Here are my favorite movies I watched from 2013, both those exclusive to the year and first time watches from any year. Thanks and happy watching!
1. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
This is the rare occasion when the movie topping almost every critic’s list of films of the year actually deserves it. Unflinching, terrifyingly precise, and unmistakably true, “12 Years a Slave”, the newest film from Steve McQueen (who also directed the 2008’s “Hunger” and 2011’s “Shame”), is a new American classic. It is shot, written, and acted superbly, the performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender in particular burned into my movie-watching soul. Like his aforementioned films, “Slave” has moments that are simultaneously beautiful and disgusting, the most disturbing parts often being the ones most hard to turn away from.
2. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
At 90 odd minutes, Upstream Color is the total package for movie-watchers prepared to watch a film not only twice, but several times. Not that it is a chore to understand, but because it is the type of enigmatic mystery so crazy yet endlessly provoking that I dived into its world and don’t plan on getting out. My first viewing was, like others have said about their’s, a kind of sinking in, where the second was a fascinating exploration of the environment I had been submerged into. It is a helluva thing to witness, and both Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself give deeply moving and troubled performances that I couldn’t shake.
3. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
As a demonstration of why the act of making movies is so awe inspiring, Gravity is the year’s most incredible movie. Heck, I was even emotionally hooked onto Sandra Bullock’s ever-mounting tribulations throughout, as the movie becomes much more than a person simply trying to survive an unrelenting disaster, but learning how to actually live with themselves again, which might be the hardest struggle of all. It is a glorious ballet of destruction, next-level special effects, and completely arresting acting. Cuaron has artistic strength as mighty as Kubrick’s in this astounding achievement.
4. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy embody these characters in such a way that we can’t imagine them breaking apart even off-set. What Linklater and company create here is a movie that is both extremely elating and haunting in how realistic the final half of the film is. It is one of the finest acts of performing and writing I’ve seen on film. Even if you’re not as familiar with these characters as others are, you’re likely to get something out of this.
5. Dallas Buyer’s Club (dir. Jean-Marc Valle)
Frustrating yet inspiring in the deeply flawed protagonist’s redemption, despite his inevitable fate. The ordeal highlighted here isn’t just the damned battle that AIDS is, but the battle with the cruel forces that monopolized it (hospitals). Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give two of the year’s most powerful performances, each taking us on personal journeys that have surprising highs and miserable lows. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie from 2013 that better conveys just how terrifying dying is while still being hopeful and cathartic. A great companion piece to the excellent documentary from 2012 called “How to Survive a Plague”.
6. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
I had no hope for this movie when I saw the trailer. To me, it looked exactly like what audiences have criticized it for today: trying to have some phony voice on the state of society’s youth whilst glorifying it. I’d argue Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is glorifying ridiculously heinous behavior, but not Korine’s film; not one bit. This movie is legit because it is frightening, sad, and riddled with pathetic characters swimming in their own failure. These kids unite once every year in shared disillusionment, and if you look closely, you’ll see that none of it is fun, and if it does look fun to you, the movie doesn’t condemn you as part of the problem, it just asks you to listen.
The movie is about the people that won’t let the dream of being forever young and free go and get on with their lives. Yes, some moments are wonderfully entertaining (the Britney Spears “Everytime” sing-a-long debauchery montage is masterful), but it almost never loses its grip on what it is at center. Some moments are blurry in what the artistic intent was, but I have no doubt the whole product is genuine and worth viewing.
7. Post Tenebras Lux (dir. Carlos Reygadas)
It is probably the most personal movie I’ve watched all year, and certainly one of the strangest. To some, it can be alienating, but for me it was as gripping as its distant cousins “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2011) and “Holy Motors” (2012).
Unlike Upstream Color, I can’t strongly encourage you jump into this craziness with both feet, because certain moments are rough, ugly, and explicit so that some may find it very off-putting; instead, I suggest you watch the magnificent opening shot and decide whether or not you’ll follow this. In the midst of the chaotic story lies an undeniable tale about family and man’s capacity for brutality. It is loaded with grit and pathos; happiness and eternal darkness. I found it poetic and sincere. Plus, a guy tears his own head off, which is awesome.
8. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)
It is an involving political bio that still retains immediacy in its story, as well as a terrific satire of what passes for artistic integrity in the advertising/commercial world. Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic as a campaign manager whose job it is to, essentially, convince the people of Chile to impeach the daylights out of Pinochet.
His character, while very likable and sympathetic, fleshes out what is so painfully true about the past-and-current state of reaching out through the television screen; you have to be both stupid and sincere; appealing yet condescending. During one scene, he is presented with a great little commercial highlighting the women whose loved ones “disappeared” and dance eerily. It is an impressive clip, but Bernal refuses it because the people will, supposedly, refuse it. Is that a wrong choice on his part? He doesn’t deny its importance, but as a commercial it cannot string the chords of the people enough to win them over, and the battle being fought must be won for the greater good. Is such a philosophy without merit or justifiable? Fascinating to watch and think about long after it ends.
9. American Hustle (dir. David O Russell)
O Russell’s latest is a great feast of acting, writing, and direction (plus, it examines the complex being that is the hairline). It is likely the best work Christian Bale, Homer Simpson gut on full display, has ever and will ever do. His dedication to the role is as electrifying as Robert De Nero’s most memorable rolls. His comedic timing and dramatic force are marvelous every step of the way; for such a scumbag character, I fell in love with his charisma and range of complex, combating ideals.
Everyone else delivers as well, from Jennifer Lawrence’s crazy housewife (look out for her microwave rant), Amy Adams’ Bonnie to Bale’s Clyde, Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, and some appearances that weren’t in the trailer that turn out to be greatly satisfying. The whole lot of this is enticing for those who want to see great actors play off one another with chaotic exchanges.
10. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
“Her” is incredibly strange and incredibly moving. Joaquin Phoenix once again gives an excellent performance, and Scarlett Johansson lending her voice to the absolutely charming Samantha operating system is probably the best thing she has done, which isn’t a backhanded compliment in the slightest. Spike Jonze does so much good here in terms of storytelling, especially in how he strings together the conversations between a man and voice that weren’t even in the same room on set.
11. Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen)
A quiet, wise, absorbing exploration of art and friendship. Cohen’s astute screenplay and focus realizes that, above all, one of the richest things about the aforementioned facets of life is the comfort they provide. You don’t have to be particularly interested in what your companion in conversation is saying to enjoy the aura of simply being in the moment, nor must the dialogue tackle the most profound subjects of mortality and one’s existence to grip our emotions. The same just as well goes for the art on display throughout; you can be immersed in the world of detail on display, or simply enjoy being at face-value with it. Delightful, sad, and something I look forward to watching several times over simply for the much needed and refreshing air it provides.
12. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Probably the most uncomfortable experience I had watching any movie from 2013, if you read the description for Joshua Oppenheimer’s hell-on-earth documentary, you can make the safe assumption that it is extremely disturbing. So many moments are disgusting, yet this is a movie that, by all means, must be seen.
13. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
The genius here lies in its examination of the father-son relationship/struggle as well as the dilapidated world around them. This is hardly a movie with narrow focus; the deterioration is universal. This is the most mature picture Payne has made in years.
14. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)
Allen’s latest is bitter and will inevitably end badly, but we can’t turn away from it. What holds our gaze just as well as his always sharp writing and direction is Cate Blanchett, who is probably a shoe-in for the Best Actress Oscar.
15. Rush (dir. Ron Howard)
A thrilling movie with a great story at center. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and entertains in ways only the movies can.
16. Simon Killer (dir. Antonio Campos)
Keep your eye on Antonio Campos, because he isn’t joking around. “Simon Killer” is a legitimately creepy, realistic movie that is filmed, written, and acted with the competence of veterans.
17. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
No one chapter is perfect in this generational yarn, but all of them skillfully add up into what was one of the more affecting tragedies put on film in 2013.
18. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
This is a sad creation by the Coen’s, once again putting a protagonist through the meat grinder like in their 2009 film “A Serious Man”. But where that movie was about the plight of a kind of Everyman, this is the plight of the forever starving artist, played by Oscar Isaac, who really should be acting in more movies he is so good. It doesn’t let up even when it’s funny.
19. Frozen (dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
It looks great and the majority of songs are really catchy. Frozen is one of the best family movies in years, being both immensely enjoyable and delightful for all.
20. Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
Funny, strange, and sincere in its own way, this is a simple yet hard to explain little gem. It starts out plainly enough then proceeds to become quite… Different soon enough.
Others in alphabetical order:
42 (dir. Brian Helgeland)
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (dir. David Lowery)
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
Drug War (dir. Johnnie To)
Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)
Side Effects (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
The Spectacular Now (dir. James Ponsoldt)
The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)
To the Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick)
World War Z (dir. Marc Foster)
Worst movie of the year: A Good Day to Die Hard (dir. John Moore)
It is an all-out kamikaze strike on the viewer’s senses, and it pissed me off immensely. It is almost too pathetic to hate, but I still hate it because it isn’t even the kind of crap you watch just to see how bad it is. I don’t actively seek out the worst movies of the year (“Movie 43”, “InAPPropriate Comedy”, “The Starving Games”, etc.) but this is some bad, bad stuff…
Most disappointing movie of the year: Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
I was tempted to give this the worst of the year title, but I can’t look you in the eye and say it is worse than “A Good Day to Die Hard”. I’m disappointed by a lot of movies, especially from 2013 (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Pacific Rim”), but very rarely am I offended by them. Of course I’d be let down that my most anticipated movie of the year, which also happened to be made by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling, wasn’t the best thing since bacon, but I was disgusted with this. I like to think I’m not being unfair since I went into it fully prepared to defend it and find some kind of beautiful gem that I did with “Drive”, but “Only God Forgives” is embarrassingly lacking in anything remotely like that.
Most unfairly maligned: The Counselor (dir. Ridley Scott)
Some are calling it terrible. I don’t think it is. I don’t love it and am kinda disappointed that I wasn’t blown away by it considering all of the contributing talent, but it has some badass moments and spots of terrific writing, some so good I’m surprised the haters are instead choosing to look past them and outright hate it.
Biggest surprises: World War Z (dir. Marc Foster), Rush (dir. Ron Howard), and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
All three I wasn’t expecting anything from. “World War Z” had pretty nasty press, the trailer for “Rush” looked like a bunch muddy CG cars in rain and Chris Hemsworth muscles, and “Catching Fire” seemed like another big money maker for the next two months before dying out. I really dug all three, each snuffing out my skepticism and taking me on enjoyable rides.
Overrated: All is Lost (dir. J.C Chandor)
It’s probably one I’ll have more appreciation for as time goes by because it had the guts to try something new with a drastically aged star with an audience polarizing setting. To me, it is a pretty average performance piece that generates lots of buzz but doesn’t hold up in the long run. But hey, I guess we’ll see next year if it does.
As well as…
Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
For a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters, there is way too much talking. That’s okay, I suppose, so long as the dialogue isn’t really awful… Which it of course is, since we can’t have nice things ever.
1. Climates (2006, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
For me, Ceylan’s movie is as good as anything Antonioni ever made. It also bares resemblance to the movies of Tarkovsky, yet doesn’t use the aforementioned styles as a kind of support; Climates, as a story of humans, is one of the strongest I’ve watched. It is shot with a quiet observance to make up for the almost comical lack of communication between characters and is performed with both delicacy and bravery. There is a lingering sense of personal anguish throughout, and a filmmaker who takes the risk to put damn near everything out there, no matter how minor, and completely nail it is exhilarating to watch.
2. The Wheel (1923, dir. Abel Gance)
Simply put, don’t watch The Wheel for the story, watch it for the love of all that is film. The story is actually surprisingly risky, essentially being about a father and son who are tortured by their creepy love for the family’s adopted daughter, as well as the father’s ordeals in train-conducting as his hope declines. The narrative doesn’t really kick in until the final hour, and the movie runs at an odd 270 minutes, so what kept me gripped that whole time was the revolutionary way Abel Gance crafts each scene. It is insanely ambitious in form, continuously topping each magnificent set piece, whether it be as great in scope as a battle atop a mountain or as subtle as the editing during a train scene.
3. My Night at Maud’s (1969, dir. Eric Rohmer)
A deeply intimate exploration of characters that are, in shape, form, and voice, us. One of the most beautiful things it has to say about love is that not everything must be on full display in a relationship, which doesn’t mean there is malicious lying, but actually tightening the bond because of their trust. People don’t just magically merge into one force, for one of the exciting parts is the individuality of it all. And the extended conversation scenes are just about flawless in writing and execution, the initial meeting between the titular character and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s devout Roman Catholic being the centerpiece in a movie filled with them.
4. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, dir. F.W Murnau)
A broad story? Yes, but it has a power to it. Watching the couple in this movie rekindle their love during a day out on the town is a engrossing experience, despite the fact that in reality any sane person would run from the guy who threatened to drown them and not look back.
This is one of the most impressively made movies of all, for Murnau pulled this stuff off practically, comprising certain fluid tracking shots not by way of dolly, but by hanging the camera to the rafters (!). Decades upon decades later it is still a beauty in style. Whether or not you’ll be moved by the story, however, depends on how much human implausibility you’re willing to accept, but I certainly was gripped, if only for how the husband and wife are framed with aching sincerity; it is enough to make many a lover of cinema misty eyed. This right here, in my opinion, is moviemaking magic that still deserves to be taught and, most importantly, listened to.
5. The Phantom Carriage (1921, dir. Victor Sjostrom)
I reject wholeheartedly the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, a film whose morals are almost dangerous to take to heart. Sjostrom’s movie, I think, works better because it’s about the worth of living, even if you’re a worthless, mean-spirited vagabond.
“The Phantom Carriage” is about wrongs that can and can’t be redeemed; in this case, the main anti-hero of the story inadvertently kills the last woman on the planet to have hope in him. We would like to see him suffer for it, because he is a bastard, but what his victim wants, and what we should all ultimately want, is for him to do right rather than suffer, because there is already so much suffering in this life to go around. He is not inherently evil, and throughout we get glimpses of compassion that, under different circumstances, probably would have blossomed into full-on George Bailey. This whole story broke me down.
I watched this movie on youtube, where it didn’t have an accompanying musical score, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The shockingly blunt, relentlessly bleak force of certain scenes is greatly assisted by the complete absence of manipulative music. You feel because you feel, not because someone tells you it is time to.
Others in alphabetical order:
A Man for all Seasons (dir. Fred Zinnemann)
A Matter of Life and Death (dir. Powell & Pressburger)
Ashes and Diamonds (dir. Andrej Wadja)
Chimes at Midnight (dir. Orson Welles)
Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg)
F for Fake (dir. Orson Welles)
Kuroneko (dir. Kaneto Shindo)
La Jetee (dir. Chris Marker)
La Notte (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)
Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Rocco and His Brothers (dir. Luchino Visconti)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu)
The Sun (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov)
The Talk of the Town (dir. George Stevens)
Veronika Voss (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Walkabout (dir. Nicolas Roeg)