The 10 Best Movies I Encountered in 2013

It’s been a while since my last post, but that’s because I was brewing up this magnificent list!  Not the top ten films that came out in 2013, but the top ten films I watched for the first time this year, whether I was watching it on the big screen or squinting at a tiny, pixilated player on my laptop. (I did notice that this year’s list includes many more in-theater films than last year’s list, though — maybe because I’m living in a city instead of being tucked away on a college campus, or maybe because I got tired of squinting at tiny, pixilated players on my laptop).

So here it is, in ascending order.  Enjoy, and feel free to share your own top 10! 

10. Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

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Gritty, terrifying, and farcical all at once, Django Unchained has become one of my favorite Tarantino films (I reviewed it earlier this year).  Filmed in the style of old Spaghetti Westerns, the story centers around Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave in the Deep South who is on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the infamous plantation Candyland.  The subject matter is weighty and at times incredibly upsetting, but it’s tempered with Tarantino’s trademark snappy dialogue, exaggerated comic-book violence, and dark humor.  It’s worth seeing if only for the fantastic supporting characters: in particular Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, dentist turned bounty hunter, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the ruthless master of Candyland.

9. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Michael Mann

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This film features gratuitous smoldering on the part of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Taciturn, shoulder-length-haired, weapon-wielding smoldering.  You have been warned!  The premise: in the midst of the French and Indian War, Native American–raised trapper Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) strives to ensure the protection of a British Colonel’s daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May).  This is a classic adventure story, complete with chase scenes, epic battles, and some steamy romance on the side.  What makes The Last of the Mohicans particularly stand out, however, is its brutal, lifelike twist — there’s a realistic edge to the violence, an almost Game of Thrones–esque willingness to kill off characters.  The end result is something both romantic and realistic, a compelling combination.

8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Kathryn Bigelow

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I went into this film with some doubts, unsure of whether it was too soon to make a blockbuster about what the trailers were calling the greatest manhunt in history, but I shouldn’t have worried.  As we saw in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has a way of handling the events of war thoughtfully, tactfully, and with an almost Hemingway-esque injection of emotion that you barely even notice until it hits you.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young, feisty, and incredibly intelligent CIA officer who becomes obsessed with the search for Bin Laden and, after years of investigating, ultimately leads the troops to his whereabouts.  The film is exciting, as any good mystery/thriller should be, but it’s also hesitant, bittersweet.  There are implicit questions about who we are as a country right now and what we’re trying to do.  I was rooting for it for best picture last year (somewhat halfheartedly because it seemed like Argo was kind of a shoo-in).

7. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – Jean-Marc Vallée

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Based on a true story, this film follows Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rough-and-tumble rodeo man who is given a shock when he’s diagnosed with HIV and given an estimate of thirty days left to live.  Before he knows it, Ron’s entire life has changed direction, and he finds himself starting a buyers club with an HIV-positive transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) to provide alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS.  Considering the content, Dallas Buyers Club is surprisingly upbeat and uplifting, focusing on human resilience in the face of disease and hardship.  The film is also carried by tremendous performances from McConaughey and Leto, who give nuanced renderings of characters who are at once strong, flawed, and loveable.

6. Spring Breakers (2012) – Harmony Korine

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Scored by Skrillex and featuring gun-toting former Disney Channel stars, Spring Breakers could have easily been one of the worst films of the year — and indeed, I fully expected it to be.  Instead, director Korine somehow managed to fashion an evocative and strangely alluring fever dream about four college-age girls who get carried away with the autonomy that spring break provides.  There was a slew of films this year about decadence and irresponsibility — Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to name a couple — and Spring Breakers handles the material in a completely unconventional and effective way.  The film draws you into its circling, nonlinear narrative and leaves you haunted.  I wrote a full review this summer.

5. Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

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My pride is the only thing keeping me from making this movie #1 on the list.  I couldn’t have loved it more!  There is some semblance of a plot — lovable former-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is living a domestic life with his three adopted daughters when he’s forced to return to the field, this time teeming up with agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) — but the main focus of the film is, shamelessly, sheer adorableness.  Most scenes revolve around the delightful, butter-yellow nuggets that are Gru’s minions bouncing about and jabbering in their helium-high voices, and Gru’s daughters causing trouble and tugging on Gru’s (and all of our) heartstrings. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh till you cry.

4. Stoker (2013) – Chan-wook Park

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A tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Stoker tells the story of a young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies, and what happens when her handsome, enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit.  From an aesthetic standpoint this film is perfect.  I raved about it in my review this summer; director Chan-wook Park has created a neurotic, unsettling, and tremendously beautiful world, balancing every shot and amplifying certain details, letting us into India’s subjectivity. The film’s content is twisted and dark but every moment is visually magnificent, and that combination of horror and beauty is captivating.

3. Blue Jasmine (2013) – Woody Allen

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Like much of Allen’s work, this film is cleverly written and incredibly uncomfortable.  Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a wealthy New Yorker who arrives in San Francisco to stay with (read: impose on) her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) while recuperating from the collapse of her marriage.  Blanchett gives a truly outstanding performance as the neurotic, unstable Jasmine — radiant and poised in some scenes, frighteningly haggard in others, and constantly struggling with an undertow of panic and desperation.  Also featuring Alec Baldwin, Blue Jasmine has that sort of painful, cutting insight that is a hallmark of Allen’s work, and humor that is not without sting.

2. Taxi Driver (1976) – Martin Scorsese

Taxi-Driver-4Taxi Driver is widely recognized as a classic, and I certainly expected to be impressed, but the film grabbed me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  Travis (Robert De Niro) is a former marine who takes a job as a taxi driver to cope with his insomnia, and slowly the job changes him into someone emotionally, intellectually, and physically unrecognizable.  The film features its own bizarre kind of worldbuilding, nighttime New York becoming a seedy city of the underworld colored by the slick black streets and the lurid clothing of prostitutes.  Travis’s journey from being a generally likeable (although somewhat adrift) person to being a person with a frightening, violent sense of purpose is aided in no small part by the repeated appearance of a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis feels he must personally rescue from this damned place.  Scorsese draws you into Travis’s perspective and takes you with him as far as you’re willing to go.  It’s terrifying, evocative, exciting, and strangely beautiful.  Full review here, in the NYC roundup I posted this summer.

1. Sleepwalk With Me (2011) – Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

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I gushed about this film when I saw it in February.  I would go so far as to compare Mike Birbiglia to David Sedaris in terms of the caliber of his storytelling (high praise!).  Sleepwalk With Me is an autobiographical story that follows Birbiglia’s early pursuit of a career in standup; his crumbling relationship with his long-term girlfriend; and his experience with a rare sleeping disorder in which, to put it simply, he wreaks havoc while sleepwalking.  The story is at once funny and heartbreaking, and it’s so earnest that it’s difficult not to love.  Keep an eye out for Birbiglia — he has good things coming.

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Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

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The nineteenth-century Deep South is perhaps not the first place one would expect to hear a traditional German legend — and yet, not an hour into Tarantino’s Django Unchained we find ourselves listening to Dr, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), dentist and bounty hunter, tell an attentive Django (Jamie Foxx) the legend of the princess Broomhilda.  According to Schultz, Broomhilda is imprisoned on a great mountain, guarded by a dragon and surrounded by hellfire, and there she will remain until her hero Siegfried comes to save her.

The parallels between the legend and Django’s own story are quickly made apparent.  Django — the namesake of a 1966 Western film — has been recently freed from slavery and introduced to the bounty hunting business by Schultz.  Now, he is determined to reunite himself with his wife, who happens to be named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  Schultz agrees to assist Django in freeing Broomhilda from slavery, patting Django’s shoulder genially and saying, “When a German meets a real-life Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal.”

As he is wont to do, Tarantino has created a film that is a vibrant bricolage of styles and references.  Django Unchained is at once a German fairytale, a Spaghetti Western, and a story of slavery in America.  It is a wicked mix of action, dark humor, bitter realism, unflinching violence, and the self-aware comic-book campiness that has become part of Tarantino’s trademark style.  There is truth and terror to Django’s story, but there are also explosions, swooning women, splattering blood, miraculous escapes, and witty one-liners. The film is brilliantly conceived and impeccably crafted, and it is stimulating on both a visceral and an intellectual level without once flirting with didacticism.

It is no coincidence that Django’s story is framed by the white traditions of German legends and Spaghetti westerns.  In going on an adventure to rescue Broomhilda, Django reclaims those traditions for himself, forging his own legend in which he is the hero.  And the film’s characters fall into place the supporting elements of that legend.  Schultz serves as the mentor; Broomhilda is the love interest and the McGuffin; Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Broomhilda’s current owner, is the villain — the fire-breathing dragon guarding the mountain.  And Django is our hero: brave, clever, determined, devoted, and strong.  If the characters are archetypal, they are deliberately so, and the horrifying context of slavery in America gives their actions and emotions weight.

These archetypal characters are also vividly brought to life by the cast, with particularly compelling performances coming from the supporting characters.  Waltz is, unsurprisingly, flawless as the zany but death-dealing Schultz, maintaining a jolly politeness even while brandishing a shotgun.  There is a meticulousness to his performance, down to the way he straightens his waistcoat, or the pause he takes to sip his beer before speaking.

DiCaprio does not pale in comparison.  Candie is petulant and faux-sophisticated, preferring to be addressed as “Monsieur Candie” — although we soon find out that he speaks not a word of French.  Like Schultz, Candie is jovial and polite, but his friendliness towards his guests is unsettling and stands in stark contrast to his savage treatment of his slaves (for instance, when he engages in pleasantries as two Mandingo fighters beat each other to death in the middle of his parlor).  Schultz and Candie almost function as two sides of the same coin — one forward thinking and benevolent, the other backwards and cruel; one cultured and intelligent, the other merely playing at those qualities.

stephenPerhaps the most remarkable character, however, is not introduced until the film is more than half over.  Elderly and hobbling, at first glance Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) appears to be the most archetypal character of all, to the point of being stereotypical: the doting and devoted house slave, having raised Candie since childhood.  The true depth of Stephen’s character is not revealed until later, when he correctly guesses at Schultz and Django’s plan, and the remarkable power he possesses over Candie becomes apparent.  Stephen has worked the system to his advantage, and he is Candie’s puppeteer, rather than his puppet.  (There is even a moment at the very end of the film in which Stephen and Django are alone together, and Stephen drops his cane and steps calmly towards Django: has he been feigning his limp all this time??  It is never made clear.)  Oddly enough, in the end the fire-breathing dragon is actually Stephen.  The main obstacle between Django and Broomhilda is not a cruel white slaver, but a steadfast black slave.  This is a bitter twist to Django’s otherwise conventionally conceived adventure, and a nod to just how deep systems of racism are able to penetrate.

In his journey to rescue Broomhilda, Django aims to kill both her former and current owners — to avenge her suffering as well as rescue her.  In a broader sense, Django’s story is also a revenge fantasy for contemporary audiences, as he deals out justice in a way that never happened in real life.  That ending may be unrealistic and larger than life, but sometimes we need to turn to mythical, legendary figures to do the impossible for us.  And Django, our black Siegfried and “the fastest gun in the south,” is doing it in style.