Top Five Movies of 2013

wwtop2013articleThank you to everyone involved (James, Colin, readers) – 2013 was a memorable year in which I welcomed my first born (human) child, Olive, and said goodbye to my first ‘child’ Wyatt (he was a Labrador mix that I adopted from a shelter 12 years ago). Even with all the excitement and memories, I was somehow able to see more than 90 films in 2013. Previously, we have posted my top #25-16 and top #15-6 movies of 2013, and below is my top five. How did I do? Do you agree?

5. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – If you told me you weren’t moved by 12 Years a Slave we maybe could no longer be friends. The emotions surfaced by Steve McQueen (Shame (2011)) are palpable in all the best and worst ways. You see the psychopaths that ran the slave trade in America and the countless victims besieged by this conspiracy. We also see the perils a person can endure trying to get themselves back to the family they love. Rarely do you hear of a movie that lives up to its expectations of educating its audience of the horrid aspects of a country’s history. Perhaps Schindler’s List (1993) is the only film that can be included within the same category.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, it is based on the autobiographical book of the same name recounting Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) survival from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Stripped of his family, freedom and human dignity, Solomon endures the harshest of conditions a human can impose upon another.

12 Years a Slave isn’t just a finely crafted story; the music and cinematography are also used to create a perfectly dismantled environment. Alternating between moments from his past and present, the story of Northrup’s capture and enslavement are told from the plantations on which he lives. With each of Northup’s sales, he is met by a different owner offering a different method of utilizing the slave trade. One owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), shows respect and gratitude, but simply shrugs with indifference when confronted with his immoral practices. Another owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is out to control his workers through fear of retribution for underperforming in the field. Both sides show that no matter the circumstance, Northup is against the odds of getting out alive and ever meeting his family again.

To its core, 12 Years a Slave is a must see. More times than not, it will be hard to keep your eyes on the screen as you witness unspeakable cruelty. However, with unbearable cruelty comes kindness. An emotion McQueen delicately offers his weary audience.

4. Mud (2012) – A southern tale about two young boys who choose to runaway and set sail down the Mississippi River. Not far into their voyage they come upon a small island with a shipwrecked boat hidden within the trees.  In this boat a mysterious and possibly dangerous character, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), is hiding and waiting for his life-long love. The boys become intrigued and find purpose in assisting Mud reach his goal. Director Jeff Nichols portrays a modern-day fairy tale about romance and trust, and doesn’t paddle away before suspense is masterfully delivered.

Throughout the film, Mud is said to be a liar, a man that one should never trust. Yet everything Mud tells the boys is a heartfelt confession. Mud shows the young boys that some people may never change their ways, but sometimes you need a little help to try and do whats right. A man of deep superstition, Mud is now relying on the trust of his first love (Reese Witherspoon) to save him from the island to which he has been cast. To assist in his escape, Mud has either recruited or manipulated the young boys to help accumulate essential items and pass along notes for Witherspoon’s eyes only. The mystery quickens when state troopers, a neighbour with a trigger finger, and some out-of-state plates begin asking if the boys have seen Mud.

The film includes two tremendous acting performances from Sheridan (The Tree of Life (2011)) and McConaughey. Sheridan was able to handle his role with such maturity, yet somehow managed to maintain a believable sense of wonder throughout the entire film. However, without McConaughey portraying the lively – and potentially dangerous – Mud, the film could easily have floated off course. The line is so finely drawn between McConaughey’s heroism and deceit, you are completely preoccupied when the unforeseen ending reveals another layer to the story.

Mud is told in the same nostalgic breath as a Huckleberry Finn adventure with a downwind whisper of a Terrence Malick film. It seduces the tendencies of an adolescent seeking both love and adventure. The embedded lesson illustrates that there may be consequences for your actions, but if your actions are with merit, then the repercussions are just. Time and time again, the main character, Ellis (Sheridan), engages in fistfights and scuffles with people much larger in stature, but when his motives are pure, the unjust never fight back. The people always simply walk away. But when Ellis fights out of jealousy or angst, he receives the blows twice as hard.

Although I felt that some additional time was needed for the bad guys to develop their characters, the underlying themes of Mud made it enjoyable. For that, Mud is one of the best films of the year and is unlikely to disappoint any movie viewer.

3. Before Midnight (2013) – We saw them fall in love… we saw them reunite… now we see them so comfortable with one another that their boredom with parenthood has turned into repulsion towards one another and, at times, regret. Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ‘Before’ series finds our beloved Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) with a family and the chance to be alone with one another for the first time in years. Based on their history, you would think they would use this time to whisper sweet nothings to one another and ohilisophicaly analyze their lives together. The only issue is that they no longer look towards their futures, but look backwards at what could have been. Celine has grown tiresome of their love story, which is now memorialized in Jessie’s best-selling books. She will forever be the French stereotype who romantically swept a fumbling American off his feet. Before Midnight is soul shattering for any fan of their relationship. Because Before Sunset (2004) sits comfortably in my top ten favorite films of all time, witnessing their tumultuous getaway and jarring exchange of words, left me shell-shocked.

As in the two previous stories, the location is a key character in the plot. In Before Sunrise (1995), they searched for meaning through the streets of Vienna. In Before Sunset, the two discussed romantic ideas involving their lives, their love, and the possibilities had they stayed together in Paris. Now they are on a family holiday in a place known for tragedy: Greece.

The differences between the first two films and the latest are quite apparent. The first films included very little communication with outside parties. For the first time, there now involves an ensemble, with a considerable portion of the film showing the duo discussing their ideas and dreams to others. Another contrast is the role technology plays in their daily lives and how being perpetually plugged in has left no room for spontaneity. Cell phones ring when they’re in the throes of passion. Young couples are able to Skype daily instead of allowing anticipation fester until a couple’s next embrace.

The starkest moment comes when the two are confined to a tiny hotel room alone. At first they use the opportunity of being alone to make love, but before long a battle of words ensues. The two pass the time exposing, posturing, and attacking one another. It’s a fight without weapons, but still cuts at your soul. They’ve individually realized their downfalls – Celine knew she wouldn’t be a good mother; Jesse would never grow up – yet we are spared affirmation that their love and history can conquer their downfalls. As in the first two, we are left without answers. The ending is up to the audience member’s imagination on whether they sorted out their differences – even if for just one night. Perhaps you envision Jesse having to sleep on the couch or they still ended up in the same bed. Based on the ending, it’s completely up to you. Depending on how rose colored your glasses are will determine whether Jesse and Celine sort everything out.

Before Midnight stays true to its source’s material. We now have affirmation that the passion exhibited earlier for life and each other was so pure that the characters did end up in each other’s arms. In Before Midnight, the audience sees mortality in their relationship. Whether their love and affection pushes them towards a next adventure is another story, hopefully a story that will be told in another nine years.

2. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – The comparability of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is more than apparent. Not just due to the storyline being about two young rebellious lovers, but also the use of cinematography and the amount of whispering voiceovers to display a character’s emotions. Lowery is able to supply his own voice and ensure that the story remains fresh and original. It’s a whimsical Americana tale which tempts you with the tale of a love lost and the hope for a better future.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ storytelling relies heavily on the use of memories, space, and mumbles. With two of the best character names in cinema this year, Bob Mulddon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are two passionate juveniles set on living their lives together, no matter the cost. Bob (a small-time crook) and Ruth (recently discovering she is pregnant) immerse themselves blissfully and blindly into young love. However, after a careless mistake by Ruth during a robbery gone wrong, Bob takes the fall for the crime and is given a 25-year prison sentence. As the two are whisked away in a heartbreaking embrace, Bob promises to return to Ruth and to meet their unborn daughter.

Once Bob breaks out of jail, the story ultimately evolves into Bob’s ornery determination to see his family and Ruth’s decision whether or not to assist in Bob’s mission. Their story and dilemmas provides enough juicy twists and turns, but what pushes the tale to a higher level is the supporting characters. A sheriff (Ben Foster), who has watched Ruth become a mature woman, feels himself a qualified suitor, as does the protective neighbor (Keith Carradine) who has taken Ruth and her daughter in as family. Throw in a couple unfamiliar faces around town asking intriguing questions about Bob and an explosive scenario festers just as Bob makes it into town.

What I appreciated most about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was the delicate balance Lowery achieves in portraying the differing periods of his characters’ lives. The regular flashbacks provided a window into each character’s motivations that would shift the story and provide a different perspective. Yet, the most powerful sentiment Lowery was able to conjure was the feeling that all characters truly loved Ruth and they would do (and did) anything to ensure her safety.  For that, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is worth escaping to Texas.

1. Upstream Color (2013) – My favorite movie of 2013 occupied the most confusing hour and a half of my year. The only proper way for me to describe this film is that it will leave you with a sober intoxication that takes days to shake.  Director Shane Carruth has crafted a rich and layered story told through a series of double-entendres and paradoxes that makes for a unique experience. Told in the same David Lynch fashion, attention to the details and the acknowledgment of different levels within the story are needed to interpret what appears to be, at times, absurdity.

To begin, we are introduced to a shady individual (Thiago Martins) who has weaponized a drug through worms he grows in his garden. His first victim is a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz). The drug hypnotizes its victims. Once administered, the amoral perpetrator robs Kris of her financial means. Once all resources have been exhausted, the robber leaves Kris untouched, but deeply troubled. Before long she meets Ryan (Carruth) and they quickly realize they have a connection that is beyond their comprehension. It appears Ryan has gone through the same ordeal. Together they try to piece together their unconscious connection and their shared relationship to seemingly random noises and feelings.

I’m not going to pretend that I understand the film’s intentions even after two viewings. However, I do appreciate that there are several underlying layers that incorporate characters and situations that would otherwise appear to be unrelated. The use of David Henry Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, plays a key role in the film to great effect.

Upstream Color doesn’t rely on sex and violence to convey its message. Instead it trusts its audience to exhibit patience and alertness. If you embark on the adventure with these virtues at the helm, it may too be your favorite film of 2013.

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