Lab Rat’s Top 10 Films of 2013

 10) Dallas Buyers’ Club


I would have never guessed that I would say I genuinely enjoyed any film with Matthew McConaughey, much less two in one year (technically, three). Dallas Buyers’ Club was extraordinary for more than just being the second “alright, alright, alright” film I enjoyed in 2013.

It also has an interesting, seemingly simple, and potentially cliché “based on a true story” story about a homophobic Texas man diagnosed with HIV. I use “cliché” not in the sense that it’s a story that has told too many times but when trying to summarize the plot it almost sounds like it was meant to be formulaic. But this film constantly reveals a new layer of depth with every scene.  The acting by McConaughey and Jared Leto is terrific.


9) HerHer

This film is anchored by an idea that could’ve come off as hokey and pointless in the hands of many of today’s “comedy” writers and directors; just think if the Farrelly brothers tackled something like this.  But with Spike Jonze at the helm it works mostly because the film has style. It has quite a vision and a goal too.  It’s a highly stylized film about a version of our future and what our operating systems could be like. That future is presented in a very subtle, artful way.

I’m not sure if it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s superb acting, Scarlett Johanssen’s intriguing voice-acting, the writing, the directing, or the combination of all of those beautiful little elements, but this film is one of the most inventive I’ve seen this year. There were some wise decisions made along the way when tackling the seemingly odd idea of a man falling in love with his OS.


8) The Way, Way BackTHE WAY, WAY BACK

Based on the trailer, I thought this might turn out to be one of the run-of-the-mill indie comedies we’re seeing more of these days.  It wasn’t. This film sets the mood right out of the gate and lets the viewer know how honest it’s going to be.  The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan, played by Liam James, who is struggling with extreme life obstacles.  His mother (Toni Collette) is divorced and dating an unlikable new man (Steve Carell).

The story takes off abruptly with Carell’s character digging at this obviously suffering young man’s morale on their way to his New England beach house. While much of the journey is about Duncan’s rocky coming-of-age summer as he meets an assembly of interesting characters, we’re subtly shown how life always provides new obstacles regardless of how well we think we’ve figured it all out.

This film really resonated with me on many levels and delivered a lot of laughs along the way.  Among the funniest of the characters are Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph.


7) MudMud

I’ve never been a fan of Matthew McConaughey.  Bernie had changed my mind slightly but his role as the mysterious Mud, a man on the run and driven by love, has solidified my trust that he is capable of being a versatile actor.

It doesn’t all hinge on McConaughey though; the success of this film is due in large part to Jeff Nichols’ story and direction. He chose to capture this remarkable tale from the unique viewpoint of a local boy from Arkansas who is motivated by the ideas of love, life, and family. Tye Sheridan portrays the 14-year-old, Ellis, excellently. The pace that Nichols sets allows the story to develop into wonderfully unexpected terrain.


6) The Spectacular NowSpectacularNow

For years now the independent film scene has been making waves.  This year truly seems to help amplify the voice these smaller pictures have.  Financially, they are smaller but in scope they really compete with the large, studio films. The Spectacular Now is a prime example of how to turn the typical teenager, coming of age type film on its side and deliver something deeper.

I went into this movie knowing nothing about the subject matter, the characters, or the actors.  The depth of focus subtly begins with the utterly self-involved and ever-popular Sutter Keeley (Miles Teller).  After being dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), he wakes out of a drunken stupor on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Aimee isn’t popular.  She’s grounded, practical and normal with some unique and beautiful qualities.

Despite how Sutter’s friends and reputation may recommend that he not spend time with Aimee, he is drawn to her because he lives by his “in the here and now” philosophy.  As their friendship and relationship begin to blossom, we start to learn some deeper meaning behind Sutter’s ideas and who he really is outside of the public eye.  Likewise, the incomparably passionate Aimee discovers things about herself, Sutter, and life that make the Spectacular Now just that.


5) Short Term 12ShortTerm12

Similar to The Spectacular Now, this was another small film that was louder than most of its big budget brethren.  This film smacked me in the face and punched me in the gut with fists of emotional depth.  This year proves that the Academy Awards is lacking in taking notice of this amazing and beautiful occurrence that’s happening in the film world: great low-budget films.

My recommendation is to watch this movie. Short Term 12 is about a short term housing facility for at-risk foster children.  Brie Larson plays Grace, a supervisor and member of the facility.  Along with other staff members, including her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), she attempts to help these kids traverse a variety of big picture realities.  The result is a study of how these darker, stark truths effect everyone involved.  When a film can, perhaps, teach you something about yourself, I’d call it a success (Yes, I use this line twice).


4) NebraskaNebraska

At first glance, Nebraska appears like such a simple film: black and white, rural America, an old white-haired gentleman. But Nebraska didn’t need the extra commodities that other films use to propel the front of the press.  Alexander Payne has such an outstanding eye for beauty in simplicity. The stark black and white photography compliments this tale.  Bruce Dern’s character is on a journey from Montana to Nebraska to collect his supposed one million dollars in winnings from a “Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes”.

His family has seemingly given up on him, writing him off as a borderline dementia sufferer. However, his son, Will Forte’s character, decides to humor him and spend some time with his father on a road trip. What Payne and screenplay writer Bob Nelson bring to the screen is a remarkable cast of very real people with very real presence.

The ideas, actions, and conversations are so fluidly grounded in reality, this story becomes as poignant as if it were coming from a close friend.  There are plenty of laughs along the way.  June Squid and Bob Odenkirk are truly outstanding additions to this cast, among several others. Though Forte gives an excellent performance, Dern gives an outstanding one.  When a film can, perhaps, teach you something about yourself, I’d call it a success (Yes, I used this line twice).


3) 12 Years a Slave12YearsASlave

It’s tough to put a film like 12 Years a Slave on a top list. This remarkable tale follows Solomon Northup, a free black man, on his unsuspecting journey as a slave after having his freedom stripped and buried after he was deceived and sold into slavery.  Director Steve McQueen has an amazing, unyielding way of bringing difficult material to the screen.

It’s no different in 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon Northup is brilliant. Much of Northup’s plight, confusion, frustration, etc. is delivered to us by only Ejiofor’s facial expressions and body language. There is a cavalcade of characters, a mix of wicked and decent, played by fantastic array of actors that makes Northup’s story a continuous series of inexcusable offenses.

Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, and Paul Dano are the highlights of this amazing cast.  While Brad Pitt’s character was intriguing, he felt a little misplaced to a very small degree. The actions of the character tend to overshadow this and I seemed to quickly overlook the awkward feeling I had.

This film highlights an extremely unique story in a terrible time in our history. Much of the film can be very rough to watch at times but that’s just what it set out to do and it proves undeniably effective.  The effects are forever resonant.


2) The Wolf of Wall StreetWolfOfWallStreet

Wow, this film’s script is overflowing with vivacity. This story of Jordan Belfort hones the 80’s and 90’s stock market lifestyle of larger-than-life speeches, general debauchery, and greed, leaving nothing to the imagination.  Historically, this in-your-face concept does not translate to film, or specifically the audiences, particularly well.  Moreover, leaving certain scenes to the imagination can prove more effective.  Scorsese has managed to go in the opposite direction and pull off something equally, if not more, effective.

There’s no reason to cheer for the characters in this story but in some odd way it left me intrigued to find out more hopeful that the next decision would be the better one.  Leonardo DiCaprio is unbelievably convincing as Belfort. His performance is as commanding as it is charismatic.  Among his companions, Jonah Hill’s performance delivers a weird character who plays a significant role in one of the oddest, most awkward scenes movie-going laughs I’ve experienced in a long time.

The film has been described as “over-the-top”, “excessive” and “raunchy” by many.  And, it is. That’s exactly what this film should be and what is was meant to be.  The brilliance in this film isn’t the excess that’s put on screen, it’s that we’re never really being shown one side; we’re never told which side to root for. At the end of the film, have we learned anything?  I know I have.


1) GravityGravity

This film left me with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever had on my face after seeing a film. It embodies what I consider to be a nearly flawless film, regardless of its scientific accuracy.  You’d literally have to be an astrophysicist to notice those flaws, by the way.  In that vein, though, it must be said that it’s a relatively rare occurrence when Hollywood delivers a space-related film that attempts to maintain some scientific realism.

Aside from the science, the scope of this film seems as vast as space itself yet the plot remains somewhat simple; a few astronauts are on a seemingly routine mission to make some alterations to the Hubble Telescope but an unforeseen and unfortunate accident, involving a rocket and a satellite, triggers a series of events that leaves our astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) to deal with extremely perilous debris moving in orbit around the earth at ungodly speeds.

From the moment the events begin to unfold, we’re treated to a constant thrill ride.  The script’s simplicity is part of the beauty of Gravity and the visual effects are most impressive.  The sound editing is absolutely genius and aides in carrying much of the tension. Alfonso Cuarón has really outdone himself with this impressive achievement in film-making.  This is the most gripping, breathtaking, and beautiful film of the year.  I feel like this is a film that will set the bar for future films for years to come.

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