With the Oscars upon us, I’ve posted my top films of 2013. Keep in mind that the list isn’t set in stone – like most lists, mine is subject to change as I grow older, gain new life experiences, watch more movies etc. Ten years from now, perhaps I’ll develop an unreasonable love for The Great Gatsby, or maybe I’ll decide that Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine is not so impressive after all. Unlikely, but maybe. The same goes for the selections on this list, indicating the fundamentally subjective nature of film viewing. And yet I’ll try very hard to convince you of my choices, because I truly believe these movies are worth seeing.
Before I begin, here are some films I was unfortunately unable to see before tonight and that might’ve stood a chance at making it onto this list: The Past, The Act of Killing, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Beauty, The Wind Rises, The Hunt, Rush, and All is Lost.
And now, the movies:
The movie plays out like a contemporary reimagining of a Mark Twain narrative, refreshingly simple in execution but riveting in the dark realities to which it alludes. Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Mud gazes upon a bleak adult world through the eyes of youth, whose naiveté imbues the film’s proceedings with an air that is by turns nostalgic, mysterious, and dramatically ironic – nostalgic through the film’s evocation of a fable-esque American South, mysterious in the way our young hero’s limited perspective renders the events of the adult world fragmented rather than linear, and dramatically ironic during powerfully suspenseful moments when we realize the context of the film’s story before the characters do. Juggling all these nuances in tone, the film numbly navigates a wide spectrum of genres, unifying and defying convention to create a wholly original narrative whose bold ventures into unpredictability are refreshing and thrilling.
4. The Spectacular Now
This breathless, beautiful movie speaks the idiom of adolescence. It’s not just the dialogue, which is fast and funny in a way that feels fabulously true to the way young people actually talk, but the performances, the storytelling, and the overall attitude of compassion. Kudos to Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley for making us believe in their characters, and to scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber for reprising the wit and wisdom that made their script for (500) Days of Summer such a revitalizing blast. True to its title, The Spectacular Now is exuberantly present-tense, tapping the vivid reality of youth as it flows around the characters and their doubts and dreams. In the magical years between childhood and adulthood, memory-making moments seem to last for eternity even as emotions fly in the face of life’s messy passage. The movie captures this with eloquent honesty, and it bursts like fireworks from the soul.
The movie’s a mammoth technical achievement even in our post-Avatar, post-Life of Pi world. Taking meticulous account of the laws of astrophysics (scientists have quibbled over the film’s few inaccuracies, but Gravity still comes light years closer than any of its predecessors to getting it all right), the latest opus from director Alfonso Cuarón creates a stunning space-scape through vivid 3D and extraordinarily complex sound design. But Cuarón is a storyteller at heart, interested not only in outer space but in inner space, a facet introduced through a narrative strand that some critics have found melodramatic or unnecessary. I found it riveting. The way in which Cuarón uses the story to converge the vast expanse of the cosmos into the intimate depths of the human heart scales up the emotions to the level of archetype. I felt I was watching not just a virtuoso thriller but an epic metaphor for the human spirit.
To read my full review, click here.
2. Before Midnight
Oh how they talk! Two films and eighteen years later, Jesse and Celine remain cinema’s most vocal lovers in Before Midnight, the third installment in Richard Linklater’s epic romantic saga and a movie that’s not so much about fictional characters than reuniting with old friends. And yet things have changed. We can tell from the actors, who have aged in real-time alongside their characters in the hiatus between the films, but also from the script, whose wandering, digressive nature captures the heart of the couple’s disillusionment and discontent. Like in the Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the dialogue here is a marvel. Comprising just four conversations over the course of the movie’s 109-minute runtime, the film captures human speech in freeform. Distracted chatter in a car ride, snatches of lunchtime conversation, a toxic argument – the entire movie has the rambling indirection of real life, except the deep emotional truths it plumbs attests to a master director at his prime.
To read my full review, click here.
Like 2010’s The Social Network, Her is a movie of its 21st century moment. It funnels the anxieties of the digital age into a breathless love story that explores the shifting definition of humanity in a world swept up in the technological tides of change. Using its central romance between a lovelorn letter writer and his intelligent OS as a thematic springboard, the latest Spike Jonze concoction delves into the philosophical quandaries surrounding the Singularity, the hypothetical point in time when artificial intelligence will have overtaken the intelligence of its creators. Many heady, concept films adopt a pseudo-clinical detachment towards their characters, whereas poignant dramas let emotion overtake higher-level thinking. What is astonishing about Her is its refusal to compromise on either – the film sends the best of both worlds running through the veins of every scene like electricity. There are moments of aesthetic beauty – a stroll through a forest at snowfall, for instance, or a sublime LA nightscape to rival Tokyo in Lost in Translation, the mood piece par excellence – but the film complicates even these moments with provocative ideas that undermine our very understanding of beauty itself. This attempt to navigate both the passionate and the cerebral ensures a tension in tone, but it is precisely this tension that encapsulates the film’s embodiment of human nature at its most baffling and exhilarating.
To read my full review, click here.
Short Term 12: An honest film through and through, Short Term 12 focuses on a foster-care facility and grows into a work of startling compassion. It features a grounded, beautiful performance from Brie Larson.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: An improvement over its predecessor in almost every respect, Catching Fire is the kind of entertainment that makes your pulse quicken with the one-two punch of blockbuster bravado and urgent humanity.
12 Years a Slave: For the unflinching way in which it depicts slavery not simply as an atrocity but as insinuating itself into every aspect of American life, Steve McQueen’s antebellum exposé is essential viewing.
Fast & Furious 6: The film reinvigorates the modern action picture alongside films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, blending lovable kitsch with spectacular set pieces shot through with both camp and urgency.
Upstream Color: The sophomore feature from director Shane Carruth (Primer) is an absolute enigma, but it achieves a beguiling beauty through its Malick-esque fusion of sound and image. The result lends the film’s quasi-narrative the quality of a half-remembered dream.