Top 25 of 2013
25. Upstream Color
What even is Upstream Color? It’s the saddest pair of star crossed lovers ever recorded on film (real celluloid! The budget was evaporating both in real life and on the screen) as a swine flu infected DNA strand, victims of Walden and blue orchids, and worm mind control rape receptacles. The film is incredibly, mind blowingly stylish in a way that can’t quite be captured in words because of low budget indie sensibilities mixed with (unfortunately front-loaded) avant garde hallucinatory visions. Cold and observant on the outside, but not so secretly filled with warmth on the inside due to the slowly developing forced PTSD romance that is never truly touched upon because of the tragedy of the circumstances overwhelming all of it. This is a piece of work that needs to be fully immersed in since it’s so heavily conceptual, rewatched immediately after the first watch perhaps? It’d be a fitting way to do so, for the film is a Mulholland Drive-esque musical at its heart, with the following scenes being slight variations on the previous and drawing major influences in a way that results in a near perfect loop with a slight twist in the tale at the end. This is a movie as an embryo, both of itself (the ending is like a birth) and for Shane Carruth’s long overdue sophomore run (it can’t be understated just how much work he did on this). The depths of the connection between Carruth and Amy Seimetz is a digital dream of near-unprecedented sights and sounds. It’s like being thrown into someone else’s dream, in the mind of someone who is fascinated by identity and free will, and letting us getting pulled away by the current. Much like the two leads, we can try to put the pieces together, but the puzzle will forever be just the slightest bit off. Look directly at this movie. It’s made of the same material as the Sun and is just as dazzling, but you won’t be left blinded. Just don’t try to claim the experience of watching this movie as just your own, for it is as communal as the ending even when it soars out of reach like a starling. Some might call it obscurity for obscurity’s sake but I think its half-remembered dream structure is as original as they come in how it presents images that we see and consider banal every day.
Favorite Moment: The first surreal pig sequence. What the fuck just happened?
24. Post Tenebras Lux
I don’t know if I consider Post Tenebras Lux a coherent work, exactly. For a film that will likely get dismissed as standard slow art house fare by many, it’s shockingly fast paced, and gives no fucks if you can’t keep up-there are no introductory moments that teach the viewer how to properly watch it and analyze it. The opening scenes come close to fulfilling that purpose but their meaning doesn’t become visible until the runtime is nearly over, and it never even approaches obvious. Shots that refract upon themselves whizz by (the illusion of several ghostly past images with a lens that looks like an old windowpane is key to analysis, no doubt), seemingly only barely related and with increasingly warped substance. The bathhouse is the ultimate culmination of Carol Reygadas’ weird relationship with the cinema and life itself, and it’s also hugely religious about sex in a way that is simultaneously prudish and pornographic. So I’m sure if you pick apart each scene while analyzing the not remotely perfect whole, you might find a flaw or several within this piece of work as a text on…whatever it’s about. I do have to wonder if the flaws within this movie are sins of sorts, for there’s a lot of Catholic guilt about how personal failings are essentially giving into the devil. I like the analysis that it’s about separating the mind from the body, for reasons that will become obvious near the end. But regardless of coherency, those visuals are irresistible, especially the perfect loop that is the opening two scenes of the thundering purple sky and the devil’s visit that make a reappearance in the end…until one final change in the rhythm designed to provoke. Post Tenebras Lux is as close as we’ll ever get to “movie as impressionist painting/poetry hybrid.” Except even that metaphor undersells just how much of a genuine rule breaker this is, and it sort of defies ranking both in terms of list based comparisons and stars. It certainly glows, though, in a spectrum invisible to the human eye. One has to wonder what went on in the director’s childhood to produce an autobiography of this sort. Perhaps he truly did go to the devil and his toolbox? Hopefully the children of this movie, totally adorable, gave him the joy he needed to purge this fantastical film out of his system.
Favorite Moment: Opening shot of storm followed by visit from the devil.
Southwest is the purest form of a Rorschach test in the shape of a movie, one that tastes good in your mouth and mind as you turn it around just from you thinking about how the simplest twists on the oldest elements in the book can give us such a magic, underseen movie. It is ultimately a fairy tale about a girl, Clarice, who has been given one day to live in a nonexistent land (her mother died giving birth to her and her life appears to have been saved by a witch), and she goes from infant to child to elderly all in the span of a fruit fly’s lifespan. Her time is spent emotionally devastating the residents of the town just by appearing at different times in different ages, with none of them realizing that this older lady is the same girl from the cabin on the lake. Add in gorgeous black and white visuals and a massive fucking aspect ratio, and you can produce such a twisty tale that you can extract so much meaning from. For a film to feel so intimate despite appearing as wide as the sky or the horizon is a minor miracle. This is an astonishing debut, one that makes me hope that Eduardo Nunes has something else up his sleeve. Most quietly miraculous is how Nunes understands that even when one has only twenty four hours left, and it’s slipping away quickly, one still finds the time to relax and do nothing. It’s a panorama that looks like nothing at first (so the horizon comparison fits) until you realize just what beauty is contained within, an endless cycle of memories and dreams, a life well lived in a perfect loop. Perhaps it’s an allegory for heaven? I have no doubt that it’s the kind of film that everyone can draw something different out of because of how alarmingly flexible it is as an allegory. Some have compared this movie to the works of Bela Tarr, but it’s really only like that in terms of visuals, for this is a movie that cares a great deal for the characters as opposed to gleefully throwing them through the wringer. It’s also made by someone whose attitude towards religion definitely qualifies as well adjusted, especially with that final shot of the world being enveloped by light as we listen to the sound of the rain.
Favorite Moment: Burning cabin on the water. Just a stunning visual.
22. The Counselor
Link to be added.
Favorite Moment: Opening sex scene.
What a fantastic creation Paulina Garcia has made here! The movie could probably make it fairly high on its own merits since it’s never really actively deficient, and when it gets into lulls, Garcia is right there making sure the film is elevated back up to its strongest levels. But watching such a fun, interesting, and very complicated person given full life by an actress on top of her game taking charge of her life thanks to a failed romance and doing it in ways that range from contemplative to mean-spirited is exactly what we all need sometimes. She appears in all the shots (except maybe one, which is ironically my favorite moment of the film), and never puts a single foot wrong, down to the final rewarding dance to the song with her name in the title. Her relationship with Rodolfo is also a refreshing thing to see in a piece of work: the relationship doesn’t work out, and she moves on easily enough (one paintball streaked detour aside…and yes, “easily enough” is relative, because it’s still a movie that has some conflict). Sure, Sebastian Lelio could’ve made something a little easier on the eyes and gotten even more ambitious with the scripting (lots of medium shots abound and only the central two characters feel properly fleshed out in the writing), but I didn’t want to spend any less time than I got with our heroine. Wryness is not a form of humor utilized often enough, and when it shows up, it’s worth clinging onto. Combine that with the fact that the story focuses on a middle aged woman’s sexual and romantic desires and you have something that rarely gets looked at enough. A part of me wants to see the theatrical adaptation-Garcia’s apparently a legendary theater actress too, but spreading the wealth would be nice too if the newcomer is just as skilled as she is. She is a woman we don’t get to see often enough in the cinema, and is as good a role model for when we hit our 60s as we could ask for. Now let’s play the song (both the original and the Laura Branigan cover) repeatedly while dancing in a club containing people of all ages (yet another thing we don’t see enough in pop culture). South American cinema is going through a renaissance and this Chilean film should be right at the forefront.
Favorite Moment: The dancing skeleton. The perfect touch of dark comic surrealism as commentary on Gloria’s middle age.
20. A Touch of Sin
The key word in this title, ignoring the potential for losing something in translation, is “touch.” The touching of characters causing a surge of emotion in viewers is a major principle in film. But the touches in A Touch of Sin are not what we think of when we hear that word, especially since it’s rarely if ever human touching human. The movie is a perfectly calibrated machine designed to measure our emotional responses and make us ask “why?” when a character turns into a (darkly beautiful and highly stylized) angel of vengeance against their frustrations with the social situations in China that crush them down until they strike back. Is it justified? We are obviously more inclined to sympathize with the near victim of a rape rather than the thief but is that a rational response to have? This is all part of director Jia Zhangke’s puzzle of a movie, a spiked Rubik’s cube which fucks with the viewer in a precise way, pricking their fingers as they twist and turn it around. Such surface pleasures like the deliciously weird structure of four vignettes (four is basically equivalent to unlucky thirteen in China) and symbolism that is bizarre and more than a little bit out of place in most movies like this (animals, the Communism fetish hotel) keep us engaged throughout a film with a very deliberate pace. The ultimate statement? We are all fucked, the universe (or the gods) is/are to blame, and someone will get enjoyment out of it when it happens to us as long as they are far enough out of the way. Chekhov’s gun (or knife) may start to come into play after a sequence or two but it’s warranted, with the inevitability of externalized frustrations causing damage only adding to the dread. The empty space and desolation of China is used in all its squalid glory, with only the characters and either a blank looking landscape of interchangeable buildings for the exteriors, or a blank room lit in the same way as the one before it for the interiors. It’s undeniably beautiful in the most unpleasant of ways, which is primarily what makes it clock in at #20. For all the movie’s strengths, they are more fun to think about than actually watch, with all our joy coming from the violence if it ever comes at all. This is no doubt the point, but it makes it a fairly nasty sit-through that I’d still wholeheartedly recommend.
Favorite Moment: The fruit knife attack. Pure wuxia.
The trailer tagline for Blancanieves promised us that we had never seen the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (now six! You’ll have to see why on your own time) quite like this, and it’s both a truth and a lie from the marketing crew’s side of things. The subversiveness of this classic fairy tale doesn’t feel like an active attempt from the crew at trying to be different at all (though that is very much what they are going for and I’d love to know what inspired the idea). Even when you factor in the effect of Disney’s more sanitized, mainstream version of the classic Brothers Grimm story into one’s perception of the movie, it finds ways to throw little gifts to us, like those Snow White receives after her bullfights. The Wicked Stepmother is a kinky dominatrix with a taste for high fashion and a hunky lover on the side? That’s exactly what I would have expected in a modern retelling what with all modern retellings needing to embrace the darkness of everything, and yet not what I would have expected at all since it’s so much more tongue in cheek than something like the idiotic TV show Once Upon a Time. The entirety of Spain’s Oscar submission is very peculiar when you step back (hopefully you’re not acquainting yourself with these peculiarities via this review), but in the moment, it is just as natural as the wonderful hamminess of the classic cartoon-mostly because of the silent bullfighter setting. The story is still just the core elements, but made glossy and befitting the time period (although the acting is too modernized). Maybe the movie is a homage item, maybe it’s a throwback, but it looks gorgeous as hell thanks to the general sunniness of Spain’s summers for a lovely high contrast look, with the film using light and shadow in particularly clever ways and in the standard “light equals good, shadow equals evil” practice. Damn near all of the visuals, particularly that skull on the poison apple (with a hypodermic needle for the poison!), are a treat for the eyes. However, it’s the bullfighting sequences where Blancanieves really shines, featuring low angles that both make our beloved matador appear to be in real danger and giving us some gorgeously evocative crowd shots like something out of an old-timey sports film. If only all of the old silents were this clever and undated.
Favorite Moment: The reveal about the Stepmother’s kinky side.
All of the discussion about No will inevitably come back to the movie’s choice to make the core aesthetic of the story resemble the ugly, garishly technicolored, and totally nuts advertisements for the Chilean NO advertising campaign that are used within No the Pablo Larrain film, and thus blend right in as part of the supposedly realistic experience constructed for the viewer. The movie is focused on how media shapes the reality we live in, with the movie itself trying to blur the lines between the truth and fiction of the story a bit, so it is a smart decision aesthetically. What does not really get discussed enough is how the film’s sense of humor perfectly reflects the campaign advertisements too, featuring a weirdly bonkers sort of satire of advertising and the idea of democracy as a product, and the perfect kind of detachment that reflects the vague promises of happiness within the ads themselves, with Gael Garcia Bernal perfectly conveying a mix of optimism for the future in a post-Pinochet world, and cynicism about the whole ridiculousness of the enterprise anyway-why not just take the route of showing the awful crimes committed under the reign of the dictator? It’s topical material for our own times, a little bit of a South American focused and far kinder/more optimistic and, paradoxically, modern take on Network, one that could be used for any media studies course. The real life story of the grassroots campaign that successfully knocked Pinochet out of office has no doubt been oversimplified to the point of practically being a lie, but I think Pablo Larrain is far too intelligent to not exploit this to ask some interesting questions about what this blurring of truth and lies mean. Technically originally released in a year of Best Picture nominees like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo which confronted the topic of truth and lies (one far, far more successful at it), No is a fascinating capstone project from the other side of the world on the matter of an under-discussed dictatorship, and I say SI to No’s lies, especially when the movie is so willing to mock the bullshit and cliches that are so regularly spewed by both sides of a political issue. It’s not quite a history lesson biopic and it’s not quite a satire, but as a mix of both elements it is an admirable piece of work.
Favorite Moment: The “No no, no no, no NOOOO” song. Catchy as hell.
17. The Bling Ring
While I don’t want to short-charge things like the clever use of music (although that’s a given considering who’s directing) or the acting, with Emma Watson’s deliberately terrible actress who gets all the best lines being a standout, the success in The Bling Ring lies primarily in its incredibly quotable and timely screenplay. Movies that achieve quotability last, so I’m optimistic about The Bling Ring’s reputation even if it’ll never be a stone-cold classic like something like Mean Girls could be. When you factor in that it was based off a fun and snark-filled little filler article in a magazine, I’d argue that this is a sign of miracle work on Sofia Coppola’s end. The cast is shallow in more ways than one and sketchily drawn as caricatures (except maybe our protagonist, one of the most refreshingly straightforward gay characters in recent memory). But this is completely deliberate, and actually a symptom of deeper dimensions to the writing. Let’s ignore the obvious commentary and jokes about the titular bling ringers being [valley girl voice] tooootally shallow [/valley girl voice]: when you don’t have a defined personality, the best thing to offer the world is someone else’s. Worth repeating as a reminder is the fact that it was based off a magazine article, and thus, we’re getting a limited perspective that we’re not even aware of, with the reader of the magazine projecting their own psychic issues onto whatever they read about our Louboutin stealing subjects with firm beliefs in karma and the desire to lead a country. The only difference between the article and the movie is the visual element. A blunt and fairly pessimistic glance at young people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives (see my #1 choice of 2013 for a little more of this favorite theme of mine), filled with Coppola’s trademark empathy for the blank canvases of people that get projected onto by others. The robberies are genuinely suspenseful thanks to the knowledge that the perpetrators will be arrested, so every single one could be the last, and it’s just a matter of seeing whether the focus will wind up being on the robberies or the court process. It ends up filling both adequately, with all the glamorous club scenes you could ever want thrown in between. Oh, and once again, since it bears repeating, it’s super quotable, like when Emma Watson says…
Favorite Moment: “I wanna rob.”
16. Laurence Anyways
Three hour trans epics (a rare genre indeed, but I would welcome more of it) where everything before the occurrence of the actual gender transition announcement is actually kind of unbearably indulgent, albeit thematically necessary, don’t sound like my cup of tea on paper. I’d also never argue with a person who claimed the movie has issues justifying the entirety of the running time, as almost all movies that run this long have this issue, even a few of the all-time classics. There’s no real reason this couldn’t be a bit over two hours and be just as much if not more potent. Now that all the negatives are out of the way, this is a major wow if you give it a chance, especially for people like me who have a much higher tolerance for Xavier Dolan’s mix of genuinely interesting yet still vaguely faux-intellectual rhapsodizing about queer theory, combined with the most absurdly over the top brand of outbursts. On that note, what hit me hardest when I watched Laurence Anyways was the beautiful, bizarre, and hallucinatory sequences surrounding the aforementioned over the top outbursts, all of which crib heavily from the director’s outside influences (Kubrick has his fingerprints everywhere even if the film is too full of heart to be truly like his movies, and thank god for that-a more cynical version of this movie would be a disaster). They are all the richer for such homage, with visuals that I didn’t even know that I felt were missing in my life making their way across the screen. As an emotional release for the characters, they’re incredibly potent, but they’re also just fun as hell to watch-you can’t go wrong with moths and random dance scenes. Whenever I enter a party, I demand an entrance like Suzanne Clement (very much the best in show) gets, and the only thing that could ever convince me to go to that part of Canada in the dead of winter is the idea of the world pulling a Great Gatsby and raining clothes upon my face while A New Error by Moderat plays. When you also factor in the classic soundtrack, Laurence Anyways feels like the best kind of musical, it’s just that the characters don’t sing. The theatrical show, in a just world, would be coming to Broadway (or the Canadian equivalent) next season, with songs written by Xavier himself.
Favorite Moment: Black Island. Good luck getting the falling clothes out of your head when listening to that song.
Frozen is a complete and utter piece of corporate product, the Hollywood machine operating in a way designed purely to lure in the appropriate “girl” audience after the more stereotypically boy-friendly (and far, far worse) Wreck It Ralph. You can practically hear the whip cracking above the heads of the animators even as they take their trips to Norway to research how to make snow look realistic within animation, and the character design of the two princesses looks factory processed and sterile. Frozen also does what it sets out for so damn well that most viewers, myself included, are powerless to resist its charms, with Disney’s strongest set of musical numbers since the all too brief days of Howard Ashman ensuring that Robert Lopez’s EGOT collection is rounded out in a deserved fashion. We also get the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem giving us the high notes that we crave from all musicals, Disney and otherwise-her voice is like the music played by a snake charmer, a marvel of crystal breaking power. Some of the writing reminds me of the best of the Hayes Code days, with the subtext hidden underneath that was completely intentional on the writers’ end but is hidden cleverly enough to appear unintentional (or maybe vice-versa). Watching Disney cheerfully pull the rug out from under the viewer by giving us the satire of the princess who falls in love with a man (that she’s just met within less than half an average length movie’s worth of runtime, and with an immediate love ballad to boot) that we needed a long time ago from the company itself, and not from something like Shrek or even Enchanted, is as funny as one could hope for. Doing it while rewarding us with some genuinely funny pieces of comic relief (the biggest shocker in a movie that features a twist ending) and a surprisingly complex character in Elsa makes the so-called new Disney Renaissance feel actually justified, as opposed to just being a movie that follows two bland works that skirt the pass/fail line a little too much (and as of this writing, Frozen was unfortunately followed by one more of those). The snow animation is also fascinating, with everything from a light powdering, to Olaf/Marshmallow, to Elsa’s bizarre ice dress (still don’t get how that works) looking both realistic and like the big friendly blobs so frequent to animated movies.
Favorite Moment: Let It Go.
14. The Wind Rises
Final movie syndrome is all over The Wind Rises where it wasn’t in the other supposed finales of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly in how it’s the only “real” film the director (a contender for my favorite director ever, and thus it pains me to not rank this #1) has ever unleashed onto the world for our pleasure. For despite the truly tragic nature of The Wind Rises, it’s still all pleasure, in the same way a tragic melodrama is purely enjoyable to watch at the end of a bad day. This only makes Miyazaki’s prior masterpieces of whimsical, ethereal, and distinctly Japanese fantasy all the more retrospectively effective in my eyes, with Jiro’s dreams of an idealized flying machine, with the movie totally ignoring the reality of World War II until the crushing last scene, being a deliberate creative decision that casually hits you as hard as it can in the gut. It’s one that eerily reflects Miyazaki being forced to confront a reality of sorts after decades of fantasy, too, if you look at the accompanying documentary about what could arguably be viewed as the last days of Studio Ghibli (with the top tier title of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness). Both the animator and his last animated creation have been warned time and time again but thankfully didn’t listen, and those dream sequences we’ve been given as gifts are all worth it, with near every frame of The Wind Rises being luxuriously pretty, and achingly sad romances with both a sick woman (the sequence where she coughs up blood onto her painting is both a gut punch and a depressing tonic to sanitized, germless mainstream American animation) and the art of flight itself as the main courses, drizzled with layers of questions about flight. Fascinating to analyze on several levels thanks to how neatly it ties into the rest of the auteur’s career and his openness about everything related to this film, which is like the flight motif from any other Miyazaki movie put under a microscope. Above all in the many pleasures of this movie, it’s masterfully colored (I have a weakness for great use of color), with a rich and electric sky blue as the main tone, but all the colors in a sunrise or sunset making their way in too alongside the white of the planes and clouds, a white that was also prominent in the movie’s competition for best animated film of the year.
Favorite Moment: Earthquake. Miyazaki is the best at animating destruction.
13. Enough Said
Nicole Holofcener is the one of the most empathetic directors working today, but even in this film, she’s remarkably kind to her creation. The human stakes on the line feel so high despite actually being so small, so we should be grateful for this kind of deft touch. She was not afraid to call out the bullshit of her works in prior movies (and thank god for that, it’s an under-appreciated talent and her prior characters had much more prominent chips on their shoulders and thornier hearts), but here, everyone is essentially redeemable and their baggage is the sort that makes the viewer feel both empathy for the problems the characters are facing and gratitude that the viewer’s not quite this nutty, and this feels more refreshing than anything. Even the ones who only appear briefly, like the guy who won’t help Eva lift her heavy massage table up his flight of stairs to his apartment, feel like real, living people who get their own small moments of redemption (even if they all need a little push from reality, whether it’s in the form of a bad dinner or someone demanding some overdue help with the massage table). But that’s not enough to carry Enough Said this far, with our two leads knowing full well what they’re getting themselves into, both in terms of Gandolfini/Louis-Dreyfus as actors and Albert/Eva as characters. The movie’s primary relationship feels like it is flailing and unable to breathe under the weight of its problems at times thanks to both characters showing a high level of insensitivity in many respects, with frantic gestures and attempts at jokes (and desperate fixer-upper romantic schemes on Eva’s end). It all starts to get toxic and the atmosphere unbreathable, but we get a golden ticket out of the emotional muck that still feels like we earned it. It’s not all about the two leads, however-the supporting cast is also uniformly great, totally relaxed in the world that Holofcener has created and coming across so naturally that I nearly cited almost the entire supporting cast for my 2013 Year in Review Post. (I copped out and went with none of them-the two main players are so many miles ahead in terms of prominence and performance that it’d be a bit unfair. But let’s give the entire supporting cast some love for so perfectly inhabiting the universe of this director.)
Favorite Moment: Albert and Eva’s first date. Such clever foreshadowing.
12. Wolf of Wall Street
While The Wolf of Wall Street borrows liberally from the Goodfellas playbook (along with many other Martin Scorsese films, like Raging Bull’s violent ring environment and pretty much every other study of toxic gangster masculinity he’s ever done), it’s fairly deliberate, fits right into Scorsese’s aesthetic, and still feels like a fairly original piece of work. Scorsese (and Thelma Schoonmaker/Leonardo DiCaprio too, to give credit where it’s due) have a deep understanding of what makes Belfort such a fascinatingly reptilian creature, like a disgusting overgrown toddler still repulsed by women and just wanting his newest toy, as opposed to Henry’s everyman protagonist who had an understandable hoping to be something greater. The film feels hollow and empty behind the three hours of toxic, drug-fueled slapstick-a length that mostly justifies itself by showing just how grinding a never-ending high and the required maintenance to keep a hold on it is. This is a film full of pathos despite being a longer than usual crowd pleaser on the surface. This is a never ending display of monstrosity from the top of the food chain that is just as likely to drive a viewer away as it is to attract them. Despite being one of the most obnoxiously unsubtle, gong banging, charging freight train satires of recent years, The Wolf of Wall Street ultimately doesn’t slice away at the corrupt nature of the fucked up American financial system so much as it slowly poisons it-and it’s a sugary sweet poison, too, so that we barely realize how deadly it is. As for the glorification argument, it absolutely holds weight, but you have to glorify a little in order to understand why these men functioned the way they did, and we all have a part of our brain, deep in the sewer of our minds, that finds the idea of fucking someone who looks like Margot Robie on top of a bed covered in money while completely out of our minds on cocaine and quaaludes to be the most fun one could ever have. Toxic comedy proves a strong fit for not just Robie but the rest of the cast, with the cast’s strong resemblance to weasels and rats only accentuating the banality of their evil. They are no more than a batch of Neanderthals given immense power, and the laughs curdle from how alarming it is that they’re the ones in control of our money.
Favorite Moment: The Qualaades and the car. Nasty, awful slapstick.
11. Short Term 12
Short Term 12 takes place in a familiar yet unfamiliar world, something like living next door to a house that has an odd-looking exterior yet never seeing its even more unusual (and no doubt complicated and messy) interiors. Fitting for characters who reveal the most about themselves only when their facades are cracked. Above all else, the movie is a portrait of a tightly knit community, complete with the required legislative structure of sorts that comes with any large enough population, but particularly one like this. Sometimes you just want to get out of this overly familiar place by any means necessary, even if it means breaking out of the home and running away (sadly the only option in the minds of these kids but not one they can handle). But other times, it’s a much needed balm for the more difficult days (and the hard times in Short Term 12 are really fucking hard, even in a film that doesn’t show the absolute depths this kind of material could sink into). Destin Cretton has a deep understanding of how much other people who know just how badly life can suck are needed to get through the roughest of rough days. This movie is just as adept at creating its own alternate world as any science fiction film, in part because it drops us in and makes us keep up, but never withholds excessive information. The production design is also marvelous, cluttered but full of details about the lives of the residents and employees. Something this small and precious deserves more attention than it actually got, it doesn’t break new boundaries but does wonderful things within its confines, carefully alternating between what kind of crumbs to throw (slice of life in a community that’s not what the viewer is used to/plot based advances) while making sure that we absolutely leave the theater thinking even as it celebrates how the power of human spirit can be used to accomplish so much good simply by helping others. While the script is very scripted indeed, the little moments in between are so authentic in their small kindnesses that I wanted the film to take a physical form for me to hug. I also wanted more of this cast of characters, and while it’s probably for the best that we just got the one movie and not something like a television show, it’s a pleasing thought.
Favorite Moment: Jayden’s octopus story. Devastating.
Maybe this movie is a standard piece of Alexander Payne work, with the one sane character who has a tendency to be a reaction shot to the inevitable insanity, surrounded by a collection of unpleasant caricatures, and depressed as a result of dealing with them for an endless amount of time. However, Nebraska’s biggest strength is that said caricatures really are genuinely funny and have a certain fleshiness to their venalness. The movie contains an utterly bizarre and acrid yet true sense of humor that the actors totally get and latch onto, with Payne throwing in some awkward silences to accentuate it. The slimy motivations of these decaying Midwesterners may be strange and easily torn apart by even the laziest of dissections, but they are a success in this weird little flyover state world of the film. Despite the mockery, and more than a little bit of genuine idiocy folded into the screenplay, there’s also plenty of humanist notes within. It’s the funeral ode to an internally rotting corpse of a place from a deeply conflicted soul trying to tap into his childhood, and that should be celebrated rather than damned. It also looks gorgeous, albeit bleak, with a sparse look that makes the little details in the blankness pop out. This is despite the fact that as a whole, the dreariness is real. It’s like the town from The Last Picture Show for the modern age, with even more ragged seams holding it together. The black and white is like the antithesis to fellow 2013 B&W film Frances Ha’s crisp look-Nebraska may be just as high definition but it will always look blurrier. As for the performances, Bruce Dern taps into something more than a little broken, something from countless years of a town stuck in bankruptcy and a deepening post traumatic stress disorder from the war days. June Squibb is cheerfully vulgar and clearly doesn’t love her husband but definitely values him-whether it’s as an asset, many decades of marriage growing into affection, or a little of both is up to the viewer. Will Forte’s leading man has the appropriate pathos. Nebraska’s messages and themes aren’t exactly profound stuff, the thesis statement is a pretty simple one, but as a capturing of a time and place that’s used to tell an enjoyable yarn, it’s so successful that it deserves its accolades, and a real check for a million dollars.
Favorite Moment: The cemetery. “CANCER!” *laughs*
9. Spring Breakers
Let’s get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way: Spring Breakers is more than a little racist even if it also has moments of using race centric commentary intelligently (Faith at the pool hall with the black guys), and I think it’s not a huge leap to say the same things in terms of sexism and gender. This almost single-handedly knocked it out of the top ten, with the “almost” coming from a reluctance to view Harmony Korine in a positive light. But my god, those visuals are too undeniable. Ignoring the quality of the gorgeous neon/cotton candy lighting, with a use of color that is practically drunkenly yelling at the viewer to drink in all the color and fall under its boozy spell, you have the camera gliding around as the most voyeuristic form of cinematography since Peeping Tom. It’s an observer in the throngs, and one that has long wanted something like girls getting beer poured on their tits as they gleefully shake them, even if it’s utterly revolting in practice. And then you have those pink ski masks, which reduce our gang to nameless feminized thugs while also blending into every scene in a way that’s both pointed and aesthetically gorgeous (hence the bulk of my issues being aimed at the race relations rather than the gender relations). While I don’t hold the highest opinion of Korine, this is absolutely a film designed to challenge the audience in a way that’s deliberate and thought out rather than just senseless provocation under the guise of “I meant to do that.” The four leading ladies are pretty interchangeable, with only Selena Gomez getting anything resembling an arc, and while that’s undeniably the point, the little cracks where separate personalities leak out open up questions worth asking. At the end of the day, the main reason my love for Spring Breakers is so high is because near every frame is like nothing I’ve ever seen before (even the gorgeous title card font), and utterly blinding. Every neon light is shined into our eyes, as bright as the sun. The movie takes place in a mad dream, like something out of a certain action movie from two years later, but twisted and pessimistic, with the over-saturated beautiful monotony of the orange and blue of that movie becoming a nightmarish rainbow that the wives escape into while giving up all their ideals.
Favorite Moment: The Britney numbers.
8. Blue Jasmine
Outside of Sally Hawkins’ utterly ridiculous apartment that no grocery store employee could ever afford, Woody Allen has not been this good in a while, and said apartment works so well as a setting for the squabbling that goes on that I forgive it. As a study of the Great Recession’s after effects and a character portrait, the writing is a throwback to the days of stone cold classics like Annie Hall, with every little bit of our lead’s jabbering, even as she repeats herself, revealing multitudes. I’ll cop to thinking my out-sized love for this movie might just be because I truly relate to Jasmine talking to herself all the time and scaring others. But what really sells this film is Cate Blanchett, giving a performance that became the consensus choice for near every lead actress award that year, and it was very much warranted. She took a truly juicy role that requires a certain lack of vanity and truly made it her own, in part because half her talent relies in projecting an image rather than being that image (this is neither a pro nor a con). Her way of devouring all of Jasmine’s neuroses as appropriate (some lines just demand to be delivered a certain way) while also coming across as a genuine person who you might want to get to know if only because she’s such a fascinating and inconsistent figure, is a true talent that the Academy rightly rewarded. It’s easily the best work she’s ever done even with such rich material to help her along, and I doubt it will ever be topped. Hawkins and Alec Guinness as Jasmine’s ex husband, the embodiment of recession privilege, also give strong work. The layers of the relationship between the two sisters are peeled back mercilessly until they are both shown to have the same squishy, messy core of poverty based neuroses. It’s still not as viciously manipulated as the twiddling of Jaz’s nerves and delusions of learning to use a computer, becoming an interior decorator, and marrying someone who’s basically just her ex. More than anything else, Blue Jasmine is a bit of an outlier for Woody, one that is far more reliant on the acting than most of his other works. It’s a tactic I hope he returns to, as he’s established as someone who can direct amazing performances, and we could all use more movies like this.
Favorite Moment: Park bench. Won’t spoil the ending but damn it hits hard.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
I spent far too much time procrastinating on this entry (and the full 400 word writeup too now that I’m going through and adding material to these so they constitute the proper length reviews these films deserve), which seems oddly fitting for a film where the main character is stuck in a rut and cannot get out of it. Inside Llewyn Davis plays this card structurally too, with a repetitive structure that never really feels that way due to the slight variations having a big ripple effect. This structure is grounded by Oscar Isaac’s increasingly frozen leading performance-as the winter sets in, it becomes a paradoxically warmer piece of work as he gets nastier to the others in his life who he doesn’t value. And yet, Ethan and Joel Coen make sure he is more sympathetic than some of the other madhouse residents he’s surrounded by precisely because of the universe having the appropriate response and shitting all over him, with only isolated moments of happiness thrown in. It’s classic Coen brothers but they are so good at original variations of their old material that it doesn’t matter. The film gives us karma and reincarnation in the form of a cat named after one of the great stories (said cat gives a masterful performance), dialogue that is literally sung through both when it’s a song and in the form of increasingly nasty insults, and some truly inspired verbal abuse, all grounded in Isaac as Llewyn himself. His performance is a marvel, a man who is a complete mess but so filled with self-loathing, guilt, and selfishness that he’s utterly fascinating. The supporting ensemble is also a marvel, from Garrett Hedlund’s piss take on his On the Road role to F. Murray Abraham’s voice of authority, with Carey Mulligan having a whole lot of fun as a gleefully self-righteous nag. My favorite has to be Robin Bartlett’s beautiful irritant. The soundtrack, however, is what makes this movie a standout. We did have O Brother Where Art Thou previously, but that was more heightened, whereas Inside Llwewyn Davis is an uncanny recreation of the precise sights and particularly the sounds of a time and place, with the Oscar Isaac/Mumford and Sons take on Fare Thee Well giving us a bird flying high above, and a life far more worth living because of the cumulative impact coming from the vicious ending, an odyssey aborted.
Favorite Moment: Please Mr. Kennedy.
6. Blue is the Warmest Colour
Blue is the Warmest Colour’s ultimately minor but still noticeable limitations are just impossible to not acknowledge, so here goes: the length is just shy of three hours (see the entries for Laurence Anyways and Wolf of Wall Street for my thoughts on this exhausting phenomenon) and could be pared down by at least a half hour. To turn this complaint into praise: it’s a running time that does ultimately make more sense, as everything feels longer and makes a bigger impression upon your memory when you’re a teenager, particularly when you’re falling in love for the first time. There’s also some direction for the sex scenes that definitely comes across a bit like something a straight man who is turned on by lesbians would do (I blame the lighting but the complaints about Abdellatif Kechiche do seem to hold weight). At the end of the day, I do think this is not the best version of the film that could exist. But the writing as a character study of adolescence is some of the best ever seen, filled with truth and grit, yet rich use of symbol and themes that make it work even better as a piece of art independent of that. It’s so much better than the original graphic novel that it deserves even more applause as a feat of adaptation. Electric energy is underneath almost every scene, and the use of the color blue is sparing but works so well that even the iciest shade of blue becomes a little piece of passion in the mise en scene. I wish it had more visual panache, not because it’s really lacking but when it goes for looking pretty, it’s astounding. The two leads are incredible, with Lea Seydoux’s ever-shifting lover being a marvel of character creation and the titular Adele Exarchopoulos’ debut being all-feeling and all-understanding. One final aspect that I fully appreciate about Blue is the Warmest Colour is the food, with Adele’s need to devour everything being so much more understandable once you see the spaghetti and oysters she’s served. In a way, I’d happily make the reels of film into spaghetti and devour it myself, if not for the fact that in terms of nutrition this movie is so packed that it’s best used like an IV drip, slowly satiating us drop by drop, frame by frame. It’s not a perfect meal but it’s more than enough.
Favorite Moment: The perfect energy of the pride parade.
5. Before Midnight
Ideally Before Midnight is not the end of the line for Jesse and Celine’s journey through life as they learn more about the world, relationships, and each other. But even if nothing comes along in 2022, we have this knockout (this is where the works of art that I’d give top marks start showing up). This is a slow burn in the most literal sense of the word, with sparks slowly being rekindled for the 18th anniversary even in the face of the natural stagnation of a relationship, with our beloved pair knowing each other so much more than they did in the initial encounters of Before Sunrise, and lacking the casual re-acquaintance and desperate attempts to make up for lost time of Before Sunset. It’s a depressing paradox-they are trying to recapture the original meetings of the first two films but the time for that has long since passed. The slow burn’s sparks quickly become a roaring blaze, totally out of control, with the final argument at the end being a triumph of going back and forth from playful banter that might just be able to bring back the passion that we so badly want them to regain, to attacks that are designed deliberately to gut both the familiar and unfamiliar with the trilogy. The ending (or the film itself) isn’t on par with Sunset, but very little is. Hawke and Delpy, however, turn in arguably their best work across the trilogy, with their many years of familiarity across the prior two films and even Waking Life resulting in their relationship within this movie being one of the best embodiments of a couple who have known and loved each other for what’s now approaching two decades. It becomes even more impressive under the weight of those long takes under the hot Italian sun, and despite compressing twenty four hours into two, it feels like a full day, from sunrise to midnight, has been spent, with all the potential of what can happen in a single day being milked to its fullest. While the note it goes out on feels final, so did the end notes of the last two movies, and I’m desperate for 2022 to come around so the 27th anniversary can be celebrated, with all the anxieties of thirty years gone by getting their proper due. When all is said and done, this movie is a present containing additions to our two old beloved toys. But what glorious additions.
Favorite Moment: The sunset. The days of 2002 are gone for good. It’s arguably the most symbolic Linklater has ever gotten and it’s a knockout.
Sure, maybe the motif of Sandra Bullock as a fetus and the use of outer space as a metaphor for the void and depression are a bit on the nose on Alfonso Cuaron’s end (although it seems likely that his son Jonas is also responsible), and maybe the episodic structure is a little pat, but OH MY GOD WHAT WAS THAT THING? Anyway, the visuals are only groundbreaking, revolutionary stuff; no big deal. Even the smaller effects, like Doctor Ryan Stone closing a hatch right before a fire threatens to engulf her as the extinguisher gets caught in the door for half a second, are breathtaking no matter the screen size (and make no mistake, Gravity needs to be played at revival houses sooner rather than later even with its massive box office). While the script is not subtle in examining Dr. Ryan’s relationship with the loss of her child and resulting anguish, it feels right considering depression can indeed feel like a vast never ending void where you can’t get your feet planted firmly down. As a display of craftsmanship, Gravity is unstoppable, a visual marvel whose tick-tick-tick-boom layout never quite gets old. On rewatch, the strengths only grow, with Bullock’s anguished cry of “I HAD YOU!” as George Clooney sacrifices himself for her being the line reading of the year. Her performance retroactively justifies her Oscar for that racist piece of garbage Oscarbait, a stripping away of all her reservations and a masterful growth from blank attempts at just getting by, to the most desperate form of survivalism, with none of the knowledge of her future arc that could cripple any actress. And all of this was accomplished on a green screen. Looking away from the sights and towards the sounds, the score is quite possibly the year’s best, a musical spear that jabs at your throat with every story beat and only gives us occasional glimpses of a place to breathe. At the end of it all, Gravity’s status as the definitive movie of 2013 cannot be challenged, simply because it breaks cinematic ground that hadn’t been broken in decades. The trailer claimed that life in space was impossible but the movie proved that tagline wrong, both in the literal sense of the ending and the metaphorical sense in how much life is contained within the film, spread across every frame of inky blackness and cold rocket interiors.
Favorite Moment: Opening debris sequence. You won’t notice just how long that take is.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s mise en scene in 12 Years a Slave is unparalleled, with a sound mix of whip cracks and screams dominating the entire wretched plantation (to say nothing of how minimal the pleasures of the “nice” slaveowners from earlier on are). Even the faint hints of pleasures like pastries at one of the perverse evening dances are rapidly made ugly. The stripping away of all dignity in whatever form the Epps family and the rest of the Southern elite chooses is constant and unceasing. Visually, it’s a gorgeous nightmare viewed from an unblinking and uncensored eye-the naked slaves, that one terrifying lynching as Solomon goes to retrieve supplies, and the never ending, brightly colored sky above the cotton fields. Most merciless of all is the long take of Patsey being whipped as we see her skin torn in front of us (a marvel of makeup). Ensuring that the embodiments of slavery and everything associated with it are portrayed as living, breathing people is no easy task but the cast succeeds. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o must embody all the men and women whose lives were wrecked while coming across as humans with their own desires. They succeed, and Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson are completely electric, with the former a most real sort of monster taken apart by drink and a power rooted in the moral high ground of the time, and the latter is a ball of fury over her fate who’s still totally reprehensible and never excused by either the actress or the crew. Every breath in a quieter scene is a gasp for oxygen after a sprint that felt like it would never end at the time, every return to the horrors feels like a roller coaster starting back up again. 12 Years is knife’s edge film making of the most nauseating kind, and even with the “Important” label it has attached to it, this really is that damn good, and thank god the Academy recognized it. A small step in the right direction towards acknowledging America’s bloody history. Independent of that, it’s a chronicle to the human spirit under suffering-a theme within McQueen’s work, and one that has never been so powerfully manifested. There isn’t anything in this movie I could call fun (my final three are all very enjoyable to watch), but as a display of craft, it is probably the year’s best movie.
Favorite Moment: The soap scene. All the voices combine to form a howl.
2. Stranger by the Lake
Hitchcockian with the emphasis on the second syllable. Stranger by the Lake is a shiny and fastidious vision on Alain Guiraudie’s end that feels like a compellingly fresh vision, whether it’s in the camera never, ever approaching subjectivity or just how routine it all comes across even when someone is cumming across a fully naked body. As a contrast with Blue is the Warmest Colour, it’s a much more interesting study of sex (and BitWC is no slacker there) and in how it touches upon everything the two share in terms of their relationships with nudity and sexual partnerships. It’s also a far more cynical, intelligent film, with both the continuation of a rapidly deteriorating relationship built around mind games/the haunting ending taking the film into what’s arguably uncharted territory in queer cinema or even just cinema as a whole. Even with the drowning’s presence haunting over the steamy lakeside atmosphere, there’s the same parking lot shots (a truly clever way to mark the time passing that also represents a very specific state of mind on the part of the couples, organized and orgasmic) and the same couples while the psychosexual games of our two leads play out. The primary pairing is forever contained in a perpetual state of lying in their makeshift bed sweetly while screaming expletives, especially “fuck”, at each other mentally, all while genuinely desiring to fuck-the fact that such a specific state of relationship was captured is accolade worthy. Pierre Deladonchamps bares damn near everything physically while only baring a little bit emotionally, but what is evoked from the little cracks in the quieter moments is the key to the movie’s emotional lulls between the bareback anal underneath the trees. On the supporting side, Christophe Paou is the appropriate pornstar fantasy for a movie like this, and Patrick D’Assumcao evokes a whole life, and a lonely one at that. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the Grindr age (that catfish metaphor is not exactly subtle but the movie’s themes growing more finessed as it goes along is perfect for a movie on a relationship), or maybe it’s just a sexy thriller (and seriously, hottest sex scenes I’ve seen in ages even if I don’t endorse barebacking), but Stranger by the Lake is one of the most refreshingly realistic takes on what humans will do for a piece of chiseled ass no matter how you slice it.
Favorite Moment: The drowning. Your eyes do not deceive you.
1. Frances Ha
Frances Ha is 2013’s defining portrait of a generation (except maybe for At Berkeley but that’s cheating and a whole lot less fun). The cribbing from Manhattan and Mauvais Sang just add weight to Frances’ slow dance into the future (filled with motions that look like mistakes-the choreography is brilliant, says the person who knows almost nothing about dance) and make the film look that much prettier. A beautiful cocktail of confusion over what to do with one’s life, pettiness and angst related to friends moving on, cheeriness from the excitement of being young and independent, entitlement from a certain status of being a relatively poor white person in New York City, and finally, ultimately, growth, Frances Ha(lliday) is a marvel of a film, 90 minutes long and way more than just a brunch friend in that brief duration. It is also a wonderful look at friendship, and an astute character creation from the minds of Noah Baumbach and his girlfriend, muse, and eighth wonder of the world Greta Gerwig. Every detail only fleshes out our lead’s complicated relationship with the past and forcing herself to move into a more adult way of life as an independent woman, undateable no more (maybe we’ll get a sequel called Frances Halliday?) And let’s not sell the supporting cast short, a roundup of fabulous and funny character actors who feel like any circle of friends, albeit an especially talented group. Mickey Summer’s sour realism contrasts Gerwig’s sunny naivete perfectly, with every cigarette shared a common ground. Their different attempts at different rates of growth just wind up with the two of them in the same Vassar bed at the end anyway, with the same knowledge of how to stop the spins when you get too drunk. When Frances makes an ass out of herself, as she does often, it’s on the grounds of trying to please (a fascinating contrast with Inside Llewyn Davis’ lead who does the exact opposite). Ineptitude at adulthood has never been more hilarious yet painfully real, because this movie lives inside that 20ish year old world. The ending may be fairly minor in terms of its stakes (and I don’t think it’s as happy as it might appear on first glance), but for our protagonist and the viewer, it’s major and well-earned, a rough shedding of one’s old skin but one that creates a beautiful black and white butterfly.
Favorite Moment: Modern Love. Don’t care that it’s a homage.