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.

Three New York Stories: Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Manhattan

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Joe Buck ain’t a for-real cowboy, but he is one helluva stud!  Blond, baby-faced, and sporting a toothy grin, Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dishwashing job in Texas, grabs his transistor radio and cowboy hat, and takes off for New York City in pursuit of a bright future in hustling.  “There’s a lot of rich women back there,” he tells a fellow dishwasher before he departs.  “Begging for it. Paying for it too.”

So begins Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), which follows Buck in his pursuit of a new life for himself.  Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite according to plan.  Rather than being the utopia that Buck imagines, New York turns out to be hostile and unforgiving.  The work he seeks is hard to come by, and sundry instances of bad luck — including being scammed by Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled conman he meets in a bar — soon leave Buck jobless, homeless, and alone.

This is a lonely film; it captures the sensation of loneliness with terrifying acuity.  There are many affecting shots of Buck walking the streets, surrounded by swarms of anonymous people, listening to his transistor radio for company.  When he and Ratso run into each other again, Buck quickly forgets his anger and an unlikely friendship develops between the two of them, forged by that desperate need for companionship.

They make a peculiar pair: Buck in his neat, button-down shirts and cowboy boots, Ratso with his greasy hair and limping gait.  Hoffman’s performance as Ratso is the highlight of the film.  He somehow manages to be disgusting and charismatic at the same time — small and filthy, but also genial and conversational, with a grating, nasal voice.

As a character Buck is a little more mysterious.  He’s almost childlike in his cheerfulness and naiveté, but we discover a darker side of him through the fragmented (and, quite frankly, confusing) flashbacks from his life in Texas — that he was raised by his neglectful grandmother, and that he and his girlfriend were raped, causing her to be institutionalized and earning her the moniker “Crazy Annie.”  The reveal of these traumatic events puts a dark spin on Buck’s excitement about moving to New York; he is clearly hoping to leave his past behind, to find an escape.

But if this film does anything, it refutes that idea of an escape, a utopia.  Buck’s moving to New York does nothing but create more problems for him, and once there, Ratso just tries to convince him to leave, insisting that Florida is where life is actually worth living.  There’s a sense that nowhere in the country actually offers a better quality of life than anywhere else; life is painful, and escape is a myth.  Needless to say, Midnight Cowboy provides a bleak outlook.  With the exception of movingly real performances from Hoffman and Voight, the film is hard to love.  The narrative is a little too tortuous and abstract, and the sense of loneliness that pervades the entire film is a little too real — it starts to get under your skin.

taxi driverSimilarly dark but easier to digest is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which features Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who, plagued by insomnia, works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City.  Travis prides himself in being willing to drive “anytime, anywhere,” but during his nocturnal exploits he develops a loathing for the scum he sees walking the streets. His misanthropy is made worse when the one person whom he hopes might be a kindred spirit — Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young campaign volunteer — turns out to be “just like the rest of them… cold and distant.”  Eventually, driven by depression and frustration, Travis’s thoughts turn violent.

This is a film in which the city is almost a character itself, thanks in no small part to Scorsese’s artful cinematography.  The film opens with a sting of dissonant brass and a burst of white smoke from a manhole, and Travis’s taxi emerges like a boat slogging through hell. Through the lens of Travis’s perspective, all of New York’s worst qualities are accentuated.  The neon signs are lurid, the streets filthy, the pedestrians swarming. Travis writes in his journal about feeling lost and alienated, and we sympathize with him.

When a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) climbs frantically into Travis’s taxi only to be dragged out again by her pimp, Travis feels compelled to rescue her.  Foster is mesmerizing even in the brief amount of screen-time she occupies. Both in looks and in mannerisms she is an uncanny combination of adult and childlike: her clothes are scanty, revealing her undeveloped body, and her demeanor is matter-of-fact but peppered with petulant eye-rolls and smirks.  Iris is the ultimate symbol of what Travis sees as the degeneracy New York — something pure and innocent that’s been sullied — and her appearance in his taxi is just the motivation he needs for his violent plans to take shape.

Despite his extremism, however, Travis is not a villain but an antihero, a man whose radical actions stem from loneliness and delusion.  Indeed, so much of what makes the film so compelling is Travis’s complexity.  There’s something immediately likeable about him — he’s good-looking, candid, and reflective, and his frustration with his surroundings is understandable.  But to like Travis is to follow him down the rabbit hole into a world of terrifying volatility, bordering on madness.  Gripping, unsettling, and bizarrely beautiful, it’s no wonder Taxi Driver has become part of the canon of great American films.

Manhattan

Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its portrayal of New York: like so many of Allen’s movies, it is a love story to a city.

The film opens with a series of shots of New York — the skyline, the crowded streets, the flashing lights in Times Square — set to Allen’s voiceover as he writes the beginning of a novel.  He describes the city’s many different personalities, including “a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin” — and this description is carried throughout the film, the black and white scenes scored exclusively by Gershwin classics. Out of all the versions of the city, this is the one in which the film takes place: a New York that’s old, beautiful, and seen through the rosy lens of nostalgia.

Allen stars as Isaac, a middle-aged divorcé who ends his relationship with his teenage girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in order to begin an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his best friend.  These characters are affluent and educated: Isaac is a television writer and an aspiring novelist, and Mary is a loquacious cultural snob. From this perspective, New York becomes a completely different city from the anonymous, filthy New York featured in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver — the scenes take place in museums, restaurants, and stylish apartments, and the problems the characters face are social, rather than issues of survival.

manhattanAnd certainly, there is something silly, almost farcical, about the film: the characters fumble around, dating each other, cheating on each other. Mary is neurotic and self-conscious, going back and forth between Isaac and his best friend Yale. Isaac is funny and likeable but also something of a buffoon, and he blunders through his interactions with the women in his life (including a hilariously stoic Meryl Streep as his ex-wife, now dating a woman and publishing a book about her marriage with Isaac). Indeed, the most mature character in the film turns out to be Tracy, who — despite Isaac’s repeated insistence that she’s just a kid — is poised and self-assured, calmly saying to Isaac, “I’ve told you before, I think I’m in love with you.”  This role-reversal is one of the film’s most delightful quirks: while the adults of the film act like children, the seventeen-year-old acts like an adult.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Isaac brainstorms ideas for his novel by talking into a tape recorder, and he comes up with the concept of “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these unnecessary problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.”  This is, of course, not unlike the George Gershwin line in the opening scene — a metaficitonal wink at the audience, an acknowledgement of just how unnecessary and silly Isaac’s and Mary’s problems are.  But at the same time there’s a strange poignancy to that line, perhaps because there’s something universally human about focusing on day-to-day drama instead of facing those bigger questions.

That balance of humor and substance is what makes this film so marvelous.  The writing is smart and heartfelt, and while the characters might be deeply flawed, they are undeniably lovable.  And, more than anything, there is that tremendous sense of place — present (and yet completely different) in all three of these films — that is not simply a backdrop for the narrative, but living part of it.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – David O. Russell

ImageAfter becoming familiar with him in handsome, hyper-masculine, smooth-operating roles in films like The Hangover (2009), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), and Limitless (2011), it’s refreshing and a little confusing to see Bradley Cooper in a role that is vulnerable, self-conscious, and socially inappropriate.  When bipolar Pat Solitano (Cooper) returns to his parents’ house after an eight-month stint in a mental hospital, his goal is to reunite himself with his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee).  Pat is almost childlike in his straightforwardness and unflinching sincerity, openly saying things like, “I don’t have an iPod.  I don’t even have a phone.  They won’t let me make any calls.  They think I’m going to call Nikki.  I would call Nikki.”  He spends his time reading novels from Nikki’s high school syllabus, going on solitary jogs while wearing a garbage bag, and plotting ways to get a letter through Nikki’s restraining order — and we as viewers fall in love with him, despite the fact that, as one kind young lady points out, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things.

The young lady is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow and the sister-in-law of Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz).  Pat and Tiffany meet at a dinner party, where Tiffany demonstrates her own social peculiarities by asking Pat about his medication in the middle of dinner; leaving mid-meal because she’s “tired”; and, on the walk home, bluntly telling Pat that she’ll let him sleep with her if he turns the lights off.

Pat is put off by Tiffany, later telling his therapist that she is a “loyal married-to-a-dead-guy slut,” but a friendship develops between the two of them when Tiffany agrees to bring a letter to Nikki.  Her demand is that Pat, in return, be her partner in an upcoming dance competition — which he reluctantly agrees to do.

The first half-hour is the strongest section of the film.  The setup is punchy and nicely paced, both amusing and poignant, and we are introduced to a host of characters, each of whom brings his or her own idiosyncrasies to the table.  Pat’s father, played by Robert De Niro, reveals himself to have some mental problems of his own, showing signs of OCD with his rituals and superstition concerning the Eagles football team.  He also has the ability to explode violently, not unlike Pat, and this feeds into Pat’s denial of some of his problems: “Look, I’m not the explosion guy, okay?  My father is the explosion guy.”

If this film should be congratulated on anything, it is its upbeat and sympathetic depiction of mental illness.  Finally, here is a romantic comedy about two people who are real outsiders.  We learn through Pat’s therapy sessions that he was sent to the mental institute because he caught Nikki cheating on him and almost beat her lover to death.  Now, he has emerged with a new outlook: excelsior is his motto (Latin for “ever upward”), and he is determined to find the silver lining in every situation.  And yet we see how his bipolar disorder hampers his progress, and how he struggles to suppress violent outbursts, both verbal and physical.

Tiffany has her own slew of problems, including depression, a vicious temper, and what sounds like a possible sex addiction.  She is no quirky, adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she is gritty, rude, and startlingly frank.   But beneath her rough exterior is a sensitive side, which is somehow surprising and not predictable in the film — perhaps because her standoffish façade seems so genuine.

Mental illness is something that is generally not taken seriously enough, and I was impressed with Russell’s apt choice to take a look into what living with various disorders can be like.  Both Pat and Tiffany struggle with their disorders, with the unpleasant side effects of medication, with the desire not to be perceived as “crazy” by those around them.  And yet their characters are not defined solely by their mental illness, and they lead rich lives, which is what makes them so likable to us.  They are untraditional characters, but they still serve as the traditional hero and heroine of the story.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the beginning, nor does it do the characters justice.  Pat and Tiffany grow closer through their dance rehearsals, but each does his/her share of manipulating and being dishonest to the other — a problem that is never really reconciled.  And the film’s third act is, sadly, all sorts of cliché.  High stakes are placed on Pat and Tiffany’s success in the competition; the two have a falling out when Pat misses a day of rehearsal to go to an Eagles game; Pat receives encouragement from his father to pursue true love; etc.  Everything is set up for a neat, Hollywood ending, which is a disappointing way to conclude a story that begins so cleverly.  While a happy ending is definitely appropriate for a story that is all about silver linings, I wished that the happy ending had been less generic.  It is a neat, tidy, and ordinary ending for two characters who are anything but neat, tidy, and ordinary.

The film is certainly an enjoyable ride — and the first ten minutes feature the most hilarious and justifiable reaction to the end of A Farewell to Arms that I have ever seen (Pat finishes the book, says, “What the f—k?” and flings it out the window).  But the flat, conventional ending will leave the viewer feeling a little less than satisfied when the lights come up.