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My Top 20 Films of 2013 (Part 1/2)

(Because 10 is just such a limiting number and 30 just seems excessive)

Here’s part one of my top 20 films of 2013. Starting from #20…

20. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)

I’m a sucker for LIFE magazine covers—the cover photos are either stunning, heart-wrenching, iconic, or all of the above. Add in the sweeping sounds Of Monsters and Men, along with some inspirational text (which, according to the film, turns out to be LIFE’s motto), and you’ve got yourself a winning trailer. Yep, this film was one of the most anticipated films of the year for me, yet, here it sits at #20. 

Yes, it was an entertaining film—and beautifully-shot. However, it required me to suspend my disbelief so much throughout much of the film’s duration, that even in the moments of vulnerability and realism, I found myself feeling little beyond mere entertainment. And for a story centered around a company whose motto includes as life’s purpose “[to] find each other and feel”, I found myself not feeling much beyond being entertained.

But hey, I took my family to watch it on Christmas Day (my second time watching it, my family’s first), so it must’ve been entertaining enough, right?

19. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen this film (this applies to some other films on my list), but one scene that sticks out to me in this film is a fight sequence between Ip Man and Gong Er, soulmates from two different schools of martial arts in China. As they’re fighting mid-air, there’s a moment where their fingers graze each other. By the end of the movie, that scene nearly broke my heart. 

Not to generalize, but a lot of American films tend to make a moment (and then some) of two lovers and the emotional sparks that fly between them. In The Grandmaster, however, the romance between Ip Man and Gong Er is handled with such subtlety and suppression that it makes it matter all the more (and by the end, all the more heartbreaking). Mix that in with the sense that our battle with time is probably the greatest battle of them all—and one that even some of the strongest succumb to—and it makes for a hell of a beautifully heartbreaking film. 

Plus, Zhang Ziyi is a bad bitch in this film. #workbitch

18. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence)

I’m a rabid fan of the books. To illustrate this point, Shanna Henderson introduced me to the books during The Glee Project and I read it tirelessly between our homework assignments, music video shoots, choreography and eliminations. Reading about a game where only one emerges victorious through a string of brutalities and murder DURING The Glee Project… I guess I’m a really intense person. Anyway, I digress. 

It’s rare that a movie franchise is anything more than entertaining, especially the sequels, but Catching Fire is one of the rare exceptions. Yes, it has the eye-roll-inducing moments (like when Peeta hands Katniss a pearl from an oyster he shucks moments before and smiles - refer to my issue with this in my Grandmaster post), but it’s also Katniss’ coming-of-age story where she begrudgingly accepts her role within the coming revolution as a symbol of hope for the people. It’s a satirical piece on society’s insane obsession with pop culture and its ridiculously distorted love affair with fame in all of its costs. It depicts the media’s ability to subvert the status quo in such a powerful way that people can rise in upheaval to something they had just cheered for moments before. In all of its imperfections, Catching Fire is ambitious, especially for a franchise whose target demographic is young teens. 

My favorite part of this film, however, has to be Jennifer Lawrence. Personally speaking, I think she’s overhyped to the point of frustration, but in Catching Fire, her spark burns bright. She carried the high stakes of this film throughout its entirety and brought me with her on her journey. And in the film’s last minute, as her eyes burned through the screen with everything from sadness to rage, I couldn’t help but eagerly await the vengeance that the Girl on Fire was about to lay on the Capitol (coming in November 2014). 

17. The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

Besides the film being critically panned and some pretty blatant imperfections, I think this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald—and yes, I’m aware that Beyonce and Andre 3000 were not alive in the 20’s, so, let’s just get that out of the way.

I watched The Great Gatsby in 3D and in all of its vulgarity and excess, I thought it was appropriate (hello—the roarin’ 20’s, anyone?). More than anything though, what I personally loved about the film was its portrayal of an impossible love that became possible, even if it was just for a fleeting moment, because of one man’s belief that he could be anything. You say you can’t repeat the past. He would beg to differ. He would not only repeat it, but change it, if the stakes were high enough.

We do this everyday. We tell ourselves it will get better; that we will make it one day; that we’ll prove the world wrong. We repeat what is a lie in the present until it becomes true in the future.

I could go on and on about what the aforementioned notion of delusion versus power or how the story of hopeless and unrequited love broke my heart. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave you with this: if “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey does not Best Original Song at the Oscars, I will be pissed.

16. Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)

Are people born evil or is the nature of evil birthed through a series of life-changing events that force us to leave our conscience at the door and pick up a weapon in its stead? And do I really find this eerily disturbing piano scene between uncle and niece sorta-kinda-hot? 

Those are just two of the many questions that ran through my head after the film. It’s beautifully shot by the acclaimed Korean director behind the original Old Boy and true to his style (I haven’t seen Old Boy, but I hear some… things about it), it’s dark and disturbing, but beautifully so. Some of the shots in Stoker are some of the most visually striking shots I’ve seen all year. 

But that’s all I’ll say about it. Not because I don’t have much to say about it, but because there is an underlying tension and sense of conflict throughout the entire film that can’t be described, but just has to be experienced. Plus, maybe then you won’t judge me for being mildly enticed by an incestuous scene that takes place at a piano (and no, no sex takes place in this scene).

Side note: Matthew Goode is so creepy in this film. His performance was definitely the standout performance for me.

15. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)

Another one of those films that I haven’t seen in a while, so bear with me. 

Even if the results beg to differ, I think that most of us mean well (most of us). However, as we’ve learned at one time or another in our lives, even some of our best laid plans—and the intentions that drive such plans—can lead to some pretty horrible outcomes that repeat themselves in an endless cycle that seems inevitable, no matter how hard you try to escape it. 

I remember being really impressed by the opening scene—a long tracking shot done in one take. It’s ambitious and it establishes the tone of the film: risky, ambitious, dangerous. And by the final scene, I remember feeling heartbroken because sometimes, even taking risks and being ambitious in making things right can sometimes not be enough. 

Side note: Ryan Gosling is the only person who can still look good with all of those tattoos and that ridiculous bleach-blonde hair. 

14. Mud (Jeff Nichols)

Part coming-of-age story, part love story, part thriller.

But the biggest thing I took from Mud (that is all-too-well portrayed through Matthew McConaughey in the GIF above) is, you gotta know what’s worth keepin’ and what’s worth lettin’ go. 

13. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

What this film accomplished on a technical level is beyond remarkable. I watched Gravity in IMAX 3D not once, but twice, and I can say that I wasn’t just watching the film—I was experiencing it. In this case, it was a terrifying experience (for those of you who don’t know, I have a huge fear of anything “endless” - e.g. the open sea, OUTER SPACE, etc), so bravo to Alfonso Cuarón for helping me experience high levels of anxiety for over two hours. 

But upon watching Gravity for the second time, I lowered its position on my top 20 way lower than it was originally ranked. Why? Well, there are a few things: 1) the novelty sort of wears out after the first time, 2) I have an issue with Sandra Bullock’s near-great performance, and 3) the screenplay is not just simple, but weak at some points. I could go on, but I don’t want to take away from the film’s accomplishments, which are out of this world. Get it? Out of this world.

12. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

12 Years A Slave was, by far, the most difficult film to watch in 2013, but it is a film that, I believe, everyone must watch. It holds nothing back in depicting the racial cruelties of America’s history and after the film, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted by the innocent blood that’s been spilled on this land. 

Being in this industry as an Asian American, I’ve realized more and more  that racism isn’t dead; it just disguises itself in sheep’s clothing. 12 Years A Slave strips away all of the cotton and wool to reveal the injustice that was, and still is. All debates regarding the authenticity of the memoir aside, it reveals an element of truth—and the truth is something that we sometimes have a hard time facing. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to watch. 

Side note: Lupita Nyong'o is remarkable in this film.  

11. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)

Ron Woodroof, a Texan whose womanizing and drug-abusing ways lead him to being diagnosed as HIV-positive, starts a “buyers club” after discovering alternative methods of treatment in Mexico. It’s a story about one man’s refusal to just go sit in a corner and die, but instead, fight the pharmaceutical industry who just drags their heels in the face of an epidemic. 

Just because I don’t want to be the millionth echo raving on and on about McConaughey and Leto’s performances, I’ll just say that both of them were absolutely amazing in the portrayal of their characters. 

One thing I particularly liked about this film was how Ron Woodroof didn’t just become a saint after being given a 30-day death sentence. Yes, this film is about how common struggles can unite even the most different people, but Ron’s intentions behind his buyers club weren’t completely selfless, especially in the beginning. He wanted to make money. He was a raving homophobe and that wasn’t about to change overnight just because his new business partner was a transgender woman. The internal discord was evident even as he was slowly “changing” and I loved that because change, even in the face of death, is sometimes never easy, especially when there is a lifetime of experiences that have made you who you are in the present.

And that, ladies and gents, concludes Part I of my “Top 20 Films of 2013” list. Part II is coming tomorrow, but for now, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Any additional thoughts?