Is it too early for this shit? Probably. There's a chance I'll see something before the end of the year that'll make me regret posting this - hell, it's likely. I've missed a few this year. Not as much as last year, but a bit. But I'm pretty comfortable with this list I've put together. Are there movies out there I need to see? You bet. But if I waited to see everything, it would be well into 2014 at that point, because I just can't cover all the ground that I'd like to cover. Yeah, I'll regret it later. Plus, I'm going to be taking some needed time off (of my primary job, anyway, I'll be writing a few reviews here that I have cooking), and I need to recharge a bit. These things are always fluid anyway - ordinarily I would have put movies on this list that I saw at festivals and haven't opened yet, but that's not exactly fair to you as a filmgoer, and a couple of these films won't get widely released until after the New Year.
Can I go off topic for a second? I hate the way Hollywood releases movies at the end of the year. I get an opportunity to see things a bit early, but I think for anything to be eligible for these kinds of lists, the movie should be widely released by December 31st, not just in special markets. Sure, maybe it'll be a mad dash for cinephiles that last week, but I doubt they'd mind with an abundance of great cinema to choose from. It's a bigger country than New York or Los Angeles, no offense to those wonderful cities. It's a missed opportunity to see what movies resonate with audiences as well as critics, and maybe widely releasing every movie would include audiences who might want to be a part of the conversation.
2013 was phenomenal. It started strong, dipped a bit in the summer (but not as much as I expected), but once September came around, there was no stopping the great cinema of 2013. How does this year hold up to others? I don't know, and I'm not really interested in that kind of ranking game. Just know that it was a hell of a year, and a lot of movies didn't make the list simply because I found 10 I loved more. Movies like PACIFIC RIM, still my favorite blockbuster of the summer, followed very closely by FAST AND FURIOUS 6. Movies like STOKER, which grew on me over the months but not enough to quite make this list. And there's a few like that - THE KINGS OF SUMMER, SPRING BREAKERS, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, There's the almost-made-its: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, UPSTREAM COLOR, NEBRASKA, PAIN & GAIN (yeah, you read right), THE WORLD'S END, BLUE JASMINE, THIS IS THE END, ALL IS LOST, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, FROZEN, AMERICAN HUSTLE. There's the pound-for-pound tentpole releases that, while I loved them, didn't make the list either: IRON MAN 3, MAN OF STEEL, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. There are a few films that I saw in 2013 that I enjoyed at the time but disappeared from the mind like vapor. But all in all, I had a great time at the movies, barring a few disappointments.
But these 10 are the ones I'm going to really carry with me after 2013 is gone. Movies hit me on a personal level, and it's at that level that I put these 10 on the list. You'll likely disagree, and that's fine. But for me, these 10 films affected me the most. They may not be "best" in the strictest definition, but they're MY "best". These are great films that deserve attention, and while they may not be right for you, they very much are for me. Is one movie truly "better" than the other? I can only speak for myself and what these films did for me, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Let's get started.
There are films for me, like RUSHMORE, that just hit so close to home that I have to acknowledge them. And much like Wes Anderson's work in RUSHMORE, I feel like Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews either knew me in high school, or talked to friends of mine. Both ZERO CHARISMA and RUSHMORE feature fairly unlikable characters at their center, but unlike Max Fischer, Scott only barely moves forward, and Sam Eidson's performance is seriously terrific. I think Scott's unlikable because we see ourselves in him, even if only a little. ZERO CHARISMA isn't a big movie, doesn't have a big budget or special effects, but it's got more heart and soul than many other films released this year.
ZERO CHARISMA isn't just well-directed, it's got a biting, savvy script that knows how to land a punch, but those punches don't bruise the nerds and geeks that are their target, at least not in ways that aren't loving and informative. We all recognize something of ourselves in the movie - if not Scott, then perhaps Miles, or in Scott's friends, or Scott's relationship with his family. All the performances are good, but it's Sam Eidson who really is destined for great things here. It's subtle; even when Scott is raging we can see the wounded person underneath, and it's difficult work for an actor to make someone like Scott sympathetic. ZERO CHARISMA has stuck with me over the year, and it's one I intend to revisit again and again. My review.
I've talked about THE WIND RISES quite a bit now, not only in my review but in my BNAT 2013 retrospective, and I don't have much more to add. It's a beautiful film about difficult subjects - how art goes beyond the ability of its creator to control, how intentions get transformed into horrible deeds, and how a man tries to justify himself when his passion meets the hunger of war. It's all there, but Hayao Miyazaki gently adds his meaning to his films and isn't abrupt with it. Are there conversations to be had about THE WIND RISES? Absolutely, and I think Miyazaki's film invites those discussions rather than pushes them away. I think, once more people see the film, THE WIND RISES will open up for many filmgoers, and a deeper understanding of not only history but of Miyazaki's own work will commence.
This, frankly, is where I lose some of you, but I don't care. Richard Curtis's ABOUT TIME devastated me, and I wish more audiences saw this wonderful, beautiful movie. It's a simple premise, but Curtis, with his knowing script and the terrific performances he gets out of Domnhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, and especially Bill Nighy, wrings all the emotion he can out of this charming story about a time traveler and how he uses his ability to get closer to his wife and family. It reminded me of the relationships I've had over the years, especially with my own father, and I wrote a review that perhaps got a bit too personal. But that's just how this movie affected me, and I make no apologies for it.
Plus, I got a rather amazing e-mail out of that review that I'll cherish forever. Your film definitely made it to the end of the pool for me, Mr. Curtis.
I've seen Steve McQueen's quiet epic three times now, and the more I see it, the more powerful it becomes. Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is still the best of the year, and he's surrounded by great work from Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and especially Lupita Nyong'o. Even in its bleakest moments, 12 YEARS A SLAVE keeps us riveted and gives us a sense of hope, all the while showing us the evils of that world.
I also admire McQueen's incredible restraint - in the way a woman cries for her children, or the way Michael Fassbender looks at his wife, volumes are told, and 12 YEARS A SLAVE is rich with inner life. McQueen is a director to be reckoned with, and I hope that he continues to tell compelling stories, exploring what it means to be human, trapped in restraints of our own making, or trapped in a world that despises. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is powerful and important. My review.
I saw BEFORE MIDNIGHT at South By Southwest, and it floored me. I've always loved Richard Linklater's BEFORE series, and how it grew with the viewer, and there are moments in these films that cut deep. But none cut as deep as BEFORE MIDNIGHT - while SUNRISE explored young love, full of hope and optimism, and SUNSET examined love tempered with pain and the realities of life, MIDNIGHT looks at the trials and tribulations of married life, and speculates how love can flourish under the weight of responsibility, loss, and time. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have never been better as Jesse and Celine, and I loved how the conversations turn on a dime, especially in the film's final act, as Jesse and Celine rip their relationship wide open.
I was also surprised at the humor of BEFORE MIDNIGHT, and you can tell that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy love these people and what they have to say. BEFORE MIDNIGHT, along with the rest of the five films on this list, are very, very close in my estimations, and just because I rank BEFORE MIDNIGHT here do not think I feel any less strongly about it since I saw it originally. These last six films are very, very close to my heart. I don't know what lies next for Jesse and Celine, but if it ends at that dinner table, or if it goes on into the later years, I'll be happy indeed that these movies are in my world.
I haven't written a formal review of Spike Jonze's HER yet, because honestly, I'm a bit intimidated by the prospect of it. HER is a very personal experience for whoever watches it, because one cannot help but compare the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and our own relationships in our lives. Not just our great loves, either, but our friends online as well as in real life. And you start to wonder how the nature of our relationships has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Anyone who time-traveled from the year 1985 would not recognize the world as it is now, and how we relate to each other. How the slightest murmur online affects each of us. HER opens up ideas about our world and our future, and it does so in unique ways. Hell, I love how people dress in HER - apparently belts for men are a thing of the past.
But it's the love that Theodore has for Samantha that forms the emotional center of HER, and Phoenix is spectacularly good in this. Scarlett Johansson gives one of the best voice-over performances ever done, and as Samantha explores her newly discovered universe, and grows beyond the boundaries of not only her relationship with Theodore but herself as well, we find ourselves relating to her in many ways. For anyone who has ever loved and lost, HER will speak directly to their soul. I get the feeling that HER, like THE GRADUATE, will pass over older generations but hit very close to home to the younger set. As for me, I think HER may well be Spike Jonze's finest work, and I'm stunned by the skills on display here. This is the work of a master filmmaker.
GRAVITY is that rare film that I don't really want to see come to home theater, unless that home theater is an IMAX screen. I've seen it in pretty much all its varieties, and while I still think the story and the acting are all top-notch, I also think that the experience of seeing this in 3D IMAX gives the film even more thematic weight that might not be as apparent at home. GRAVITY, as an experience, is unparalleled. It's likely that of this year's crop of films, GRAVITY will be the most fondly remembered, and I'm completely fine with that. If Warner Brothers wanted to bring back GRAVITY to the IMAX screen every couple of years, I think that would be a great thing. I'd bet dollars to donuts that it would still draw audiences.
Alfonso Cuaron created a massive world to play in, but I love that he also gave us such deep emotional beats as well. Sandra Bullock has never been better in any role she's ever played, but I'd also like to give props to George Clooney, who is the world's biggest movie star for a reason. His performance is harder than it looks, and it recalls all those wonderful performances of old Hollywood. I could see someone like Cary Grant nailing a role like that. GRAVITY is a grand achievement from top to bottom, and Alfonso Cuaron has given us true wonder, splendor, and grace. He's one of the great directors of our time.
Seeing THE WOLF OF WALL STREET at BNAT was an amazing experience, and definitely one of the best movies I've ever seen there. That crowd felt like it had done some of the many drugs that Jordan Belfort and his friends do during the course of that movie. I think that some people might have misinterpreted my review when I said that it may be too late for moral outrage at the nefarious deeds of Belfort as he cheats and steals his way to the top, and they might think that Martin Scorsese has lost his sense of moral urgency. Not a chance. Scorsese shows us crime that is truly without limits; you think some Italians in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were bad? They are NOTHING in comparison to the avarice of these guys who happily wreck our way of life and walk away tossing hundred dollar bills like used tissues.
But Scorsese takes such glee in showing us these white-collar scumbags, and has so much fun telling this story, that it could be mistaken for indifference or even sympathy. Don't believe that for a second. Sometimes the best way to rouse people is to make them laugh at it first, and then as it slowly dawns on us that there are people doing this every hour of every day here in America, to slowly get angry. But anger, Scorsese suggests, is useless. Unless we do something, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET plays on a loop in the streets and skyscrapers of America, and nothing will change. This is Scorsese's best film in years, and ranks up there with GOODFELLAS, RAGING BULL, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and MEAN STREETS.
Like most Coen Brothers movies, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS grew on me with subsequent viewings. Although I listen to folk music, I have no real knowledge of the history behind it save for broad strokes, so INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, for me, may be incredibly accurate or it may not be. I've never lived in New York, either, and I have little experience with the music business. None of that matters, though. If the Coen Brothers stopped making movies tomorrow, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS would be a perfect movie to end on. It's a movie about loss, endings and beginnings, and for me, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, for the Coens, contemplates a life lived without the other. Using a word like "personal" to describe a Coen Brothers movie seems a little inappropriate, since they do not come across as the most open of people, but if you look at their work, you can see an arc that feels like a worldview.
And INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS feels very much like a mission statement in that regard. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) isn't the easiest guy to get along with - he has the chops, to be sure, but not the people skills, and while he may make great music, it's not the kind that's going to be universally embraced. Is that something the Coens are seeking? Or are they happy with how people perceive their work? It's all there in the film, if you look. But INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS also works as a character piece, an exploration of folk music, and of the 1960s, and of a world now long gone. It's so many things, and what's so wonderful about the film is that you can explore so many facets. I have the feeling I'll be revisiting this movie for quite some time to come, and I'll be getting something new out of it every time.
It helps that the music is terrific, and the performances are so strong. Isaac brings a bitterness, a weariness to Llewyn that goes to the bones, and I love his deadpan reactions to the many characters in the movie. I love the humor of the film, especially in "Please Mr. Kennedy," one of the funniest scenes in the Coen roster. I love how the movie comes full circle. It's hard to pinpoint one great thing about the film when there are so many things to appreciate. I still don't know where it ranks in the Coen Brothers catalog for me. Time will tell.
Which brings us to...
This is the most important film, I think, that I've covered in my time here at Ain't It Cool. Joshua Oppenheimer's exploration of evil and torture in Indonesia, and how evil men try to exorcise their own demons, is the most compelling film I've seen this year. While contemplating this list, many movies switched places, or dropped altogether, but throughout my whole decision-making process, THE ACT OF KILLING never left my mind, and for a while, I was unsure where to rank it, because it's just so much bigger than a mere list can indicate. This is not a joyful film, basking in the warmth and love of humanity. This is a film that pulls the bindings off old wounds, exposing them to the daylight in hopes that they may someday close and heal.
THE ACT OF KILLING comes out on video release in January, and I urge you to seek out this film. It won't be easy moviegoing. But I cannot think of a film in 2013 that has given me such strong emotional impact and power. When Anwar realizes the evil he has done, it was a visceral, agonizing moment to watch, and I haven't really recovered. The best film of 2013, hands down, and one of the best documentaries ever made.
I don't really believe in listing the worst films of 2013, because my idea of worst differs from most people's; bad movies are never as devastating to me as movies that disappointed me, and I'd rather move onward and upward. But I've seen some movies that will be released in 2014 that have a good shot at being on next year's Top 10 - movies like BLUE RUIN, CHEAP THRILLS, and GRAND PIANO. And who knows what 2014 has in store? I can't wait to find out. Hope you have a terrific holiday season, and I hope you see some great movies. I know I will.