The ball has dropped, the champagne drank and another year is behind us. 2013 has met its maker. With a hint of nostalgia in my mind’s eye and “Auld Lang Syne” playing in the air, I can’t help but remember some of my favorite films from the past twelve months. Some funny, some pensive, but all excelling at telling a story in this wonderful visual medium.
As the first feature film based on the the work of David Sedaris, C.O.G. had big literary shoes to fill. Adapted from portions of his book Naked, the film follows the author protagonist David (Jonathan Groff) as he takes time away from his Ivy League life to get all Sullivan’s Travels and see how “the real people live” at an Oregon apple farm.
Eventually, David meets up with a war veteran born-again Christian named Jon (beautifully played by Denis O’Hare) and that’s when the film really caught me. Mixing David’s elitist personality against Jon’s held-by-a-thread faith, director & writer Kyle Patrick Alvarez, dug deep into a comparison not usually said — that both faith and intellectualism can be the glue that holds those without a firm self-identity together and, if prodded enough by the actual consequences of humanity, both can easily crumble.
9. The Great Beauty
An Italian film at its most Italian, The Great Beauty examines both aging and coming to terms with death through a man who never rises before sunset. An author and night-time playboy, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has been reigning over the nightlife of Rome for decades and, after his 65th birthday, he is forced to take stock of his life and begin picking up shards of his past that he’d left shattered long ago.
Rich in style and vibrant with sensuality, The Great Beauty has a lot to thank Federico Fellini for, but Paolo Sorrentino certainly has his camera focused towards a modern beat. While cinema sadly tends to use older actors to play the sick, in power, or out of touch, Servillo’s Jep is about as suave and hip as they come. The whole affair is easy on the eyes, but such fancy never gets in the way of delivering real moments of humanity.
8. The Best Offer
From Giuseppe Tornatore the director of Cinema Paradiso comes The Best Offer, a new film where art, deception, and love intertwine and make one wonder if they are not all, in some ways, aspects of a singular whole. An Italian production, but completely in English, the film stars Geoffrey Rush as Virgil Oldman, a famous editor of an auction house, who finds himself slowly drawn into the life of Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), a young reclusive heiress, who not only refuses to come out of her dusty mansion, but won’t let Virgil set his eyes on her.
Mysterious and with a beautiful score by the great Ennio Morricone, The Best Offer is a slow burn of a film that holds on to both your curiosity and heart. It is easily one of the best films of Rush’s prestigious career and there is still room left over for supporting players like Jim Sturgess and Donald Sutherland to shine. A whole unique and beautifully tragic film.
7. Prince Avalanche
Taking place completely on the barren roads of Texas, two highway road workers (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) grow at odds with each other as they repair the damage caused by a wildfire. It’s a simple plot in a simple location, but the film holds genuine depth and is only aided by its lack of flash or panache.
In television, there is a something called a “bottle episode.” Basically it’s when productions find themselves lacking the funds to go out and play so they must create an entire episode based in a single location. Lacking external conflict, characters begin looking inwardly and some of the most poignant moments on TV can occur. Prince Avalanche is director David Gordon Green’s “bottle episode.”
Starting his career with pensive indie dramas, Green went on to helm the brash big screen romp Pineapple Express before tanking hard at the box office with its tonal sibling Your Highness. This is his follow-up and, it seems, him getting back to his roots while learning from his experiences — cleaning up after a wildfire as it were. The result is both funny and melancholy, but most of all quiet in its approach and delivery. It’s a welcome change of pace.
6. Berberian Sound Studio
Starring the amazing character actor Toby Jones, the film follows him as Gilderoy, a timid sound engineer in the 1960's who is hired by an Italian b-list horror master to create the splatters and slashes necessary to complete his newest gorefest. The work is brutal and the toll on Gilderoy, having to watch the filmed violence over and over as he works, could very well consume him.
I’ve always found horror far more terrifying when the goriest bits are just out of view, creating instead a space that my brain must fill with my own personal nightmares. Berberian Sound Studio concerns itself with this psychological trauma both figuratively and literally. It’s the unseen that haunts Gilderoy and, as he slowly slips into the space where nightmares sleep, we follow his lead, watching as his world blurs into things far more terrifying than monsters. We, as the audience, never actually see the film Gilderoy is working on, but we certainly see its effects.
Left stranded in space after debris destroys their ship, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) drift just above planet Earth fighting for a way to survive. Now that’s a heck of a log line. How could you not want to see that film? America seemed to agree. According to Box Office MoJo Gravity was the only original film concept to make the top ten highest domestic grossing films of 2013 in a sad sea of sequels and adaptations.
Some could attribute its success to the amazing use of computer effects and I’m sure that was a definite pull for the popcorn audiences, but, in a film culture based heavily on CGI smothering, Gravity stands out because it used the technique responsibly—it let it add to the narrative instead of becoming a distraction. Beyond that, the film is Bullock’s and she handles it mightily by pushing past the classically cliche “strong woman” rolen and gives an honest portrayal of someone having every reason to give up but choosing to press on.
4. The World’s End
When a nostalgia driven rabble-rouser calls all his friends back together to finish a bar-crawl they started as teenagers, everyone else involved just hopes to finish the evening and get back to their normal lives…then the robots invade.
My love for Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright is so unabashedly bias that if they’d made a movie about people watching paint dry it would have probably ended up on this list. But luckily, The World’s End completes their unofficial Cornetto trilogy beautifully and with just a tinge of self-reflection on what they’ve done and where they’re going. Like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this film has the splashy veneer of a genre picture (this time Sci-Fi), but constantly knows how to move beyond the frame-work for both hilarity and heart. Tackling addiction, aging, and feeling left behind, The World’s End is the funniest sad movie I’ve seen in years…maybe ever.
3. Upstream Color
To explain such a movie might be the wrong approach to understanding it, but Upstream Color revolves around two people drawn together after being infected by a parasite and having their identities wrecked as part of its lifecycle. There’s more to it but, in many ways, its all subtext hanging from the plot’s clothesline.
In his second film, writer/composer/actor/director Shane Carruth spins a narrative into atmosphere akin to if Malick met the mumble-core movement and it just draws you in. I am rarely for any creative holding so many positions in a single film, but Carruth seems to have found how to do them all at the same time. Upstream Color is odd and not completely coherent, but it is an untempered singular vision and benefits from its hazy nature.
2. American Hustle
When second-rate con-artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) get caught by brash FBI detective Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper), they’re forced to help him pull one over on politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but when Irving’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up and the mob gets involved, everyone’s head is on the block.
David O. Russell knows how to play that line between drama and comedy as elements of both mingle to create a sense of genuine interaction. American Hustle holds the best cast of 2013 by a mile and he lets them do their job, by not only giving them a tight script, but allowing for improvisation. Trusting his cast has not only made for a great con-movie, but a first-class character study.
In the not too distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is an introverted writer, still coming to terms with his yet to be finalized divorce, when he meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and his perceptions of life and love are forever changed. Samantha isn’t just any woman…she’s his computer’s new operating system.
Science fiction sometimes gets a bad name and, more often than not, it’s deserved. Constantly the genre shifts away from its roots of understanding humanity in different surroundings and gets lost in the more skin-deep aspects of future tech and world building. Her never loses its way and is the sort of fiction that’s most likely only a decade away at most. Don’t believe me? In 2003 Time named one of the year’s best inventions the camera phone. We’ve come a long way and have further to go.
But if you strip Her of all of its science fiction, you’re still left with one of the most heartbreaking and emotive films about love we’ve ever seen and that’s because it’s forced to concentrate on what makes us fall for one another past simple physical attraction. To the audience and Theodore, Samantha is only a voice, but we connect to it all the same. While Johansson is surely to thank for her great contribution, the film rest completely on Phoenix’s shoulders as 80% of the story is watching his expressions as he talks with the disembodied Samantha. We connect because he connects and Phoenix continues to be one of the rawest actors on the screen.
A film such as Her is not only a template for good science fiction, but an example for what keeps millions around the world enraptured with cinema. It tells us a simple story, but in such a way that we are forced to reflect on ourselves, our relationships, and, hopefully connect further with what makes the human race tick.
So there you have it. My favorite films of 2013. As I look down the list, I’m amazed by how many of these I saw outside of a conventional movie theater and Hollywood distribution system. Whether it be direct to digital renting or media streaming services (thanks Netflix), the future is bright for creative minds hoping to get their work out to the masses and I’m sure, if 2013 is any sign of the quality to come, we’ll all benefit.