Film is my favorite art form. Always will be. I see lots and lots of movies every year, and every year for over a decade I’ve put out a list. So here’s my list for 2013.
The format I use is one I stole from the 1994 “Best of the Year” issue of Film Comment magazine. It’s a 3-tiered list. Tier I consists of 3 films, the ones I consider above and beyond my favorite of the year. The second tier has 5 films that I think are absolutely great. The last section has 13 films that I think are very, very good or at the very least were hella enjoyable. Within each tier, though, there is no order of preference. There is no “number one” film on this list. There are three.
These are not necessarily the “best” films of 2013, despite my impeccable good taste. I haven’t seen every film that was released last year, so I can’t definitely declare any film the objective best. I’m sure I missed some good ones. But here are my favorite films of 2013, of the ones I saw, along with some thoughts to go along with some of them:
Not only does Her rank as one of the very best films of the year, it is also the 2013 film I most wish I had made. Every year there’s one: a film I would be most proud of to have on my resume, something that aligns with my sensibilities, says what I want to say, is made the way I would want to make it. The film I love the most and am also the most jealous of. This year, it’s Spike Jonez’s amazing 21st Century romance.
Yes, it’s a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. But it’s actually not a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. It’s so much more than that. It’s a great romance. It’s great science-fiction. It’s a great allegory for love and relationships today, about how technology has altered that landscape forever. I mean, really, in a world of text messages and online dating and everything, is it even necessary to have a body in order to love? People are forming relationships all the time based on words on a screen; Her just takes that a step further. It is a gorgeous, sexy, smart, and thought-provoking treatise on love and loneliness and humanity that I can’t recommend enough. It is the best film of Jonez’s career, and I’ve loved all of his films.
Oh, and I’m one of those people who thought Andy Serkis should have been nominated for an Oscar for The Two Towers, and I am even more so convinced that Scarlett Johansson deserves to be as well, despite never appearing on screen. It’s not going to happen, but it should.
The Coen Brothers have one of the best batting averages in American film history. I can only think of one of their movies that I actively dislike and maybe two or three that I think aren’t great but I like anyway. And, after nearly 30 years of filmmaking, Joel and Ethan, unlike so many artists of all stripes, don’t appear to be running out of steam or ideas. It’s remarkable.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen film in the vein of Barton Fink or A Serious Man. A put-up, not very likable protagonist, who over the course of a short amount of time has a whole lot of bad shit happen to him. Does he deserve it? Is it some past sin biting him in the ass? Is God out to get him? (A Serious Man can be read as a Job story) Or is our hero the only sane man in a world of random insanity? This film offers no answers of course. Llewyn Davis is just a folk singer trying to make his way in 1960s New York. Oscar Isaac delivers a star-making turn as the titular character, bringing just the right amount of talent, desperation, and over all asshole-ishness to the part. With strong supporting performances by Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake, and Coen-stalwart John Goodman, I just loved the hell out of this movie. I don’t want to spoil too much, but be ready for a sad, beautiful, funny, and sometimes surreal experience.
There is also a small plot element of the film involving Llweyn’s former partner that connected very strongly to something in my personal life. It’s not overly played in the film, but it’s always there in the background and it helped me relate to a very non-relatable character.
With the one-two punch in 1999 of losing both Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese assumed the mantle of the world’s greatest living filmmaker. And since then he has proven to not be a false king. A few missteps aside (Bringing out the Dead), he has made impressive film after impressive film, with budgets he could have only dreamed of for the first 30 years of his career. He has found a new muse in Leonardo DiCaprio and is making films with the energy of a 25 year old man.
Wolf of Wall Street has been controversial but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. This film is simply the third (fourth if you count Mean Streets) in Scorsese’s series of films about organized crime. Wolf of Wall Street falls directly in line with Goodfellas and Casino, both stylistically and thematically. I mean, sure, gangsters are bad, but they’re nothing compared to the predatory stock brokers depicted in this movie. From the use of voice-over, to the frenetic camerawork and the wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack, Wolf is very clearly a successor to Goodfellas and Casino. The Departed was a fine film (I like the original, Infernal Affairs, way better though), but it wasn’t a gangster movie. Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, is. Another tour-de-force from the world’s filmmaker laureate.
By the way. If you think this film glamorizes its subject’s behavior, you need to look at yourself. DiCaprio, playing a character less sympathetic than his slave-owning, mandingo-fighting, plantation owner in last year’s Django Unchained, is awful (the character, not the brilliant performance) in this film. Just because Scorsese presents all of his behavior in a comedic light, it doesn’t mean he is endorsing or glorifying it. In the film, the characters participate in dwarf tossing, a ridiculous amount of drug abuse, objectifying and exploiting women, infidelity, insider trading, and, oh yeah, knowingly conning thousands of people out of their life savings for their own benefit. If at any point you were watching the film, no matter what the tone (it’s called point-of-view people), and thought to yourself “Man. That looks like fun. I want to be that guy!” then you’re the problem, not the movie.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley)
The story of Solomon Northup is so terrifying, incredible, sad, and amazingly moving that any more-than-competent Hollywood filmmaker would have made a really good movie out of it and found him- or herself busy come awards season. But in the hands of art house director Steve McQueen, whose previous two films are loved by cinephiles but unknown to many others, 12 Years a Slave became much, much more than the Oscar-bait pic it could have been. It is a difficult film. It dares you to look at it. It is bold and unique. I will never forget one shot (it’s the shot of the year): a very long take involving a tree. If you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about. Only a confident but aggressively challenging filmmaker would even dare such a moment. That is what McQueen brought to the film that a journeyman filmmaker would not have. A stunning film, one that will be valued for ages.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT (directed by Richard Linklater; written by Linklater, Hawke, & Delpy)
We first met Jesse and Celine in 1995’s Before Sunrise and have now checked in on them twice since: in 2004 and again in this year. I love these films so much. I have grown up with these two characters and, while they are smidge older than me, every time I feel like what they’re going through (Jesse in particular) reflects what’s going on in my life. This installment never quite matched the perfect ending that Before Sunset had, but it made up for it with maturity and a little bit of sadness and disappointment. I love Jesse and Celine. I can’t wait to see where they are in another nine years.
LA GRANDE BELLEZZA (directed by Paulo Sorrentino; written by Sorrentino & Contarello)
I say it ad naseum but Rome is my favorite city in the world. But Sorrentio’s sad, beautiful, and surreal film showed me a side of the Eternal City I had never seen: one of nightclubs, avant garde performance art, and seedy strip clubs. Maybe this Rome exists; maybe it doesn’t. Only a Roman could tell you for sure. It’s a hard task to summarize this story of a 65-year old night-clubbing member of Rome’s high society and the crisis of age and existence he goes through. If that sentence didn’t make sense, I apologize. The Great Beauty is a hard film to put into words. It simply must be experienced. With great performances, stunning photography that shows off both the better and lesser known sights of Rome, and a surrealism that sometimes reminds me oddly enough of Fellini’s Satyricon, this film has already won a Golden Globe and will probably be the favorite for Best Foreign Language film come Oscar time. And it’s definitely a film I will have to see more than once to full appreciate it, but the first time around I absolutely adored it.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (written and directed by Joss Whedon)
As a long time Joss Whedon acolyte, when I heard that he had made an adaption of my favorite Shakespeare comedy BETWEEN shooting The Avengers and editing The Avengers, well, I was stoked. And even more so after seeing the results. True to the original but shot in a Cassavetes-like black and white, the film is funny and alive. The cast is peopled with Whedon alum, most importantly Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, whose doomed romance on “Angel” gets a sweet redemption, much to the joy of Whedon fans everywhere.
LA VIE D’ADÈLE (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; written by Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix)
If you went to see a boxing movie and there was an 8-minute boxing scene, would you bat an eye? How about 8 minutes of cars chasing each other at high speeds in a film that has either the words “fast” or “furious” in the title? Or a hilarious 8 minute set piece in the middle of a comedy? No, probably not. Then, tell me, what is the big fucking deal about, in the middle of this beautiful story of a French girl falling in love while discovering both her sexuality and her homosexuality, an 8 minute scene of two women making love? Is said scene graphic? Sure. But so are the dozens of beheadings in the PG-13 Hobbit films that are supposedly for families. Is it exploitative? Only if you download the clip on its own for masturbatory purposes instead of watching it in the context of the film. Forget all of the nonsense. “Is it pornography?” Rubbish. A film about sex is allowed to have sex in it. Get the fuck over it. Blue is the Warmest Color well deserved its success at Cannes and I can’t wait to watch it again on Criterion Blu-Ray later this year, three hour runtime be damned. And Léa Seydoux, who I’ve seen in a few other things, is probably my pick for Best Actress… not that she’ll even get nominated.
SHORT TERM 12 (written and directed by Destin Cretton)
A great little indie film you may not have heard of but should seek out immediately. Brie Larsen gives a wonderful performances as a woman running a center for troubled teens.
BLUE JASMINE (written and directed by Woody Allen)
2013 seemed to be the year of unlikable protagonists, and not just the guys. Cate Blanchett’s Jasimine is tough to love, or like, or root for, but by the end of yet another Woody Allen masterpiece, I did find myself caring about her. Pretty sure Blanchett will bring home Oscar #2 for this one. Because that’s what Woody Allen does. He writes parts that win women Academy Awards.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Billy Ray)
I’m a Paul Greengrass fan and this is another great addition to his filmography. And there is no mistaking who made it; nobody does shaky-cam verisimilitude better. But what I will remember about this fine film more than anything is the last two minutes, in which Tom Hanks delivers the most human and heartbreaking piece of acting I have seen in years. Remember when Forrest Gump, upon meeting his son, immediately gets choked up, terrified, and asks Jenny if the child was smart or like him? No matter what you thought about the movie, it was powerful stuff. Well, in the closing minutes of Captain Phillips, I think Hanks eclipses that moment and creates what might be my favorite piece of acting he has ever brought to the screen.
GRAVITY (directed by Alfonso Cuarón; written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuarón)
If you didn’t see Gravity in the theater, in 3D, in IMAX, I’m not sure you should bother seeing it at all. I liked it quite a bit, but I will never revisit it. Not unless it gets another run on the big screen. Maybe it will get picked up by aquariums and planetariums that have IMAX screens, because no matter how big your TV at home, it just won’t be the same.
THE CONJURING (directed by James Wan; written by Chad & Carey Hayes)
The scariest movie I’ve seen in a decade. Well done, Mr. Wan.
THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; written by Craig Borton & Melisa Wallack)
Two of the best performances of the year anchor this moving and fascinating true-life tale, told simply and effectively. I still would rather see Ejiofor win Best Actor (Okay, really I would rather see Phoenix win Best Actor, but he’s moronically not nominated) than McConaughey, but I’ll be completely in agreement when Jared Leto walks away with gold.
THE WORLD’S END (directed by Edgar Wright; written by Wright & Simon Pegg)
Wright, Pegg, and Frost finish out their Cornetto Trilogy in style. Fun and funny all the way through, what really carries it is the performance of Simon Pegg, the best of his career. At least so far.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (directed by David O. Russell; written by Russell & Eric Singer)
This film stars Batman, Hawkeye, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, and Mystique. But it is not the greatest superhero movie of all time, it is an entertaining period con piece that is a good time loaded with great performances. And did David O. Russell know he was making a Scorsese knock-off or was it subconscious?
FRUITVILLE STATION (written & directed by Ryan Coogler)
A film that could not have been released at a more relevant time.
BLACKFISH (directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite; written by Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres)
Horrifying. I’m going to have some tough decisions to make re: Sea World, aquariums, and zoos as my daughter gets older.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW (directed by James Ponsoldt; written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber)
My favorite youth romance of the year, largely because, in addition to fantastic lead performances, there is more going on than just puppy love. Kind of a serious version of She’s All That if you will. Beautiful little movie.
Just a quick note about FAST & FURIOUS 6. I love the FF films. Love love love. While part 6 didn’t quite live up to the previous installment, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Honestly, it should be on this list, but I think the 20 titles above are better movies. But Furious 6 (as director Justin Lin wanted to call it), was a blast and a film I will return to many times. Like so many, I was saddened deeply by the death of Paul Walker. He was by all counts a good and generous man. I am unsure about the future of the franchise without him (and without Lin, honestly) but I’ll be there opening day for number 7.
Rest in peace, Mr. Walker.