Bret Easton Ellis recently declared 2013 the worst year in the history of cinema. If that’s true, I didn’t notice. For months, I’ve walked out of film after film, saying to myself or whoever I was with, “Well, that’s a potential top 10 candidate,” so pleased I was with what I just saw. When the time came to make this list, it felt like the film critic equivalent of a traffic jam, with dozens of titles staring at me, pleading to be recognized as a gem, a masterpiece, a piece of future iconography. So plentiful are they that were I to wait a few days and start anew, the order would surely be different, while some titles would fall off and be replaced altogether.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
“About Time” – Richard Curtis’ rom-com about a time-travelling man in search of true love starts out as a charming diversion, a formula crowd-pleaser with a sci-fi twist. Then, unexpectedly, it cannily shifts into a more profound gear, becoming a lovely, heartbreaking story about the bonds of family and the need to appreciate life as we live it.
“American Hustle” – David O. Russell channels Scorsese and ends up with a more entertaining film than the old master did this year. Featuring an array of Oscar-nominated performances, Christian Bale stands out, proving once again to be the rare actor who’s a true chameleon, disappearing completely into his roles, here managing to embody a bald, fat, ludicrous but shrewd petty crook. Although featuring a flawed story that often hits narrative dead ends, the film is told by Russell and Co. with a light touch, full of humor and with a pacing that comes to a sudden, breathless stop at the end.
“Bullet to the Head” – Walter Hill, director of many exhilarating, masculine works of genre cinema, returns to the big screen with a bang after an 11-year absence. Starring Sylvester Stallone as a ruthless hitman and Jason Momoa as a brutal mercenary, “Bullet to the Head” features both some of the year’s best action sequences and a refreshingly unsentimental story that sees a bloody collision between hard men with unbendable ethical codes.
“Emperor” – Largely dismissed by critics and overlooked by audiences, “Emperor” features one of the year’s best and important true stories, with Matthew Fox’s assistant to Tommy Lee Jones’ Douglas MacArthur investigating whether or not post-World War II Japan’s Emperor Hirohito should be charged with war crimes. It’s the rare film that considers politics thoughtfully, examining both moral and practical concerns, as well as the way they intertwine.
“Frances Ha” – In a likely unintentional fashion, Greta Gerwig positions herself as a sort of anti-Lena Dunham, turning in an honest, charming performance as a struggling twenty-something with artist aspirations in a place that doesn’t seem to desire her services. Whereas Dunham’s work in film and TV is laced with narcissism and gloom, Gerwig (who co-wrote the script with director Noah Baumbach) rejects such attitudes for an upbeat look at life’s experiences and possibilities.
“The Great Gatsby” – Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance of the year wasn’t in a Martin Scorsese film, but one of Baz Luhrmann’s, and it proves to be among the finest of his career. Starring as the eponymous Gatsby, DiCaprio brings both movie star wattage and the vulnerability of optimism to one of literature’s most American of characters, while Luhrmann’s glitzy, kinetic style successfully imbues the 1920s period with a contemporary feel of vibrancy and danger.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” – Llewyn Davis is the most unfortunate kind of artist; he’s better than most at his craft (folk singer), but narrowly lacks it, that quality that turns a fine musician into a great one. The Coen Brothers place Davis in a pre-Dylan folk music landscape that rings with a gloom that would be sad were the filmmakers not so skilled at mining it for humor and insight into the human condition. Oscar Isaac turns in a wonderful, understated performance as Llewyn that makes a very flawed but talented man into a figure of (minor) pity.
“Lone Survivor” – Peter Berg’s hit war film skillfully makes heroes out of Navy SEALs without mythologizing them, depicting them as complex, brave men doing their best to handle the physical and moral hazards inevitable during war. A depiction of an actual American military mission gone horribly awry, “Lone Survivor” employs intense battle scenes that see the revered fighters graphically cut to pieces by withering fire, while the final act poignantly suggests that heroism and decency can be found even in the most hellish places.
“Side Effects” – One of 2013’s two great psychological, Hitchcockian thrillers, Steven Soderbergh’s film begins as the sort of detached issue piece that has peppered his filmography for years. The plot sees a mentally disturbed woman (Rooney Mara) prescribed an experimental anti-depression medication by her concerned psychiatrist (Jude Law). Then, there’s a twist. Then another, and then another, all of which are smartly played, compelling, and delightfully surprising. In the end, it has become a thriller for adults, one that suggests calm and steady application of logic trumps panic and insidious manipulation.
“The Spectacular Now” – How rare is it for cinema to depict alcoholism as it afflicts a teenager? Perhaps almost as rarely as how “The Spectacular Now” treats its young characters, with respect for how they struggle with their burdens instead of condescension and trivialization of their problems. Miles Teller’s performance as a drunken, good-hearted teen on the cusp of adulthood hits the right notes of depth, his despair roiling just beneath the surface.
10) “Trance” – In Danny Boyle’s psychological, hypnosis-based thriller, reality shifts and bends, as we expect it to, but Boyle finds ways to make these shifts not just about clever surprises, but the personalities within. The film stars James McAvoy as a beleaguered auctioneer, Vincent Cassel as his art thief partner, and Rosario Dawson as a hypnotist tasked with extracting memories out of a troubled mind. Filled with moments lurid and erotic, there’s a violent confrontation at the end, as with so many thrillers, but here it’s a clash that’s not only earned, but necessary and true to the circumstances.
9) “Don Jon” – The actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his directing debut with a funny, intensely thoughtful film. “Don Jon” tackles a mostly ignored contemporary issue that sits in plain sight, in the process crafting a surprisingly thoughtful societal commentary. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a skirt-chasing guido who’s not a bad guy. He is, however, a porn addict, one to such an extent that his relationships with actual women, including his “dime” girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson), take a backseat to his incessant emotional and literal masturbation.
What an interesting work this is. Gordon-Levitt, who wrote the screenplay, fills it with moments of humor and sharp insight. Observe a great scene at Jon’s family dinner table, where his father (Tony Danza) and mother (Glenne Headly) recall not so much how they first met, but what crossed their minds; here we witness how cultural and social attitudes subtly shape us. In the end, the film makes a case for honesty with ourselves and others, its moral clarity rendering it bold and notably idiosyncratic.
8) “Captain Phillips” – Paul Greengrass’ latest film looks at how two opposing groups are brought together by countless factors that result in a calamity. As with Greengrass’ other films, it’s unsentimental and engrossing in its You-Are-There reconstruction of actual events, managing to be insufferably tense, even as we know the results beforehand. Based on an incident that saw the hijacking of a freighter by four Somli pirates, the film features Tom Hanks’ best performance of the century as the eponymous captain, a mere mortal who survives an ordeal thanks not just to his cool head, but the skill of others. Barkhad Abdi is mesmerizing as the pirate leader, a bold bandit who would just as soon get paid as kill a hostage. The ship’s crew aren’t heroes, nor or they strictly victims, and its pirates are not especially villainous, nor are they merely martyrs. Everyone involved is there because of countless geopolitical and cultural reasons far beyond their control, with the outcome depicted as the natural, likely result of these points intersecting as they do.
7) “Mud” – “Mud” is one of the year’s best crowd-pleasers, the sort of film you can recommend to nearly anyone. That’s not because it’s blandly made for a mass audience, but because it’s well-made, hitting notes that contain universal appeal. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland star as two teens in rural Arkansas who meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive hiding out on a small island. Mud is a man not altogether unlike them, a romantic trying to repair a boat so that he might win the heart of the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon). There’s some action, but director Jeff Nichols feels most comfortable exploring these people, salt of the earth types possessed of decency and heroic hearts. It’s a film that sees a commonality in the way we struggle through life, navigating the waters of its desires, its victories, its sadness.
6) “The Place Beyond the Pines” – Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore film, a deep and somewhat epic melodrama, tells the stories of three men across different families and decades, mapping out the way their actions in a community weave of a tapestry of tragedy and heartbreak. The performances are perfect: Ryan Gosling as a tattooed stuntman and bank robber trying to do well by his infant son the only way a man like him knows how, Bradley Cooper as an ambitious policeman who leverages his horror at corruption into career gain, and Dane DeHaan as a teenager whose investigation into his roots sets the finale in motion.
5) “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” – Billy Bob Thornton is not a great director, but he is a great screenwriter, with his latest drama about two clans, one from Alabama, the other from England, veering into moments of apparent wackiness that are then offset by their stunning recognition of the pain that besets humanity. Thornton’s characters, and there are a lot of them, are all multilayered and sincere, their histories and issues and myriad emotions combining in impressively moving ways. Robert Duvall and John Hurt are the two family patriarchs, bonding in spite of, or perhaps because of, having shared the same woman. Thornton plays a World War II vet, saving the best scene for himself, a jaw-dropping monologue among the year’s best screen moments.
4) “Pacific Rim” – This would be the next best thing to a new “Star Wars” movie were it not for the fact that “Pacific Rim” proves better than one. Presenting us with a colorful, exciting universe that feels as deep as that of the 1977 game-changer, Guillermo del Toro doesn’t spare truly wondrous special effects, nor does he neglect to supply us with a story that manages to incorporate character development, fun, humor, and even a touch of sadness. Del Toro uses Japanese monster films for inspiration in the same way that Lucas used sci-fi serials, crafting a gloriously enthralling adventure that supercharges both the imagination and the senses.
3) “Drinking Buddies” – No movie this year challenged me intellectually to the extent that Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” did, a surprise for a drama not about intellectual issues, but about relationships. It presents us with four interesting people in relationships with one another, watches them, and is wise enough not to pretend it has all the answers.
The story centers around Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as intimate friends working at a brewery. They’re not lovers; she is with Ron Livingston, a music executive uncertain of their chemistry, and he with Anna Kendrick, who loves him but is tiring of his lackadaisical attitude. A weekend trip attended by both couples sets the plot in motion, with each individual confronted with uncomfortable truths about their feelings. What they each do with this knowledge differs, but the dialogue is raw and insightful with its depiction of individuals uncertain of what’s right for them.
2) “Gravity” – Forty-six years after Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” comes the next great outer-space film, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” Sandra Bullock stars, giving a virtuoso performance as a reluctant astronaut who finds herself stranded in space, with only her wits and a dwindling supply of resources to survive.
The film’s effects, which see Bullock and costar George Clooney convincingly operating in a zero gravity environment, are a class unto themselves, so astounding and convincing that even the film’s detractors must preface any criticism with praise of its technical accomplishments. But the story, which sees Bullock not just battling the elements, but the sort of personal tragedy that has brought her into the darkest recesses of the human soul, becomes a stirring metaphor for our existence. If survival is simply continuing life, then what could be more profound than what happens here?
1) “Nebraska” – The characters in Alexander Payne’s films have lived. No other working filmmaker populates his films with so many individuals that give the impression of depth, the look of one who really is the sum of all of their experiences, for better or worse. None of Payne’s characters so far have lived as much as Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a senile, unremarkable old man convinced by a piece of junk mail that he has won $1 million. His son (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, Nebr., stopping in their hometown along the way, where “news” of Woody’s fortune sets the town abuzz, bringing out the worst in the locals.
The film is both hilarious and melancholy, the plain, vast Nebraska landscape rendered beautiful by black-and-white. The cast is impeccable: Forte as the son, fantastic as a kind everyman with more nerve than his lowly station would suggest; June Squibb as the family’s fiery, foulmouthed matriarch; Bob Odenkirk as Forte’s brother, pragmatic but supportive; Stacey Keach as Dern’s old business partner, a rotten fellow who gets what’s coming to him; and Dern, giving the year’s best performance as a man broken by years of alcoholism, disappointment, and mediocrity. “Nebraska” draws out these people like few works do, actually exploring the implications of legacy, identity, and the ghosts of the past. If great movies are ultimately about people, this is one of the best.