Best Movies of 2013

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It’s April, so of course I’m finally posting my top ten movies of the year. 2013 was my favorite year for movies in a long time, probably since 2007. So here we go

Didn’t Like as Much as Everyone Else: Spring Breakers (hated), Gravity, Nebraska, Room 237

Haven’t seen: Before Midnight, Blue is the Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, Mud,

Honorable Mention:  The Great Gatsby,Enough Said, Star Trek Into Darkness, Dallas Buyers Club, Short Term 12

  • No. 10: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s least ambitious movie is still a pensive and often beautiful look at domesticity. I’d be happy if he made one of these a year. Though the suburban spaces try to suppress the lyricism and poetry typical to Malick’s film, they still find a way to exist. If the houses and communities these characters inhabit are built for economy rather than beauty, the movie is not. As Roger Ebert said in the last review he ever wrote, “Snatches of dialogue, laughter, shared thoughts, drift past us. Nothing is punched up for dramatic effect . . . There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” I agree.

  • No. 9: American Hustle

A joy to watch. David O. Russell smartly turns this complicated con-artist story into a movie more interested in who these strivers, dreamers, and schemers are. It’s as though Russell knew there were two movies that could be made, and choose the better one. So what if you don’t know how ABSCAM worked, when you get Louis CK and Bradley Cooper yelling at each other? Russell returns to a group of actors he’s handled before (other than Jeremy Renner), and they’re all typically great. They have amazing scenes together and apart. Each of them attempts to win the movie, and that scene-stealing is appropriate for a movie that’s essentially about stealing. Also, any movie that begins with a freshly fat Christian Bale putting on a hair-piece, followed by a slow-motion walking sequence set to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work is going to earn my favor.

  • No. 8: Drinking Buddies

The breakout mumble-core movie of 2013 works because of aimless, articulate, but likable characters – the genre’s best contribution. It’s the most accurate title of the year: Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are drinking buddies and would-be lovers, and everyone around them either tries to elevate them or is disappointed by them. They’re kind of happy but not really. The characters make bad decisions because they don’t know what they want. Joe Swanberg has always made the most sexually explicit mumble-core movies (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends), but here there’s rarely a moment of intimacy and a lot of awkward encounters. The Dissolve called it “aggressively inconsequential,” but I don’t find anything aggressive about this at all. The characters lives are inconsequential, but they’re finely drawn and examined without strong judgment but with compassion. My fear has always been that mumble-core will escape its gritty trappings and get lost in ambition and money, but Drinking Buddies gives me hope for these grander possibilities.

  • No. 7: The Counselor

The hatred for The Counselor might be understandable, since its trailers made it look like a John Grisham movie instead of a typically elliptical and dark text written by Cormac McCarthy. This one offers none of the economy and clarity of No Country For Old Men, even though its plot trapping seem more familiar (lawyer and the mob, etc.). As a movie about ambition, it’s almost Shakespearean, right down to the revealing and literary monologues. It’s a tragedy populated by people we don’t really even like or know that well. I was entranced. My only complaint is with Cameron Diaz’s performance (though not the character as written): other than the one scene where she has, er, fun with a car, the film only further elucidates her weaknesses as a dramatic actress. But Ridley Scott brings the right amount of gloss and competence to a movie that resists easy interpretation.

  • No. 6: Frances Ha

If there were any fairness in the Academy Award nominations, Meryl Streep would not have gotten nominated for existing and being in a movie and Greta Gerwig would have been a serious contender (Cate Blanchett probably should have won anyway, but still). For some, this was their introduction to Gerwig as a serious talent; for the rest of us, this is further validation of her presence as the brightest young actress working. As the aimless and irresponsible Frances, Gerwig dances, fake-fights, gets bored, works as a secretary, rooms with two dudes, and runs around with her arms flailing. She never stops showing the loneliness of this character, even when she’s crazy energetic. And even though the movie is about a woman wandering and often failing, it’s a really happy move, largely because of that spirit. Gerwig co-wrote with her director and new boyfriend and normally sad-sackian Noah Baumbach, and it has the same style and energy as its protagonist.

  • No. 5: The Wolf of Wall Street

Many loathed the way Martin Scorsese made us sympathize with robber baron Jordan Belfort. But I find it key to his deployment of one of the most classic elements of American mythos – the Horatio Alger story – and the familiar narrative constructions of Goodfellas and Casino, to which this film ends (although hopefully not) a trilogy. With the same rise and fall structure, the same stylistic excess, Scorsese equates the junk bond-hawkers with the mafia. If we like Jordan, it’s because we like this kind of story, and Scorsese invites us to identify with him only to question and be challenged by the way this narrative works when it involves such reprehensible dealings. The best argument against the movie comes from my friend Porter, who claims that the FBI’s plot against Jordan is a fantasy of good ol’ Federal containment at its best – here comes the cavalry! – and he has a point. But we have to be reminded that this is Jordan’s story: unlike Goodfellas and Casino, the narrative never shifts. He’s telling us how he got away with it and how he can be caught, and the awkwardly rhetorical and confessional nature of his story gets carried away with all his bragging and posturing. Remember that the title “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes from a Forbes article about him. This is Belfort’s attempt to control the story, which he often fails to do. It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year: at times, the visual language recalls and DiCaprio’s physical performance recalls the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.

  • No. 4: Her

Wistful, sweet, and visually inventive, Her is the movie for our technological moment (just as Computer Chess is the movie for our technological past). Spike Jonze takes the concept seriously, rather than constantly reminding us of the cleverness. In addition to Theodore Twombly and “Samantha,” the film meditates on all kinds of relationships, not merely with technology. After all, Theodore writes letters not only out of obligation, but also because it allows him a virtual window into a meaningful connection. The characters are not vehicles for philosophy or the high concept, but are finely drawn and often interesting crack the narrative and visual framework. Her presents a largely clean and aseptic utopia in which we’ve all accepted that computers can solve our problems, then turns that on its head by giving computers emerging problems of their own. In that way, the movie it should be compared to (and never is) to The Terminator: in both, we see the clash between controlling and being controlled by non-human forms of consciousness. Its sweetness comes from the great Arcade Fire score, Joaquin Phoenix’ toning down his manic force into shy neediness, and Amy Adams’ warmth.

  •  No. 3: 12 Years a Slave

Attacked by some as Oscar-bait; they couldn’t be more wrong, even if it dominated those awards discussions. This is an intense, provocative look at a subject that isn’t usually filmed. As a film subject, slavery often gets unfairly lumped with civil rights era movies, of which there are many. But the last significant movie to address slavery seriously (other than Django Unchained, which is an action movie) was Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Beloved. The film doesn’t pull punches on the brutality, and captures the powerlessness of slaves. In fact, a consistent criticism of the film is that (spoiler) a white man ensures Solomon’s slavery. But that’s part of the point: Solomon’s escape doesn’t come so much through his own courage or agency as endurance and even participation in these senseless and indefensible conditions. His only chance at freedom is through someone who isn’t defined as “property” – this comes straight out of Northup’s book. The movie avoids speechifying or overly virtuous representations. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the right mix of stoic resolve and suppressed anger to Solomon. As the movie ends, we’re told more grim facts about his life and failed attempts to bring about justice to those who sold him into slavery. Part of me wishes McQueen had filmed this too. This is a dark, necessary movie.

  • No. 2: Computer Chess

Mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski took a risk with this loopy, often absurd, frequently hilarious look at a bunch of nerds in the early 80s playing chess through their computers. I’m reminded of that bit in the Simpsons bit with the “Grand Nationals of Sand Castle Building Preview” where an announcer, says, “You know, this year, everyone’s abuzz about one thing: the absence of Mark Rodkin . . . oh wait, there he is.” In a way, Computer Chess is like turning that line into a movie. The result is that Computer Chess has the dramatic urgency of a sports movie, which is made all the more compelling once we accept the sense of seriousness and inevitable celebrities that can only exist within this weird culture. But the like Her, it’s a meditation on mediation and identity and the way all that changes when we explore and attempt to think about technology on a deeper level. The film’s DIY style meshes perfectly with subject; this is no art movie, it’s the one of the most entertaining movies of recent memory.

  • No. 1: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ best work in years (which is saying a lot) once again captures a milieu with a mix of artificial regionalism and naturalistic realism. Its bleakness is offset by the hopefulness of the music, and the Coens show the way it became a part of business and commercial interests and could not be contained by it. Played by Oscar Isaac in what I think is the year’s best performance (he sings!), Llewyn is kind of a jerk, but he’s also floundering and lost and trying to make a life through the integrity he refuses to give up. Even though the Coens make him suffer, they still like him. All the performances are great, and the film is a funny and loving pastiche of beat and folk cultures. This scene might be my favorite and the funniest of any movie this year:

The aesthetic riffs on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the glorious style extends to road-side diners and academic’s apartments. The mix of hope and misery made it seem schizophrenic to some, but I was compelled every step of the way.

 

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