook knows how much I love Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films that has spanned 18 years.  Before Sunrise was a great start, Before Sunrise was even greater, but somehow Linklater and co-writers/stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke managed to top themselves once again with Before Midnight.  This film comes nine years after Before Sunset and picks up nine years later and finds Jesse and Celine together with kids in Greece.  Viewing this film feels like catching up with old friends after a long time away.  Delpy and Hawke’s acting has never felt more natural and the dialogue has never been richer or funnier – they manage to put into words sensations and thoughts that most of us have but never vocalize.  With this film, though, there’s a dark undertone, which gives the film more depth than its predecessors.  Now that Celine and Jesse are older and a couple, they must look towards the future and decide whether they will be able to last as a couple for the rest of their lives.  As a profound statement on love, marriage, and life, Before Midnight is one of the few films that consistently astounds.  My full review here.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) (L) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) in Abdellatif

Courtesy of Sundance Selects
3. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (LA VIE D'ADÈLE) (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche) - No film has ever captured first love in all its pain and glory like Palme d'Or-winner Blue is the Warmest Color.  Rated NC-17 and causing an enormous amount of controversy for its 7-minute-long lesbian sex scene (among other things), the film is so much more than an explicit lesbian movie.  The film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a teenager in France, who comes of age and learns about first love through her relationship with the slightly older Emma (Léa Seydoux).  At an epic running time of 179 minutes, the film barely drags and is as immersive a film as they come - you feel as if you've lived with Adèle for years by the film's end.  Blue is a universal love story, one that will connect with any teen experiencing first love or any teen who's struggling with coming out.  Abdellatif Kechiche's penetrating eye makes this one of the most moving and detailed love stories ever committed to film.  My full review here.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET,
from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures
© 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
4. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Dir. Martin Scorsese) – At 71 years of age, Martin Scorsese hasn’t lost his touch – in fact, he’s gotten better.  With his innovative 2011 film Hugo, Scorsese showed that he was still willing to push the boundaries of cinema with his immersive use of 3-D and with The Wolf of Wall Street, he shows that he still has the energy of a young man.  Telling the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker whose hedonistic lifestyle eventually lead to his inevitable downfall, Scorsese teamed up again with Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a performance for the ages.  His energy level is high and with Wolf, DiCaprio shows his impressive knack for physical comedy – the Quaalude scene is probably my favorite of the year.  Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, P.J. Byrne, among others, round out the supporting cast along with Matthew McConaughey who steals every scene he’s in.  At 179 minutes, Scorsese keeps the pace racing and Terence Winter’s screenplay features dark humor, clever dialogue, and raunch in equal doses.  Scorsese and Winter push the envelope as far as possible and, in the process, create one of the most outrageous (and outrageously entertaining) American films in years.  My full review here.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."
Photo by Jasin Boland
©2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
5. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Dir. Paul Greengrass) – Paul Greengrass proved once again that he’s a master of suspense with Captain Phillips, the true-life story of an American ship captain (Tom Hanks) whose ship is hijacked by Somali Pirates.  As the eponymous character, Tom Hanks gives a career-best performance, which is saying something given his legendary career.  The final scene of the film is one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve seen this year.  Barkhad Abdi is also excellent as Muse, one of the hijackers.  Billy Ray’s screenplay is brilliant for humanizing the pirates as well as telling a compelling story.  Greengrass keeps the tension going throughout the entire running time and kept me on the edge of my seat unlike any film this entire year.  Like last year’s Zero Dark Thirty and Greengrass’ own United 93, we all know the ending to this story, but it is the direction, Barry Ackroyd's cinematography, the screenplay, and acting that keep us riveted.  My full review here.

Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in SHORT TERM 12Courtesy of Cinedigm
6. SHORT TERM 12 (Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton) – No film this year was more heartfelt and moving than Short Term 12.  The film follows Grace, a troubled foster care home supervisor, who tries to help the teens she cares for as she deals with her own problems.  Short Term 12 garnered a lot of attention after winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and managed to gain critical acclaim up until its theatrical release in August.  When I saw this film for the first time in July, I really had no idea what to expect.  When the film was over, I couldn’t believe what I had seen.  I have seen countless troubled teen films, but none had the honesty that Short Term 12 had.  Nothing felt contrived or clichéd and every single performance is perfect.  This is the performance that will make Brie Larson a star and will make Destin Daniel Cretton a talent to watch out for.  My full review here.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
7. THE ACT OF KILLING (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) – Few films go beyond just being films.  The Act of Killing manages to be a psychological experiment, a social experiment, a historical document, and a riveting film.  The film shows what happens when perpetrators of the 1960s Indonesian genocide are challenged to reenact their crimes for a film that they can make in any film genre.  The results of this experiment are fascinating and quite disturbing.  I wonder what would have happened if this experiment had been done with the Nazis.  There’s nothing more to say other than it’s the single best documentary film I’ve ever seen.  I’ll post a link to my review as soon as it’s posted.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda
Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
8. WADJDA (Dir. Haifaa Al Mansour) – Wadjda, the first movie to come from Saudi Arabia, was the heart-melter of the year.  Director Haifaa Al Mansour had to direct some of the film out of a van due to the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia.  Wadjda is a deceptively simple film that tells the story of a young girl, Wadjda, who dreams of getting a bicycle but cannot since she’s a girl.  The film blends this simple story with searing social commentary to create an inspirational story that shows that simplicity is sometimes the key to success.  Waad Mohammed's performance as Wadjda is astonishing and Haifaa Al Mansour's screenplay is economical and occasionally very funny.  This is a film that I could watch over and over again.  I have not written a full review of the film.

Paulina García stars in GLORIACourtesy of Roadside Attractions
9. GLORIA (Dir. Sebastián Lelio) - This is the only film on this list to not have been released in the United States outside of festivals.  I chose to include it because it will be released soon enough on January 17 and is far too good to not be celebrated on a list such as this.  Sebastián Lelio's Gloria is a film that would have never been made by Hollywood in its current form simply because it's too subtle and too frank.  The film tells the story of Gloria (Paulina García), a woman in her mid-50s, who learns how to live life again.  This film really snuck up on me.  Lelio plays the film so close to real life and so far away from genre clichés that its power could be completely missed - and that is its genius.  Paulina García's gutsy, warts-and-all performance gives the film warmth and character.  She is the entire film and it is a pleasure to watch her - we all know someone like Gloria.  Gloria is a film that revolves around a strong middle-aged woman who always seems real - something we don't usually see in films - and that's something to commend on its own.  Seeing García at a press conference, I had trouble separating her from her character - that's how good she is.  My full review here.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore in the romantic drama "HER," 
directed by Spike Jonze, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(tie) 10. HER (Dir. Spike Jonze) - Spike Jonze's Her is a remarkable romance that tells the story of a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his advanced operating system, Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), in the near future.  Phoenix, one of the most versatile and exciting actors working today, shows that he's as good a romantic leading man as any.  He made me care for Theodore in a way that I cared for few other protagonists this year.  Johansson's voice acting may be the best ever vocal performance, as she creates a three-dimensional, lovable character that we never see.  Amy Adams plays Theodore's friend Amy and gives one of her warmest performances.  Jonze's screenplay (the first he's written solo) gives great insight into the evolution of love in the Digital Age and provides a glimpse of what relationships might be like in the very near future.  Arcade Fire's score is magnificent, as is Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography.  Her is a love story for the ages.  My full review here.

Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 

Photo: Alison Rosa, ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
(tie) 10. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen) - Melancholic, elliptical, and evocative, the Coen Brothers' latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, might be their best film yet.  Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village, who tries to make it, but keeps failing.  Through Bruno Delbonnel's rich, hazy cinematography, Oscar Isaac's sympathetic performance, and the Coens' alternately hilarious and tragic screenplay, Inside Llewyn Davis captures a bygone era in all of its beauty and pain.  The structuring of the film is a feat in itself, and John Goodman's performance is among his most memorable.  This film shows why the Coens are masters.  My full review here.

(Left to right) Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, June Squibb is Kate Grant and 
Will Forte is David Grant in NEBRASKA, 
from Paramount Vantage in association with FilmNation Entertainment, 
Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment.
Photo credit: Merie Wallace
© MMXIII Paramount Vantage, A Division of Paramount Pictures Corporation. 
All Rights Reserved
(tie) 10. NEBRASKA (Dir. Alexander Payne) - While Nebraska is the first of Alexander Payne's films that he hasn't written (Bob Nelson wrote this film), it is no less strong.  The film tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a borderline senile man, who goes on a road trip with his son, David (Will Forte), after getting a letter in the mail telling him that he has won a $1,000,000 Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.  Bruce Dern owns this film.  It is his towering performance that makes this movie the moving experience that it is.  Dern takes advantage of the small moments and makes them shine.  Will Forte is also surprisingly excellent and June Squibb is hilarious as Woody's wife, Kate.  Bob Nelson's honest, moving screenplay strikes a balance between comedy and drama, and the black-and-white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is stunning.  My full review here

And 10 more that barely missed the top 10 (in alphabetical order): 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, The Attack, Beyond the Hills, Blackfish, Cutie and the Boxer, The Dirties, The Hunt, Let the Fire Burn, Stories We Tell, Tim's Vermeer

And some more that I loved: Drinking Buddies, The World’s End, The Punk Singer, Laurence Anyways, Una Noche, The Spectacular Now, Much Ado About Nothing, Crystal Fairy, Twenty Feet From Stardom, The Past, Philomena, Gravity, Paradise: Faith, Don Jon, Mud, The Angels' Share, A Hijacking, All is Lost, After Tiller, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Wind Rises, You're Next

10 Greatest Movie Moments/Scenes (in no particular order):
The Quaalude high gone wrong in The Wolf of Wall Street
Christian Bale fixing his toupee in the opening of American Hustle
Jennifer Lawrence and the "science oven" in American Hustle
The first party scene in The Great Beauty
The finale of The Act of Killing
The final scene of Captain Phillips
The anniversary party in Short Term 12
The long walk through the ruins in Before Midnight
The fight scene in Blue is the Warmest Color
The lunch scene in The Wolf Wall Street
The first scene with the elderly woman in Prince Avalanche
The eavesdropping scene in Much Ado About Nothing
Listening to “Gimme Shelter” in Twenty Feet From Stardom
The single-take robbery in The Bling Ring
The bar shoot-out in Only God Forgives
The space debris scene in Gravity
Crystal Fairy and the rocks in Crystal Fairy
The clapping scene in The Conjuring
Any dream sequence in The Wind Rises
The opening of Inside Llewyn Davis
The jetlag in Paris in Frances Ha
The final scene of All is Lost
The diner scene in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Woody’s walk through his childhood home in Nebraska
"Let it Go" in Frozen
The walk in the carnival in Her

Best Performances (in no particular order):
Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Scarlett Johansson in Her and Don Jon
Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Gaby Hoffmann in Crystal Fairy
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
The cast of American Hustle
Ali Mosaffa in The Past
Joanna Scanlan in The Invisible Woman
Judi Dench in Philomena
Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis
John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis
Jake Gylenhaal in Prisoners
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips
Brie Larson and cast in Short Term 12
Kathryn Hahn in Afternoon Delight
Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies
Suzanne Clément in Laurence Anyways
Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now
Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight
Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Margarete Tiesel in Paradise: Love
Paulina García in Gloria

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Left to right: Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens
Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

2013, 111 minutes
Rated R for some sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman is one of the most underrated films of the year.  Fiennes directed this film from a screenplay by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) and also stars in the film along with Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), and Joanna Scanlan (In the Loop).  The film tells the story of British author Charles Dickens' affair with a much younger woman, Nelly, and its effects on Dickens, his family, and Nelly herself.

Fiennes directs this film with ease and his lead performance is nothing less than magnetic.  Most other actors would have played Dickens as a crusty old historical figure.  However, Fiennes brings an energy to the role that makes his performance and the character come to life in a way similar to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.  Dickens is a man in this film, not a legend or icon.  Felicity Jones matches Fiennes with an emotional performance that makes their scenes together entrancing.  However, Joanna Scanlan is the standout as Dickens' wife, Catherine, a repressed, unhappy woman.  In one scene near the middle of the film, Catherine must deliver a gift to Nelly from her husband that was accidentally given to her instead of Nelly.  In this scene, all of the heartbreak and humiliation felt by Catherine on account of Charles and Nelly's affair is laid bare.  Up until this point, Catherine was a background character, seemingly lacking in personality and love for her husband.  However, during this scene, we come to understand her and connect to her, all because of Scanlan's penetrating performance.

The film's first 45 minutes or so are incredibly slow - almost too slow.  However, what follows the first bit is so gripping that the opening 45 minutes are immediately forgiven.  The film becomes a fascinating exploration of celebrity in the 19th Century as Dickens tries to hide his affair with Nelly so that his public image isn't ruined.  Just as celebrities in the present day try hard to cover up affairs, Dickens tries to cover his in The Invisible Woman.  By exploring these themes, Abi Morgan makes the film more relevant and more relatable.  This film is much more than simply a 19th Century-set period drama.

Finally, the cinematography by Rob Hardy (Shadow Dancer, Boy A) is richly beautiful.  In one particularly memorable shot, the camera is focused in on Nelly looking at something in the distance, and we wonder what it is.  Slowly, the camera zooms out and a horse races across the screen - she is watching a horse race.  The entire race scene is conveyed in a single shot that builds curiosity before its ultimate reveal.  Shots like this and others throughout the film give the film a fresh, exciting feel.  With the technical mastery on display and Fiennes deft directorial hand, The Invisible Woman never feels stuffy and cold, but rather alive and full of heart.

Overall, The Invisible Woman is a film that deserves attention.  Fiennes' direction and performance, Scanlan's powerhouse, and the thematic richness of this film should keep audiences invested enough to look forward to whatever Fiennes decides to direct next.  If his next film shows as much control as this film does, Fiennes will not only be recognized as one of the finest actors working today, but also one of the finest directors.