As was the case last year, it has taken a while to put together my list of the "Best" films of 2013. This time, though, the reasons were multiple. 2013 was a great year for cinema in innumerable ways, and the number of on-screen moments that seemed to register as iconic even before the credits rolled was extremely high. From the smallest of independents to the largest show stoppers, genre boundaries were pushed, characters left lasting impressions, true stories had style, and our eyes were routinely, repeatedly dazzled. Where 2012 too often felt drab and uninspired, 2013 was a year of artistic risks, and even when they fell just short of their mark, they sprinted towards greatness. This is the longest best of list I've made for a single year since starting this blog, and there are still so many things missing. When you feel you could hit 30 and still have honorable mentions, it starts to seem like something was just in the water...
21. THE KINGS OF SUMMER I never wrote a full review on The Kings of Summer. It was one of the films I missed in the theater and caught up with after the fact. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised. It's the sort of hybrid indie that's hard not to fall for; a light summer fling with just enough dysfunctional drama to make its antics feel right.
20. THE CONJURING When a successful horror film comes along it sticks out as an exemplar passed down gleefully over generations. The Exorcist, Halloween, Psycho, The Shining; these are some of the places where critics, horror fans, and our pop cultural vocabulary intersect. The Conjuring is one of the great ones. It's an instant genre classic, a phenomenal theater-going experience, a piece of shiny shiny retro-gold that seems to prove that there are still ways to make that worn-down recycled haunted house new, that there are still ghost stories to be told, and that upgrading the quality of the raw materials makes all the damn difference in the world.
19. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS I do not love Inside Llewyn Davis, but I respect it and, as a film, it has stuck with me since the viewing and forced me to wrestle and argue about its strange quirks and shortcomings. Though the folksy music may offer brief moments of uplift for those so inclined, Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with the bleak outlook of the Coen Brothers' last several efforts. Grim and near hopeless to the last, bolstered and enlivened by the strength of Oscar Isaac's performance.
18. UPSTREAM COLOR Shane Carruth's second feature is perhaps as much a puzzle box as his first (Primer). You're set adrift in it, made to float through sequences that seem to have deep cerebral ties, that lose language and play like scraps of Terrence Malick's lost footage. At its most confusing, it remains a beautiful, emotional experience. Even as the elements of the plot become clear, the way it works remains less so. It's an abstract type of biological science fiction; a dreamy, parasitical creature that worms its way into your head and tries, desperately, to wake you up.
17. ONLY GOD FORGIVES For many, Only God Forgives ranks among the year's biggest disappointments. Though it's on my best list, there are points that make it equally worthy of sitting with the worst. As an aesthetic object, though, it fascinates me. It's a beautiful, brutish, hateful thing. It's an old, old story, an ancient revenge drama stripped of its stage limitations and updated in a way that's exciting. This is how you use film as a medium. This is what you do when you take old stories and do them up in fancy, glowing trappings. This is what it looks like when you can rely on gore and revenge without wit or pandering to the audience. We can see it now. And for many, it is not pleasant.
16. FROZEN I'm a sucker for a Disney cartoon and, too often, a sucker for a showstopping musical. Frozen is both, and exactly the sort of guileless, feel-good entertainment that's a little too smart to be guilty. With each passing animated effort, Disney is attempting to correct the trip-ups of its past and Anna and Elsa are princesses with defined personalities and a heartening point.
15. THE BLING RING There's a complete amorality in The Bling Ring, or maybe it's a sort of moral obliviousness. The characters never seem to have any sense of what's truly right or wrong, and the obligations they have to attend to in their personal lives are nearly nonexistent. School is an afterthought and something that impinges on their future stardom. Instead, they're fueled by greed, desire, and a desperate fumbling for the formations of their own identities. Sofia Coppola never allows the audience to truly identify with the Bling Ring kids, but doesn't seem to judge them, either. To her, it seems there's a sadness to the collections of objects they crammed into stolen Birkin bags and Vuitton trunks, and the film speaks to our times in ways that many simply can't.
14. NEBRASKA The deeper one travels into the film, the richer it becomes. Though there's not much that's truly surprising or revelatory about the film as an art object, it's a sturdy piece of work that manages to slowly endear the characters to the viewer and to pick up on the little things. Nebraska reads as organic material, but unlike so many meandering indies, it gets to where it's going and seems to be the better for it.
13. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR The film's greatest triumph is the way it balances an individual character study with the love story of a couple. We watch as one girl becomes one of two, and the nuanced approach to attraction, the way time seems to stop when Adèle is away from Emma speaks to something universal. Simply put: the quiet moments of the love story get something really right, and audiences should be able to relate regardless of orientation. Our time spent with Adèle in isolation allows us to see the effect that Emma has on her, and vice versa. There's a magnetic pull, and under its control Adèle is both liberated and trapped. Ultimately, the film seems interested in showing us the tremendous effect that a person can have on another's life.
12. THE HUNT A modern-day witch hunt that unsettles beyond all expectations, The Hunt is a Danish drama that sucks you in to a hellish experience and lays bare the fragility of reputation. Stone-faced Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a sort of kindergarten aide in a peaceful town who is beloved by his pupils. In a shocking moment, a young girl with a wounded ego makes up a story about Lucas to her teacher. What follows find the town slowly turning on Lucas and his life turned inside out. The film details all of this elegantly, and the pacing seems structured around the extraordinary performance Mikkelsen gives here as someone slowly pushed to the limits of what he's able to withstand.
11. BEFORE MIDNIGHT Before Midnight resists becoming a film about two people dealing with the pressures of raising a family and instead focuses on what happens when two dreamers (or thinkers) find themselves without time enough to spend raising themselves. They're tired and worn, embittered and lost, and the film is consequently as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. We find hope in their absolute honesty. Each speaks in a way the other understands, though they find it trying, and each glimmer of recognition makes us hope all the harder that they'll find a way to stay together.
10. STOKER Stoker is a film primarily concerned with aesthetics. Specifically, the aesthetics of the unnerving. Its focus, before narrative, before any shred of believable characterization, seems firmly rooted in the painting of an intensely Gothic picture. Not mall goth. Not dyed black hair and a ripped up Siouxsie t-shirt. Victorian Gothic, the sort that bleeds its penny dreadful characters towards a descent into madness, which allows the rich to decay on their estates, the villain to brood vampiric, and the persecuted, misunderstood heroine to waste her hours on the moors, grappling with her thoughts. Stoker immerses itself in this world and commits to its atmospheric artifice in a way that blocks out the sun and lets the film exist according to its own deeply melodramatic principles. It's beautiful, vile, and suspended in a slow-burning Technicolor milieu somewhere between Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk.
9. THE WORLD'S END Shaun of the Dead trafficked in zombies, Hot Fuzz in action tropes, and now The World's End introduces an invasion that's a bit like a combination of the two. Though no human flesh is consumed, our heroes find themselves in a space where bodies may be snatched, things are not what they seem, and the line between corporate drone and, well, drone is blurred. It's as disarmingly smart as it is goofy, and each repeat viewing finds it all the more endearing. As the deluded Gary King, Simon Pegg reminds you why he's a rare talent. This is comedic acting with layers to spare.
8. THIS IS THE END Two apocalyptic ensemble comedies in a row and each one bound for cult status. This is the End is a Hollywood meta-fiction to end all meta-fictions, a gleefully violent, crass, and juvenile buddy comedy that somehow has it together enough to play like it's made with love even as we watch a fictionalized version of Jonah Hill get assaulted by a well-endowed demon. That's the weird thing about what Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can do, and what this particular group of actors (Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson) can translate on camera. Even when it's at its most over the top, when the on-screen 'characters' wish each other dead, the film still invites you into the joke and into the group. It feels like it's made by friends.
7. FRANCES HA Frances Ha plays out as a love letter to Greta Gerwig's capabilities and to Frances's genuineness of spirit. Baumbach has found an actress who, for him, works like Diane Keaton did for Woody Allen, and who is allowed to exist pleasantly on her own terms. Though she at first seems to be of the mold, Frances is not a character crafted in the image of Annie Hall or Alvy Singer, or who obnoxiously grew up too aware of their existence. Instead, she's just Frances. She dances and talks and play fights and tries to the point that we feel we have befriended her and are, somehow, invested in the film's outcome. Though frequently defeated, Frances Ha holds up small recession-era victories and allows the audience to walk away feeling like the character is better off than they found her, that she is capable of enduring the hardships of her vagabond homelessness and misadventures.
6. SPRING BREAKERS If Godard was right, and all a film needs is a girl and a gun, then it follows that when you have a trio of sun-tanned co-eds in neon tiger-print bathing suits wielding black market automatics... you may have stumbled upon exactly what we all secretly want from our entertainment. Spring Breakers is seedy, loathsome, and without remorse. It gets worse and never better, and it has no interest in moralizing its actions on screen. While it seems tough to say that Harmony Korine is some sort of covert moralist, the film functions in a way that is very much like a low-down, trashed-up, South Beach Bret Easton Ellis novel. This is pure style, yes, a delirium the likes of which I haven't seen executed to quite this effect before. While Korine commits in full to his unlikable, dangerously unhinged characters, it could be argued that he forces you to evaluate what they're emulating. You have to look at the behavior, to actively participate in the most vile of conversations and activities while understanding, implicitly, that these characters are something other, that they are our own creations built off of video games, pop music, sun-baked photo spreads, and the consumption of mindless distraction after mindless distraction until we reach critical mass.
5. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB The McConaissance continues. Dallas Buyers Club is a film that almost doesn't have the right to be as good as it is. It's another biopic, another true life story exploited for the big screen and chock full of social issues. If you've read the blog before, you know that's exactly the kind of film that tends to make me real tired real fast. Yet, Dallas Buyers succeeds where others have failed and there are two reasons: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto put in extraordinary, eminently watchable performances that bring the characters to life in ways beyond your adjustment from truth to semi-fiction. They are so good that nothing else matters.
4. GRAVITY Gravity is a series of paradoxes: it's a small movie writ large, a giant event film writ small, an overwhelmingly physical film concerned with big concepts, deeply claustrophobic in the most open of spaces, and a placidly anxious adventure. It's an extraordinary thrill ride, an astonishing technical feat that reaffirms why we go to the movies in these the wayward days of in-home on-demand viewing habits.
3. AMERICAN HUSTLE As is the case with all the best stories, American Hustle is built around a bit of truth, but devolves into freewheeling, ecstatic fiction. David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer root the tale in the true life Abscam sting operations conducted by the FBI in the late '70s. The truth is that a con artist worked alongside the bureau to entrap supposedly corrupt members of Congress into taking bribes from a phony Arab sheikh. From that morsel, the two have concocted a flashy team of con-artists, politicians, and gangsters, and they move them around like dolls in a dream house. You start with the right haircuts, the right outfits, the right glasses. You move on to the right soundtrack, the right pop songs, the right accents. You let the characters swagger, you force them into scenarios, you dream up new ways to get them out of trouble. This is what American Hustle does. It blends the lightest parts of Scorsese gangster pictures with the mood of Ocean's 11 and a touch of history and runs with anything it can think of.
2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE Steve McQueen works to tell Northrup's story in a way that feels far more organic than a great many of the cinematic band-aids, tearjerkers, and gold-tinged Technicolor bits on slavery to come before it. This is a quietly powerful film with a strange, somber beauty that strikes you at the most unexpected of times. 12 Years a Slave doesn't want your tears, it wants you to think and to understand the magnitude of the situation in a way that doesn't allow the camera to pull away, that doesn't succumb to false modesty or notions of common decency. Everything works, and as much as I may favor new, adventurous, experimental creative works as my Oscar front-runners and year end favorites, it's tough to argue with the significance and organized power of what 12 Years a Slave has to offer. McQueen has broken out of the art house and tapped into a caliber of "problem picture" the likes of which is rarely seen. We'll be talking about and teaching this film for years to come.
+1. (TIE) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and HER
And in first place we have two films that couldn't be more different. Because they're light years apart in terms of tone, content, style, and so on and so forth, it seemed too impossible to decide one was somehow worthier than the other. To an extent, though, both have something to say about contemporary life and the limits of different types of excess. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the many indecencies are presented zippily as to to push the film towards something so over the top that it may actually be revolutionary. No matter how many frat boy comedies you think you've seen, you've likely never seen as many atrocities played for laughs packed into one movie. Few things are shied away from, and the film does its best to offend anyone and everyone, to shock you with the absolute ignorance of its millionaires, to launch an atom bomb at the notion of morality. This is its curious beauty, its strange gift. In his 70's, Scorsese has given us the all-out, no-limits, distempered film that many have stopped short of in the past.
With Her, we see a world that needs to be comforted and for whom the term luxury may signify the ability to indulge and find solace in simpler times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a world that looks like the Apple store had a baby with a Pinterest board. The comfort is false, but he (and others) surround themselves with the accouterments of human connection and interaction like avid collectors. We meet him as he tells his basic OS to play him a melancholy song, we see that he works for a company that crafts handwritten, meaningful personal letters for other people. Spike Jonze establishes, immediately, a strange, darkly comic tone for this society: they are all searching for a connection that does not involve human interaction. They want the sense of it without the burden of its upkeep.
2014...you have a lot to live up to.
The Way Way Back
Stories We Tell
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire