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Feb 25, 2014

Best of 2013 - My Top 20

No matter what might think of 2013, in my opinion it was a great year for films. I've been against pushing films right at the very end for awards recognition but when you are among such cinematic wonders... who cares as long as you get to see them? So the awards season is about to come to an end with the Oscars soon. I must say that critics were way too soft on many films but then they were the ones who stood by for many great films that surprisingly, the general audience themselves were very critical of. A year of numerous divisive films. 2013 had many films that had to do with the survival of human beings. Both metaphorical and literal, within the confounds of humans themselves or nature. From Gravity and All is Lost to 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. Many good original films and adapted ones. Lots of films about the excess of human misery and lack of morals. Foreign cinema had lots to offer and so did American independent cinema. This is one of those years where I had strong association with each and every film that made my top 20 list. "Her" was a highly personal experience for me, how it provided not only critique of the world and future we are heading towards but relationships and love. The same goes out for Richard Linklater's career best film "Before Midnight". "Blue is the Warmest Color" was another film that revolved around relationships, love, growing up. Look at "Stories We Tell" and how that documentary involves how we look at our lives and loved ones from different perspectives. In short, 2013 provided us with highly daring films both creatively and subject wise. Some masterful studies and pieces of filmmaking and some good experiments. I am very happy to look back at the year and find so much greatness in many ways. 2013 for me will go down in the history as one of the greatest years for films. Below are my top 20 favorite films of the year starting off with some honorable mentions, both in ascending order. And yes, my next and final post about the Best of 2013 would be my personal awards so look forward to that.

Honorable Mentions:-
                                                Beyond the Hills, Blancanieves, Enough Said, The Conjuring, Our Children, Behind the Candelabra, The Past, Nebraska, Ship of Theseus and Berberian Sound Studio.

Countdown (20-11)

20. Mud

Nobody understands the essence of American south the way Jeff Nichols does. His previous film while worked on two different perspectives, offered a great insight on the mindset of a typical middle class American family. Here, we have an almost fairytale story about two boys who comes across a hiding man named Mud in one of the islands of the Mississippi river, who wants to escape with the love of his life. Both Ellis & Neckbone are intrigued by this while at the same time, they have troubles of their own as well. Mud features superb performance from Matthew McConaughey who has been doing great. Not to forget one of the best performance by a young actor in recent years by Tye Sheridan. The film is shot beautiful among the rivers and swamps, great feel of the place. Its an involving study of how this young boy sees people around him fall apart while he desperately tries to find the 'happiness'. Slow paced but beautifully told drama.

19. The Spectacular Now

This year's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"? It takes that slot of a film revolving around grown-up/growing up teens told with insight and dramatic heft. A winner at the Sundance, the film still surprised me with its maturity and how intimately it showed the lives of its characters. Its the story of Sutter Keely played very well by Miles Teller. He is a guy who fully lives in the Now. He meets a nice girl named Aimee Finicky at an important turn in his life. They are both different yet drawn to each other. Don't expect this to be a sappy, cliche, predictable sugar-laced rom-com because it is far from that. Passionate, emotional and very carefully told story of the point of life when one has to 'grow up'. The confusions and reality checks, the what ifs and what nots. Shailene Woodley adds another great performance to her resume. The film is written, directed and overall acted quite promisingly. Watch it if you haven't.

18. All is Lost

And the award for the most daring move by a new filmmaker goes to... J. C. Chandor. Way to follow up his debut feature with a film without any dialogue at all. All is Lost is a survival film in the most purest form. It stars Robert Redford in one of the most memorable roles of his career. A nameless man who battles nature, storms and high-seas in a boat. It carefully observes this man, how he deals with such grave situations. Not for a second did the film felt flat or boring to me. It was a compelling watch and a different take that offered so much without ever relying on dialogues. Robert Redford gives one of the best performances of the year. A bold move for an actor of his age to do the film and do it so superbly. All is Lost features excellent score, cinematography, editing and Chandor's confident filmmaking. Visual storytelling at its best.

17. The Wolf of Wall Street

Here we have a film that went all over the place with viewers and maybe some critics. I wont lecture you on what this film is trying to say and show or why but I have never seen the absurdity, ridiculousness, hedonism the way I did here. Its a film of our times, about the excess of all things bad while lack of morality. This is my favorite film among the similar themed features of the year. This is exactly how you make a satire. Martin Scorsese shows no sign of slowing down with a film that is utterly wild, repulsive and hilarious. He and screenwriter Terence Winter made a film that makes us see the world of these Wall Street guys in a manner that doesn't glorify them as much as people think it does but really show how undoubtedly larger than life and appealing it is yet what that makes them come out as at the end of the day. The sequences play out freely, sometimes they bug you but that is what they set out to do. It doesn't have cool editing and kinetic visual energy as his previous films but that would have made a mess out of it in my opinion. It is overlong yet never loses the intensity. With great soundtrack, a huge cast and a career defining performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street is a film to watch.

16. Short Term 12

Written and directed by Destin Cretton and based on his short film of the same name, Short Terms 12 is set in a foster-care facility and we experience the place through the eyes of the supervisor Grace. She is in love with her co-worker boyfriend and is good at doing her job taking care of the 'at-risk teenagers'. This film was a big winner at the SXSW Film Festival and got great deal of buzz and acclaim. The film is overwhelmingly emotional while avoiding the easier to do, sappy melodramatic tone. It shows the rough lives, rough state of mind and raw psychs and emotions of these neglected kids. The main character of the film deals with her own sets of issues including her past and how the present and these kids all collide to throw her completely out. This is the kind of small indie feature that always tells us how good stories doesn't always need big budgets. You wont be able to hold your tears back, its a film that manages to break your heart while present a future that is hopeful but unpredictable for the characters. It has a great ensemble of younger actors, memorable scenes of intense emotions and one of the best performances of the year by Brie Larson.

15. Gloria

This Chilean feature by director Sebastian Lelio has one of the most instantly grabbing narratives of the year. It has story and a way of dealing with it that hardly any Hollywood filmmaker would dare to tell. Featuring award winning, wonderful and truly moving performance by Paulina Garcia, Gloria is about a divorced 58 year old woman of the same name going out of her way to find ways to fill her life with something interesting. Her kids have lives of their own but she doesn't want to lead an empty, boring and lonely life. She goes to various parties and everything but they disappoint until she develops a strange attraction towards a slightly older man. What Gloria has going for it is how wonderfully drawn out the character study is and how Lelio loves the character enough to show her in literally every situation quite intricately. The film doesn't shy away from darkness, from intensity and from being bold. Its both compassionate and honest and again, features a truly brilliant performance by Garcia. Also the use of the titular old hit song at the end of the film couldn't have been better.

14. The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard has directed one of the most powerful films of the year featuring mainly young characters. This British indie feature is as brutal as one can get showing life of misery. It has strong performances, specially from Conner Chapman. The characters are all caught up in desperate situations leading a life where they draw their own lines and go all the way for that. You simply cannot judge or hate them for doing what they do immediately since their actions are rooted into much deeper conflicts and troubles. Second film on my list to have a story reminiscent of a famous children's book and told from the perspective of children making a compelling narrative out of how the characters react to the things around them. The rusty sort of visuals and beautiful cinematography really highlights the bleakness of the story and the place. It has an emotionally shattering plot and turn of events that will freeze the living soul of yours.

13. The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty or La Grande Bellezza is one of the most famous foreign films of the year from Italy and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. From being part of the official lineup at Cannes to its Oscars nomination, this film slowly got the attention of the viewers all around. With its story and style that people have compared to master Federico Fellini, The Great Beauty is an ambitious tale of empty hedonism of the modern era. With its opening sequence of intoxicating and dizzying non-stop dancing to the strangely mythical beauty of Rome and the lead character of Jep Gambardella (played very well by Toni Servillo) who struggles to find the beauty of greater kind in his life and in the world around him, this film rules. He is struggling to make something out of his life now as compared to who and how he was before. Self-aware and deprecating, he is brutally honest but battles with his life even though he enjoys being a part of it. Who wouldn't? This is one of those films that are so intensely cinematic, watching them just hurts. Great work of cinematography and direction, beautifully written and shown in the most driven ways, The Great Beauty is very worthy of the acclaim it has gotten throughout the year.

12. The Hunt

This Danish feature film by director Thomas Vinterberg is nothing short of a horror film. It revolves around a person's worst nightmare. A modern witch-hunt fable, it shows a respected and beloved man named Lucas accused of molesting a child. To those who mistook this film somehow, this isn't about Lucas' innocence but the theme here is what an accusation can do to your life and how even if cleared off as not-guilty, once despised = always despised. A small community where everybody knows each other and you share a perfect equation with people and your beloved friends, something like this can ruin your entire life. The child whose words people take literally isn't molested by him, that we all know but she says what she sees (elsewhere) and her innocent little mind cannot make a sense of it. Excellently written and explored, Vinterberg makes a great use of the kind of filmmaking his country is known for. With beautiful visuals, a sadness that runs through the atmosphere, showing the change of seasons but a stillness as far as the perspective regarding the character goes, The Hunt really makes for a powerful viewing. Not to forget that Mads Mikkelsen gives his career best performance. Showing him as a man torn apart for something he hasn't done, dealing with situations beyond him and being a responsible father and individual that he is. Horrifying experience. If for nothing, watch it for Mikkelsen's magnificent turn.

11. The Act of Killing

Oh boy! Was the word 'harrowing' made for this film? This documentary by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (along with Anonymous and Christine Cynn) got an extremely high degree of praise and attention for its bold subject and innovative ideas of dealing with it. Including me of course since I don't really watch documentaries a lot. It shows some of the people, highly celebrated gangsters of sorts who were part of the death squad in the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966. Many people were killed, literally slaughtered in the name of politics. What is so disturbing here is how they are all still celebrated and how confidently and with great pride they tell their stories. Man! this is not just a typical history lesson... it is so much more than that. I don't remember the last time I was so involved and personally affected by experiencing a piece of history in a film. A history that I wasn't aware of but its existence proves how atrocious some of the aspects of our society, us as individuals and deadly mix of politics-religion-race can be. These people are given free-pass to re-enact their crimes in whichever ways they want. Mostly using the well-known Hollywood genres. All of this makes up for a powerful and life-shattering viewing. The journey that you have is literally hell-ish like meeting and getting to know the devils. By the end, you truly get to know the power of documentaries. That is... if you make it to the end!

Countdown (10-1)

10. Upstream Color

Shane Carruth's sophomore film is one hell of a maze. While it may feel intimidating at first because of its wildly unusual narrative style and subject but once you let go, this film has a strong affinity to cast a profound spell on you. I visited it two times and not out of confusion but to experience it once again. To simply put, Upstream Color has two main characters whose lives are affected by a complex cycle of parasites... I know! Upstream Color utilizes the rhythmic but unconventional narrative structure where the film is made up of sequences rather than an actual plot per say but they are linked in such a way, using sounds and visuals that the film comes across as very seamless. You can interpret the many elements of the film in whichever way you want but it will always ring true. There is some brilliant imagery that they have used in the film that takes you everywhere. From the characters to the parasites and from the things that happens to them to how it impacts everything around them. The photography, score, sound design, direction, acting but above all, the editing of Upstream Color is just beyond great. Watch it for the bold and innovative filmmaking this is and if you truly immerse yourself, this will give you an experience that you will never forget.

9. Frances Ha

Frances Ha is a 2013 film that hit really close to me from the moment it was known to exist back in 2012 Telluride film festival. I am not a huge fan of Noah Baumbach neither Greta Gerwig (although now I am) but something about this project and then its trailer, really sparked my interest. A black & white film in modern New York that portrays the many awkward but true moments in the life of one Frances Ha (that's not her full name but I don't want to rob you of the ending). Greta Gerwig wrote the film with her real-life boyfriend Noah Baumbach who directed as well of course and somehow, that truly impacted on the kind of film this turned out to be. Its a character study in a way that never judges and truly loves the titular character to everything she goes through or put herself into. She isn't likable but that has more to do with how beautifully and gracefully Gerwig plays her. Another film where editing has a huge purpose in the film, where different moments creates the film and drives the whole narrative of getting a closer look at the character. Frances Ha is about the confusion of becoming an adult, with a desire of being purposeful yet never truly reaching there sooner. It is about friendships and how one loses their sanity with a person they feel most close to. Boosting from beautiful acting, great writing and a delightful soundtrack, Frances Ha is a great film about the different comedies and tragedies of life... Frances style!

8. Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Issac in a breakthrough performance is a struggling folk singer in the 60's New York. His recent album isn't selling, his musical partner committed suicide, he has no place to live nor any money to spent. The Coen Brothers have once again managed to make a great film in their own unique style that they are very much known for. It is both one of their funniest films in years and one of the most heartbreaking one. From the visuals aspects to the songs and the plot, the film is filled with a sense of longing, lose and melancholy. Don't mistake this film for a biography of some sort since it is partially inspired by a well-known singer but doesn't represent him in any way. This is a film with the best soundtrack of the year. They aren't just song performances but they represent the emotions of the main character and what he is going through. The film has an interesting beginning and end that ties together perfectly, the nature of Llewyn Davis' miserable life. Bruno Delbonnel's excellent work gives the film such a distinct look and has some beautiful shots. Exploring the nature of an artist, the arrogance and attachment that they have for their work and how that comes into play with their personal tragedies. Darkly funny, very moody and really moving work.

7. Stranger by the Lake

Alain Guiraudie's Cannes winner was an instant favorite of mine upon watching. It made a convincing case right from the beginning and thankfully, the rest of the film didn't disappointed at all. As evident by the name, this film involves a lake and a stranger. Lake and its surrounding area is all we see in this film, that is where it takes place and we aren't shown the outside world. Naked men comes there to sunbath and savor the beautiful nature but also to have sex with other men. A younger and beautiful guy falls head over heels for a mysterious but hot man. The sense of community that director builds and all the subtle critiques or exploration that he offers via the setting, the acts and their consequences is quite superb. Then a generic twist happens that doesn't spoil the film experience. It is his ability to masterfully blend in both these things and present them in a unique and creative way while completely taking over the audience and their senses, that makes this one of the best films of the year. The still photography, long-takes, POV and perspective shots, capturing the beautiful location, using silence to deadlier consequences... the explicit nudity, entrancing merger of both sex and death... Stranger by the Lake has that and a lot more. It might be too slow for some but that was one of the things which made this work for me.

6. Stories We Tell

The best documentary of the year in my opinion, Sarah Polley's best film so far was both emotionally enriching and cinematically impressive experience for me. The basic concept of the doc may sound quite pretentious to some but Polley makes it work. This is about her family, the life she lived, the life they lived, an important revelation regarding Polley herself and how they all look at various aspects of their own lives and the relationship of their parents. Stories We Tell explores how truth is always subjective that our memories and reflection is basically our own way of seeing at things and to talk about something using different perspective, one gets an influenced idea of the 'truth' as we know it. Using beautiful techniques, largely convincing and even emotional interviews with the family and friends, constructing a wonderfully involving narration and playfully using cinema (non-fiction) as a mode for Polley's own personal and emotional exploration, Stories We Tell is one of the greatest and most creative films I have ever seen. Kudos to the filmmaker and more female directors please!

5. Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color is directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This film was winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes (which was also given to the actresses for their hard work). It is based on a graphic novel and stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. They both give one of the greatest performances I have seen last year with Exarchopoulos truly giving, what will most likely go down as one of the most brave and equally convincing performances by a newcomer. More than anything, "Blue" is a coming of age story of this girl Adele and her transition to womanhood as well as her intense sexual, emotional, friendly, intellectual relationship with Emma. From the conversations to the sex, from the dinner scenes to the conflicts, the transition, the changes, the longings, the painful realities and the numerous miseries of falling in love, Blue makes up for a compelling 3 hours viewing. A masterpiece! Unlike any such films I have seen that explores the passion, so passionately and to such emotionally devastating results. And did I say Adele Exarchopoulos is beyond incredible?

4. Gravity

Here is a film that makes me proud of being a film buff. To have a great filmmaker using the modern innovative techniques and making a sci fi film to end all sci fi(ies). Alfonso Cuaron has previously made some great films. He collaborates here with his favorite cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the visual effects team that he assembled to create this film we were born to experience. From its first 15 minutes (my favorite moment in any 2013 film), it sets out perfectly what its trying to do. Gravity is one hell of an experience, making us a part of the world it creates using what this modern age has to offer. The visual effects, the cinematography, editing, score, sound design, production... all the way to the career best performance by Sandra Bullock, Gravity has a lot to offer. You don't know these characters but you grow to sympathize with them (with her actually since Ryan Stone is the main focus). Gravity explores the vastness and dangers of space, it offers a great experience alongside the characters and their physical-emotional struggles. The change that Stone goes through is portrayed in truly impressive way, a rarity in modern blockbusters. It is the confidence and head-on brilliance of Cuaron who assembled everything he imagined to. You know films are meant to offer experiences, here you have both kinds of them merged into one with all the wizardry and assurance. Its a groundbreaking work and impressive in every way. You literally feel the vertigo after you finish watching it, its that great of an 'experience'. Emotionally moving and technically shocking.

3. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen has built himself as one of the most honest and daring new voices of our times. His third feature film while many would think of in the first glance as 'Oscar-bait', elevates that notion offering us a great biography while never restricting it to be just that. 12 Years a Slave is brutal, harrowing and shattering look at the life of Solomon Northup who was born free but was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. What follows is a tale that will shake the living soul out of you. McQueen and writer John Ridley has created a film that portrays not only what the main character goes through but overall a world we always saw from different perspective. The film is both a personal tale of one man and his miseries and the people like him he comes across but also those times and how evil was rooted in the very existence of some people. This is a film which shows human beings treated in the most humiliating and animalistic ways. When their entire lives are taken away from them and are kept in such conditions that you would question the 'humanity' itself. The way McQueen has made this film is though anything but provocative or with an agenda of some kind. It is strictly psychological, meditative and from the utmost inner perspective of those people. The passing of time isn't shown in the most literal way thus creating a feverish atmosphere where these people go through the same things everyday while 'life goes on...'. Its not only the filmmaking and writing but 12 Years a Slave excels in literally every department. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o give three of the best performances of the year. They all in their own way, offer so much to their characters. Their portrayal is powerful just like the film. A great cast with technical brilliance, horrific story and poetic filmmaking. A film to be seen because it needs to be seen but that is just one way of saying that it did its job.

2. Before Midnight

Oh Richard Linklater... Ethan Hawke... Julie Delpy! Who are these creatures and why are they so freaking good? The third and the best (career best too) film of the Before Trilogy by Linklater is a film that shows Jesse and Celine nine years after the conclusion of the previous film. They have two children of their own and are a couple. Jesse has his son who lives with his ex-wife. Celine has her own problems, most importantly her career. I disagree with those who say that this film offers nothing new. It does just like the previous films did which is to perfectly, accurately, honestly capture the point where both these characters are at in their lives. They aren't your lovebirds anymore. They do love each other but life happens... the realities of life happens and the fears, troubles and conflicts that arises from being in a relationship and growing old together. Before Midnight is brutal and raw which is evident specially from that painful to watch long sequence in the hotel room. Its written perfectly where the dialogues offer so much insight to the characters. The filmmaking is very observant and beautiful. The performances are strong, specially from Julie Delpy who stuns. Yeah its a film where they just talk and talk but nothing about it (like the previous films) is stagnant or boring. The conversations and observations are so true to life and complex within their simplicity and revealing as well as intimate. Whether its the dramatic side or slightly witty points, this film is an example of how writing plays an important role in filmmaking, constructing an arc and helping the characters make a case for themselves. A cinematic achievement, great trilogy, superior and truly magnificent work from all three assured artists. It destroys you!

1. Her

Phew! Like this was a surprise? Her is the best film of the year in my opinion. That was already spoiled for you in my review, if you read it though. Spike Jonze's best film is both a social and intellectual critique of how technology is taking over our lives and where we are heading as well as an emotionally moving romantic comedy/drama. Her is about being in love, falling in love, falling down in love! It is about the relationships, how we enter them, how they change us, how our changes impact what we share and how at the end, we come out differently. Jonze's writing and direction is poetic, simply said. His observations are honest and from the heart. He offers great insight, very intimate and personal takes through these characters. Theodore Twombly is a sad and lonely man, about to be divorced and working as a personal letters writer (awesome job!). The film sets up its premise very beautifully from the start. It goes on to create such different dynamics and they are all really wonderfully explored. Theodore buys a new technology where the operating system can not only talk to you but it can evolve just like a human being. Samantha as she calls herself, comes into Theodore's life and really makes him realize and see himself as a man who was once looked upon by his wife. The way he loses himself into Samantha while not realizing that she too is a 'person' herself, shows exactly how relationships work in reality. Then there is the whole arc of Samantha herself. It is beguiling, goosebumps inducing and at first, strange but boy does Jonze knows how to make it work! Her has everything going on for it. There isn't a single fault that I could find in the film. This was a special experience for me and I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. The beautiful score, cinematography, the ingenious production design and numerous other things that the film has, truly astounds.

Scarlett Johansson's voice performance is significant in making that character truly connect to the audience. The way she does it, capturing the slight nuances to the very obvious aspects is both convincing and helpful in creating a whole different personality without ever getting to see her. Not so surprisingly, Joaquin Phoenix once again gives a very good performance in a role that literally everyone could relate to. He captures the fragility of his characters, the reality of his life and his longings so beautifully. Her is my second #1 film of the year in a row to star Phoenix so that is something. All in all, Her is emotional, romantic, hilarious, philosophical, poetic, sci-fi, reality... a great package! One of the greatest films ever made and the film of our times.