Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Taking On 2013: Top Films

The moment we have all been waiting for has finally arrived. It took us a while to get through all the great video games, tv shows, songs, albums, supporting and lead performances from the previous year, but we have finally gotten to the point where we can officially reveal Processed Grass's best film from the previous year! Who will take the top honor, who will just miss out? Let's take a gander!

10. Nebraska

Time to get this out of the way right now because it is going to constantly come up in the the rest of this list: 2013 was pretty much defined by films that dissected the American Dream, exposing what makes it so appealing, so troubling, so problematic, and so all encompassing.

As such, Alexander Payne's Nebraska takes these ideas and tangentially approaches them with a surprising amount of tact. There's a line from early in the film (used in many of the trailers as well) where the wife of main character Willie, an old man on a trek to collect one million dollars from what is probably some mail in scam attempting to sell magazine subscriptions, say "I didn't even know he wanted to be a millionaire!" This promise of money is used as a means to investigate the deeper ideas of what motivates individuals in a consumerist society, how status symbols are more important than reality even if they only grant fleeting moments of happiness. Payne creates a profoundly sad film, using Willie as a way to underscore the inherent tragedy in Will Forte's character of the son that joins him on this journey. There's a determination to resolve very little by the film's conclusion, and therein one finds its greatest strength.

9. Drug War

Johnnie To's Drug War sees To weaving a complex crime narrative that could echo the works of John Woo or Martin Scorsese, but the way To deconstructs cinematic tropes and beings tearing apart any of the glamour found on either side of the law is what makes this film particularly rewarding. From the very beginning, To creates this sense of motion and momentum with his camera that tonally sets the stage for everything that will follow. He hits all of the major crime set pieces, but the spin he puts on each one creates a constantly engaging narrative that becomes rewarding in its destruction of tradition.

8. The Wolf Of Wall Street

In recent years Scorsese has flexed his cinematic muscle. Pretty much since The Departed (and arguably before) he has been on a massive streak that I had assumed would have culminated in his wonderful 3-D Hugo, but The Wolf Of Wall Street shows that he still has plenty more energy left in the tank. This tale of excess allows the characters and audience to revel in the irritatingly fascinating lives of the characters on screen. At times the film becomes deafening in its excess, but it's in this depravity that the film is able to explore this sense of desire that both builds up and destroys the central characters, leaving ruin for those in their way. It's all a pretty impressive, and terrifying, display of spirit.

7. The Spectacular Now

There's really not all that much to The Spectacular Now, and even when I saw the film I was able to easily identify its primary weakness, namely that everything and everyone surrounding the central pairing of Sutter and Amiee needed a lot of work. But when Teller and Woodley were on screen together all the problems surrounding the two of them, ultimately the main point of focus of the film, became kind of irrelevant. There's such a sense of weight to their scenes together, such a wonderful understanding of character, that I was completely entranced. I know that I am prone to like coming of age films, but so many times they just kind of exist, with The Spectacular Now it oozes energy and life, and it's just all so beautiful and I just can't resist it all all.

6. Pain & Gain

At one point this year I was shocked that a Michael Bay film would find its way to the top of my best films list, but I mean at the point in time when I first watched Pain & Gain I hadn't actually seen all that much so I mean it would probably fall even if it was really funny and kinetic and frantic, because Bay doesn't make great films. But he shows that the first third or so of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon was no fluke by consistently knocking it out of the park with this film. I think back each year to my favorite films of all time, and consistently There Will Be Blood contends for the top spot. Obviously Pain & Gain is a far cry from Paul Thomas Anderson's masterwork, there is a part where main character Daniel Lugo yells a man, "I don't just want everything you have, I don't want you to have it!" that, in this year of Americana, is perhaps the most brutally honest line of dialogue in any film I have seen.

5. Her

Spike Jonze's first feature film since Where The Wild Things Are is one that has more in common with his short "I'm Here" than it does with most of his other feature films. Yeah it retains a number of the quasi-realistic world building of Being John Malkovich, but there's so much emotion packed in to so much of this dissection of romance and connection that all the sci-fi trappings become more or less an entry point to reflect on humanity. It's all handled in this marvelously tragic and beautiful way, and any film that interacts with theme in the way that Her does is tailored to work its way in to my heart.

4. 12 Years A Slave

Here's the thing, I never really 'got' the acclaim for Steve McQueen's debut Hunger. Outside of that one incredible one take scene it was just kind of there and Fassbender didn't impress me all that much and maybe I was just wrong because damn did Shame really do a number on me. So after loving Shame, I approached 12 Years A Slave with a great deal of anticipation, and while the advertising campaign seemed to indicate that it would get a bit too overtly emotional for my tastes, thankfully the final result retained McQueen's surgical camera rather than trending toward the overly dramatic. The film's style is one where the brutality becomes even more horrifying in its verisimilitude, and where the larger conversation the film engages in isn't limited to the tragedy that was slavery in America, but rather how power becomes institutionalized and how that institution is maintained by a series of broken systems that transcends the time period itself. A staggering film that may very well be McQueen's best so far.

3. Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki

We are at the point in the list where this film or the two following can, on any given day, legitimately contend for my number one spot. With that out of the way, very little has changed from any of the previous three times when Wolf Children retained its top slot on my Quarterly Reviews. Visually the film is a powerhouse, it is not incredibly detailed or as vibrant as something like Hosoda's previous Summer Wars, but the story its telling is engaging with the past rather than the future and as such the aesthetics fit perfectly with creating a tone to pulsate throughout the film. Throughout this movie, one that spans years on years, there are so many plates spinning simultaneously that perhaps its greatest strength is the attention that each is given without sacrificing any for the other parts. It creates this fully realized tapestry of a family in all its aspects.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Okay, we had a small break, but it's time to get back to this American Dream, I reckon. On the surface it would not seem like the Coen Brothers's latest film is one that directly engages with this year's go-to theme, and with a film so thematically layered and complex it doesn't exclusively deal with it, but in the way that we see Llewyn constantly being beaten up by the world around him and engaging with all levels of society it becomes increasingly apparent that despite the universality of his situation there are aspects within the film that are undeniably American. Part of this, of course, comes in the physical frame that Llewyn inhabits, one that so closely recalls that of Bob Dylan, one of America's greatest poets, and playing with this idea throughout the film. As the film builds, as Llewyn searches for a sense of self to tragically little effect, it all culminates in this nightmare-ish sense of the inescapable that is right in line with the rest of the films in 2013's Americana cannon.

1. Spring Breakers

Inevitably it feels like all of 2013 was leading toward this spot though, the time wherein Harmony Korine's fever dream meditation on escapism, consumerism, and destroyed youth is a monumental achievement both on the surface, with its abrasive montages, pulsating sounds, and twisted visuals, and in its quasi-literary triumphs. It's a film that is simultaneously horrifying and hysterical, one that is so tethered to its style that it becomes itself a part of its themes, it never becomes overbearing or overstays its welcome, Spring Breakers is incredible. The obvious point of comparison is not Korine's previous films (though pairing this with Mister Lonely indicates significant strides as a filmmaker, while the existence of Umshini Wam and Trash Humpers show that Korine hasn't lost a step from his earlier work), but rather something like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

Both films ooze a particular style that could make it easy to lose sight of the higher ideas each script grapples with (Drive with deconstructing masculinity, Spring Breakers with deconstructing materialism), both blend Cliff Martinez's sinister score with striking modern music (Drive's synthpop, Spring Breakers's Skrillex fueled EDM), and each have main characters engrossed by pop culture fantasy (Drive playing with the action hero stereotype, Spring Breakers's recurring use of My Little Pony clips and Scarface nods). But what elevates Spring Breakers to a level of greatness just slightly out of Drive's reach is the unification between the cast, the script, the style, and the themes. While everything in Drive was so filtered through Gosling's Driver, here James Franco's Alien is a force that carries throughout the film, but the core group of girls are always at the center of these tribulations. There's a Kurtz-esque quality to the film's refrain but one that Korine makes his own, that makes the promise so alluring and so scary.

Spring Break forever.

With that we have reached the end. Below you will find my unabridged list of 2013 films in a ranked order. Let me know what you think in comments, which films I missed either physically or missed the point of, I'm not personally done with 2013, just with Taking On 2013! Thanks for reading!


1. Spring Breakers
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki
4. 12 Years A Slave
5. Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons*
6. Her
7. Pain and Gain
8. The Spectacular Now
9. The Immigrant*
10. The Wolf Of Wall Street
11. Drug War
12. Nebraska
13. Twixt
14. The Bling Ring
15. Upstream Color
16. Blue Jasmine
17. Computer Chess
18. Frozen
19. Stories We Tell
20. The Hunt
21. Mud
22. All Is Lost
23. Captain Phillips
24. Only God Forgives
25. The Counselor
26. Frances Ha
27. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus And 2012
28. Short Term 12
29. The World's End
30. From Up On Poppy Hill
31. Like Someone In Love
32. The Great Gatsby
33. “Gregory Go Boom”
34. “Brazzaville Teen-Ager”
35. Gravity
36. Before Midnight
37. Prince Avalanche
38. Pacific Rim
39. August: Osage County
40. My Little Pony: Equestria Girls
41. Warm Bodies
42. “Toy Story Of Terror”
43. Fruitvale Station
44. Clear History
45. Behind The Candelabra
46. “Failure”
47. Kings Of Summer
48. It's A Disaster
49. To The Wonder
50. Room 237
51. Leviathan
52. Thor: The Dark World
53. I'm So Excited!
54. Philomena
55. This Is The End
56. “The Frrt Identity”
57. Side Effects
58. Blue Is The Warmest Color
59. “The Greatest Event In Television History (September)”
60. Skins: Rise
61. Lore
62. Amour
63. Furious 6
64. Skins: Pure
65. Skins: Fire
66. Monsters University
67. Blackfish
68. The Last Stand
69. No
70. Stoker
71. “The Greatest Event In Television History”
72. American Hustle
73. Louis CK: Oh My God
74. Blue Is The Warmest Color
75. Dallas Buyers Club
76. Elysium
77. The Act Of Killing
78. Prisoners
79. Rush
80. Much Ado About Nothing
81. Iron Man 3
82. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
83. “The Blue Umbrella”
84. Blue Highway
85. The Place Beyond The Pines
86. The Way, Way, Back
87. The Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex
88. This Is Not A Film
89. Drinking Buddies

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2014 Richard James Thorne

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