The 10 Best Movies of 2013
Earlier in the year at a recent panel discussion hosted by the University of Southern California, legendary directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke honestly about the current state of cinema. In particular, they lamented traditional U.S. filmmaking practices and predicted an “implosion” of the film industry as a result of digital media’s mass proliferation. Several weeks later, David Lynch condemned contemporary reception practices, referring to internet streaming as a “shameful” and “pathetic” way to watch a film.
Spielberg, Lucas, and Lynch raise thought-provoking and pertinent points, but their perspectives are ultimately muddled by their own biases. Despite shifting trends in media production, distribution, and reception, 2013 proved that cinema remains alive and well. On the one hand, Hollywood reinvented itself with films like Gravity (2013), a science fiction 3-D epic that could only be experienced in a movie theater. Hollywood found a clever way to use digital technology to lure audiences into the multiplexes, thereby reinforcing its dominance as an entertainment industry. On the other hand, independent companies discovered ways to distribute their movies on iTunes, Netflix and other on-demand streaming services, and this allowed their products to become more accessible to niche audiences. It is certainly true that media content can now be accessed in many different ways, but the quality of content has not diminished.
The following list represents the best that 2013 had to offer in cinema. These films underscore why cinema remains a relevant art form in the 21st century, and why it continues to inspire passionate discussion and debate.
10. Like Someone in Love
Set in Tokyo, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love depicts the ambiguous, playful relationship between a young prostitute (Rin Takanashi) and an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) over the course of two days. Similar to Kiarostami’s previous film Certified Copy (2010), Like Someone in Love forsakes narrative cohesion for thematic inquiries into issues of identity and communication in the modern world. It is a poignant, bittersweet film about isolation and loneliness and the lengths individuals will go to be heard, seen, and deeply understood. Regardless of whether or not you understand what the film is trying to say, you will walk out of it with an appreciation of its beautiful camerawork and soulful performances.
Nebraska is one of the few films in recent years that can claim to be distinctly American. Set in the heartland Bruce Springsteen often sings about, the film tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging father who wants to collect the million dollars he thinks he won from a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. This premise is merely an excuse to bring him together with his estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), his disappointed wife Kate (June Squibb), and his disappointing relatives and old friends. Nostalgia for a time gone by permeates the film, and although it is subtle, director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson portray characters who have been defeated by economic recession and technological progression. As Woody reminisces on his life and his accomplishments, he wonders if any of it has amounted to anything. By the end, I couldn’t help but think that Woody is just another sad, heartbroken character in one of Springsteen’s songs.
8. Short Term 12
There is a strong possibility that Brie Larson’s performance in Short Term 12 will be overlooked by the Academy, and that is a shame, because she’s pitch perfect in a role that many actresses would have overacted to the point of ruination. Larson keeps things quiet, and her facial expressions and body mannerisms are masterstrokes of nuance and subtlety. The film depicts the happenings inside a foster care facility, and it is filled to the brim with the highs and lows that define misfit youth culture. Set in a foster care facility, writer/director Destin Cretton depicts the lives of different teenagers who have been bruised and battered in their childhoods, and he provides a perceptive glimpse into the selfless adults who work tirelessly to brighten up their days. One of the leaders of the facility is Grace (Larson), a hardworking young woman who still suffers from old wounds well into her twenties. Short Term 12 is moving without being sentimental and funny without straying from the sad reality that some children in this world are in desperate need of love.
7. Fruitvale Station
Like most of us, Oscar Grant celebrated December 31, 2008 with close friends and family. Unlike most of us, Oscar Grant didn’t live to see what 2009 would bring. Fruitvale Station is a powerful recreation of Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) last day before he was innocently gunned down by a police officer on New Year’s Eve. The film is tough to watch, but viewers are rewarded with three terrific performances by Jordan as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda. In addition, we are given a beautifully rendered glimpse into the life of a deeply flawed but ultimately human man whose life ended much sooner than it should have.
6. Stories We Tell
E.H. Carr once said that facts of history never come to us pure because they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. Sarah Polley’s meta-documentary about her family history is rooted in this belief. In Stories We Tell, Polley interviews different family members in an attempt to come to terms with who her mother and father were. Each family member has a different interpretation of the same events, and it soon becomes clear that Polley is more interested in the limitations of memory and the ways individuals cope with the past than she is in trying to uncover a definitive history of her family. Like the great work of Errol Morris and Guy Maddin, Polley’s film calls our attention to the issues of subjectivity, perspective, and the inability to locate an objective truth.
5. Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime as Jasmine, a high society New Yorker whose husband’s legal woes force her to downsize her lifestyle and move in with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in California. Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s finest film since the 1990s, and it reminds us that the 77 year-old filmmaker hasn’t lost his touch. Some critics saw parallels to the Bernie Madoff scandal, and others compared it to A Streetcar Named Desire, but I think the film is Allen’s acknowledgement of those he’s hurt in his past. It’s hard to overlook the correlations between Jasmine’s realization toward the end of the film and Mia Farrow’s real-life discovery that Allen was sleeping with their step daughter. Is this an apology? A lament? It’s hard to tell. But when Allen leaves Jasmine muttering all alone on the bench, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how he’s remembered Farrow after all these years.
4. Before Midnight
Nine years after Before Sunset (2004), Jesse and Celine live together in Paris, have two daughters, and the same mundane commitments and obligations as every other adult. Fans of the Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) films were delighted to find that Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy reunited to make Before Midnight, the latest installment in cinema’s greatest love story. The conversations in this film are as perceptive as ever, but there are undertones of sadness and heartbreak that threaten even the most delightful moments. How does love survive in the face of life’s vicissitudes? This question lies at the heart of this wonderful film. We aren’t given any easy answers, but we can rest knowing that if Jesse and Celine can make it through, there’s hope for the rest of us.
3. Frances Ha
If you’re a twenty-something, Frances Ha is bound to resonate with you in some way. For me, the film strikes a particular chord. As a 23 year old student in New York City trying to pursue my dreams, I often feel as if the odds are stacked against me in a city that simply doesn’t want me. Greta Gerwig is a revelation as the neurotic, well-meaning Frances who simply can’t catch a break until the moment she least expects it. Like Lena Dunham’s television series Girls, Frances Ha is an honest depiction of what young adulthood is like for city dwellers of the internet generation. It isn’t easy, but it’s always exciting. This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film since The Squid and the Whale (2005).
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
Much has already been written about Blue is the Warmest Color and its undeserved controversy. If the film’s initial reception has taught us anything, it’s that some people refuse to face the fact that other people have sex. This is a shame, because director Abdellatif Kechiche has created a beautiful coming-of-age film that deals with love, sex, and identity in startlingly original ways. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are fiercely committed to their roles as two young women who develop a deep, passionate attraction to one another. The film takes its time to introduce the world in which Adele (Exarchopoulos) inhabits before she meets Emma (Seydoux), and this makes Emma’s impact on Adele’s ordinary life all the more powerful. Emma saves Adele, but as with most intense romances, she also causes her downfall. Blue is the Warmest Color is a profound film for anyone who has ever been in love.
1. The Great Beauty
The Great Beauty is the most ambitious film of 2013, and the fact that filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino allows us to make some sense of his strange world is a major accomplishment. Although there isn’t much of a plot, the film revolves around Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man who is self-described as the king of Rome’s nightlife, as he reminiscences on his youth and the major changes Rome has undergone over the years. Like Nebraska, Sorrentino’s film is rooted in deep nostalgia for a time and a place gone by, and if Payne’s film recalls American classics like The Last Picture Show (1971), Sorrentino pays homage to Italian filmmakers like Fellini and the themes of ennui and decadence Italian cinema explored in the 1960s and 1970s. The Great Beauty is a momentous achievement by any standard and words don’t do justice to the film’s overall effect on the viewer. It is an experience that will never be forgotten, and I encourage every reader to seek the film out and give it a chance. The Great Beauty is the best film of 2013.
Most of the entries on my list are lesser-known independent and foreign films. I’m not opposed to Hollywood, and in another year Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Her might have made the cut. However, I live in New York City and am fortunate enough to be exposed to certain films that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. My hope is that on-demand streaming services will provide the general population with more access to these films so everyone can be part of the conversation.
What do you think? Leave a comment.