Aaron’s Top Ten of 2013
First: the obligatory disclaimer. My top 10 rankings are based on world-wide theatrical release, so if a foreign film premiered in its home country (or elsewhere) in 2012 before coming to the United States in 2013, it is not eligible. This obviously disqualifies a number of quality films. For example, both The Hunt and The Act of Killing would have been on my list this year, perhaps in the top 5 — incidentally, they both would make my revisionist 2012 top 10 list. For this list, I use an illogical, internal statistical system that weighs what I believe are “the best” films of the year with the ones I enjoyed the most. A well told story that I didn’t feel fully involved in (12 Years a Slave) won’t make the list. Neither will a film that I had a great time with while understanding it isn’t the height of cinema (This Is the End). All in all, it doesn’t make sense, but its my Top 10 list so I’ll do what I want. And then I’ll begin regretting what I put on here for all times. For 2013, here are my next 10, alphabetically: 12 Years a Slave, Blackfish, Drinking Buddies, Fast & Furious 6, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mud, Prisoners, The Spectacular Now, The Wolf of Wall Street.
10. You’re Next
With the dearth of quality horror films these days, I’m saddened how little business You’re Next did when really terrible and dumb movies like The Devil Inside go on to break 100 million at the box office. You’re Next is smart, thrilling, gory, and completely unexpected. The film’s greatest appeal, though, is that it is stripped down, shedding unnecessary pathos for a simple home invasion setup and balls-to-the-wall action — there are twists and turns along the way, but it’s always charging forward. It’s not the type of horror film that will deeply scare you or keep you up at night, but that’s OK, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Not only is it heads above the mid-budget Hollywood horror flicks, it’s also way better than the current trend of indie work like V/H/S, which features director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines
I totally get the complaints about the third act laying on the film’s themes a little too thickly, but The Place Beyond the Pines already had me wrapped up. For the most part, this is a pretty personal pick, as I’ve found turbulent and moody father-son flicks to work on me more and more as I grow older (also see: my 2010 top 10 spot for Warrior). Still, I think I’m pretty justified in my love for Derek Cianfrances’s sophomore effort, with its incredible cinematography and great turns from lead actors Ryan Gosling (maybe his finest performance) and Bradley Cooper (definitely his finest performance). It’s also an incredibly daring film in its scope and structure, certainly one we haven’t seen before.
8. The World’s End
Sure, The World’s End isn’t as grand as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but the trilogy capper was one of my best cinema-going experiences in 2013. I think I could watch the opening voice-over sequence every day for the rest of my life — quite possibly my favorite scene from any film this year. The dialogue is snappy, the construction is clever and every performer is on their A-game. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are both incredibly good playing against type, with Pegg as the screw up and Frost the straight-man. Also playing against type, Eddie Marsan is delightful as the sadsack wimp of the group. The fast flying style of the film rewards revisits, and I’m sure to watch The World’s End many more times.
7. Before Midnight
A remarkable thing about Before Midnight is how great it is in the context of the “Before” series and without it. We can appreciate it as the next chapter in Celine and Jesse’s lives in a “where-are-they-now” sort of way, but the conversations they have about love, life, family and art stand alone. Within the series, though, it isn’t at all redundant. Yes, we get the walk-and-talks and the similar “day in the life in an exoctic European town” structure, but these characters have grown into different people with a different worldview. There is also something comforting about spending time with these people who are more realized than most any people in film today — that is partly because we’ve been able to see them evolve over three films, but also because filmmaker Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke imbue the characters with their own histories, making these films something like fake documentaries. They’ve become familiar, comfortable, so much so that viewers have become extraordinarily invested in their situation (just think about how crazy it is that fans literally thought that knowing they were still together was a spoiler). And if the results continue to be as emotionally and intellectually stimulating as Before Midnight, I wouldn’t mind checking in with Celine and Jesse in 2023 to see how they are handling middle age life.
6. Blue Is the Warmest Color
While the film’s extensive and explicit sex scenes have garnered most of the attention, this was about the least interesting thing for me. These scenes are important, mind you, and tell us a lot about the characters, but I think this discussion ignores the great and complicated coming-of-age story. The second biggest complaint seems to be the three-hour runtime, but I see this as an asset. The film completely fills this length, giving us as close to complete a look at a young woman growing up as any film I can recall. Adèle Exarchopoulos gives a dazzling performance, completely believable as a 17-year-old unsure of herself and a mid-to-late-20s woman who has been emotionally shattered. She seems mature and childlike all at once, all the time. Her emotional arc is the thing of classic literature, though it completely works in modern day France.
5. Frances Ha
I’ve always liked Noah Baumbach’s quirky, but hard-to-like characters, but Frances Ha is a clear step forward, perhaps because the title character is actually pretty easy-to-like. Frances is still self-centered and entitled, but there is a sweetness in Greta Gerwig’s fifth* breakout performance (*estimated). I’ve only been to NYC twice in my life, and only for brief periods of time, but the film captures the setting so well that jokes feel both incredibly specific but also somehow universally understandable. For example, Frances running through the streets to find an ATM is “so New York” without really knowing New York. I’ve recently been watching HBO’s Girls and at one point a character ponders why anyone lives in New York when it’s so expensive and unloving and rough — Frances Ha wonders the same kind of thing, but it also undoubtedly loves the city and it shows. The film also manages to be incredibly funny while depicting an incredibly horrific time in a person’s life: trying to figure yourself out post-college with few resources and no safety net. I can relate to that.
4. Captain Phillips
I can’t think of another big budget Hollywood film that is able to portray two sides of a conflict with as much grace and respect as Captain Phillips — given that it is based on a true story, this feat is even more amazing. It has two completely different perspectives, giving them both fair time to develop in the first act before bringing them together and letting their respective themes brilliantly intertwine by the end. The film could have been an entertaining action fluff piece, and that could have been great, but it takes the proper time to be something more. That doesn’t mean that it skimps on the action, as it uses every bit of its unique location and situation to be one of the most visceral films of the year. Tom Hanks gives what might be the best performance of his very good career (seriously, Academy, you didn’t nominate him?), using his well-worn everyman persona, but as an extraordinary leader of men. And given Hanks’ performance, Barkhad Abdi is some sort of revelation — the actor stands up to Hanks just as Muse stands up to Phillips. It is rare to see a non-professional actor work in the same level in the same moment as a great Hollywood star, and I think this is both a compliment to the actor, but also brings me back to the incredible script which fully invests in both characters.
3. Upstream Color
I first watched Upstream Color as part of a double-feature alongside enigmatic filmmaker Shane Carruth’s debut Primer, which I had never seen before. Seeing the two films together was an interesting experience, and showcased just how great Upstream Color is. For as complex (aka impenetrable) Primer is, its follow-up is every bit as complex, though through emotion instead of intelligence. This is a film that I can’t quite describe, but hits me so hard on an emotional level that I just can’t get it out of my mind. It also provides an incredible performance from Amy Seimetz, who plays the vulnerable woman desperately trying to rebuild her life and attach herself to something, anything. Given its complicated design, it’s not exactly the type of film you would expect such a rich performance, but it is perhaps my favorite female lead performance of the year.
It’s time to start talking about Spike Jonze as one of today’s best filmmakers. Sure, he’s only made four feature films, but those four films are Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are, and this year’s Her. More importantly, he fully proved that he can move out of star screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s shadow (and, to a lesser extent, Maurice Sendak’s) and direct a high quality film that he also wrote. Her is a strange bit of science fiction, which is odd because it’s such an atypical sci-fi film. It is a vision of the future that seems both completely achievable and also kind of here already — there are so many interesting small touches at the edges that confuse where and when we are. Though Her has become a critical darling, it is a story that feels really personal to me as someone who has had pseudo-relationships over chat rooms and long-distance phone calls. I completely understand the excitement and unbridled joy in it, but also the obvious pitfalls of this type of relationship (pitfalls that aren’t so obvious when it’s all happening).
All things considered, I don’t know if there is another film that defines the movie year better than Gravity. It is by far the best looking film of the year, using the deep space atmosphere to the greatest possible cinematic effect. It cannot be overlooked as merely a technical achievement, but I also think there is quite a bit more there. Despite its environment and the importance of computer-generated images, Gravity has a beating heart — claims that it is a “thrill ride” are apt, but I think that minimizes the major emotional effect of the film. It doesn’t just dazzle you with its visions and sounds, but because you become incredibly attached to the people in the film and want them to survive. And can we imagine that film starring Angelina Jolie instead of Sandra Bullock, as it was originally cast? I think it all ended up for the better.