It’s here! It’s here! It’s finally here!
Sure, it’s like three months late, but I’ve finally watched all the 2013 releases that I have the most interest in and am, therefore, ready to share my favorites with y’all. For once, I have a top 20 from a specific year (rather than decade) that I’m very comfortable with. It helps that 2013 seems to have been a rather exception year for the movie world, with many well-known directors releasing their magnum opus, along with the numerous other lesser-known filmmakers who come out of the blue with something magnificent. It also helps that I’ve made more of a conscious effort to watch as many from the year as possible; therefore, at 73 films, it comes as no surprise to me that this is the most films I’ve ever watched for a single year. Sure that number might seem measly for a lot of people, but considering that this was also the year I watched a ton of horror movies and obscure oddities, I feel pretty proud of myself.
I’m actually somewhat glad that I’ve taken so long to get around to making this post. I practically spent the entirely of January focusing almost exclusively on catching up on the “biggies” from the past year that I’d been meaning to see or missed in theaters. A good chunk of these have ended up in my top 20, a couple in my top 5. Now regrettably, there are a certain number of films that wouldn’t stand a chance on this list. For one thing, I haven’t watched a single one of the big superhero-themed blockbusters (unless Pacific Rim counts?). I haven’t seen many of the remakes and adaptations from this year, and the ones I did watch (Evil Dead, Maniac) didn’t crack the top 20. Finally… wait, there wasn’t a Harry Potter movie this year? Alright, moving on.
20) The ABC’s of Death (dir. Simon Rumley et al.)
This movie, wow, it was just so scary and inventive and fun and – haha. Just kidding. I have better taste than that (I think). I’m just going to include this supplemental pre-show where I tell y’all my bottom five films of the year. Strangely enough, The ABC’s of Death isn’t one of them! Well, anyway, I don’t want to spend too much time on them, so they are:
5) Get a Horse! (dir. Lauren MacMullan): In case you forgot, this is the short film that played before Frozen in theaters, with a rapey narrative (“don’t get too much feminism out of Frozen, kids!!!”) and annoying CGI animation. Barf.
4) The Is the End (dir. Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg): Sorry, but I don’t quite care for fratboy characters, unfunny fratboy humor, and “no homo” fratboy friendship bondage time.
3) The To Do List (dir. Maggie Carey): I went in expecting a fun, empowering sex comedy featuring strong female characters and genuinely funny material. I got what is essentially American Pie with a female lead and twentysomethings playing high schoolers. Blech.
2) Paradise (dir. Diablo Cody): I’d rather just not talk about this one, but… oh, alright then. Basically, it’s everything that could possibly go wrong with a Diablo Cody work embodied in a film. Also, “marshmallow”. Throw it in the fire!
1) Movie 43 (dir. Jonathan van Tulleken et al.): I’m just gonna let Sir. Ben Kingsley speak for me here.
Wow, that was painful. Well, now that all that is out of the way, we can move on to the good stuff! *collective yay!*
20) The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)
While I perfectly admit that I desperately need to rewatch both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End remains my very favorite of the three Wright-directed, Pegg-and-Frost-starred genre picture homages. While it certainly does great respect to its represented facets of the sci-fi genre, what makes this one stand out is the way that the characters are placed front and center. Yes, the writing still offers a fair bit of fresh humor. And yes, the special effects and actions scene kick total ass (and are quite awesome to watch on a huge screen). But I definitely declare Simon Pegg to be one of my favorite male performances of the year, bringing so much personality and depth to a character who adamantly refuses to let go of his past. It’s a wonderful clashing of themes and styles, and the film itself remains probably the best representative of the year-long trend of apocalyptic cinema. What a ride.
19) Beyond the Hills (dir. Cristian Mingiu)
As he did with his previous work 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Mungiu, in Beyond the Hills, uses a concentrated conflict within a small collection of individuals to highlight the larger-than-life issues at bay. I love movies that consistently increase in intensity as it progresses, and this film (while occasionally falling into the trap of repetition) does exactly that. The two lead actresses blew me away with their performances, soaking in the bleak atmosphere in all the most wonderful ways. All filmed in a series of lengthy takes, this film does a great job at portraying its oppressive ultra-religious environment with a sense of stark realism that grows increasingly scarier. While it’s the kind of film that I’m not sure I could ever revisit again, this sole viewing alone proves the talent of the filmmaker, as well as rewarding me with yet another of the colorless yet complex type of films I love so much.
18) Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
For the longest time, this film occupied a position in my top three films of the year; its decline could be attributed to the influx of great films from the final months of the year, as well as the fact that it didn’t hold up as well with a rewatch. Nonetheless, it stands as one of the most harrowing fiction films of the year (we’ll get to documentaries later), as well as Korine’s masterpiece. 2013 seemed to be the year of the twisted American dream, and Spring Breakers delivers this theme in spades, in its depiction of MTV culture painted in an entirely different light. With its vibrant cinematography, frighteningly disjunct narrative structure, and James Franco showing off his talents as a tremendously talented character actor, it’s a film that has proved to be incredibly divisive – yet, oddly enough, it’s exactly my kind of drug.
17) Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
I’m going to have to thank Twitter for this one. Computer Chess is the type of film that, at any other point, could’ve completely, effortlessly slipped out of my radar. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have watched it, as it amounts to one of the strangest, nerdiest, most entertaining films I’ve seen all year. It’s got the most amazing production design and practically feels like a time capsule from the 80’s in all its wackiness. Its flat black-and-white cinematography and dry sense of humor promises a complete sense of drab realism, but when least expected, it unleashes itself with some moments of surreal spunkiness which I absolutely LOVE. This seems exactly the kinda work of art that I’d be willing to pop in again and again and still have fun each and every time. I love cult films, and if any movie on my list is deserving of the title of “cult classic” in a few years or so, it’s Computer Chess.
16) Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
I was really amazed by this film when I first watched it. Oscar Isaac really transforms into his role as a wandering individual and his praise is very well-deserved. The supporting cast all do as good job as well, particularly Carey Mulligan who I find absolutely hilarious. The music is great as well, and I’ve had various tracks from the film on repeat ever since; Isaac’s acoustic of “Fare Thee Well” is one of the more powerful vocal performances I’ve seen in any film. Unfortunately, the weight of the movie’s impact on me has lessened a bit over time, which only makes me more eager for a rewatch. The Coens have rarely failed to impress me and this one feels like one of their more mature efforts, going hand-in-hand with A Serious Man in that respect. Contemporary Hollywood cinema has rarely felt so cold.
15) 20 Feet From Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville)
While there’s no way 20 Feet From Stardom has a chance at winning the Oscar, it’s one of the more fun documentaries from a year of particularly awesome documentaries. One of the first things I could say about it is that it’s certainly a flick geared toward music-lovers, teasing out the stories behind our favorite songs through a series of interviews of unsung beauties. I love documentaries about people doing things they love for the sake of their love for it; thus, this film really touched me in many ways. Plus, it’s got an infectious amount of sass, which is always a deal-maker. While it certainly doesn’t possess the stylistic craft of, say, Stories We Tell or Leviathan, it proves itself as the kind of film that I don’t ever want to end. Watch it for the music and stories, stay for Lisa Fischer absolutely killing it during her “rape, murder…” solo in the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”.
14) The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
This film made me want to reach through the screen and give Mads Mikkelsen a huge hug. It’s one of the more infuriating films from last year, as its plot is entirely developed through a series of mere innocent happenstance transformed into something depraved and ugly. The fact that we, as viewers, are privileged to the truth of the matter makes the situation all the more frustrating. I love when films can reach for the most instinctual of emotional response, and The Hunt does exactly that. Mikkelsen also further proves himself as one of the most talented actors working today, and his character is elevated and deconstructed in ways that really make us feel for the guy. While the final third is a bit rusty and I certainly don’t love it as much as most seem to, it’s a film that hammers in the point that our species, as a whole, is probably doomed to extinction.
13) Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
I’ve never been to the midwest, but after Nebraska I’ve got a pretty good idea of the sense of desolation in such non-urban locations – though I supposed there’d be significantly less bleak black-and-whiteness all around. Jokes aside, I was quite amazed at just how much I enjoyed Nebraska, particularly since I haven’t been a huge fan of Payne’s style of filmmaking before this one. This really does feel like one of the more mature works he’s done, and a huge factor to this is Bruce Dern’s performance, which is the best I’ve ever seen from him. Like the environment they are living in and the cinematography through which they are projected, these characters feel rather aimless, empty, and bereft of any sense of vitality and liveliness. In many cases, this would be a complaint; in this case, it only further enhances its themes. It’s just really great filmmaking in many, many ways.
12) At Berkeley (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
A four-hour documentary on a famous school campus doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting thing – but this is the legendary Wiseman, so I couldn’t possibly miss it. Yes, it was definitely a fatiguing experience, but it was somehow a really rewarding one as well. The long sessions inside lecture halls, faculty meetings, and campus grounds where strangely intriguing, almost hypnotizing. And the climax featuring student protests and sit-ins by means of speaking out against rising tuition and lower quality of education – just riveting. And of course, it’s all told through the tried and true fly-on-the-wall technique that Wiseman himself has contributed in making documentary film an art form. At Berkeley is long, it’s tedious, it’s rooted in non-adventurous realism – yet it’s also one of the most important films of this past year. The future of higher education has never been so uncertain.
11) Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Through a couple of prime performances rooted in the dearest of simplicity and realism, Blue is the Warmest Color presents one of the most unique romance stories we’ve seen all year. I was immediately captivated by our young protagonist – played magnificently by breakout beauty Adèle Exarchopoulos – and it is through her eyes that we experience the trials and tribulations of a first love and heartbreak. In its sprawling three-hour length, we reach the emotional, psychological, and sexual depths of the love story that other romance films only barely touch upon. The distinctly feminine qualities of their relationship emit a particularly distinct bond that, to me, are hardly exploitative and purely unflinching. And despite Léa Seydoux’s magical blue hair, no Manic Pixie qualities can be found here, as each individual’s parting ways embodied very realistic, tragic ways that such stories often end. What a film.
10) Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
I never thought a film from last year by one of my favorite directors would rank so high among my personal favorites of his – yet Kiarostami’s latest does exactly this. While this introduces itself as an average day in the life of our young protagonist, the film begins to peel back the layers of her life, enveloped in a good deal of secrets and ambiguities we never quite figure out. The dramatic arc is a bit unconventional, but that is hardly a complaint as it only further allows the naturalistic performances to shine through. One of the most tremendous scenes in the film – and one of my very favorites of the year – involves a collection of voicemail messages directed to Rin Takanashi. As she listens, a series of delicate gestures emerge across her face. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and one that I think helps to sum up the film as a whole, as one about human relationships, hidden identity, and the mere strands of disconnect that separate us all from each other.
9) Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
Every now and then, a film comes along that forces you to immediately marvel at its mere existence. Upstream Color does exactly this for me. It’s essentially a one-man project by Carruth, and boy what a terrific job he does. This film is saturated in the most pleasurable ambience imaginable, with a plot so deliciously enigmatic, there seems to be no end to the wonderful signs and symbols that could be pulled out. Unlike the stark coldness of Primer, however, Carruth’s sophomore effort really makes the most of its strong emotional pull on many levels. Not only do we see ourselves mirrored in our conflicted protagonists, but the film itself – if purely through its atmosphere – is puzzling, enchanting, even hallucinatory. It’s certainly not an easy film to decipher, and my own thoughts on it are decidedly vague. I do believe it’s the sort of film that requires a blank canvas, free of any prior expectations. Embrace the otherworldliness.
8) Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
Now, here’s a film I certainly didn’t expect would end up on my top ten of the year (one of them anyway)! Not only am I generally apathetic toward blockbusters, but I’ve spoken very clearly of how I find this recent trend of unnecessary shaky cam rather annoying. But after watching this flick (and, shortly thereafter, United 93), I’ve found that Greengrass is the one filmmaker over any other I’d be willing to see handle the method. The sense of hyperrealism, incorporated with its tremendous narrative arc, culminates together to create a hijack/hostage situation that grows in intensity and doesn’t let up until its final minutes. It’s quite a relentless, agonizing viewing experience – but of course, I mean that in the absolute best way possible. On a final note, while I wasn’t overtly convinced of Hanks’ performance in the bulk of the film (Abdi simply stole the show), those last five minutes have got to be the best acting I’ve ever seen from the guy. You go, Tom.
7) Frozen (dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)
Contrary to the last entry, there was really no surprise that I would have enjoyed Frozen, at least a little bit. What did surprise me was how much more was brought to the table by the latest entry from the Disney animation people. While the company has been peddling the “happily ever after” formula to young girls for decades, Anna subverts this process in an almost-satire of these unrealistic standards. It doesn’t work for her, thus she chooses life (and love) in her own ways. Coupled with Elsa – who I found to be one of the more complex, realistic Disney characters – it is so refreshing to see such genuinely strong female characters in a mainstream animated film. Along with its wonderful music, authentically entertaining script, and Olaf, one of the more charming sidekick characters in a world of annoying, disposable sidekick characters, it’s hard not to fall head-over-heels for Frozen. Well, hard for me at least.
6) 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
Egad, this was an harrowing watch. While director McQueen takes on a decidedly more Hollywood approach with 12 Years than he did with his previous films, the intensity, coldness, and vindication of human morality is still very present. In fact, these elements are probably all elevated, given the fact that the subject matter is one that is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of American history. It’s a daring subject, almost too sensitive to touch, yet everyone involved tries their absolute hardest to steer it away from the risk of shameful exploitation. It doesn’t treat the audience like oblivious voyeurs in need of being educated. It doesn’t tell us what we don’t already know – but on that same token, it doesn’t give us what we want. There’s no sugarcoating or white-washing of this subject here. Given to us at a perfect, secure distance is one of the darkest times in our history. But what an ingeniously crafted work of art this is.
5) Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Frances Ha made me smile, it made me laugh, and it compelled me to marvel at its aesthetic and technical beauty. But it also made me feel very, very uncomfortable. It’s disconcerting to know that from where I stand in my life right now, there is no reason why I couldn’t ever be in a similar situation as Frances in four to five years. It’s not huge tragedy, but it also doesn’t make me feel very warm and fuzzy. But I couldn’t possibly mark this down as a setback for the film because – let’s face it – it’s incredibly, infectiously charming in so many ways. Gerwig and friends come across as people I could very likely meet any old day of the week, all caught up in similar crossroads, similar waves of uncertainty. As this tone of solidarity is solidified, it becomes more and more apparent that our sense of self doesn’t always need to be found in a job; as Chris McCandless would say, “Careers are demeaning twentieth century inventions…”. As a young adult about to finish my final semester of college, this is a bit more comforting.
4) Rewind This! (dir. Josh Johnson)
This has got to be the single most surprising film I’ve seen all year. Now, I’ll fully admit that I am definitely biased, since film preservation is something that I hold very near and dear to my heart. And I’ll even admit that Rewind This! doesn’t do much else besides get a bunch of people to talk about the history of home video, its impact, and its importance. Yet I really don’t care. It’s apparent that its creators and interviewees have much appreciation and passion toward the subject. It even had a healthy sense of humor that I could totally get behind, keeping the documentary engrossing and captivating during its entire runtime. But most importantly, it was full of heart. It uses the bulk of its final third to stress on the importance of physical media, which has grown more and more obsolete with the rise of Netflix and others. In this case, it’s one of the more important documentaries on the subject. I’ll go as far to say that it should be required viewing for anyone who loves films and filmmaking. It’s just stupendous.
3) Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Before Midnight isn’t a very fun film to watch on many different levels. The romance tale between Jesse and Celine is unique in that we’ve watched it blossom through the course of two films. We’ve come to know these characters’ quirks, vital or mundane, and how they’ve fallen in love. Watching this relationship crumble is akin to watching a couple of close friends or family begin to loosen their ties, despite any good times previously shared. But I think the most important thing to take out of Linklater’s trilogy of romance – and Midnight specifically – is that the veneer of the fairy tale love story can not always support itself so sturdily. This is the film that is most firmly set in reality; thus, the ideals of a perfect, loving relationship inevitably clashes with the friction of reality, the practicalities of the world beyond the two lovers breathing down their necks. Yet bitter this film is not. It remains one of cinema’s finest trilogies and love stories by refusing to offer complete closure of the tale, allowing for a glimmer of hope to seep through and through. Exquisite.
2) The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, & Anonymous)
This is easily the best documentary I’ve seen all year and one of the most impacting I’ve seen ever. The terror and trauma of the mass extermination in Indonesia remains an open, throbbing wound for those victimized by it. Nevertheless, the perpetrators are praised as heroes in the country, and they themselves are jaded by this perception of their moral crimes as something honorable. In many ways, The Act of Killing is a film that shouldn’t even exist. It not only invites us into the minds and day-to-day livings of these individuals – it plunges into it. It’s downright miraculous how the camera was able to capture, with such intimacy, the thoughts and feelings these men have about their first-hand experience with murder. Shockingly, they find it trivial, amusing, even funny. The interviews are very frank with the subject matter it depicts and I think that makes it all the more disturbing. This is probably the top contender for the most surreal film I’ve ever seen, both in its amazing cinematography, unusual narrative depiction, and the fact that it’s impossible to shake that such injustices are still happening in somet parts of the world. Yet just when I couldn’t think it could get any better than that, the film takes it one step further in its final third… though I don’t dare to write about it here. Seeing is believing. Humanity is fucked.
1) Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
I’ve already wrote about this film in two different spots, and at this point I really feel like I can’t say anything more about it that hasn’t already been said… but I’ll continue. Her is such a magical film for me. Despite the barriers experienced by Theodore and Samantha, their relationship feels very real, not unlike the deep connections felt between two people who can actually see and touch each other. Her is not only a testament to our modern age of technological advancement, but the ways that our idea of a healthy relationship (not just the romantic kind) has changed in many ways, how it will continue to change – and how this is perfectly alright. Every human interaction makes us stronger and helps us to learn to be more capable of loving others. This is exactly what happens in Her, and the fact that one party is an artificial being does not hinder the development of the both of them. I’m so happy that Spike Jonze has made a film as beautiful as this one, one that has resonated with me an emotional and spiritual level. It’s been over a month since my initial viewing and I still think very fondly of it and can’t wait to see it again. Thank you Spike and Joaquin and Scarlett and Amy and everyone else. Thank you to everyone who has touched my heart and has made me a better person, little by little, day by day. Thank you, Her.
So there’s my top 20. Regrettably, I still need to watch a few more films from the year (notably The Wind Rises, The Past, Prisoners, etc.) and maybe this won’t be so accurate in a year or two. But as I type this, I’m pretty confident about this ranking. I’m glad I was able to watch so many and that 2013 generally was a rather excellent year. I’m already off to a great start with The LEGO Movie, so hopefully 2014 offers many more goodies through the rest of the year.
Now that I’ve finally gotten around to completing this post, let’s celebrate with a 90s dance party.