Joshua Starnes’ Top 10 Movies of 2013


I’d like to once again give up the Weekend Warrior forum to one of’s finest writers and film critics, Mr. Joshua Starnes, so that he can talk about his ten favorite movies of the year, which only partially aligned with my own list. Take it away Josh!

If anything, this year was the year of the actor. There’s always at least one truly great performance to stay with you each year, but this was truly an embarrassment of riches, from the ensemble of 12 Years a Slave to films like Gravity and All is Lost, where all rode on one set of shoulders.

It was also, with a few glaring exceptions–I’m looking at you The Wolf of Wall Street–the year of the small, spare film, with the best stuff of the year coming in the form of small, character-focused dramas rather than over the top spectacle.

And then there’s the rare film, which manages to be both at the same time.

1. Gravity (Warner Bros.)

What can be said about “Gravity” which hasn’t already been said? It is a stupendous thrill ride showing us the best that effects-filled entertainment can be with its heady mix of astounding visuals and challenging performances.

Or I should say performance, as one of the many crutches writer-director Alfonso Cuaron does away with is a buoyant cast to provide exposition and scene chewing back and forth. Instead, in his quest to produce something as close to pure cinema as big budget filmmaking has managed, he has reduced his film to one character, requiring star Sandra Bullock to be as compelling as the vertiginous 12-minute opening shot. And she pulls it off in a performance reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s classic “Passion of Joan Arc.”

Which is just one of the many highwire acts “Gravity” has going at any one time as Cuaron pushes the limit of what 3D filmmaking and outstanding effects can present to us, and what we can take in from them.

That said, I’m still not sure if this is the absolute best film of the year — at this level it’s hard to tell — but nothing else impressed me quite like “Gravity” did. A huge risk, and a huge payoff for audiences. For once, I did not mind having to put on the 3D glasses.

2. Place Beyond the Pines (Focus Features)

It’s just different.

It has been said that the first hour of “Place Beyond the Pines” is the best hour of any film this year, but then the next two hours undo a lot of the good work Derek Cianfrance did in his follow-up to “Blue Valentine” as he experiments with narrative form without asking whether he should.

And there is definitely something to that; Ryan Gosling’s movie star charisma and downward spiral are far more enthralling than the misadventures of rookie cop Bradley Cooper or their children, and the continuous, sudden changes in focus may cost more than they reward to anyone who doesn’t watch 150 films a year.

But look deeper and “Pines” offers increasing rewards. Though everything lives in the shadow of Gosling, and on purpose, Cooper proves that his Oscar nomination for “Silver Linings Playbook” was not a fluke in what is arguably more difficult, and far more nuanced, performance. And Cianfrance proves he is no fluke, but is in fact that rare serious artist with serious cinematic chops. For all that has been and will be said about “Gravity” or “Wolf of Wall Street” or any of the triumphs of 2013, the most indelible image of the year remains Cooper finding himself suddenly and without realizing it standing over the crib of the man he murdered, the boy inside crying up at him.

“Pines” topped my list of films at mid-year and, six months later, little has come out which has been able to supplant it.

3. 12 Years a Slave

The only reason, and I do mean the only reason, this film is not number one is because I can never watch it again.

Steve McQueen’s long in the works adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of his time as slave in pre-Civil War America boasts many things: the finest ensemble of any film this year, beautiful images of terrible things from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and a portrayal of slavery so unflinching it should put to rest for all time arguments on whether those days still have power over us today. Stains like this never go away.

At the center of it all is Chiwetel Ejiofor in what is hands down the best performance of his career, which is becoming something of regular feature of this year’s films.

And yet he’s matched step for step by an impressive array of performances (some with no more than a scene, but all memorable) given truly complex material to work with as McQueen and writer John Ridley explore just how thoroughly slavery debased everyone who came into contact with it – culprit and victim alike.

It’s not easy viewing by any measure, but it is important, and sometimes that is more important.

4, The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)

With no hyperbole, I can say that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is Scorsese’s best film since “Goodfellas,” which isn’t to say he hasn’t made a bunch of really entertaining stuff in the intervening 13 years, but nothing with this level of pure, unrestrained joy at the depths humanity can fall to.

Based on the real life machinations of penny stock hustler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, who has never been better) who spent the ’80s and ’90s making millions before losing it all in a whirlwind of greed and poor personal decision making, “Wolf” is Scorsese’s tribute to white collar crime the way “Goodfellas” was to the blue collar variety. He and “Boardwalk Empire” cohort Terence Winters have made a comparison between drug addiction and greed so obvious in someone else’s hands it would be stultifying, but here is absolutely engrossing. In their hands it becomes an indictment of America, a country of drug addicts whose opiate of choice is money.

5. Before Midnight

Yes, this is the kind of film that critics live for and audiences have a hard time getting into, which is probably why no one went to see it, and that’s too bad. It’s rare for the third film in a series to be as good as the previous two outings, or for a director and his cast to get a chance to showcase the growth and change of their characters over decades in something like real time.

Each of the other “Before” films directed by Richard Linklater were films both of their times and the person making them. The original “Sunrise” made in the glory days of ’90s indie cinema, was everything those kinds of films were – boasting engaging performances from hip young leads and a profound disregard for orthodox storytelling techniques, filled with youthful hope and promise. “Sunset,” coming in the downward slide of the Bush presidency and more capitalistic Hollywood, held a more somber tone but also a more active promise of a happy ending.

“Midnight” continues that trend with its honest portrayal of a couple well past the young love stage, actively groping with what it means to be committed to one person for a lifetime, filled with the melancholy of approaching middle age and the romance of knowing one person so well.

Here’s hoping we get one more in another ten years.

6. American Hustle

Yes, it’s David O. Russell doing his best Martin Scorsese. But you know what? He does it
awfully damn well.

The other great ensemble film of the year could be called David O. Russell’s greatest hits as he has assembled some of the best performers of his last few films and challenged them to go one better playing complicated people trapped in a farce of their own making which they might not be able to escape from alive. Cooper, though hilarious, is not quite as good here as he is in “Pines,” but that’s okay as Bale’s neurotic con artist more than makes up for the loss, bouncing back and forth between Amy Adams who continues to be one of Hollywood’s best modern actresses and Jennifer Lawrence who is one of the few who can top her. Here, she tops everyone, sashaying into every scene in a cloud of foul narcissism, laying claim to the best jokes and then escaping again. For that alone, “American Hustle” deserves a place on this list.

That and the alien hair monster devouring Jeremy Renner’s skull.

7. All is Lost

“Margin Call” was not a great film but it was an awfully good one, a small, contained little drama about the characters living through the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of investment banking. Filled with snappy dialogue and sharply defined characters it earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay and left me anxious to see what writer-director J.C. Chandor would do next.

Whatever it was I was imagining, it was not a nearly silent film about a man, surviving a storm, on a boat.

But that’s what we got and it is engrossing from the moment Robert Redford awakens to discover the Indian Ocean rapidly filling his small boat. Spare from running time to action, “All is Lost” lets nothing get in the way of following its unnamed protagonist as he tries to repair his boat and get to safety, and continually fails no matter how much he does right. It’s to Chandor’s credit that, despite “Gravity” also appearing this year, “Lost” offers little in the way of comparison (without falling to very broad descriptions) but instead stands up handily on its own two feet.

It also reminds us, in case we had forgotten, why Robert Redford became a movie star in the first place, and what he can do when he puts his mind to it.

8. Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features)

When I added “Killer Joe” to my list last year, I thought to myself this was the point where Matthew McConaughey finally becomes a truly good actor. Now I’m sure of it.

His performance in that film and “Mud” earlier this year were as controlled and deliberate as anything he’d ever done, but he’s on a different level in “Dallas Buyers Club” as a good old country boy rodeo worker in the 1980s Texas who suddenly finds his life in a tailspin after he discovers he has contracted AIDS.

Bouncing around between somber life lesson and harsh polemic on the handholding between the US government and pharmaceutical companies, Jean-Marc Vallee’s film proves all the promise of “Young Victoria” and then some with its delicate touch and character focus. And, though I have said this before, the gaunt McConaughey has never been better in what could well be the performance of the year.

It’s too bad the film is completely stolen from him by Jared Leto in his best supporting actor performance.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis (Fox Searchlight)

I’ve seen this film three times now and I still don’t know what to make of it. I just know that I like it.

In a way this frustrating, intentionally pointless parable about the life of folk singer in 1960s New York is the Coen’s career in microcosm – obsessed with explaining the pointlessness of life while refusing to let their characters give in to it, they are classic masters of the absurd.

It’s that sense of comedy which infuses so much of their work and makes their bitter medicine go down, and yet in “Davis” they set it aside in exchange for mournful lyrics and a melancholy lead too busy thinking about what has gone wrong in his life to laugh at himself… although he has plenty of time to laugh at us.

It’s not as difficult as “A Serious Man” or “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” which is probably why it has so much more promise, refusing to be easily pinned down, instead just floating along under a gloomy winter sky.

10. The Unknown Known (RADiUS-TWC )

I’ll admit to being an Errol Morris groupie – he has yet to make a documentary I wouldn’t happily sit through a dozen times. At the time it came out I said that “Fog of War”–Morris’ extended interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara–should be required viewing for all high school students and again for anyone entering the civil service, in order to see how we got drawn into the conflict in Vietnam with the hope of never having it happen again.

“Unknown Known” is essentially Morris’ sequel to “Fog,” examining how we did get drawn into another open ended conflict which could have been avoided (and this time with our eyes wide open) through the lens of Bush era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Absorbing and captivating, “Known” is the sort of examination of what exactly our leaders were thinking and why they were thinking it during momentous events which history usually can only guess at.

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Tuesday: Jun. 2, 2020


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