I’m not fond of the fashion of eulogising the year-that-was even before it’s over, but I also try not to wait nearly a full week to get said eulogy knocked out. But we’re here at last, to remember 2013; a year with an appallingly terrible summer season, and an unusually good crop of festival season fare to balance it out. If I do not think that, on balance, the year was anything remotely a good as a lot people have – I can only come up with one movie that seems to have seriously reshaped my ideas of what the medium can achieve, and have accordingly given it my #1 slot – but it has had more than it’s share of great-to-almost-wonderful movies in as wide an array of styles and genres as anything in recent memory. I look at my top 10, and I find beautifully-appointed empty-headed populism rubbing shoulders with gorgeous, image-driven genre work; austere non-fiction and madcap horror; musicals, biopics, satire, political commentary, domestic drama.
If 2013 has been light on movies that I expect to hold firm in my personal pantheon, it’s been absurdly strong on films that were awfully rewarding and great in the moment, and have lingered in my memory longer than I’d have predicted – months longer, in some cases. Below are the twenty movies that I’ve been happiest to have encountered, but another ten could be added to that least easily, and without degrading its quality in the slightest.
UPDATE, 1/7/14: I have only recently learned that the amazing Brazilian film Southwest that was my favorite entry at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011, got an invisible US release in 2013, and was thus eligible for this list. I’m not going to redo everything, but let’s just say that it very much would have been on this list, and at a very high number, and would have shut me up about “oh, boohoo, only one transformative film all year”. At any rate, watch it if and when you ever possibly can.
(when possible, all links are to my original reviews)
1. The Act of Killing
(Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Denmark/Norway/UK)
Executive producer Werner Herzog once bemoaned cinema’s lack of new images, presenting this as not merely an aesthetic, but a moral crisis. If there’s one thing that Oppenheimer’s lacerating study of the Indonesian death squads of the mid-’60s is great for, it’s the creation of just those images, allowing unrepentant – lionised, even – murderers to indict themselves through the dramatic re-enactments they stage of their own crimes. But it’s my pick for the best film of the year precisely because there isn’t one thing it’s great for, but many: its complex treatment of how watching films and creating films both impact one’s ability to live life, its explosive study of a systematic moral crime never punished and largely unknown in other countries, and its examination of how memory and identity interact with each other.
2. At Berkeley
(Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Without editorialising, leading us, or ever announcing his presence, Wiseman has created a great, monumental statement on the current nature of higher education as a philosophical, bureaucratic, and economic player. Four hours is a lot of cinema time, but just a blip compared to a whole year, and yet the sheer variety of locations, events, and concepts presented – from massive rallies to a gardener putting around on a mower – suggest the full scope of how this one institution lives and breathes with something awfully close to definitive authority. It is the year’s most glorious parade of human activity.
(Alfonso Cuarón, USA)
Many of the film’s defenders will claim that this is really a deep psychological portrait, and not just the whiz-bang thriller that naysayers describe. It’s a warm and rich character study, true, but I take issue with both sides implying that thrill rides are in some way defective or insignificant. In the beginning, movies were only about the exciting impact of a moment-by-moment experience, and nothing in years has been so absurdly terrific at capturing that feeling using all the newest, shiniest toys of contemporary filmmaking. This an exercise in you-are-there thrills all the way, and it’s a brilliant one.
4. The Lords of Salem
(Rob Zombie, USA/UK/Canada)
The line between horror and art cinema hasn’t been this porous in decades: the greatest of many achievements is to present some of the richest images of the year while also managing to be so insidious and crafty about its horror that it’s scarier the second time around than the first. The cherry on top is that it bases itself around one of the most comfortable, casual, lived-in characters in the genre’s history. The only film by an important filmmaker this year that’s also obviously his career-best; and make no mistake, this one firmly anoints Zombie as an important filmmaker.
5. Before Midnight
(Richard Linklater, USA)
The least film of its trilogy, ’tis true; but when the decade-defining Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are the comparisons, “the least of these” still leaves plenty of room to have the year’s very best character study. With or without the context of the first two, it couldn’t be any more engrossing: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have such an intuitive understanding of who they’re playing that “acting” seems less descriptve than something like a godlike act of creating an entire perfect human. My best praise: the instant it was over, I wanted it to be nine years from now.
6. 12 Years a Slave
(Steve McQueen, USA/UK)
The year’s most Gravely Important Film has the happy benefit of also being a sweaty, bloody, filthy evocation of history as a living event, populated by thinking, physical men and women just like ourselves. That it’s the first truly merciless depiction of American slavery made in America (but not by Americans) is notable; more notable yet is how it backgrounds its social studies tendencies to explore, with visual and narrative grace and nuance, how one man, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the most complex performance of 2013, sacrifices and maintains his dignity and identity in the face of hellish cruelty.
7. All Is Lost
(J.C. Chandor, USA)
A sophomore film that feels like the work of a wizened vet with nothing to prove but his effortless mastery; even Robert Redford’s amazingly physical, context-free performance as a very specific Everyman is only a facet of the impeccable craft that turns the simplest of concepts into a vigorously tangible thriller anchored in acute human emotion and raw survival instinct alike. There are showier films, but I don’t know if any of them comes closer to perfection in more areas of craft and artistry, and the metaphysical ambiguities of the finale have left it my favorite ending of the year.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
(Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA/France)
And look, here are those wizened vets, and here is that effortless mastery. One of the subtlest films the Coens have ever made, it still has the electric dialogue and aggressively vivid characters of all their work, but this time there’s a level of reflection and calm that is by no means typical of their work, and it’s all the most exciting for it. A snapshot of character and place at a moment that’s simultaneously rich in transformative potential and wholly static, it’s an odd, moving little journey, bitter and loving in ways that cannot be separated from each other.
(Pablo Larraín, Chile/France/USA)
A lively, aesthetically punchy reminder that cutting satire and thesis-statement dramas about the media’s effect on perception can e, above all else, fun. A crackerjack procedural centered on an exceptionally loose Gael García Bernal, the film is grubby both in its content and its presentation, but Larraín finds several ways to inject a breeziness into even the most sardonic and toxic moments that make a petrifyingly smart movie easy and exciting to watch. Less a history lesson than an exploration and example of how history is constructed, it’s a politically astute crowd-pleaser, and how the hell do you do that?
10. Mother of George
(Andrew Dosunmu, USA)
The year’s best example of cinema as a living entity: the use of colors and geography and movement within the frame to establish character, emotion, and community connect the film to the best of African cinema, even as the detailed urban realism makes it clear that we’re still in the world of American indies. That’s a combination that beautifully suits a chamber drama about people trying to select what combination of tradition and the mores of a quickly evolving world work best together. Even better, it might be the most gorgeous film I saw in an outstanding year for cinematography.
Best Unreleased in the U.S. with no immediate hopes to the contrary
10. Carrie (Kimberly Peirce)
An on-paper sublime marriage of director and content, but the execution could not possibly be less inspired or full of contempt for itself with existing. A dully literal take on material that is, to its very bones, abstract and poetic.
9. Texas Chainsaw 3D (John Luessenhop)
Amateur-hour gore, bargain-basement 3-D, and those are the good points of a movie that has a shitty script with flat characters behaving illogically even by slasher standards. The climax is such a calculated insult to the very notion of the franchise, I’m a little stunned the filmmakers have been strung up by the fandom.
8. The Canyons (Paul Schrader)
Exploitative trash starring the most famous-burned out former child star of the century is one thing. Specifically, it’s the thing that The Canyons is not, and would be much improved by becoming. Instead, this is a stultifying crime story in which both explicit nudity and thriller mechanics are bent into something dull and pointless in service to dime store commentary on the movie business.
7. Free Birds (Jimmy Hayward)
There’s always that one children’s movie every year that openly acknowledges that it hates all children (actually, there’s usually five or six), but even by those standards, this is an ill-plotted, crudely anachronistic exercise in shrieking dumb comedy and ugly character animation, the very definition of soulless commercialism.
6. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Some of the most gorgeous cinematography of the year, in service to a grinding, redundant tale of blood begetting blood, which substitutes a specifically sleepy and uninspired kind of nihilism for anything more interesting or insightful. Five minutes could have been revelatory, 90 are soporific and deadning, and only Kristin Scott Thomas is campy enough to be watchable.
5. Scary Movie 5 (Malcolm D. Lee)
By the barest margin the more tolerable of the year’s two awful, awful Paranormal Activity parodies. But that’s sort of like picking the prettiest pustule on your ass. It’s still an endless dribble of pop culture re-enactments that don’t even bother to have the structure of gags, relying almost solely on excrement and penises to magically convert, “Hey, this was a movie” into, “Hey, this was a moDICKS ARE FUNNY!”
4. A Haunted House (Michael Tiddes)
At least it feels like it has some intention behind it, instead of just arbitrary references, but it’s still a long slog to get from one marginally funny gag to another in a field of sex, fart, and sexy fart scenes. Also, while dicks are funny, apparently anal rape is HILARIOUS, because ew, ha ha, butt sex.
3. Identity Thief (Seth Gordon)
Undisguised, unmodulated nastiness, masquerading as a comedy because one of the leads is a fat fatty. The jokes are obvious and undersold, the whole thing is achingly long, the leads are having a visibly wretched time, and it’s all chasing the lowest common denominator so earnestly that “pandering” seems wildly insufficient.
2. Insidious: Chapter 2 (James Wan)
The director of one of the year’s best ghost stories also managed to shit out the absolute worst ghost story since his own Dead Silence six years ago. Characters we have no interest in go through tediously arbitrary hoops on the way to insulting, tone-deaf Shocking Reveals while a pronounced lack of spooky atmosphere shrivels up and dies on screen. It is, apparently, actually that hard to engineer even a decent lazy “boo!” scare.
1. Movie 43 (Omnibus)
An all-star cast gathers together for made-in-the-backyard quality sketches predicated on dubious, one-not scatalogical concepts. “Man with testicles on his neck gets food on them” is among the wittier highlights. Maybe Lubitsch could have made something out of this with Carole Lombard, or something, but I guess we’ll just never know.
David Cronenberg’s son makes his debut with a body horror movie. I defy you to find anything in that construction that indicates more than a lazily acceptable exercise in giving us what we already know is coming. But Brandon Cronenberg had bigger things on his mind than copying Dad, and the start of what I hope to be a full and vibrant career is an astoundingly unique depiction of the intersection between body and economy, with some of the most convincing design and cinematography of any “fucked up future” movie of recent vintage.
To the Wonder
Many years from now I expect to rewatch it, and not understand what I found so heartbreaking about it. Many years from now. It’s every inch a Terrence Malick film, and Emmanuel Lubezki, at any rate, is on his best behavior. But it’s so much shaggier and less shapely than any other film in the director’s career, and the things that interested him the most aren’t as compelling as the things he only alludes to in passing. It’s surely not fair to expect two The Tree of Lifes in a row, but…well, I did.
Best Popcorn Movie
A vigorous, screw-everybody exaggeration of every tendency in Robert Rodriguez’s entire career, an attempt to make a live-action cartoon saturated with idiotic violence, and a parody of the very concept of sequels. I get that it was broadly hated, but after the second time I saw it in theaters, I had fully stopped letting that fact bother me. It was far more stupid fun than all the grim CGI-heavy exercises in being epic and mournful that tried to call themselves “action movies” over the summer, I can damn well tell you.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
Advocacy documentaries are the absolute hardest thing to talk about, because they’re more about having a polemical point than an artistic one. But God, this film really doesn’t have anything going on cinematically. And the further I get, the harder it is for me to tell what it was primarily advocating: that orcas shouldn’t be held in captivity? That zoos need better safety controls for their employees? That orcas are smart enough to become psychotic killers? At least two of which are noble and necessary claims, but ones that could better be made in a passionate essay, maybe.
Film That Will Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence, But Less Ebullient of a Positive Review
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Mine and everybody’s. And sure, it’s a good movie and will always be a good movie; but I haven’t cooled this fast on anything since I was a wide-eyed film student prone to having intense reactions that I regretted a week later. The more I let it simmer, the more that the running time feels like an atrocious indulgence and the more that the sex scenes reveal themselves as an obvious mistake, and as good as the actors are, they’re doing a lot more heavy lifting than they should have to in the second half.
Film That Least Deserved My Positive Even Before I Published It
Man of Steel
As clear an example of “I really wanted to like this, and so I kept saying positive things at the movie until I vaguely believed them but not really” as can be found in all the annals of this blog.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
Generic plotting with generic performances of generically-written characters, but you know what’s not generic? The design of the thing, which seems a lot more impressive after the most enthusiastically bland year for American studio animation in a lot of years. Somewhat grotesque characters, eye-popping colors slathered over fantasy landscapes; it looks like nothing else, and that perhaps counts for more than I gave it credit.
Film I’m Most Eager to Re-Visit
White House Down
It seemed like a particularly mechanical Roland Emmerich Quips and A-Splosions device at the time, but a couple people who definitely know from bad cinema have come to its defense in a way that makes me at least curious to see if I missed anything. I doubt very much that I did, but I’d anyway like to come around to thinking that it’s better than Olympus Has Fallen.
I feel like I’m being played by the Walt Disney Company if I say “Let it Go” from Frozen, because as gorgeously bombastic as the song and performance are, and as wonderfully as the choreography advances narrative and character through the mechanism of the song, it’s too fucking easy. And the dirty little secret is that the song really doesn’t serve the purpose in the film’s plot that it pretends to, and for all its impact is kind of a red herring. But…
“Let it Go” from Frozen it is.
Bonus points: “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around” is my favorite individual line from any Disney song since Howard Ashman died.
When, in the already dodgy late-period Dario Argento film Dracula 3D, the cruelest and most powerful of all vampires transforms into a giant praying mantis, brought to life by the absolute worst CGI you could imagine from any film that didn’t premiere on an Asylum DVD. I’d compare it to having a 1990s first-person shooter suddenly invade a vampire movie; but who wants to insult video games like that?
Joe Don Baker in Mud, the living embodiment of Southern Good Ol’ Boy authoritah sublimely positioned as everything hidebound and totalitarian and morally self-righteous in the rough and tumble rural world where the story takes place.
Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, by far the most distracting movie star moment in a film that really needed to rethink some of its casting choices (Paul Giamatti, the slaver? Hm…). The worst part isn’t Pitt’s from-nowhere-resembling-Canada accent, though that is wretched, nor how obviously the whole thing was for the marketing, but that the film’s producer just happened to be appearing as the One Decent White Man who single-handedly retrieves the protagonist’s freedom for him.
“To be clear, asshole, you fucking asshole, I want very much to have it if it’s Jim’s. That’s what I want. But since I don’t know, you not only fucked things up by fucking me, and maybe making me pregnant, but even if it’s not yours, I can’t know that, so I have to get rid of what might be a perfectly fine baby, a baby I want, because everything you touch turns to shit! Like King Midas’s idiot brother.”
-Jean (Carey Mulligan), Inside Llewyn Davis. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
“It’s been so long since I felt real pain! I missed it, but not as much as I miss inflicting it on others”.
-Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson), as possessed by Parker Crane, Insidious: Chapter 2. Written by Leigh Whannell.
The shining moment of one of the year’s single finest ad campaigns. What is the film about? The terror of being stuck in the vast emptiness of outer space. How do we visually depict that? With little imagination but profound success, in this case. It was positioned right outside the men’s restroom in my theater of choice for a couple of months, and I swear, every time I had to pee, it was a brand new sucker punch right to the gut.
Best Teaser Poster
Godzilla, Comic-Con Teaser
The platonic ideal of a popcorn movie teaser. Do you know what the title refers to? Of course you do, he’s the Mickey Mouse of giant monsters. Do you want to see what he looks like? Too damn bad, but but based on the scale and detail, he is going to look all kinds of damn awesome.
The Counselor, One-sheet
I sincerely do not understand what’s going on here. The arbitrary faces, that’s just standard operating procedure. The horrible imbalance of colors, that’s regrettable, but shit happens. The fact that they’re linear strips instead of floating heads is… different? But if you’re going to go that way, put any effort into the cropping on those strips. I mean, what the fuck is going on with Michael Fassbender? Or the hideous Bardem/Pitt Janus head. It’s not only a terrible idea, it’s the worst possible execution of that idea.
Man of Steel Trailer 3
We have all rehashed the agony of finding out that the awe-inspiring sense of weight and scope, and the promise of truly magical, epic supeheroics, underpinned by a Hans Zimmer score that crawls up and down your spine, was instead bland, moody, and tiresome. But honestly, doesn’t knowing what Man of Steel turned out to be make the trailer even more impressive? They had that, and they figured out a way to cut this. That is the some hard core editing mojo, that is.
It’s easy to pick on it now that we all know better, but this was surely the most discouraging 90 seconds I saw in a movie theater all year. Infantile slapstick and viscerally unlikable characters (who’d turn out to be far more pleasant in the movie) clearly being pitched at the very worst kind of child aren’t really promising to anybody but those children. And since it so obviously worked for Disney, to the tune of $300 million and counting, I suppose we’ll see these awful little nightmares of craven pandering every couple of years.
Only God Forgives
Best Nonsensical Title
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Star Trek Into Darkness
Title That Needs the Least Modification for the Eventual Porn Parody
Inside Llewyn Davis
Worst Title That Is Completely Justified by the Source Material and the Film’s Content, But Still, Really?
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Most Fancy-Ass La-di-da Monocle-Wearing Pretentious Title for a Movie That Could Not Have Earned It Less
Insidious: Chapter 2
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2013
It was such a red-letter year for me in terms of playing catch-up with older movies that I couldn’t limit myself to just one, like I usually do. Instead, here’s a chronological list of the ten best movies that I only saw for the first time in the last twelve months. Some of these are more embarrassing than others, but better late than never, as the fella said.
The Golem: How He Came Into the World (Wegener & Boese, 1920)
Seven Years Bad Luck (Linder, 1921)
The Goddess (Wu, 1934)
Olympia (Riefenstahl, 1938) – both parts
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
Journey to Italy (Rossellini, 1954)
The Big Combo (Lewis, 1955)
Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)
Dellamorte Dellamore (Soavi, 1994)
Pola X (Carax, 1999)