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DEC
26
12 MOS

Best of 2013: THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films

Personal faves include a mix of indies and studio pics, a music doc, an NC-17 love story, a Danish character study, a dialogue-free drama and a 3D thriller.

Gravity Sandra Bullock Earth - H 2013
"Gravity"

The following list and remarks reflect my personal opinions and do/will not in any way impact my projections or analyses on this site, through which I strive above all else to correctly forecast what will happen. My demonstrated ability to do that over the years is what has led many of you to my coverage, and any failure on my part to do that would undoubtedly lead many of you away from it, so you can rest assured that I mean it when I say that one has/will have no bearing on the other.

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Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films of 2013:

10. Gimme the Loot (Sundance Selects, 3/22, NR, trailer)
The directorial debut of 31-year-old Adam Leon -- a white kid who majored in African-American studies -- offers a gritty, immensely fun and funny look at class and race in present-day New York, as seen through the eyes of two teenage graffiti artists (the remarkably naturalistic first-timers Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson) whom you can't help but like in spite of their petty crimes and who can't quite bring themselves to admit that they like each other. The duo's quixotic quest to raise $500 to gain access to and "bomb" the home-run apple at the Mets baseball stadium, as written and directed by Leon, has the vibe of a Spike Lee joint and the verbiage of a Quentin Tarantino flick, with laugh-out-loud riffs on subjects ranging from yarmulkes to condoms. The film premiered at last year's South by Southwest, where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize; played at Cannes; and recently garnered Leon the Someone to Watch accolade at the Spirit Awards; plus noms for best breakthrough director at the Gotham Awards and best first feature at the Spirit Awards.

9. 20 Feet From Stardom (RADiUS-TWC, 6/14, PG-13, trailer)
Morgan Neville's crowd-pleasing doc offers both a macro and micro look at the history of backup singers in American music -- people whose faces and voices have always been overshadowed by others but without whom many of our most treasured songs would never have been possible. A glossy production featuring fresh interviews with many famous frontmen (including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting) testifying to the importance of the people who stand behind them (among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, who also discuss their work with great candor), it causes viewers to take notice of, appreciate and never again look the same way at something that was always right before their eyes, which is one of the most remarkable things a doc can do. The film premiered at Sundance, was nominated for the best doc Spirit Award and was named one of the year's top five docs by the National Board of Review.

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8. The Hunt (Magnolia, 7/12, R, trailer)
A few excellent films have revolved around people who committed crimes against children, from M (1931) to The Woodsman (2004), but none, to my knowledge, has ever focused on a person who is falsely accused of this sort of behavior -- which is, understandably, as stigmatized as any -- until this character study from Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. Set and shot in a small village in Denmark, it tells the story of a kind-hearted daycare employee (Mads Mikkelsen) whose life is thrown into disarray after one of his young charges (Annika Wedderkopp) -- the lonely daughter of his best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen), to whom he has always been particularly attentive -- claims that he exposed himself to her. The film serves as a haunting reminder that the most valuable possession any of us have is our reputation and an almost biblical warning to be very careful before tarnishing someone else's ("Judge not, lest ye be judged"). Mikkelsen was awarded the best actor prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and the film, which is nominated for the best foreign language Golden Globe and Spirit awards, is one of the Academy's nine finalists for the best foreign language film Oscar.

7. All Is Lost (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, 10/18, PG-13, trailer)
The year's most surprising movie, in a sense, was this dramatic thriller, not because the people who made it weren't already known to be supremely talented -- writer-director J.C. Chandor's debut feature, Margin Call, was an Oscar-nominated masterpiece and actor Robert Redford is universally regarded as one of the greatest movie stars of all-time -- but because this film is so different from, and yet just as good if not better than, anything those two individuals had ever done before. Whereas Margin Call was a dialogue-heavy look at a group of people trying to do damage control in a corporate setting, this is an almost dialogue-free look at one man trying to do damage control out in the middle of the ocean as his yacht starts to sink. And while Redford has usually played perfectly coiffed, smooth-talking and in-control characters, here the actor, now 77, gets to be none of those things; he instead plays a man who is just trying to survive, like everyone else, and he is as magnetic onscreen as he has ever been, proving beyond a doubt that he is not "just" a great movie star but also a great actor. (No wonder he has already received best actor Gotham, Critics' Choice and Golden Globe award noms and won the New York Film Critics Circle's best actor prize for this performance.) And what is better than an ambiguous ending that forces you to form your own conclusions, rather than spoon-feeding them to you? Nothing -- at least for people who like to think.

6. Blue Is the Warmest Color (IFC Films/Sundance Selects, 10/25, NC-17, trailer)
Initially described to me during the Cannes Film Festival as "the three-hour French lesbian movie with the seven-minute graphic sex scene," Abdellatif Kechiche's film proved to be so much more, as the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury acknowledged in awarding the Palme d'Or to not only its director but, in a festival-first, also its stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. The movie is an epic examination of the emotional turmoil that comes with falling in and out of love, generally, and "forbidden love," specifically. In that sense, it is not unlike Ang Lee's widely celebrated Brokeback Mountain (2005), except that the love story at its center involves two young women instead of two young men and unfolds in France instead of America. No one demonstrated greater commitment to their work in 2013 than these two, who gave great performances because or in spite of an incredibly demanding director whose approach -- such as shooting the sex scene on day one and more than 100 takes of other scenes without offering any notes after each -- makes Hitchcock look like a pushover. The film is ineligible for this year's best foreign language film Oscar due to its French release date, but it has scored Golden Globe and Spirit Award noms in that category and was voted the year's best foreign film by both the Los Angeles and New York film critics; Exarchopoulos was also chosen as the year's best actress by the New York film critics and best breakthrough actress by the National Board of Review.

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5. 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight, 10/18, R, trailer)
Some things aren't fun but are necessary, and watching Steve McQueen's film, the finest ever made about American slavery, is one of them. Adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography of the same title, the movie recounts the remarkable true story of a free black man from the North (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was deceived and sold into slavery in the South in mid-19th century America, whereupon he bears witness to acts of cruelty (Michael Fassbender's slave master and his Southern belle wife, played by Sarah Paulson, are unspeakably sadistic toward Lupita Nyong'o's slave) and kindness (Benedict Cumberbatch's slave master gives him a violin and Brad Pitt's carpenter becomes his advocate), all while keeping his head down in the hope of one day seeing his family again. We all know where this film is heading before it starts -- the duration of Northup's nightmarish experience is given away in the title and we know he lived to write about it -- but it is impossible to truly grasp what his journey must have been like until we see it come to life on the big screen in a way to which no verbal or literary account could ever compare. (Consequently, no film received more Critics' Choice, Golden Globe or SAG award noms than did 12 Years, and all of its principal talent have won individual nominations and honors, as well.) And to think that slavery remained in practice in America as recently as 150 years ago helps one appreciate how far America has come and how far it still has to go when it comes to matters of race.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount, 12/25, R, trailer)
For my money, this fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio is the best one yet -- yes, even better than the Oscar-winning The Departed -- and features the most impressive, Oscar-worthy work of the latter's distinguished career. DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort (from whose memoir Terence Winter adapted for the script), a guy who emerges from a working-class background to become a Wall Street hotshot who financially screws working-class people for a living. Belfort assembles a loyal team of like-minded outsiders who are willing to sell their souls for "a better life" (none more eager than the character played by Jonah Hill), picks up a trophy wife (the stunning and fiery Margot Robbie) and engages in every sort of debauchery imaginable on the way to his eventual comeuppance. Even though the financial shenanigans chronicled in the film happened well before and on a much smaller scale than those that caused the Great Recession, the film does capture the sort of corporate greed, excess and disregard for the average American that was far too prevalent in the run-up to it, something that few other films have managed to do. Thanks in no small part to several scenes featuring DiCaprio-as-Belfort that are mini-masterpieces -- a lunch with a chest-thumping mentor (Matthew McConaughey), a telephone conversation with a client while miming sex, a mental game of chess with an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), three separate addresses to his employees and, especially, a heavily physical sequence involving quaaludes that would have impressed Chaplin -- Wolf feels like neither a three-hour film nor one directed by a 71-year-old, but rather like an awesomely fun but somewhat sickening roller-coaster ride. (It has received Golden Globe noms for best picture and best actor in a musical or comedy -- and would have undoubtedly fared better with critics groups and SAG Award voters had it not been unveiled so late in the year that many were unable to catch it before having to cast a ballot.)

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (CBS Films, 12/6, R, trailer)
With the possible exception of Sideways, I don't think that there has ever been another movie that I initially disliked more but later came to love more than this latest dramedy from the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen. What was the problem? Well, in the middle of dozens of screenings during a compact period of time at the Cannes Film Festival, I wasn't able to appreciate its wry humor (the Coens' calling card), beautiful music (hat-tip to longtime Coens collaborator T Bone Burnett), perfect casting (Oscar Isaac was tailor-made for the title role) and poetic portrait of an artist's struggle. (Upon each subsequent viewing I pick up new and wonderful things that I'd never noticed before, which, as I see it, is the sign of a truly great movie.) Set amid the 1961 Greenwich Village folk music scene, just before Bob Dylan emerged with his folk-protest/folk-rock brand and closed the door of history on the troubadours who preceded him, it follows, for a week, a struggling young singer who possesses the talent to be great -- and, for better or worse, knows it -- but lacks the ability to get out of his own way for long enough to let others see that for themselves. With a musical partner who killed himself, countless others disparaging him to his face (among them characters played memorably by Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham), an elusive cat (a metaphor for his elusive stardom) and a punch in the face waiting for him as he -- representing his breed -- cedes the stage to others, Llewyn Davis just can't win. (Happily, Inside Llewyn Davis won the Grand Prix at Cannes, has since won the best feature Gotham Award and been nominated for the best picture and best actor in a musical or comedy Globes and the best feature and best actor Spirit Awards.)

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2. Short Term 12 (Cinedigm, 8/23, NR, trailer)
After a summer of big-budget duds, this tiny, moving, beautiful little indie restored my faith in the movies. It boasts no bells or whistles or explosions -- just a script that is alternately hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming (by Destin Daniel Cretton, who splendidly expanded his own short of the same title into a feature) about compelling characters (a young couple who run a facility at which minors are observed and assisted after being removed from environments in which they were threatened -- and who have troubles of their own) brought to life by performances that I would stack up against any this year (particularly that of Brie Larson, who deserves to win the best actress Oscar for which she probably won't even be nominated, but also John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever). In a fair and just world, everyone would know about and have seen this movie, but in the world in which we live few do or have. That must change. If my recommendation isn't enough to convince you to check it out, perhaps the film's South by Southwest's Grand Jury prize, Larson's best actress Gotham Award win and Critics' Choice and Spirit Award noms, and Stanfield's best supporting actor Spirit Award nom will be.

1. Gravity (Warner Bros., 10/4, PG-13, trailer)
Alfonso
Cuaron's 3D space-set thriller was the best reason to buy a ticket to see a movie at a movie theater since Avatar; it is the most visually immersive and awe-inspiring film that I have ever seen and my experience of watching it for the first time was probably akin only to the experience that I've often heard described of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars during their initial runs. A critically acclaimed blockbuster about two American astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who become lost in space and struggle to survive after a freak accident caused by space debris, it literally shows what sort of magic can be achieved when every member of a filmmaking team -- writers, director, actors, cinematographers, visual effects artists, sound editors, composer, etc. -- dares to dream outside the box and then does the work necessary to expand the box in order to make those dreams achievable. Cuaron and his son, Jonas, penned a script for a story they didn't know how to tell technically; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, both longtime Cuaron collaborators, designed the technology necessary to realize the Cuarons' vision; and Bullock and Clooney, two A-listers who could have played it safe and avoided such a gamble of a project (with a $100 million production budget), instead embraced the challenges of telling a story in such an unprecedented manner. The script is not perfect -- some of the dialogue is a bit stilted and awkward and Bullock's character is unnecessarily given a cliched backstory -- but these shortcomings pale in comparison to the majesty of the rest of the cinematic achievement, which is nothing short of extraordinary. (Accordingly, it has been nominated for the best picture Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards and was chosen, in a tie, as the year's best film by the Los Angeles film critics; its star Bullock has been nominated for every major best actress award; and it has pending nominations for -- or has won -- every VFX award out there.)

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Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films of 2013
1. Gravity
2. Short Term 12
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. 12 Years a Slave
6. Blue Is the Warmest Color
7. All Is Lost
8. The Hunt
9. 20 Feet from Stardom
10. Gimme the Loot

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg