I have done “Ten Best” lists in past years, but I always felt a little fraudulent when doing so. Even with as many films as I watched when I was writing reviews on a more regular basis, I still only was able to take in a fraction of the movies that come out in a given year. Last year, I probably only saw around a quarter of the films that came out in the United States. That leaves a ton of movies unwatched. Notable movies from 2013, for example, that I still have not seen include 12 Years a Slave, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, and many others. With that in mind, I have decided not to call this a “best of” list and just offer up my favorite films from 2013. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the best 2013 films. It is simply a sharing of the films I enjoyed the most. I hope a few readers out there will encounter some films on this list that they might not have seen or heard of and seek them out.
So here, in no particular order, are my favorite films of 2013:
We Are What We Are (USA, Director: Jim Mickle)
All the promise Jim Mickle and Nick Damici showed with Mulberry St. and Stake Land comes together in this film. Harrowing, sad, and unnerving, it’s a film that sticks with you long after you watch it. You can read my review here for a more in-depth look at what makes a remake one of my favorites of the year.
The Battery (USA, Director: Jeremy Gardner)
This micro-budget indie could be the most plausible look at what a zombie apocalypse might actually be like. Writer/producer/director/star Jeremy Gardner turns the creatively exhausted zombie film on its ear by delivering a road movie where the biggest threat isn’t being eaten by the undead or killed by other survivors. Instead, boredom, annoyance with your traveling companion, and sexual frustration all prove to be more immediate concerns for two unlikely survivors (Gardner and Adam Cronheim) as they wander the New England countryside. This is a funny, smart, and surprisingly touching film worth seeking out.
Resolution (USA, Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
Another micro-budget indie that makes a good companion piece to The Battery. Both films focus on the prickly relationship between two friends who find themselves stuck in situations where the outside world is hostile to their survival. But Resolution focuses less on how its two leads (Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran) care for each other under their outward antagonism and more on how stories are told, both through the lies we tell ourselves and others, and how we try (and fail) to fit our lives into neat arcs. This is a heady genre film that manages to create a sense of all-consuming dread through some great acting and inventive editing. You can read my full review of the film here.
Gravity (USA, Director: Alfonso Cuarón)
A technical masterpiece from Alfonso Cuarón. This is a pure survival film that is breathless in its immediacy and terrifying in the way outer space is presented as the ultimate pitiless environment. It’s a place humans were never meant to survive and the film reminds us of this at every turn. While the dialogue is corny and the film commits the sin of having characters say out loud what they are thinking at every turn, it’s still a stunning piece of work as it seamlessly mixes beautiful cinematography and special effects to bring the story to vivid life.
Sightseers (UK, Director: Ben Wheatley)
A pitch-black comedy from director Ben Wheatley that takes a dysfunctional relationship to its logical extreme. It’s not for everyone, but if you can get on board with its morbid humor and Wheatley’s habit of editing out the connective tissue between scenes, it’s a very funny—and cynical—movie.
Prince Avalanche (USA, Director: David Gordon Green)
After several studio stoner comedies, David Gordon Green goes back to his low budget roots…sort of. While the film shares some of the loose feel and lyrical beauty of his early works, it’s also far sillier than those films ever were. Part of this comes from the casting of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch—two actors who tend to accentuate their mannerisms—as workers repairing a stretch of Texas road that was damaged in a massive wildfire in the mid ’80s. While Rudd tiptoes up to the line of making his character just a little too twee and Hirsch slightly overplays his young meathead, the camaraderie that develops between the two is infectious as they work out their mostly low-key personal dramas. It is something of a rarity: a gentle, sincere character piece that doesn’t try to surprise with big reveals or drastic shifts in tone.
Behind the Candelabra and Side Effects (USA, Director Steven Soderbergh)
If Steven Soderbergh has really retired from filmmaking, he’s going out on a hell of a high note. In Candelabra, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon dig deeper than simple impersonations in telling the story of Liberace and his longtime boyfriend Scott Thorson, investing them with the humor, pathos, and monstrousness that comes with the toxic combination of fame, money, drugs, and love. Soderbergh uses their story to touch on the loneliness that comes with fame and hiding one’s sexuality, the ways that love can either strengthen or weaken over time, and the hubris that wealth and ego can feed. It’s also very funny with a supporting cast of comic ringers that includes Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager and Rob Lowe under a disturbing amount of makeup as a scummy plastic surgeon.
With Side Effects, Soderbergh pulls off a genre sleight-of-hand with a film that starts out as a character study of a young woman suffering from depression (Rooney Mara) before changing protagonists and morphing into a twisty mystery. It’s a slickly made film that doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Candelabra but works as a summation of what made Soderbergh such a strong, reliable presence in American film through his stylish but practical shot choices and editing and economic style of storytelling.
American Hustle (USA, Director: David O. Russell)
A fictionalized account of the FBI’s questionable Abscam sting of the late ‘70s, co-writer/director David O. Russell turns in the best Martin Scorsese film not directed by Martin Scorsese. With an elite ensemble cast, spot on period details, and bursts of raucous comedy, it would be easy to overlook the cynicism and anger at the heart of the film. As much as the characters in the film justify their actions as just doing what they have to do to survive, Russell never lets them off the hook. He uses their story to paint a picture of a country where good people are easily corrupted, law enforcement is more worried about headlines than the legality of their operation, the sincere are punished, and people undeserving of a happy ending are given one. If that was all Russell did with American Hustle (originally titled American Bullshit, which is a better and more apt title), it would be a good film. That he was also able to maintain affection and sympathy for his monstrous characters makes it a great one.
A Band Called Death (USA, Directors: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett)
A great story, told with simple, heartfelt earnestness. Death was a ’70s band made up of three African-American brothers from Detroit. Sporting an ahead of its time sound that fell somewhere between punk, hard rock, and progressive rock, the band turned their back on a record deal with a major label because they refused to change their controversial name. After disbanding, two of the brothers went on to form a reggae group while the oldest brother—and band leader—eventually descended into alcoholism and died at a young age. What could have been a depressing story of artistic talent snuffed out becomes a touching story of a comeback as the band’s music finds an appreciative audience thirty years later through a network of rare record collectors, the Internet, and the children of one of the brothers who had formed their own band without being aware of their father and uncle’s musical legacy. A story of innovation ignored and eventually rewarded, this documentary touches on issues of family vs. business and highlights the music of a band from a bygone era that sounds surprisingly contemporary.
Passion (Germany/France, Director: Brian De Palma)
I honestly went back and forth on whether to include Brian De Palma’s Passion on this list. The first 45 minutes are a bit of a slog. But all the plot setup and character details that are put into place pay off beautifully with a third act that is the purest cut of unfiltered De Palma the big screen has seen in over ten years. As a group of truly repellant characters seduce and stab each other in the back, De Palma uses every trick in his magical cinema bag to make the audience question what is and isn’t real. It’s a devious contraption that lacks a heart or a soul, but with the story being told, that’s as it should be. Just be patient for the first half of the film and you will be rewarded.
The World’s End (UK, Director: Edgar Wright)
The bleakest collaboration between co-writer/director Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg, and star Nick Frost, The World’s End is also the most emotionally resonant. It nimbly avoids clichés about a pathetic man-child who tries to cling to his youth with his largely unwilling friends as they face down middle age. It’s so funny and cringe-inducing in its honesty, the sci-fi twist the film takes in the second act almost feels unnecessary even as it takes the story down a darker alley than it was already headed. Given a character arc that arguably finds him becoming a worse person as the film goes along, Pegg shines, giving a performance that would earn him accolades in a “serious” movie.
Her (USA, Director: Spike Jonze)
A tremendous performance by Joaquin Phoenix anchors this melancholy love story about starting over after a divorce. Forget the sci-fi hook that the bounce back romance happens with an artificial intelligence computer operating system, Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (as the voice of the operating system), and writer/director Spike Jonze are playing this for real human emotion. Shockingly, they don’t hit a false note. Full of humor and heartbreak, this is that rare film for adults that speaks as much about the human propensity to seek out love as it subtly skewers a world where we interact more with our computers than we do with each other.
Upstream Color (USA, Director: Shane Carruth)
Nine long years after his debut film, Primer, writer/producer/director/editor/co-star/professional multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth returns with a film that is a little more straight forward. Where Primer used a basic sci-fi premise to examine the potential psychological damage that could occur to time travelers before flying off the rails, Upstream Color feels both larger and more personal. Falling into an undefinable area between sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, and romance, the film explores the pain, anguish, frustration, and feelings of helplessness that come with mental illness. But it does so through a style that feels like David Lynch at his most heartless and sentimental. This one takes complete attention, but if you’re willing to do a little work as a viewer, you will be rewarded with a film that hits alternating moods of dread and hope without breaking a sweat. In a perfect world, Amy Seimetz would be collecting tons of awards for her touching performance.
You’re Next (USA, Director: Adam Wingard)
It was a long two year wait after You’re Next caused a stir at the Toronto International Film Festival. For certain independent horror fans, its long delay before being released only increased its legend to the point that expectations were unfairly raised. When it was finally released, some complained the film was overrated. Those people would be called idiots. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett cleverly twist the tired home invasion genre by presenting the seemingly clichéd setup of three killers in animal masks attacking a dysfunctional family in their isolated country home and then subverting the expected clichés every step of the way. While some jump scares are present, Wingard shows an assured hand at building suspense, giving breathing room to character moments, and mixing in humor without breaking the mounting tension. With a capable heroine (Sharni Vinson) who is (gasp!) proactive and a match for the increasingly rattled attackers, you get one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year. Bonus: a great cast made up of genre favorites (Barbara Crampton, AJ Bowen) and indie filmmakers (Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Amy Seimetz) for the deeply invested movie nerds in the audience.
Iron Man 3 (USA/China, Director: Shane Black)
Yes, I’m serious. The majority of the Marvel films have ranged from mediocre to solid but forgettable. The first Iron Man bucked that trend before settling in that range with the second film and the use of the character in The Avengers. Taking over for director Jon Favreau, co-writer/director Shane Black brings a welcome subversive sense of humor to the series. He also continues the theme of playboy extraordinaire Tony Stark’s past misdeeds continually coming back to bite him in the ass. It’s nice to find a summer blockbuster that doesn’t take itself seriously or overstay its welcome. Iron Man 3 fits that bill and delivered a really good time.
Mud (USA, Director: Jeff Nichols)
Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ third film veers away from the carefully constructed realities of rural life that he presented in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. Steeped in the southern gothic stories of Faulkner and the comedic morality tales of Mark Twain, Mud is a powerful film about facing the harsh realities of growing up and watching your dreams disappear. But this downbeat theme is put across with moments of magical realism, gentle character comedy, and a goofy performance by Matthew McConaughey that place the film firmly in the realm of folklore. This collision of bitter truths with moments of whimsy eventually gives way to a grim third act that relies a little too much on a stock shootout, but the unusual tone and good cast playing against type make the film one of the most unique semi-major releases of the year.
John Dies at the End (USA, Director: Don Coscarelli)
Admittedly, I’m a Don Coscarelli apologist. But even if he were not the writer/director (adapting the novel by David Wong) of John Dies at the End, I would still count the film as maybe the best time I had in a theater last year. A chaotic combination of slapstick, clever wordplay, apocalyptic horror, sci-fi, and liberal doses of gore, it’s at once the funniest movie I saw last year and the most ambitious. Coscarelli isn’t just interested in making the audience laugh, he wants to simultaneously gross them out, make them paranoid about how the chaos of the Universe could destroy their lives, and keep up with the drastic tonal shifts the story takes. It’s a film that rewards repeat viewings and features one of the best comedic casts of recent memory. You can read my full review here.
Drug War (China/Hong Kong, Director: Johnnie To)
Channeling the spirit of late ’80s Hong Kong action cinema, co-writer/director Johnnie To’s Drug War combines the black-and-white view of drug use that Nancy Reagan would approve of (not to mention the mainland Chinese government which To had to deal with for the first time in his career) with an over-the-top climax that blows up his carefully constructed police procedural. The third act of this film alone was the best action movie I saw last year.
Gimme the Loot (USA, Director: Adam Leon)
A loose, funny, endearing indie that feels like the ultra low-budget American independent films of the late ’80s-early ’90s. There’s not much story to writer/director Adam Leon’s debut feature, but he successfully immerses the audience in the world of New York graffiti artists and gets stellar performances out of his two leads (Tashiana Washington, Ty Hickson). There’s a sweetness and innocence to the protagonists even as they spout profanity at a rapid clip and plot ways to rip off anyone they can to further their artistic ambitions. Featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year, this was a happy surprise and one of the least pretentious indie films to come along in years.
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