It’s time once again to count down the best films of the previous year. Actually, if we’re being completely honest, it’s long past the time to present my Best of 2013 list. Unlike many of the critics out there, I don’t have access to everything by the end of 2013. What I do have access to usually isn’t accurate. So, it takes me a while to catch up to what everyone else is talking about (Yes, I did like AMERICAN HUSTLE and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. No, they did not make the cut). Add to this my horrible habit of procrastination, probably my biggest and most frustrating flaw, and you’ve got one last Best of 2013 list to enjoy, even after February 2013 has come upon us.
Fortunately, the extra time did allow me to catch up on a lot of films and there were some real treasures hiding in between all the boring and obvious choices. I also watched several films since my initial review, which means you’ll see a couple of films reviewed for a second time by me, with different results. What follows is a list of arty films, blockbusters and the genre pictures I love. An eclectic mix that makes up the 15 Best Films of 2013!
15. THE SPECTACULAR NOW – The coming of age flick is a time-honored tradition. There are plenty of bad ones, ones that wind up being as trite and tone-deaf as the behavior that pretend to be condemning (I’m looking at you, POST GRAD). A good one however can be as inspirational to old guys like me as they are the younger crowd.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW follows a teenager who’s a clown, a social climber and a burgeoning alcoholic. After breaking up with the popular girl at school, he strikes up a relationship with a reserved girl who isn’t his usual fit. While he enjoys going out and getting drunk, she enjoys reading sci-fi and watching anime. The evolution of this relationship is very genuine and grows so organically that you are taken on this journey with them. I felt very invested in these people and wanted the best for them.
Regardless of whether DIVERGENT is as big as they’re hoping, lead actress Shailene Woodley has a nice career ahead of her. She’s great here.
14. SHORT TERM 12 – No one likes to see children go through hell. There’s something about it, the fact that they aren’t as equipped to deal with what’s out there, coupled with the idea that whatever they suffer now will inform their growth later. It’s heartbreaking. But suffer they do, and thankfully there are people out there trying to make things a little easier for them.
SHORT TERM 12 focuses on the workers in a foster home. They have to deal with the conflicting personalities and emotional needs of their wards while navigating their own rocky personal lives. There are times when it feels like a documentary about youth at risk. Other times, it shows a complex and troubling backstory to the people who deal with these children every day. It could have all easily been a depressing slog or worse yet, an After School Special. SHORT TERM 12 is neither of these things. This is a powerful, well-acting and dare I say, hopeful motion picture about the emotional scars we endure and the ways in which we deal with them.
Also, I am turning into a big Brie Larson fan. She’s one of those actresses I’ve seen in a number of films, without fully grasping it was the same person. She deserves a shout out for her amazing work as SHORT TERM 12’s lead.
13. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – Hey, did anyone else notice that both of Leonardo DiCaprio’s films last year featured him as a wealthy master of the world whose walls came tumbling down?
Martin Scorsese’s film paints an appropriate picture of greed and excess in America. Jordan Belfort flaunts his extravagant lifestyle in a manner which must seem like porn to the followers of Ayn Rand. He also develops a sex and drug addiction and steps on a lot of people on the way.
Where does this rank on Scorsese’s films? I have no idea. Ranking Scorsese films is like ranking ice cream flavors. It’s all so tasty that you don’t want to give short shrift to any of them. Suffice to say that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is another towering achievement.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this film. Many publications have wondered if the film condones Belfort’s behavior. Indeed, Scorsese shows how intoxicating the lifestyle is. Most of the film shows Belfort deflecting everyone else while indulging in money, sex and controlled substances. But let’s also remember that he can barely move on all the quaaludes he takes, he screws over everyone around him and he punches his wife while calling her a “cunt.” Mark Hanna (a Matthew McConaughey performance that should have earned him a second nomination this year) lays it all out. Screw everything else. There is no product, there is just money. The customers (i.e. people) don’t matter. Everyone is a sucker that deserves to be taken advantage of. Nobody knows anything so to hell with anyone who gets in the way. If after all this, you still think of this as the model for how you want to live your life, I’m afraid that you’re a sociopath. But good news, sociopaths thrive in capitalist society. The people who are going to be inspired by this are the same losers who are inspired by SCARFACE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD. They are there for the good times, and tune out the moment their pre-conceived narrative is contradicted.
Whatever the moral implications, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is Scorsese’s smashing chronicle of a country with misplaced loyalties, where capitalism is king.
12. SHARKNADO – Half of you rode the hype surrounding SHARKNADO all the way to the summit and the rest of you shrugged and wondered if the world had lost its mind. But unlike previous pretenders to the throne (the downright drab and hipster-ish SNAKES ON A PLANE for instance), the Asylum knew how to deliver. They created a film that is absolutely ridiculous and yet not so much that it became tiresome.
But how in the world could I rank SHARKNADO higher than the latest Martin Scorsese film? Because I believe every film should be judged not on how well it fits in the classical definition of being “good,” but on how well it delivers on what its promises. Say what you will, SHARKNADO absolutely delivered. It was some of the stinkiest and most appetizing cheese of the year. Also, there are quite a few film snobs reading this who are a little outraged that I placed an Asylum film higher on this list than the latest films from some of Hollywood’s most celebrated artists. My amusement at this cannot be understated.
11. EVIL DEAD – If I had one review I wish I could take back from last year, this would be the one. I goofed, what can I say? When I saw EVIL DEAD on opening day, I took a lot of baggage with me and as a result, I was less than impressed. My two-star review is up on this site and it will remain, because every review is a snapshot in time. But the notion that opinions can never change should be rejected as stubborn and foolhardy. After I saw EVIL DEAD, I was underwhelmed. But then, something weird happened. I couldn’t get the film out of my head. For several months, at least once a day, I wound up thinking of what Fede Alvarez was going for. So, as soon as the film came out on video, I bought the Blu-ray and gave it a second chance. I’m a fan of second chances. And if it turned out to be terrible, I could always trade the disc in somewhere, right? I watched EVIL DEAD again, this time judging it on its own terms, not as something that was attempting to usurp Sam Raimi’s classic.
And right away, I was proven to be a fool in my initial review. Alvarez’s film was one of the most visceral, unpredictable, unrelenting experiences of the year. Good characters, fine performances and a ride that doesn’t stop as soon as it gets going. In my initial review, the fault wasn’t in the film but in the critic. I was unable to see past the film’s pedigree and appreciate the great horror flick at the center of it all. I hope I can correct that now.
10. THE LAST TYCOON (a.k.a. DA SHANG HAI) – Every bit as incredible as the early 1990s Hong Kong films and the epics of Zhang Yimou, THE LAST TYCOON is an incredible ride. The narrative blends the old story about a gangster’s rise to power with an interesting touch. In the corrupt world of Shanghai, bringing organization to corruption is seen as an almost Robin Hood-like gesture. It’s when the Japanese army begins to seize control that the true patriots are discovered.
THE LAST TYCOON contains a narrative that is absolutely captivating and characters you genuinely care about. The film itself is equal parts exhilarating, touching, inspiring, tragic and beautiful. It’s great to see former action stars Chow Yun Hat and Sammo Hung seasoned into such respected and talented thespians.
9. AMERICAN MARY – Another film I revisited after my initial review. If you go back, you will see a perfectly respectable three-star review for the Soska Sisters’ sophomore effort. But I kept being drawn back into Mary’s web and have seen it twice more since then. The few parts that didn’t sit so well with me the first time now make much more sense in the grand scheme of both this film and the Soskas’ odd brand of dark humor.
Katherine Isabelle delivers what is without a doubt the greatest performance by an actor last year. It’s just a fascinating emotional journey she takes us on. Mary has all her dreams and ambitions ripped away from her and from the ashes, she finds a new purpose, never quite sure if her sanity survived the trip. This is a film people won’t be through talking about for some time.
8. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – I don’t know if Matthew McConaughey will win the Oscar for DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, but he certainly should. This is a major turnaround for an actor who just a few years ago, represented all that was wrong hin Hollywood. How many times did we see him in bland romantic comedies or as the “aw shucks” good ‘ol boy who was basically a walking version of that Burt Reynolds poster from the 1970s? But a couple of years back, it’s as if McConaughey decided to start delivering on his promise, something he hadn’t done up to that point despite decent turns in underrated films like FRAILTY. Starting around MAGIC MIKE, McConaughey has been turning in solid performance after solid performance at the rate of a few winners every year. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is undoubtedly his finest achievement to date and shows us an actor who has truly grown into a real artist.
The film is a treat too. A look at the early days of the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of someone who takes charge of his life to find out the truth about the treatments being offered. The film is never sappy and serves as an indictment of government bureaucracy and the corruption of a fat for-profit medical industry, consisting of pharmaseutical companies, hospital administrations and high-priced insurance.
7. STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS – I was not a big fan of J.J. Abrams’ first trip to the final frontier, nor have I ever really understood all the craziness surrounding Abrams in general. This time however, Abrams brought his A-game and gave us the most entertaining film of the summer. A film that is infinitely more entertaining if you have seen the original films, this is a STAR TREK that continues the themes of the previous entry while cementing these characters in their new digs.
If you are very particular about your movie universes, then this is film destined to piss off some of the purists. However, I would argue that this installment does a much better job honoring its legacy than the previous installment. It’s streets ahead of the stuffy and cloying NEXT GENERATION films we’ve had to put up with. In retrospect, INTO DARKNESS’ “surprise” cameo is gratuitous and a bit too convenient to the plot. Otherwise, Abrams’ second outing in the franchise not only delivered the excitement we crave but the characters that resonate so strongly with millions of fans.
6. REWIND THIS! – I have friends and acquaintances who are VHS collectors. During the heyday of the format, I had thousands of the tapes myself. I don’t anymore, because I gladly switched to what I felt was a superior format. Therefore, when I would hear my friends mention that they popped in a VHS of something I know is available in crystal clear definition, I admit that I didn’t quite understand.
Within ten minutes of Josh Johnson’s insanely great documentary, REWIND THIS!, I got it. Johnson’s doc talks about the people who are collecting tapes and the reasons why they do it. But the doc goes a lot deeper than that. It’s also a history of the home video boom, from its very early stages, detailing exactly how the industry took off and who were the major players. It goes all the way through celebrating the independent video stores and why the rise of major chains like Blockbuster helped ensure a quicker demise for the format.
I now get what my friends are talking about, something the documentary BRONIES did not accomplish with the culture it detailed (Bronies, if you’re happy, God bless you. But yeah, you’re really on your own there.). REWIND THIS! is funny, informative and more than a little bittersweet. It was one of the most all-around fulfilling motion pictures of the year.
5. THE CONJURING – James Wan’s SAW was a major happening in the horror genre, but it’s a film I’ve always had a few problems with. I have always felt that the frantic style of that film and its sequels, particularly the quick cutting and Benny Hill-like speed-ups, detracted from whatever impact could have been gained from the material. While the rhythm the SAW movies aimed for was admirable, the overreliance on style was a disservice to the films overall.
With each film since SAW, Wan seems to have been suppressing that motif (though it will likely return in FAST & FURIOUS 7), instead relying more and more on atmosphere and suspense. With THE CONJURING, I feel that Wan finally has his masterpiece. A supposedly true story about a family moving into a rustic house and encountering demonic spirits is as worn out as plots come. But Wan, aided by a first-rate cast that takes the material seriously, quickly has us dismissing everything we’ve seen before. This is a genuinely spooky film that even made a jaded horror fan like myself jump and squeal.
4. GRAVITY – Smart science fiction has been coming back in a big way. The biggest and one of the best example of this was Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY. For the most part sticking to just a couple of principals, we are taken on one woman’s slow realization that she does want to live again and face another day. The special effects are fantastic and things sure look genuine. But as I’ve said elsewhere, the really amazing thing is how Sandra Bullock is able to support the film almost single-handedly. If her performance didn’t ring true, the entire film would have fallen apart like a house of cards. This wasn’t just a competent performance, it’s a brilliant one. The film itself is actually pretty simple when you get down to it. But the themes explored are quite inspirational in a way that is easy to grasp onto without being patronizing to the audience.
3. HER – Spike Jonze’s film about love in the age of wi-fi is a funny, touching and complex masterstroke. Every time the film could have chosen the easy way out, it does something far more interesting. It would have been easy to make Joaquin Phoenix’s shy, rebounding character completely pathetic, a schlub that would latch onto the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansen precisely because she is artificial. It doesn’t do that, instead allowing Phoenix (who is slowly but surely helping us forgive his douchebaggery from a few years ago) to portray him as a real person. His character has been hurt by love and life, but he’s not spineless. Likewise, Scarlett’s OS could have been treated like a machine incapable of understanding real human emotion. After all, she was designed to be completely in tune with whatever person she was matched up with, which would ordinarily make any notion of individuality a moot point. In a complete reversal of this logic, she is an emotional being and HER goes to great lengths to capture her wonder at these new sensations. In fact, it may be humanity that has a harder time dealing with these issues than the OS’s. She is capable of disagreeing and the film even hints to certain OS’s not getting along with their users. One of the panelists on the podcasts I’ve been fortunate enough to partake in recently brought up that HER even hints to the realization of the singularity, a theory that has scientists both excited and fearful.
Scarlett Johansen (who came in during post, after Jonze didn’t think Samantha Morton’s performance was quite what he wanted) is more evidence that we need to have Oscars for voice acting. It’s getting ridiculous. From professional voice actors to established actors, the role of voice acting in films both animated and otherwise has flourished in the last ten years and needs to be honored. She’s incredible. Jonze has created an amazing love story for the modern world. Science fiction that doesn’t feel like science fiction because it resonates with us so perfectly.
2. STOKER – Chan Wook-Park’s American debut came and went without much comment. I don’t know, maybe people didn’t get it, maybe they weren’t receptive to it. Whatever the case, you guys missed out.
On the surface, it’s a film about a creepy uncle with some obvious murderous tendencies and strange designs on his niece, India. But underneath, it’s about the repressed desires we hide from the rest of the world, the savagery that could be hiding in the most innocuous of guises. It’s about how people break out of their cocoons and become who they are, and how sometimes that is a violent and horrifying process. Mia Wasikowska is excellent as India Stoker, a young girl making the transiton from prey to predator.
Park chooses some inventive and highly effective techniques to render this deeply psychological film onto the screen. He keeps us guessing as we watch the fires within India ignited – after being “stoked,” you see. It’s a highly involving film that should make fans of Chabrol and Clouzot salivate.
And my pick for the best film of 2013 is….
1. BYZANTIUM – If we’re talking about films that were overlooked, they don’t get much more overlooked than this. Not only did Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) give us the best vampire film since LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, he has crafted a film that manages to balance all of its moods perfectly.
Jordan’s talents lie in getting in the heads of the characters. BYZANTIUM is a complex story about loyalties, survival instincts and where love and companionship try to find room. One could easily see this as the topper to an unofficial trilogy of supernatural pictures that started with THE COMPANY OF WOLVES and continued on with INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. In each of these films, Jordan not only explored otherworldly creatures, but the psychology of being one of or being with one of them. More intimate than INTERVIEW and more grounded in reality than COMPANY, BYZANTIUM shows us two characters whose power is rendered meaningless. Though they have strength and immortality on their side, they live in fear of discovery both from the mundane world and the misogynistic elders who don’t like the idea of feminine independence and sisterhood.
Taken together, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE and BYZANTIUM are a psychologically fascinating exploration of the struggles to deal with a confusing and dangerous world. Taken by itself, BYZANTIUM is easily the best film of 2013.