Top Fifteen Films of 2013

15.) Spring Breakers

Directed by Harmony Korine


Boy, did they market this movie to the wrong crowd. Those going in expecting a straightforward exploitation film in which Disney pop-stars grow up and do naughty things, were in for a very different kind of journey. Spring Breakers is not simply an aggrandizement of spring break culture. Rather, it is a worship of spring break culture. It explores spring break as a religious revival, in which beer sanctifies like holy water, and patrons jump around like they are attending a Pentecostal mass. They pray its name, “Spring break…. Spring break, forever,” like it’s an eternal mantra that saves them from their boredom. And one by one, they those weak in faith lose their conviction: spring break is everlasting life. Spring Breakers strangely works in mystical ways.

14.) The World’s End

Directed by Edgar Wright


After Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost have completed their Cornetto Trilogy with The World’s End. These comedies are not simply genre spoofs, in which the conventions of zombie, cultist, and alien movies are riffed. These three movies are organic in the way they all seemingly start off as TV-sitcom pilots, then evolve to manic proportions with action-packed fights for the survival of the human race. The World’s End is about a group of middle-aged friends who meet up for a high school reunion of sorts to complete twelve pints at twelve bars, with each bar being named after a conventional plot point, respectively. The themes of alienation and fear of conformity work comically as sitcom, but Wright is able to stretch these exact same themes into sci-fi action territory. The movie completely switches genres at one point, and the result is comedic brilliance. This is a great action-comedy, as well as a great conclusion to the Blood & Ice Cream Cornetto Trilogy.

13.) Stoker

Directed by Park Chan-Wook


Stoker is a rich, compelling thriller, ripe with layer after layer. Masterfully made by Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook, his camera-work is aggressive and attentive. He has an eye, as well as an ear, for the visceral. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many groans and cringes resulting from a pencil being sharpened, as when it happens here, dripping with blood. This is expert craftsmanship.

It must be hard to direct in a second-language, lacking knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of the spoken words. To compensate, the setting here is not accurately depicting any single era; the setting appears to exist in a vacuum. It is a modern thriller comprised of some characters that seem to be lifted straight out of a Victorian horror while others seem to be bred from the Bates Motel, and yet some others seem to have been on their way to a fifties greaser reunion and got lost. It is a blend of all sorts of cultures, and Park Chan-Wook is able to get his actors to speak directly and purposefully. While that sounds like it would create acting as wooden as the plain-spoken atrocities that were the Star Wars prequels, the Victorian properness used here instead is entirely effective. And creepy.

The film is also something of a coming-of-age story. The young protagonist, India, has spent much of her life being brought up to think of herself as the product of the influence of others. But something individual and free awakens within her. In very strange ways, this coming-of-age story intermixes sexual awakening and violent tendencies. She is emerging as a predatory hunter, excited by violence. The sado-masochistic undertone may not be as prevalent as it was in Thirst, but it is here, nevertheless. Most of the time, we applaud young characters that find self-discovery and take charge of themselves. But here? When her character discovers that she has a taste for violence, it sort of makes you re-evaluate whether or not her self-discovery is a good thing.

12.) Nebraska

Directed by Alexander Payne


The old man is on a fool’s journey. He is Don Quixote and his son plays the role of his squire. One has to wonder how much sanity the old man really really has left. Convinced he has won a million dollars in a scam sweepstakes, he begins a trek to the mythic land of Nebraska. Does he know his million dollars in winnings is as fake as the windmills masquerading as the giants? Is he really just crazy, or is he intentionally setting out on a fool’s journey to escape something or someone else, like his over-bearing wife? When characters, like his wife, berate Woody and talk about how useless he is, they speak about him as if he isn’t actually there. Physically, he is there. But mentally, is he there?

I really wonder how the deadpan material would play out to the different parts of America. How would a movie about the Midwest play to audiences in Nebraska, as say, opposed to Los Angeles? Although it’s a comedy, I’m not sure if it would play out as such in every regional area. In some ways, it plays out as a realistic documentation of rural lifestyle. The way the old farmers all sit around a TV and talk about the make and build of a truck from 1979 earns the writers an A for accuracy. The fact that every line has to be repeated loudly to be heard across the room gives the writers extra-credit points. The typical Midwestern farming conversations are played for deadpan comedy, which begs the question: Is Payne mocking his characters?

As foolish as the man acts, his fragility always manages to arouse sympathy. It is so deeply observant about the elderly, that the emotional honesty is strong enough to illicit thoughts and memories in the individual moviegoer of personal relationships with the elderly. One of the great powers of cinematic storytelling is that it can stir the emotions of the individual, causing him or her to think of personal relationships. The movie in this way gains power outside of it’s own story. It excels at it.

11.) American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell


It seems strangely appropriate that the opening scene to American Hustle involves the step-by-step process of perfecting the perfect comb-over. Christian Bale plays a balding man, and this opening scene is the only time we see the truth of what he is. But then he adds layer upon layer of deception over his baldness, concealing his real nature. The thesis of the movie exists in this very act; American Hustle is a movie in which we see how con artists perfect their acts of deception.

A lot has already been said about how similar this movie is to 90’s-era Scorsese. The camera is constantly moving, the pacing is kinetic, and the energy is always wild. Had Scorsese not outdone himself this year with The Wolf of Wall Street, there would probably be even more praise for David O. Russell’s imitation of Scorsese. Maybe it’s not entirely fair to only see the movie in comparison with Scorsese’s movies, because American Hustle offers more than just style. It’s a character-driven movie: the type in which actors can riff and go a little wild with improvisation. David O. Russell allows his actors to experiment with their creativity, so every moment of acting is golden. If there was an award for Best Act of Stealing the Show, the award should go to Jennifer Lawrence.

10.) Before Midnight

Directed by Richard Linklater


In Before Midnight, the filmmakers have once again revisited the lovers, Jessie and Celine, nine years after the ending of the second film of the trilogy. The two are now in their forties, driving an SUV with a pair of twins in the backseat. The first film placed them in Germany, the second in France, and now, they are vacationing in Greece. And just like the previous two movies, the entire story takes place in the time-span of a single day, and the plot moves along entirely through conversation. Like a fly on the wall, we watch them talk about everything from politics to work to philosophy to relationships to sex. But what distinguishes this one from the previous two is the amount of baggage the couple has. Before, they only shared two days total with each other, whereas here, we revisit them after they have been living together for nine years. They’re comfortable with each other. When one of their daughters has fallen asleep in the car with an apple in her mouth, Jesse pulls it out of her mouth, finds a good bite, and takes it.

It isn’t until about halfway through the movie that the couple gets to go on a really long walk through the streets of Greece. When they do, it is as if they have taken a time-machine back to the past. Before the walk, they seem tired, overloaded with the stress of parenting. But when they are on their walk, they seem like the young twenty-year-olds they once were. Linklater seems to be really interested in the concept of time being an illusion. In all three of the Before movies, as well as Waking Life, Linklater engages in the debate of whether or not people remain fundamentally the same, or if they change in time. Celine notices that Jesse has lost all the red in his beard, and that was one of the things that she was drawn to when she first fell in love with him. Is it he that changes, or is it her perception of him that changes?

Although it is technically a trilogy, I see it more as a story with chapters not yet revealed. It’s like a romantic fictional version of the Up Series which revisits the same individuals after every seven years. Before Midnight is part of a legacy, and if they continue this series into their eighties and nineties, it might one day be regarded as being one of the most important film series ever made. But as of now, it is a romantic trilogy that is wonderful.

9.) Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


Inside Llewyn Davis has all the qualifications of being a musical. It has long, uninterrupted scenes of intimate close-ups, and souls being bared, accompanied by acoustical instruments. But being that this is a Coen Brothers movie, it’d be a disservice to stop at describing it as just a mere musical. It is a film that descends into the absurd, like a Kafka-esque odyssey, exploring the ins and outs of a 1960’s folk singer lost within himself. I’m not sure how expansive that niche is, but this arguably could be the best movie of the Kafka-esque-Absurdist-Odyssey-Folk-Musical genre.

Llewyn lives an ideal life, earning money from his music. But in living that ideal, he must also put up with the devastating realities. He has to split tip jars. His manager is stiffing him. His records aren’t selling. He wears the same clothes for days. There’s a great moment after he walks for miles, sloshing in the snow. When he finally gets to enjoy a cup of coffee at a noisy diner, he removes his shoes to let the water drip out of his socks.

Even when he’s given the chance to receive royalties for recording what is soon to be a big pop song, he declines. The culture of folk music is evolving, and he isn’t willing to change along with it.

It’s an incredibly sad portrait of self-righteous mutilation, of justified masochism. After A Serious Man it should be perfectly clear that the Coen Brothers know exactly how to twist the knife in a way that brings out the most pain in their lead characters, yet they also know how to twist the knife so that it simultaneously tickles the funny bone.

8.) The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing

It has been almost fifty years since the Indonesian death squads swept through North Sumatra. To combat the threat of communism, the government promoted small-time gangsters to leading death squads. While their targets were supposed to be communists, the gangsters got away with murdering thousands of innocent people that were rounded up simply for charges like not being able to pay bribery, or for being ethnically Chinese. After killing them, the papers would change the confessions of the victims to make the public hate the communists more. All of this, is freely discussed by the killers, who are seemingly proud of what they did. They sound like children at a talent, eager to show off their skills. After all, the statute of limitations has expired. They walk as free men.

“Gangster means free man,” we are told by Anwar Congo, who was personally responsible for killing at least a thousand people by strangling them with wires. For years, men like him have been celebrated by the Indonesian government for their “courage” and “bravery” so that there hasn’t been many opportunities for them to be pressed and challenged morally for what they did. But by allowing the gangsters access to a film crew, they are told to recreate their killings as they see fit, and the result is something of a confession through the power of imagination. By alternating roles of killer and victim, the gangsters are challenged by imagination to feel as their victims felt, and Anwar at one point has an epiphany. He believes he finally understands what his victims went through.

“Actually,” the director tells him. “I don’t think you felt what your victims felt. I think they felt worse. For you, you knew this was just acting, but they knew they were going to die.”

Something in Anwar changes. When he goes to the place where he massacred a thousand people, he no longer feels pride, but revulsion. He throws up. It’s as if the demons that have been living inside him for almost fifty years are finally coming out of him. It’s the first time that his humanity is rediscovered. The documentary is haunting, and it is one of the most important documentaries to see.

7.) Her

Directed by Spike Jonze


This is the kind of premise that would seem to fit perfectly well as a five-minute skit on SNL. The idea of a man falling in love with a computer simulation is ripe for parody and ridicule. Apparently, in Japan, there was a guy who made international news for marrying his Nintendo D.S. character from a dating simulation game called LovePlus. In Japan, dating virtual simulations is so widely accepted that an entire subculture of young men has emerged, and these particular young men don’t appear to have any kind of appetite for real sex, or real flesh, for which they are dubbed herbivores.” What Her manages to accomplish is an odyssey into the rationale and the reasoning of how a man could actually fall in love with a non-living entity.

Real relationships are problematic for Theodore. When Theodore starts up his romance with Samantha, an interactive operating system, Theodore’s ex-wife scoffs in disbelief. “You’ve always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real,” she tells him. Samantha, the computer simulation, sounds like a real person, though. She can grow beyond her programming, and she seems to say the kinds of things that make her more than just the sum of electrons and computer bytes. But the real question is, is Samantha, the operating system, real?

While the movie has the philosophical ambitions of a master’s thesis in sentient agency, the tone of the movie is something warm and rich, like a fine, red wine. The colors are vivid and rich. The future is envisioned to be a clean place, like a softer Mondrian-inspired style of watermelon reds and creamy sandalwood brown. This is a science fiction film that almost pulls itself out of having that genre distinction because its tone is so incredibly different from the usual coldness that resides in the monotone envisioning of the future in typical sci-fi films. This is a movie that has wonder, and takes in a full spectrum of colors and emotions associated with ideas and imagination.

6.) The Place Beyond the Pines

Directed by Derek Cianfrance


The Place Beyond the Pines is a chronicle of family. Like reading sequentially the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, The Place Beyond the Pines tracks the blessings and curses passed from father to son. Decision-making does not occur in a vacuum, and choices that a father makes can directly and indirectly affect the lives of his children and beyond, like a biblical generational curse.

There have been plenty of stories that have explored a father’s need to go to extremes to provide for his family, but rarely have stories stuck around to check up on all the various lives that those men affected. This is not simply a story about cops and robbers providing for their families, but about how a generational line of people can be impacted by the sins of the father.

5.) The Wind Rises

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki


Hayao Miyazaki, the grandmaster of animation, has crafted what is said to be his final film, The Wind Rises. The movie is masterful. If his career is truly ending, this is a great film to end with. The movie feels like a culmination of the themes and journeys of all of his films joining for one final flight.

Perhaps the biggest thematic difference between this movie and Miyazaki’s other films is that this is not primarily a movie about children with hopes and dreams looking forward to a bright future. This is a movie about an adult who achieved his dreams, reflecting back on the entirety of a life’s work.

Jiro’s real tragedy is that he just happened to be born in the wrong era. It is his dream to make airplanes, but his dreams will be used to drop bombs, as World War II looms over the horizon. Are his dreams really worth pursuing, if the product of his creativity will be used to end lives?

The film is told with great warmth and rich, gorgeous color. Every scene vibrates and pops with saturation in that special Studio Ghibli way. The movie slips back and forth between dreams and reality in such a way that would be impossible to film in live-action. This is a non-fiction, animated movie for adults, told with great maturity and wisdom. This is one of the great animated films, and it is an excellent way to complete the towering body of work of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

4.) Like Father, Like Son

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda


Like Father, Like Son was the best movie that I saw at the 2013 AFI Film Festival. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese master of contemporary family dramas, the movie could have easily been something that Yasujiro Ozu would have been proud to make. This is one of those movies in which the sounds from the audio track get mixed with the sounds of sniffling and weeping from the audience all throughout. But the tears are not all from grief, but from the uplifting qualities of the emotional idiosyncrasies. It’s deeply perceptive about family.

The film centers on two families, one rich and one poor. These families become entwined when they learn that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth in the hospital. The families must decide quickly. Should they switch back? What truly makes up the bonds of family? Is it blood relation or emotional bond? For whichever decision they come to, the process isn’t easy. “It’s not like we are switching pets,” one of the fathers observes.

“No one could even switch a pet, either,” his wife adds.

At the screening I attended, the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, came all the way from Japan to give an introduction to the film. He said that he was inspired to do the movie because he himself has a six-year-old daughter that he hadn’t been able to spend very much time with, so it got him thinking about what truly connects family together, whether it was blood ties or relationship. At the heart of the movie lies that question. For the rich man who spends most of his time at work, it is easier for him to make the trade because his relationships lack close intimacy. Even with his own distant father, the only thing that connects them is blood ties. But as for the wife who raised the kid, how could she ever stop loving the boy whom was her son for six years?

There is so much emotional confusion for the two families, for the parents do not know who to love more and who to love less. When one of the fathers tells his adopted son that the other father loves him very much, the boy asks, “Does he love me more than you love me?” The way the movie answers that questions is honest, insightful, and immensely, emotionally satisfying.

Side note: when I left the screening for this film, Kore-eda stood by the door. We bowed to each other, and I nearly burst into tears. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve had at a screening.

3.) The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese


The Wolf of Wall Street plays like the Caligula of our economic era. The movie depicts a constant orgy that’s fueled by stock market upticks. The stock brokers are tribal-like chanters ritualistically circling their idols of money. If the lead character was a Roman emperor, the stage would be set for a tragedy. If the characters were tribal warlords, the story could be as dark as one of those British novels that personify the jungle as the darkness in the human heart. But Scorsese plays this for comedy.

And it’s good comedy. In nearly three hours, this movie never loses the kinetic energy. In terms of laughs-per minute ratio, this movie is by far the funniest movie of 2013. The sexual acts are wildly depraved, and the behavior is criminally amoral. Tasteless is an understatement; it makes Gilbert Gottfried’s version of the aristocrats joke seem tame in comparison.

Perhaps the key to the comedy is that laughing at such despicable behavior is the only real way to respond to it. Laughter is a powerful antidote to the corruption of the world. The movie essentially has the same structure as Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as both contain step-by-step documentation of how loathsome criminals ran their empires. But while that movie contained thugs who try to act like clowns, The Wolf of Wall Street contains clowns who try to act like thugs.

And if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I don’t know if there’s another role that can outdo this one in unhinged tenacity.

2.) 12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen


12 Years a Slave reawakens dormant imaginations, and requires viewers to re-examine one of the most evil chapters in American history. While the subject of slavery is taught to elementary school, most school books will mute the severity of it. 12 Years a Slave shows it in all its ugliness. It is harrowing. It is painful. Schindler’s List made audiences not only learn about the Holocaust, but really feel the gut-wrenching human tragedy of it. 12 Years a Slave does the same for slavery.

Joseph Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The deaths of millions is a statistic.” It’s hard to emotionally understand the gravity of a great evil happening to millions of people, because our imaginations are limited. It’s hard to even imagine a hundred people, let alone a million. 12 Years a Slave centers on one story, about Solomon Northrup, a free man from the north who was tricked and enslaved when he came to the south. The circumstances of his birth and social class as a northerner makes his life infinitely easier than the lives of the slaves of the South. When he is taken, though, the sudden loss of freedom is shocking. It’s not like he was born into slavery and accepted it as an inevitable circumstance; he knows what freedom is like. He had it, and then it’s gone.

The depictions of the realities of slavery might be a wake-up call to those who have let the subject become innocuous and unoffensive. I imagine this is a movie that will be shown in many high school history classes. It is maybe the most important film we have on the subject.

1.) Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón


Gravity is one of the great movies of our era. It is a visual spectacle that fully utilizes every aspect of cinematic language. The filmmakers here are truly exploring a brand new place never really explored in cinema: a story in zero gravity. While most space movies are content with creating mini-earths with artificial gravity on-board galaxy-class starships, this is a film that steps outside the safety of a spacecraft. It is outside, alone, and harrowing.

If Jack London ever wrote about outer space, he might have created a story similar to that of Gravity. The first title card of the movie tells us, “At 600km above planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.” That sounds oddly familiar to London’s view of the icy lands of the north. Listen and compare that with London’s description of a man trying to survive alone in To Build a Fire:

“Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Gravity is meditative on humankind’s relation to outer space in the same way that London was meditative on humankind’s relation with the harshest parts of nature. Both outer space and the icy tundras are unforgiving to frail humans. It is an accomplishment of human ingenuity to be able to use boats, sleds and shuttle-craft to take us to the harshest of environments, but all that pride suddenly evaporates as soon as one hole appears where it shouldn’t have. Human cockiness can be suddenly and violently thrust back down to humility when Murphy’s Law takes effect on the grand voyage.

Because so much is being communicated through visual language, I urge you to watch the ending with astute observations. I won’t discuss or give away any plot points or images, but I will suggest for viewers to watch it with a keen eye for everything that is communicated through body language, and surroundings. If the movie was already a great film before, its final images solidifies it as contemporary masterpiece of science fiction films. Gravity is awe-inspiring.

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