Top 15 Films of 2013 & Oscar Predictions

Below are my top 15 films of 2013. As a rule I didn’t include documentaries, which given the slew of great docs released last year (The Act of KillingBlack Fish, The Square) would have made compiling the list more challenging.

There are a few films I still want to see, such as The Dirties, Fruitvale Station, and Nebraska, along with a few foreign films, and any list is subjective (and in this case a little androcentric), but if I had to choose 15…

1. 12 Years a Slave: The best film of the year. No, it doesn’t change history, and no it doesn’t provide the full picture of slavery, but it is a riveting and powerful two hours of cinema. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it. Read my full review, here.

2. Prisoners: Given the incredible performances from the entire cast, there should have been some Oscar nominations for acting, especially for Jackman’s and Gyllenhaal’s standout performances. Given the subject matter, this is hardly a film for everyone, but it is a spellbinding English-language debut from Villeneuve. Read my full review, here.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Read my full review, here.

4. Her: Spike Jonze’s Her is a fantastic film that merges science fiction with romantic dramedy to explore the state of modern human relationships in the age of technology. Joaquin Phoenix proves once again why he is one of the best actors working in cinema today (I thought Phoenix should have won Best Actor last year for The Master). It would have been really cool if Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice) received an acting nomination given she never physically appears on screen.

5. Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey is on fire lately. He’s gone from romcom melodramatic hamming to a first rate actor who is a serious a contender for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. He’s even taking on T.V.—well, HBO—in True Detective. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey’s character, a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy, finds out he has AIDS and is told he has only 30 days to live. He ends up smuggling unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he finds they are effective at improving his own symptoms and then distributes them to fellow AIDS sufferers through the eponymous “Dallas Buyers Club,” drawing the ire of the FDA. Dallas Buyers Club is a formidable film that deals squarely with the AIDS crisis in the 80s, which along with Leto’s spellbinding acting is carried by a scrawny McConaughey  who gives one of his finest performances.

6. The Wind Rises: Likely maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises is a beautiful and devastating lament concerning the distortion of beauty. A visually magnificent celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of prewar Japan the film hints at what is possible, but then shows how easily dreams can become impossible nightmares. While I was surprised like many that the protagonist was a warplane designer, and although the film skirts around some important political issues, I was, nevertheless, drawn deeply in by the story, images, and wonderment that will—like all Miyazaki films, from Totoro to Spirited Away—stay with me for a lifetime.

7. The Place Beyond the Pines: The only logical reason this film was completely snubbed at the Oscars is that is was released too early in the year, as the trend seems to go. The Place Beyond the Pines contains the best cinematic twist I saw on screen last year. The film—which veers towards Greek tragedy throughout—provides a salient discourse about the moral ambiguity we walk in order to protect our loved ones. Unlike most films of its style, there are no heroes, only shared fears and truths manifested through the ripple effects of a violent past.

8. Upstream Color: This film flew a little under the radar, perhaps because the unusual content alienated most viewers. Upstream Color is written, directed, produced, edited, designed, cast, and stars Shane Carruth whose last film was his 2004, Primer. Upstream Color focuses on two people whose lives and behaviours are affected by a complex parasite—that they are unaware of—that has a three-stage life cycle as it passes from humans to pigs to orchids. You need to see and experience this transcendent film to believe it.

9. Frances Ha: Directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, and co-writer with Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), Frances Ha is a quirky indie film with an endearing performance from Greta Gerwig. I agree with Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice who praised Gerwig’s acting, writing: “No other movie has allowed her to display her colors like this. Frances is a little dizzy and frequently maddening, but Gerwig is precise in delineating the character’s loopiness: Her lines always hit just behind the beat, like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.” If you don’t know what’s up, check out this off beat picture.

10. All is Lost: This film has a similar feel to Gravity, only it takes place at sea and is, in my opinion, more riveting. This film captivated me in the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey did, except instead of classical music, the majority of sounds emit from a perilous ocean. Robert Redford is literally the only actor in this film, and his performance is one of his best. The lack of a Best Actor nomination for Redford is perhaps the biggest Oscar snub this year, but that’s hardly a surprise since this isn’t a Weinstein Company film.

11. Blue is the Warmest Color: The most controversial film of the year, entirely because it depicts two women having sex for 7 minutes (although that’s less than 5% of the film’s running time). Aside from offending puritans and some lesbians who contend it got the “sex” wrong—not that there is ever a right way to have sex—the film is an artful treatment of love in its many colourful brushstrokes, although blue is the primary colour. I found the polemical performances truly inspired, and the story feels very real, which sadly seems to be a rare treatment in same-sex love depictions in cinema, sans a few films I’ve seen such as Pariah and Weekend.

12. In a World… One of the best comedies of last year, In a World… is written, directed, co-produced, and stars Lake Bell. The film feels fresh with a straightforward plot focusing on a young woman doing voice-over work for film trailers. Bell’s performance is magnetic as she takes on the cutthroat male-dominated world of voice-over.

13. A Field in England: Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. Read my full review, here.

14. Blue Caprice: A cerebral and chilling depiction of the triviality of evil, based on the notorious Beltway sniper attacks from the point of view of the two killers. Blue Caprice is a striking and engrossing debut for writer-director Alexandre Moors, and the taut psychological thriller is made all the more eerie thanks to a  great soundtrack provided by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld.

15. Philomena: Based on the true story of Irish Catholic nuns who sold babies to the States because they were conceived out of wedlock, Philomena concerns injustice and hypocrisy, only to teach its audience a potent lesson about how forgiveness is far more difficult and significant than outrage. The film gracefully teeters between the BBC reporter’s slightly unrestrained antipathy (Steve Coogan) and Philomena’s (Judi Dench) heartfelt and humble demeanour.


Some other films (sans documentaries) I enjoyed, but didn’t quite make it to the top: Gravity, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine, Enemy, American Hustle, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Side Effects, Before Midnight, and Inside Llewyn Davis.

And a few of my picks for the 86th Oscars:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf, but will likely go to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress: Judi Dench (Philomena)
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Best Directing: 12 Years a Slave
Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing
Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Happy Oscars day!

A “Truthful Statement of Facts”: A Review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

So states Solomon Northup in the first page of his grueling autobiography 12 Years a Slave; 160 years later Northup’s words are visually echoed in perhaps the best portrayal of slavery on film. 12 Years a Slave is a fictionalized historical drama by British director Steve McQueen that adapts Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title. Given the palette of slavery, McQueen’s film is difficult to watch at times—as it should be—and I agree with critics who have called the film essential viewing. Having seen McQueen’s major theatrical releases, Hunger (2008, about the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike) and Shame (2011, about a struggling sex addict), I knew he wouldn’t shy away from starkly depicting the brutality of slavery, of which, believe it or not, the film could have shown even more.

African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave, says the film actually minimizes the depiction of violence: “Slavery was a brutal, violent, sadistic institution. And I think that Steve McQueen showed remarkable restraint. It just hints at how violent slavery was… You can’t depict it and not show violence. That would be Gone with the Wind. But if you’re depicting it, there is a lot more violence in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative than there is in Steve McQueen’s film” (click here to read more from this article). Very true, and while the violence in 12 Years a Slave is visceral and unrelenting, it is fully necessary, much in the way that Schindler’s List needed to show the atrocities Jewish people faced in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The unfortunate reality is that many suffer from a “collective amnesia” and fail to take into account that the Middle Passage—the capture of Africans and the brutal crossing of the sea into the New World—was a holocaust that ruptured, damaged, or destroyed the lives of over 20 million African people. 12 Years a Slave can’t tell the total story of slavery—the epigraph from Northup states the impossibility of this—but it is admirable for its heightened focus on the experiences Northup faced when he was captured, taken from his family, and sold into bondage. Given how realistic McQueen’s antebellum Southern opera feels, the film will set the bar for which other films about slavery will be compared.

McQueen’s early ventures into the art world are apparent, as many scenes are so horrifically beautiful (with very long and wide shots) that you feel as if you are watching a painting slowly combust before your eyes. Such as in the scene where Northup hangs from a tree—almost like a Tableau vivant—with his feet barely touching the muddy ground, which feels like an eternity on the screen. The beautiful southern landscape, along with the pious hypocrisy of the slave owners shows just how dehumanizing slavery was for all parties involved. And yet, despite this brutality the slaves found ways to make their lives meaningful, emphasized, for example, through the spirituals in the film. Recounting the emotive and philosophical power of slave songs, Frederick Douglass attests, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Narrative 57). Douglass declares that the slave song is the final province of resistance to slavery.

Of course, none of the music, storytelling, or spectacular cinematography would be very affecting if the acting weren’t so phenomenal. As the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor gave such a heart wrenching and brilliant performance that it would be a shame if he weren’t given an Oscar nomination. The rest of the star-studded cast also shine, or tarnish, as evil men and women who personify the malevolent machinations of slavery. Paul Dano is particularly vicious, that is until we encounter Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a cruel plantation owner who is married to an equally cruel woman played by Sarah Paulson. However, the surprise standout performance, for me, was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation who suffers the cruel brunt of the Epps’ guilt, jealousy, and perverted rage. Her performance will haunt me for some time to come, as will the film, which is the most painful, and lucid depiction of American slavery I’ve seen in cinema.

Watching a movie in Canada about American slavery, made by a black British director, reminded me of how global and transnational slavery was. And while Canada no longer practiced slavery at the time Northup was captured—he is aided by a Canadian carpenter in the film played by Brad Pitt—it is important to remember that slavery is “Canada’s best kept secret, locked within the National closet” (Afua Cooper, Untold Story 68). In Canada, slavery was not denounced until 1793, and was not formally abolished until 1834. I mention this because the last thing we should do as Canadians is congratulate ourselves for not participating in slavery—because we did—and our continued poor treatment of First Nations people (who were also once kept as slaves) is a reminder of the legacy of injustice that still effects this country.

On a less somber note, 12 Years a Slave is additionally a film about the will to overcome injustice, to find hope where only despair seems plausible, and to remain ardent in the search for greater freedom, fraternity, and equality for all people. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Northup’s book was published less than a year after his liberation. It became one of the best selling slave narratives of all time, and yet it remains unknown what happened to Solomon Northup. Regardless, Northup lives on in his book, and now his incredible story manifests in this gripping and powerful historical drama about the brutal inhumanities we as humans inflict upon one another. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it.

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup

Works Cited

Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.