It’s the most wonderful time of the year, people. No, not the holidays, but list-making time! Who doesn’t love lists? They’re silly (who ever decided that a 12 month period was the ideal way to measure art?), but I love them. Here are my favorite films of the year and a couple other superlatives. And please note the word “favorite”. It’s really hard to judge, compare, and rank the movies that you think are great and the ones that are not so great but you just love, but that’s a burden I’m more than willing to put on myself. At the end of the day, art is, of course, subjective, so take this list as a way of me saying the movies I enjoyed and thought about the most this year, or if you haven’t seen them, a list of recommendations for your next movie night. Anyway, here we go…
The Ten Best Movies of 2013:
1. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Director Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have done something awesome. Like a descendant of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, the movies that are now called the “Before Trilogy” have become one of the most fascinating cinematic achievements of the last few decades. The lovely first encounter of Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise and the brief but significant conversation they have in Before Sunset already made for an incredible diptych, but Before Midnight goes beyond and elevates the whole series into something much more interesting and significant than two amazing movies about love. We have now one of the most intimate epic stories put on film, one of the best trilogies in film history, and one that I see myself revisiting many times in the future. There is a lot to say about Before Midnight, much more than I can fit in this post, but don’t worry, people will be talking about it for years to come.
2.The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
2013 was a banner year for documentary filmmaking, especially for the evolution of the genre, with directors making use of unusual form and structure to tell their stories. I couldn’t see all of these praised movies (like The Missing Picture and Manakamana), but I did see Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant The Act of Killing. The movie focuses on an older man named Anwar Congo, who was part of an Indonesian death squad, which in the 1960s was sent out by the government to exterminate “the communists”. You don’t need me to tell you this whole enterprise resulted in innumerable atrocities, but the thing about Indonesia is that the same government that ordered this crimes, is the government that is still in power, and the people who carried out the executions, like Congo, are heroes. The genius of Oppenheimer’s movie is that in order to paint the incredibly complex and horrifying portrait of this man, he lets Congo put on and film recreations of his experiences as part of the death squad. The Act of Killing is not only one of the best movies of the year, but also one of the most important in what it has to say about evil, destruction, guilt, memory and the role of movies in our society.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
If I were in some sort of genie-in-a-bottle scenario in which I could pick one movie that came out this year to have made myself, I would pick Inside Llewyn Davis. But there is a futility to this hypothetical wish that is rather appropriate to the movie in question: there is absolutely no way that any other team of people at any other point in time could have made this movie. It lives and dies both in Joel and Ethan Coen’s directorial sensitivities and in the outstanding lead performance by Oscar Isaac. Music producer T-Bone Burnett (who collaborates with the Coens once again in this movie’s soundtrack) said in an interview the Coens must be the luckiest people alive if they managed to find someone as talented as an actor and musician as Isaac. And he is completely right. I’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis twice, and the more I think about it the more I love it. It’s a perfect and meticulous portrait of lonesomeness, grief, struggle, and blindness that takes the themes the Coen’s have explored all throughout their careers and put them in the most delicate and beautiful package
4. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
“Who cares about our stupid family?”
Talking about a great year for documentaries… Stories We Tell feels like some sort of therapy session for director Sarah Polley to reevaluate her history and work through her relationship with her father Michael. By making the movie so specifically about her mother, Polley opens a splendid can of worms that immediately made me ask questions about family, history, narrative, and the way we try and succeed to understand ourselves and the ones around us. What makes it even more of a pleasure to watch, beyond the fact that Polley is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, is that it is a movie so full of love. It is in love with Polley’s mom, and Polley’s dad, and with cinema, and with storytelling itself. What can I say, it’s just a beautiful film.
5. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is an independent movie about a Californian childcare facility and it features a lot of the plot points and problems that you would think a movie about a childcare facility would have, but the talented people that worked on it have made it so that it is perhaps the most sincere movie of the year. Truth has been captured in this movie, genuine emotion, real feelings, from the careful direction to the fantastic cast that includes great performances by John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield. Nobody, however, is as brilliantly raw and effective as Brie Larson, who turns main caretaker Grace into one of the most memorable characters of the year. I’ve always liked Larson, but this performance is a true revelation, she might very well be the best actress of her generation.
6. The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)*
I’m not an expert on martial arts movies, I’ve only ever seen the modern ones that came after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but out of what I’m familiar with, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster does the best job of turning the fight sequences into essential character moments for the narrative since the Ang Lee’s great movie. What was reportedly going to be a biography of Ip Man (the martial artist most known in the west for training Bruce Lee, here played by Tony Leung) is really a loose biography and much more a tragic story about tradition, honor, and the clash of these institution with love and passion. The best fictional addition to the movie is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a young woman who fights for her father’s legacy and her family’s honor. If you are familiar with Wong Kar-wai’s work, then you must already have deduced that the movie is visually dazzling, and tragic and delicate in its treatment of romance. You’d be right on both counts.
*There is a whole thing about ‘The Grandmaster’ and its different versions that has made the movie rather hard to watch in a practical sense. There is an American cut that runs for about 108 minutes, but is also very inferior to the original 130 minute original Chinese cut. If you are planning to watch the movie, or only have seen the American cut, I urge you to look for the original version. It can be purchased as an international Bluray on the internet.
7. Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener)
I will only agree with Enough Said’s detractors in one count, and that is that the Catherine Keener character is bland and unexciting. The rest of the movie, even a plot development that some critics have dismissively described as “sitcomy”, works beautifully for me. I haven’t been a huge fan of director Nicole Holofcener in the past, but if this movie is any indication, she has finally come into her own. This comedy about two middle-aged people trying to give love a second chance is never better than when it lets its two stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, just go ahead and do their thing. Witnessing the connection between these two and watching the relationship that develops is like watching a dancer or singer perform at the top of their game. I could have watch five hours of these two talking and still be over-the-moon about it.
8. Frozen (dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
Even though it’s flawed, and if you talk about recent Disney movies, I would have to say Tangled is still the superior movie, I really loved Frozen. Not only do I think it’s a pretty great movie for kids, but also an important one for them to watch. Disney has been trying to make its Princess characters more accessible and complex through the years, and they have always stumbled a little bit when trying to take a more feminist point of view, but I think they have really nailed it in the relationship between Anna and Elsa. Their story of sisterly love and search for identity is incredibly powerful and will give little girls a lot to think about. It’s not only very moving, but also really funny. Kristen Bell’s work as Anna is delightfully silly, and Josh Gad, as snowman Olaf, gives a masterclass in being a funny and cute animated sidekick without being annoying.
9. The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
What is probably going to be Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s last movie is not only a lovely farewell, but also a very interesting companion piece to the sixth ranked movie on this list, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. Like the Chinese film, this is a very lose biography of a historical figure. In this case, it’s Jiro Horikoshi a man who dreamed of aviation and grew up to design the war planes that would be used by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The movie is a big fight between dreams and death. Between the drive to create beauty and the knowledge of what those creations will be used for. And in its second half, it highlights this with a romance as fantastic and melodramatic as Jiro’s own dreams.
10. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
Because it has become the kind of movie that you almost feel obligated to see (and love), having 12 Years a Slave in the 10th spot might feel like a negotiated commitment. The truth is after thinking a lot about it since I saw it, I still don’t quite know what to make of it, except that I have to recognize it’s probably the movie that generated the most visceral reaction from me this year. And it is, without question, a superbly masterful film. Director Steve McQueen’s lingering and muted style gives the movie even more power than the already charged material provides, and it ends up being a notably effective way to showcase some of the best performances of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and especially newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are a fantastic quartet and build one of the most intriguing character dynamics of the year.
Ten More Wonderful Movies:
11. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)
12. Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)
13. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
14. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
15. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
16. Like Someone In Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
17. Something in the Air (dir. Olivier Assayas)
18. Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black)
19. Stoker (dir. Chan-wook Park)
20. World War Z (dir. Marc Forster)
Worst Movie of the Year:
I try not to watch bad movies. Because I am not a professional/paid critic, I only watch movies I want to watch, and so, I end up not watching a lot of the creap that gets released. I didn’t, for example, see Grown Ups 2, which I hear is horrible. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that most “worst of the year” are rightfully including what is, without question, the worst movie I saw in theaters: Man of Steel, which back when it came out, didn’t really get as many negative notices as it deserved. If you want to know more about my negative feelings on the movie, then I recommend you read the review I wrote upon its release on the old blog.
Most Underrated Movie
I have to share this title between two summer movies. I wasn’t planning on watching World War Z, which got very meddling reviews when it came out, but I am really glad I saw it, and on the big screen. In what ended up being a very lackluster summer for studio movies, World War Z stands out to me as one of the most careful and well crafted of the movies. Sure, it’s a pretty dumb movie, but the more suspenseful sequences are so great, and the sound work out of all things is simply fantastic! The other movie I want to give this title to is The Heat, which is the funniest movie of the year, right? Why isn’t it being talked about as such?
Most Overrated Movie
There are a lot of movies that have been largely praised that I don’t think are that good (Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street), but their detractors have been pretty loud. I decided to use this spot to point at a movie that almost nobody has said anything bad about even if I don’t think it’s very good. See, I like Edgar Wright. I think he’s a hugely talented man, and somewhat of a visionary, but I just don’t get the love for The World’s End, which, granted, was very funny at times and had some pretty cool action sequences, but also went to places that felt really forced and had a disappointingly anticlimactic ending. It’s not a bad movie, I guess I just didn’t get it.
I still can’t believe how much I liked Joe Swamberg’s Drinking Buddies. I have sat through Hannah Takes the Stairs, so no, I wasn’t a big fan of Swamberg. But then I started hearing some pretty good things about his latest movie, and since it starred Jake Johnson (whom I love in New Girl), I decided to give it a try. It was pretty awesome! It’s about Johnson and Olivia Wilde as two friends who are clearly attracted to each other, but don’t know if they should act on it. It does have that “mumblecore” Joe Swamberg feel (I don’t like that word, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if I use it), but also shows a much richer and, frankly, interesting relationship than what he had done before. Also, I’ve been complaining about how Olivia Wilde suddenly became a big celebrity since I had never seen her on anything (except on House), but after watching her chemistry with Johnson in this movie, sign me up for the Olivia Wilde fan club.
I was really excited for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, and for the first fifteen minutes or so, I was at the edge of my seat. The movie does an amazing job of setting up its world, but even if I somewhat appreciated the movie’s ridiculous, but appropriately childish logic (it is, after, a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters), I was hugely, hugely disappointed by the film. It was so poorly executed. The fight scenes were terrible! Everyone one of them took place in the water and/or in the dark, where we couldn’t really see anything; the design of the monster was really lazy, and with a set of cardboard characters and wooden performances at its center, it felt like a higher budget episode of Power Rangers.