10 movies of 2013 – and more: Part 1

Here are the first 5 movies in my list.

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1. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s technical tour-de-force “Gravity” has so many astounding visual moments from the beginning to end that I sometimes found my mouth hung open as overwhelmed by them during my viewing. Starting with a deceptively simple premise unfolded in the space, the movie strikes and dazzles us with its top-notch technical mastery to pull us into its urgent matter of life and death as well as the wondrous alien environment outside the Earth, and the result is an unforgettable visual mix of awe, suspense, beauty, terror, and poignancy.

As going boldly into its vast background with the vivid sense of awe and wonder, it also goes deep into its heroine Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock), who must find a way to get back to the Earth after her space mission is suddenly struck by a colossal disaster. With the help from Matt Kowalski(George Clooney), only survivor besides her, she comes to find a will to survive through her desperate struggle, and Bullock’s performance becomes the emotional center of the movie.

The technical details in the movie are superb. The special effects supervised by Tim Webber in the movie are flawless to say the least, and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves an Oscar nomination for his awesome achievement. After watching the movie three times, I came to learn more about how they created such a palpable sense of zero gravity on the screen, but the special effects in the movie still amaze me whenever I recall them. Think about its opening scene; it is certainly filled with lots of CGIs, but everything on the screen feels as real as what we have seen from many documentaries on space missions, and Lubezki’s camera gracefully floats here and there around the objects and characters in the space during this astonishing long-take sequence.

“Gravity” is the best cinematic experience of this year, and, like many memorable films about space and beyond, it makes us think about our tiny existence on the Earth – and in the space. While watching the Earth and its thin atmosphere on the screen, I thought about how precious and fragile our planet is in the middle of the space – and how small and insignificant we are compared to its seemingly endless scope.

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2. Before Midnight

As the third (and possibly last) chapter of ‘Before Trilogy’, Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” looks beyond where its predecessor “Before Sunset” ended. Our endearing couple Jesse(Ethan Hawke) and Celine(Julie Delpy) are no longer two young students who accidentally met each other for the first time in “Before Sunrise”, and they are more jaded than when they came across the possibility of second chance as two older and wiser adults in “Before Sunset”, but it is still wonderful to meet them again and we find ourselves drawn to their thoughts and feelings as they talk and talk.

Not long after that last tantalizing shot of “Before Sunset”, the relationship between Jesse and Celine reached to the point of consummation, and now they become a married couple with two lovely daughters. They are currently having a summer vacation at a cozy place for writers in the Peloponnesus of Greece, and everything looks mostly fine even though we sometimes sense the frictions between them.

While their daytime is filled with the pleasant moments including their dinner conversation with their friends which revolves around many various topics such as romance, marriage, and the future of modern civilization, things get pretty intense when they have a private moment between them. Like many couples who have spent years together, they have been frustrated about each other a lot despite their mutual affection, and the barbed words are exchanged between them as frustration and discontent erupt on the screen.

In spite of its bitter moments to resonate with some of you, the movie ultimately comes to me as a hopeful film about love and relationship. As the fictional characters leading their life with free will in front of us, Jesse and Celine will continue their life story for themselves, and I think they will also learn more about their relationship and themselves no matter what happens after their midnight. They are not that romantic any more, but unromantic films are sometimes paradoxically more romantic than average romantic films, and the movie touchingly presents their imperfect but heartfelt relationship as the satisfying third chapter for the exceptional romance trilogy which was incidentally begun 18 years ago.

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3. Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film “Snowpiercer” is a smart, compelling science fiction film which can intrigue us with its futuristic setting at the beginning and then pull our attention into its thrilling journey packed with interesting sights until it arrives at the powerful finale where we come to care about not only what has happened during the characters’ journey but also what will happen next at their arriving point.

Its premise looks familiar at first. Another Ice Age was caused by the global joint attempt to stop the global warming in the not-so-distant future and only human survivors on the Earth are now leading their life on the special express train which keeps going around the frozen world. Controlled and managed by its mysterious billionaire owner, the train has been running on the line all the time thanks to its high-tech engine which has never been stopped since the catastrophe.

There have been several class conflicts between the passengers enjoying all the luxuries in their compartments and the other passengers stuck in their poor, shabby tail compartments, and we see the latest revolution attempt led by Curtis(Chris Evans), a rebellious but reluctant leader who is determined to take over the train by any means necessary. All he and others have to do is moving forward along the compartments and then taking over the engine compartment in the front, but they must prepare for what they may face at each compartment they should pass through for their common goal.

This is basically a SF action film, but the movie is far more than that. While there is the constant urgency driving its plot and characters into its brutal actions, it also slows its pace at times for letting us identify with the characters and be absorbed in their dystopian world, and the director Bong Joon-ho strikes us with many unexpected things as looking around the train with wonder and fascination. I still wonder about how the hell the train in the movie can run so fast and so long for more than 10 years, but, folks, how can possibly our hearts not be excited by the sight of this fantastic train zipping around the snowy post-apocalyptic world, especially if it is loaded with many things to admire and enjoy?

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4. The Past

Like his previous film “A Separation”, Asgard Farhadi’s “The Past” starts with a deceptively mundane situation. An ex-husband and an ex-wife is arriving at the final stage of their divorce process, and everything looks going well except a few things. While it is certainly awkward for Ahmed(Ali Mosaffar) to stay at his ex-wife’ house for a while because of some unclear mistake involved with his hotel reservation, their divorce will be finalized anyway once he and Marie(Bérénice Bejo) go to the court to be in front of their judge on the next day.

That matter is worked out as planned, but the other thing turns out to be not as simple as that. Marie is going to marry her current boyfriend Samir(Tahar Rahim), but he has a wife who has been in coma at the hospital, and Lucie(Pauline Burlet), one of Marie’s two daughters, does not approve of her mother’s relationship with Samir.

While gradually revealing the current state of the relationships between the characters step by step, Farhadi masterfully moves his story around the characters and the questions around the rather ambiguous circumstance around the sudden suicide of Samir’s wife in the past, and the result is one of the most engaging dramas about how inseparable present and future is from past in our lives. They try and try, but, alas, they always get more questions whenever they get answers, and there are more confusion and frustration along with more uncertainties. As one character says in the movie, it is better to let the past put behind you when you want a possible new start, but, sometimes, it is pretty difficult to be through with the past even when it is already through with us.

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5. The Great Beauty

“The Great Beauty” is a grand visual tapestry from the director Paolo Sorrentino, who has established his status as one of the most interesting directors from Italy. As an apparent homage to Federico Fellini’s great film “La Dolce Vita”(1960), the movie serves us with various intriguing or dazzling sights as strolling around the days and nights of Rome with its jaded hero, and we willingly follow its loose, episodic stream of visuals from the beginning to the end even when it confounds or baffles us with its grand gestures to behold.

Its hero, who can be an older version of Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip journalist hero in “La Dolce Vita”, has detachedly observed a busy and exciting lifestyle whirling around him. As a man at the top of his own La Dolce Vita, he has been rather weary of fun and excitement recently since his 65th birthday, and now he wonders whether there is still a chance to capture the great beauty he once searched for during his younger days.

Filled with so many things we are supposed to absorb, the movie seldom loses the control during its long running time, and the director/co-screenplay writer Paolo Sorrentino did a stunning job of giving us a bountiful and entertaining visual experience. Every scene looks interesting and compelling because of careful scene compositions and camera angles, and the cinematographer Luca Bigazzi beautifully captures the streets and bridges and buildings of Rome, and everything is revolving around an understated but graceful performance by Toni Servillo, who is simply fabulous as the emotional anchor of the movie to hold on for us.

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