Writer/director Jeff Nichols favors stories with a bit of grit, rurally set tales of omnipresent danger and the gumption that results. They're not exactly kid-friendly places, which is exactly why his 2013 take on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn works, both narratives wholly embracing the rough and tumble road that some young boys must traverse on the way to manhood. Tye Sheridan stars as Ellis, a son of a breaking (present tense of broken) home who freely roams the rivers and terrains of small, small town Arkansas. It's here that he finds the titular Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious hermit, living in a boat saddled surreally between two trees, whose hidden plight slowly reveals itself to young Ellis. Wonderfully acted by all on board, and presented in gorgeous, earthy tones and images, Mud is a film about growing up in a big, busy world, one wherein adults pretend to have the answers, but are really just fumbling around like the rest of us. A sweet and true meditation on learning the ropes the hard way, and coming out the better for it.
Writing about Gravity feels kind of superfluous at this point, but maybe it always was. This is, after all, a film whose visceral impact cannot by conveyed with words; it must be experienced. You know the story by now: Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, is thrust violently out into space's infinite expanse, and must fight to survive. Alfonso Cuarón's first film since Children of Men is a passion project that took the innovator years to create, producing all new technology and techniques to bring his star-studded, star-set thriller to life. Gravity is a testament to the unique power of the medium, an ideal counter-point to any film fan who would argue that intellect is the focal point of terrific filmmaking. There's nothing brainy about that feeling it puts in your gut, or the way that it rips air out of your lungs, or in that disorienting experience of leaving the theater, and realizing you're still on earth. It's pure SPECTACLE, spelled-out in all caps.
A word of advise: make sure to wolf down all of your popcorn within the first fifteen minutes of Captain Phillips, because after that you'll need your hands to grip your armrests. Adrenaline junkie/director Paul Greengrass' latest splits its perspective right down the middle, allotting time to both the Somalian pirates who hijacked the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, and the ship's ill-prepared crew. The man behind United 93 has an amazing way to applying documentary-style realism to his films chronicling true-life events, the work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse ratcheting up the tension with positively merciless abandon. Then there's Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, one of America's biggest screen icons pitted against a guy who was driving a taxi before being cast in the film, each delivering head-spinningly brilliant performances as a pair of combatants tasked with fighting their respective bosses' battles. Even now, almost half a year after my eyes first met the film, I can't shake Hanks' final scene, easily the most astounding two minutes of acting we saw last year. I can still feel the bullets of sweat on my temples.
7. Prince Avalanche
In which David Gordon Green picks himself up, and gets back on the horse. The director, who made his name on a string of thoughtful indies before being drafted to helm Pineapple Express, was coming of a couple of critical and financial bombs, The Sitter (which I have not seen) and Your Highness (which I deeply wish I hadn't seen). He relocates his muse with Prince Avalanche, a precious little gem of a movie starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a couple of road workers assigned the comically monotonous job of repainting highway lines on a wildfire-ravaged highway in late-80's Texas. Hirsch, one of America's most criminally under-used screen actors, is great in the film, but Rudd does him one better, playing against type as a tense, bookish man with doubts and insecurities that could be spotted from a mile away. They are alone for the vast, vast majority of the film, and the way that their relationship ebbs and flows from scene to scene is a marvel to watch, the flick's subjects of rumination including love, responsibility, self-definition, and friendship. Green even takes time to observe the nature surrounding them, helping us feel their seldom-discussed isolation, all set to Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo's sublime score. Those requiring motion and excitement in their film-going experience might not be as thrilled by the picture as I am; Prince Avalanche is about as small as it gets... and about as good as it gets, too.
If there's one unifying theme between my favorite films listed 7-4, it's the sense of sweetness that they all share. Perhaps the sweetest of the bunch is The Spectacular Now, the story of hard-partying High School senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), the nerdy girl that serves as a shot in his arm. Yes, these are tired trappings, but the honesty and delicacy with which director James Ponsoldt observes them is miraculously detailed, and magnanimous in earned emotion. Granted, it would all fall apart if the film didn't have two of the year's finest performances on hand, Teller a ball of vivacious charm and inescapable demons, Woodley an affectionate dream girl with interests and autonomy all her own. Each learns habits, both constructive and detrimental, from each other, one of the most sharply-observed movies about romance's first rumblings I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. It's a flick worth swooning over.
We're not really used to seeing writer/director Noah Baumbach go this easy on us. Creator of such 'the world is a cold, dark place' movies as Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, Woody-Allen-waking-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed first showed a chink in his considerable emotional armor with 2011's Greenberg, but nothing could have prepared us for this. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a woman in her late 20's attempting to make it as a dancer in New York whose flightiness and general immaturity come to embody an entire generation of young adults... my generation, that is. But this time around, Baumbach isn't as interested in judging his protagonist as he is in celebrating her liveliness, teasing her about her faults, and finding her a cozy place to call home. Captured in gloriously grainy black and white, scored and edited in a manner that clearly calls to mind Godard, Truffaut, and other French New Wave luminaries, Frances Ha is a delectable experience, a brilliant encapsulation of young women in the year 2013, and an ideal showcase for the irrepressible Gerwig. Both this and Prince Avalanche are on Netflix Instant Watch right now; what the heck are you waiting for?
Before I saw Nebraska, I had yet to witness an Alexander Payne movie that I felt lukewarm about; Oscar's poet laureate of American misfits had only made films that I either loved (Election, Sideways) or met with scorn (About Schmidt, THE DESCENDANTS [in all caps to ensure you feel my rage]). Apparently nothing has changed. Payne's latest stars Bruce Dern as an aging boozer on a mission to retrieve a million-dollar prize promised him by the kind of spam mail that most people feed directly to the recycling bin. Bob Nelson's brilliant script pokes endless fun at midwestern lifestyle without ever succumbing to bitterness, eliciting genuine knee-slappers in between moments of wistful longing, and painful truth. The glacial pace with which Payne and editor Kevin Tent saddle the film perfectly befits the slow-moving subject and lifestyle at hand, as does Mark Orton's playful score, and Phedon Papamichael's sumptuous, Oscar-nominated, black-and-white cinematography. No 2013 film paired belly-aching laughs with tender, unavoidable truths quite like Nebraska, a trip into the past with a perfectly calibrated ratio of salt to sugar.
How's this for a passion project: a screenwriter struggles for 20+ years to research, create, and pitch a true-story screenplay, endless talent drops in and out before a pair of actors sign on (Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), and are immediately tasked with dropping A TON of weight. I'm not one to allow backstories to affect my evaluation of a final product, but the motivations and affections behind the creation of Dallas Buyers Club are right there on screen from start to finish, the hugely emotional journey of a heterosexual good-ol'-boy thrust, by necessity, into the role of an AIDS-pandemic Robin Hood. Shot over the course of an ultra-brief 25 days and deprived of any rehearsal time or artificial lighting, DBC tip-toed through a mine field in order to become one of the year's most affecting movies, its ship steered by McConaughey's master-class, career-reshapping turn. This isn't an AIDS message picture or a gay rights message picture; it's s flick about one man doing everything that he can to survive, and the lessons that he learns along the way.
Love or hate The Wolf of Wall Street, there's still a certain uneasiness with its content. Are we celebrating these actions by showing them in this light? Are we appropriately observing the countless lives Jordan Belfort either damaged or destroyed? Is this subject really worth three hours? Is this really the type of movie that you're allowed to 'love?' After two times watching the film and hours of considering it, I've come across these four answers: no, no, yes, and yes. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career as the aforementioned Belfort, a stock broker with a lust for life (see: drugs, sex, and general excess) that spurred on the creation of an entire brokerage firm of swindling thieves. As an enormous fan of both The Departed and Hugo, I can't help but be annoyed by all of the 'easily his best film since Goodfellas' discussion, but it's certainly Martin Scorsese's most lively since that gangster epic, each frame teeming with the very electricity and sin that's made him one of the finest filmmakers of all time. An endless cavalcade of laughter and debauchery with a few patches of wise reflection sewn in here and there, The Wolf of Wall Street guns it up to 120 mph, ignores all traffic signals, cuts off everyone in its way, never says 'sorry', and never takes its lead foot off the gas. And god bless it.
Sorry to be so predictable, but it's hard for me to see an argument in favor of another film as 2013's best. 12 has the immediate leg-up as the year's 'most important' film from the get-go, but it's what the picture actually does with said trappings that really takes it to the next level. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free man of color who is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the antebellum south, and must scratch and claw not just to escape, but to survive. British director Steve McQueen captures here what a bajillion other American filmmakers should have thought to chronicle beforehand: an honest-to-goodness, no-holds-barred, stomach-turning take on the deplorable institution that, by and large, helped build the U.S. from the ground up. The Oscar-nominated acting on hand is worthy of all praise (the aforementioned Ejiofor, as well as Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o in the supporting categories), but the technical elements on hand are just as impressive. Academy award snubs for cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and score maestro Hans Zimmer stand as some of the most egregious of the year, all while the editing, costume design, screenplay, sound, and production design constantly coax the most ridiculous of superlatives. This movie could be about a man eating a sandwich, and the talent involved would still likely prompt celebratory hosannas, but thankfully it's not; 12 Years a Slave offers us a never-before-seen tour through the horrors of our nation's single greatest crime, and the power of its impact is enough to level skyscrapers.