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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Top 10 of 2013

Rounding out my year in review, here (finally) are my picks for the top 10 of last year.

2013 was a really terrific year for movies, which made coming up with a 10-best list extremely difficult. There were a range of movies that entertained and moved me, and another day (or on a second watch) some of them might have cracked my top 10.  Pop in any of my runners-up in spots 8-10, and I'd be just as happy with my list.

Here are my #16-25, in alphabetical order. They are all well worth checking out: The amazing Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; Tense docudrama Captain Phillips; Mumblecore comedy Drinking Buddies; Heartbreaking true-life drama Fruitvale Station; Fresh and funny urban indie Gimme the Loot; Cambodian experimental documentary The Missing Picture; Contemplative art movie Museum Hours; Stylish thriller Side Effects; Heartfelt high school drama The Spectacular Now; and the Egyptian documentary The Square.

Runners-Up: In most other years, these 5 would have had an easy spot on a top 10 list.

20 Feet From Stardom:
This Oscar winner for Best Documentary is probably the most crowd-pleasing movie I saw this year. It follows the stories of the (mostly) forgotten back-up singers of the past and present, showing us their immense talent and artistry.  You'll never listen to the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter the same way again!

The Act of Killing:
Watching this experimental documentary, its hard to believe that the events are really taking place. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets Indonesian generals, who carried out a genocide in the 1960s, to recreate their atrocities as a movie. An intense, disturbing, and completely fascinating look at how evil deeds are (or aren't) dealt with. The final scene is unforgettable.

The Great Beauty:
This Italian film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for good reason. The setting and cinematography are gorgeous (Great Beauty indeed), it's funny and entertaining, and it's also filled through with a sense of melancholy and loss.

While I have quibbles with small parts of Her, it's a movie I've thought about a lot, and feel may creep up my list upon more viewings. Writer/director Spike Jonze creates an amazingly believable world where our love for technology has taken the next step. Funny and thought-provoking, with great performances by Joaquin Phoneix, Amy Adams, and the voice of Scarlett Johannson.

Short Term 12:
Probably my number 11, and it kills me to leave this off the list. This drama about a young couple working at a youth treatment facility has so much heart and goodness in it, without ever feeling soft. Lead Brie Larson gives a passionate and committed performance, and I hope it leads to great things for her.

Now, on to the 10 that made it through!

10. Blue is the Warmest Color.
To get the most notorious part of the movie out of the way: Yes, the sex scenes are overly long and probably exploitative of the two lead actresses.   But.... they take up only a very small part of this 3-hour opus, which focuses on young Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) coming of age and discovering herself as a person.  Marketed as a love story, the movie is also concerned with class differences in modern France, finding meaning in life and work, and the ways in which we move successfully from being a teenager to becoming an adult.  Exarchopolous gives one of the very best performances of the year, and I've thought about her character and her journey many many times since seeing this movie.

9. Before Midnight.
Every 9 years since 1995, director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have come together to create a document of a changing relationship between an American man and a French woman.  If you haven't seen the first two (Before Sunrise and Before Midnight), please see them before checking this out!  While I don't love this chapter to quite the same degree as the other two (I miss some of the intellectual back-and-forth of their earlier conversations, while this one focuses more solely on the relationship), this is a great addition to the triology. The three show us the cracks that have developed in the central relationship as we question if their love can survive.  I can't wait for the next one....

8. Mud.
An old-fashioned movie in the very best sense. With great respect and little romanticizing, director Jeff Nichols sets this movie on the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, where the lives of its inhabitants are changing forever. Young Tye Sheridan plays a young teen who finds an outlaw (Matthew McConaughey) on the river and does a lot of growing as he learns about the adult ways. With echoes of American literature (especially Huck Finn), this is a great story.

7. Enough Said.
Three years ago, Director Nicole Holofcener made my list with Please Give, and here she is again. She's a true talent, writing and directing prickly, funny, humane movies about people and their relationships. Enough Said is her most heartfelt movie yet, and she chronicles a middle-aged single mom riddled with doubts as she embarks on a relationship with a divorced dad. The casting of TV starts Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini was absolutely perfect.

6. Stories We Tell.
The best documentary of the year (in a year of great ones), is this very personal story by young director Sarah Polley. The movie is an inventive and far-reaching look into a secret from her family's past. In the process, Polley also raises essential questions about truth, storytelling, love, and what truly makes a family.

5. Nebraska. 
Having spent many a summer in rural Kansas with my grandparents, I quickly connected to this movie and its small town setting and characters. The amazing Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an alcoholic old man searching for some final success. With a light touch, director Payne shows how our past shapes us. Loved it.

4. Frances Ha.
This movie is so light, airy, and pleasurable, I almost don't want to damn it with my high praise. It's simply about a charming but sometimes clueless young woman (Greta Gerwig) finding a life for herself in modern New York. The black and white is gorgeous and Gerwig is beyond charming.  It's also the rare modern movie more interested in a young woman's friends and life than in her relationship with men.

3. Gravity.
Just stunning. Other directors would have used the budget and technology to make a sci-fi spectacle of battles and a cast of hundreds, but none of that for the amazing Alfonso Cuaron. What I remember most from Gravity is astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), floating in space and gazing at the beautiful Earth. Some found its story a tad trite, but I was deeply moved by its portrayal of a wounded person making the choice to fight for survival.

2. 12 Years a Slave.
Essential, breathtaking, stunning moviemaking from director Steve McQueen. I love so much about this movie, from the script to the performances to the cinematography to the score. What I remember most is its intense focus on Soloman Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his story, never flinching at the brutality and never giving us cheap uplift. One of the very best movies of the new millennium. I'm sure it will live as a testament for years to come. (Can't I make a tie for number 1?)

1. Inside Llewyn Davis.
When I walked out of this movie, I simply said "That was perfect." The more I think about it, I've become convinced it's my favorite Coen Brothers movie. Like many movies on my list, it walks a delicate line between humor and pathos, and in this movie the character of Llewyn is someone to both admire and criticize. This is a tough-eyed look at the life of an artist and the struggle to stay artistically pure, all filmed in beautiful washed-out cinematography and featuring one of the best soundtracks ever. I've heard there are some that actually hated this movie.  If you're one of them, it's probably best not to tell me...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ben's Talking Pictures Awards: Lead Performers

Continuing my rundown of my favorites of 2013, here are the best leading performances.  Both categories are ridiculously packed with great performances.  I can't believe I had to leave off performances as great as Greta Gerwig, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, and Michael B. Jordan.  Here are the 10 that rose to the top!


Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Cate swept this awards season for a major reason-this is one of the all-time great performances.  Blanchett absolutely owns this movie as Jasmine, a delusional modern-day Blanche Dubois unaccustomed to an ordinary life. Blanchett fully commits to the role, and her slow breakdown is unforgettable.

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Over the course of this trilogy (Before Sunrise-Before Sunset-Before Midnight), Delpy has given a performance for the ages as a smart, prickly intellectual navigating love with an American man. Delpy lets us see how her Celine has grown and changed over the past 18 years, and this is the feistiest she's been.

Adele Exarchopolous, Blue is the Warmest Color
In French it's called "La Vie d'Adele," and it's the perfect title as the movie immerses us in every aspect of Adele's life.  Over this 3-hour movie, Adele almost never leaves the screen.  We see her grow form a gangly teen discovering herself to a young woman forging her own adult path in life.  Since I've seen the movie, I've often thought about her as if she was a real person I knew-the mark of a great naturalistic performance.

Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Larson plays Grace, a supervisor at a residential home for troubled teens.  Grace has an amazing empathy and touch with these teens, but also her own demons that get in the way of her growth. It's a soulful, bravura performance.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Louis-Dreyfuss brings her trademark sitcom brilliance into a performance and movie that achieves the perfect mix of comedy and heartfelt emotion. As a single mom embarking on a new relationship, Louis-Dreyfuss is completely believable and relatable.

My Pick: Cate Blanchett
Second Choice: Adele Exarchopolous

Runners-Up: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Rooney Mara (Side Effects)

Matches with Oscar: Just 1-Cate! Although I also loved Adams, Bullock, and Dench who all made my runners-up list and would have made it in another year. I also thought Meryl Streep was lots of fun and lots of scary in August: Osage County, but she didn't crack my list. A banner year for actresses.


Bruce Dern, Nebraska
I saw echoes of both of my grandfathers in Dern's Woody Grant, an old man from a silent generation. We think Woody isn't watching or listening, but then we see a piece of his painful past come through, particularly in a heart-wrenching scene returning to his childhood come.  Dern combines the comedy and pathos perfectly throughout the film, and exists as the sole of Nebraska.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
An audience couldn't stand this 3-hours of excess without a charismatic anti-hero (or villain?) taking us through the whole thing.  I think this may be DiCaprio's most dynamic performance-showing the audience what drew people to Jordan Belfort, and the moral rot living inside of him.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
There wasn't a more expressive face this year, nor one used so well, as Ejiofor. Ejiofor inhabits the very soul of Solomon Northrup, skipping historical platitudes and going straight for emotional power as we see Solomon's harrowing journey as embodied by Ejiofor's voice, body, and eyes. Just watch how much he expresses in this scene with so few words.

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
It's tough playing a character with such contradictions, and Isaac pulls it off effortlessly. He's unafraid to show the dark (and sometimes nasty) side of Llewyn's artistic purity, yet he also shows us the strands of real beauty, particularly when he opens his mouth and sings. Perfect.

Joaquin Phoenix, Her
A perfect match of actor for role as the very odd Joaquin Phoenix plays the awkward Theodore Twombly, a man who can only have a fulfilling relationship with his OS. This performance is even more amazing when you think of how many scenes Phoenix had to play with just himself in the frame.

My Pick: Bruce Dern
Second Choice: Oscar Isaac

Runners-Up: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)

Matches with Oscar: 3-Dern, DiCaprio, and Ejiofor. McConaughey (the winner), made my runner-up list, although I think he was even better in Mud. Christian Bale (American Hustle) was solid, but probably my least favorite of the four central performances in Hustle.