American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis referred to 2013 as, “the most disposable year for movies.” I, personally, would disagree; although it should be recognized that by no means was 2013 a strong year for cinema. We were given half-baked franchise films, overblown biopics, and a consistent stream of duds. But beneath the vapid surface that cinema had to offer last year, there were some genuinely great films.
The Coen Brothers’ Oscar-snubbed drama Inside Llewyn Davis, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, and Noah Baumbach’s straight-to-Criterion feature Frances Ha were some of the most impressive to come out this past year, perhaps due to taking a different approach and concentrating narratives on difficult-to-root-for characters. The World’s End and This is the End proved that there’s still some worth to big budget comedies, but both failed to crack my own personal top ten for the year.
That begs the question, what were the top ten films of the year? On the majority of critics’ lists you’ll see the predictable Oscar-bait line up. Film criticism, over time, has become less vital, as it’s become increasingly obvious that critics assert an agenda prior to reviewing movies.
2013 should be known as the year that broke the film criticism aggregator RottenTomatoes. Scatterbrained disappointments landed themselves high, in the 70% to 90% range, while some of the most interesting, thought-provoking movies fell between the 40% to 60% region. As a society that promotes freedom of expression and development of originality, why do we only herald safe filmmaking and condemn explorative storytelling?
I watched close to 200 films in 2013, without any pre-viewing bias, and came to the conclusion that the following ten movies were the best to come out during that twelve-month span. So without further ado, let me kick off the list with a sleeper hit starring Scott Pilgrim’s Brie Larson…
10. SHORT TERM 12 (directed by Destin Cretin, starring Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.)
Short Term 12 is an American drama film starring Brie Larson and The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr. as Grace and Mason, two 20somethings that work at a temporary foster care facility. Besides being beautifully shot and featuring some of the year’s best acting, Short Term 12 manages to hit all the right beats, producing a warm, compelling film reminiscent of David Gordon Green’s early work.
09. ROOM 237 (directed by Rodney Ascher, starring Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks)
On paper, a documentary (which essentially serves as a commentary track over an edited version of The Shining) about people discussing their theories on Kubrick’s masterful horror film doesn’t seem all that interesting. Yet in spite of that, Ascher manages to reel his audience in with some fascinating and downright absurd concepts rattled off by people who should either be applauded for their speculation or locked away because of it. This is a movie all about observation, and how one’s observation is never entirely outright unbiased despite what they’d would have you believe. The commentary itself is not about The Shinning, but about humans and what they look for in art.
Sidenote, I’m hoping Rodney Ascher contacts me when he does a follow up on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
08. BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon)
This biopic on the relationship between the late Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is one of the most unlikely hits to have come out this year. Michael Douglas’s turn as Liberace may just be the single best male performance of the year. Also be sure to look out for a near-unrecognizable Rob Lowe, who nearly steals the show as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz.
07. THE HUNT (directed by Thomas Vinterberg, starring Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen)
The Hunt is, without a doubt, the single hardest movie to watch to come out of 2013 due to its subject matter. Mads Mikkelsen gives a brilliant performance as Lucas, a man who’s been wrongly accused of molesting his best friend’s daughter. The subject matter is heavy and speaks largely on society’s seemingly natural addiction to judge from an outside perspective. Rather than sitting back when an accusation is made and waiting for evidence to point one way or the other, we as a people immediately side with the accuser, and to not do so is considered ‘victim blaming.’ Vinterberg showcases the unspeakably truth of the matter; that sometimes people are confused, or lie, and the result is disastrous for the person facing accusation, as there is no fixable solution to rid one’s self of the stigma, even after being found innocent. Mikkelsen’s performance easily makes Lucas the most sympathetic film character in recent memory and it should be recognized as one of the most powerful of the past year.
06. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender)
12 Years a Slave is a big contender to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year and there is a reason for that. McQueen’s third directorial outing is his best, having learned from his few errors when making Hunger and Shame, and the results are impeccable. Ejiofor, like Mads Mikkelsen above, gives one hell of a sympathetic performance as Solomon Northup, a free man that is captured and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender, at times, is genuinely frightening as the sociopathic slave owner Edwin Epps. Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsey is heartbreaking to watch and her performance nearly trumps the rest of this powerhouse cast. 12 Years a Slave manages to be visually beautiful while tackling an uncomfortable subject; you can’t help but be dazzled while feeling hopeless. But what McQueen does best here is highlight the many facets of racism during the period through his characters. While others may be praising Alfonso Cuarón for his spectacle Gravity, McQueen, in my opinion, has earned his spot as the Best Director of the year.
05. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling and Vithaya Pansringarm)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to the 2011 smash hit Drive stunned audiences and left them divided at Cannes. And understandably so. This movie is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those that are not bothered by the obvious Lynchian influence and heavy focus on image-based storytelling, a euphemism for parent/child relations and the importance of severing ones’ self from their upbringing and history will be found and marveled at. Only God Forgives is certainly more reminiscent of Refn’s financial flop Fear X than it is of Drive, but in many ways Forgives is, indeed, a sister-film to Drive; perhaps even a negative image of it. Although Ryan Gosling headlines the film as Julian, a borderline-sociopathic boxing gym owner stationed in Thailand, the film’s villains make this movie a must-see. Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Crystal, Julian’s mother, cannot be missed and Vithaya Pansringarm as the God-like Chang is one of the most intimidating screen characters to come out of the past ten years. Truthfully, it’s astounding that Thomas hasn’t received any nominations for her go as Crystal, but that’s Hollywood politics I suppose.
04. HER (directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams)
Her may just be the most heartbreaking film of the year. Despite focusing on the relationship between a human, Theodor (Joaquin Phoenix), and a computer, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), Spike Jonze’s latest feature manages to be one of the most realistic on screen portrayals ever of the collapse of a relationship. Blue is the Warmest Color, also, succeeds at effectively breaking the audience’s heart along with its characters but unlike Blue, Her offers, along with it, a simultaneously bleak and fascinating view of the not-so-distant future. After a couple of misfires, and being one of the few highlights of Paul Thomas Anderson’s over-bloated The Master, Phoenix has returned to form and Her proves that he is one of the best actors working.
03. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill)
The Wolf of Wall Street plays both as a satire and unskewed adaption of the life of multi-millionaire Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). This may just be DiCaprio’s finest performance of his career. The same could easily be said about Jonah Hill, who plays the scummy, veneer-wearing broker Donnie Azoff. Every actor brought their A-game to the table. Scorsese produces 2 hours and 59 minutes of filmmaking that somehow fly by and keep viewers glued despite the extensive runtime. There is not a single dull moment in the movie.
02. SPRING BREAKERS (directed by Harmony Korine, starring James Franco and Vanessa Hudgins)
Spring Breakers is a largely misunderstood film. When it came out, people didn’t know what to make of it. Advertised as a poppy mesh of Disney network starlets and the deep Florida south, teenagers flocked to the theater to see what they expected to be an absurd comedy. I can still remember the bewilderment on the audience’s faces as the movie ended and the theater’s lights went on. I, on the other hand, left the theater wowed by Harmony Korine’s ability to make a semi-commercial, incredibly bizarre art house film. I was even more wowed by James Franco’s performance as Alien, the ‘gangster with a heart of gold.’ His Riff Raff-esque character is undeniably the most memorable to appear on film this year. At its core, Spring Breakers is a brilliant social commentary on the generation of today and its priorities. It’s the ultimate gag on its primary audience; a practical joke on the young theater-goers expecting a fun time full of guns and bikinis. That’s where the movie ultimately excels and turns a ‘good’ film into one of the most important of the decade. Harmony Korine disguised an after-school special as a sleek, stylish parody to convey a lesser-seen, yet completely valid, truth to the most easily influenced members of the general public.
01. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (directed by Derek Cianfrance, starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper)
It genuinely surprises me that this movie went unnoticed by the majority of moviegoers. Derek Cianfrance’s sleeper hit The Place Beyond the Pines, on paper, seems like a difficult movie to not only execute but also successfully pitch to studio executives. Essentially it’s a three-act film in which all three of the acts exist within themselves—it’s an ongoing saga where we’re introduced to different characters every 40 minutes.
The first act, focused on motorcycle stuntman “Handsome” Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) and his bank robbing partner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) is not only the strongest and most enthralling of the three acts, but also the most fun. Gosling and Mendelsohn have an odd, undeniable chemistry and the two bounce off one another well. Mendelsohn’s Robin says it best, “Not since Hall & Oates has there been such a team.” It makes you want the entire movie to be about these two and their adventures in bank robbing.
The second act concentrates on Bradley Cooper’s politically-minded, law enforcing character Avery. This portion is all about Avery dealing with his demons and resisting the temptation put forth by the crooked, fellow officer Peter DeLuca (Ray Liotta.) It’s probably the weakest entry of the film, but even so it’s compelling every step of the way.
The final act is entirely about Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan), now a teenager, and his relationship with Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen.) Some of the movie’s most heartbreaking moments occur here and the two young actors’ abilities shine quite well through Cianfrance’s direction.
Both incredibly entertaining and thoroughly profound, Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature about family and relationships, I suspect, will prove itself a classic in time.