Thursday, January 16, 2014

Top Ten Films of 2013

I’ve been having a really hard time choosing my top ten movies from 2013, and not for the usual reason. Rather than too few, there are just too many contenders in one of the strongest years for film in recent memory. The last time I had this—well, I’d hardly call it a problem, since it’s more of a pleasant conundrum—was at the end of 2007, another fantastic year that gave us everything from Pixar's best picture ("Ratatouille") to the epic good vs. evil allegories of “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Eastern Promises” to the very different musical charms of “Hairspray” and “Once” to the equally different but equally engrossing historical dramas of “Persepolis” and “Lust/Caution,” as well as a score of other movies I loved.

Well, it took a while to match, but the offerings of 2013 were just as high quality and richly varied. This was the year of movies about survival against impossible odds, movies more-or-less based on true stories, and movies that went to great lengths to show that greed is not good. It was also the rare year in which many of my favorite movies (in fact, over half of my final list, which has to be unprecedented) came not at the end but at the midpoint: summer, usually the time of flashy, splashy, ultimately hollow blockbusters, this year brought an unexpected bonanza of small, beautifully crafted indie films that left a deeper imprint on me than the fall and winter Oscar bait that arrived with considerably more fanfare. Which isn’t to say that the Oscar bait films weren’t good, because they were; only that the bar had already been set too high by the films that preceded them. I don’t expect this to become a regular pattern, but I certainly hope it isn’t the last time it happens.

Some big CAVEATS to the list that follows:
• I switched the order of #’s 2-5 and #8-10 multiple times, while “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “American Hustle” both slipped in and out of the top ten depending on my mood; so the final order is rather arbitrary.
• I meant to see but missed “Frances Ha” and “All is Lost” in theaters, and still need to see “Philomena” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
• Perhaps most significantly and shamefully, I saw no foreign films (other than “Blue is the Warmest Color”) or documentaries (other than “Stories We Tell,” which doesn’t really count) last year, though I wish I’d seen “The Grand Master,” “The Act of Killing,” “The Square,” and “Cutie and the Boxer,” among others, and I want to see “The Past” when it opens in D.C.

And with that, here were my favorite films of 2013:

1. Museum Hours

Few films make me look at the world and think about life and art in a genuinely different way. This was one of them. The casual viewer might complain that nothing “happens” in this quiet portrait of two strangers who meet in a Vienna museum and strike up a momentary friendship. It’s not that nothing happens; life happens, and is transmuted into art. And vice versa.

2. 12 Years a Slave

Utterly wrenching. Also utterly unforgettable.

3. Fruitvale Station

See description above for “12 Years a Slave.” No, seriously; even though they’re very different and “Fruitvale” is for the most part less punishing, the last few scenes felt like even more of a punch in the gut by comparison. The movie’s also a sobering (and necessary) reminder that notwithstanding how far this country has come since the time of “12 Years a Slave,” most young black men still can’t realistically expect to be treated exactly the same as other men. “Fruitvale” doesn’t moralize on the reasons why; it merely shows the consequences of that disparity, which speak plenty eloquently for themselves.

4. Short Term 12

Not a “true story” (as far as I know), but feels more like one than most of the many films this year that actually were based on a true story. Raw, emotionally honest, and beautifully acted; Brie Larson, in particular, deserves (but won’t get) an Oscar nomination as the troubled kids’ counselor whose compassion and competence can only partly conceal her own inner demons.

5. Her

The premise – man falls in love with his OS – sounds like the setup for a joke, and spurs the natural question: how can this be played for anything but laughs? Amazingly, it isn’t in the least: Spike Jonze, continuing his streak of wistful soul-searching via moody fantasy, manages to weave a strange yet deeply moving tale of human emotions and artificial intelligence, and the intersection between them that technology may be making inevitable. There are laughs, yes, but they’re laughs of recognition, not contempt.

6. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen's best film in years, if not decades. Yes, it’s a modern take on A Streetcar Named Desire; that’s precisely what makes it brilliant. That and Cate Blanchett as the self-deluding Jasmine (Blanche), who’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. And Sally Hawkins, who—like the character she plays, Jasmine’s more grounded (and put upon) sister—may be under the radar but is just as worth watching.

7. Much Ado About Nothing

Who knew that low-fi, low-budget DIY Shakespeare by non-classically trained actors, shot in B&W at Joss Whedon’s house, would be such a breezy delight? Well, the secret’s out now. It may not be not the most profound or polished Shakespearean production I’ve seen, but it’s definitely one of the most fun.

8. What Maisie Knew

Mostly forgotten or overlooked by critics, this little gem thoughtfully updates the Henry James novel and features not one but TWO sensational performances: one by the little girl (Onata Aprile) who plays Maisie, the other by Julianne Moore as her hapless mother. The film also does a great job capturing the perspective of a child who’s not quite old enough to understand exactly everything that’s going around her, but is sensitive and perceptive enough to pick up on their emotional essence.

9. Nebraska

I’ll admit it: Alexander Payne’s latest, about a stubbornly delusional old coot who thinks he’s won a million dollars and the son who tries alternately to dissuade and humor him, was both funnier and more poignant than I was expecting. Like “Sideways,” it’s basically a road trip movie about two unlikely traveling companions; unlike “Sideways” (and more like “The Descendants”), it’s also about the difficulties of communicating with one’s family and features much more sympathetic protagonists. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, the sweetest of Payne’s movies; his characteristic satirical edge is just a cover for a soft, pleasingly sentimental emotional center. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that.

10. Enough Said

It’s best known as a humorous, perceptive look at dating after 40 and a star vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as well as James Gandolfini’s last role, and it is all of these things, quite wonderfully. But it’s just as much—and even more successfully—about the way relationships between parents and children evolve as the latter mature, and in this respect is a perfect, if unlikely, companion piece to “Nebraska.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Gravity, Stories We Tell and Before Midnight all suffered from not meeting my impossibly high expectations, which prevented them from making my top 10. Captain Phillips also just narrowly missed the cut, and in a weaker year, even the flawed, too-long, but still-compelling The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue is the Warmest Color, as well as the gripping but preposterously plotted Prisoners and the memorable but too-muted The Bling Ring would all have probably made it into at least the bottom half of my top ten. But not this year. It was just that good a year.