Top 10 movies of 2013: One man’s non-curmudgeonly list

In 2013 I saw 160 films, 96 of which were assignments for my Movie Analyst gig. (By contrast, the year before I saw a whopping 212 movies, 150 of which were assignments; I attribute the drop in ’13 to all the time I spent communing with Breaking Bad DVDs last summer.)

touch_of_sin.us_posterWhen I started this job six years ago, all of my assignments came to me by DVD, and boy does that model seem quaint now. In 2013 I watched assignments on DVD, in theaters, via On Demand, Netflix streaming, on Amazon, iTunes, and — the worst viewing experience of the year — on a Vimeo pay site that was still working out the whole streaming apparatus.

For all those different venues or channels, what’s notable about 2013 in hindsight is that I had no trouble compiling this Top 10 list, as well as another 10 or more entries for an Honorable Mention list — and still more titles beyond that that I’ll recommend in my next couple of posts. Despite the stretches of the summer that felt like a wasteland at the multiplex, 2013 turned out to be a very good year for movies.

I won’t claim this list is definitive. Anyone who claims critical omniscience these days is kidding himself — the explosion of movies coming out on all sorts of distribution channels now really is more than any one person can keep up with. (If there is a critic out there who somehow did manage to see most everything that came out last year, that writer should seriously consider stepping back. Read a book, for Pete’s sake.)

In alphabetical order:

all_is_lost_ver3_xlrgAll Is Lost

U.S., 2013
Director: J.C. Chandor

Inspired in its seeming simplicity: 77-year-old Robert Redford as a sailor whose yacht runs into a shipping container way out in the Indian Ocean, and despite the fact that Redford’s resourceful character does everything right, he still finds himself facing almost certain doom as his boat sinks and a storm approaches. There are no other characters, no cutaways to other locations, and no dialogue save for Redford’s brief voice-over at the opening.

The viewer’s immediate unease at seeing water seep into the yacht’s hull escalates into growing alarm, and the film manages to sustain that alarm for the next 90 minutes as Redford’s predicament gets worse and worse. Critics couldn’t resist pointing out the similarities between this and Gravity; All Is Lost is just as much a triumph of special effects and filmmaking craft as the Alfonso Cuarón movie. (Especially the sound design — the glub-glub of a fast-rising water line has never sounded so ominous.)

It’s impressive what an about-face this is for writer-director Chandor: his 2011 debut Margin Call, which followed 24 hours in the life of an investment bank about to go under, was hyper-verbal and demonstrated his facility with an ensemble. The followup has almost no dialogue and just one actor, and might be an even better movie.

 

Before Midnight

U.S., 2013
Director: Richard Linklater

It’s admirable how Richard Linklater and his stars and co-writers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were willing to risk alienating fans of the first two films in this trilogy by dropping Celine and Jesse into the unlovely grind of a long-term relationship. The passage of time since 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset is crucial to the latest movie’s impact; no amount of artful CGI could equal what it has been like to watch Hawke and Delpy’s characters age in real time.

Thus it’s great news that among this year’s Sundance Film Festival premieres was Boyhood, Linklater’s similarly themed latest feature, which was filmed over 13 years and follows a young boy from age 5 to 18. Ethan Hawke plays the boy’s father.

Hawke deserves special mention in the 2013 round-up for starring and co-writing here, while also blowing away home-invading scum in one of the year’s top stinkers, The Purge. (He also collected a paycheck for the late-summer bust The Getaway, which thankfully wasn’t one of my assignments.) At the end of the year I caught him headlining as Macbeth at Lincoln Center, and he brought a petulant, inimitably Hawke-ian reading to the role. Click here for the review of Before Midnight.

 

beyond_cannes_posterBeyond the Hills

Romania/France/Belgium, 2012 (U.S. release, 2013)
Director: Cristian Mungiu

Inspired by the true story of an exorcism that took place in a Romanian monastery in 2005, Beyond the Hills is the patiently observed case history of how an unthinkable tragedy came to pass. Director Mungiu never cuts within a scene, so it never feels like we’re watching something staged for a camera. Yet his masterful blocking of actors and his use of deep-space compositions and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio make the movie feel thrillingly cinematic, even monumental. The last shot is such an inspired use of the medium that it rebuts any of the facile “death of cinema” rhetoric that made the rounds of the Internet during 2012–13. Click here for the review.

 

lit fans!Blue Is the Warmest Color

France, 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

The controversy and whiff of scandale swirling around Blue Is the Warmest Color tended to overshadow what a good movie it is. Click here for the review.

(Is it possible to talk about this movie without addressing the sex scenes? My post about the explicit scenes proved to be a magnet for pageviews on this site. No doubt all of the traffic came from cineastes eager for serious, thoughtful commentary about a three-hour French film.)

 

681_DF_box_348x490_originalFrances Ha

U.S., 2013
Director: Noah Baumbach

“Delightful” is not a word that anyone who writes about indie film has cause to resort to very often, so I’m happy to use it as the highest superlative here. Frances Ha is a welcome example of how laughs need not come at the expense of filmmaking artistry, or depth. And more power to Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig for making this on a microbudget, quasi guerrilla style. Click here for the review.

 

Gravity

U.S./U.K., 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

It’s not often that I can describe a moviegoing experience as ‘awe-inspiring’ with a straight face. I had a few quibbles with the script: the Sandra Bullock character working through the trauma of her deceased child felt like pure Screenwriting 101, and an incongruously unoriginal note in this context. But conversely, props to Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón for keeping the narrative taut — the movie isn’t a minute longer than it needs to be. (If there’s one thing that $100 million blockbusters tend not to be, it’s succinct.) A transporting experience.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis

U.S./France, 2013
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

I hope it won’t sound elitist to note that, in my experience, Inside Llewyn Davis plays better to people who work in creative fields — maybe the story of an artist, even a self-defeating one, striving in the face of accumulating setbacks resonates more for those viewers. Moviegoers who aren’t particularly curious about the early 1960s folk milieu seem to find the film opaque. (It’s been eye-opening to read reviews by writers who assume that this musical niche was always a niche, and not part of mainstream culture in the early ’60s.)

Oscar Isaac and scene-stealing co-star, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Copyright .

Oscar Isaac and scene-stealing co-star, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. © Copyright CBS Films.

Surprisingly funny and a little painful — I winced just as much as I laughed. The sequence where Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) catches a ride to Chicago with a disgruntled beatnik actor (Garrett Hedlund) and an insufferable jazz musician (John Goodman), i.e., the road trip from Hell, was one of my favorite passages in movies last year. So unromantic, to say the least, that it served as a kind of anti– On the Road, it was also a brilliant evocation of an old, analog era (the empty highways bare of franchises or billboards, the meager pit stops), not to mention where having no money and no good choices will get you.

Plenty of other things to appreciate — ″Please Mister Kennedy!”— but I would have loved this movie just for the shots of the cat staring out of the subway at all the passing stations.

 

touch_of_sin.euro-posterA Touch of Sin

China, 2013
Director: Jia Zhang-ke

Grim, and completely convincing. Jia Zhang-ke’s film suggests that the crime news that might fill a few columns in a big-city tabloid provides a better reading of the Zeitgeist — or a truer glimpse into the soul of a country — than the ostensibly more important top stories. The movie comprises four vignettes (lightly interwoven) about four citizens who, to put it in terms U.S. viewers might appreciate, are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Each protagonist is driven to the breaking point by the raw abuse of power and privilege in modern-day China, but these aren’t pulpy revenge stories. The violence here leaves the viewer shaken rather than satisfied.

Jia based each incident on news stories that went viral on microblogs in China before being covered up. The Chinese government has yet to let the film be seen there.

 

12 years a slave.us_posterTwelve Years a Slave

U.K./U.S., 2013
Director: Steve McQueen

It’s disappointing, to say the least, to come across an Internet meme that dismisses 12 Years a Slave as an object made to foster white liberal guilt. Try to imagine a cigar-chomping producer agreeing to finance or distribute a movie  because he thought it would make liberals feel guilty. Pretty absurd, no?

At the risk of sounding callow about a film filled with atrocities, I would direct people’s attention to how well made 12 Years a Slave is: to name just two things, the many memorable character turns among the cast; and Steve McQueen’s shrewd use of long takes and wide shots to capture plantation life, where the natural beauty of the landscape can be defiled by outbursts of the most grotesque violence at any moment.

McQueen is smart about depicting that violence. For much of the film, terrible acts of cruelty happen just off screen or far in the background, and we feel the awfulness of it — yet McQueen is careful not to drive the audience out of the theater, because he has to build up to the climactic horror of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) being forced to whip Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

A different kind of undercover brother? Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, 12 YEARS A SLAVE. © Copyright Fox Searchlight.

Adapted by John Ridley (the writer of Undercover Brother; that’s some serious range), Solomon Northup’s odyssey is nightmarish and at times surpassingly strange, as in the episode when he encounters a white man (Garrett Dillahunt) sentenced to serve alongside the slaves.

One reason why the charge of trafficking in white liberal guilt doesn’t hold up is because 12 Years a Slave is so unsparing as a feel-bad experience — as when, to cite just one moment, one of Solomon′s potential comrades on the slavers′ boat is reduced to childlike dependency once he′s reunited with his master back on shore. (Frankly, the moment came as kind of a shock to see in 2014.) And the denouement isn′t so much a happy ending as a reprieve, because like Solomon, the viewer is all too aware of everyone left behind on Epps′ plantation.

I don’t think of this as a rebuttal to Django Unchained so much as a complement. One movie is obviously the ahistorical, pulp-fiction treatment of the subject, as moviegoers are smart enough to recognize. Both films present Southern plantations as the locus of a kind of mass psychosis, where the perpetrators seethe with unfathomable sadism, and their victims have to live with unimaginable trauma. I’m glad both movies got made.

 

Just another day at the officeThe Wolf of Wall Street

U.S., 2013
Director: Martin Scorsese

Too long or too short? Perhaps Martin Scorsese’s immersive wallow in finance-industry excess might have found its ideal form as a two-part, four-hour project for HBO. Or it should have been about 20 minutes shorter than the 179 minutes the theatrical release runs. That said — this is Scorsese’s best feature in 20 years. Click here for the review.

Postscript, 2/28/14: 2013 was such a good year for movies that I had no trouble picking another 10 candidates for an Honorable Mention of 2013 list…

Feel free to weigh in