Sam’s Top 10 Movies of 2013

#Top 10 Movies of 2013


Here are the 10 best films of 2013, according to me, which makes it true. I don’t have full reviews of all of these up yet, but when I do I’ll be sure to link them here.

I did not see the following movies that have appeared on many other Top 10 lists: The Wind Rises, Mud, Leviathan, Beyond the Hills, Computer Chess, or Spring Breakers. I mean, there were a lot of movies I didn’t see last year, but those are the most highly regarded ones I can think of off the top of my head.

1) The Act of Killing. I can’t think of another movie I’ve ever seen that has moved me so strongly on so many levels. Emotional, psychological, and even physiological at the end. I don’t think a movie has made me feel physically nauseous before that wasn’t the result of camera trickery or motion sickness. This is the weirdest, most surreal movie I’ve ever seen, and it’s a documentary. In 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia, upwards of 500,000 people were killed for being Communist or being accused of being Communist. The people who perpetrated the killings are still in power today and are regarded as local heros. This documentary consists of interviews with the killers and dramatic reenactments of their deeds, staged by the killers themselves, usually in dramatic, Hollywood-esque ways.

It’s a mild pet peeve of mine when people say something is “hard to watch.” Well, no, it’s not, you just keep your eyes open and you watch it. It might be deeply unpleasant to watch– see also: the whipping scene in 12 Years a Slave— but nothing about it is hard. The Act of Killing is, often, deeply, viscerally unplesasant in a way that really does make it hard to keep your eyes focused on the screen. I haven’t been able to get it out from under my skin since I saw it over the summer, and that’s why it has to be the #1 film of the year.

2) Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers’ film about folk music in New York City in the 1960s is about so many things that aren’t folk music:  the cyclical nature of life, control (or lack thereof), death, grieving, bad choices and bad situations. And it’s about folk music! From the drabness of every street to the freaking amazing song selection (and song performance!), I can find no fault with this movie. Plus its ending makes the whole movie into a mobius strip!


3) Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s most recent directorial effort, starring Bruce Dern as every aging parent who might not be all there and Will Forte as every long-suffering middle-aged son trying to do what’s best for everyone. Plus June Squibb as the even longer suffering wife having to deal with her husband’s creeping dementia in a relationship that was maybe  that cheery to begin with. The premise is very simple: Woody (Dern) needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings, as declared on a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style letter. No one will take him, so he starts walking. From Billings, Montana. After several repeat failures to get beyond city limits (his son David (Forte) picks him up each time), David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, if only to prove to him in person that he didn’t really win anything at all. They are waylaid in their travels and end up staying over in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne, Nebraska, is a tiny place with a preponderance of bars and old friends with 30+ year debts to settle with a man they believe is now a millionaire.

Shot in a strikingly gorgeous black and white, this film never mocks its characters, though it would be fully justified in doing so, on occasion. More than anything, this movie is just sweet. And it has a happy ending! How often do you get that in a Oscary movie?

4) Her. Full review is linked, so I’ll only add here that the worldbuilding/production design of this movie is so complete that when I just casually think about the movie, everything I get is bright white and pleasantly curved. And the safety pin that Theo uses to keep the camera on his phone above the line of his pocket, so that Samantha can see what’s going on as he walks through the world. Joaquin Phoenix is not getting enough love in the over-crowded Best Actor race, in my opinion.

beforemidnight5) Before Midnight. The third in the unlikely trilogy (series? Please let there be more!) that started in 1995 with Before Sunrise and continued in 2004 with Before Sunset (I can only keep the two names straight with careful consideration and remembering that the first one is mostly them walking around at night, so it must be before sunrise). Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) play more convincing romantic partners than many actual real life romantic partners. I got so caught in their extended fight in a hotel that I forgot I was watching a movie and I was startled when I realized it was going to end. Every bit of that argument– and the movie– feels so true to life, it aches. While I am not in Celine and Jesse’s age range, I have been in a relationship for most of a decade, and the way they negotiated obvious former pitfalls and knew exactly which sore subjects to bring up rang truer to me than almost anything else I saw on screen this year. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of these characters.

20feetfromstardom6) 20 Feet from Stardom. This is a documentary about a subject that, by definition, tends to stay out of the spotlight: backup singers. It’s a surprisingly rich subject for a film, which is interesting, since once you’ve seen it and understand all the components to the profession and its history, you can hardly believe that there hasn’t been more focus on this already. But then, by their very nature, background singers tend not to be the ones pushing their story to the very front…

The best word I have for this film is multifaceted. It presents a crazy number of perspectives, from former backup singers who basically originated the role to scholars who have studied the influence of gospel singing in music to current backup singers to record producers to some of the Main Acts that these singers accompany. Some of those main acts include such huge names as Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. The doc points out a ton of obvious-once-you-know-them facts that blew my mind at the time, like the fact that when you sing along to a song, you’re usually singing with the backup singers, since they’re usually the ones who sing the melody and the chorus. So many things come together to make this a totally engrossing and utterly fascinating film.

allistlost7) All is Lost. It’s a pretty bold statement when a cast list only has one name on it, and Robert Redford, pardon the pun, blows the concept out of the water. Alone on his small yacht sailing somewhere in the Indian Ocean when a rogue shipping container punches an inconveniently large hole in the boat, Our Man (as he is credited) reacts calmly and confidently reacts to every new twist and turn. It’s a wordless tour de force. I really enjoyed figuring out what was going on only as his actions progressed; many times I didn’t understand why he was doing x instead of y or what on earth doing z was going to get him, but in the next moment or two it would become obvious that he had already seen eight or nine steps ahead of me and was handling things in a supremely capable way. The determination and confidence with which he executes every move makes you believe in his capabilities without him ever saying a word. I don’t think I cared more about one person surviving their movie this year.

wolfofwallstreet8) Wolf of Wall Street. There’s been a lot of hubbub about this movie that breaks down largely into the following points:

  • Martin Scorcese is condoning debauchery and terrible behavior.
  • Martin Scorecese is not condoning debauchery and terrible behavior.
  • Martin Scorcese should be condemning debauchery and terrible behavior and he’s not.
  • Martin Scorcese may or may not be condeming or condoning what’s shown in the movie, so instead we should pay attention to x (where x = some other pet point of the reviewer).

Basically everything I’ve seen or heard about this movie supports one of those three points (and often more than one). What everyone agrees on is that a large part of the movie is pure, unadulterated adultery fueled by a wide variety of illegal drugs and bankrolled by a wide variety of illegal behaviors. What no one can seem to agree on is what is meant by showing such elaborate, lengthy scenes of sex + drugs + more sex + more drugs. I’m on the side that says that Scorcese is totally condoning the hedonism and terrible behavior, but that it’s so much fun that I don’t have a problem with him not condemning it instead. There’s a very serious scene about 5/6 of the way through the movie where all the music stops and Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) does some really actually horrible things and the worst part about it is that because it’s so tonally different from the rest of the movie, it’s not fun. The rest of the movie is actively funny (at least, to those of us with not the cleanest senses of humor). I’ll address this in more detail with my full-length review, coming later this week or early next.

blackfish9) Blackfish. So it turns out that maybe keeping killer whales in captivity is not the best thing for them. And not just in a bleeding-heart PETA “save the whales! Zoos are the devil!” way, but in an actual, independently confirmed, factually supported way. This doc walks the line of being preachy and obnoxious, but it neatly stays on the side of “we’re just presenting the facts… it just so happens that all the facts are pretty damning.” The interviewees are largely former Sea World employees plus assorted marine biologists/scientists with the facts at their fingertips. It’s deeply upsetting to watch, and I know that I will not be stopping by Sea World anytime soon. (also, I know that the picture there is not the movie poster. The actual poster is kind of creepy, so I picked an image I liked better instead).

12yearsaslave10) 12 Years a Slave. I mean, what can I say? Slavery was really bad and this does a great job of showing via a personal story how terrible the entire institution was. Lupita Nyong’o is my personal pick for Best Supporting Actress (more to come on that as I get my various Oscar predictions). I’ll write a full review of this and hash out the finer details then, but in the meantime, man is Michael Fassbender a good actor.

So, how’d I do? Fantastic? Terrible? Let me know in the comments so I know what movies to defend. Bring it!


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