I have trouble calling my list a true “best of,” because I just didn’t see enough movies this year. By coincidence, misfortune or laziness, I missed some sure-to-be classics like 12 Years a Slave and Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which I am confident would have found a place on this list.
But from what I did see in 2013, the list below are my absolute favorites. Some of these movies were huge blockbusters, some were much smaller, many were somehow touched or influenced by fantasy, sci-fi and other genre fiction, and I shared a very personal connection with each of these movies. Each of these films represents what’s good and bad in all of us, through interesting stories that shake up the world we know, and interesting characters worth following.
With that being said, let’s get to the list…
The best new addition to the zombie mythos we saw this year, Warm Bodies is a smart and cute love story steeped in the world of the undead. The best zombie stories used the undead as a metaphor to comment on some aspect of real life, and Warm Bodies did a great job of this, telling a story of the importance of communication in a relationship, and how understanding can bring about big changes to make the world a better place.
Equal parts visually stunning, mysteriously sexy and utterly sleazy, Chan-wook Park’s US debut is an engrossing mystery. Revolving around the wonderful performance by Mia Wasiskowska’s India, Stoker follows the teenage girl who becomes fascinated and fixated on her enigmatic uncle, who appears for the first time after the death of India’s father. This movie is gorgeous to behold, hiding its ugly soul in the most lavish and beautiful of cinematography, and it’s without a doubt Park’s best film since Oldboy.
The best on screen villains of the year weren’t in a horror movie… in fact they are real-life people. The Act of Killing is an electrifying, haunting documentary about the Indonesian death squads, responsible for thousands of deaths in the mid 60s. To date, none of these killers have answered for their crimes, and, as is shown in this film, they are revered as national heroes by their country. Act of Killing paints a picture of these men and how they commandeered and rewrote history to become “heroes,” as the killers re-create their murders in different film genres. It also serves as a fascinating look at the power of film itself– the gangsters that became executioners were so influenced by Western movies that they copied the acts of violence fictionalized in classic mob movies and westerns to apply to their very real-life torture. But as this documentary takes a look into the minds of these unrepentant killers, it becomes a poetic weapon against them, as they begin the realize the true horrors of their actions. In that way, this amazing film serves also as an empowering sentence against these men, delivering on screen the justice they may never face in reality.
The best of the Iron-Man movies by far, Shane Black’s stripped down third installment made Tony Stark an even more thrilling and interesting character to watch than his armored alter ego. Building on 2012’s fantastic Avengers, Iron-Man Three was a well paced, well acted, action packed super hero movie whose legitimately surprising twists were well earned. This is the rare kind of sharp, character driven yet still fun popcorn movie that all other summer blockbusters should aspire to.
Harmony Korine’s twisted version of a teen sex comedy wore its pitch black heart on its sleeve, proving to be one of the darkest and funniest films of the year. At once a crime caper, teen sex romp and a vicious attack on youth culture intended to anger fratboys and art house types in equal measure, Spring Breakers is a trippy and visceral head rush of a movie. It’s topped off with unexpected performances from tween sweethearts like Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, but it was James Franco’s next-level performance as the drug dealer Alien that made this bizarre movie so captivating.
Alfonso Cuaron’s outer space disaster movie was one of the most engrossing and thrilling cinematic experiences of the year. At its core, Gravity is a simple survival story, but it’s well told and beautifully shot, making amazing use of 3D to make us feel right alongside the horrifying trials and tribulations of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s stranded astronauts. I’m curious to see if the effect of this movie will feel the same watching it at home, but what I know for sure is Gravity was the most stunning theatrical experience of the year for me.
Martin Scorsese’s black comedy uses Leonardo DiCaprio’s cripplingly amoral Jordan Belfort as a scathing indictment of not only Belfort’s own criminal activities, but of the greed and corruption inherent in our materialistic society. What sounds like it would be an angry film is actually one of the year’s funniest, as Scorsese never misses a moment to make the charismatic and narcissistic Belfort look like a total clown. If Wall Street‘s classic mantra “greed is good” was Belfort’s real-life inspiration, with Wolf, Scorsese offers his rebuttal– “Greed is stupid.”
Yes, it’s a love story between a man and his computer, but Spike Jonze’s Her was probably the sweetest, most heartfelt romance on screen all year. I loved the near future world Jonze created for his story, which felt both realistic and hopeful that maybe things will be brighter tomorrow than they are today. I loved how Joaquin Phoenix really let us inside Theodore’s loneliness, and I very much loved Scarlett Johansson’s A.I. Samantha. Her is a sweet love story that mixes its romantic sentiments with plenty of philosophical and existential quandries about the “could’s” and “should’s” of dating a phone, but in the end it’s really a story about the need for human connection, where ever it may come from.
Edgar Wright closes out his “Blood and Ice Cream” Trilogy with perhaps the best chapter yet, as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of friends reliving an epic pub crawl from their youth. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this fantastical and hilarious movie– it has some very important things to say about friendship, individuality and what it means to be a man. The movie is packed with great performances from the entire cast and a kinetic energy which we’ve come to expect with Wright behind the camera. Riotously funny and filled with heart and genuine compassion for its characters, The World’s End was an outstanding conclusion to the thematic Three Flavours trilogy. I absolutely loved every second of it.
The latest from the Coen Brothers is not the easiest movie to watch, but it stands shoulder to shoulder with their very best. Oscar Isaac is amazing as the conflicted and utterly awful Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the 60s, adrift in a sea of self doubt, resentment, and minor day jobs. As its name suggests, Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study of this man, who is at once magnetic and charming and a complete asshole… I think I identified with him a little too much, to be perfectly honest.
There’s a lot of ups and downs in Llewyn’s attempts to “make it” as a musician, and his obsession with feeling perpetually under-valued and unappreciated, whether he actually is a genius or not. The film offers no easy answers… what we are left to witness is always hilarious and troubling and challenging… one of the best movies of the year, and the most openly emotional work ever from the Coens.