There are good years for movies, bad years for movies, and everything else in between. My feeling is that for anyone paying attention, 2013 was a banner year for terrific cinema. Challenging indie fare, risk-taking actors, a movie that genuinely gave me the willies, and a galvanizing blockbuster hit that literally restored my own faith in the wonders of the theatrical experience—but let’s delay no longer:
Here are my 10 favorite films from 2013, listed in reverse order from #10 to #1.
10. Stories We Tell
Every now and then, a year in cinema provokes the excited praise: “This was a great year for documentaries!”—usually followed by a general head-scratching from the movie-loving masses, who typically haven’t seen any of those films that weren’t directed by Michael Moore (and maybe none of those films, if you don’t like Michael Moore). This year—despite there being no Moore feature released—was one of those This Was A Great Year For Documentaries! years. The most lavish praise is mainly being heaped upon a (maybe Oscar-bound) film called The Act of Killing, an admittedly potent movie in which the genocidal crimes of Indonesian death squad leaders are re-enacted—by the perpetrators, no less—as if they were scenes out of Hollywood productions. It’s a twisted and certainly original and attention-getting framework for an exploration of evil, but for me, there was something distinctly unpalatable about the manner in which “truth”—even the relative cinematic truth of a documentary shepherded to market by legendary fact-vs.-fiction alchemist Werner Herzog—is made to feel more elastic than usual. Maybe it’s the way in which the film reveals the killers justifying their sickening acts by pointing to the foreign policy of the Bush administration that gets critics a-hopping to attention, I don’t know.
Instead, I want to take notice of the theme of elusive truths by highlighting a touching work by Sarah Polley—better known to most as an actress—whose impressive autobiographical film Stories We Tell comes now on the heels of her equally impressive helming of narrative features (Take This Waltz made my Top 10 last year). Inspired to create a movie about how we narrate our own lives as she sets out to discern the truth about her parentage, Polley discovers an array of surprising tales about her late mother (who died when Polley was only 11), an actress of sunny temperament on the outside and complicated secrets inside. The film is not of interest because Polley is a Hollywood personality; it’s of interest because it makes a heart-wrenching but life-affirming study of how what we know about the past—as well as what we don’t know—can define who we are.
Here I thought I’d really be breaking the mold by including Harmony Korine’s candy-colored crackup of a girls-gone-wild crime film on my Top 10 list—only to see that, one by one, quite a few writers are locking in a spot for the man whose previous feature carried the self-explanatory title Trash Humpers. (Which, well, I kind of admired) What explains this mainstream embrace of the enfant terrible whose filmography includes such uncompromisingly transgressive films as Gummo (where kids drown and shoot cats for fun) and Julien Donkey-Boy (in which Werner Herzog—wow, never thought I’d refer to him twice without a movie of his on the list—plays the gas-mask-wearing patriarch of a schizophrenic family)? Is it the unique achievement of making an art-snob movie one would usually associate with the “raincoat crowd” somehow accessible to the hoi polloi? Is it the not-so-subtle commentary on the sins of many a ‘tween Disney Channel starlet via the inclusion of the scantily-clad Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens? Or could it be the magnificently baroque performance of James Franco—the admirably prolific actor/artist who seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time? I’ve been very hot and cold while riding the Korine train ever since he wrote Kids—which had me inwardly retching and awestruck all at once—but there is no denying that this picture has pulled off some kind of bizarre pop culture miracle.
When you learn that the plot for this mind-bender of an indie film involves a dinner party and quantum physics, you might be tempted to think it’s a dry, elevated sort of thing suited only for the hoity-toitiest of audiences. Don’t you believe it; writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s resourceful sci-fi thriller, which involves the passing of a comet and some existentially unsettling after-effects, held a diverse Philadelphia audience so captive for its entire running time that yes, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. I wrote about it (oh-so carefully) here. Watch for it, and take a chance with it. Movies with much higher budgets, and much bigger stars, have a lot to learn from this film.
If any movie got a raw deal this year, it was Rob Zombie’s latest horror film. With all the attention now being diverted to Guillermo Del Toro-style ghost stories (Mama was “presented” by him), the nostalgia for ‘70s-style supernaturalia (best represented by The Conjuring), and the apparently un-killable, please-God-wake-me-when-it’s-over flood of cheaply produced “found footage” shockers, not to mention our now thoroughly mainstreamed obsessions with vampires and the walking dead on the small screen—what thriller fans missed when they buried this Zombie at the box office was a whopper of a witch movie.
Wickedly blasphemous from jump street, The Lords of Salem represents the filmmaker’s best effort yet at fusing his love of the more substantive and subdued atmospherics of classic (i.e., old) horror movies with the more unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach of modern thrillers. Mrs. (Sheri Moon) Zombie delivers a performance of admirable restraint as a Salem, Massachusetts radio DJ, growing desperate and (literally) possessed by the shameful past of the town after listening to—what else?—a weird piece of music containing a hidden message. Rounding out an ensemble cast that reads like a “who’s who” of the genre scene are Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Bruce Davison (the original Willard), Dee Wallace (E.T.), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Sid Haig (Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects), and Judy Geeson (!).
Zombie’s horror films have always been divisive, and they are not for all tastes. The overly enigmatic climax here may alienate those craving more convention. If you only like the “old stuff,” it won’t be for you; if, however, you want to actually get creeped out while watching a film (truly a rarity for these jaded times), then this is one to watch with the lights out. If you can take it.
The Matthew McConaughey Renaissance continues! Last year, two McConaughey films held separate spots on my Top 10 (they were The Paperboy and Killer Joe); it’d be the same story this year, but I can’t quite decide on the ranking, so instead, they’re going to occupy this year’s slot for a tie vote. M.McC, I may have to kick out Tom Cruise and let you live in the spot reserved in my heart for a movie man-crush. Le sigh.
Dallas Buyers Club, which will net McConaughey a well-deserved Oscar nomination (just as Jared Leto will receive one, and probably the win), offers much more than the opportunity to watch McConaughey pull off the stunt of transforming himself physically—he lost 30 pounds—to play a real-life man fighting his HIV diagnosis by going into business as his own pharmacist; the film packs a wallop for showing us the journey a bigoted man takes towards empathy and the weakness of a healthcare system that sometimes values profits over people.
Mud came out early in 2013, and will therefore miss out on at least some of the high-profile recognition it would have received had it bowed during the bottom half of the year; M.McC’s turn as an escaped con hiding out in Arkansas is a finely realized, small-scale drama in the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer tradition thanks to the naturalistic and engaging performances by child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who “come of age” by trying to help him.
Go here to check out my long-form thoughts about director Steve McQueen’s much-discussed slavery epic. I’m sticking with my prediction about its Oscar chances, and the final line of dialogue in the film is still wreaking havoc inside my head. You’d think after so accomplished and gutsy a film, McQueen would have nowhere to go but down. I’m going to bet that will not be the case.
Earlier in this space, I had much to say about one of this year’s most-talked-about films after screening it at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Go here to read that review. As much as the controversy surrounding its graphic sex scenes (and the filming of those scenes) was a distraction, it also served to bring much-deserved attention to a beautifully-told story of young passion with which contemporaries of the characters will identify strongly, while more experienced romantics will nod with nostalgia-infused recognition—of the fire, fear, and unforced errors that teach us how love really works.
How easy it would be to make a terrible hash of this material. The miracle of Short Term 12 is that it relates the story of a foster care worker and her troubled young charges with rare depth, subtlety, joy, and intimate anguish. Clichés are absent, especially in the handling of a lead character the filmmakers dared to name Grace (a career-making performance from Brie Larson), who has her own demons to conquer in the course of focusing on the rescue of a withdrawn young woman from an abusive household. My late partner was a social worker who was most drawn to caring for the children she called the “desk throwers”; I know well the passion for this mission, and can vouch for this movie’s authenticity of purpose. The difficult emotions feel lived in, and there is poetry and warmth in its rich tapestry of human concerns.
Believing that Three Kings is pure genius but clearly an outlier when it came to my disappointment over Silver Linings Playbook, I walked into David O. Russell’s tart con-game dramedy about the ABSCAM operation with caution. Then, a scant few moments after this cracking brilliant movie was underway, I took note as it rocketed up the ranks of my Top 10 list. American Hustle is my favorite Russell film since that blistering action satire about the first Iraq War; here, he exhibits the same kind of adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm for mining brutal laughs out of morally cloudy situations, while a peerless cast of actors digs deep, reveling in the tacky grandeur of their disco era wardrobe (and hairstyles) and chewing on the sharpest dialogue of the year, courtesy of a script co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer.
The fetish for re-creating the gaudy ’70s aesthetic is not new, but it has rarely been used to more satisfying effect. I was unfamiliar with the work of Swedish-born director of photography Linus Sandgren (who the year before was behind the camera for Gus van Sant’s environmental drama Promised Land), but his achievement here is stellar—shooting a mix of 35mm and 16mm (with a little Super 8 thrown in for good measure) that often gives the impression (at least to these eyes) of a hastily-shot porno you might have seen showing at The Deuce. In fact, the whole movie is bursting with a kind of run-and-gun, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants quality, as if the film were sometimes struggling to keep up with the firecrackers being set off by the actors.
And these actors are perfection, every one of them. I’ve always enjoyed watching Amy Adams, but her sizzling and smart turn here is as exciting for me as when I first got hooked on her earlier work with 2005’s Junebug; Christian Bale puts on a wildly colorful show, again transforming himself physically with a conspicuous paunch and ludicrous comb-over; Bradley Cooper, playing the FBI agent who sets out to expose political corruption with the help of expert con artists Bale and Adams, only to fall for Adams and get conned by her—or is he conning her? It all gets messy—has a series of riotous scenes with his superior, played with the finest notes of low-energy schlubbery by Louis C.K.; last year’s Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence is less of a focus here than all the noisy praise singling her out would suggest, but she delivers a satisfying turn as Bale’s batty but wily wife; and who can help but love Jeremy Renner’s Jersey mayor, a charismatic pol who gets sucked into scandal despite what appear to be (what he says are) his good intentions?
Corruption in New Jersey politics? You don’t say. Maybe in thirty years’ time we’ll be seeing a crafty film about suspiciously arranged gridlock on the George Washington Bridge…
American Hustle is a rough and crazy and hilarious torpedo of a movie aimed at the con artists who wind up conning themselves—in friendship, in business, in politics, and in love. And as the movie points out, that pretty much encapsulates all of us, to varying degrees, throughout our lives.
The key scene in my favorite movie of 2013—a film rightly exalted for its revolutionary special effects and wrongly harped on for some science-related inaccuracies—has very little to do with camera trickery or derivations of Newtonian law; it takes place during the last conversation medical engineer Sandra Bullock will have with soon-to-retire astronaut George Clooney. Actually, calling it their last conversation is a little bit of misdirection, too…depending on your point of view about certain questions of spiritual significance.
Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which this film has now often been compared), the philosophical content of director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is only something that sneaks up on you after the film is over, because its main action is so firmly rooted in the incident and pacing of a survival thriller. Utterly immersive in the IMAX 3D format—this was the only film I paid to see twice this year, and I gladly shelled out the exorbitant ticket price to watch it that way both times—you are unable to think about much of anything beyond the immediate concerns of the two characters, who are set adrift in space after a destroyed satellite’s orbiting debris obliterates their shuttle. This is white-knuckle craft of the first order, but just as with the filming of Carl Sagan’s provocative SETI-themed novel Contact, a compelling story involving the infinite space of the cosmos eventually gives way to meditations on our innermost, most bottled-up uncertainties.
All seems lost. Should I just lie down and die? The pivotal scene I mentioned between Bullock and Clooney (who fire up the finest non-romantic chemistry the movies can produce) is, indeed, a masterpiece of trickery. For a fleeting few seconds, when the scene begins, we’re shocked to think this highly realistic film might have just blown all credibility out of the water. Next, we’re amazed to think that it’s resorting to one of the “oldest tricks in the book”; and finally, we understand that this gentle tweak of Hollywood cliché is subtly reminding us that fact and illusion are often confused, are both equally powerful, and are the indispensable gifts that continue to guide our inspiration and evolution.
These are the kinds of things Gravity may get you to thinking about—after you’ve pried your fingers out of the holes they’ve dug into your armrests.
Honorable Mention: The Lone Ranger
Don’t like it? Too bad. I went in as skeptical as a skeptic could be (see: The Lone Ranger Creed) and this film won me the hell over. The critical rehabilitation of this movie has already begun. Eventually, right-thinking folks will come around to my estimation that Depp and Co. well walked the tightrope of being properly respectful of and irreverent to the Lone Ranger legend.
That’s a wrap. If you’ve got a Top 10 to supply, chime in below! And feel free to rearrange and make substitutions to my list to make it perfect in your eyes (because it’s already perfect to mine). If you think there weren’t 10 movies worth seeing this year, I’m not sure I can help you (because there were plenty of other very good movies I would like to have seen make this list)—but my advice is to start with those listed above.