Best films of 2013
I’ve decided to repost this because I have changed almost half the article. Most of the changes were in the honorable mention section. I did not change my actual top ten films since late December or early January.
Everyone has been talking about how clever and original TV shows such as “House of Cards,” “Blackboard Empire,” “Game of Thrones,” “Walking Dead,” “Girls,” and “Breaking Bad” have forever expanded the thematic and topical reach of TV. Admittedly, many of these shows provide much better character and plot development than your average film. While TV has probably never been better, some critics (such as one New York Times writer and director Steve Soderberg) may have prematurely pronounced the death of cinema.
Nonetheless as is evident from my best films list there was no absence of quality or variety in cinema in 2013. There were still far too many films released this year for any one person to see. Some of the best films may not have gotten the best distribution in theatres, but I found a surprising amount of the best films at libraries or streaming on cable (not too many were on red box, although I obtained most of my most disappointing films there.)
There may not have been one essential film that knocked that ball out of the park or towered over the rest like “Mulholland Drive” or “Good Fellas, “but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if one or several of my top 10 may become considered classics in the future.
Keep in mind that I have not seen several of the year’s most critically acclaimed films of the year (such as “The Wind Rises,” "Dirty Wars," and "You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet".), so this article may see some revisions.
I was originally going to talk about the list on WZRD, but the radio segment was cancelled. I think this is about the 30th top 10 list I have done (to see some of the rest go to www.artinterviews.com)
1)12 Years a Slave-Steve McQueen’s masterfully directed and emotionally devastating film about an educated free man and musician of color that was sold into slavery is based on his autobiographical novel about the experience. This is one the most personal and powerful films about race since “Do the Right Thing.” For once the story is not filtered through a white consciousness (like “Amistad.”) and it makes most works on the same theme seem phony and contrived in comparison.
2) Before Midnight-“Slacker” director, Richard Linklater creates a completely satisfying update of the lives of the romantic couple from” Before Sunset” and “Before Sunrise.” The roles are played perfectly by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy (perhaps because the main actors had a role in the writing of the dialogue and they used lots of improvisation). The film features the most fully realized cinematic couple in ages, and it depicts their relationship painfully unraveling before our eyes.
3) American Hustle-David O’Russell directs the finest ensemble cast of the year (including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence) in a tale of an FBI eye agent who uses a pair of con artists (it turns out unwisely) to bring down a corrupt politician. This was loosely based on a real FBI sting that took place in the ‘70s, and it may be the best scam film since 1973’s “The Sting.”
4)Nebraska-This engaging b/w character driven drama features Bruce Dern (who justifiably was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Woody Grant) as an absent minded senior who is convinced he has become a millionaire when he receives a misleading publisher’s clearinghouse letter. His son, David (well played by Will Forte) tries to keep him out of trouble while protecting the old man’s dignity, and they take a trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize money. This film does a superb job of creating a sense of time and place. Stacy Keach shines as an evil rival of Woody, and June Squibb is even better as Woody’s delightfully obscene but caring wife.
5) The Past/Le Passe-Emotionally volatile study of a family in turmoil directed by the brilliant Iranian film maker Asghar (A Separation) Farhadi focuses on a different side of a divorce story. A divorcing dad learns that his ex-wife may have had a hand in putting her lover’s wife into a failed suicide attempt that ends in a coma which causes anger in their daughter. Certain information is withheld and the script contains some big surprises. In French with English sub-titles.
6.) Black Fish-Controversial and gripping documentary about which uses a murder of young woman by a killer whale as a starting point in a film which successfully questions whether we should keep these great creatures in captivity. See it before Seaworld kills it. Streaming on Netflix.
7) Great Beauty/Le Grande Bellezza.-An arts critic is bored by his shallow and decadent life and its social aspects. This absorbing Italian film evokes Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” But it also manages to stay modern and makes a statement about how contemporary Italy may have to become less Italian and more European to survive. The intoxicating beauty of Rome has rarely been used to better effect (check out the long pan in the end.) In Italian with English sub-titles
8)Much Ado about Nothing-Joss Whedon, the witty creator of” Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series and the Avengers film just got together some friends known for their sci/fi and horror work and shot a low budget Shakespeare film in modern dress at his own house in twelve days using hand held cameras and natural lighting. There’s no reason why this works as well as this does but Amy Acker and Alex Denisoff (both from the Angel TV) series are surprisingly wonderful. This is by no means the definitive version, but the verbal sparring was delightful, and this film provided the most fun I had at a movie all year.
9)Blue is the Truest Color-Long but engrossing lesbian romance about a popular school teacher who falls for a more literate older artist (she has blue hair hence the title). This won the Palm d’Or, and it has some of the strongest acting of the year. Based on a graphic novel. In French with English subtitles.
10) Gravity-The best big budget blockbuster film of the year features Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts who struggle to survive after their space station is destroyed. Despite the big name cast (I've never been a big Bullock fan); the film’s real stars are Alfonso Cuaron’s direction and outer space itself. There are echoes of an even greater sci-fi film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic “Solaris.”
The following films might have made the top 10 list in a lesser year, and they were of more or less equal quality.
All Is Lost-Robert Redford gives an astonishing performance with hardly any dialogue as a man stuck on a boat that is filling up with water. Redford was as good as any of this year’s best actor nominees.
Beyond the Candelabra- Under the guidance of Steve Soderberg, Michael Douglas (playing against type)creates the most memorable character of his entire career (his Liberace is even better than his Gordon Gecko). He shines playing the uncommonly talented but ethically flawed concert king, Liberace who treats his friends and lovers as if they are objects he purchased. Matt Damon also shines as his much younger and tormented lover.
Blue Jasmine-This Woody Allen film is basically a remake of “A Streetcar Named Desire” without the controversial gay and rape subplots. Kate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins give winning, Oscar worthy performances in the Stella and Blanche roles.
Captain Phillips-Tom Hanks is a man on a ship that is hijacked by a morally ambiguous African man and his sidekicks
Cutie and the Boxer-Glorious documentary about an artistic couple in New York struggling to get by. The man creates paintings by punching a canvas with paint covered gloves and the woman makes cartoony autobiographical drawings that make her husband look really ugly.
Dallas Buyer’s Club- Matthew McConaughey and Jaret Leto play off each other wonderfully and they give two of the finest male performances of the year. Mcconahay is a homophobic redneck who becomes a business partner with a gay transvestite selling drugs with a Marc Bolan fixation. They get in trouble selling drugs that have not yet been approved by the FCC.
Don Jon- A young man’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt who starred in and directed this film) porn addiction gets in the way of his first serious relationship. Scarlett Johansson is excellent (I love that accent) playing the woman he is involved with.
Enough Said-Julia Louise- Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (he’s very good in his last film) interact wonderfully in this film about a cautious romance between two middle aged people that begins at a party. Catherine Keener is also fine as Gandofini’s snobby poet ex-wife.
Fruitville Station-Power film about a young African American who is killed by the police. This was a favorite at Sundance.
Frances Ha- This bright lively little indie film (because of the intentionally banal conversations it seems influenced by mumble core) benefits greatly from a winning performance by Greta Gerwig as an aspiring dancer that experiences financial and occupational frustration. This almost pilotless film feels highly improvised and is highly reminiscent of the late, great John Cassavetes.
From Up on Poppy Hill-Delightful animated film by Goro Miyazaki’s (the son and successor of the greatest animation director in the history of cinema) is about a group of high school students that set out to preserve a historic document linked to World War 2.
Her-This is basically a remake of the ‘80s cult classic, “Electric Dreams” (they are both about lonely men who fall for female computer programs), but this film takes the concept much farther. Scarlett Johansson is as good as usual even without a body.
In A World-Lake Bell (of Boston Legal fame) made a delightful directorial debut in smart, indie this film. She also stars as a voice over actress who has an unusual rivalry with her callous father.
Inside Llewyn Davis-The Coen brothers produce a seemingly authentic and usually engaging take on the ‘60s folk scene, spotlighting an obstinate bohemian (based on David Von Ronk) who cares more about integrity than commercial success. He sleeps on different people’s houses and travels with a cat (who gives the best animal performance of the year, just look at the scene where he stares at Llewyn) I loved the cyclical nature of the film (it begins as it ends), and the seemingly directionless plot (which mirrors the main character’s life) The only problem is that unlike “O Brother Where Art Thou” most of the music is lame and forgettable. But then again I also hate the current fake folk revival which is just another corporate con job (sorry Mumford and Sons fans).
Leviathan -Compelling low budget documentary shows commentary and dialogue free footage of a dangerous fishing expedition (this is as close to cinema verite as it gets).
Lee Daniels’ The Butler-Powerful film (especially the second half) about a butler and the changes that his family goes through during the Civil rights era. This film (and Fruitvale Station) probably did not get many nominations because it was overshadowed by “12 Years a Slave,” an even more potent film about race.
Mud-A young boy on the bayou becomes unlikely friends with a homeless man ( Matthew McConaughey () in one of his four fine performances this year) who is evading the law,
Post Tenebras Laux-This unorthodox anti-narrative dream film (the name means light after darkness) contains a bunch of seemingly unconnected or loosely connected images and events (such as an alcoholic getting treatment, the off screen beating of a dog, an orgy, and Satan sneaking into a house with a toolbox), and some of them are shot in double or even triple exposure. In a weird way this may be a bio of the director Carlos Reygadas (The film was shot at the director’s home using his relatives.) This odd, wacky and intellectually challenging film was much more compelling than almost all of the other films on the list, but it defies understanding. Highly recommended for adventurous film goers, but not for Adam Sandler fans.
Something in the Air-Oliver Assayas’s strong autobiographical film is about a French youth in the ’60s who becomes involved in radical left and drifts toward the arts. The film has gorgeous cinematography and superior period music (including Thunderclap Neuman’s classic title track.)
The Spectacular Now-Marvelous teen romance film in the great tradition of “Say Anything” and “The Sure Thing.” The main character has a relationship to a geeky but nice young woman that goes off the rails after he visits his alcoholic absentee dad.
Stories We Tell-Sarah Polley sets out to learn about her showbiz mom for a documentary and she finds out some shocking secrets about her dad. This Intimate and memorable documentary is one of the year’s best documentaries.
Twenty Feet from Stardom-Strong documentary explores the roles and destines of several female backup singers (such as Darlene Love and Mary Clayton) who find it hard to get recognition even though they often did great work.
War Witch/Rebelle- This shot in the Congo Canadian film depicts the truly heart rending struggles of a 12 year old girl to retain her dignity and sanity during hellish circumstances. She is kidnapped at the age of 14 to become a child soldier, and later becomes a sex slave to a tyrannical military commander. But since she talks to apparitions who appear to her in trees to prophesize about the future she becomes dubbed “war witch,” and she finally is able to live a privileged life for a time.
The Wolf of Wall Street- Leonard DiCaprio plays an energetic Wall Street worker (he’s like a pre Mitt Romney) who takes hundreds to the cleaners to get rich. The whole cast is excellent, but Matthew McConaughey almost steals the show in only five minutes, and he provides the best cameo of the year (he was also great in “Mud.”) Although this film is technically superb and well-acted, it does not hold a candle to classic ‘70s Scorsese films (you can tell he isn’t hungry anymore). This plays like a Wall Street twist on ‘Good Fellas.” A big problem is that this time Scorsese seems to be on the side of the corporate pirates (I know it’s based on a bio but here is no concern about the victims expressed here). The film kept my interest ,and it was exhilarating the whole time, but in the end the lesson of the film is work hard to cheat people and you too will be able to sniff cocaine off beautiful naked women and avoid jail.
The World’s End-Goofy British comedy film (from the folks who brought you Shaun of the Dead) about a loser who gathers up his old buddies to go on a bar crawl only to find that alien robots have taken over his home town.
Honorable Mention: American Mary, A Band Called Death, Byzantium, The Company You Keep, Hannah Arendt, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, Like Someone in Love, Lords of Salem, Room 237, Spring Breakers
Most disappointing films of the year
Canyons-Paul Schrader creates his least interesting film of his career about a sexually free Hollywood couple who experience relationship problems (I did not care about anyone or anything in the film.) Scandal sheet star, Lindsay Lohan is fairly good here (I think she has more talent than people give her credit for), and the real culprit is the bloodless script which seems to lack a point of view on their lifestyle (except that it is dehumanizing.)
The Great Gatsby-This flashy, glittery misfire completely fails at recreating the roaring ‘20s (“Boardwalk Empire” does this very well), and the female lead fails to capture the elusive beauty of Daisy (Although DiCaprio is not bad in the male lead). At this point I think the novel is unfilmable because the narrative language is what makes it special. This is like reading a cliff’s notes version. A director with more vision would have done a better job.
Ironman 3-Spiderman has dozens of great villains in the comics, but Ironman has hardly any (most of them are cardboard Russian criminals using inferior technology to use crime.) This film ruins Ironman’s most important villain for good. As usual Robert Downey Jr. is fun to watch. But everything this film does was done better in the first. The great actor Ben Kingsley is completely wasted
The Lone Ranger-This ambitious Meta western with an unreliable narrator (Tonto) is neither smart enough to be compelling or campy enough to be humorous. There’s about half an hour of exciting footage towards the end with over two hours of buildup (the main character doesn’t even wear a mask for the first hour.) Even Johnny Depp is bad in it. The dated charm of the original and the considerable talent of the three leads is lost amidst the numbing violence, heavy handed symbolism and failed jokes This could be the new “Heaven’s Gate," but at least it's better than "Jonah Hex."
World War Z-No one should ever make a PG-13 zombie film: it’s a stupid idea. It’s like making a porn film with no sex or a mumblecore film without conversation. Also I predicted the whole plot in the first five minutes (spoiler alert: the film could have just been titled” Brad Pitt Saves the World. “ Watch any episode of the Walking Dead show instead. This time the book is better.
See more of Vittorio Carli’s writing at www.artinterviews.com .