Monday, January 13, 2014

Best Films of 2013

2013 was another great year for movies! Although the usual qualifier, that you wouldn't necessarily know it based on the films that received heavy marketing, remains as true as ever. There were only a handful of big-budget blockbuster entertainments that really stood out for me (Gravity, American Hustle), but this was a great year for American independent films (comedies that I actually thought were funny!) and foreign character studies.

Last year I kept holding off on a top films of 2012 post until I'd seen more, resulting in the list never getting done. I'm not going to make the same mistake this year, so expect there to be a few gaps. I did see about 50 2013 releases, but I haven't yet gotten to Her, The Past, The Act of Killing, Beyond the Hills, Dallas Buyer's Club, Captain Phillips, The Wind Rises, The Wolf of Wallstreet, At Berkley and many others.

Anyway, here is my list for 2013:

Runners Up: Wadjda, Side Effects, The World's End, Drug War, All Is Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Kohlhaas, Blackfish, Europa Report, Ernest & Celestine, Philomena, Frozen, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Death of a Man in the Balkans
20. Room 237 - Sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious documentary in which five obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining air their opinions, interpretations and conspiracy theories accompanied by film clips, maps and highlighted stills.

19. Neighboring Sounds - Brooding Brazilian mood-piece in which a private security group offers their services to an upscale apartment building. A slow-burning but incredibly tense examination of privacy, security, trust and the psychology of modern (non)communal living.

18. The Hunt - Thomas Vinterberg revisits the theme of child abuse that he first examined in the breakout dogma 95 film Celebration, this time studying the opposite case: a kindergarten teacher accused of improper contact with a young girl. Less angry than his early films, and more nuanced and mature in terms of modulation and theme, this is an issues film that largely dodges the obvious pitfalls and finds its interest factor in both personal and sociological arenas.

17. Inside Llewyn Davis - A melancholy performance-driven Coen brothers snack about a talented but uncharismatic folk singer in the days before Dylan made it cool who finds himself emotionally and occupationally flailing due to a mix of his principles and pettiness. It costars my girlfriend's orange cat.

16. Computer Chess - A latter day mumblecore film covering an artificial intelligence chess competition in the 1980s. Perfectly captures the look, feel and attitude of the era and mines gentle, carefully-observed and increasingly surreal comedy from its socially-awkward milieu.

15. American Hustle  - A goofy heist film in love with the trappings of early 80s and having no end of fun with a top-notch cast (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper) that gains a lot from their mutual chemistry and a sassy script.

14. To the Wonder - Terrence Malick's little-loved follow-up to Tree of Life, tackles smaller-scale themes of love, depression, displacement, alienation and the ebb and flow of relationships, but does so with the same grace and beauty.

13. Before Midnight - The third part in a reliably smart and increasingly mature romantic trilogy that follows an American writer (Ethan Hawke) and a French activist (Julie Delpy). Each installment checks in on the relationship at 9 year intervals (both in real life and in film time). Now middle-aged, they deal with child-rearing, simmering disappointments  and the acceptance of each other's flaws.

12.  Ilo Ilo - Singaporean drama about a crumbling urban family, an unemployed husband, over-stressed wife and trouble-making son who finally begins to bloom after connecting with their newly employed Filipino maid during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Humble and bittersweet. Dark horse winner of the Golden Horse (best Asian film).

11. A Touch of Sin - China's most interesting director, Jia Zhangke, was shockingly not banned by his home government despite making this controversial ripped-from-the-headlines anthology of four contemporary crimes each tied to corruption and the dubious new morality of the China's selectively-booming economy.

10. Frances Ha - A scarcely-employed dancer bouncing between cheap apartments and charming friends in Brooklyn tries to get her life together after her roommate and best friend 'breaks up' with her. The energy, wit and personality of Frances Ha, not to mention Greta Gerwig's lead performance, elevates it far above the mosh pit of indistinguishably quirky aimless twenty-something dramedies that frequently try my patience.

9. The Broken Circle Breakdown - Belgium romantic tragedy about a bluegrass hippy couple that must learn to deal with their love child's cancer diagnosis. Unabashedly emotional and melodramatic in all the right ways, while also featuring great music and cinematography.

8. The Great Beauty  - 65-year-old ex-writer and self-proclaimed king of Rome's nightlife has staked his life on the outside world, the index of "beauties" that includes the natural and the artistic, the sexual and the architectural, the sacred and the grotesque. Succumbing to disappointment, not least with himself, he reflects on a memory from when beauty still stirred him inside.

7. Blue Is the Warmest Color - A long, substantive look at a lesbian teenager's first love, sexual awakening and hard-wrought search for identity. Effortlessly dives into both the shallow and deep end of love's whirlpool of emotions, pleasures and pains without simplifying or trivializing the youth and relative innocence of its characters.

6. Stories We Tell - Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley sets out to learn about her late mother by interviewing her family members and her parent's friends and associates, on one level creating a work on memory, storytelling the inevitable contradictions of multiple narrators, but also suspecting that her mother had an affair and that her real biological father is not the one who raised her.

5. Museum Hours - This virtually unsellable premise, an elderly guard at the Austrian Kunsthistorisches Museum forms a platonic friendship with a Canadian woman visiting a comatose relative, forms the surprisingly satisfying core of this peaceful, heartfelt and rather unassuming meditation on art and life.

4. Wolf Children - A rare anime that takes as its central theme the challenges of raising children, dealing first with their stressful dependence and later with their frightening independence. For Hana, a city-raised college student, it is even harder than most: she must raise her children without a husband or job, living alone in the Japanese backwoods. And also her children are werewolves.

3. 12 Years a Slave - A free African American is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, where he struggles to survive under the ownership of a variety of men and ultimately to return home to his family. Tough viewing, but the director and his cast (including a star-making performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor) are perfectly in sync. Based on a true story.

2. Gravity - Astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope when a cloud of debris from a detonated satellite sweeps past and strands them in EVA suits adrift in orbit. They make a desperate dash between space stations, trying to find a way to land on Earth before their air runs out or their few escape options are shredded to smithereens. The long takes, nonstop tension and awe-inspiring visuals had me almost choking during my first viewing (but in a good way).

1. Upstream Color - Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to 2004's Primer is a visual and auditory masterpiece and an invigoratingly inventive narrative, though it's also a bewildering headtrip that demands an abundance of attention and thought. The story involves orchids, roundworms, pigs, Walden, a hypnotist thief, a sound engineer and a couple whose moods, and perhaps even their entire relationship, is manipulated by an ecosystem of connections they will never fully grasp.  For sheer originality, ambition and near-endless debatability, Upstream Color will stay in my mind for a long time to come.

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