Dave Chips In With His Oddball Picks
2013 was one of the best years for film in recent memory. While I didn’t love any one single movie more than my top picks for the last two years (2011’s The Tree of Life remains my favourite movie of all time), there were more great films that came out this year than I can ever remember coming out in any of the last several. As of this posting, I’ve seen 110 films from 2013 (I plan to catch two more within the next couple of days), and there were still several I wanted desperately to see and just didn’t get a chance to. Any one of those films might have upset this list, and still might in the days to come.
Ultimately, it just pained me too much to leave so many great films out—and since this is my website (along with Jim and Sylwinn Tudor), I don’t have to! So instead of doing a top ten this year, I’ve done a top fifteen. And instead of ten honourable mentions, I’ve done fifteen of those as well. And because I still couldn’t bear to leave any of 2013’s great cinema out, I’ve included a simple list at the end, citing the rest of my top fifty. Buried at the bottom is my worst of the year, because I just don’t have the energy to give those terrible movies their own post, and 2013 was such a great year that I don’t care to sully it any more than I have to.
Where applicable, I’ve included links to the original ZekeFilm reviews for these films. You might find some other links in this list as well. A lot of these movies are available either on Netflix Instant or in your local Redbox, so you could theoretically pop over there and check them out after reading about them here. I’ve also linked to various “Reel Theology” and “After the Show” articles, because sometimes those can be even more interesting than the reviews themselves, and might help you to find a new insight you may have missed—and after all, that’s one of the most noble goals of film criticism, isn’t it?
Significant films I unfortunately missed: Wadjda; Zero Charisma; Magic Magic; Only God Forgives; No; The Silence; Saving Mr. Banks; Captain Phillips; Short Term 12; Philomena; The Wolf of Wall Street; Escape From Tomorrow; The Spectacular Now; Rush; The Selfish Giant; Blue is the Warmest Color
And now, without further ado, on to the list!
The Best of the Best
1. The Act of Killing
Art is power. At its most basic, it is the power to make us think, feel, and imagine something outside of ourselves. Good art can transport you to another time or another place, or into the shoes of another person. Great art can radically reshape your perceptions and your preconceived notions, facilitating a paradigm shift that profoundly changes you for the rest of your life. But the best art can change the course of history itself. I believe that The Act of Killing is such a work—a once-in-a-lifetime example of the raw and transformative power of cinema. While most films are themselves acts of mythmaking, The Act of Killing is an iconoclast—undermining national mythologies that have silenced the innocent and propped up the guilty, turning atrocities into heroism. At first, Director Joshua Oppenheimer comes across as a passive observer, spending five years in the company of mass murderers—mafia and paramilitary death squad leaders who contributed to the mass genocide of over a million Indonesians in the wake of a 1965 military coup, only to be deified as the saviours of Indonesia. These men were in the unique position of being able to boast candidly about their atrocities because of a power culture that rewarded them for murder, rape, and torture. But now their pride is becoming their undoing, because for the first time in fifty years, all the brutal details of their crimes are being made known. What they did in the dark has been dragged into the light, and the course of Indonesia’s history has been altered as a result. And if The Act of Killing was merely an exposé, or even a study of the banality of human evil, it might still be the best documentary of the year. But it’s when the façade starts to crack and the weight and guilt come crashing inwards that this film becomes truly transcendent—not only as an agent of change, but as a sort of hammer of grace, as it were. The Act of Killing exposes war criminals to the world for their crimes against humanity, but it also does something much more delicate, yet much more difficult—it exposes them to themselves. Watching Anwar Congo, a man who personally killed thousands with his own hands, breaking down bit by bit as he gradually comes face to face with the enormity of his actions, is one of the most powerful, devastating, and profound things many of us will ever witness.
Gravity is pure, undiluted cinema on a grand scale rarely seen nowadays—a film shot specifically for the biggest screen possible, in the grand tradition of epics like 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia. And yet the film itself is deceptively simple—a pulse-pounding, life-and-death struggle for survival against the vast wasteland of outer space. It’s a film that wouldn’t work in the hands of lesser artists, but the daring direction of master auteur Alfonso Cuarón, combined with the heartbreaking performance of Sandra Bullock, allows the film to soar to previously unrealized heights while simultaneously grounding it in real human emotion. It’s one of the most beautiful, exciting, profound, and hopeful stories to be told on the silver screen this year, and here’s hoping that Gravity will always have a home on the big screen somewhere.
When it comes to horror films, the Slasher is one of the most iconic subgenres therein. It is also, whether by design, function, tradition, and/or all of the above, the most formulaic. Therefore, it can be an easy observation that over the last fifty years, the slasher genre must have exhausted all that it can say. But then, every few years or so, a new and exciting take on the mythology will come along and murder those preconceptions. Maniac does this while being a remake, no less—giving the film even more of prejudice to overcome. But producer Alexandre Aja and director Franck Khalfoun have done all that and more. By bringing a French arthouse sensibility to a gritty American genre, the filmmakers have effectively rebuilt the slasher film from the ground up—using point-of-view to explore themes of mental illness, undifferentiated emotional states, and the fractured psycho-sexual dysfunction born of domestic abuse. The result is a brilliant study of tragedy and pain, as hauntingly beautiful as it is meaningful.
4. Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine’s meditation on the decline of Western culture is simultaneously a critique of the millennial generation and a journey through a Hell of our own making—all the while defiantly standing well outside the mainstream. With one foot in the arthouse and one in the drive-through, Spring Breakers is neither a pure art film nor pure exploitation, but something that is both and neither at the same time, transcending both genres and becoming something more than the sum of its parts. It’s darkly funny and insidiously subversive, capturing the emptiness of blind hedonism while on its surface pretending to appeal to the very demographic it is satirizing. Until Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, no other filmmaker was able to do this as well as Harmony Korine in 2013, pointing his camera at cultural depravity and daring us to see it for what it is. Spring Breakers struggled to find an audience because it was a movie that gave people what they needed rather than what they wanted.
5. The World’s End
Upon my initial viewing, I mistakenly considered The World’s End to be the weakest installment in writer-director Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Trilogy (aka the Blood and Ice Cream and/or the Cornetto Trilogy), mostly because it wasn’t what I was expecting. But now I realize that it is a film that goes above and beyond the previous two entries, distinguishing itself from them not so much in content (all three involve different elements of speculative fiction mixed with quirky British comedy), but in both execution and thematic material. Like so many other films on this list, The World’s End defied expectations and was all the better for it. Rather than forcing it to fit the patterns of the previous films in the trilogy, Wright has made something more meaningful and more personal—a gripping parable of the daily struggle of addiction—alcoholism on a personal level and addiction to technology on a social level. Like Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End also explores what it means to mature and grow older, but the quasi-happy endings of those films have been supplanted by something that is more thoughtfully ambiguous—and therefore something that sticks with you for far longer. The World’s End is the work of a filmmaker who has grown with every movie—not only in technical proficiency but as a human being. The World’s End is in turns darkly hilarious, emotionally devastating, profoundly thought-provoking, and ultimately overflowing with humanity.
6. Warm Bodies
Zombie movies are a dime a dozen these days, and so it takes something incredibly special to distinguish itself from the rest of the shambling horde. Warm Bodies is that something special, and then some. Incredibly inventive and clever, Warm Bodies works far better than a PG-13 zombie movie should (the other PG-13 zombie film of the year, the far more ambitious World War Z, is practically a snooze-fest in comparison). A zombified take on Romeo and Juliet on the surface, it’s is actually a deceptively simple parable about the power of love to change the world. It’s one of the most theologically significant films I’ve seen all year, putting a redemptive spin on Shakespeare’s tragedy that takes us from the way things are towards the way things are supposed to be.
7. Out of the Furnace
Out of the Furnace resembles nothing so much as the kind of tragedy that Shakespeare might pen if he were a 21st-century screenwriter. Scott Cooper’s second film uses the story of a family on a razor’s edge to tell a larger story about a country on the brink. It’s dark but not hopeless; ambiguous but not wishy-washy. Out of the Furnace is very much a movie about the now—and therefore one of the most socially and culturally important American films of 2013.
8. About Time
About Time came out of nowhere (disappearing almost as quickly) and hugged me so tightly that it squeezed my tears out. Then it made me want to go home and hug my family just as tightly. Sweet without being saccharine, clever without being cloying, moving without being manipulative, and earnest without being obvious, writer-director Richard Curtis’ third and best film earns every emotional beat and then some. About Time is the best kind of devastating, starting with the foundations of a romance and then building up into a film that explores the glowing, pulsating heart of sacrificial love that burns bright at the centre of the family.
9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
From a commercial standpoint, Lionsgate’s enormously successful, young-adult pop culture phenomenon succeeded where Spring Breakers failed—all the while espousing an equally subversive message. And yet, even in its on-the-nose blatancy, The Hunger Games may be even playing at an even more subversive level. The marketing campaign exploited tweens’ appetites for adventure and silly love triangles while glorifying the villains of the film, playing on their wasteful decadence to sell makeup and terrible sub sandwiches. And by all accounts it worked—the movie earned nearly $800 million worldwide (making back over six times its budget). 49% of those sells were in the United States, which means an estimated 50+ million Americans went to see this movie—nearly 16% of the population—and that’s not even considering how many more will see it on home video. The point is, the message is getting out there—a radical message, I might add, that is at times both socialist and anarchic (sometimes at the same time). What’s more, it’s a message that resonates with people from all over the political spectrum. Perhaps it’s because we are starting to recognize that the world of Panem is not as far removed from our own as we might wish. Just like the citizens of Author Suzanne Collins’ fictional post-apocalyptic dystopia, we too live with the illusion of freedom. But there is no true democracy in Panem or in America. Men in power identify themselves with different labels, but how different are they really at the highest echelons of power? At the tip of the top, the real difference is how far above the wealthy and powerful are from the rest of us, and how much of a vested interest they have in keeping it that way. The Hunger Games speaks truth to power and calls on us to fight against the system that keeps us all down—the question now becomes, will the generation that makes up its biggest demographic ever heed the call?
10. Thor: The Dark World
The latest entry from Marvel studios represents an expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in every best way possible—from the expansion of the cosmic playing field, to the raising of the stakes, to the type of swashbuckling, four-color fun that The Avengers promised but wasn’t able to deliver on this level. Ironically, it is a sequel to a Marvel movie, starring a single superhero (and his bad-boy brother) that really makes the MCU feel like a real, lived-in, expansive world—rather than last year’s slug-fest which starred all the Marvel superheroes. Not that The Avengers was a bad movie or anything—but Thor: The Dark World supersedes it in every way, truly preparing Earth 10-99 for the coming of the Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and the advent of Thanos the Mad Titan in 2018.
11. Pacific Rim
The most fun you’ll have in a cinema all year long—maybe all decade long, at least until Pacific Rim 2 comes out. Never before have I come so close to literally leaping out of my theatre seat in gleeful abandon, shrieking with joy at the top of my lungs. Pacific Rim made me feel every bit of seven years old all over again. For one the only times since hitting puberty, I found myself actually pretending to be a giant robot on my way out of the auditorium, shadowboxing invisible Kaiju while Ramin Djawadi’s pulse-pounding score played on an infinite loop in my head, the awesome guitar riffs cranked up to maximum volume. I wanted to be Gipsy Danger for Halloween this year (alas, I had neither the time nor the resources to craft a costume). I want to be a Jaeger pilot when I grow up. I can’t wait to share this movie with my own son, and play Kaiju vs. Jaegers with him for years to come.
12. You’re Next
You’re Next was the second film of the year to bring the slasher subgenre back into relevance—not by redefining it, but by raising the bar entirely. Wedding slasher to home-invasion horror, You’re Next stays true to the conventions of both genres while simultaneously subverting and elevating them. The standout performance to watch is that of Australian scream queen Sharni Vinson as a final girl who is the culmination of all who came before her. You’re Next is one of the cleverest movies of 2013.
Brandon Cronenberg, son of the legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg, makes his feature debut with a film that resembles the early body horror of his father, yet stands alone as his own work of creative brilliance. Grotesquely beautiful in its cold detachment, Antiviral is a science-fiction meditation on our obsession with celebrity that sticks with you for a long time afterwards—perhaps more so than you’d be comfortable with, but that’s what good art always does.
14. Berberian Sound Studio
There’s a very good reason why the advent of sound remains to this day the single most crucially important technological and artistic development in the history of filmmaking. Audio is absolutely essential to making a movie work. Good sound design can elevate an otherwise mediocre film or it can ruin a potentially great one, because what you hear with your ears is every bit as important as what you see—just ask Spike Jonze, who’s latest film Her features one of the most engaging cinematic love scenes in years—set against a completely darkened screen. Or Quentin Tarantino, who crafted one of his most tension-filled sequences of his career in Kill Bill: Volume 2 – set in pitch-blackness. Berberian Sound Studio writer-director Peter Strickland, along with his excellent sound crew, have taken this lesson to heart and crafted one of the most petrifying films of the year, where none of the scares are on the screen, but rather on the soundtrack—rather fittingly, in Berberian Sound Studio, the terror is all tonal—or atonal, as the case may be. The tale of a timid Foley artist coming unraveled when he takes a job working on a grotesquely horrifying Italian Giallo is a perfect marriage of methods: the sure hand of a master auteur at the helm, set to a hauntingly evocative soundtrack of hushed Italian whispers and strangled screams, melancholy arias, unnerving sonic tapestries, and a mesmerizing, timeless score by English Electronica band Broadcast.
15. Iron Man 3
The second-best Marvel film of the year is nonetheless one of the best Marvel films overall, even though the title character is featured less prominently than ever. Iron Man 3 is the Tony Stark show, not the Iron Man show, and fortunately, brilliant wordsmith Shane Black not only makes sure that you don’t miss the machine, but makes you want more of the man behind the machine. If Iron Man 3 is Robert Downey Jr.’s swan song (excepting the next two Avengers films), then he’s gone out on a high note, leaving us wanting more.
The Best of the Rest
16. The Lords of Salem: A hauntingly beautiful and wonderfully weird horror film that channels Roman Polanski and Lucio Fulci, The Lords of Salem represents a significant step forward for Rob Zombie as a filmmaker.
17. This is the End: An uproariously funny take on the apocalypse that sneaks a little bit of theological truth in under the hilariously lewd humour.
18. Stoker: A perfect storm of gorgeous cinematography, master direction, a dynamite script by actor Wentworth Miller, and compellingly dangerous performances from a sublime ensemble made Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut one of the most engaging horror films of 2013 and put Spike Lee’s lackluster remake of Park’s Korean revenge opus Oldboy to shame.
19. Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut has cemented him as one of the great talents of his generation. A comedy about sex addiction is one of the funniest and most redeeming movies of the year.
20. What Maisie Knew: This heart-wrenching story of a family going through a bitter custody battle will ring true to anyone who came from a broken home or, like me, survived one. It’s a good thing I watched this by myself, because I was yelling at the screen the whole time.
21. Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give two of the best performances of the year in this captivating true-life story.
23. Blue Jasmine: One of Woody Allen’s greatest films yet, which in his catalogue is saying something very significant indeed.
25. Her: Spike Jonze’s latest opus and his first self-directed screenplay is both a beautiful romantic fable and a fascinating, hard science-fiction parable about artificial intelligence.
26. The Hunt: One of the greatest working actors today, Mads Mikkelsen, gives another smashing performance as an innocent man accused of a horrible crime.
28. Prisoners: This dark, tense crime drama pushes the envelope with terrific showings from the entire cast—especially Hugh Jackman, who once again shows why he’s movie star material with another Oscar-worthy performance.
30. 12 Years a Slave: Another masterpiece from writer-director Steve McQueen, which, after Hunger and Shame, makes 3-for-3 for this phenomenal English filmmaker. 12 Years a Slave should be required viewing for everyone—as Chris Rock said: “If you don’t see 12 Years a Slave, then you don’t deserve eyes.”
The Rest of the Best
31. Stories We Tell
32. In a World…
33. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
34. The Wolverine: Extended Cut
35. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
36. I Declare War
38. Lego Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite
39. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
40. Insidious Chapter 2
41. Man of Steel
43. My Amityville Horror
44. White House Down
45. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
46. The Wolverine (Theatrical Cut)
47. Saturday Morning Mystery
48. Room 237
50. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony
The Bad and the Ugly
And finally, the worst films I saw in 2013. Fortunately, I managed to avoid most of the stinkers. I didn’t see A Haunted House, or The Lone Ranger, or A Medea Christmas, or The Internship, or plenty of other turkeys, including Free Birds. I feel so fortunate in having missed most of those, that I don’t really care to sully the great experience I had in the cinema during 2013 by spending any more mental energy on these films than I already have—you’re free to check out our reviews for each one, however, to see what we did think of them (Jim liked Grudge Match a lot more than I did, for example).
Escape From Planet Earth
Thanks For Sharing
Star Trek Into Darkness
Texas Chainsaw 3D
Bullet to the Head
Walking With Dinosaurs 3D
And that’s it for me, ZekeFans! Thanks for being patient and reading, and sorry for the long rank!