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Year of the Survivor: Top 25 Films of 2013 + My Personal Awards

blue-is-the-warmest-color 1We’re all in the game to survive.

Film is often our societal mirror, an artistic outlet that serves as a sort of catharsis for those who make it as well as those who view it. Our own survival removes itself from the forefront of our momentary occupation in those dark hours spent in a movie theater. We transfer love, hope, and resilience to those onscreen.

The characters are us, and we are them.

We hope that they survive, and our happiness becomes theirs. There’s a powerful balance between reality and fiction, and that’s where the power of film lies.

2013 gave us a multitude of characters concerned with the art of preserving the current, restoring that which was lost, or pushing beyond their means to something greater than their life’s trajectory would have ever encompassed otherwise. 2013 was the year of the survivor.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station tell us of the will to survive in a society that deems you unworthy. At a time when the bigger war of racial equality has long since died, small battles of minority injustice wage across our nation. Black teenagers are shot for playing “thug” music too loud. Homosexuals are subjected to religiously-fueled hatred and ignorance, some of which has crept its way into potential laws in states like Arizona and Kansas. Survival is not the same for each of us. Normalcy is not universally objective.

2013’s films, however, put a face on so many minority issues.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station are not films merely directed by black men, rather they’re stories that connect to the American culture as told through black characters and black filmmakers. They’re not “white” stories directed by black men, nor are they “black” stories directed by white men, as we’re so used to seeing. There’s an authenticity here that works within and outside of Oscar season, that gives validity to the voice as it pours forth from the source of inequality in an industry where for every black man that directs a film, twenty white men are directing others.

The thing about 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station is that they both are both based on actual events, yet bear cultural relevance to the society around them. 12 Years a Slave forces us to see slavery not as a black-and-white photo collection in a textbook, but as a tangible precursor to what we must deal with at a time where racial injustice is still a very real part of our culture (Fruitvale Station radiates a similar sentiment).

Survival for Dr. Ryan Stone in in Gravity takes the form of physical preservation and spiritual rebirth. In the film, we see a woman, lost in space, fighting for her physical existence while coming face to face with the spiritual turmoil brought on by the loss of her daughter years ago. By the film’s end, she is reborn both physically and emotionally after being violently cradled, in a sense, by her astronomical surroundings, ready to take on the world as a toddler taking its first steps when she finally reaches earth.

The Broken Circle Breakdown echoes the pains of loss and redemption that Gravity unearths, exploring the relationship between a man, woman, and their terminally ill daughter, all strung together by their affinity for music. The film forces its characters to weigh the importance of personal conviction versus love for another, powerfully pitting them against their desire to give their lover what they want, but failing to secure what they need. Feeling helpless, hopeless, and beyond repair is something we’re all familiar with, and The Broken Circle Breakdown makes the fragility of life and the burden of survival a beautiful disaster to see unfold.

Still, 2013 gave us films where characters succeed and prosper. Philomena, Short Term 12, and Stories We Tell weave intricate portraits of people broken down by their past and a failure to feel secure with “belonging” any place or with anyone, but who find strength through discovery of themselves through the eyes of others. The impact of one life on another is never more powerfully represented than it is in these films, and survival with peace of mind becomes essential to their subjects.

storieswetell13900x506Then, of course, we have the documentaries which hold a mirror to us as an audience. As we watch a daring filmmaker, Sarah Polley, unearth the secrets of her family’s history, we bathe in the fruits of her intensely personal labor that is Stories We Tell. With painstaking precision and care, Polley digs through her past to unearth a new reality for herself, one which essentially severed blood ties with the people she grew up with, as she discovers that the man who raised her is not biologically her father.

Blackfish taps into our innate desires to watch, to indulge in the visual, and to be entertained, but also brings us to question the basic human desire to conquer that which is bigger than us (in this case, SeaWorld’s enslavement of aquatic mammals). The Act of Killing examines the cruelty of humans unto each other, and how we can at once be so concerned with the preservation of security–as we define it for ourselves–that we let darkness consume our very being.

Chances are that these films will cement themselves in popular, critical, and scholarly culture for years to come. However, the most important films of 2013 are those which tap into film’s inherent nature as an art that discriminates against no one, as the power of storytelling is not specific to any one race, culture, or voice.

While 12 Years a Slave is an important film capping off a monumental year for black filmmakers in the industry, the importance of a film like Blue is thWarmest Color–by far the year’s best–cannot be ignored. While the LGBT faces discrimination around the world, the film is a welcome celebration of the highs, lows, ugly, and beautiful bits of unabashed love that knows only passion and sincerity, not gender.

It’s a film that doesn’t so much as challenge us, but invites us to indulge in its splendor, plunging us into the depths of the relationship between a young woman, Adele, on the road to maturation (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) an artist with a budding career.

We go along for the ride as Adele’s sexual and spiritual awakening unfolds. The film brilliantly frames her at once as a child–eating sloppily from plates her mother has prepared, bickering with classmates–and as a sexually-adventurous, fully-developed woman engaged in explicit sexual acts.

It’s a highly visual film with complex cinematography, riding on the strengths of the lushness of its stars, its images, and emotional affect. It isn’t afraid to be a film that you want to drink, to tempt you through feeling versus wordiness and intellect. It’s a film you must surrender yourself to, and fall into its warm (sometimes painful) embrace to experience the journey of its characters.

While the film contains explicit sexual content, its treatment at the hands of American audiences speaks volumes about things our culture needs to change. Prudish conservative mentalities will see only the sex and not the passion. They will see only the gender and not the love. They will see only the faults of the characters, and not the foolish, charming power of becoming lost in another person, unable to control our desires or pull ourselves out of the depths even as we drown.

Blue is the Warmest Color is, at once, an uninhibited portrayal of a type of love and attraction which transcends gender, though it is an important film for the increasing presence of the LGBT community in all aspects of life, and it must be regarded and defined by its pure representation of its characters’ relationship, as it’s a film that doesn’t insist upon defining itself by their gender.

An NC-17 rating (which it received in the United States) suggests that there’s something evil within its three-hour runtime, that there’s something unnaturally burdensome that the film carries and seeks to spread, but the only evil here is to let superficial factors (rating, lengthy runtime) dissuade you from enveloping yourself in the warm embrace of the finest film of the year.

Though Adele embarks on a journey to find clarity amidst a life of confusion, intense passion, regret, love lost, and emotional expenditure, the film cuts us loose from her without a clear resolution so much as reassurance that she’s grasped the experience of it all, which finally sees her becoming an adult by the film’s end. No more messy spaghetti curled around her lips. No more chewing with her mouth open. No more grappling with her insecurities as a child traversing the uneven terrain of maturity.

We gather that Adele, as she walks away from the frame after accepting that her lost lover has moved on, is on an uncertain path. Where she’s going is anyone’s guess, but we are certain that, unlike a stubborn child, she has learned something. But, most of all, she’s recognized and (somewhat) acquired the tools she needs to keep on surviving, even if a small part of her heart was lost in the battle.

Top 25 Best Films of 2013:
25 – 20 Feet From Stardom
24 – All Is Lost
23 – Spring Breakers
22 – Enough Said
21 – Captain Phillips
20 – Dallas Buyers Club
19 – Blackfish
18 – Fruitvale Station
17 – Prisoners
16 – The Place Beyond the Pines
15 – Frances Ha
14 – Stoker
13 – Blue Jasmine
12 – 12 Years a Slave
11 – The Hunt
10 – Stories We Tell
9 – Nebraska
8 – The Wolf of Wall Street
7 – The Act of Killing
6 – Her
5 – Inside Llewyn Davis
4 – Gravity
3 – Short Term 12
2 – The Broken Circle Breakdown
1 – Blue is the Warmest Color

gravity-alfonso-cuaron-george-clooney-set-imageBest Director:
1) Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
2) Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street
3) Sarah Polley – Stories We Tell
4) Joel & Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
5) Felix Van Groeningen – The Broken Circle Breakdown
6) Harmony Korine – Spring Breakers

ht_leonardo_dicaprio_wolf_of_wall_street_ll_130617_wblogBest Actor:
1) Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
2) Johan Heldenbergh – The Broken Circle Breakdown
3) Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
4) Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
5) Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
6) Hugh Jackman – Prisoners

cate_blanchett_blue_jasmine bannerBest Actress:
1) Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
2) Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
3) Veerle Baetens – The Broken Circle Breakdown
4) Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
5) Julia Louis Dreyfus – Enough Said
6) Lauren Ambrose – About Sunny

Screen-Shot-2013-07-16-at-12.32.57-AM-600x369Best Supporting Actor:
1) Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
2) Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
3) Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
4) Casey Affleck – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
5) Bruce Dern – Nebraska
6) Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Still-5Best Supporting Actress:
1) Lea Seydoux – Blue is the Warmest Color
2) Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
3) Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
4) Kristin Scott Thomas – Only God Forgives
5) Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler
6) Scarlett Johansson – Don Jon

HERBest Screenplay:
1)
Her
2) The Wolf of Wall Street
3) Inside Llewyn Davis
4) Frances Ha
5) Blue Jasmine
6) Nebraska

gravity1Best Cinematography:
1) Gravity
2) Stoker
3) Blue is the Warmest Color
4) Inside Llewyn Davis
5) To the Wonder
6) The Grandmaster
7) Upstream Color

The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-Trailer7aBest Film Editing:
1) The Wolf of Wall Street
2) 12 Years a Slave
3) Inside Llewyn Davis
4) Stoker
5) All Is Lost
6) Gravity

blue-is-the-warmest-color-movieBest Foreign Film:
1) Blue is the Warmest Color
2) The Broken Circle Breakdown
3) The Act of Killing
4) The Hunt
5) The Grandmaster
6) Bastards

343330995_640Best Documentary Feature:
1) The Act of Killing
2) Stories We Tell
3) Blackfish
4) 20 Feet From Stardom

GravitySpaceStationExplodeShottsr4Best Visual Effects:
1)
Gravity
2) Pacific Rim
3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4) Man of Steel
5) This Is The End

rs_560x415-130824183357-1024.Grandmaster6.mh.082413Best Costume Design:
1) The Grandmaster
2) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
3) 12 Years a Slave
4) Her
5) American Hustle

pic_article_story_mainBest Production Design:
1) The Grandmaster
2) Gravity
3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4) Her
5) The Great Gatsby
6) Pacific Rim

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America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-FILM-FESTIVAL-CANNES

The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) film still

For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.

The French Didn’t Get the Memo…’Mia’ Much of What Americans Already Used To

“Mia and the Migoo”
A Film Review by Joey Nolfi
Originally Pulished in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 23, 2011
Mia encounters the Migoo, a mythical forest creature
“Mia and the Migoo” comes as the latest import from France’s teeming animated film industry. While American audiences have grown accustomed to the avant-garde stylings of French animators such as Vincent Paronnaud and Sylvain Chomet, a film like “Mia and the Migoo” functions as its brethren’s antithesis, serving up more of what Americans are used to versus breaking new ground.

The film’s plot is standard, never once attempting to rise above the watered-down family fare audiences have grown accustomed to since the days Walt Disney’s features first took off decades ago. The story involves children with missing parents, giant cuddly creatures that talk, and greedy moguls keen on destroying the environment to make way for flashy new resorts. You’ve seen it before, and you’ve seen it done better.

The thing that saves “Mia” from being a total bust is the fabulous art direction. The film’s director, Jacques-Remy Girerd, is a product of a Beaux-Arts school in Lyon. His film is chock-full of whimsical imagery with clear influence coming from the works of artists ranging from Degas to Cezanne. It’s this kind of calculated inclusion of a highbrow familiarity with art history that gives “Mia” a delightfully sophisticated quality.

While it’s pleasing to indulge in the classic visual references at work here, “Mia and the Migoo” also boasts an offbeat style that’s definitely an acquired taste. The film can be amusing when it’s treading middle ground, although it’s not nearly as bizarre as “The Triplets of Belleville,” it’s not exactly a stroll down Pixar lane either. But, each of the film’s 500,000 hand-painted frames does create a visually complex, fantastical spectacle unfortunately bogged down by far too many familiarities. It’s a shame, because the artistic craftsmanship in “Mia and the Magoo” is four-star quality within itself. But, if we’ve learned anything from the likes of Miyazaki and Disney, it’s that a pretty picture is worth far more than a thousand words — that is, once a first-rate film is crafted around it.