As I think I’ve made apparent before, I’m a privileged ass who sees way too many movies and not done nearly enough homework in proportion. Jotting that down as a New Year’s resolution for 2014 to reverse that attitude, but I’m not about to complain about the grand surplus of cinematic offerings I got to lay witness to in 2013, and not merely in the often rewarding indie market. Not only did mainstream blockbuster entertainment truly meet its standards this year, but there was an extraordinarily creative blend of the art house in some of the year’s biggest films.
With such an assortment of goods, I couldn’t bring myself to wean this year down to a narrow top 10, and me never having much patience for “Honorable Mentions” – a term which feels a bit too much like “better luck next time” – 25 was the least I could muster, and with lots of great films still left out. For a time I pondered a top fifty before opting out of such an insane effort for something more condensed. It may not seem that way at first sight, but every film on this list felt truly indispensable to part with. I must emphasize, this is not a runner-up list! Every film here is one I’ve truly loved, would happily watch on any given day of the week, and has at times been competing for Top 10 status. Many darlings were achingly killed, but here are the 25 films I’ll carry out of 2013 with me, sans tomorrow’s top 10.
Lena Houst’s Top 25 Films of 2013
Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries nowadays have more of a tendency to self-indulge their length and beleaguer viewers as a result. Heading into At Berkeley, I feared not only that this would be another innocuous portrait of place, but that it’d be more of an insider’s adulation of a preeminent institution. Turns out Wiseman is less interested in the concerns of a single school as it is in the divide between different generations of education. Lengthy board meetings convey an enervated exhaustion, sure, but are the louder protests of eager, but inexperienced youths much more effective? These may be the film’s most overarching themes, but it covers nervy patches of race, class and social media generation apathy as well. 4 hours may seem a bit much, but the economy and necessity with which the material is edited down leaves barely any disposable footage visible.
Budget-wise it might be accurate to call This Is Martin Bonner the smallest film on this list, if not the smallest I’ve seen all year, but that seems unfitting for a film that constructs such grand visual scope out of the confined roadside limbo that is Reno, Nevada. It’s an appropriately desolate environment for a story about two men trying at a fresh start after their personal lives have fallen apart, either willfully and cynically in the titular Martin’s case or terribly accidental in the case of ex-convict Travis. Both Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette, respectively, play their friendship and unsuspecting give-and-take relationship with infectious honesty, but it’s not all on the actor’s shoulders. D.P. Sean McElwee and composer Keegan Dewitt work hand in hand to give the film a sort of cosmic reverberation, and Chad Hartigan marries the religious undertones to its characters’ rough worldviews without ever turning pretentious. It’s not just refreshing, but inspiring to see such a complete and distinct cinematic work pull itself together off a slim budget. Here’s hoping Hartigan and co. find the investors they deserve for brighter, though not necessarily bigger works.
You may be shocked by how close Before Midnight was to freefalling off this list, a recent viewing causing me to question just how well it works as an individual cinematic offering. As a sequel, too, it may be seen as a regression to the form that worked in the previous installments. Perhaps one wants for something new, more active, more exciting. Then it hit me, much as it did emotionally but less noticeably the first time, that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are echoing those frustrations of sameness which ride up Celine’s nerves and work as Jesse’s idealist escape route. The third installment works as a sort of revelation of the relationship these two always had. Jesse is the antihero and Celine is the only one who can salvage his mess, but how much of herself can she give to that, and for how much longer?
2013 felt like a pretty dour year for animation for the first nine months, but it turns out its brightest output was simply backloaded. Frozen and The Wind Rises both have their impassioned devotees, but it’s the light, spry picture-book delight of traditional French animation, Ernest & Celestine, that lit me up the most genuinely. The story of a bear and a mouse from different aristocratic societies breaking social barriers to run away together is as old as time, but their mutual passion for artistic expression – aligning well with the livewire, free-wheeling style A Town Called Panic directors Aubier and Patar have transfered across animation mediums – could hardly feel more sweetly simple. Why studios insist with romance, or even (*gag*) bromance, is beyond me when friendship itself is a more passionate, universal bond than either.
21. Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Documentary had a pretty formally and socially compelling year, so much that 20 Feet From Stardom feels like a superficial blip in comparison to more staggering works as Leviathan or more relevant works as Call Me Kuchu. The director who came onto the form by most happenstance, however, was Sarah Polley, whose personal exploration of family narratives, both factual relative, was admittedly less daring than The Act of Killing. Most aware to this is Polley herself, balancing the sharp perspectives of her friends and family onscreen, but leaving her own personal conflict within the very skin and framework of the film.So desperate is she to make sense of this past that she obsesses over reconstructing it onscreen. “She makes her own home movies,” my documentary professor not so graciously described, but perhaps it’s not only us she fools with these wispy recreations, but herself as well. Some may desire a more levelheaded approached, but there’s something unique in Polley’s passion, as viciously demanding of her subjects as she is herself.
Directed by Claire Denis
Possibly Claire Denis’ weakest film to date (no wait, don’t go!), it says a lot about her intensely refined work that Bastards still cuts like a jackknife. Each of her films feels like a new volume in a stylistically intertwined anthology, her latest running with a simple noir setup of sexual exploitation and plotted vengeance, not unlike The Intruder or Trouble Every Day, but it’s upsetting in less visceral and more tauntingly implicit ways. Michel Subor’s inherent venality practically fills in for his assumed villainy, as do the physically possessed qualities of all its characters. They’re not all who they appear to be, least (or perhaps most) of all Lola Creton’s Justine, the only woman onscreen who totally abandons comfortable barriers in search of erotic sensation, even to its painful extremes. The narrative may be thin, but Denis atmospheric tendencies still make it a sensuous treasure, even at its most husky.
Not the case for everyone, but this felt to me – alongside fellow box office bomb/insane blockbuster fun-house White House Down – like the sight-unseen dismissal of the summer. Bruckheimer wasn’t so far off saying the critics had their knives out, but even my sharpest instruments couldn’t disarm the unbridled lunacy and expressionistic golden age homage of Gore Verbinski’s revisionist western adventure. Yes, Johnny Depp’s a white guy playing a Native American, but he’s also rarely been so fitfully on point with comic and character precision, ethnicity aside. True, The Lone Ranger is a century old property with no lasting commercial draw, but how is reviving classical properties with sharper historical insight a bad thing? As markedly unwise a financial play as this was, the result was the summer’s most excitingly old-fashioned thrill ride, a lovingly daft ode to both the cowboys of classic westerns and the neglected Native Americans lost to time.
18. What Richard Did
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
If I’ve talked about What Richard Did at all this year, it was too often in passing. That’s understandable for how quiet a film it is, less about big events than the heartbreakings results of every small decision. Following Irish high school athlete Richard, it traces both the jock posturing, generous camaraderie and careful (or at times careless) changeovers in romantic relationships with astonishing empathy. It’s not until the title question is answered that What Richard Did turns into a much more damaging coming-of-age tale than what it started as. Unexpectedly devastating as it deals with the fallout of a horrific accident, director Lenny Abrahamson meets every sentiment with a bitter, chilling note of realism, while Jack Reynor handles Richard’s cataclysmic emotional journey with care and an necessary undercurrent of charisma. Both Reynor and Abrahamson make their public breakthroughs in 2014 with Transformers: Age of Extinction and Sundance-bound Frank. I’d say I saw them first, but What Richard Did is a film anyone who was once a teen can relate to and achingly sympathize with.
Having myself caught up with it pretty late, I’m dispirited by how little interest there’s been in Blue Caprice, first time director Alexandre Moors’ slow-burn nightmare of a real world story. It’s admittedly not as commercial a play as Fruitvale Station, a much quainter account of a real life tragedy that aimed square at the heart. If Moors is gunning for the heart here, though, it’s with brutal intent. Chronicling the warped father-son relationship between the two men who’d eventually commit the D.C. Beltway sniper attacks, Blue Caprice doesn’t assume to lay blame as to why they did this, but is more obsessed over the dangerous mindset that would cause them to do it. Isaiah Washington sinks his teeth deep into John, emulating not just a father figure, but a prophet burdened with deep philosophical purpose. These self-imposed beliefs sustain them, especially when their families have all but abandoned them. Even now I have difficulty making sense of its compelling, somnambulant madness. Certainly that’s how thousands of people must have felt as it was happening.
Directed by Cate Shortland
There’s been a lot of talk this year about who does or does not have the right to tell a certain story, mostly surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche and Blue Is the Warmest Color. A more fascinating case, to me, however, exists is Australian director Cate Shortland’s Lore, a post-WWII survival drama about the titular German teen leading her siblings to their grandmother’s house in that aftermath of Naziism’s downfall. It’s easy to say Shortland is making obvious criticism of a regime her family never lived in, but her coldly sensual direction reserves judgment in place of examining much more clear-eyed emotional terrain. Morality is very much in the eye of the beholder, but humanity is universal, and even the most revoltingly venal people they encounter are achingly solidified in their skin and perspective. Navigating the fluctuating emotions of Lore herself, Saskia Rosendahl is a presence impossible to ignore, convulsing and contorting in nearly every moment, untrusting of everyone, but most especially herself. History may be set in stone, but we’re still finding cutting ways to chip away at its supposed truth.
What can be said that hasn’t already been said… is a cowardly phrase when it comes to any film, but particularly one as narratively unhinged as Upstream Color, semi-experimental director Shane Carruth’s brain-storming 2nd feature. As some explanations of its narrative assign one character (credited as ‘The Sampler’) as a God manipulating the lives and sounds of those infected with rare nematode worms, I’ve come to accept the film’s better felt metaphorically than watched hyper-analytically. The childlike romance between Amy Seimetz’s traumatically kidnapped, emotionally frail Kris and Carruth’s similarly afflicted, adorably awkward Jeff proves far more meaningful than any intense attempts to unravel every detail of its plot. I was often mentally placeless, but never truly lost, as if Carruth was softly clenching our hand the entire way.
As sure a sign as any that no film, however solidified, has only one life to it. I first saw Paul Feig’s bawdy Bridesmaids followup steamed on an imprinted heap of critical doubt from my predominantly masculine roommates. It’s funny, sure, but where are the cathartic elements that made Bridesmaids such a broad play? It was only upon revisiting with my dad, no stranger to the 90s cop comedies this film hilariously riffs on, that I realized not every great film needs chasms of pathos. The Heat‘s a comedy through-and-through, but not one that mistakes feminism for sexploitative “empowerment”. Bullock and McCarthy inhabit very endearingly flawed characters, and those false senses of confidence make their most hysterical antics all the more infectiously uproarious upon repeat viewings. It also totes a soundtrack infinitely more tolerable and energizing that Bridesmaids.
I keep finding myself surprised with the distinct emotional resonance of Gloria, the latest bright and bustling example of Chile’s revitalized cinematic wave. It definitely has something to do with the unassuming premise, with a middle-aged divorcee trying to establish her life outside her ex-husband and kids. It sounds like the stuff of milk-tasting comedies like Hope Springs, and one does imagine Meryl Streep would jump at an English-language version in a heartbeat. However, Gloria feels at once universal in meaning, allowing for giddy comic achievements amongst the more heartsinking real-world issues – a scene of her discovering she has glaucoma is tinged with bitter, slightly jokey realization of her own impending mortality – it also feels distinctly of its home country, having risen from Pinochet-era oppression to seek some measure of a happy future. Whether it comes or not, the joys, heartbreaks, and frankly hilarious downturns on the way are rewarding in their own lush way. It’s a movie your mom would love, sure, but you may find yourself eventually disarmed by how relevant and insightful it is to the future we’re all heading towards.
I’ve become so naturally attuned to referring to Top of the Lake as a film, partly because all three times I’ve submitted to the 6 hour odyssey have been uninterrupted by episode breaks, and partly because “miniseries” seems entirely unsatisfying to define it. There’s hardly anything miniature about it, either in the expansive New Zealand backdrop or the world-destroying emotions of its simultaneously scarred and scarring characters. Using an episodic structure to chip away at the barriers of Elisabeth Moss’ defensively hardened detective, obsessing over a child rape case as a painstaking continuation of her own childhood trauma, but also the chilling social and gender politics of its blistering Laketop setting. It’s intensely plotted, but crisply rooted as always in Campion’s atmospheric and sensual senses, aided by Adam Arkapaw’s haunting cinematography. It’s a film about unclothing one’s violent baggage, even if it leaves one naked in the cold. All scars are present in intense detail, something of a testament to their own pain, validating that it had some worth, even while it lacked reason.
Already a new hipster classic upon arrival, it wasn’t restraint that keeps me from vaulting Spike Jonze’s barely science-fiction romantic comedy in full force onto my Top 10 list (given one of my top 10 isn’t released till 2014, though, it may just squeak in under the wire). Rather it’s the skepticism that naturally comes after loving something so deeply you just know it can’t be real. If Jonze’s work has risked being too hip for its own good, he’s been intelligent enough to root it in very flawed, human Emotion, the E intentionally capitalized. His latest is not just a study love, but of how we build our lives out of an around relationships. In Her‘s near future, it’s practically everyone’s employment, with the world around them being fueled by selling these relationships. It’s a world where its characters are so desperate for connection, but too nervous to give part of themselves to it. Not at all different from our own world, where people on twitter can become our best friends and we can form love with fictional characters. In its final stretches Her does commit strongly to its high-concept setup, but surprisingly enough, doesn’t lose the validity of its heart in the process. The emotions get too massive for the film to physically convey, yet it doesn’t crumble as a result. It’s a film so dense in thought and feeling that an online blurb (ironically) scarcely feels satisfying, but I feel confident in placing it as a film I already treasure deeply.