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Wie's Top 10 Movies of 2013Friends and peers have already heard my fairly disappointed reaction to the year in cinema.  However, that is not to say that there were a lack of fantastic movies.  Instead, these top films did a fantastic job in remolding classic tropes while also bringing to light social and cultural issues that have plagued society in the past and to this very day (and possible even to the future).  Here are my favorite ten films of 2013:

Captain_phillips_movie_110. Captain Phillips
There was a tough fight between ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Captain Phillips’, but in the end, I believe ‘Captain Phillips’ resonated more as an overall film, even if ‘Nebraska’ has the bigger character pull.  ‘Phillips’ may lack much in biting commentary and social relevance in comparison to many of the other films on this list, but Director Greengrass showcases a biopic that is tense, tangible and frank as it tries to understand both the Somali and US positions.  Not relying on CG gimmicks or unnecessary subplots, the film tangles the viewer up in a stand-off between a Somali pirate and a captain just trying to do his job with fantastic performances from Hanks and newcomer Abdi.

movies-the-hunger-games-catching-fire-caesar-katniss-tribute-interview9. The Hunger Games Catching Fire
My two favorite blockbusters of the year were ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Catching Fire.’ This entry of the ‘Hunger Games’ saga takes the list because it does a terrific job in not only adapting it’s source material but creating an engaging and thoughtful world that touches upon relevant social issues.  In addition, it takes the foundations and most of the problems from it’s predecessor and successfully elevates itself above most of them.  Centered with a stalwart Lawrence and a good supporting cast, ‘Catching Fire’ is what modern book-to-film adaptations should strive for (compared to the weaker ‘Ender’s Game’ launch that came out just weeks before).

gravity-28. Gravity
Cuaron is one of my favorite personal directors of this generation, and it is a pleasure to see him return to the screen after a five-year hiatus with this beauty.  ‘Gravity’ is one of the best technological feats of the year and a terrific thriller.  It’s still astounding that much of this film is CG and is one of the best representations of space in cinema along with the terrific cinematography and sound design.  It’s a shame that the acting and narrative thread did not fare as well as the pacing and audio/visual experience, but ‘Gravity’ is a stellar example of a movie to see in theaters (and in 3D) to fully understand Cuaron’s vision.

01-inside-llewyn-davis7. Inside Llewyn Davis
In a year of great films based on actual figures, the biggest surprise is that ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a fictional tale at it’s core.  Why?  Because the Coen Brothers masterfully grounds the film with beautiful folk songs and characters that really embody the post-World War II era.  The film is quite the downer and feels like it meanders too much, but Isaac’s performance is full of heart while the film’s subject matter is oddly refreshing in showcasing the tough life behind most creatives.  It may not be the Coen Brothers’ best work outright, but it is still an engaging film all-around.

20131220171809wolf_36. The Wolf of Wall Street
Loud, obnoxious and hilarious – ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is a strange Scorsese/DiCaprio beast.  On the one hand, the film is messy and excessive like it’s titular character.  On the other hand, the characters are colorful and fascinating, while the tone is ridiculous and devastating.  In the end, it’s tough to say if the film completely succeeds in making much commentary about the US financial institution or in taking a stand on Belfort’s actions, but the ride it takes is hysterical and disgusting to think that it actually happened and will elicit fascinating conversations about it’s subject matter – a purpose that most likely is what Scorsese aimed for.

Dallas Buyers Club SCap 0025. Dallas Buyer’s Club
Like many of the films on this list, ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ manages to both emotionally charge and humorously look at serious issues, which in this case delves into both the HIV/AIDs epidemic and one man’s fight for a cure.  Here is a solid biopic that effectively tells its transformative tale with the right pacing and delivery with just a few squeaky wheels here and there that needed fine-tuning.  ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ is also a terrific centerpiece for McConaughey – an actor, who in 2013, has truly shown a wide amount of dexterity in his acting capabilities with ‘Dallas Buyer’s’ probably being his most intense physically and emotionally role along with Leto’s amazing supporting performance.

American-Hustle_612x3804. American Hustle
Which film had the best ensemble acting piece of the year? It unsurprisingly had to have come from David O Russell, who continues his rampage in creating brilliant character films.  ‘American Hustle’ is perhaps one of his more complicated story pieces and although the plot still has a few issues (especially in it’s ho-hum ending), the characters and dialogue are thick with wit and nuance.  These hustling personas are probably even better thanks to the awesome cast including Bale, Lawrence and Cooper being the standouts.  ‘Hustle’ is an awesome period piece and one of the most entertaining films of the year.

her3. Her
Although the premise of a human falling for a robotic being may have been done before, few films have tried to fully embrace a love story without an epic backdrop or complicated exposition.  Even though the mileage of the premise dependent on one’s serious engagement with the material, ‘Her’ brings forth one of the best romantic stories of the year, and the visual and audio experiences are also some of the most beautiful of the year.  Put all of this together with it’s close-to-home themes of our infatuation with our devices and the end product comes out to a futuristic story that may not be far off.

fruitvale station.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large2. Fruitvale Station
Here is one of the simplest films on my list yet is also the clearest in vision and gravitas.   ‘Fruitvale Station’ compels you into it’s one-day narrative of the tragic story of a young man, who is trying to turn his life around and is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Michael B. Jordan, this film makes you try and understand all of it’s main characters and their motivations before unloading the final few devastating blows.  Through it’s successes as a film, ‘Fruitvale Station’ stands as a stark reminder to the problems of excessive force and racism in the modern day.

12_years_a_slave_featured1-618x4001. 12 Years a Slave
It’s fascinating to see these top two films complement each other in an odd way – ‘Fruitvale’ showcases the problems of present-day racism while ’12 Years a Slave’ highlights many past grievances – a perhaps sobering reminder of problems that still exist after all these years.  ’12 Years’ is a brutal and candid movie that may feel a bit long but to the film’s thematic value rather than to it’s detriment.  McQueen truly showcases one of the hardest hitting movies regarding slavery – giving insight into the stories of free men turned into slaves. Add onto this some startling performances from Chitwal and a host of supporting actors like Fassbender to elevate the film as one of the year’s most memorable if not most emotional.

And so the Wie muses…

Honorable Mentions: Nebraska, Much Ado About Nothing, Blue Jasmine, The Croods, Pacific Rim

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(Please note, this review addresses the content for both reader and non-readers of the books, but to note, I have personally read the material before seeing the film.)  

I always empathize for the director and screenwriter of book-to-film adaptations.  Whether the book is merely a few pages long or a few hundred pages, the creative team must fit in what could be minutes or hours worth of material into a one to three hour time span and either evoke a very faithful or very provocative transformation.  Even more importantly, the film must still be a great movie at its core.  The Hunger Games is the first in a popular book trilogy and falls under the same questions – does it succeed?  In the end, fans of the book should be fairly pleased with the faithful adaptation while fresh audience members, while most likely overwhelmed by the amount of information they must encapsulate along with a lack of complete emotional empathy, should be at least interested in the fascinating themes and imagery the subject matter has to offer.

The Hunger Games follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in District 12.  Each year, the 12 Districts must give a tribute of a boy and a girl to fight in the annual Hunger Games on live television until there is a victor.  When the time comes for the year’s reaping ceremony, Katniss’ sister, Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), is chosen.  To save her sister, Katniss volunteers and is paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  Together, they travel to the Capitol with Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), their mentor, to be showcased and trained before they must enter and attempt to survive the year’s Hunger Game.

The weakest sections of The Hunger Games come from a lack of emotional connection and amount of information being thrown into audiences.  The main issue that I think most non-Hunger Games audience members will have is the lack of a complete emotional resonance.  There are some definite emotional highlights but it becomes more rare to see the film take more time and care with characteristics and backgrounds.  The result is a story that doesn’t properly draw you into moments such as the film not properly explaining or expanding on the relationship between Katniss and other tributes.  Whether it’s weaker acting from some of the periphery characters or a plot that glosses over the information fairly quickly – this problem becomes much more of a frequent problem.  The general flow of information as well becomes an issue unto itself, especially for people that haven’t read the books.  Expect some confusion as the film tries to delicately balance an overload of information and a pacing that sometimes glosses over some finer points, creating some strange dialogue trees.  A conversation about a blown up arsenal, for instance, comes up even though the established dialogue was never set up previously.  Take note Hunger Games newcomers – even with a fairly long running time, the film doesn’t linger on its exposition.

Otherwise, however, The Hunger Games is a fascinating aesthetic and thematic journey that should be of interest to most audience members.  Director Ross and crew take a lot of pride in choosing and sticking with their visual choices, for instance, which defines the film.  From the color correction to the documentary-style cinematography to the extreme costume design differences, there’s as much of a 1984 inspiration as well as something more from a period piece like Seabiscuit.  Clean white police uniforms with a strange futuristic twist clash brilliantly with the downtrodden, early 20th-century look of the denizens of District 12.  These consistent choices help to sell an authentic world, especially as the games begin.  These aesthetics also fall into some great acting, especially from Hutcherson and Lawrence who put on a heartfelt performance, even when the script may not make the most sense or feel contrived.  Lawrence, especially, is captivating as a stalwart teenager dealing with the life-and-death scenarios put before her.  These scenarios are also the fascinating reasons why, I believe, both fans and non-fans will find some interest in the core film.  The script and the narrative arch do little to deviate from the intended book’s arch, which, although may be convoluted at times or may not always result in a perfect cinematic moment – the themes are still interesting to explore and touched upon and creating a situation that should appease people that have read the source material and still fairly coherent enough for newcomers with some added exposition.  An added emphasis on the Gamemaker, for instance, helps emphasize the reality show nature of the film without feeling too unnecessary.

The Hunger Games concept may not be completely unique unto itself and may not completely resonate with non-readers, but the film itself is both a faithful adaptation and a pretty fascinating journey from start to finish.  Audience members who haven’t read the book will feel a bit overwhelmed by the material and characters that sometimes quickly come and go, not helped by minor plot holes and an emotional core that doesn’t always resonate.  However, fans of the book should be fairly pleased with the final outcome of a very faithful adaptation along with some interesting additions, and non-fans should be fairly intrigued by the dystopian future created by Ross and his team along with the great casting.  All-in-all, The Hunger Games is a solid and timely film that evokes questions of our own media consumption in the present day.   

Director: Gary Ross
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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