2013 wasn’t a bad year for movies, but it felt like it at times due to the dearth of big surprises. Of my top 10 films, nine were made by established auteurs, eight of whom produce work I routinely praise. Where was the earth-shattering debut from an exciting new voice, or the big blockbuster that was better than we had any reason to expect it would be? I didn’t see them, although the former could still be out there. Even though I caught over 200 new releases this year, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, having missed dozens of films my colleagues cite as among the year’s best. Being that I’m only a man, with only so much time on his hands, the following list represents, as always, a snapshot of my favorite releases of the year at this time, organized in rough order of preference.
Honorable Mentions: “At Any Price,” “Beyond the Hills,” “In the House,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Magic Magic.”
10) “The Wind Rises” – Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki saved one of his best for last, which is saying something given how consistently dazzling his works have been over the past three decades. “The Wind Rises” is different from most of Miyazaki’s oeuvre—historical, reality-based, and aimed chiefly at adult audiences—but it shares with the other films a spirit of discovery and luscious hand-drawn animation, making it the perfect swan song. The story—the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japanese fighter planes during World War II—feels deeply personal for Miyazaki, a way for him to wrestle with the question of whether the potentially devastating consequences of technological innovation should deter man from pursuing such. But “The Wind Rises” isn’t heady; as always for Miyazaki, it’s a work of sublime beauty.
9) “The Spectacular Now” – Stories of first love are a dime a dozen, but James Ponsoldt’s treatment of the blossoming romance between high school seniors Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is only conventional on the surface. Pondsoldt shows an uncommon sensitivity to his teenage characters, never directorially minimizing their problems as the adult in the room. Leads Teller and Woodley achieve a casual profundity as the ordinary American kids undergoing the first transformative period of life in which they’re tasked with calling the shots, while never losing touch of the vulnerability of the moment. The movie is, in turn, both wise and feeling.
8) “Nebraska” – Alexander Payne’s rich evocation of the Midwest in hazy, widescreen black-and-white—his most complex visual portrayal of his home region to date—would be the highlight of this road movie if the characters weren’t equally textured. We don’t catch the Grants at a particularly rosy moment—son David (Will Forte) is accompanying elderly dad Woody (Bruce Dern) from Montana to Nebraska to collect a million dollar prize he knows is a scam—but the family dynamic is so recognizably American that we can’t help but see ourselves in them. Who would have guessed that 77-year-old Dern, off the mainstream radar for over a decade, had this heartbreaking portrayal of a man at the end of his life inside of him? Or that Will Forte, that guy on “Saturday Night Live,” could hold his own alongside Bruce Dern? And yet it’s June Squibb who most often steals the show as the family’s no-nonsense matriarch.
7) “Frances Ha” – It’s pure coincidence that the two notable black-and-white films of the year ended up next to each other on my list, though it’s a convenient reminder of the fact that monochrome still has a place in filmmaking, even in the era of the digital camera. Just as “Nebraska”’s aesthetic was designed to pay tribute to ’70s films like “The Last Picture Show,” Noah Baumbach clearly views “Frances Ha” as his ode to the French New Wave. Not just in form, but content — like Antoine Doinel, the titular protagonist (Greta Gerwig) wanders around the city, alienated from authority figures. Only there’s a postmodern catch: She’s 27, not 14. Yet Gerwig makes Frances a wholly sympathetic figure, as she embodies Frances’ hipster characteristics with honest humanity rather than an appetite for quirk.
6) “Spring Breakers” – Harmony Korine finally figured out how to be both a provocateur and an artist. “Spring Breakers”’s exterior is as scandalous as you’d expect of the no-holds-barred auteur, but it also has a deeply moral core. Korine straddles the line between the arousing and the offensive not just to thrill the viewer in the moment, but to inspire serious reflection in them afterwards: Is there anything inherently wrong or socially dangerous about the audience taking pleasure in such debauchery when it’s clearly presented as fantasy? Korine seems to think not, that our ability to engage fantasies separate from reality is crucial to maintaining the distinction between the two. And what a fantasy “Spring Breakers” is — loaded with pastiche, yet unlike anything you’ve seen onscreen before, capped by a bravura rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” by a cornrow-touting, machine gun-loading, Oscar-deserving James Franco.
5) “To the Wonder” – Not much is known of Terrence Malick outside of his works, given the filmmaker’s reclusive nature. But what we do know about Malick’s life bears a striking similarity to that of “To the Wonder” protagonist Neil (Ben Affleck): he was raised where Neil lives (Bartlesville, Okla.) and like Neil, he was in love with a Parisian (married, in fact) before falling for an old American friend (his current wife). It’s no surprise, then, that the film feels like a cinematic recreation of personal memories: largely dialogue-free; vaguely linear, but full of non-linear interruptions (flashbacks and even dreams); and more focused on the actions and presumed thoughts of the supporting characters than those of the person remembering, who instinctually acknowledges his own (Neil appears a stoic cipher, with fewer than a dozen lines). Malick doesn’t innovate in terms of the story itself; he innovates in terms of the storytelling, allowing us to experience universal emotions—of love, loss, regret, etc.—from an entirely new perspective. “What is this love that loves us?,” Olga Kurylenko’s Marina asks in voiceover. Perhaps it’s Terrence Malick himself.
4) “The Wolf of Wall Street” – Most popular accounts of Wall Street excess focus exclusively on the illegalities committed by corrupt bankers. Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter, on the other hand, turn their attention to self-made swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to comment on a more widespread social problem: that no matter how much the American lower classes may demonize the so-called “One Percent,” there still exists a pervasive desire to get rich quick with little effort. Belfort’s rags-to-riches trajectory makes it easy to understand why, as it’s chock-full of beautiful, sexually promiscuous women; drugs that’ll make you feel like superman; and every material thing one could ever want. But while this is all tempting (and wildly entertaining in movie form), it doesn’t make for a good, valuable life. By sprinkling quiet moments of desperation throughout, Scorsese expresses the human toll of such gluttony without ever lecturing. DiCaprio and supporter Jonah Hill deliver the performances of their careers.
3) “Her” – This is my kind of science fiction — which is to say, the kind in which the people are the focus and the futuristic elements are the backdrop. While “Her” will undoubtedly be referred to by the masses as “the Siri movie,” it’s primarily about human concepts: love, attachment, intimacy, privacy. And as astonishing as Scarlett Johansson is as the voice of an all-knowing algorithm—a woman imitating a computer imitating a woman—this is Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix’s) film. Phoenix’s performance perfectly interacts with director Spike Jonze’s intricate visual design to express the crisis of a man who can’t find a real connection in a world built around connectivity—or perhaps just doesn’t realize the one he already shares with Amy (Amy Adams). His relationships, both with machine and man, raise powerful questions about simulation: If we feel something is real, is it real? The premise of “Her” could have lent itself to an unintentional comedy; instead, Jonze avoids every potential misstep and delivers an aching, thought-provoking masterwork.
2) “Before Midnight” – They did it again. If “Before Sunset” was a miracle of a sequel, then “Before Midnight” is a direct portal to the divine. But that’s not to say it’s an entirely pleasurable sit. While Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are together at last, “Before Midnight” finds their relationship in as much doubt as ever. Once again, they walk and talk in a picturesque European locale (Messinia, Greece this time), stumbling upon new truths about relationships —now, those of the long-term variety. As nice as it is to see the couple, one’s smile wears off quickly, as it’s imminently noticeable that their gait is more reticent, what with their relationship bearing the weight of responsibility (raising two daughters, scheduling time with Jesse’s American son). An early allusion to Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy” signals that this installment is not headed in the cheeriest of directions. Indeed, it isn’t, but Celine and Jesse’s extended third-act fight at their destination, a seaside hotel intended for quality alone-time, is a feat of writing and acting. The film’s ending leaves room for viewer interpretation, but I see no reason to resist optimism, as strong relationships like Celine and Jesse’s find ways to endure. I hope we see them again, together, in nine years.
1) “Side Effects” – I haven’t picked a good, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment as my favorite of the year in half a decade, but Steven Soderbergh’s homage to the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock—billed as the auteur’s final theatrical film—is more than deserving of the slot. In fact, even labeling this an homage seems like a slight, as it’s truly an original, new product. Soderbergh marries Hitchcockian techniques with the hyper-digital aesthetic of his late period to craft a film that’s about elemental fears in modern society. Killer birds and shower-stabbings scared us yesterday, so Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns must invoke a phobia more specific to contemporary Americans: the potentially dangerous consequences of an over-medicated populace.
Tackling such a hot-button issue through the unpretentious lens of a thriller allows Soderbergh to communicate thoughts on the zeitgeist just as effectively as a capital I-Important drama would, without any of the preaching. “Side Effects” isn’t anti-psychopharmacology, but it sees a need to confront the pervasive fear Americans still have about this type of drug, even though 1 in 10 of us takes them daily. Soderbergh realizes that the ideal way to do so is to fully engage the fear, to take it to its logical extreme in the form of a thriller. Yes, “Side Effects” goes off the rails for the sake of entertainment in its final third, but Soderbergh so masters both the social commentary and the B-thriller mechanics that he succeeds in having his cake and eating it too. This is the kind of smart, middle-budget movie for adults that the big studios should be making a lot more of.
Critic Speak co-editor James Frazier’s Top 10 Films of 2013 will be posted later this month.