5. Man of Steel
Producer Christopher Nolan and Director Zack Snyder are the team tasked with spearheading the re-creation of the DC Comics cinematic universe to compete with Marvel in the eyes of the comic-loving people of the world. Nolan redefined the genre with his gritty Batman trilogy and Snyder set out to do the same with Superman. The result is an impressive template for the human and alien races that inhabit the universe and how they’ll look in CGI. Per Superman legend, we actually witness the destruction of Krypton firsthand and the doomsday protocols that led to Superman being sent to Earth. We also see Superman fighting supervillains, getting punched through several buildings at once, having trains thrown at him and several other feats of superhuman destruction that breathe life into the myths behind the original comic book character in a way that had so far eluded the franchise.
Src: 2013 © Man of Steel via YouTube
4. The Hunger Games
Director Francis Lawrence had a lot on his plate when he signed on for The Hunger Games sequels. Not only was he inheriting a popular franchise from the first film’s director Gary Ross who had already established a visual style, he was also dealing with a complicated story that involved a love triangle, a conspiracy and a rebellion with locations in the fictional capitol of Panem, the nation’s rebellious labor camps and a high tech gladiatorial arena. His early decision to frame Katniss Everdeen as a victim of PTSD sets the deeply disturbed tone for the film. With art direction referencing the Third Reich and depictions of televised vs. behind the scenes realities, Lawrence deftly juggles the lead up to the Quarter Quell battle royal where all hell breaks loose. Lawrence trims the fat from the novel when he needs to but never to such an extent that you miss it. Stanley Tucci turns in another hilarious performance as Ceasar Flickerman, Jenna Malone chews up the scenery as District 7’s loose cannon Johanna Mason and Patrick St. Esprit is particularly terrifying as the Peacekeeper Commander Thread.
Src: 2013 © The Hunger Games via YouTube
3. Before Midnight
At the end of Before Sunset as in the film before it, we were left wondering if this was really the end for Jesse and Celine. For anyone who has followed the 18-year-long saga, the question has become a sort of shorthand for whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to romance. Following a brief dialogue between Jesse and his son at an airport, we’re given what seems like irrevocable confirmation that true love stays when we see Celine waiting in the car outside the airport with the twin blonde, bobbing heads of Jesse and Celine’s young daughters asleep in the backseat. Jesse and Celine’s long-running fictional dialogue about relationships, politics and the politics of relationships is alive and well, if not tempered by years of actually living with each other. For the first time we also see the star-crossed lovers actually having conversations with other people, as well as a full-on, no holds barred spat that leads to a final cliffhanger between them. The screenplay was rightly nominated for an Academy Award® and the elegant long takes that have become the series’ trademark are on full display in the scenic Greek Peloponnese peninsula.
Src: 2013 © Before Midnight via YouTube
For those of us that haven’t been to space, there is something called the “Overview” effect which several astronauts have described as a feeling of interconnectedness and a glimmer of understanding Earth’s unique and precious place in the cosmos. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity brings the layperson closer than he or she has ever been to experiencing the precariousness of man’s position in that hostile environment. The screenplay which Cuaron wrote with his son revolves around banter between George Clooney’s grizzled space veteran and Sandra Bullock as the nauseous noob. To their credit, they wring an admirable layer of warmth, dark humor and humanity out of their roles which often involve floating untethered through space. But more than the terror, more than the fear, and more than the courage they demonstrate, it’s the physics of space that carries this film. Cuaron and longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki have created one of the most immersive environments ever for a space film that truly leaves you breathless.
Src: 2013 © Gravity via YouTube
1. 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave will leave you a different type of breathless. One of the most brutal and dare I say realistic portrayals of slavery ever recorded, Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the harrowing true life account of a man who was kidnapped from his family into slavery and the vast physical and psychological suffering he endured as a result. The mechanics of the apparatus that abducted and enslaved him are exposed in a way that sheds light on the enormity of the crime perpetrated. The storytelling never feels like historical fiction due to the razor sharp adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography by writer John Ridley and McQueen’s uncanny direction which bares the film’s heart of darkness in moments that will leave you gasping for air. This is not for the faint of heart.
Src: 2013 © 12 Years a Slave via YouTube