So, I figured out that I have seen 37 movies this year that I liked enough to consider putting them on this list. 37! That’s a lot, right? That’s like, a movie every ten days or so. That’s not how I saw them, though. And that doesn’t even include all the ones I wanted to see, but missed, to my great shame and sadness.
The top seven were surprisingly easy. After that it gets more complicated, and on any given day those last three might look very different. I could easily have included The Gatekeepers, The Loneliest Planet, Holy Motors, Wuthering Heights, The Invisible War, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Marvel’s The Avengers, Post Mortem, Damsels in Distress, The Forgiveness of Blood, Kill List, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, or Oslo, August 31st, and I recommend them all very highly. They’re all terrific movies, in their way, but they don’t even merit an Honorable Mention here. Or I guess that was kind of an Honorable Mention. But not officially.
It was a very good year for very good movies. In fact, that’s the theme I am going to try to shoehorn (almost?) all of the films on my list into. “Very good movies.” After all, this isn’t a trend piece or a think piece. It’s just a list of things I like. Movies that moved me, in one way or another. If you think I overlooked something, I probably did. Unless it was The Master. I saw that one. I didn’t see Les Miserables yet, but come on, be serious.
I’m going to go in ascending order, to build up the suspense. Please don’t skip to the end and ruin the surprise. Okay, I can’t keep secrets from you guys: It’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) trying to convince Shane Carruth to make my favorite movie of 2013. We’ll see!
Action, pared down to its essence. It seems so simple, but it takes a genius to commit to showing us, in glorious long takes, with actors doing much of their own dangerous-looking stunt work, what it looks like when two people try to kill each other. I loved the way
Remember how everyone made such a big deal about The Lives of Others a few years ago, and I was like, “Well, okay I guess”? Christian Petzold‘s fascinating, ever-so-smart take on similar subject matter fully vindicates my earlier decision to not be that impressed. Petzold’s regular collaborator, Nina Hoss, delivers a brilliantly nuanced performance as the title character, a Cold War-era doctor removed from her plush post in East Berlin, and sent to the boonies as punishment for wanting to leave the country. She fully captures the feeling of living in a bubble of surveillance, her tormentors embedded so deeply in her consciousness that they don’t even have to be present. It’s a paranoid thriller, sure, but beyond that a compelling human drama of a woman discovering what really matters to her.
I am not a reflexive Steven Spielberg hater, like some of you. He’s what they call a “master craftsman,” but sadly often even his best work offers evidence of his worst, audience-pandering, emotionally dishonest instincts, the pointless bookends of Saving Private Ryan being perhaps the most tragic example. After 2011’s headache-inducing double whammy of Tintin and the truly awful War Horse, I was not prepared for the detailed, intelligent political dissection that is Lincoln. A smart, intricate drama filled with wonderful talk, of all things, featuring a rogue’s gallery of wonderful character actors, and a witty, engaging script by Tony Kushner that doesn’t force, but completely earns its contemporary relevance. Oh, plus Daniel Day Lewis.
7) Turn Me On, Dammit
Ah, the core seven. These are the movies I’ve been thinking about the most, the ones that touched me in my special place. Speaking of which, Norwegian documentarian Jannicke Systad Jacobsen‘s debut narrative feature is observant, exuberantly funny, touching, and unrelentingly honest about teen sexuality, particularly from a girl’s perspective, in a way that most American films never dare. Alma’s (Helene Bergsholm) hormonal reckoning leads her to humiliation and self-doubt, and the movie recognizes that she might only find happiness someday off in the future, away from her little backwater town.
6) The Kid With a Bike
Speaking of European filmmakers making wonderful movies about (but not for) children, here are the Dardenne brothers again. A troubled kid, a kind but slightly naive woman, a negligent father who doesn’t have to work for the boy’s affection. It almost seems unfair, how consistently they nail this kind of scrupulously honest, formally rigorous, deceptively simple, sharp-edged drama where the life seeps through the edges of the frame. I urge you to refrain from taking their consistently brilliant work for granted. I mean, I guess I could have rated it higher than 6, but in all honesty, yawn, right?
5) Take This Waltz
And then along came Polley. (Yes, there are probably some cinematic references you shouldn’t bother making. Take note, QT.) After the compassionate realism of Sarah Polley‘s debut feature, Away From Her, I don’t know what I was expecting from her follow-up. It wasn’t this slightly surreal slice of slyly cynical drama. Michelle Williams is great, as usual, as an emotionally immature married writer struggling with her attraction to another man. The title song, by Leonard Cohen is featured in a magnificently debauched sequence of time-lapse collapsing romantic ideals, but Polley’s use of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by Buggles is equally memorable. It’s a testament to Polley’s talent that each time I watched her movie, I came away thinking it was one of the greatest songs ever recorded. (It may not be.) Also, Sarah Silverman (naked), if that’s your thing. Ahem.
4) This is Not a Film
So, what is it? It’s being touted as one of the best documentaries of the year, but any little research into its making reveals it as a complex hybrid, and mostly fictional. Still, the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (with equally risky assistance from Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) captures the restless rhythms of his life under house arrest. It’s a sly, forlorn, and finally heartbreaking paean to filmmaking and to cinema itself from an artist who’s seemingly had his easel and canvas taken away. It’s thrilling to watch the master as he views and discusses his own work (Crimson Gold, The White Balloon), and tries to create a world for us in his living room, as the outside world he’s barred from continually intrudes.
3) Zero Dark Thirty
This again. All the jibber-jabber about this film and its treatment of the whole torture issue forced me to re-examine my reaction to it, and after I rip it up and start again, I find it an even more fascinating and laudable cinematic achievement. It’s commendable that ace director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal trust their audience enough to refrain from spelling everything out for us (“Torture is bad!!!”) and to force us to keep up. So yes, they run the risk of being misinterpreted, but the result is a tense, profoundly intelligent thriller that makes us think about the costs behind the “triumph” of killing Osama bin Laden.
2) The Central Park Five
I wrote about my experience of seeing this documentary for the first time here, and as ambivalent as I feel about that piece of writing, it does capture… something. My response to this particular movie is emotional, and deeply personal. I remember the horrific media response to this case vividly. Filmmakers Sarah Burns, David McMahon and Ken Burns capture all of that, and more importantly, they tell the story of what happened when the hoopla died down, and give these five men a chance to be heard. There were some other great documentaries this year, of course, including Kirby Dick‘s The Invisible War and David France‘s How to Survive a Plague, but this one is the one I really wish everyone would see.
1) Moonrise Kingdom
And finally, this. If Quentin Tarantino were half as meticulous about documenting his personal obsessions through the medium of gorgeous, hilarious, and heartbreaking cinematic extravaganzas, the sloppily overstuffed Django Unchained might be in this spot. I mean, no, it wouldn’t, because then it would be a different movie, but hopefully, you get what I am trying to say about the often unfairly maligned genius of Wes Anderson. The good Anderson, as I like to call him, when I am needlessly and pointlessly setting our film artists against one another, probably on an internet message board somewhere. I remember going to see Blood Simple with my older sister during its first theatrical run (yes, I am old), and afterward, she said she could tell I really liked it, because she caught a couple of glimpses of the entranced, deliriously agog expression on my face as I watched. It warms my heart to know that there are films that can still elicit that kind of unbridled, joyous reaction in this hardened old (yeah) cynic, and this tale of pubescent runaways in escaping to a fragile fantasia of their own making got me there. The movie is overstuffed with beauty and insight into youth, maturity, and the disappointments and redemptions of aging. It stands with Anderson’s best work, and that’s really saying something.
I know it’s a bit anticlimactic at this point, but I would feel bad if I didn’t at least mention Dredd—and my surprise at how good it was, how respectful it was to its traditionally underserved sidekick character (Olivia Thirlby), and perhaps most shockingly, how much 3D added to the experience (which I have never said about any movie before and probably won’t again). There’s also Neighboring Sounds, a deceptively quiet, witty, slow-burning Brazilian film about some nastiness under the surface of a well-to-do gated community in Recife; Compliance, Craig Zobel‘s unfairly maligned, powerfully disturbing drama about our willingness to follow authority and, perhaps, the unwillingness of some to recognize themselves in something so ugly and essentially human; and Cosmopolis, the great David Cronenberg‘s gorgeous, sardonic, impossibly complex treatise on the end of the world.