Tuesday, January 28, 2014

LeapBackBlog 2013 Film Awards – Part 5: Films

Film in 2013 was fantastic. We saw tons of wonderful performances, powerfully emotional dramas, hysterical comedies, gripping thrillers, big and entertaining blockbusters, and grand technical achievements. This year was particularly difficult in narrowing down my choices for my favorite films, performances, directors, and technical accomplishments. For example, I loved Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing and Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, but neither quite made the list, and the same can be said for David O. Russell’s wonderful directing in American Hustle or Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sublime cinematography in Her (both just missing out on the list, when they would have made it in most other years). And, there are a number of good films that did not make the list either (and a few I have not yet seen). As it stands, the LeapBackBlog Film Awards are made up, through difficult deliberation, of the films that entertained me and grabbed me as something special, the performances that engaged me, and the craftsmanship that delighted me. These are my favorites of 2013.

2013 was filled with many great performances and films, leaving so many overlooked. American Hustle, however, is not one of the overlooked films and its highly entertaining and wonderful performances have run the table, garnering an Oscar nomination in every acting category (and four performances among my favorite 20), which is only fitting, as it is a film completely built upon its great and eccentric performances (as well as nostalgically festive costumes and production design). Yet, David O. Russell’s film does not get lost in all the big performances and showy aesthetics. At its core, it is still a character driven narrative with strong, well-developed characters that the audience invests in. American Hustle is a lot of fun, and is one of the better con man films in recent memory.

Fruitvale Station tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man recently released from prison who is desperately trying to put his life back together and provide for his family (be a good husband to his soon-to-be wife and father to is young daughter). However, his life is tragically taken on New Year’s Eve 2008 when he is accidently gunned down by police during an incident on the BART train from San Francisco to Oakland. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ryan Coogler creates a very emotionally impactful film by showcasing the man that Grant was, his strengths and weaknesses. The audience can see themselves in the man through his hopes, dreams, and fears. Thus, when the climactic scene arrives, it is devastating, and maybe for a moment viewers feel (to some degree) the helplessness that those less fortunate (deemed inferior in society due to economic means, race, or often both) feel constantly (in a system designed to keep them forever marred in poverty and crime with no real viable escape). If nothing else, the film creates a connection between Grant and every viewer (regardless of their background), putting them in his place. It is a powerful experience – one that hopefully leads to people treating each other with a bit more kindness and respect. In a year of many strong indie character dramas, Fruitvale Station is one of the best and most involving.

3D is in most cases a worthless feature, tacked on after the fact to garner high ticket prices while actually making the film-watching experience worse (and yet people still pay for it in droves…it makes no sense). That is not the case at all with Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron (a harsh critic of 3D) uses the technology to create a completely immersive experience, capturing the imagination and to some extent giving viewers a taste of a ‘real’ Space adventure (when really none of us will ever get to go experience Space first hand). Gravity proves that 3D can be a fantastic cinematic tool (if used properly), while shaming its use in 99% of other films. There is no other film as deserving of the price of admission in 2013, as this is a film that demands it be seen on the largest screen possible (while the rest of these top ten films can be enjoyed equally at home). It is a thrilling spectacle that also happens to feature strong performances and resonates emotionally. In most years, it would be the clear cut film of the year. It is just an incredible cinematic achievement.

Love in the modern age turns out to be a lot like love in any other age; it is about connection. Spike Jonze’s film Her is about connection and also the lack of connection we face culturally at present (and possibly to a greater extent in the future). The film takes place in the near future and is about Theodore Twombly, a man struggling with melancholia in the wake of his wife splitting from him. He craves connection but fears being hurt again. Thus, a relationship with his new hyper intelligent self-aware OS Samantha seems safe. Yet, Theodore finds himself falling hard for Samantha, while at the same time frustrated by the limitations of the relationship now that it has become deeply emotional. Jonze creates a completely believable relationship between Theodore and Samantha that plays out in a manner that feels truthful to our own experiences. It is as such a film that is incredibly relatable, and also somewhat a warning. We are so dependent on technology that we seem to put it in the place of human activities that we need as people to create true connection. We are isolating ourselves in the name of being social through technology. Her is a touching and kind of sad romantic narrative that is not afraid to be optimistic about the future as well.

There are many kinds of musicals. Filmgoers seem to be most accustomed to the kind in which characters break into song to express the emotions they hold inside them without it feeling out of place in the world of the narrative (My Fair Lady, for example). Inside Llewyn Davis too is in a way this kind of musical, though most would not regard it as one at first. The Coen Brothers’ film is about Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk musician as he toils away trying to make a career out of his music (while being a bit of a bastard). Davis is very gruff on the outside, with a short temper and seemingly a cold heart. But, when he plays his music (and there are multiple musical performances in the film), the audience sees his true soul, which is filled with guarded emotional sadness (primarily from the loss of his musical partner and a bad relationship with his father). It is also through Davis’s music that we see that beauty exists in a word that is otherwise faded and cold. In this way, Inside Llewyn Davis is indeed a musical – a very, very good one.

Who knew that Ron Howard (a filmmaker I have dismissed often in the past and probably will again in the future) would make a film that would be among my ten favorite, especially in such a competitively deep year as 2013. But that speaks to the quality of Rush, Howard’s Formula-1 drama focusing on the great rivalry and friendship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Rush is a fantastic sports drama (probably one of the five best in cinema history), built upon the excitement and danger of car racing at its highest level. And yet, it is an even better character drama, as Howard explores both Hunt and Lauda: what motivates them to be the best. Suffice it to say, Rush is my favorite Ron Howard film – a film that is very well acted, wonderfully shot, and even directed with skill.

Character dramas that are utterly moving and completely engrossing are a rare breed, films that resonate so deeply that we as viewers find ourselves fully invested and connected to the characters. Short Term 12 is one such film. Built upon one of 2013’s most incredible performances by Brie Larson, this gravely overlooked film is about Grace, a supervisor at a facility for wayward youths while they await placement in a foster home. Grace devotes herself fully to helping these kids, while trying to contain her own demons. Writer-director Destin Cretton’s clearly personal narrative is rich with great character moments and honest emotion, but what is so refreshing about the film is that it has an unyielding optimism (something often lacking in modern pop culture, rife with cynicism) even though the narrative comes from a place of deep wounds and seemingly insurmountable pain. Grace is a real role model for young people. Short Term 12 is a film that needs to be seen, and I encourage anyone who has an opportunity to watch it to do so; it is without question among the five best films of the year.

While many popular young adult films focus on grand adventures or supernatural romances, The Spectacular Now tells a much smaller, more relatable, and dramatically engaging story. It is about Sutter, a high school senior who lives in the now with no regard for his future, content to just have fun in the moment. And then he meets Aimee, a nice girl who has plans for her future forcing Sutter to reconsider his world view. What makes James Pondsoldt’s film work so well is that these characters are beautifully played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (each just missing out on making the acting lists) and resonate emotionally as real people with relatable problems. Namely, the film deals with alcoholism in young people, as well as growing up with deadbeat parents. How do we overcome the faults of our parents? This is a question many young people sadly must face. While The Spectacular Now is primarily a character drama, it also works as a charming romance. Recent YA films like The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga are blowing up the box office, but films like this and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are really the great films leading the resurgence of good and meaningful films aimed at young adults.

Slavery in America continues to this day to shape public consciousness and popular culture, and yet until 12 Years a Slave no other piece of media has been able to so directly tackle it on a profoundly emotional level. What makes Solomon Northup’s story so compelling is that in a way it encapsulates the full experience of Slavery. Northup was a proud and prosperous freeman who was tricked and captured against him will, transported by boat to a new place and then sold into slavery. His first master was kind to him, but still his master. His second was a monster. Yet, Northup endured. Finally, after twelve year, he was again free, returning home to him family, filled with supreme happiness but also unspeakable sadness for those not as lucky as he and the unshakeable scares of what he witnessed and had done to him during his enslavement. Steve McQueen’s film is filled with brilliant performances, beautiful and haunting aesthetics, and deeply moving emotional resonance. It is my favorite film of 2013.

The Wolf of Wall Street is centered on the exploits of Jordan Belfort, a stock trader who starts out in penny stocks only to build an empire. However, Belfort’s business practices are not all legal leading to an FBI investigation and his eventual downfall. Martin Scorsese’s film is highly entertaining. Scorsese engrosses the audience in a world of wild drug use, sex, ego, and greed, which plays as very funny, possibly shocking, and maybe even secretly inviting (courting the darkness inside us all). The lifestyle of a high powered Wall Street trader is so excessive that it all feels exaggerated and kind of insane, but Scorsese uses it to explore what happens when capitalism is left to run amuck – the dark side of the American Dream – an issue that is still very relevant in the world today (especially in America). It is a masterfully made film, and one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of the year (be it the gleeful joy of laughing at all the antics or the abhorrence at the crude manner by which these characters live).

Honorable Mentions (11-25):

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