Saturday, February 15, 2014

In Defense of Film: The Top 10 Films of 2013

In late 2013, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote an article entitled “The Big Picture Strikes Back,” a piece I considered to be one of the year’s best film-related articles. It was a thread I had picked up on earlier in the year, and had been heavily considering as I entered and exited various theaters throughout 2013. As usual, Scott knocked it out of the park with his take, but I think the idea behind Cinema vs. Television deserves enough space for a small-fry blogger such as myself to offer his own thoughts on the subject. 

So, for this year, instead of posting my Top 10 list along with the usual little blurb on each of the films, I thought I would take a broader approach and discuss some of them in the context of this larger conversation that’s been happening around film and television for the past few years. I’ve posted my Top 10 list below, but overall I won’t discuss every film on the list, and I might also include discussion on some films that didn’t make my list, but that add to the conversation. 

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As most of my readers are aware, Breaking Bad had it’s final eight-episode half-season run from August through September of last year, and pretty handily dominated the pop-culture landscape for those eight weeks, and deservingly so. The critical and commercial success of Breaking Bad seemed to put somewhat of a period on a decade and a half of marvelous television storytelling, which has given us everything from The Sopranos, to Lost, to Mad Men and of course, The Wire.

Concurrently with Breaking Bad’s final run, the cinema had been pumping out its normal end-of-summer crapfest, with big-budgeted gaudiness such as Neill Blomkamp’s misguided Elysium failing both critically and commercially. I had begun to think that the best stories were being told on television, and moreover, that the perceived limitations of the medium were actually in its favor, because the episodic structure at least somewhat forces good writing, acting, and plot development.  

My attitude changed somewhat, when five days after the finale of Breaking Bad, I went to see a little film called Gravity (#7). Set in space just outside of earth, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron uses 3D technology and weightless camera movement to achieve an overwhelming sense of imbalance and vertigo.  The emotional and spiritual journey of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she attempts to forge her way back to earth after debris destroys her spaceship works seamlessly as a thematic complement to the visual wizardry on display.

A gorgeous crane shot from All is Lost
A film that didn’t quite make my Top 10, director J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, is probably another one of the year’s best examples of a film that would not be successful in any other medium. Set in the Indian Ocean, Robert Redford stars as an aging sailor who is stranded at sea when his boat is damaged by a loose shipping container. The one-man-act contains exactly one paragraph of spoken word, a monologue at the beginning of the film. Like Gravity, it is in many ways a stripped down film that forces introspection about coming to terms with one’s own demise.  How lucky we are to have filmmakers brave enough to tackle these subjects in such interesting and fully cinematic ways.

Relationships were explored in new ways this year as well. A trio of films on my Top 10, Before Midnight (#2), The Place Beyond the Pines (#3), and To the Wonder (#9), contemplate marriage, father-son relationships, and romance, respectively. Before Midnight is the third film in the Before series by Richard Linklater, each set nine years apart from one another. It is a rare treasure in cinema to see characters change and grow over an 18-year period. Each of the three chapters take place over mere hours and yet somehow successfully tell the story of entire lives.  

The Place Beyond the Pines, a film that I regretfully never wrote a review of this year, has an interweaving three-act structure involving fathers and sons that unfolds like a modern Dickens novel. Derek Cianfrance, director of 2010’s Blue Valentine, improves on his solid rookie effort drastically, which successfully expresses how legacy can beget both privilege and suppression. The two and a half hour runtime only heightens the impact as Cianfrance peels back layer after layer, until a core of thematic truth hits you like a pile of bricks in the film’s final moments.

I find it ironic that two inarguable cinematic masters tackled success and failure in New York City this year – Martin Scorsese with the relentless The Wolf of Wall Street (#4) and the Coen brothers with the slow-simmering Inside Llewyn Davis (#5). These two stories could almost work as a double-feature film, as both are centered around flat-out assholes for protagonists – one, an imposturous but riotously successful Wall Street Banker, and the other a floundering 60’s folk singer whose devotion to his artistry is both his guiding star and his Achilles heel.  The storytelling prowess of these two directors could propel them to success in just about any medium, but the particular structures they operated in this year allowed them to fully explore the circumstances of characters who manage to learn absolutely nothing over the course of their story.

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Finally, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning 12 Years a Slave (#1) in the context of this discussion though I’ve already dug into it thoroughly here. When I consider television shows I love, the first aspect that comes to mind is characters. I think of Jerry Seinfeld, Don Draper, Homer Simpson and Walter White. When I think of movies, however, imagery is the first thing that comes to mind. I think of Janet Leigh’s screaming face in Psycho, and Anton Chigurh staring down a west-Texas gas station owner in No Country for Old Men, and Kubrick’s shuddering “star-child” at the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For me, at least two images from 12 Years a Slave belong in a conversation alongside some of the very best single shots in film history. The first is an extended shot that I discussed in my review of the film, which shows the main character, Solomon Northup, hanging from a tree across a period of hours. This shot, and the movie in general, isn’t particularly representative of the cinematic innovation I’ve been discussing here, and yet, there is a modernity to it that I’m not sure America realized it was ready for until director Steve McQueen showed us the way.

The single most memorable image for me from 2013

The second shot, and the subtler of the two, comes about three quarters of the way through the film.  Standing in a field alone and slowly looking around at nothing in particular, Northup stands left of center in the frame. For a brief, breathtaking moment, Northup fixes his piercing gaze directly into the camera, as though to say, “this is not the story of me – it is the story of all of us.” 

These two shots, and a third – an extended close-up take in Gravity (pictured above) in which Sandra Bullock desperately attempts to stabilize her oxygen use – will be the chief take-aways for my cinema experience this year. I hope as television continues to tell great stories, film will continue to find new ways to distinguish itself by innovating and surprising us.

The Top 10 Films of 2013
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Before Midnight
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. Frances Ha
7. Gravity
8. Blue Jasmine
9. To the Wonder
10. Enough Said

Honorable Mentions (No particular order):
Don Jon
Fruitvale Station
All is Lost
Short Term 12
Spring Breakers

1 comment:

Jess Chamberlain said...

I always look forward to a pre-Oscar post by Adam Brown. Very well written, extremely intuitive, and thoughtful. Since I can't make it to the theater as often as I would like, I am always left to play the Netflix catch up. I am glad to have this list to give priority to the ones I plan to watch!