SN&R film critics toast 2013's blockbusters, hidden gems and the rest of the best

SN&R film critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane on the year's top films

James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens are dead-eyed, hedonistic thieves in <i>Spring Breakers</i>.

James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens are dead-eyed, hedonistic thieves in Spring Breakers.

photo illustration by Hayley Doshay

If there’s anything the last 12 months have taught us, at least cinematically speaking, it’s that great films come in all shapes and sizes—be they multiplex box-office smashes such as Gravity, intimate documentaries such as Stories We Tell or, as in the case of Before Midnight, the latest installment in a beloved indie series. SN&R film critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane brush off the popcorn dust to muse on possible Oscar contenders, fairy tales, James Franco and their favorite films of 2013.

A one-woman show and other great performances

Ordinarily, I list my top movies of the year in alphabetical order, but this year, two pictures stand out so far from the pack that they’re on just about everybody’s top 10 list. Both seem to be the ones to beat for many of 2013’s Academy Awards; either one would be an honorable, even distinguished choice for Best Picture. And they could hardly be more different.

Gravity is my choice for the best movie of the year, with director Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jon&#;aacute;s strong contenders for the Original Screenplay Oscar. They rang an amazing number of changes on their marooned-in-space premise, taking what sounded like something more suited to a half-hour Twilight Zone episode and spinning it out to an almost unbearably suspenseful 91 minutes. Technically brilliant and visually breathtaking, it was a two-character story and a one-woman show. Sandra Bullock may not snag the award for best actress (I expect she may lose to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine), but this is the performance of her career, and one she’ll probably be most remembered for.

12 Years a Slave was the year’s other standout, the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the antebellum South. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Northup, might as well start working on his Oscar acceptance speech right now. The same goes for John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s 1853 memoir into a searing and incisive screenplay, and for director Steve McQueen, whose unflinching blend of compassion and pitilessness made the movie indelible. As different as 12 Years and Gravity were, they had one thread in common: a feeling for unquenchable humanity and the determination not only to survive, but to prevail.

Now, reverting to alphabetical order, the rest of my top five:

42: Brian Helgeland’s studious telling of how Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball was an inspiring story of one of America’s true heroes, well played by the relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman.

Fruitvale Station: Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s recounting of the last day of Oscar Grant III’s life before he was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. It had the immediacy of a documentary made from found video, with subtle and natural performances, especially from Michael B. Jordan as Grant.

Another good year for Ryan Gosling, who appeared in Nicolas Winding Refn’s <i>Only God Forgives</i>.

photo illustration by hayley doshay

The Spectacular Now: This is the kind of movie that could give teen romances a good name; you have to go back to 1989’s Say Anything… to find one as good. The story had the aching ring of truth, and there were brave performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.

And to round out my top 10:

A.C.O.D.: This one came and went virtually unnoticed, but it was a real gem, a perceptive, often excruciatingly funny treatise on the scars worn by adult children of divorce.

All Is Lost: A sort of companion piece to Gravity, here we had a struggle for survival at sea rather than in space. Robert Redford effectively nonacted the seemingly doomed hero, and the picture was a tour de force by writer-director J.C. Chandor.

Girl Most Likely: Starring Kristen Wiig as a failed playwright trying to pull her life together, this charmer (like A.C.O.D.) sank without a trace, but it was funnier and more perceptive than Wiig’s hit vehicle Bridesmaids.

Jack the Giant Slayer: Don’t laugh. It may have flopped at the box office, but it was a textbook example of how to reimagine an old fairy tale with humor, heart and high spirits. Look for this one (like 1987’s The Princess Bride) to find its audience via home viewing.

Nebraska: Director Alexander Payne scored again with this father-and-son road dramedy. Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte and old pro Bruce Dern shared top billing and center screen, but June Squibb, as the no-nonsense materfamilias, stole the picture right out from under them.


The search for human connection

by Daniel Barnes

If there is a common theme to the films on my list, it’s the search for human connection in increasingly dehumanized times. These movies ask what love and grace will look like in a world where Skype replaces bold romantic gestures (Before Midnight), where artifice reveals more than truth (Stories We Tell), where hedonism reigns supreme (Spring Breakers), where a rewind-and-pause mentality is ingrained (Room 237), and where hallucinogenic earthworms merge with the consciousness of pig fetuses (Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas).

Kristen Wiig proved her acting chops in <i>Girl Most Likely</i>.

photo illustration by hayley doshay

1. Upstream Color: It took Shane Carruth nine years to produce a follow-up to his brilliant lo-fi mind-bender Primer, and Upstream Color was definitely worth the wait. A devastating Amy Seimetz gives the female performance of the year as the hypnotized victim of an embezzling botanist and a sound-engineer pig farmer (stay with me here) who finds her severed psyche repeatedly drawn to a fellow victim, even as they inhabit different forms of life, death, memory and illusion. Upstream Color is the moment of 21st-century cinematic singularity, an all-things game-changer of psychic fragmentation, post-God spirituality and unfiltered expression.

2. Stories We Tell: Director Sarah Polley’s first two films both dealt with themes of adultery in long-term relationships. Now we know she was building up to Stories We Tell, a deeply personal documentary that explores how the exposure of a long-buried secret in Polley’s family had identity-altering effects. Polley allows everyone to tell their own version of the story, but she also undercuts notions of truth by augmenting actual archival footage with obvious dramatizations. As the director of Stories We Tell, Polley ultimately reclaims authorship of her own story, and by so doing announces herself as a truly great filmmaker.

3. Room 237: Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is pure crack for cinephiles, even as it delivers a withering critique of their penchant for microscopic margin scraping. Five unseen narrators offer obsessively detailed, often insane theories about the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining. Each so fervently clutches to pet arguments about perceived allusions to the Holocaust, American Indian genocide and the moon landing that they ignore any tangible criticisms about acting and storytelling choices in Kubrick’s film. Room 237 has found the enemy of cinema, and it is the audience.

4. Spring Breakers: Many of 2013’s movies attempted to capture a snapshot of the American moment, but Harmony Korine’s meta-satire was the only one to genuinely realize where we are right now—in the midst of a brainless, hedonistic, ostensibly consequence-free party of dead-eyed, glitter-skinned Disney princesses that simply will not end. James Franco gives the male performance of the year as Alien, a gold-teethed ringmaster of self-celebration (“Look at my shit!”) who becomes the film’s make-it-rain id, and also its shriveled soul and decomposing conscience.

5. Inside Llewyn Davis: See No. 6.

6. Before Midnight: I wrote 700 words about the Coens’ marvelously melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis last week (see “Clear as folk” SN&R Film, December 19), so let’s give a nod to Richard Linklater’s smart and moving trilogy closer instead. Before Midnight is about the thrall of young romance settling into the no-surprises reality of marriage, a classic conceit given additional poignancy by our having already witnessed the blossoming love of Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) through two previous Before films.

7. 12 Years a Slave:Steve McQueen’s vivid epic is the cathartic theatrical experience of 2013, capturing not so much the experience of slavery (because that’s bullshit) as the diseased psyches that allowed the machine to run.

8. The Hunt: Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, barely heard from since his overheated 1998 film The Celebration, delivered this caustic study of pastoral misanthropy.

9. Narco Cultura: Shaul Schwarz cut his teeth as a freelance war photographer, and his scathing documentary Narco Cultura depicts the drug war raging in America’s own backyard with a battle journalist’s fearlessness.

10. Only God Forgives: Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s lean and sultry dreamscape starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas is another underappreciated breakthrough from a previously overpraised Danish filmmaker.