My Top 10 Movies of 2013

Alright, second post time. I thought maybe the first impression would be the hardest, but now the pressure’s really on. Focus. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.

So I’ll do the best possible thing. More lists. Top 10 of 2013! I’m about to Buzzfeed the hell out of this thing.

I watched 241 movies this year. That’s a new record (or a new low, depending on how you want to look at it, but come on, don’t make me feel bad…) Out of those 241, 76 of them were new movies that came out in 2013. Why do I watch so many movies? Let’s not get personal, this isn’t a personal blog (and you should be thanking me for that).

All you have to know is, I liked 10 of those movies more than the other 66, and I’m willing to list those so you can be like “hey, I saw that one!”, “he’s right, that movie was awesome!” and “I’ve never heard of that one. Who does this guy think he is posting some obscure artsy movie! This list is so stupid, where’s The Great Gatsby?!” …

Wait, where was I? My list, right.

P.S. I tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, so you’re welcome.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

“Wow, it’s an honor. Wait, why are we only #10?”

Talk about a film growing on me. The first time I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ chilly folk music tragicomedy, I was astounded by two things: how good it looked and how sad it made me. Later I realized that it had invoked the best kind of sadness. It hooks into that strange melancholy that is somehow empowering — the kind I get when I spend 30 minutes depressed while trying to write because I just can’t get the words to come out right, but then I look back and realize that there’s something pretty cool about feeling so intensely about something I care about.

That’s basically the story of Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac (who you might remember from Drive). He’s a folk singer who pours his soul into his music, yet his talent is never recognized the way it deserves to be. Anyone who watches the movie will marvel at just how beautiful the music sounds, but the indifference shown by every character he meets is heartbreaking. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wish you could jump in and defend the poor guy.

The movie itself needs no defense though, as it’s got pretty much everything going for it. The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is some of the best this year, the writing is sharply witty (super funny at times) and painfully astute, the music has been stuck in my head constantly since seeing it, and the performances are excellent — just over-exaggerated enough to be funny without sacrificing believability. While Justin Timberlake is wasted, Carrey Mulligan, John Goodman, and Adam Driver (who has been freaking everywhere this year, by the way) all help to sell this cold world in which Llewyn is trapped.

It’s a tough movie to stomach – as far as Coen brothers movies go, this one is similar to the alienating A Serious Man and Barton Fink than something like True Grit or The Big Lebowski. The plot intentionally goes off the rails and breaks certain conventions outright in order to paint a picture of a deeply flawed and terribly unlucky man. The first time I watched it, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated out of a satisfying ending and almost felt like the Coen brothers were messing with me. The second time I watched it, I still felt all those same things, but I also appreciated those idiosyncrasies a lot more. It didn’t leave me wondering why the Coen brothers decided to make the movie go the way it did so much as why Llewyn decided to make his story go the way it did. And why our own stories turn out the way they do.

It might also give you a newfound appreciation for folk music. That soundtrack, man.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street

“Grblgrl, my fist tastes so good.”

It’s hard to believe that the same man who made the wholesome family movie Hugo two years ago has followed up with this. 

It’s harder to believe he’s in his seventies.

Irrepressibly manic and obscene, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street shares a lot in common with my #1 favorite movie of the year (don’t skip ahead! If you know me at all, you already know what movie it is because I don’t shut up about it). Wolf of Wall Street also happens to be the funniest movie of the year, and just to remind you, this was a year full of major Hollywood comedies such as This is the End, The Hangover Part III, and Anchorman 2. Somehow, the comedy in Martin Scorsese’s epic stockbroker crime movie feels in line with the modern cinematic humor pioneered by Judd Apatow and company over the last ten or so years.

This highlights what I feel is Scorsese’s biggest strength when it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street: the man follows trends and sets trends simultaneously. That’s why the film fluctuates between the ‘classic’ type of storytelling that he himself mastered decades ago with movies like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, and something that feels like it was crafted by a young new director who doesn’t care about the rules of the business and just wants to have some fun. The movie is three hours long, but in a year where many notable movies of half its length quickly run out of steam, its incredible that some of the most energetic and gripping moments in The Wolf of Wall Street happen later on. This is the true mark of a filmmaker who knows how to build up to something instead of blowing his load in the first act.

Then there’s Leonardo DiCaprio. I have to admit, I never really got the hype behind Leo as an actor. Even in The Aviator, Inception, The Departed and Django Unchained, nothing about his performances ever made me think he could do the job better than a handful of other actors. This movie, on the other hand, has made me a Leo believer. He plays scummy, sex/drug-addicted, filthy-rich Jordan Belfort with such conviction; a sociopath who just wants everyone to have a good time.

And a good time this movie delivers. Even when it goes on some less-compelling tangents (like everything with Jean Dujardin), it still had me hooked. It’s also an intensely dirty film, with enough drugs and sex that I’m convinced that almost any other director would have been stamped with a big ole’ NC-17 faster than you could say, “this movie should have been rated NC-17.”

But DiCaprio does a great job of making you believe that nothing in the world could make for a better film while you’re watching it. He’s the perfect example of a terrible, terrible human being made into a sympathetic and alluring character. He invokes laughter, disgust, charm and pity all at the same time, which is incredible. The supporting cast is equally fantastic, especially Jonah Hill as lovable side-kick Donnie and the relatively-unknown Margot Robbie as the beautiful and distressingly-savvy Naomi.

Oh, and just a side-note, the movie also has the best scene involving drugs since 21 Jump Street (and both of them features a high Jonah Hill, so I wonder what that says about him).

8. Gravity

“Nobody talks about my performance :(“

Here’s one you probably saw. Wasn’t it cool? When the space debris hit the ship and it was all like BROOSH! and CRASH! and Sandra Bullock was all like, “my daughter died.” That was great.

But seriously, Gravity is impressive. It’s the only movie of the year I saw in theaters twice, mostly because it feels as though it’d be a much lesser movie if it wasn’t in 3D. AKA Avatar syndrome.

And that’s the truth. Strip away all of the immersive 3D effects and you’re still left with an intense film, but one with a very flawed script (immensely noticeable on repeat viewings). It’s also distracting when absolutely everything that could go wrong for Dr. Ryan  goes wrong, no matter how farfetched. It’s kind of like Inside Llewyn Davis in that way, if Inside Llewyn Davis took place in space and the folk music was replaced by the sounds of Sandra Bullock panicking.

While in retrospect it may not be an incredible film, it still makes for an incredible experience, as cliched as that sounds. Like Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi, the movie single-handedly makes the case for how essential 3D can be at times, and why going to the theater can on occasion be better than streaming your movie while simultaneously checking your Snapchat and wondering why you still bother using Facebook. It also helps that the movie completely shut up everyone in the theater with its show-stopping single-take opening sequence. From there, moments of quiet suspense and (heavy-handed) symbolism break up more of the truly eye-popping and intense action scenes, each of which outdoes the previous.

The final scenes (which are super-spoilery so I won’t go into details) combines emotion, special effects, and Stephen Price’s wonderful score to great effect. One shot that takes place over the blue ocean gave me chills on both viewings, and I still get them every time I listen to the music that played over that scene. It’s a moment in a film filled with jaw-dropping moments that cements this film as an instant classic, even if it’s bound to lose some of its luster when it hits DVD.

7. Captain Phillips 

“I swear, I have black friends!”

When I saw Gravity in theaters, I instantly thought to myself ‘I won’t see a more intense movie this year’. A few weeks later, I saw Captain PhillipsIt remains the most intense movie of the year.

Basically, Captain Phillips is a summer blockbuster made with the craft of an award-season film. It’s directed by Paul Greengrass, a man who already practiced making true-story hijacking films with United 93. He masters it here, though, sacrificing a substantial amount of historical accuracy at the in order to keep you on the edge-of-your-seat from the second the Mersk Alasbama is boarded by Somalian pirates, to the final moments where Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime out of nowhere. If Oscars were given out for one scene, Tom Hanks would have this locked down. I can safely say this movie has the best ending of the year.

That sense of surprise isn’t just present in the final moments. The script by Billy Ray makes sure you never know what exactly will happen next, even if you technically know the real story. Only an expert screenwriter could tell you a story where you know the outcome, yet everything leaves you in with the feeling that anything could happen.

Another surprise is the treatment of the Somalians themselves. It would be easy enough to treat them as nothing but scary foreigners spouting angry, incoherent speech at the poor American victims. Instead, they are given just as much humanity as the Americans, and are treated with just as much sympathy. They aren’t evil, they’re just desperate, a casualty of a world of capitalism that leaves their country in the dust. Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi plays the pirate leader Muse with a realistic sense of menace, bred not out of some sort of innate cruelty, but rather out of the need to prove himself and to survive. He rivals Hanks in this movie, and may actually be the biggest surprise of all.

6. Frozen

Dat Ice.

2013 had a lot of really depressing movies. Most of the best-made ones were also complete downers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the films on my list are relatively more optimistic choices – there’s only so much cynicism I can take (I have enough of that in real life). It has its emotional moments, but Frozen is the most joyous damn movie of the year. I wasn’t used to smiling in a movie so much, so it physically hurt me. Smile pain is the best kind of pain.

Something is going on over at Disney. Pixar released Monsters University this summer, which was 1/3 of a great movie, and they are coming off of Brave, which some say was disappointing (though I disagree) and Cars 2, which everyone says was disappointing (and I agree).  Meanwhile their sister studio Walt Disney Animation Studios are hot off of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph and have now released Frozen, which is my favorite Disney movie since Mulan made a man out of me. Some are saying it’s a new renaissance for them, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say that (Wreck-It Ralph did not impress me), I think the tables may be turning. Especially considering Pixar recently laid off 5% of its staff and announced that there would be no new film from them in 2014. Hollywood Reporter summed up the situation pretty succinctly in this article.

All of this is fancy background talk for me to say that Frozen, while thawed flawed, is not just a great movie, but perhaps also a game-changer for the animation landscape going forward. What is most impressive about the film is its keen self-awareness of its place in Disney history. It’s very clearly a princess movie, but it goes out of its way to challenge some of the conventions that are now outdated. The Princess and the Frog, which clung more tightly to the older films, tried to do this to some extent but its disappointing box-office return must have taught the studio a lesson. Namely, that in order to move into the future, both the past and the present need to be equally embraced.

Thus, we have many classic elements, especially the Broadway-style music and the goofy side-character Olaf the Snowman, which draw from the well of vintage Disney. But the film also uses CG animation (with realistic ice and snow that is much more detailed and beautiful than anything in Tangled) and 3D effects that shoots the princess film into the modern era. Of course, there’re also those subversive elements that I don’t want to spoil, which draws a bold line in the sand that separates itself very blatantly from everything that came before.

All this technical stuff is kind of boring, so let me simplify it: Frozen is a heartwarming (ironic, I know) sister story with the best Disney soundtrack since the ’90s, funny characters (I was expecting to be annoyed by Josh Gad’s Olaf, but instead found him to be perfect comic relief), and genuine emotion throughout.

Now I have this stuck in my head. AGAIN. And so should you. (P.S. you should be thankful that Disney uploaded one of the best scenes in the entire movie to YouTube).

5. 12 Years A Slave

Did you think I was going to make a joke here? No way, man. This is serious.

Now for something a bit different: a brutal movie about slavery that’s very hard-to-watch and has perhaps the most heartbreaking ending of the year.

What’s that? You want me to talk about Frozen some more?

12 Years A Slave is an amazing film from a quality point-of-view. Directed by Steve McQueen, the movie tells the true story of Solomon Northrup (here played excellently by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in the North who is kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery for many years. 12 years, I think, though I could be mistaken.

McQueen knows how to make the internal pain of his characters real to the audience, as he did with his last movie, Shame. He works his magic again here. His mastery comes from his ability to let his script and his direction speak for itself, whereas in a similar situation, even a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg would likely employ a John Willimas score or something to direct audience emotions. McQueen doesn’t need to rely on these tricks. He shows you what happened in all its terrible rawness, and forces you to watch humanity at its worst.

This is most obvious in the now-infamous scene where Northrup is hung up by a tree and is left to tiptoe around in the mud for an entire day in order to keep himself alive. That scene is the story of slavery in a nutshell, where there was nobody around to save the day and all the victims had to do was use their sheer will to survive and wait until some distant miracle ended the atrocities.

Ejiofor owns the film with some of the most powerful acting I’ve seen all year (he’s likely got an Oscar waiting for him). One scene in which he sings a slave song is one of my favorite scenes of the year. The supporting cast is illustrious to say the least, featuring McQueen’s frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Paul Giamatti. All of these actors are as good as they’ve ever been (and brave enough to unhinge themselves for such despicable roles), but unfortunately they’re presence in such an authentic-feeling period piece was distracting to me.

Yet nothing can dismantle a script as searing and intimate as McQueen’s, and 12 Years a Slave is probably the most masterfully crafted film I’ve seen this year, even if it’s not the most ‘entertaining’ on this list.

4. The Spectacular Now

“One day, I shall be Jennifer Lawrence!”

Here comes the indie train. Choo-choo. Indie train don’t stop for no one.

The Spectacular Now is spectacular pretty damn good.

James Ponsoldt (who favorited this tweet of mine earlier this year, btw) directed the movie, which offers a pretty bold take on the coming-of-age film, which you will probably be able to tell I really like given my next couple picks. The characters wear no makeup, or at least look like they aren’t wearing makeup. They probably still are, but the point is, they are made to look like they aren’t. It emphasizes the rawness that the story is going for.

That story, by the way, was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, two talented dude who previously wrote (500) Days of Summer and outdo themselves here with another comedy/romance (I’m not going to call it a romcom because that denotes Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson) that is full of insight into how people’s flaws and expectations effect relationships. The screenplay is outstanding, as it tries from the outset to subvert coming-of-age tropes in search of deeper authenticity, and I’d say it succeeds.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are both going places. In The Spectacular Now, their characters are complete opposites, yet they have a great sense of chemistry that makes their coupling comic, tragic, and nostalgic all at once. While Woodley embodies a certain type of shy, bookish girl without making it seem like a cliche, Teller handles a delicate balancing act in which he is hilarious and lovable, yet hiding internal pain which subtly haunts him and sometimes sneaks its way into his external life (usually via a flask). His is a portrait of a kid that thinks he has everything he wants from life, and is hiding from the ever-present realization that high school is coming to an end, and everything has to change.

There are layers to these characters that, like in real life, seem paradoxically archetypal on the surface yet astoundingly complex and mysterious as you spend more time with them. That’s the mark of great writing and great acting at work, and The Spectacular Now sets a new benchmark for sweet coming-of-age movies that never try to sugarcoat how painful life in the real world can be, but reminds us that it’s ultimately up to us to find out what’s worth living for.

Alright, that got heavy. Let’s just…let’s just go on to the next one.

3. Mud

“#3 is alright, I guess.”

At first I thought maybe I only loved Mud because the theater I saw it in had freakin’ swiveling chairs! Then I watched it again at home, proving that it’s actually just one of the best movies of the year. Go figure.

If you’ve heard anything about this movie, it’s probably that Matthew McConaughey is in it. Despite the movie being named after his character, he is neither the film’s main protagonist, nor in my opinion is he the best thing about the movie. This movie actually belongs wholly to the young actor Tye Sheridan. He plays Ellis, a kid with a romanticized view of the world and everyone in it. When Ellis and his buddy Neckbone venture off to an island on the Mississippi river and encounter Mr. McConaughey’s mysterious Mud, Tye embarks on a journey to help Mud rekindle a supposedly true-love relationship with Reese Witherspoon’s Juniper. At the same time, he has to deal with his parents’ rough marriage and his own love interest.

I don’t know if the directing or the writing is better, as they’re both phenomenal. Nichols packs so much beauty and detail into every frame, creating a rural river-town that feels mythical rather than redneck. He extends that knack for detail into his script, as small dialogue cues slowly paint a subtle picture of several clashing views of the world. Many praise McConaughey the most, but I found his character, and even more so Witherspoon’s, to be abnormally simplistic in comparison to Ellis’.

It’s Ellis that drives the true stakes of the story. It’s not a movie about whether or not Mud is reunited with Juniper. It’s a movie about whether or not Ellis’ belief in true love will survive or be crushed by prevailing reality. He’s just at that age where the cynicism of the adult world encroaches on him — can he hold it off? This really resonated with me; since a weirdly young age I was always down with the idea of falling in love with someone for eternity (though, I think that can be attributed to watching The Pebble and the Penguin a bunch as a kid). Nichols and Sheridan both turn Ellis into one of 2013’s most emotionally and psychologically real characters.

The movie’s payoff is a little odd, as a last-minute action climax excites while distracting from the emotional core of the story, but I was ultimately more than satisfied with the conclusions that arise from the movie as a whole. Nichols explores youthful nostalgia with reverence, never treating Ellis and Neckbone like kids that need to grow up. If anything, he makes the case that Mud is the one who can learn more from them. There may be a bit of Stand by Me and a bit of Huckleberry Finn in Mud’s DNA, but it organically and astutely paves a stylistic and thematic path of its own.

2. Short Term 12

Hi, Brie.

Marry me, Brie Larson.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the movie first.

This is a movie about a bunch of hipsters, written and directed by a guy with a hipster name (Destin Cretton), who’s only other movie was called I Am Not A Hipster, which is exactly the name of a movie a hipster would make. But I’m selling Short Term 12 short (pun actually not intended, but I wish it was). This is an absolute masterpiece.

Brie Larson, who rocked it in 21 Jump Street and was in The Spectacular Now as well, and John Gallagher Jr. of HBO’s crappy The Newsroom play a twenty-something couple who devote their lives to working with kids who come from trouble families and are now living together in a temporary residence. Except they have their own problems to deal with. So begins a story that begs the question: how do we juggle the necessary selfishness of dealing with our own issues with the ideal selflessness of helping others overcome their own?

What results is a film that is emotionally charged from the first minute to the last, but every emotion is painfully relatable despite the situations (hopefully) being foreign. But it’s not just sad. it’s also really funny. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking, sometimes at the same exact time.

There’s a moment towards the beginning where Brie Larson’s character Grace searches the rooms of the kids for contraband, and takes pleasure in wordlessly finding out more about them just by seeing what they have in their rooms. This little sequence hooked me immediately. There are also a couple of scenes stolen by new actor Keith Stanfield, who blew me away. We need more young African American actors, and I hope I see more of him going forward.

I could say plenty more about the specifics, but it’s really the type of movie that’s best to let wash over you without much information. You’ll connect with these characters whether you read about them first or not, and I bet most people would like this movie regardless of how much I try and recommend it. So watch it.

Also: marry me, Brie Larson.

1. Spring Breakers

“Big booties and movies, y’all. That’s what life’s about.”

Just to make this clear: last year, my favorite movie was 21 Jump Street, a completely normal choice. I swear this doesn’t always happen.

But for now, I have some serious explaining to do.

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly the most polarizing movie of the year, but it doesn’t care. It doesn’t want to be liked. It almost begs to be hated. There aren’t a ton of ‘enjoyable’ moments. A lot of it is just bizarre, repetitive imagery with little plot but plenty of neon. At first, some of the choices seem to be stunts more than artistic decisions, such as the casting of Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Gucci Mane, as well as James Franco as the weirdest damn character I’ve seen in years.

Given all of this, it may seem like a jump for me say I think it’s the most brilliant movie of the year. It may be more believable for me to say I think it’s the most insane movie of the year.

I’m saying I think it’s both.

The first thing you need to know is that the movie was written and directed by one of the weirdest filmmakers in history, Harmony Korine. If you want proof, here’s an interview with him on Letterman when his career was just starting. He has since went on to make movies in relative obscurity, including 2009’s Trash Humpers, which is exactly what it sounds like. So when this guy decided to use well-known actors for the first time and release a film into mainstream theaters instead of just art houses, there had to be more to it.

As it turns out, the movie was the biggest practical joke of the year. Marketed as some sort of YOLO-generation party thriller in the Project X vein (that movie really went off the map, didn’t it?), Spring Breakers is instead a conceptually genius, intentionally confrontational, and unnervingly beautiful nightmare of a film that screams “subversive” at the top of its lungs. All the things that would make general audiences want to see the movie are turned back on them. Selena Gomez leaves the movie half-way through, the Skrillex beats are blended into Clint Martinez’s unsettling score, and James Franco is unrecognizable and ultra-creepy. 

All of the sex and violence is repeated ad nauseam so that the audience drowns in it. In the opening sequence, the transgressive imagery of partying teens may seem novel, or even fun. As the more menacing undertones slowly creep in, and as three of the four main characters go from being relatable in their boredom of everyday life to being complete psychopaths, the movie becomes something far darker and weirder, something that wasn’t advertised, and something that harkens back to Korine’s first (and previously only) masterpiece, Kids (1995). 

In many ways, Spring Breakers becomes a horror film of sorts, but one that is born out of the very-real vices and behavior of seemingly invincible youth. There are no ghosts or monsters – what’s frightening are the elements of a society that we all recognize from our own lives, from a generation raised on the hyper-sexualized music of MTV, increasingly unrealistic internet porn, and violent movies like Scarface on repeat. Yet all of the depravity reflected by the movie does at times make way for genuine beauty. The Martinez/Skrillex pairing, despite its ominous tone is one of the best scores of the year. The cinematography from Benoit Debie is consistently striking, and arguably Oscar-worthy.

The film also contains perhaps my favorite scene of all time: a montage featuring Britney Spears’ song “Everytime” under slow-motion snapshots of violent acts mistaken as fun. I have a feeling that this sequence will be brought up for years to come (at least it will by me), and it’s one that reminds me not just why I love this movie, but why I love movies in general – their ability to say something just through clashing pairings of image and sound and their ability to make meaning by blending the familiar with the foreign.

The first time I saw the movie was in a theater in Ann Arbor. Being a college town, there were a lot of college-aged people like me in attendance. What struck me was the amount of uncomfortable, mocking laughter I heard all around me, especially every time James Franco said anything, especially his goofy “Spring Break Forever” motto. They clearly weren’t enjoying the film, and they definitely weren’t sharing my reaction. I found every moment to be part of an exaggerated version of our world that was just close enough to reality to be disturbing.

What’s most impressive is that, in making the film, Korine likely was not trying to get one reaction. It isn’t that I got the movie, and the other people didn’t. On the contrary, what makes the film so dynamic is that any viewer’s response to the film will be different depending on their proximity and their understanding of the things it depicts.

Many have said they found the movie to be unforgivably weird, pointless, or repulsive. They would be right in many ways. The film is not meant to be enjoyable, but its meant to make you think it should have been.

The way I see it, Spring Breakers dares its audience to consider the following: is what repulses them the movie itself, or the society that the the film so boldly deconstructs? It’s that conceptual brilliance and that overarching beauty that leads me to call this my favorite film of 2013.

And 2013 was an amazing year for film.

-Sam

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