Top 10 Films

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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Top 10 of 2012: Why “Zero Dark Thirty” is the Best (and Most Important) Film of the Year

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It was in the way a few audience members clapped as Osama bin Laden is shot to death, and how more applauded immediately after the final cut to black. I just can’t wrap my head around why someone would feel such a celebratory impulse immediately after viewing Zero Dark Thirty, a film rooted deeply in the middle eastern conflict, whose focus is not the gratification one might feel about the idea of eradicating the most well-known terrorist of the modern era. Rather, it’s a film built on the foundation of certainty–one woman’s, in particular–that ends in an ominous haze of uncertainty. Uncertainty of our future, of our security, of our position as a noble force in the fight to defend our country. For those reasons, it makes the jeers, hoots, and applause (an indication of acceptance) from the audience which surrounded me all the more disturbing. For, you see, Zero Dark Thirty is not a reaffirmation of America in white, Middle East in black; it fiercely calls into question American morals just as often as it castigates those we fight against. Killing Osama bin Laden was a small battle won in a much larger war, and certainly isn’t presented as an end-all, be-all point of closure within the film. Zero Dark Thirty is, in direct conflict with what so many Americans want it to be, a most anti-“America, Fuck Yeah” film.

Zero Dark Thirty is based on “true accounts” from those directly (and some, perhaps more indirectly) involved with the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is not a “true” story as much as it is a true interpretation of events which most likely (but have not been proven) led to the extermination of one of the most hated men in the world. It’s true; Bigelow and Mark Boal (also her collaborator on 2010’s The Hurt Locker), spend a glaring amount of time focused on Americans using torture as a means to elicit information from captured Al-Qaeda members–as well as the boldfaced lies purportedly projected to the public regarding such tactics. It’s difficult to accept the events of Zero Dark Thirty as the truth, both morally and because the film is technically a work of fiction. Protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain, giving the best acting performance of 2012) is a pseudo mash-up character birthed from various reports of individuals involved in the real hunt for Osama bin Laden, as are the events which lead to the payoff. It’s also, therefore, much easier to see the controversial scenes of torture as something beyond a simple endorsement, the same as Steven Spielberg’s reproduction of WWII-era death camps isn’t an endorsement of anti-Semitism. Spielberg wasn’t present for the Holocaust, and Bigelow wasn’t present during interrogations of captured Al-Qaeda members. That doesn’t, however, trivialize her right as an artist to include such scenes meant for greater effect.

If you’re looking to a film for truth, you’re simply misguided. As it is, it’s colossally difficult to reproduce the truth in a film like Zero Dark Thirty (or any film, for that matter) in the first place, as the vastness of its scope spans multiple countries, intelligence operations, and surveillance missions wrapped within a messy little ten-year timeframe. Thankfully Bigelow and Boal aren’t overwhelmed, able to pick and choose from their resources with what rings only as ease, crafting a remarkably effective collection of fictitious staging with real-world implications. As the film begins, we’re reminded of one of the defining events which set the entire mess in motion. An assemblage of audio from panicked phone calls placed at the World Trade Center on September 11th plays over a black screen at the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty, reminding us not only of the aura of facelessness which plagued that day (attackers, amassed victims, etc.) but also of the fear, a fear and uncertainty that can be heard in the voices of the callers that endures to this day. Our security is not guaranteed, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.

The actions leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death unfold through the eyes of Maya, who acts as a sort of conduit between the fiction of the film and the reality we endure in a world where the death of Osama bin Laden is more than just a narrative climax. She’s in constant conflict with herself, embodying a raging war of preserved morality versus getting results. She’s good at what she does, however, and the fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated field doesn’t exactly help her showcase it. Her persistence and certainty is marginalized by the male characters in the film, who often mistake her youth for inexperience, her beauty as a distraction. But, as Maya tells a fellow officer who wishes to set her up with another agent, she’s “not that girl who fucks,” and isn’t one to take the influence of others (whether questioning her experience, her accuracy, or her sex life), even in a situation with all odds against her, to mean more than her certainty.

When her efforts lead her to an Abottabad compound where she believes Osama bin Laden to be hiding, Maya must endure a round-table of men who assess the payoff of her ten-year workload with a maximum “soft 60%” chance of yielding results. “It’s 100%. Ok, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s 100,” she butts in. Whether it’s sheer confidence or a diluted willingness to accept the best-looking outcome after ten years of tireless work isn’t necessarilly answered in the subsequent affirmation of her speculation. She was right, but the most powerful moment of the film comes at its conclusion as she’s being flown out of Pakistan. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks her as we cut to a close-up of her face, strained from sleepless nights and a decade of near thankless slaving. She remains silent, a few tears streaming down her cheeks as the film cuts to black, Maya never giving an answer. The power of these moments is colossal, and it’s here the film achieves its most profound effect. The world knows the gist of Osama bin Laden’s death. It matters that he’s dead, but the way he died is not entirely clear. Sure, it can be reduced to a bullet. But the process leading up to that bullet isn’t mapped out for us. We’ve seen one artist’s interpretation within Zero Dark Thirty, one which does not celebrate the would-be climax as a moment of pure ecstasy. This is not a film of triumph, but of fear and uncertainty; it’s an ugly pre, during, and post of the most notorious manhunt in history. The question the pilot asks Maya is one she can’t answer, for she knows firsthand that it is unanswerable. She’s seen ugliness on both sides. Torture from Americans, suicide bombings from members of Al-Qaeda. A neverending conflict of ruthless vigilance and moral duty, each defined differently by the sides who wield them. Yet, what yields results? Torture doesn’t lead to much, and the only thing the death of Osama bin Laden proves–at least in the world of Zero Dark Thirty–is that steady enduring unrest doesn’t have a solution solvable by putting a bullet into human flesh. So, then, where you “want” to go becomes an issue, as there is no foreseeable place to go. The next target gives us no time for celebration.

Zero Dark Thirty is most powerful when it is treated not as factual representation, but as a film, from which gleaning versus accepting should be your focus. It is, however, a film which seeks to insert itself into our reality, forcing us to question the parameters around us, and the morality of those in power. Immediately following one of the film’s many gruesome scenes of torture, we see a reassuring interview playing onscreen behind a few characters as he (within the diegetic realm of the film, mind you) lies about the country’s use of such deplorable tactics. There’s no proof that this is fact. Zero Dark Thirty might be fiction, but one with powerful reflective qualities. A mirror rooted in fiction, if you will. Do we gain greater meaning from the torture scenes? From seeing our President trying to cover up amoral actions performed for the preservation of the good of the nation? Are politicians complaining about the film’s depiction of torture because we’re uncomfortable that all of this might be true? The uncertainty is real whether in fiction or our reality, and forcing us to accept and confront the absence of closure following Osama bin Laden’s death is where the true terror of Zero Dark Thirty lies; It places us at war with ourselves.

Top 10 Films of 2012:

Note: The only film I haven’t seen that will most likely make an impact on this list is Amour, which I’ll be seeing on February 15th.

1

1 – Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

2

2 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin

3

3 – The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

4

4 – Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell

5

5 – Celeste and Jesse Forever
Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger

6

6 – Holy Motors
Directed by: Leos Carax

7

7 – Seven Psychopaths
Directed by: Martin McDonagh

8

8 – Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee

9

9 – Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

10

10 – The Impossible
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

And this, essentially, functions as my apology for hating on Kathryn Bigelow throughout the entire 2009-10 awards season. I still don’t like The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is a triumph of contemporary cinema.

Top 10 Films of 2010

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10 – Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia)

In a film that contains what has to be Naomi Watts’ 193856th underappreciated performance of the past 10 years, Rodrigo Garcia paints an emotionally-charged (and altogether disheartening) outlook on motherhood with Mother and Child. Garcia’s de-emphasis on feminine objectivity that usually plagues his films goes to show how much his style is changing for the better. Here he takes a step back, treats his subjects with emotional precision, and finally lets his audience envelop themselves in his intricate vision for once.

 

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9 – Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)

If I’m going to be completely honest (and those of you who’ve seen this one undoubtedly will agree) I still haven’t been able to convince myself that Catfish is either a brilliant (and altogether shot with heapings of luck) documentation of reality or a scripted farse into societal criticism. One thing’s for sure, the film’s ambiguity completely adds to the depth and complexity of Joost and Schulman’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-real “documentary”, that is at once mesmerizing because of its careful narrative handling that plays into conventions of fictional genres yet retains without a doubt a “real” depiction of  a disturbing portrait of one of an extremely grim side of human nature. Because we’re told the film is “real”, just as in a fiction, our disbelief is suspended due to the sheer ludicrosity of the entire thing once we understand what’s actually going on; regardless, the film contains one of the most moving conclusions you’re likely to experience this side of pre-90’s Streep material.

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8 – Animal Kingdom (David Michôd)

Foreign entries into the US market were surprisingly strong last year, an no film better exemplifies the increasingly brutal foreign worldview than Australia’s Animal Kingdom. Gorgeous cinematography contrasts beautifully with an intensely gritty (and altogether grim) narrative that puts even the darkest American crime dramas of the 80s to shame. At once hinting at such nostalgic genre conventions with its clever interplay of gangsters vs. good guys, the film never ostentatiously demonizes its subjects; smack dab in the middle of the action lies an extremely poignant coming-of-age  tale that plays the dysfunctional family note to dazzling dischord, creating a fabulous intentionally conflicted (and expertly so) atmosphere. Jacki Weaver takes a masterful turn as the matriarch of a closely-knit family of viscious criminals, playing saccharinely aloof for the film’s bulk yet employing a genius shift of character towards the film’s conclusion that truly drives the whole home.

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7 – The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)

If only AMPAS agendas could have been placed on hold for just another year, because if ever there was a year to commemorate female directors, 2010 was it. But since the Academy is notorious for having issues with keeping its agendized member zipped in its pants, most of the films helmed by female hands have gone largely unrecognized at least from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. Lisa Cholodenko’s largely progressive drama centers around a family that has issues with, well, being a family. Yes, the film is about two lesbians striving to keep their family together, but the beauty of Cholodenko’s (co-written by Stuart Blumberg) script lies within its de-emphasis on a would-be message of social acceptance, choosing to instead hone in on universal familial ideals versus romanticizing (and altogether exploiting) the fact that the protagonists happen to be lesbians. Their sexuality almost becomes an afterthought, seeing as we are heavily engrossed with what they’re doing versus who they, well, prefer to do. Yes, the film undoubtedly is as progressive as they come (at least for a mainstream audience), but that’s only at the hands of us consumers who choose to propel it forward and adopt it as a vehicle for change. But the fact that the picture has had success simply as a genuinely good film in the eyes of a mass public is where its success lies; its very non-boastful, plain existence in itself is its social triumph.

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6 – Mother (Bong Joon-ho)

Having an intense affinity for Asian cinema might make me a sucker for anything quintessentially minimal, but Bong Joon-ho’s epic entry into the largely-underappreciated Korean film scene is anything but subdued. Mother stands apart from its Korean brethren thanks to risky cinematography and an emphasis on some of the most wondrously quirky imagery I’ve ever seen; opening the film is a shot of the title character ceremoniously dancing amidst a bleak backdrop of the Korean wilderness, arguing an almost anti-feminist point that a mother’s love for her son is all-consuming, almost elevating her from her bleak, mundane surroundings (that everyone else can clearly see) and giving way to such an outlandish public (yet ultimately secluded) display. The offbeat handling of the film’s narrative (which involves a woman desperately seeking to prove her mentally-challenged son’s innocence in the face of accusations of murder) switches between dark, brooding melodrama and elements of campy maternal excess, yet one portion of the narrative never once feels out of place or disjointed from another. The zaniness of the film works to mimic the, well, “different” (and by different, I mean slightly odd by societally-conditioned standards) lives its central characters choose to lead.  Kim Hye-ja is pitch-perfect in a role that demanded less than what she gives, but her excess and commitment to such an odd character elevates the film’s message about self-assurance in the face of adversity to an entirely new level.

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5 – I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)

As much as I’d prefer to never literally see Tilda Swinton’s face ever again (countless nightmares in which it’s chasing me have occurred), I can’t deny her true talent as an actress. But more important is her willingness to support the little guys of the industry. Here, Swinton lends her acting prowess to little-known Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who crafts an intricate maternal portrait that utilizes Swinton’s alienesque persona to marvelous effect, crafting a role that’s at once swimming with emotional depth yet calls for an offsetting stony poise that only someone of Swinton’s caliber can pull off.

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4 – Another Year (Mike Leigh)

British filmmaker Mike Leigh departs from his typical single-focus features and broadens his artistry to include a gaggle of aging commoners; A husband, wife,  and their 30-something son are presented as typical London suburbanites going through their daily motions. We’re not inclined to think there’s anything inherently boring about their lives (as suburban portraits usually lead us to believe), there’s just a hint of grounding complacency that gives the entire picture a somber, refined quality. The shocker here comes in the form of Mary, a family friend who’s living far beyond her means (and her years). Mary is obviously over 50 (it’s never specified how old she is), and forms a strong attraction to her long-time friends’ aforementioned son who’s assumingly nearly half her age. The film doesn’t demonize her attractions because of her age, it rather criticizes Mary for not being a woman as strong in her convictions as her narrative counterpart. The film depicts Mary as a victim of a cruel society who only sees her age, and as a result has ostracized her from not only it but herself as a result. Lesley Manville gives what is hands-down the performance of the year in Mary’s role, maintaining a childlike innocence throughout, balancing it perfectly with hints of the trodden life Mary leads.

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3 – Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

My most anticipated feature of the year comes from my absolute favorite director, Sofia Coppola. In similar fashion to her previous two features, Coppola focuses on nothingness within an extremely happening locale; the densely-populated celebrity hotbed of Los Angeles provides the same alienating entrapment as Tokyo did in Lost in Translation. Coppola paints one of the most populated spaces in the entire world like a vapid, empty graveyard of the human soul, honing in on an actor’s struggle to reconnect with his daughter and ultimately with himself, or at least some semblance of a normal life he can barely remember having. Despite going around in circles for the majority of his life, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is grounded by the presence of his daughter, who’s played pitch-perfectly by Elle Fanning, a girl who’s looks suggest a young woman much older than the character’s age would suggest and too good effect; having a younger actress who, say, actually looked like she was 12 years old would set Johnny and her on two completely separate planes, therefore romanticizing any attempt to connect with his daughter in a cutesy, clichéd fashion. The relationship she builds between the two is constructed out of empty happenings; none of which glamorize their relationship into being something it isn’t. Coppola, in true Coppola fashion, frames her subjects in a sarcophagus amidst a teeming metropolis, this time instead of the Palace of Versailles or a Tokyo highrise we’re placed within the walls of the Chateau Marmont, LA’s premiere celebrity home-away-from-home. But Coppola’s intent here seems to be essentially telling a story that emphasizes its own nothingness; not only a way to compliment the way her subjects are feeling, but also conveying Coppola’s deep-seated feelings towards an industry she’s known for the better part of her life. The film could register as a self-reflexive hate-love letter to her father, who undoubtedly led a far more productive life than Mr. Marco. But the film’s simple, almost stagnant quality takes the bite out of any criticisms Coppola might have towards the realm of stardom. Beautiful in its uniquely-Sofia way, Somewhere is an epic example of progressive filmmaking and that should undoubtedly become a gravitational entity for other filmmakers to draw inspiration from. This is how you do it different from the rest, kids.

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2 – Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

What could have been a simple examination of the marital vitality preceding a bitter end essentially becomes a beautifully juxtaposed presentation of the deaths of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) before their marriage ever had a chance to live.  Physical death of the two protagonists is not the focus here, seeing as both Dean and Cindy technically exist throughout the entire narrative, but even the opening sequence is heavily laced with death as its most prominent subject; the search for the family’s lost dog ends with a grim discovery, one that prompts Cindy’s realization that, at least internally, she died long ago. Cianfrance expertly chooses to drop us into a point in their lives that reeks of domestic  decay, a family (that now includes a young daughter) with a backstory we assume to be as rocky and troubling as the morose, stagnant existence we’re initially introduced to. But what really drives the film’s emotional impact is what we’re shown next, and how Cianfrance chooses to show it to us.
Scenes of the couple’s innocent courtship proceed what we’ve already come to know as a lifeless union, making the whole thing entirely more depressing; shots of innocent courtship, smitten glances, harmless flirtation (you know…the works of young love) all resonate with a beautiful simplicity and shocking poignancy that legitimizes this relationship as one that we would believe to be entirely perfect if we weren’t already shown what it would lead to, yet the burden of what we already know weighs such charming scenes down like a ton of bricks. Such reverse sequential positioning allows the disturbing emotional pain of this damaged relationshp to manifest itself not when we are observing scenes of marital dysfunction, but rather when we are presented with an uncorrupt, budding relationship as new, pure, and wholesomely innocent. Scenes of happiness are expertly recontextualized to represent something bitter, becoming harbingers of doom in themselves aside from what’s literally presented as melancholic, reminding us that the disturbing bit of what we’ve seen before stemmed from genuine purity and goodness;  of coupled bliss tarnished by what we can only assume as marital indifference and personal distraction. The most devastating scene of the film comes towards the middle, when we see Dean sweetly courting Cindy with his talents as a singer and ukulele player; the innocent quirkiness of it all could have registered as saccharine overload in a different film, but here we’re treated to a devastating look at a moment when awkward chemistry turns into a moment of genuine passion, bearing the bad news of what’s to come with its mere implication as a pure foundation for what we already understand to be a dark future.  Cianfrance, along with the help of the gloriously perfect performances by Gosling and Williams, has created a disturbingly beautiful and altogether poignant portrait of one of the messiest situations one can only hope they’ll never experience…outside of this cinematic masterpiece, that is.

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1 – Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

It’s hard to recall a film that’s as assaulting as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The film is a true testament to the medium itself, pushing boundaries of simply being a film a transcending into the deepest burrows of our minds. A full embodiment of a cinematic experience, Black Swan is a masterful barrage of filmic elements in a symphonic fashion; visually arresting, emotionally assaulting, challenging, and altogether disturbing in its depiction of one woman’s struggle to maintain sanity in a stifling world she has (or at least feels she has) little influence over. Black Swan undoubtedly contains Natalie Portman’s crowning performance in a role that demanded exuberant outward projection yet is delicately refined by Portman’s ability to switch between cold hard emotion and deep-seated character subtlety. Black Swan ultimately becomes a comment on the increasing lack of individual control that seems to be invading each of us as we become entangled in the excessive selfishness of the society around us; what we project or hope to become is in essence consuming us at the same time, and Aronofsky’s filmic representation is as brilliant as they come. Never attempting to draw on “realistic” elements, the film draws on its own excessive, exaggerated nature to create a fantastical externalization of its characters’ internalized states of being; at once adding to the authenticity of the emotional rollercoaster we’re riding, yet at the same time reminding us of what movies are supposed to do; take us to places we can only fathom in the deepest parts of our mind that perhaps we have not even explored yet. Black Swan prompts, probes, and reveals those places to dazzling effect, and altogether reminds us of why we love movies in the first place.