With Blue Jasmine earning Woody Allen some his best reviews in years (and at least one critic calling it his best movie ever), I began to reflect on the year so far — and the many wonderful movies that have graced the screen. Although 2013 is becoming known for its costly flops (see: RIPD, The Lone Ranger), it’s been a quietly strong year at the movies. When I catch Blue Jasmine tomorrow, we’ll see where it falls on my list, but for now, this is my unscientific survey of the 2013 movies you should get caught up on, if you aren’t already. (It’s in no particular order, because Beyonce said I can do whatever I want.)
1. Before Midnight
Before Midnight is the best movie of the year and a strong contender for movie of the decade, a film that singlehandedly reinstills your faith in the power of the sequel. Taking place nine years after our last installment, Before Sunset, Before Midnight finds Celine and Jesse as a cohabitating couple raising their two daughters, while away on a summer in Greece. While being as romantic and passionate as its predecessors, Before Midnight adds a heaping helping of myth and tragedy, like a Bergman film for the 21st century. To date, it’s the only time I’ve ever cried at a movie not because I was sad, but because I was so happy to have seen it. I’m quite convinced that it’s the greatest love story we will ever see on cinema. Screw Nicholas Sparks. This is what love is.
Don’t stop at seeing it twice. See it as many times as you can.
2. Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station cleaned up at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. Coming off the heels of great indies like Pariah, Middle of Nowhere and Beasts of the Southern Wild, it feels like a moment for African-American filmmaking — and issue-oriented movies in general. About the shooting of Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station is political without being preachy, a day-in-the-life portrait that humanizes grant without making him into an idealistic caricature. It helps that director Ryan Coogler gets a devastatingly phenomenal performances out of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and The Wire‘s Michael B. Jordan, who recalls a young Denzel Washington. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, Fruitvale Station should be required viewing for every American.
3. Spring Breakers
Still 2013’s biggest surprise, Spring Breakers is a strange kind of masterpiece, Harmony Korine’s look at the ways in which absolute wealth and privilege corrupt absolutely. It’s not a perfect movie (and it’s race politics are questionable), but Korine’s movie is bold and strange in a way that most movies are afraid to be. From using Britney Spears’ “Everytime” in the most haunting sequence of the year to James Franco’s all-in performance, as a drug dealer named “Alien,” the movie goes big all the time. Whether or not it’s to your taste (and I know people who hated it), you can’t say Harmony Korine didn’t make you feel something. It’s pure provocation from an enfant terrible who’s finally coming into his own as a director.
Note: A friend of mine saw it seven times in the theatres. It’s now out on video, so you can watch it seven times at a fraction of the cost. Respect your wallet.
4. Frances Ha
After the bitter pill that was Greenberg, Frances Ha was a needed change of pace for Noah Baumbach, America’s cinema laureate of upper-middle-class absorption. Greta Gerwig (who wrote the script with Baumbach) is spellbinding in the lead role, playing a light-hearted riff on Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath. Stuck in her late twenties, Frances is at that time when you’re supposed to figure yourself out, while everyone else is supposedly getting their shit together. It’s a portrait that’s wonderfully daffy and relatable, showing the same generational sense of character that Baumbach displayed in Kicking and Screaming, still one of his best works. Baumbach will surely go back to tortured intellectuals for his next film, but right now, it’s lovely to see his human side.
5. The Gatekeepers
The Gatekeepers was technically released in 2012, but due to release schedules and such, most of us didn’t see it until this year. Inspired by Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers is one of those documentary films that nothing short of a miracle, a film where you can’t believe that you are actually seeing or hearing these things. A look behind the curtain of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, director Droh Moreh interviews former heads of the Israeli Shin Bet (their version of the CIA) and finds them surprisingly willing to talk about what can only be termed as state-sponsored war crimes. They talk about attacks on the other side with a weird mix of remorse and detachment and describe how, in one subject’s words, Israel created its own form of fascism in order to rid the world of the Nazis. We become like the thing we hate. The result is chilling and incendiary, one of the finest and most thought-provoking documentaries ever made.
6. Side Effects
Most people I know who saw Side Effects didn’t like it as much as I did, and that’s okay, but I think they are dismissing one of the most entertainingly bonkers movies ever made. Some movies, like every James Wan film, go off the rails in their final act. Side Effects spends the entire movie there — like a very long, very twisty episode of Revenge. After a string of cold experiments in form, it’s nice to see Soderbergh kick back and do his best Hitchcock impression, taking pleasure in his ability to fuck with us. You’re held by strings the entire movie, and you know it, but I’ve rarely had so much fun being pulled along for the ride. You might think you know what it’s about, but you don’t.
Also, I’m starting a petition: I want Rooney Mara in every movie. Who’s signing?
7. Pacific Rim
The trailers made Pacific Rim look terrible and many have been quick to label it as a bomb. The premise sounds stupid, but with Guillermo del Toro at the helm, it’s gloriously so. This is what it looks like when a genius directs your blockbuster. Showing the same limitless invention as he did with Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro revisits a number of Hollywood disaster movies from over the years (Godzilla, Independence Day) and fixes all of them. It’s a redemption of the big-budget spectacle and one of the most bizarre and personal films ever made at the studio level. These monsters aren’t metal and CGI to him. They are like Guillermo Del Toro’s children, and that care goes into every frame and detail of the film. It’s absolute pleasure.
8. Room 237
I saw Room 237 twice in the theatres, and I would happily see it again. A documentary about the conspiracy theories behind The Shining, the film is as much a documentary about how we watch movies as the relationships we build with them and how we choose to construct meaning in the universe. Almost every interviewee, some of which feel the film is a confession for Kubrick’s involvement in staging the moon landing, sound totally out of their mind, but they are entertainingly gaga, fascinatingly gaga and transcendently gaga. While being a great behind-the-scenes portrait of a beloved film, Room 237 is a look into the human soul.
If you’ve seen The Cove, you know what you’re getting into here, a movie that’s not just a two-hanky film. Bring the whole box of tissues. Blackfish is a stirring call-to-action on the ocean industrial complex and the ways in which we believe we can control nature for profit. As much as its an expose of Sea World’s brutal and inhumane practices toward its killer whales, it’s a modern Greek tragedy about hubris and it’s costs. While Tillikum floats away in his prison, for crimes that weren’t his fault, it’s hard not to see parallels in the way we treat our own people. Ask yourself: What is society doing for its Tillikums? How would we react if Tillikum were a young white woman? Blackfish doesn’t answer many of its own questions, but it asks important ones worth pondering.
10. The Conjuring
The best mainstream horror film since the original Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring is a brilliant throwback to the horror films of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when they were still making good horror movies. For enthusiasts of the genre, you’ll catch mashed-up bits from The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Birds and Last House on the Left, among many others, and it’s one of the few horror films around that rewards your intelligence. Director James Wan shows an understanding of the genre and it’s mise-en-scene, and his sets and camerawork are seamless as his work with actors. Wan proves why Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are two of the best actresses of their generation, as two mothers who want the best for their respective families. Taylor in particular goes beyond the call of duty in a physical performance reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ turn in The Impossible. She’ll never get nominated for anything for it, ever, but Taylor has never been better — and neither has the film’s director. I can’t wait to see what James Wan does next.
11. The Way, Way Back
Like a pleasant blend of Little Miss Sunshine, The Descendants and Adventureland, The Way, Way Back is something that we’ve seen a hundred time before on film, but we rarely see it done so well. Written and directed by Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who penned The Descendants), I expected to roll my eyes at it, but the film charmed the pants off of me. The whole cast is terrific — particularly Toni Collette, who again proves that she’s the most underrated actress in Hollywood — and the film is brutally honest about the struggles of being an awkward adolescent. Fox Searchlight is marketing it as the next Little Miss Sunshine (because they really want to make fetch happen again), and for once, I’m fine with that.
12. This Is The End
One of this summer’s quietest sleeper hits (currently approaching $100 million) will go down as it’s best party, a film that isn’t just in the Judd Apatow mold. It’s frankly better than most of the movies that Apatow himself directed. A goofy look at Hollywood narcissism, the film portrays the end of the world through the eyes of Seth Rogen and his friends, as they take shelter in James Franco’s house. All of the actors play themselves, and what could be a circle jerk ends up as a biting satire and an immensely clever arsenal of in-jokes. Special props go to Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling and Michael Cera, who steal the movie in their too-short cameos. I never thought I’d say this, but coked-out Michael Cera will be the funniest thing I see in a movie this year.
13. What Maisie Knew
By the guys who directed The Deep End, What Maisie Knew is the best and most heartbreaking look at divorce I’ve seen onscreen in some time. Adapted from the Henry James novel, the film is told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl whose parents recently split up, and directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee smartly use point-of-view shots to show the world from her eyes. Julianne Moore again proves herself one of cinema’s most versatile actresses as her self-obsessed rocker mother, and Steve Coogan is his usual brittle self as her British father, who quickly gets remarried to Maisie’s nanny. It’s a brutal examination of the damage we do in the name of love and the families we create when our own parents don’t leave us with many other options.
14. Stories We Tell
I have to say: I was lied to about this movie. When I initially was told about the premise, I heard that Stories We Tell was about the backstory of Away From Her, Sarah Polley’s 2006 directorial debut. Much to my surprise, the film was about something even better, Polley’s search for her own biological father, a documentary less Jerry Springer than Capturing the Friedmans, but without all the rape. It’s a film about how we understand truth and separate fact from fiction, and like Man on Wire, Polley uses staged footage with actors to recreate her mother’s life. It’s all done so well that at first, I had a difficult time telling which footage was real and which wasn’t. For a first time documentarian, Polley proves herself a born storyteller, a filmmaker with a bright future in cinema.
I haven’t seen any of these yet. Some of them aren’t out in Chicago as of now (#SOON), and some of them are the unfortunate casualties of the fact that I don’t have an infinite amount of money to spend on movies. Oh, how I wish I did. Thus, I can’t personally recommend them, but these are the movies my friends have been bugging me to see.
Preface: I know I’m a terrible Joss Whedon fan, but BILLS.
1. Much Ado About Nothing
3. The Evil Dead
4. 20 Feet From Stardom
6. Drug War
7. The Spectacular Now
8. Computer Chess
Readers, what 2013 movies did you love? Were you way into The Bling Ring? Were you smitten with To the Wonder? Did World War Z surprise you? Sound off in the comments.