Well, here we are again. For yet another year, time continued its inexorable march towards an unknown destination, dragging us all a little further to the inevitable end of all things.
Well, maybe that’s a bit grim. In all honesty, 2013 was a fantastic year for film. Making this list was much more difficult than it’s been in past years. When movies are as good as the ones on this list, it’s hard to rank them. Eventually I found an order that I was comfortable with, but the top 8 or 9 films are mostly interchangeable.
Quick disclaimer: Obviously, this list just represents my opinions. The rankings come from a mix of unbiased critique and personal preference. I’m not saying that this is a definitive list of the best movies in 2013. This is based on the movies that I saw and what I got out of them. I’ve also included links to my full reviews of the films, if I wrote them, plus my reviews on Letterboxd. They’re pretty brief, but they represent my immediate thoughts after seeing the film. Anyway, on with the show.
I’ll start with some honorable mentions. I enjoyed all of these films, but they didn’t quite make the cut. They’re in no particular order.
Now, onto the list.
“No, no, no, Houston, don’t be anxious. Anxiety is bad for the heart.”
I went back and forth on this film a lot. When I was making the list, it changed positions more than any other film. I think it’s marred by some script issues, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example in 2013 of cinema’s unique capabilities as an artistic medium. Gravity could only ever be a movie. It uses cinema’s abilities to full effect to both tell its story and create a truly immersive audience experience. I’d like to see books do that! Haha, take that books!
14) Computer Chess
“Computers are gonna start dating each other?”
This movie baffled me when I first watched it, and even months later I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s much more stylistic and surreal than it initially lets on, and by the time those elements started to appear I had already been pulled in by the film’s oddball sense of humor and fun characters. So while I’m not totally confident that I have a grasp on what Computer Chess is doing, I still love it. You don’t see this kind of movie all that often, so when the next one comes along, be sure to pay close attention.
13) This Is The End
“I don’t want to die at James Franco’s house.”
I can’t believe this movie is on the list. It’s so unlike any of the other films here. And yet I can’t bring myself to take it off. I had so much fun with this movie. I laughed like a lunatic. I wouldn’t even call it all that clever or smart. It’s not making any important “point,” it doesn’t use comedy to reveal some deep thematic truth about the human condition. It didn’t have to. All it had to do was be funny, and it more than delivered on that front. Not to mention the fact that the premise is really original and they don’t waste it. Everything that they can do, they do. If that means a direct remake of a scene from Rosemary’s Baby followed by an elaborate homage to The Exorcist, by god they’re going to put it on screen. It’s a film without limitations that went as far as it wanted to without being crushed under its own ambition. And it’s funny. More importantly, it’s funny.
12) Prince Avalanche
“Sometimes I can do things that can’t really happen.”
I watched this movie on a train. I just wanted something to pass the time on a long trip to D.C. I wasn’t expecting to be as engrossed as I was. Prince Avalanche is the play that Samuel Beckett never wrote, as directed by Terrence Malick. It’s a peculiar meditation on loneliness and loyalty, and Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch really sell those themes. They play against each other surprisingly well. I wish I could see more of these two. They reminded me a lot of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, or Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as written by Tom Stoppard.) Maybe you’re thinking that it’s silly to compare this film to such revered works of literature, but I stand by it.
No other reviews. | Watch on Netflix
11) Side Effects
“It doesn’t make you anything you’re not. It just makes it easier for you to be who you are.”
This film really knocked my socks off, and not just as a result of plotting. Like the best mysteries, Side Effects is intricately constructed, such that every detail matters, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Soderbergh keeps the plot close to his chest, but he lets the audience on to what he’s doing directorally early on. This film is a blatant Hitchcock homage, right down to certain shots/scenes being direct references to Hitchcock films. When you do something like that, you’d better have the talent to back it up, or else you’ll come off as a pale imitation. We don’t need more proof of Soderbergh’s talent as a director at this point, so this film only serves as reinforcement. It’s an engaging thriller with some surprising storytelling.
“He just believes what people tell him.”
If there’s one thing that surprised me about this film, it’s how sweet it is. Alexander Payne movies aren’t known for their sentimentality. And for every scene of bitterness and bickering between the main characters, the conclusion left me feeling pretty good. It might be too neat, though. The “bad” people get their comeuppance, and the “good” people get what they wanted. Of course, that’s on a pretty small scale. Nothing ever happens that couldn’t believably happen in a small Nebraskan town. Payne makes that town feel so much bigger by including so many interesting side characters. No individual element of the film is exceptional, but when put together they become more than the sum of their parts.
9) Short Term 12
“There is no way not to tell this right. It is a storyteller’s wet dream.”
When people say that a movie is “realistic,” what they usually mean is that it’s believable. They’re saying that the film never did anything that violated its own logic. Short Term 12 is a realistic movie. Every inch of it feels authentic. The filmmakers imbue the film with plenty of details (presumably from personal experience) about the world they’re depicting, but it never feels like they’re showing off. These details support the story, they don’t suffocate it. And it’s all brought together by Brie Larson, who makes a closed-off character totally compelling. There aren’t many films on this list which I’d recommend to anyone, but I truly think that you’ll fall in love with Short Term 12 no matter who you are.
8) Blue is the Warmest Color
“I have infinite tenderness for you, and I will my whole life.”
Speaking of falling in love, here’s the best romance of the year, and perhaps many years. What really struck me about Blue is the Warmest Color is how respectful it is to its lead characters. Their story, of love gained and lost, isn’t exclusive to them, but the film doesn’t reduce them to allegory. They aren’t vague stand-ins being used to make a universal statement about love. They are people, and they act the way that people do. It turns out to be less of a traditional love story and more of a character study. We see every single aspect of the lead character’s life. There’s nothing held back, which is why we get those explicit sex scenes which were so controversial. The lead performance by Adele Exarchopoulos was extraordinary, and if nothing else the film will hopefully launch her into the spotlight.
7) Frances Ha
“FREE CHAIR: Totally normal, really. Didn’t fit in storage space. Needs a home.”
This movie makes me smile. Even when things get depressing, you can’t help but enjoy simply spending time with the title character. Greta Gerwig’s performance as Frances is brilliant because of how endearing she makes the character. If you don’t love Frances, you won’t be on board with the movie. But after seeing scenes of her dancing through the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” or running out of a date to go to an ATM so that she can pay the bill, I don’t see how anyone couldn’t love her. Characters don’t have to be “likable” to be “good,” but both Frances and Frances Ha are, so it doesn’t hurt.
6) The Wolf of Wall Street
“I’m never eating at Benihana again. I don’t care whose birthday it is.”
By depicting disgusting debauchery the likes of which have never been put on screen before, Scorsese smartly satirizes American excess. And yeah, it is a satire. Sorry, but there’s no cogent or worthwhile argument to the contrary. There’s no way to watch this movie and not think otherwise. It’s right there, plain as day. What’s so great about The Wolf of Wall Street is that Scorsese doesn’t spoon-feed you his message. He makes you come to the conclusion yourself, at which point you think, “Hey, this guy totally got away with it and that’s not okay. He doesn’t directly draw a line to the financial disasters of the past several years, but he shouldn’t have to. He’s the kind of filmmaker who assumes that his audience is as smart as him. He doesn’t run slower so that people can catch up to him. That’s what makes him a true master, and it’s what makes The Wolf of Wall Street one of his best efforts in a long time.
Letterboxd Review | Full Review To Come
5) All Is Lost
If there’s a theme to my list – or to cinema in general – in 2013, it’s that less is more. Unless you’re Wolf of Wall Street, but when you’re making a movie about excess…never mind. Anyway, All Is Lost hangs its whole fate on its lack of dialogue. It makes sense that the main (and sole) character would rarely speak, but there’s a fine line between the film that we got and 90 minutes of an old man fixing a boat. Part of that is director J.C. Chandor, who stages a conflict that is both elemental and internal. The other part, and the major one, is Robert Redford, who shows up nearly every other actor in the world with his work here. He communicates everything you need to know while technically showing you nothing. Chandor and Redford are a perfect pair. While Redford strips down the craft of acting to its barest bones, Chandor mounts perhaps the simplest story in the history of stories. Redford fights nature, he struggles with himself, and based on how you interpret that ending, he might even face God. This is filmmaking and storytelling with all the fat trimmed off, and it turns out you don’t really need all that extra stuff after all.
4) 12 Years a Slave
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
I actually covered this film extensively in a review for Movie Fail, so I’ll keep it brief. Suffice to say it’s a very well-made picture that takes a unique approach to material that’s been covered many of times by many artists. Instead of shoving what it wants you to feel down your throat, it presents an image of slavery that’s free of any emotion. The film isn’t going to let you get away with that. You’re going to have a strong reaction to what you’re seeing, but those feelings have to come from you or it’s cheap manipulation. It’s actually not unlike The Wolf of Wall Street in its approach to its audience.
Letterboxd Review | Full Review (this was written for Movie Fail, which is under maintenance in advance of its re-launch. I’ll add the link when the site comes back.)
3) Upstream Color
“I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”
“To hell with traditional narrative!” is the battle cry of Upstream Color, and it charged its way right into my brain. I don’t like Shane Carruth’s previous film, Primer, regardless of its intriguing time-travel methodology and complex plotting. I felt like he became so focused on the technical aspects of the script that he forgot to actually write a movie. After seeing Upstream Color, I got the impression that this is the sort of thing he was going for. The way that the film floats along, with every cut feeling smooth and natural, was revelatory. It really does play like a dream, and it operates on dream logic most of the time. There is a coherent plot in there, but I certainly didn’t make sense of it on the first viewing. But that’s not what this film is about. Carruth wants you to feel more than think. Even if I didn’t understand what I was watching, I understood the emotions of the scene and of the characters. It’s like the film’s tagline says: “You can force your story’s shape but the color will always bloom upstream.” By removing the restraints of traditional structure, Carruth lets the truth of the story come to the forefront. I wish that more movies were brave enough to be like this. Carruth twists and molds all the rules of cinema in order to create something totally new. And it always will be new, which is the really amazing thing. Its images will be burned into my brain for quite some time, and Upstream Color will hopefully be remembered for longer.
2) The Act of Killing
“War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”
I watched this film with my mouth agape. At first, I was shocked at its frank exploration of the banality of evil. You don’t see a lot of media confront this issue so bluntly, and you see it even less frequently in documentaries. You don’t just hear about the horrific acts that the film’s subjects committed. They tell you personally. They’re proud of their murders. And they’re excited to recreate them for the sake of a movie. Director Joshua Oppenheimer is not afraid to dig as deep as possible into the psyches of these people. When the film ended, my jaw was still on the floor, but not for all the reasons I just mentioned. I knew that there was going to be in-depth analysis of how people convince themselves to kill other people. But Oppenheimer goes further. See, the executioners that he follows started out as gangsters who would scalp movie tickets. They loved movies. They agree to be part of the film because they’re so attracted to the idea of being on-screen. The film’s most stunning moment comes at the end, when you realize why Oppenheimer made this film in the first place. These people have spent so many years rationalizing their moral atrocities that they cannot comprehend another viewpoint. Unless, that is, they see it in a movie. They could not empathize with their victims in real life, but once those victims became characters, they began to understand. The film is called The Act of Killing, but it’s less about the act itself than what comes after. It’s not, “How does a human being kill another?” It’s, “How does a human being live with themselves after killing another?” Yes, it’s hard to watch at times. But you should watch it. You won’t get any answers, but you’ll come away, as Coleridge once wrote, “a sadder and a wiser man.”
And my Number One film of 2013 is…
Yeah, yeah, I know. I was really struggling with whether or not to do this after seeing Her, but I loved both films so much that I couldn’t put one above the other. They’re similar in a lot of ways, though. Both films approach the idea of human interaction, and they do so through protagonists who are unable to connect with other people. Hell, there are shots of Llewyn and Theodore that are framed very similarly, with the directors using very wide shots and placing the main character in the very bottom in order to emphasize their isolation. They’re both brilliant films. I couldn’t choose.
“Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
I can’t possibly sum up my feelings about this film in just a paragraph, but I’ll try. It’s a perfect balance of the intellectual treats that characterized Spike Jonze’s early career and his recent films which have been more focused on emotion. Her makes you think just as much as it makes you feel, and that’s really the magical thing about it. Of course, there’s also the fully-realized world in which the story takes place. There are so many details inserted about this not-too-distant future, but the ridiculousness of them isn’t played for laughs. Nothing in this film feels like it couldn’t happen a couple years from now. Everything from the production design to the way that people talk and act is plausible, and you can see a clear throughline from today to this future. There’s so much going on in this film. It’s lovely.
Letterboxd Review | Full Review To Come
1) Inside Llewyn Davis
“‘Llewyn is the cat,’ got it.”
I wrote one of the most glowing reviews I’ve ever written for this film, so this probably isn’t an unexpected choice. If you’d like my thoughts on the film, I strongly encourage you to read my full review. I can’t fully recap all my thoughts here. It’s about as perfect as movies get. I find myself thinking about it a lot, even weeks after having seen it. Everything that I love about cinema is in Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s the kind of film you want to dive inside and just let it completely surround you, and I look forward to watching it again so I can do just that.