10 best movies of 2013

By Beverly Clark | Emory Report | Dec. 20, 2013

Emory experts — and movie lovers — in the Department of Film and Media Studies have made their picks for the best flicks of the year. Selections are mainly based on films available to Atlanta moviegoers as of Dec. 19. Many of these works are still in theaters, and some will be available soon for streaming online or DVD. 

"Like 2012, 2013 proved to be another rich year of cinematic art. Sure, there were plenty of big budget, explosion-ridden franchise films ('Star Trek: Into Darkness'), but 'Iron Man 3' restored some wit and innovation to that series after the relative disappointment of 'Iron Man 2.' And 'Before Midnight,' starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, was a terrific third entry after 1995’s 'Before Sunrise' and 2004’s 'Before Sunset,'" says Matthew H. Bernstein, chairman of film and media studies and moderator of Atlanta's popular Cinema Club at Midtown Art Cinema.

"As many critics have noted, narrowing down a list to 10 titles is a difficult task – our list also could be supplemented by many runners-up. But here we have our collective wisdom on films that saw theatrical release in Atlanta," says Bernstein.

In addition to selecting the best movies, the department "in acknowledgment of the special, compelling power of video games to entertain us in similar but different ways from movies" also made a choice for best new game this year, Bernstein says.

The expert faculty members and movie raters include Bernstein, Tanine Allison, Eddy Von Mueller, Karla Oeler, Daniel Reynolds and Michele Schreiber. See you at the movies.

12 Years a Slave

"12 Years a Slave" can be difficult to watch, but it’s a film that everyone should see. Based on a true story, "12 Years a Slave" shows how Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African American born free in New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery two decades before the Civil War. Ejiofor creates a masterful performance, embodying Northrup’s journey from bewilderment and outrage to quiet determination and a near loss of hope. 

Helmed by British visual artist/director Steve McQueen, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental look at the institution of slavery in America, revealing it for the immoral barbarity that it was. Within an excellent ensemble cast, two others stand out: Michael Fassbender, playing a drunken plantation owner, and Lupita Nyong’o, as a young slave favored (and brutalized) by the boss. The images of physical and emotional cruelty are intense, but accompanied by a powerful exploration of how faith and compassion survive in the most inhospitable of circumstances.

-- Tanine Allison

The Dallas Buyers Club

Critics and kudo-meisters are much inclined to acknowledge glamorous stars that undergo significant physical transformations for a part (think Russell Crowe pudging up for "The Insider," or Charlize Theron skanking out in "Monster"), but Matthew McConaughy’s performance in "The Dallas Buyers Club" is much than the considerable sum of the pounds he shed for the film.  McConaughy already has a nod from the Globes for his portrayal of a hard-drinking, homophobic occasional cowboy who contracts AIDS in the 1980s and eventually helps organize “clubs” to hook sufferers up with the then-experimental drug AZT. He should definitely be picking out a suit for the Academy Awards. 

Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée, who showed a hand handling period drama in 2009’s "The Young Victoria," is far more interested here in the moral rehabilitation of McConaughy from callow redneck to ardent activist than in the protagonist’s struggle with venal pharmaceutical firms, potentially lethal red tape, and bullying indifferent bureaucrats. "Buyers Club" never succumbs to hagiography or polemic. Jared Leto’s cross-dressed supporting turn is also making a lot of short lists this year, and deservedly so.

-- Eddy von Mueller

Enough Said

"Enough Said" has all of ingredients usually found in director Nicole Holofcener’s films: quirky characters with neurotic tendencies, distinctly middle class problems and actress Catherine Keener. However, instead of her usual episodic approach to storytelling, in this film Holofcener adopts one of the most familiar genres in film history: the romantic comedy. This choice could have easily diluted her idiosyncratic style but instead, it enlivens it.

Instead of the predictable clichés often seen in recent films from the genre, you actually believe the awkwardness involved in the romance between Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini). These two actors, best known for their work in television, bring the best kind of subtlety to their roles as middle-aged parents who are trying to figure out how to trust each other after surviving their respective divorces. "Enough Said" is a rarity: a film made by adults for adults that actually makes you laugh.

-- Michele Schreiber

Fruitvale Station

Set two months after Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, and released just after the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case, "Fruitvale Station" fully resonates with the recent history of American race relations. But this story of the final 24 hours in the life of 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant III before he was shot and killed by a panicked Oakland public transport officer is incredibly powerful on its own terms. 

Beginning, almost unbelievably, with cell phone footage of the actual shooting, it explores Grant’s far from perfect life with compassion but without sentimentality. It is a thrill to discover the exciting talent of director Ryan Cooger, making an assured feature film debut; it is a pleasure to watch Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic performance as the humanly flawed but engaging Grant and Octavia Spencer’s moving turn as his dignified mother. It is also impossible to watch the end of this heartbreaking film dry-eyed; I myself was unable to speak, long after it ended.

-- Matthew H. Bernstein

Gravity; All is Lost

"Gravity" and "All is Lost" ask the same question: What would you do if your day-to-day routine was disrupted by a disaster that destroyed all of your tools for survival and you were forced to rely only on your innate strength and smarts to save your own life? Now imagine that you are in the middle of space—"Gravity"—or in the middle of the Indian Ocean—"All is Lost."  Despite their high concept premises, these films are really about the resilience of the human spirit and showcase some of 2013’s best acting.

"Gravity" has awe-inspiring visual effects but the heart of the movie lies in Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of an emotionally scarred mother. Whereas the strength of Bullock’s performance is found in the changing lilt of her voice, Robert Redford’s portrayal of an unnamed yachtsman with no backstory in "All is Lost" is almost completely silent. His emotional journey is conveyed entirely through the expression in his eyes and the lines on his weathered face.

-- Michele Schreiber

Hannah Arendt

Margarethe von Trotta’s "Hannah Arendt" (2012) narrates Arendt’s experience of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. It shows Arendt unraveling the implications of Eichmann’s claim that he was only following orders, and responding to the anger provoked by her 1963 New Yorker articles, where she famously argued that Eichmann participated in the state machinery of mass murder not out of malice, but because he did not think for himself. At the film’s crux, Arendt connects our ability to tell right from wrong with our ability to think. The very topic presents a formal conundrum: how to show someone thinking about thinking. Lead Barbara Sukowa won the Lola Award (German Oscar) for succeeding at just that. Von Trotta’s direction lends the scenes of contemplation an intensity that easily balances the film’s one “action” sequence, the abduction of Eichmann by the Mossad. 

-- Karla Oeler

Leviathan

In the documentary "Leviathan," over what appears to be a few days, we follow the activities on and around a fishing boat off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. Catches come in, fish are slaughtered, fishermen yell and shower and fall asleep in front of the television. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s documentary avoids cliché and convention at every turn, so that the film becomes a meditation on its setting. 

At times, the camera becomes dizzyingly disembodied, plunging beneath the surface of the sea, pulling up into the air, and settling on unexpected and revealing details, often all within a single shot. The leviathan of the title may be the boat, which takes on the qualities of an organism as it brings in living things and expunges their offal, but Leviathan also does as much as any film since "Le sang des bêtes" (Georges Franju, 1949) to suggest the bigger and hungrier beasts that drive the relentless slaughter: industry, capitalism, the ceaseless energy demanded by life itself.

-- Dan Reynolds

Mud

On the surface, "Mud" seems to be a simple coming-of-age story following two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), as they become involved in the seemingly fairy-tale exploits of a mysterious stranger known only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud has camped out in a remote island in the Mississippi River, fleeing the law and seeking to rescue the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon) from a series of bad choices. While such a film could be formulaic, writer/director Jeff Nichols infuses the story with a poignant exploration of love, loyalty and family.

Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone share a natural sense of landscape and texture, as shown in their last film, "Take Shelter" (2011). "Mud" captures the wet heat of the Mississippi River and the promise (and danger) of nearby suburbia. It also features a number of excellent performances, most notably McConaughey who has recently transformed from pretty boy to one of the most vibrant actors working today.

-- Tanine Allison

Stories We Tell

In "Stories We Tell" (2012), Sarah Polley interviews her own relatives and friends, who occasionally question her direction as they collaboratively try to remember Diane Polley, Sarah’s mother, who died when Sarah was 11. The film distinctively mixes actual home movies with reconstructions that cinematographer Iris Ng also shot in Super 8. The audience initially cannot tell the real from the played. When we realize some of it is recreated, we experience something akin to Polley’s own uncertainty concerning the truth about her mother. Her fathers (to explain the plural would be a spoiler) most expressly “compete” with Polley to narrate Diane’s story, making this a film that is also, and perhaps most profoundly, about navigating the inherent egotism and responsibilities of authorship.

-- Karla Oeler

Videogame: Gone Home

Videogames are a vital medium for visual expression and storytelling as well as a financial force. This year, "Grand Theft Auto V," a detailed satire of American culture, became the fastest-selling entertainment ever, earning $1 billion in three days. It was also a great year for independently made games; "Gone Home," designed by Steve Gaynor, is one of the strongest. 

In "Gone Home," Kaitlin Greenbriar’s family has moved into the house of a deceased uncle while she was away on a year abroad, so she “returns” to a home that is not her own—and to a mystery, as the house is empty of people when she arrives. As Kaitlin explores half-unpacked rooms, learning about the difficult year her parents and sister have had, the game becomes an allegory of every young adult’s discovery that one’s family members are people with their own problems and desires. At about three hours in length and with no possibility of failure, "Gone Home" is an accessible and moving game that anyone can—and should—play.

-- Dan Reynolds