Top 10 Movies of 2013

Preface: Because I moved to Japan for a year beginning in August, I am woefully behind in my movie-going. The country is maddeningly inconsistent in importing from global markets, with random decisions to offer subtitled or dubbed theatrical versions weeks, even months, later – if at all. I have already accumulated a list of 30 movies that I have missed, including a number of would-be contenders on this list: Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Act of Killing, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, among many others. So that’s the major caveat. Alas, I push forth. 

My favorite movies of 2013. Apologies to The Kings of Summer, What Maisie Knew, and The Hunt, the final cuts.

1. Captain Phillips / 2. A Hijacking

Given their similar premises, it is remarkable how utterly different these two movies are, and moreso that each manages to be incredibly compelling in unique ways. Both A Hijacking and Captain Phillips tell the stories of cargo ships kidnapped by Somali pirates. The drama of the Danish film hinges on the decision of the shipping company’s CEO to negotiate directly with the pirates (with the help of a British expert and adviser), in lieu of ceding control to authorities. While we are kept abreast of events on the ship via the character of the cook, it is ultimately the CEO’s movie. Søren Malling excels in the role. We follow him through a period of months, watching as he attempts to maintain his composure through every triumph and agony, through every phone call and conversation. A Hijacking is a conference room movie. It is an astonishingly tense one.

I suppose Captain Phillips is more action-packed. The hijacking itself is depicted, plus it precedes a kidnapping and chase and Navy SEAL rescue. But it too at its core is a taut psychological thriller, centering on the one-on-one between the eponymous cap (Tom Hanks) and the pirate leader (Barkhad Abdi). How that relationship develops is remarkably scripted, directed, and acted. They feel each other out, developing a mutual understanding and even respect in the process. Yet, a fundamental tension lingers. Indeed, a remarkable suspense permeates the entirety of the film despite the well-known real-life events. Both Hanks and Abdi are terrific, and it is as the ordeal reaches its climax (and denouement) that they shine, with a particularly memorable final scene for the former. Captain Phillips is my favorite movie of the year.

3. Mud

Evocative of my favorite movie from 2012 (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Mud vividly and effortlessly depicts a way of life from a seemingly bygone era. It takes place in a small Arkansas town, centering on people whose lives are intertwined with the Mississippi. The appearance of a stranger (Matthew McConaughey) on an uninhabited island propels the coming-of-age story of two teens. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) in particular is drawn to Mud, and an unlikely bond develops between all three, even as the adult’s mysterious past provides a steady source of tension. Jeff Nichols’ script is beautifully nuanced: Ellis falls in love, struggles with his parents’ marital issues, and butts heads with the more wayward Neckbone (Jacob Loftland). The friendship between the teenagers serves as a quiet foundation for the movie; Ellis’ emotional outburst at Mud in the aftermath of a falling out with Neckbone is particularly devastating. Mud becomes busier as more is revealed, but it builds up to, and earns, its explosive climax.

4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

For all its cinematographic grandeur, and complex special effects, there’s a simplicity to Walter Mitty that I really appreciate. Walter (Ben Stiller) isn’t portrayed as a sad-sack, but rather as just kind of floating along, lacking inspiration, until he finds it – in his personal life via Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and professionally via Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The movie captures a variety of relationships – budding love in particular, also familial and work – beautifully, without putting any character on a pedestal. There are great moments littered throughout, with the final scenes poignant and affecting while still grounded. Sure, there could be complaints about the ease with which Walter embarks on his impromptu adventure, as well as the shameless product placement. But I overlooked the movie’s flaws. Live life, it says. Treat people right. See new things. Take risks. It’s simple and unabashedly earnest, but also effective.

5. Barbara

Barbara is a character study of a doctor (Nina Hoss) living under the oppressive East German regime in the Cold War era. The movie follows her and she gets adjusted to her new job in a small community – a position she was forced to take. As the story develops, and with her supervisor serving as kind of a conduit for the audience, things begin to be pieced together: how she ended up there, how she copes, how she plans to escape. But there is nothing sensational about the German drama. The tone is quiet and steady. The material is rich, never quite black and white. The result is an extraordinarily crafted and fascinating portrait of the day-to-day of individuals in extraordinary circumstances. This is life on the other side of the wall.

6. Gravity

There are just a few truly cinematic experiences a year, movies that not only take advantage of the capabilities of the medium but seem to extend the spectrum of possibilities out there. Gravity’s visuals are not only innovative, but jaw-droppingly spectacular. The movie is actually much different from what I expected, with more action and less introspection and philosophy. But the fact that it plays like a roided-up version of Apollo 13 or even Armageddon certainly makes it no less entertaining, nor any less engrossing. Alfonso Cuaron’s direction is steady and assured; the movie plunges ahead with purpose. Yet despite the adventurous nature of the film, emotion is readily available through the dual performances of George Clooney (basically playing himself) and especially Sandra Bullock. This is her movie in every conceivable manner. She’s more than up to the task.

7. World War Z

A summer blockbuster done right, World War Z begins with an exhilarating opening sequence as intense and thrilling as any tentpole in recent memory (since 2005’s War of the Worlds, perhaps). The zombie attack simply begins. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and family are confused, terrified, desperate; the urban backdrops (of Philadelphia and Newark) amplify the horror. The script is quite clever in how it handles some necessary contrivances, also effectively adjusting the scope once Lane takes a role in the macro-aspects of the virus. World War Z further sets itself apart by never feeling like an inevitable march to the resolution, but rather depicting a series of missteps and dead-ends and stabs in the dark, punctuated by a multitude of memorable set pieces. It’s a blast.

8. Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary that retells the doomed efforts of a cult director to adapt Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel in the mid-1970s. Impressively, Frank Pavich’s film manages to transcend the singular project. It ultimately provides a unique glimpse into an artist’s world: how he develops his vision, translates it into reality, and deals with its failure. Given the chance to revisit his white whale, Jodorowsky shines, with great anecdotes and colorful language* accompanied by interviews with his collaborators, as well as a plethora of visuals straight from the project itself. The documentary is superbly entertaining, with a hopeful and enlightening epilogue that suggests that even a doomed piece of art still caused reverberations through the genre.

*Unfortunately, he does gleefully make one reference to ‘raping Herbert’s work… with love,’ which I found to be too much.

9. Frances Ha

Despite critical acclaim, I haven’t been much enamored with Noah Baumbach’s previous efforts, specifically Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding (I hated the last one, actually). Much of it had to do with the protagonists – I found them grating, narcissistic, hardly sympathetic. Frances Ha is quite different. Not only is Greta Gerwig immensely likable, but the character is not an overwritten neurotic mess. Instead, she struggles in ways that resonate, both with philosophical ennui as well as more grounded (financial and relational) considerations. She’s out of place not because she’s an asshole, but because she’s still finding herself, because she’s vulnerable and all too aware of her shortcomings. The character is endearing; the movie deeply affecting.

10. Frozen

There’s always a place for traditional fairy tales – at their best, Disney movies can be timeless, hilarious, wondrous (Tangled topped my 2010 list, on another, now-defunct blog). Frozen is all of those things, but it gets there in a wholly different manner. It’s actually much more in line with Enchanted, as tales with modern sensibilities, as movies that are as much a deconstruction of the formula as they are perpetuations thereof. This is a story about sisterhood and unconditional love and acceptance, one that is quite grounded (even the songs are practical) despite the familiar larger-than-life Mouse House settings of monarchies and magic. There’s requisite and enjoyable silliness, but the movie is actually ambitiously bookended, packing a strong message – and emotional wallop – to supplement its gorgeous animation.

My most hated movies of 2013.

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard feels like Bruce Willis interrupting a really shitty and generic action movie, one that stars a guy (Jai Courtney) with absolutely no charisma. In fact, there’s no heart, character, identity, nothing – just a bunch of formulaic shit, loud noises, and terrible dialogue. It’s hard to call it another nail in the coffin of the Die Hard franchise, because John McClane barely registers as a presence in the movie. It’s just Willis starring as Willis; his smarmy lack of effort is a perfect indicator of the palpable sense of contempt apparent through the entire production. I’m glad Ashton Kutcher had a hand in raising his children.

This is the End

I’ve enjoyed just about everything the Apatow crew has put out, and even had some good laughs in This is the End. But ultimately, it’s a spiritual brethren of the Adam Sandler “I feel like hanging out with my friends” circle-jerks. I’ve never been a fan of stoner comedies (notably, Harold and Kumar), but This is the End reaches a new level of laziness. 90% of it takes place inside James Franco’s home; the pace and structure feels as though the screenwriters only remembered to have things happen every 15-20 minutes or so. Most of the jokes are incredibly lazy, dragged out, played out, or just unfunny – and the attempts to have an emotional anchor or story to the film are completely half-assed. …Well, at least the actors clearly found themselves amusing.

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