Instead of an opening paragraph that will inevitably be skipped over in pursuit of the meat of this article, I’ll just jump right into it.
Here are my ten favorite films of 2013, as it currently stands. This is without having seen some potential greats such as 12 Years a Slave, Her, Frances Ha, The World’s End, Dallas Buyers Club, Beyond Outrage, Pacific Rim, and others. Regardless, of the number of films I was fortunate enough to catch, these are the ten I can most recommend:
Chan-wook Park’s American debut is an astute, impressively controlled Hitchcockian thriller that plays like a vampire tale without the fangs. You can see traces of Shadow of a Doubt (1948), Psycho (1960), and Vertigo (1958) throughout the film, but the style is completely its own—it’s among the most artistically sound thrillers I’ve ever seen. The image blending and editing techniques give the film a dreamlike, disorienting flow that makes it perpetually intriguing and hard to look away from. “Eerie” is a good way to describe the tone, and the acting is very solid all around—particularly Matthew Goode as the mysterious Uncle Charlie. The common Park preoccupations with psychological reparations and vengeance are here, and the photography is as strong as any I’ve seen all year. I’m surprised this one seems to have been swept under the rug since its release; it’s a perfectly solid film of considerable depth.
Alfonso Cuaron’s insanely ambitious space ride has dazzled audiences around the world, proving movies can still have a transporting effect that is unparalleled in any other medium by almost literally putting the audience in outerspace. It’s a completely new kind of movie watching experience, especially disorienting and absurdly cinematic, wherein the audience is never able to—much like the two leads in the film—find any real footing. You simply remain afloat in a way that is visually transcendant and at times breathtaking. The movie loses steam by the third act, with an almost obligatory sense of “heart” being crow-barred into the middle of the ride, but it’s hard to take anything away from Cuaron’s achievement, even if it doesn’t all work. Sandra Bullock gives one of her best performances, but I can’t say the same about George Clooney (not that it’s bad, I just found it uninteresting, but that’s more character than him). A true technical masterpiece with some mostly forgiveable flaws elsewhere.
08. It’s a Disaster
The apocalypse was a trendy subject this year, but Tod Berger’s indie dark comedy was my favorite take on it that I saw. Though it comes dangerously close to taking a few familiar and uninspired turns, it ends up avoiding most with a smart script, an often brilliant use of music, a strong cast, and a nice color palette, which make this film a bit of a gem of the year. A great opening, a great ending, and some great bits in between turn what could have been forgettable into memorable, as it actually gets better as it goes along. Imagine This is the End (2013) meets Carnage (2011), but with a hint of Dr. Strangelove (1964) influence, and you get a good idea of what this movie’s script was going for. It could easily be a play, and, in fact, I would like to see a stage production of it in the future (and I hope David Cross stars in that as well).
Including Pablo Berger’s Spanish Best Picture winner on this list is a bit of a cheat since it came out a couple years ago, but we got it here for the first time this past year. A silent movie reimagining of the Snow White story that includes bullfighting and a traveling circus, there’s an authenticity to the style that is both traditional and fresh. It literally shows you the familiar through a new pair of eyes, and its surreal atmosphere, gorgeous sets and locations are photographed to perfection. The score alone is one of the stars of the film. What could have been stale or bland turns out to be consistently unique and inspired, with every scene being either hypnotic or entertaining.
06. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers aim their screenwriting gifts at the folk music scene of early sixties New York and the result is another Coens classic. Oscar Isaac is a true find as the titular character, a ramblin’ folk singer who suffers from an overabundance of Murphy’s Law as his Homer-like odyssey spirals into itself in a cycle of seemingly endless (mostly self-created) obstacles. The nature of the film is such that no two people will likely have the same experience with it—it’s highly metaphorical, introverted, literate, and a tad cryptic. It’s hard to tell if it actually is dense, or merely a collection of ingredients that give that impression—whereas that could be seen as an insult, the same could be said of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, which, cryptic or not, are pure poetry in one form or another. Though some of the ingredients are a little familiar, the world the Coens create is multi-layered and genuine—one that captures the spirit of the music at its center: it has the flavor of a folk tale, and an accoustical rhythm.
05. Before Midnight
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is easily one of the great achievements in American film: it plays almost like a French series—with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel anthology coming to mind—and is so beautiful, truthful, romantic, and philosophical that each one seems like a gift to the viewer. They’re each so simple, yet all-encompassing in their conversational scope and interpersonal insight. At this point, we’ve spent twenty years with this couple in three separate visits, and the rewards transcend pretty much any other film series I can think of—as a viewer, you’ve created many of the same memories they have, especially since the first two films are their first two encounters with each other. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke take their beloved characters into true adulthood this time and redefine the nature of their romantic affair in the process. Illusion vs. reality, perception, time travel, aging, sacrifice, desire, guilt, passion, regret…these are all lingering in the minds of the characters, and are projected into the minds of the viewers as a result, making it a participatory film of infinite conversational value. I hope to see them again in another ten years.
04. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s forty-eighth film as writer/director is one that can rank alongside his ten best. Cate Blanchett plays an ex-rich housewife whose newfound independence, low income, and troubled relationships with men gives way to mental and social instability that puts her on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Blanchett gives one of the best performances in any of Allen’s films (my vote for best actress of the year), and the dark psychology of the piece is reminiscent of many of Allen’s masterpieces—full of desperation, existential conundrums, and the pursuit of comfort in a discomforting universe. The extended close-ups, the non-linear structure, the literary depth of the script, and that wonderful music that characterizes Allen’s films all work to showcase an Allen still aspiring to make a film of his own high standards (of which, as far as he’s concerned, he’s never achieved). Despite the fact that he makes a movie every year, Blue Jasmine proves, once again, that he’s not simply a film factory, but instead a restless artist with an insatiable work ethic. I wish he could make fifty more films.
Alexander Payne offers up a simple tale of a father-son road trip, and it’s not hokey, not an eye-roller, nor does it fall into the cheeseball traps that such a premise can usually succomb to —it’s actually just about perfect, right up there with Payne’s other roadtrip masterpiece Sideways (2004). Bruce Dern plays a father slipping into dimentia who recieves a letter in the mail stating he’s won a million dollars, and to come to Lincoln, Nebraska by a certain date to accept his prize. This sets up what will likely be his one last big adventure back to his hometown, with his son (Will Forte) reluctantly by his side. Payne captures the world these characters inhabit so authentically, characters which are familiar more from life than from movies—the “salt of the Earth” types who populate a large portion of the country, but are seldom given much screentime. Dern delivers a performance that deserves as much attention as it’s been getting—his eyes alone deserve an Oscar, they’re so powerful, so caught in the web of a lifetime of experiences at all times. The Payne trademark of humor and pathos co-existing is handily balanced by a director so familiar with his own strengths and weaknesses at this point, every step he takes is entirely in the realm of expertise. The film stays grounded, but is steadily watchable and always on the verge of a deeply felt revelation. And the finale is my favorite ending of any movie this year.
02. The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s ode to the allure of excess is among his very best, most inventive, and outright funny. With an intoxicatingly manic performance from Leonardo DiCaprio at its center, Scorsese gets closer to cinematic suicide than he has in quite some time, and the result is exhilerating. The carefully crafted carefree energy of the film keeps the viewers on their toes, and the merciless relentlessness of the content keeps the viewers from being too comfortable. This unease allows the film to maintain a cocky attitude, and take the unsuspecting viewer into a wonderland of sex, drugs, and hedonism, with DiCaprio as your devil-in-disguise tour guide. It’s difficult for me not to put this one at the number one spot, but it’s undeniably flabby and a tad too long—but it shouldn’t be anything other than what it is, hence the difficulty of having it at number two. Everything about it is just a little too much, which is what makes it the masterpiece that it is. This is definitely one of Scorsese’s top five since Raging Bull (1980), which puts it on the shortlist of best films of the past thirty years. And like all of Scorsese’s great films, the significance of this one will be felt years from now—especially given the relevance of the subject matter and skill of the filmmaking. Don’t be fooled by the controversy: this is a genuine classic that’s both timely and timeless.
01. American Hustle
My most anticipated film of the year exceeded my expectations. David O. Russell’s seventh film is arguably his finest achievement to date. The flow is as smooth as jazz, the tone, look, and vibe is rich, warm, and human, and the acting is about as good as it gets. And did I mention the music? Russell made me hear familiar songs with new ears, detecting new feelings and nuances that I never knew existed in the purely cinematic moments he created with the jazz and classic rock accompaniment. The story revolves around conmen and women, and so becomes a game of identity, survival, and, as has been noted, reinvention. Leaving the theater the first time, I felt as though I had just seen a classic movie from the seventies that I finally got around to seeing. There’s a personal touch pervading the period piece and genre elements, and a lack of spoon-feeding the audience, all characteristic of the great New Hollywood cinema from forty years ago. The characters are the focus, first and foremost, and with a cast and director like this all working together for the right reasons, the end result is everyone working to the best of their abilities. Both genders are refreshingly allowed to shine equally in Russell’s films, and this one is no different (and gives it a particular advantage over the male-dominated world of The Wolf of Wall Street). The film is lean and loving, focused and heartfelt, understood and connective. If I had to pick a best film of 2013, American Hustle would have to be it.
Instead of including a final paragraph that will inevitably be skipped over after the list is seen, I’ll just conclude with this: 2013 was definitely one of the most memorable movie years so far this century, and, coming on the heels of the great 2012 movie year, 2014 has some pretty big shoes to fill.