Top 15 Films of 2013 – Allen’s Picks
This is not an easy film to watch, and it shouldn’t be. Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches in showing all the cruelty and evil that came with American slavery. There were times where I felt compelled to turn away from what was happening on screen, but if McQueen chose not to show what these characters went through, it would be an act of disservice. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career as Solomon Northup, a black man living free in New York during the 1800s. Tricked and kidnapped into slavery in the South, Solomon has to face a moral crisis: how far must he go to survive? How much can he withstand to hold onto the chance of seeing his family again? Is he willing to inflict pain to others, or will he fight against his oppressors even if it means certain death? This is a brutal, unflinching story, but it’s also one of hope and faith. When times are at their worst, often that is all a person can rely on. This incredible true story shows how sometimes – just sometimes – belief can overcome the near impossible.
7: All is Lost
There have been a lot of films dealing with one person’s struggle to survive in dire circumstances. The best among them is J.C. Chandor’s gripping All is Lost. In a career filled with fine performances, Robert Redford gives one of his best as a lone sailor lost at sea. After his yacht collides with a floating ship container and starts to take in water, the sailor (who is never given a name) must rely on his smarts and resourcefulness to stay alive. But with terrible storms, equipment malfunctions, and dwindling food rations, time appears not to be on his side. Chandor’s film is stripped of any unnecessary fat – it is storytelling at its most elemental. Very little dialogue is spoken, but we feel and think through every emotion the sailor has with Redford’s effective acting. It’s fascinating seeing him try to solve one puzzle after another, using whatever he can to live long enough to see any sign of life come his way. The camera placement and art direction capture the immensity of the ocean around him, making the danger more pronounced as we move further. This proves no matter how much technology develops, the heart and soul of a film exists in its basic foundations.
Alexander Payne’s film encompasses a delicate balance between humor and sadness. The characters here hold much sorrow and regret over the lives they’ve led and where they find themselves today. And yet, there’s comedy brewing in their everyday routines. Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic who’s convinced he has won a million dollars through a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing flyer. Hell bent on making the trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim it, Woody will go as far as walking on the freeway to get there. His son David (a nice dramatic turn from Will Forte) decides to placate him by driving him to Nebraska. As word of Woody’s prize spreads, the lives of everyone around get exposed for what they really are. Payne has dealt with familial issues before, but here he excels with showing it with perfect subtlety. Woody’s motivations are small but clear, and when he finally lets us in, we are moved by the unexpected power of it. Great supporting work all around, particularly from June Squibb as Woody’s foul-mouthed wife.
5: Frances Ha
I had a goofy smile on my face the entire time I watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. This coming of age tale has so much undeniable joy and life running through every frame. Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay) exudes unending charm even when her character’s life appears to be a mess. Without a job and seeing everyone around her start to build their own lives, Frances (Gerwig) struggles to gain her bearings in New York. But she does so with optimism, it never appears the strain gets to her. When her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) moves out, Frances moves on with enthusiasm, even when she doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. Perhaps she acts the way she does to hide her true feelings, but never once did I feel she was ever in any real danger. Life handed her lemons, and she does what she can to deal with that. This film works because of the lead character. Frances is quirky, funny, and awkward in an endearing way. We root for her to make it as a dancer and find her little place in the world. The story depicts a time in life where people grow and find out who they’ll be the rest of their lives, and does so in an incredibly fun and entertaining way.
Martin Scorsese has been one of the best filmmakers alive for decades, and with The Wolf of Wall Street, he shows no signs of slowing down. His bloated, hyperkinetic skewering of corrupt stock market practices is a satire on overdrive. He inflates the narrative with excess in every way possible, showing how morally bankrupt the characters are. Some have claimed the film to be exhaustive and tiring, and it’s supposed to be. By the end we are expected to be sick and tired of all we’ve seen. In his most over top performance yet, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays stockbroker Jordan Belfort as a man with unquenchable thirsts for money, drugs, and sex. His greed is just as big as his ego, which only grows with the success he attains. Supported by a raging pack of friends (including Jonah Hill in a memorable role), Belfort dives head first into a surrealistic world where good and bad is dictated on how much money you have and how high you can get. It’s depravity and wickedness has no limits; they are shown as cartoonish fools who have no idea how far they have fallen. Worst of all, the system is set up for these kinds of people to never face the consequences of their actions.