And now the end is near and so we face the final curtain. It’s the 20 best movies released in 2013. Only a month and a half into the next year! Hooray! No new additions, so let’s get to the list. As always, an asterisk next to the title means I saw it in theaters and every title will link to my full review. Let’s do this.
20. Europa Report
Europa Report didn’t get as much press as that other space movie, nor is it quite as groundbreaking as it, but it is a remarkably well made low budget thriller that highlights the excitement of going to space and exploring and discovering through a well-cast crew and a clever found footage conceit. That particular genre isn’t dead as long as filmmakers continue to write and direct movies as smart and interesting as this one, which uses stationary mini-cameras attached to the spaceship in addition to helmet-cams in addition to interviews done after the fact that sell this as a both a documentary and exciting space film. It’s available on Netflix Instant, so go watch it tonight.
19. Thor: The Dark World *
Thor is a great character, especially as acted by Chris Hemsworth, and I’ll happily continue to pay for films that feature the character in any way. He’s probably the best of the first wave of Marvel characters, though I’m super excited to see what Paul Rudd and Edgar Wright do with Ant Man. Anyways, this movie is really fun, probably in the top 3 of all the Marvel movies so far thanks to continuing awesomeness from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and the rest of the supporting cast. It looks good and Asgard is a hilariously over the top location that still works in the context of the rest of the film and the wider Marvel Universe.
Rush was a surprise for me. I’m not big into F1 or anything, and the prospect of a late era Ron Howard film wasn’t very appealing. It’s just another example of why expectations are dumb, and more proof than anything can be good. This one is helped along by a great script that pits the two main characters against each other both on and off the track and turns them into metaphors for two distinct styles of people, the head and the heart. Chris Hemsworth (again!) does a great job at being the heart, playing up the playboy nature of the man he’s being, and Daniel Brühl does an equally well with the super racing nerd who’s more technician than racer. It’s a fantastic story told with style and speed that really impressed me.
17. The Way, Way Back
This coming of age movie starts strong and continues its hot streak right through the emotional climax. It’s got a great cast to help it along, Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette and Steve Carell and Allison Janney are all wonderful as the adults surrounding the young boy at the center of the film. It’s funny and sweet and kinda sad, as these films are supposed to be. It’s an all around winner and it would have been higher in any other year, it just had the unfortunate luck to be released in 2013.
Again, if it weren’t for that other space movie, I would confidently state that Stoker has the best sound of 2013. Mia Wasikowska has a strange hyper-alert nature that translates to the audience as hearing the rustles of a spider’s steps or the whispers of fingers playing a piano. The story is super weird, which isn’t surprising given the director’s previous films (Oldboy and the weirder, better Thirst) but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this gothic romance/drama/family feud thing the movie has going on. It’s not quite horror, but it gets close once in a while.
15. Captain Phillips
A career best performance from Tom Hanks drives this film, or is that captains? Anyway, he’s amazing throughout, giving life to the character, based on a real person who may or may not have been as heroic as he is here but also who cares about that. What matters is his journey in this film, poked and pulled along by Barkhad Abdi’s scary but human pirate, he saves his crew while being absolutely terrified. The last scene, though, is the high point. Maybe of the year, certainly of Hanks’ career so far. More of this, please.
14. The Conjuring *
Maybe the worst criticism of this film is also its selling point. It’s a throwback horror film, set in the 70s and using a lot of cliches of the time to get us all scared. Of course, if you’re a horror fan like me that’s liable to get your butt in the seat because movies like this “just aren’t made anymore.” Except, of course they are. The Conjuring is really really good, super scary and well acted. James Wan fulfills his promise as a director steeped in the old ideas and not afraid to bring them into new light. See the upside down shot for example, or the clapping game that forms the film’s scariest scene. Nearly everything works.
13. Short Term 12
Brie Larson. Pay attention to her. If the movie gods are benevolent she’ll be our next Jennifer Lawrence. She anchors this film in every sense of the term, bringing a weight to the role and forming the perfect center for the other characters to revolve around. Like few other roles this year she feels like a fully formed character, one which lives on after the camera stops filming. The movie serves her well, too, a small but important story about a group of young adults who run a short term foster care facility. The sense of community built in a short time is well observed and the dramatic shifts in tone are believable given the kinds of people the film deals with.
12. Her *
While it’s not quite as successful as I wanted and hoped it would be, it’s still a fascinating film full of futurism and flights of fancy that, thanks to Spike Jonze’s trademark melancholy, still manage to feel grounded in human folly and passion. Joaquin Phoenix reminds us that he can be funny in addition to his super intense mode and the movie works well as a romantic comedy thanks to the wonderful chemistry between him and Scarlett Johansson’s voice. The movie’s sci-fi ideas drive it and are actually its most interesting elements, especially its thoughts about the evolution of artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the rest of us lowly meatbags.
11. Evil Dead *
This may be blasphemy, but this is for sure the best Evil Dead film. Fede Alvarez avoids Sam Raimi’s loud silliness and instead opts for gore punctuated by wit and seeded with actual emotional weight. Unlike any of the three Raimi films, I actually cared about what happened to the people here and what kinds of horrible fates awaited them. There’s a clever drug addiction metaphor that carries throughout to the climax, 20 minutes of intense action and character development. Alvarez doesn’t just overload the gore, either, he gives it mass thanks to the confident camera work and well-thought-out use of space and frame. It’s not just a great horror movie, it’s a great movie.
10. Frances Ha
Count Frances Ha among the year’s surprises, and maybe the best in that category. Another strong woman carries it as Greta Gerwig flops and flounders around New Bohemia searching for something that will force her to grow up, whether she’s conscious of that or not. She’s a fount of charisma and we forgive her self-indulgence and general aloofness because we see that they’re coping mechanisms more than real facets of her character. The movie looks great, too, using black and white photography to give it a certain timeless feeling and a growing melancholic malaise (the Paris scene is special and so sad).
9. Gravity *
How much does the theater experience matter? A Great Deal, I’d say, and this is case study number one in that respect. I can’t imagine the movie working as well as it did for me in IMAX 3D at home, even on my pretty large TV. Nowhere outside a theater will you experience the enormity of the emptiness of space or the silence punctuated by cracks and bangs afforded by speakers bigger than I am. It’s proof positive that movies are meant to be seen as big and loud as you can get, or at least that some are. Oh, and it’s a pretty awesome movie, too. Alfonso Cuaron gets space, the axis-less void in which his camera floats and plays so delightfully. The movie is soft on the characterization and plot, big on the experience and action, and that’s fine. The final moments are spectacular, a shift from the weightlessness of the rest of the film that grounds the moment in something wonderful.
8. The Hunt
A call to compassion in the face of potential tragedy that works largely thanks to the always great Mads Mikkelsen. Here he swaps out of being uber evil on Hannibal (also awesome) and into being a normal loner who gets accused of some very bad things. What’s terrifying is the small town’s reaction to the accusation, turning instantly on a man who got respect if not friendship from most of the inhabitants of the town. It’s a horror film with no supernatural scenes and no real scenes of peril. It’s just so scary that things like this happen.
7. Upstream Color
The other big surprise of the year came from a place I’d written off long ago. Shane Carruth gave us the horribly boring Primer and followed it up all these years later with a totally great, engaging and emotional sci-fi film. Color me impressed. It’s still obtuse and there are parts of it I’m not sure I get even these months later, but the emotional through-line provided by the relationship between Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (though next time around he might want to keep behind the camera, he’s fine but nothing special) is what kept my interest even in those scenes of a weird guy collecting sounds to play to his pen of drugged pigs who are psychically connected to the main characters among others. It’s pretty as all get out, too, much more aesthetically pleasing than the fluorescent bore that was Primer. Keep improving, Carruth, and I’ll have to call you one of the best directors of our time.
6. Pacific Rim ***
Yeah, I saw Pacific Rim three times in theaters. Get over it! It’s nothing new or groundbreaking. It’s not even especially deep, there are some brother things and some global hand-hold-y ideas but it’s really the giant robots killing giant monsters that get my gears going. Guillermo del Toro is really good at the monster thing and the machine thing, so it only makes sense that he is able to imbue these creatures and creations with weight and thoroughly designed mechanics so that they feel real. These aren’t Michael Bay’s flimsy Transformers, they’re actual objects that have mass and momentum and flaws. The middle fight is a masterpeice of increasing awesomeness and just as you think del Toro has outdone himself he proves it’s only the beginning of his imagination. It’s not as moving as Pan’s Labyrinth or as funny as Hellboy, but it is what it is: super cool and too much fun.
5. The World’s End **
The first of two trilogy-enders to appear in this top 5 is really really funny. This is, of course, not at all surprising given the other two films in the thematic trilogy written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (who also directs), Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The World’s End packs the biggest emotional punch of the three as Pegg plays the loser character surrounded by incredulous childhood friends that have out grown his antics until he comes around again for one last go that gets interrupted by, well, the end of the world. It’s a friendship movie, an addiction movie, a sci-fi movie. It’s all things to all people, but most of all it’s really really funny.
4. The Act of Killing *
This is probably the highest a documentary has ever gotten on my year end lists. It’s not that big a shock either, since the movie is totally crazy. It gives some of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of the mid sixties a space to recreate their crimes against humanity using cheap make up and real fire. They think that they’re making a movie glorifying their actions but the documentary proves only that they’re totally messed up people. They rationalize much of their crimes and the wanton destruction of life with blithe comments about the cool bad guys in Hollywood movies whom they were just imitating. They’re no Elvis, though, as the film gets increasingly squishy and gross and terrifying. There’s a scene towards the end which shows that these recreations aren’t just harmless exercises, either, and that old wounds still hurt. It’s fascinating and frightening.
3. Before Midnight *
And here’s the other trilogy ender coming in at a fitting third best film of the year. It’s been another nine years since Before Sunset and Jesse and Celine are together (but not married) with two adorable kids of their own. That’s not to say all is well. After a few opening scenes the movie again settles into a long conversation that takes place as they walk around an idyllic European town and eventually in a hotel room. The philosophical debates return as well, this time grounded in discussions of what’s best for their kids (and Jesse’s own boy, whom he’s living far away from). As a child of divorce myself, I really connected with Jesse’s kid, seen only in the opening scene but used as a tool in the arguments later on, and through him cared even more about what happened between these two than I did last time around. The movie ends a little too unambiguously. A cut to black thirty seconds earlier would have been perfect and set us up for another installment nine years from now. I still hope it happens.
2. 12 Years a Slave *
Let’s talk about long takes, shall we? Steve McQueen has grown a bit of a reputation for using them in his films, from the 20 odd minute conversation with a locked down camera filming from the side in Hunger to the numerous examples here he’s confident in his control of a scene and a shot. Some are used to highlight the inhuman terror of a scene, as in the shot which sees Solomon (played expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanged from a tree with only inches of his feet squirming in the mud, while others demonstrate his disconnect from the slaves around him until he just can’t stand the sadness of his situation and begins to sing along with their rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll”. It’s a technique that he returns to just after that scene as Solomon stands in the middle of a field at sunset and looks into the distance until he turns and glances at the camera, acknowledging the history of slavery and his place in it. And of course, there’s the climax, an act of violence that shocks even more than it might thanks to McQueen’s boldly unblinking camera.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis *
That’s everything. 99 in total, at the time of this publishing. Follow me on Letterboxd to see what I think of the upcoming films from 2014 (one is already top 100 potential) and the latecomers to the 2013 party and everything else I watch. I’ll go back and edit the previous entries in this list so that it’s a continuous number sequence and put the addons back in place, plus I’ll put links to each section on the Lists page. See the whole list at Letterboxd here and see how many you still have to catch up with. Leave a comment here or there about what I got right and what I got wrong and if there’s anything I missed (probably some foreign stuff and a doc or two). And finally, stay tuned to this channel because there’s a lot more content coming in 2014 than there was in 2013 including potentially a read-along of Infinite Jest and some things that I haven’t even thought of yet.