10. Frances Ha – This was not a movie I was expecting to enjoy as much as I did, considering I hated Noah Baumbach’s last film, Greenberg. But Greta Gerwig is an actress that has impressed me in almost everything I’ve seen her in, including Greenberg. This movie, following the title character through an unsettled year of her life, blew me away. Everyone around her, her best friend in particular, is taking that next step in life as Frances is spinning her wheels, even though she has a head full of dreams and aspirations. I loved how the passage of time is noted by the addresses of the apartments she lives in. There is a sequence in the film where Frances takes a spur of the moment trip to Paris for the weekend that was one of my favorites of the year. It’s filmed beautifully in black and white, and is definitely aspiring to the same kind of timeless depiction of New York City that Woody Allen’s Manhattan was aiming for by using black and white. It’s also a great ode to platonic love in a way that you don’t see in most films, with a call back at the end to something Frances says about love in an earlier scene. Definitely one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me.
9. Mud – The third coming-of-age film in my list is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to the terrific 2011 film Take Shelter. Nichols is someone quickly climbing up my list of favorite directors. It features an actor (McConaughey) that is on one of the hottest hot streaks in Hollywood right now. It rivals mid-to-late 2000’s Bale and the run that Fassbender and Gosling have been on in the last few years. Mud is the story of two teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone, that discover a boat up in a tree on a small island on the Mississippi. They quickly discover that they are not the only ones who have discovered the boat, running into a fugitive name Mud, on the run from the law and bounty hunters looking to reunite with his true love. Ellis’ journey through adolescence and his idealistic views of love and romance spur him on to help Mud beyond the point of safety and practicality. This film feels saturated in the ghost of Mark Twain. Between this movie, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and his scene-stealing performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, we are in a full-fledged McConaughssance period. Mud is a role that almost feels tailored to McConaughey; it’s tough to imagine someone else in the part. He gives a great, gritty performance. So does Ty Sheridan, the real lead of the movie, as Ellis. He is a young actor I am excited to see in the coming years.
8. All Is Lost – How do you follow-up one of the most dialogue-heavy films of recent memory, like 2011’s Margin Call? If you’re writer/director J.C. Chandor, you make a movie with one character and hardly any dialogue whatsoever. Seemingly everyone saw Gravity this year, a true cinematic spectacle. But there were two movies this year that focused on characters struggling to survive on the edge of existence and needing to rely on their wits and to make it. Alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean might as well be outer space. In both circumstances, if something happens to stand you in isolation out there, you are truly on your own. Robert Redford plays the unnamed “Our Man” in this film, sailing the ocean on his own in his boat. A chance encounter with a shipping container is just the start of his troubles as he must rely on his skill as a mariner and his intuition in order to survive everything the ocean throws at him. Through this struggle between the old man and the sea, Our Man comes face to face with his own mortality as his options and resources dwindle. Redford is an amazing screen presence. Being able to carry an entire film by yourself is a feat few actors could pull off, but Redford does it; partly because of the collective film history we have from him from the persona of characters he so usually portrays and his command of the screen. That is also what makes the circumstances Our Man faces feel so daunting, because Redford is an actor who you’re used to seeing be in control and unflappable. But the reality of the film is that the circumstances and the power of the ocean is something beyond him and his control. And it is a genuine struggle to survive. The stakes are very high. You see the desperation, the inventiveness, the desire to live in the face of impending death in his every action and line on his face.
7. American Hustle – David O. Russell is a director who is clearly more interested in the characters in his films than he is in the actual story. If the performances are not compelling enough, this can be to the film’s detriment. Luckily, it’s got great characters. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting from the late 70s, this movie uses the barest bones of that plotline as a loose story to connect these fictionalized characters caught up in the sting. The movie is firmly planted in the 70s. The wardrobes and the hairstyles are all top-notch. But beneath those ‘dos and that fashion are outstanding performances and trademark, vibrant David O. Russell characters. The two main stars are Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Bale’s performance is more than just the weight he gained for the role. His character should probably be mostly unlikable, considering that he’s a con artist and given the age discrepancy between he and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays his wife, a little shady and skeevy. But he manages to win the viewer over and make himself endearing. Amy Adams plays his partner in crime. She gets to play with accents and leave the audience wondering where her allegiances lie through this whole ordeal, playing against type from the roles she usually gets. Bradley Cooper plays the FBI agent in charge of the operation who has success and promotion blinders on as his ambitions for his operation keep getting bigger and bigger. Cooper is great under the right direction and when he’s not asked to be a “movie star” and instead do some ensemble acting. Russell really knows how to get a good performance out of him. Jennifer Lawrence is her typical amazing self, clearly a muse for Russell. Bale’s character calls her the “Picasso of passive-aggressive karate” and she fully embodies that, a character who often acts impulsively but is also quick on her feet to deflect any blame. Jeremy Renner also gives a great performance, another guy who it’s great to see in an ensemble piece instead of playing 2nd or 3rd banana in big blockbuster flicks. This is a really fun and funny movie.
6. Short Term 12 – This small indie film got a lot of buzz at the end of the year and was one of the few I didn’t get a chance to see. I finally watched it this week and was blown away by it. Brie Larson is definitely one of the winners of 2013, based in no small part on her terrific job here about a young woman who works in a foster care facility for troubled teens who is also struggling to keep things together in her own life. You see the ups and downs and the overall demands of a thankless job like that and can’t help but have a great deal of respect for people who do that kind of work and understand the passion they must have for the kids involved to be able to do it. At one moment heartbreaking and the next incredibly uplifting, I very quickly found myself rooting for the people who worked there and the kids who lived there. That one can get so invested in these characters in just a 90 minute runtime is a credit to the director and the actors. Kaitlyn Dever is the another young actress who I am hoping for big things from in the future. She had a recurring role on Justified back in season 2 of that show, and as impressed as I was with her back then I was ever more impressed with her in this film. This is an under-seen movie that is well worth seeking out.
Coming up next: 5-1