Movies Without Pity

The Top Ten Films of 2013

by Ethan Alter December 20, 2013 4:05 pm
The Top Ten Films of 2013

Never mind the bollocks -- here's the best movie of 2014.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Less a Bob Dylan biopic than a gorgeous, full-throated cover version of a Bob Dylan song (specifically "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream".) The Coen Brothers use the early '60s Greenwich Village folk music scene as the jumping off point to follow the journey of a grief-stricken hobo sailor/musician who is slowly awakening to the fact that the world around him is a-changin'… and he doesn't like it one bit. But the dark joke of the movie is that there's no escape hatch for Llewyn -- not through boarding a ship, taking that turn-off to Akron, or even playing his guitar. Far from delighting in torturing their lead character, the directors respect him too much provide him with that kind of shortcut to happiness. Llewyn will likely never find fame, fortune or inner peace, but he'll do the only thing he can: keep truckin' along, one gig at a time.

2. Before Midnight
Given that it ends with an apocalyptic argument that would seem to torpedo the decades-spanning love affair of Jesse and Celine -- two movie characters who almost feel like family members now -- one would think that Before Midnight would be the least romantic entry in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's three movie (and counting, I hope) franchise. But, in fact, Midnight is arguably the series' most romantic film, because it openly acknowledges the challenges of sharing your life with another person (particularly a person who, for so many years, was a distant dream) and yet also shows why those relationships are so important to fight for. As much as I adore Her (and I do adore Her… just read on for proof), Before Midnight tells a wiser, more mature love story.

3. Tim's Vermeer
Simple in its style, yet profound and even inspiring in its story, this slender documentary turns the exploration of a long-standing art world mystery -- How did 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer paint those photo-realistic portraits, anyway? -- into a meditation on the co-mingling of art and science, two disciplines that are often treated as separate entities. In a mere 80 minutes, Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) provides a crash course in the painter's unique style while also covering the entirety of engineer Tim Jenison's bold experiment: to recreate a Vermeer canvas down to every brushstroke despite have no formal training. Watching Jenison pursue a process that transforms what had previously been a casual hobby into an all-consuming passion serves as a necessary reminder that we're never too old or too set in our lives to explore new territory.

4. 12 Years a Slave
A number of films have bemoaned the evils of slavery, but Steve McQueen does something more interesting and vital: he depicts in matter-of-fact terms the culture that permitted this peculiar institution to exist for as long as it did. In the name of profit, industry and maintaining business-as-usual, one race of people was allowed to own another as they would a piece of property and, as the film demonstrates, that arrangement, which denied flesh-and-blood men and women their basic humanity, left deep psychological scars, both on the slaves and their masters. In a performance of tremendous reserve and resolve, Chiwetel Ejiofor acts as our guide to this now-alien past, but the tragedy of the movie is that even to this day -- when illegal immigrants toil for long hours in unsafe conditions and companies choose to reduce workers' hours rather than pay for their health insurance -- injustice is tolerated in the name of good business.

5. Her
Despite dancing on the precipice of self-aware self-parody, Spike Jonze's earnest, highly personal sci-fi romance is so impeccably crafted and so richly written and performed that it sets the pleasure centers in your brain a-tinglin' for two transporting hours. A remarkably restrained Joaquin Phoenix may be the face of the film, but Jonze and his incorporeal leading lady Scarlett Johansson imbue it with its heard, mind and soul, showing that even in a tech-laden future, it's still our one-on-one human relationships that are most responsible for shaping what our lives become.

6. Gravity
A remarkable feat of filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón's jaw-dropping bit of movie magic still wouldn't be half as effective without Sandra Bullock on hand to carry the emotional weight of the movie's almost absurdly simple and straightforward story. Wisely employing action as exposition, the director and his star maintain a breakneck pace, while still finding room for small, but resonant grace notes that -- the liberties the film takes with actual space travel aside -- make this particular scenario feel immediate and real. This is one blockbuster that fills every inch of the big screen.

7. The World's End
Edgar Wright gets the band (that would be Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) back together for one final Cornetto power ballad, this one sung in the key of a drunken pup song. As the film itself advises, though, don't go getting nostalgic for the trio's past times, because things will only blow up, literally, in your face. Once again donning the clothes of a genre spoof (think Diner meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers), The World's End very quickly reveals that it's up to something bolder and more profound (though still riotously funny) as a never-better Pegg vainly rages against the dying of his youthful dreams. But, in a sign of welcome (if delayed) maturity, he comes to embrace the fact that becoming an adult means saying goodbye to one world and entering another… boldly and well-armed, of course.

8. Something in the Air
The latest film from Olivier Assayas could also be described as a nostalgia piece, given that its presentation of an artist and budding filmmaker coming of age against the tumultuous backdrop of late '60s France -- a period marked by numerous political and cultural upheavals -- is drawn from the director's own life. But like The World's End, Something in the Air (originally titled Après Mai) doesn't wallow in the romance of the past; instead, with a clear-eyed gaze, Assayas presents the way that youthful activism became a way of postponing adulthood, as well as how the bonds of friendship fray as people choose different paths. Even the director's onscreen doppelgänger isn't immune to criticism, coming across as something of a dilettante who play-acts as a social crusader as fodder for his art. In the process though, he also finds his creative voice, making Something in the Air a fully-rounded portrait of an artist as a young man.

9. Spring Breakers
The movie that Harmony Korine was put on this Earth to make, Spring Breakers fuses the writer/director's longtime fascination with youth culture with a newly sure-handed command of style. One part exploitation film, one part social critique, Korine presents a universe that's been so warped by the detritus of popular culture -- from bubblegum pop to Scarface to MTV-ready images of spring break itself -- that the kids who inhabit it don't even realize they're just imitating experiences they've absorbed from music, TV and movies. It's the kind of world where a loser like Alien (the indelible creation of Korine and James Franco) seriously believes he's the new incarnation of Tony Montana because of all the deluxe shit he can boast about owning. The film's provocative content is enhanced by its hallucinogenic form, which lifts this annual bacchanal out of the realm of reality and into legend.

10. A Hijacking/Captain Phillips
Though almost certainly unintentional, Tobias Lindholm's Danish film and Paul Greengrass's Hollywood counterpart offer complementary depictions of modern-day high-seas piracy. The almost unbearably tense A Hijacking splits its time between a besieged cargo ship and a corporate boardroom, where the owners of the vessel engage in a series of high-stakes negotiations with a band of Somali pirates over satellite phones and via fax. Captain Phillps, on the other hand, provides a you-are-there account of a ship's takeover by another crew of Somali prates (led by Barkhad Abdi in a striking debut performance) and the eventual rescue of the titular captain (Tom Hanks, who is quite good throughout, but does some of the best acting of his career in the final ten minutes), executed with Swiss-watch precision by Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray. And while the two films are stylistically quite different, they both admirably eschew sensationalism in favor of trying to present the desperation and fear driving both sides in this battle of wills.

The Next Ten

11. Fruitvale Station
Just as 12 Years a Slave challenged viewers to confront America's ugly racial past, Ryan Coogler's debut contemplates our still-troubled present state of affairs, depicting the ways in which young black men like victim of police violence Oscar Grant (beautifully portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) have to navigate a world that too often distrusts and fears them. Though Coogler makes some rookie mistakes, the film's plea for tolerance and understanding is quite powerful.

12. The Wolf of Wall Street
Not just Goodfellas 2: Stock Market Gangstas or Son of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's three-hour tour of financial world hedonism emerges as its own unique beast, a film that's uproariously funny while also scathing in its depiction of these self-imagined masters of the universe. The director's tour-de-force direction is complimented by Leonardo DiCaprio's pedal-to-the-metal performance.

13. The Spectacular Now
Besides featuring one of the loveliest, most authentic high school romances since the vintage days of John Hughes, The Spectacular Now is also a subtle, nuanced portrait of an alcoholic-in-training. Breakout star Miles Teller captures in painful detail what happens to the life of the party when the party moves on.

14. At Berkeley
Cinema's answer to pioneering oral historian Studs Terkel, veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has devoted his illustrious career to chronicling the workings of major and minor institutions and the people who run them. His latest opus immerses viewers in the day-to-day campus life of the titular California university, contrasting the experiences of the student body with the difficult choices the administrators make in order to keep the doors open and the lights on.

15. Pacific Rim
The summer's best blockbuster by a wide margin, the awe-inspiring spectacle of Guillermo del Toro's rock 'em sock 'em robots vs. monsters brawls put the costumed heroics of most of the season's comic book movies to shame. I still mourn the Del Toro-helmed Hobbit films that we'll never see, but the sheer fun of Pacific Rim softens that blow a bit.

16. The We and the I
Freed from the big-budget trappings of The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry gets back to basics, taking his camera on board a New York City public transit bus filled with high school seniors, played by actual high-schoolers acting out scenes inspired by their real lives. The film is everything that Gondry's foray into studio filmmaking wasn't: loose, funny and imaginative.

17. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer bends and twists the documentary form in fascinating ways as he embeds himself amongst former Indonesian death squad leaders and convinces them to open up about their crimes (and even re-stage them) on camera. By the end of the film, even the most defiant of them is overcome by the reality of the horrors he committed.

18. Drinking Buddies
Writer/director Joe Swanberg takes baby steps into mainstream independent film, hiring a bunch of well-known actors (including Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson), but requiring them to improv all their dialogue as in his formative mumblecore features. The resulting film is Swanberg's most polished effort and also features one of the most compelling "will they or won't they" almost-romances in recent memory. But the most impressive thing about Drinking Buddies is Wilde, who reveals herself an actress of tremendous depth and range. Here's hoping someone in Hollywood takes notice.

19. Trance
Danny Boyle crosses Inception with The Thomas Crown Affair and the result is a vibrant, nimble heist picture anchored by the capable James McAvoy and elevated by Rosario Dawson's career-best performance. It's Boyle's most fanciful film since A Life Less Ordinary, but not so weightless that it floats away into the clouds like that one did.

20. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I always enjoy whatever time I'm allowed to spend in Peter Jackson's version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, especially when there are giant spiders and fire-breathing dragons who talk like Benedict Cumberbatch running and/or flying about. For me at least, the sheer richness of this fantasy universe makes up for the second trilogy's admittedly protracted and pokey storytelling.

Honorable Mentions:
Robert Redford's near-silent performance provides the calm center of J.C. Chandor's beautifully-made high seas adventure, All is Lost.
American Hustle never quite clicks as a complete, coherent film, but the ensemble (particularly Amy Adams) is excellent and it's more distinctly a David O. Russell joint than Silver Linings Playbook.
I found the first half of Blue is the Warmest Color more involving than the second, but Adèle Exarchopoulos's ferocious star turn is remarkable throughout.
I don't know that Ridley Scott was the right person to realize Cormac McCarthy's highly stylized script for The Counselor on-screen, but the finished product is one of those half-brilliant, half-misguided movies that you can't stop thinking about… even if you're only thinking about how much you hated it.
The absorbing sports documentary The Crash Reel uses the story of snowboarder Kevin Pearce (who suffered a brain injury following a nasty spill) to explore the dangers of that sport, while also highlighting the genuine thrills that drive kids like Kevin to devote their lives to it.
The police procedural, Drug War, from veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, boasted some of the year's finest action sequences and a compelling follow-the-drugs investigation that rivals The French Connection.
In a weak year for American animation, Disney's Frozen stood out from the crowd by turning the traditional princess formula ever-so-slightly on its head.
Alexander Payne's darkly amusing Nebraska turns a jaundiced eye at America's heartland, but there's still some affection and even understanding for his home state tucked away inside the movie's stark black-and-white imagery.
No, it's not as good as Park Chan-wook's original, but Spike Lee's Oldboy is a lot more stylish and playful than people gave it credit for.
The riotous satire Pain and Gain is Michael Bay's best movie ever, but nobody went to see it. See everyone… this is how we ended up with four Transformers films!
Rodney Ascher's hugely enjoyable Shining deconstruction Room 237 already made my Top 10 list for 2012 prior to its theatrical release this year, but I wanted to plug it again now that it's widely available on DVD.
I wasn't as enthused as some about Short Term 12, but I do admire director Destin Cretton's detailed depiction of a world too rarely seen onscreen -- the American foster care system -- as well as Brie Larson's deservedly acclaimed lead performance.
The second-best summer comedy about the apocalypse, This is the End transcended its gimmicky origins and became a very funny and very perceptive film about friendship.
I don't know that I could explain precisely what Shane Carruth is up to with Upstream Color, but the collage of sound and image that he constructs is something to behold.
The horror anthology V/H/S 2 has a less successful batting average than the previous installment (2-for-2 instead of 4-for-5), but the shorts that do work -- specifically "Safe Haven" -- play like gangbusters.
While I'm troubled by certain aspects of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's final film is packed with beautiful imagery and the epilogue functions beautifully as his heartfelt farewell to moviegoers.

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