By RCT Film Critic Vincent Abbatecola
Picking favorite films of the past year can be a challenge, especially if you’ve seen many of them. It can be exceptionally difficult this year because this is, by far, one of the busiest seasons of Oscar-contending films in quite a while, with many films standing out, despite being in a crowded field.
It seems as though there was an abundance of quality in both mainstream and indie films this year. The mainstream bunch included the dark and unnerving thriller “Prisoners” and the majestic space adventure “Gravity.” For the indies, there was the emotionally brutal “12 Years a Slave” and Woody Allen’s dramatic, yet funny, “Blue Jasmine.”
There are many films that deserve to be on this list because what the film industry has given us this year is an abundance of quality stories. Unfortunately, only five films can make this list. Before I get to the top five, I will give honorable mention to a few others: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Nebraska,” “Captain Phillips,” “Rush” and “Fruitvale Station.”
1) Prisoners: This is the type of thriller that Hollywood should release much more often. With its hugely talented cast, labyrinthine story, dreary setting and ominous cinematography and Denis Villeneuve’s assured direction, everything in the movie is in sync. The story concerns the kidnapping of two young suburban girls and the lengths that their families go through to seek justice. It’s a film that encourages the viewers to consider their own morals and what they would do in a situation that a parent should never have to experience. The film is anchored by Hugh Jackman’s ferocious performance, as well as a terrific performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, which is easily his best since “Brokeback Mountain.” “Prisoners” is a film that should be given repeat viewings, not just for the sake of picking up clues, but also because it’s what a truly great film deserves.
2) 12 Years a Slave: Director Steve McQueen has brought us a searing view on one of the most horrific eras of American history. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is deceived by two traveling circus men and sold into slavery. The film has some scenes that can be difficult to watch, but this is an important film to experience. Ejiofor is masterful and heartbreaking in his handling of Northup’s character, and will surely become much more prominent as an actor because of this film. Michael Fassbender is outstanding, yet horrific, as a cruel plantation owner, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is devastating as one of his physically and sexually abused slaves. Also, the ending is one of the most potent mixtures of happiness and sadness in recent cinema. This film is much, much more than a history lesson.
3) American Hustle: Director David O. Russell seems to get better with each film he makes, leaving “American Hustle” to be his best one yet. As Russell has shown Hollywood over the past few years, he’s a director who really knows how to utilize a full and talented cast, similar to what he has done with “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter.” The film, which is loosely based on the ABSCAM FBI operation that occurred in the late ‘70s, follows a pair of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) as they assist an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) in exposing the corrupt political work of Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the then-mayor of Camden, New Jersey. The film is one of the most wildly entertaining of 2013, not only for its cast and screenplay, but for its extensive details to the ‘70s era, such as the attractive costuming and the remarkable soundtrack. In short, I’m already waiting for Russell’s next project.
4) Before Midnight: Director Richard Linklater completes his “Before” trilogy with this deeply romantic third chapter. Nine years after the events of “Before Sunset” and 18 years after “Before Sunrise,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are vacationing with friends in Greece, and the two now have a family. The film itself hinges on three big scenes. The first has the two discussing what their lives are like at the current moment. The second has them and their friends around a dining table discussing love. The third is an argument between Jesse and Celine as they debate about what their relationship holds for their future, an argument that seems to tell the audience that this is what the trilogy has been building towards. Having theses films be released so many years apart from each other perfectly sets up what their lives have been like and what they have experienced, adding a degree of realism to the proceedings. It is, without question, one of the most truthful depictions of a relationship that has ever been put to film.
5) Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen’s latest is a riches-to-rags tale with many references to Tennessee Williams’ classic American play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a NYC socialite who loses everything when her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), is arrested for business fraud. She then moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), where she can’t seem to get the hang of living a non-affluent lifestyle. Picking out the “Streetcar” allusions is a joy itself, but with the film’s interesting and flawed characters, as well as the interplay of comedic and dramatic elements, “Blue Jasmine” becomes another stellar entry into Woody Allen’s ever-growing filmography.
Watch for my Oscar predictions, coming in February.