Monday, January 13, 2014


2013 didn't exactly start off very promising but as the months progressed, the slate of films improved immensely. By the end of the year, there was a massive explosion of must-see, highly entertaining movies filling the theaters. While it was slightly challenging, I did manage to narrow my selections of the films that thrilled me, made me giggle, brought tears to my eyes or simply made me forget about what a lousy day I'd been having.


I don't put these lists in any order of preference nor do I proclaim one to be "the very best of the year" but if I were to ever do such a thing, David O. Russell's brilliantly absorbing and wildly absurd dramatic comedy, "American Hustle" would come very close to earning that title. The tale of two lovebird con-artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get swept up in to a major sting operation by a ruthless FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) in order to catch a politician (Jeremy Renner) getting his hands dirty. The couple struggle to stay one step ahead of the authorities as well as the man's loose-cannon younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence, who should definitely win another Oscar for her work here) who threatens to unravel the whole thing.. From the flawless performances to the razor-sharp screenplay to the perfectly exaggerated 70's fashions to the right-on musical soundtrack, "American Hustle" is film making at it's very finest.


Brutal, devastating and completely unforgettable, "12 Years A Slave" tells the unimaginable true story of Solomon Northup, a free, Northern African-American who was torn from his family and sold in to slavery in the deep South. Lead by a masterful turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor and a gripping screenplay by John Ridley, director Steve McQueen makes no effort to hold anything back which makes every moment feel even more tragic and terrifying. The standouts in a collection of amazing performances include Michael Fassbender as a vicious slave owner, Sarah Paulson as his equally deranged wife and in her first major screen role, Lupita Nyong'o who breaks your heart as the slave who is mercilessly tortured by them both. Months after seeing this, the images in "12 years A Slave" still haunt me.


Just when you thought that the state of the modern romantic-comedy was a complete lost cause, along comes "Enough Said". Not only is it smart, funny and very touching but the film refreshingly focuses on a mature couple. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as a divorced woman whose daughter is preparing to head off to college. Facing an empty nest, she's encouraged to start dating and meets a man (James Gandolfini) who, on the surface, appears to not be exactly her type. Their relationship is further complicated for a number of reasons but mainly due to his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). This is another winner written and directed by Nicole Holofcener who has, sadly, made very few films but they all feature her biting yet delightfully insightful and humorous views on relationships. And the underrated film maker is finally getting some long overdue attention as "Enough Said" is her most commercially successful to date.  


"Her" is a romance designed with the miliennials in mind. Set in a recognizable future, an introverted man (Joaquin Phoenix), recently separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), purchases an animated operating system to help simply his life. This talking computer (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) not only organizes his affairs but develops true affection for her human. He soon finds himself also smitten and struggles to return those feelings. While this all might sound a bit preposterous but Spike Jonze, who directs his first original screenplay, makes it all seem quite plausible and features Mr. Phoenix at his most charming. Shockingly, this is only the fourth feature film by the talented Mr. Jonze since "Being John Malkovich" way back in 1999 and while "Her" shares that film's quirky, whimsical spirit but there's also a surprisingly lovely tenderness to be found.


Ignore all the fuss regarding the no-holds-barred sex scenes or the on-going bickering between the director and the actresses, "Blue Is The Warmest Color" is a transcendent exploration in to a young woman's discovery of first love. That it involves another woman makes it even more uneasy and arduous. Abdellatif Kechiche has co-written and directed a lengthy but passionate film that doesn't judge the characters but simply reveals their story. Twenty-two year old, Adèle Exarchopoulos makes you feel every joyous, messy, and painful moment in her breakout role while Léa Seydoux also amazes as the object of her desire.


Based on a real-life incident, "Philomena" tells the story of an unwed, Irish teen who becomes pregnant and sent away to a convent. Forced to sign away her parental rights, her son was adopted and Philomena has been searching for him every since. The film has been accused of being anti-Catholic but this is far from accurate. "Philomena" does not go out of it's way to bash the church but only attempts to tell one woman's tragic experience. Even the real Philomena Lee harbors no ill will. Stephen Frears has crafted a heartfelt work that manages to be both somber and witty. As Philomena, the extraordinary Judi Dench  is simply a marvel and Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the screenplay) is perfect as Martin Sixsmith, the reporter who helped with the investigation and wrote the book which the film is based.


Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater have together created possibly the world's first art-house trilogy. The team has written another engaging chapter in the lives of Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) who first met back in 1995 in "Before Sunrise" on a train to Vienna. Almost ten years later in "Before Sunset", the couple reconnected and now with, "Before Midnight" Jesse and Céline have become parents and are suffering from a mid-life crisis. As with the previous films, we simply follow them as they have nothing more than rich, fascinating conversations but this time regarding family, marriage and aging.


The films of Woody Allen have always been hit or miss affairs and his latest,  "Blue Jasmine" certainly falls in the hit category. Cate Blanchett has been given one of her best roles in years and takes full advantage as the high-class wife of a wealthy, New York banker (Alec Baldwin) who stole millions from investors. Broke, disgraced and in need of shelter, Jasmine heads to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). However, Ginger's blue-collar boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and ex-husband (Andrew "Dice" Clay) who lost money in a bad investment are less than thrilled by Jasmine's arrival.


Despite a troubled production that required serious rewrites and major re-shoots, "World War Z" managed to become not only a thrilling but thought-provoking zombie flick. Brad Pitt stars as a former UN investigator who is brought back in to help save the world as a mysterious virus is quickly spreading and turning everyone into the living dead. I'm not usually a fan of gratuitous blood and gore but this suspenseful thrill-ride worked for me because it kept all of the non-stop action grounded in a plausible reality.


"Spring Breakers" takes the annual ritual of college kids heading to Florida for some fun in the sun and gives it a wicked, dark spin. Disney alums, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shake up their good-girl image as not-so-sweet, bikini-clad young ladies who party-hard and commit armed robbery to help pay for their trip. The ever-busy James Franco makes an amusing impression as Alien, a corn-rowed, local rapper/gangsta who seduces the girls with his high-rolling lifestyle. Indie-film maker, Harmony Korine has made his most commercial film to date although this trippy film is as eccentric as it is electrifying.


Lead by two star-making performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, "The Spectacular Now" takes an honest look at the stress and complications of being a modern teenager. Teller (who reminds me of a young Tom Hanks) plays a popular high school senior that knows exactly how to have a good time but really has no idea what he's going to do with his life after graduation. He's also becoming increasingly aware that he may be developing a serious problem with alcohol. Woodley (first making an impression in "The Descendants") dazzles as the sweet, shy girl who overlooks his issues and only sees the potential.


"20 feet From Stardom" is a documentary that's a celebration of the unsung heroes of pop music; the back-up vocalist. Morgan Neville has focused on some of these talented singers (many whose names you may not be familiar with) that worked their magic on almost all of the most popular songs of the rock & roll era. These dynamic ladies such as Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love all attempted to make a name for themselves in front of the stage but ultimately accepted their place behind the spotlight. The famous voices of Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder appear to gladly sing their praises. I am a big music lover, so this vibrant and informative doc was right up my alley.

Honorable Mention: "42", "Captain Phillips", "Don Jon", "Fruitvale Station". "Gravity","The Invisible Woman", "Nebraska", "Pain & Gain", "Saving Mr. Banks", "Short Term 12", "The Way Way Back"