This is a list of my ten favorite of the sixty-odd movies I saw in movie theaters this past year that were released in 2013. Keep in mind, then, that the pool I drew from is pretty limited. There are over a dozen movies on other best of year lists that I either didn’t get around to seeing (Before Midnight, The Act of Killing, and Drug War, for example)—some because of sadly limited runs—or, to my knowledge, they haven’t been screened in the Twin Cities yet (Leviathan, At Berkeley, and Her). I don’t know that I would have liked any of them enough to put on this list, but that’s a lot of potentially good movies.
Because of the sad state of movie distribution, especially for the kinds of movies I like to see, I think this will be the last year that I’ll be limiting this list to those I saw in movie theaters. So in 2014, I’m going to strive to see interesting movies in the theater—still my preferred way to see a movie—but if I can’t for some reason, then streaming it is.
A few more comments. It was a strange year. January through May, I saw only a couple of films that I really found worthwhile, but there were almost ten movies I saw over the month of May that I liked quite a bit. And then there was basically a long, dry spell, with a few notable exceptions, until the last six weeks of the year. I hope things are more evenly distributed in 2014.
Finally, the movies are arranged in order that I saw them. They’re not ranked.
Before I get to my ten favorites, here are some noteworthy movies from 2013 that didn’t make my list for one reason or another, but that I also recommend: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Reality, Room 237, Mud, A Hijacking, Fruitvale Station, All Is Lost, American Hustle and Nebraska.
Technically, this movie is from 2012, but it didn’t get released in the Twin Cities until 2013. At first, I wasn’t going to include it because when I saw it, I didn’t like it that much. A story about a man in his 80s caring for his longtime wife, who suffers from a series of strokes and the debilitating effects of a botched surgery, I’d initially felt Amour was another dour exercise in rubbing-our-nose-in-it by Michael Haneke. Rather than the tender depiction of love that I’d heard it was, it seemed a chilly reminder that everyone we love will die, and there will be lots of suffering to go around, for the person dying and their loved ones. To my surprise, though, when looking over the list of films I’d seen this past year, memories of this movie came flooding back to me, bringing with it tenderness and love along with the pain and suffering. It’s not an easy film, but it’s definitely affecting and reminds you of the delicateness of life.
2. Beyond the Hills.
Directed by Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungui, who in 2008 directed the powerful film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is about two friends, both orphans, who as they become young women are basically forced to live in a convent. Unfortunately, one of them is particularly unsuited for the life of a nun. Her restlessness and distress are quickly read by the convent’s patriarch as demonic possession, a diagnosis that the other nuns quickly adopt as truth. The means they take to exorcise her would be unbelievable were not the movie based on a true story. The movie’s final scenes, as the cloistered community sees itself and what they’ve done through the eyes of those living in the nearby town, make the horror of their actions all the more clear.
3. Caesar Must Die.
Caesar Must Die is part documentary, part cinematic adaptation of a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar staged in a high security prison just outside of Rome. All of the movie’s scenes—those from the play, often staged in various places throughout the prison, and those “behind the scenes,” showing personal interactions among the actors—are reenacted. Nothing is “real.” This strategy allows the filmmakers to employ conventional film shots that, especially with their mostly black and white cinematography, reminded me of 1960s art films and would not have been possible had the approach been the more conventional cinema vérité employed by documentaries of this sort. It also dramatically highlights the ways that art and life inform one another, as the actors fluidly move in and out of performing Shakespeare—there’s a frightening scene where grudges from the prison yard hijack a rehearsal—yet we never forget that, Shakespeare or not, it is all a performance. The movie concludes as one last prisoner, returning to his cell, declares that it was in discovering art that he first learned how confining his life in prison actually is.
4. Upstream Color.
Upstream Color is a visually beautiful, elliptical, and hallucinatory movie that eventually centers on a couple who meet on a train and then begin to realize they are drawn to one another because of horrible events from their recent past that they share. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, not all of which I even understand, because part of the pleasure of the film is how much it requires from the audience in terms of piecing together just what happened. The movie achieves this through its fractured editing and by not explaining what we’re seeing, which is unlike the way that mainstream movies explain everything so thoroughly you don’t really need to pay attention to the film. Upstream Color is one of the best, if not the best, science fiction movies of the year, much as director Shane Carruth’s ultra-low budget Primer was in 2004.
5. Something in the Air.
Olivier Assayas follows his epic Carlos with this semi-autobiographical story about a young artist growing up in France in the early 1970s. Gilles, Assayas’ alter-ego, is a precocious student swept up in the fervor of radical politics that followed the May 1968 uprising in France. Basically, Something in the Air is a coming of age story as Gilles discovers love and heartache while becoming increasingly disillusioned with the hypocrisy and pretension of the Left. In the end, he drifts away from radical politics to embark on a career making movies in London. Assayas’s film is smart and meandering in a way that American movies would never allow.
6. Stories We Tell.
Like Caesar Must Die, Stories We Tell is a documentary that finds itself situated at the blurred line between fact and fiction, but it’s a very different kind of movie. Actress and director Sarah Polley set out to capture the truth about her mother, who died when Polley was only eight years old, knowing that the truth she learned about her mother would depend on who was talking about her. It might not sound like a promising premise for a film, but at the heart of Polley’s mother’s story is a secret that has profound meaning for Polley’s identity, giving the material more heft, emotionally and thematically, than it might otherwise have had. As with Caesar Must Die, the manner with which Polley tells her story amplifies its themes, creating a compelling narrative that reflects on the complicated issue of just what we mean when we speak of “the truth” and resists easy closure.
As the title of this film implies, life is serious business and Gravity’s very premise puts that fact front and center. All Is Lost touched on similar ideas in similar ways, but for me, Gravity was the more compelling of the two because of how spectacular and immersive it was. The weightlessness of the camerawork in the opening sequence, that feeling of being suspended in space as we peer at the Earth over Kowalski’s shoulder, the threat of the debris rounding the planet, hurtling with unbelievable speed and force, were breathtaking. I concede that the movie could have used less talking and more silence to bring alive the stillness that paradoxically animates life. Regardless, one of the most poignant scenes involved talking, when Stone tunes in a ham radio operator in Greenland and, for all of that technology and the bonhomie it communicates, no connection is really made between two human beings on either end, and we see Stone resigning herself to that fact and her death. At its core, the movie is kind of pulpy, but it’s very well done pulp.
8. 12 Years a Slave.
When I’d seen Django Unchained at the beginning of the year, the scenes most interesting to me, with a few exceptions, were the ones that depicted slaves working. I wanted to see a movie that focused on the lives of slaves, from the slaves’ perspective, without all of the other distractions that make up Tarantino’s film. 12 Years a Slave is that movie. While most of what is depicted is gut-wrenching, what really sets the film apart from others shown in the multiplex is how McQueen conveys ideas with his images, eschewing at times conventional shots for something more abstract—more “artful” perhaps, to acknowledge some objections to the film—but more meaningful, too. Most haunting of those images is the one used to represent the terror essential to the maintenance of the institution of slavery, in which Northrup, a noose around his neck from an aborted lynching, tiptoes in mud to keep from strangling, barely succeeding, while in the background the other slaves meekly continue with their work, not looking at but fully aware of him.
9. The Great Beauty.
Though I feel The Great Beauty stumbles a bit in its final third, the first hour and a half or so offers great pleasure (and, to be fair, the final third still has some wonderful scenes in it). The movie follows Jep Gambardella, charismatically portrayed by Toni Servillo, who so ably portrayed Silvio Berlusconi in The Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo. Jep is a writer living in Rome who has recently turned 65 and was once a promising novelist, but now, after a life ignoring writing fiction for the more immediate pleasure of Rome’s nightlife, does no more than write profiles for a glossy magazine. As might be expected, Jep starts examining his life, but though tinted with sadness and some regret, what I liked about the beginning of the film was how swept up in beauty and joy his reflections are. It’s a show-offy film that ultimately underscores its themes a bit too boldly by the end. But there’s so much to enjoy, who cares?
10. Inside Llewyn Davis.
The Coen Bros. tell the story of struggling Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis, who can’t get a break because, as one club owner/agent tells him, his talents aren’t particularly marketable. The film is handsomely photographed, and its shambling plot allows the Coens to traverse the full social spectrum associated with folk music in the early 1960s, from the recording studios, to agents, to club owners, to other folkies and sundry bohemians, and even the college professors who enjoy the scene from a safe distance. Inside Llewyn Davis is funny and sympathetic with nice supporting performances from, among others, John Goodman as jazz musician Roland Turner and the three cats who play Llewyn’s on-and-off companion throughout the film. There’s some great music in this film too. Best yet, at least for a Coen Bros. movie: there are no bloody killings, at least if memory serves me correctly.