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Top 10 films of 2013

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The top ten films of 2013 include 12 Years a Slave, the Dallas Buyer's Club, Captain Phillips and Gravity. (Courtesy credits from top left: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Sony Pictures).


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DECEMBER 16, 2013

Honorable Mentions:

Pacific Rim

Sick of the “Transformers” franchise destroying your love of giant robot battles? Guillermo Del Toro’s most recent addition to his canon of fantastical, horrific and wonderful films is the jaw-dropping spectacle “Pacific Rim.” A love letter to kaiju (Japanese monster) and giant robot films, this movie is all of your childhood Saturday morning cartoons on the big screen. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as emotionally damaged Jaeger (as the giant robots are called) pilots and Idris Elba as a battle-hardened Jaeger commander, give the film a healthy dose of interpersonal drama. The big draw, however, is the beautiful, expansive world that Del Toro fashions on screen, creating one of the most visually stimulating films this year. The plot and dialogue can be cliche at times and certainly take a backseat to the massive ocean battles, but that’s where the film’s strength lies — and what a strength it is.

— Youssef Shokry

Read the full review here.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is not just good for a film popular with tweens. Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy might stock the shelves of the young adult section, but it’s a complex dystopia with echoes of media infiltration relevant to our modern culture of reality television and celebrity exploitation. After winning the Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark embark on a Victory Tour of the districts of their fallen opponents. As a rebellion against the Capitol simmers, the manipulative President Snow plans to off Katniss in the next Games. This, however, only increases her visibility as a symbol for the rebellion. The film adaptation captures this complexity and enhances the visceral affectation of the tragic circumstances surrounding the Games. The cast is excellent, led by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence as the stoic Katniss. But Jena Malone steals the show, making her debut as the ax-wielding, expletive-spitting Johanna Mason. Looks like the quality of the film series is indeed catching fire.

— Caitlin Kelley

Read the full review here.

10. Spring Breakers

“Spring Breakers” wouldn’t be a satire if it blatantly announced itself as one. The film, directed by Harmony Korine, has been spurned by some who fail to see the layers of sociopolitical commentary subtly woven among its stereotyped scenes. Partying youth, white gangster wannabes and robberies are so flashy and deliberately overdone that it’s clear the film’s depictions of American life are intended to be tongue-in-cheek. James Franco plays the drug-dealing, dreadlocked Alien, who thrives in a Florida town taken over by cocaine-crazed “spring breakers.” Selena Gomez plays Faith, a girl whose name is clearly allegorical, and appears alongside fellow pop icons Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and the director’s wife, Rachel Korine. The film’s cinematography often mirrors the college girls’ hazy state of mind, revealing dark exteriors, obscure figures and pulsing, colored lights. “Spring Breakers” is an effective cult classic, satirizing its characters and making youth uncomfortable, forcing us to think twice about our own values within the framework of popular culture.

— Kate Irwin

Read the full review here.

9. Blue is the Warmest Color

The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” forced the world of cinema to examine the nature of obscenity and our absurd reaction to sex in film. Originally adapted from a graphic novel, this French-language film follows a young woman named Adele through an adventure of her own sexuality, fidelity and identity. The result is an incredibly intimate look at women’s non-normative sex lives in a way that satisfies both feminists and voyeurs. The latter may be disappointed to discover that fake genitals were employed in the most graphic scenes, but the effect is convincingly lifelike while giving the censors more absurdity to satisfy their endless hunger for senseless prudery. Rather than expound on the injustices served to queer-identified people, the film focuses on a raw human element in the awkwardness of our first sexual experiences. The cinematography keeps the audience uncomfortably close, unable to look away. Despite having a male director, the film does not depict the male gaze. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is quite possibly the best, most realistic and truly representative lesbian film to date.

— Meg Elison

8. Fruitvale Station

If you haven’t seen “Fruitvale Station,” you missed out on something big this year. The film tells the story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot on the platform by a BART Police officer in front of his young daughter. Rather than dwell on the shooting — there are many videos of it on YouTube, if you want to punish yourself with the elemental ugliness of humanity — the filmmakers chose to give the audience a day in the life of the dead man. The death is personalized; Grant is no longer a faceless black man shot by a white cop, just another BART passenger. “Fruitvale Station” brings our hometown death straight home. Far from being just a social consciousness piece, the film is a skillful set of visions, bringing the viewer into the bleak life of an entire doomed class. Everyone knows the story of the man who got shot, but the film strives to show him as a man and a symbol in equal measure. Enjoyable isn’t the word, but it’s an experience everyone in the Bay Area should have.

— Meg Elison

Read the full review here

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is self-aware of how devilishly clever it is. It’s the auteuristic watermark of the Coens, but who can blame them? When Llewyn calls a more successful musician “careerist”? That’s hilarious. When Justin Timberlake just so happens to play a pop singer, or when Llewyn is on a voyage to find a cat named Ulysses, you can feel Joel and Ethan behind the screen, waiting for the momentous “oooooh” and “aha!” from the audience.

The brothers, however, have grown since their Lebowski days. It’s not the wit that wins you over anymore but the film’s tremendous heart. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the ultimate love letter: to Americana, to New York City and to the crying passion behind every artist. As our folk-singing anti-hero traverses gorgeously somber stills of beatnik Greenwich Village, desperate for a mere winter coat and a couch to crash on, you can feel the worn-out, discontented soul in every line he sings. Suddenly, we’re inside Llewyn Davis.

— Jason Chen

Read the review of the soundtrack here.

6. Blue Jasmine

“Blue Jasmine” is the quintessential Woody Allen film. This tale of a distraught heroine unraveling at the seams while a host of quirky side characters attempt to attend to her delusions plays out in one of Cate Blanchett’s most powerful and accessible performances in recent memory. What’s poignant about Allen’s films is that they are fundamentally humanistic — absent are any attempts at making the audience “feel for” the characters. You don’t have to like Jasmine or her nervous sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins); you just need to observe and understand their disintegration. Perhaps you’ll come away frustrated, or perhaps you won’t come away with anything at all. “Blue Jasmine” is one of the best films of the year because, despite the messy relationships and complicated love interests, it’s just so goddamn simple. Here is a story of how a person comes to her wits end. Nothing more.

— Lynn Yu

Read the full review here.

5. Before Midnight

With another nine years comes another installment in Richard Linklater’s trilogy of lovers, and this third film in the series is the most gripping and authentic. The films, beginning with “Before Sunset” in 1995 and “Before Sunrise” in 2004, are brief moments in the life history of Jesse and Celine, two truer-than-life lovers who first meet on a train to Vienna.

Nine years later, the story picks up appropriately in Greece, where something of a Greek tragedy plays out in a tight 109 minutes. Passions push and pull monumentally in the dialogue of the actors, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, now exhibiting complete mastery of their craft. No other director could make a film consisting almost entirely of two people talking to each other and fascinate the way Linklater does. With “Before Midnight,” this trilogy has cemented its place in film history as the rare love story to become a mirror to the truth.

— Lu Han

Read the full review here.

4. Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking tale of self-discovery and spiritual awakening set in the dark chill of outer space may be the most unconventional contribution to the genre of space adventure films. The science-fiction thriller pits medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) not against an evil dark lord or a belligerent alien race but against the reality of her own mortality and her struggles with faith. Critics of the film cite its lack of a strong story line as a defining weakness, but what “Gravity” lacks in a compelling narrative it makes up for in stunning, transportative visuals and compelling characters. The film bursts with humanity despite its lifeless setting, thanks in large part to Bullock’s endearing performance. However, “Gravity” is one of 2013’s best films due to Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative and immersive 3-D virtual cinematography. Awe-inspiring CGI launches “Gravity” into the realm of spectacle by bringing the wonders of outer space to life and immersing audiences in Stone’s fantastical environment.

— Grace Lovio

Read the full review here.

3. Captain Phillips

While the name Tom Hanks doesn’t exactly scream “action-thriller,” Paul Greengrass does. In “Captain Phillips” the famed “Bourne” director once again surprises with his flair for highlighting the human drama in between the moments of peril. Hanks’ Phillips is a bit heavier and less spry than the typical action star, but his talent is in top form as he brings every ounce of humanity and fatherly charm that he’s known for. What really hits home is not just the relatability of Hanks but that of the opposing Captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi). We are given rare insight into what drives a person to become a pirate in Somalia. The result is a fully formed human being, not just a villainous caricature.

“Phillips” is no Oscar-conscious, feel-good pleasure cruise — it’s a daring ride worth taking. But bring the Dramamine, because Greengrass’ trademark jittery camerawork may leave some audiences with the feeling that they’re still aboard the rocking lifeboat long after they’ve left the theater.

— Ryan Koehn

2. Dallas Buyers Club

In a film season dominated by tear-jerking adaptations of true stories, Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Dallas Buyers Club” sets itself apart in one big way: It doesn’t ask for sympathy. Set in 1985, “Dallas” tells the story of a homophobic, fast-living cowboy named Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who learns he is HIV-positive and likely to die within a month. After discovering that the FDA-approved drug he’s been taking is actually making him sicker, Woodroof, with the help of a transgender HIV patient named Rayon (Jared Leto), sets up the Dallas Buyers Club to sell contraband treatment to other AIDS patients.

Both McConaughey and Leto give the performances of their careers. Leto’s Rayon is at once both elusive and incredibly accessible. She draws you in with her gentle kindness and authenticity, while McConaughey’s Woodruff exudes a passion for life unexpected in a man so close to death. “Dallas Buyers Club” is a powerhouse film that brings one of modernity’s worst epidemics to the screen not with sadness but with boisterous determination.

— Grace Lovio

Read the full review here.

1. 12 Years a Slave

It may very well be 12 Oscars for “12 Years a Slave” after this holiday season. On paper, it has all the makings, as if genetically designed to be a critical darling: An ensemble cast of A-list virtuoso actors (led to glory by a mesmerizing Chiwetel Ejiofor), the raw powerhouse directing of Steve McQueen and the literary triumphant that is the original Solomon Northup’s memoir serving as source material. More often than not, this combination would produce something too good to be true. But the sheer skill involved in the production beat the odds, and “12 Years” becomes something so true that it really is good. The story itself is an unflinching journey of perseverance and survival, destined to be an instant classic. While at times it might be too determined to be the most moving film of the year, the high-caliber acting and McQueen’s eye for realism keep the film grounded in beautiful sincerity.

Ryan Koehn

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DECEMBER 16, 2013