I’m Brandon Curtis, and at this point, I’m terribly undecided about how my final top 10 list will look. But these are my 2013 Brando Awards.

The Oscar Bait

I saw “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “12 Years A Slave,” and “Nebraska” but I don’t think a single viewing of them will suffice before I can put pen to paper on them. I loved them all and they all draw out a different emotion in me: “Nebraska” is sad and Bruce Dern is terrific in it; “12 Years A Slave” is horrifying and no one plays body-broken-yet-spirit-intact like Chiwetel Ejiofor. A performance like his won’t happen again soon. The sound design also makes the film seems like a claustrophobic horror film for long stretches. It has the most uniformly excellent cast of any movie this year, except for the part where Brad Pitt shows up to play Brad Pitt but in a costume. Not disappearing into the role, but just putting on a costume like he’s a kid in his dad’s closet or Samuel L. Jackson in anything between “Changing Lanes” and “Django Unchained.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is really a tragicomedy with all kinds of Coen-esque beat changes and I’m not smart enough to write one damn word about it after the first viewing. If and when you see it, try telling me that the John Goodman segment isn’t just some weird dreamlike mushroom trip or that maybe the people in the car during the aforementioned sequence don’t represent the id, the ego, and the superego. I can’t deal with that, maybe at all, but I certainly can’t tease the idea out after one viewing. I’ll admit that I might need my metaphors and symbolism a little broader to connect them. The Coens really make me feel like a fucking dime store hack.

The Quirky Romances

By and large my favorite films of the year, at least three of them, are about love in their myriad stages. In Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” we see a man who never stopped loving a woman who was bad for him, a couple that have stopped loving one another, and a young boy experiencing his first pangs of love. Each relationship a window into a life where love can go wrong whether we take the gamble to be true to ourselves or not. Something in our nature, sadly, may well destroy that love or ourselves.

In “Before Midnight” we catch up with Jesse and Celine 18 years after they first met in Paris. The idea that their love story is grand and optimistic and romantic has long faded. Not entirely, but by the time they found each other to become a couple again their youthful illusions of life and love have faded. They struggle to be happy, but they are. Regrets have entered the picture and are a central conflict in the film, it offers no easy solutions and knows that love is always work. There also the somewhat discomforting notion that even if we are perfect as people (two people, for each other) who we are as a person isn’t always going to make that road the easiest to travel.

In “Enough Said” two divorcees (James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) find themselves falling in love as they prepare to be empty nesters. I never would have thought to cast Gandolfini and Dreyfus opposite one another and the gamble pays off perfectly.  They elicit unexpected reserves of sympathy and tenderness from one another. The film also deftly navigates the mine field of learning to risk with love again. As parents, the love they receive from their children may be unconditional but it’s necessitated by biology. Your child will always love you, a significant other is another matter entirely. It’s a tenuous, delicate, perilous journey, and everyone handles it with grace.

The Cop Thriller

Andrew Lau’s “Drug War” is one of the best police thrillers to come around the bend in ages. It’s set in China and tracks the efforts of cops to bust a major drug operation with the cooperation of one of the trade’s heavy hitters. It hits every note you would expect but is a precision machine of the first order. Louis Koo is dynamite as an amazingly unsympathetic villain with constantly shifting loyalties.


My Favorite Performances

The cast of “12 Years A Slave” is, across the board, the best ensemble I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. Ejiofor is unimpeachable as Solomon Northrup while Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender etch two of the more memorably vile villains in quiet some time. Dano is a loathsome, but very effective outwardly terribly human, while Fassbender burrows deeper and creates a character more insidiously evil.

James Gandolfini also gives a final, towering performance in “Enough Said” that smolders with decency, warmth, vulnerability, and stands as a testament to how completely movies can be both a monument to us and a grace note. Matthew McConaughey is predictably awesome in “Mud.” Just as awesome as he’s been in everything since “Killer Joe.”

For the ladies, Louis-Dreyfus and Lupita Nyong’o stand head and shoulders above the rest. Nyong’o’s Patsey is essentially a female Solomon Northrup in terms of indomitable spirit. She has to endure a lot of humiliation and it’s the toughest role of all the ladies. No one else, no matter how good they may be, is her equal in conveying lifetimes of pain, suffering, sadness, and regret. She’s a master class in all of the emotions anyone needs to tap into and most performances can and should just defer to her excellence. I feel like Louis-Dreyfus’ role is once in a lifetime. As much as I want to see more of her on the screen, this specific iteration of her warmth, motherly angst, and general radiance is hard to imagine being topped at this point.

I have plenty of other performers whose work I loved, but the above were the definite stand-outs. Also of note this year were: Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson (in fact, “Short Term 12’s” cast as a whole is a close second in the ensemble game), Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Mia Wasikowska.

And now, a few random awards:

Best Action Sequence — The mutes take on a cadre of cops in “Drug War.” It’s streaming on Netflix and well worth it.

Best Thing In A Bad MovieBen Mendelsohn in “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

Worst Thing In A Good MovieAmy Adams in “Man of Steel.”