Another year, another wrap up. I want to use this preamble space to touch on statistics; I saw more films on 2013’s release slate than any other year since I started this whole crazy film critic’s journey (at least within its lifespan). How many more? Well, permit me to abstain from specifics, because that would just be bragging, but I’ll say “a lot” and leave it at that. Henceforth the final tally will be a secret that haunts your dreams for life.
Okay, that’s going a wee bit far. But there is a good reason for me bringing up math: after poring over the trusty (highly classified!) Word document I’ve been using to databank each 2013 film I’ve gotten under my belt, after parsing down every single entry and separating the chaff from the wheat, the fat from the drippings, the cream from the crop, and so many other terrible misused metaphors, I’m still left with a stupid number of pictures that I feel like I can’t live without. When does that happen? It doesn’t! That rarely happens!
For me, this is nothing but good news. While I realistically can comfortably stitch together a standard, personal top ten and live with myself, I also feel like I could expand that little bit of annual ranking to go all the way up to twenty, or perhaps thirty; the movies of 2013 have been good to us all, if not for sheer quality but for quantity as well. Maybe the best sign of cinema’s overall health is consensus, or rather the absence of it, because I guarantee that if you peruse even a dozen different top tens from respectable critics, you won’t see two that look totally the same.
There are lots of trends that shape 2013’s identity as a movie year – and maybe if I’m feeling enterprising enough I’ll write about them at some point – but for me the most important is that intrinsic sense of dissension. Everyone will agree on a handful of the greats, of course, but with so many excellent films out there for consumption, it’s totally possible to come up with a completely “off-the-wall” best-of list and still have it read as being completely credible. And that’s a good sign for the vitality of the medium and, perhaps, the industry (but to a much lesser extent).
Not that movies just exist so that we can rank and order them, mind, but it is one of my favorite seasonal pastimes. Mostly because figuring out which movies mean the most to me (for better or worse) and why is valuable, and that brings us through my thicket of rambling to this article’s raison d’etre. You’ve seen Go, See, Talk!’s wrap-ups in the past, so by now, you might know what you’re in for. If not, well, then take this piece as a palette cleanser for all of the standard issue top tens proliferated across the web in time for the Yuletide season. Let’s get started, then:
Clearly, Guillermo del Toro and I are drift compatible; the guy just gets me. He also gets why audiences love giant monsters and giant robots, and most of all why we love watching them demolish cities with utter disregard for collateral damage. If there was a “movie most absurdly nitpicked by armchair screenwriters” award, Pacific Rim would be the clear winner, but for my money nobody busted blocks in 2013 better than GDT and his boundless imagination.
Call Lake Bell a modern female version of Woody Allen if you like; in this, her feature length writing, directing, and producing debut, she makes it clear that she’s very much her own woman. As praiseworthy for its keen sense of humor and heartfelt emotional core as for its clever send-up patriarchy and gender politics, In a World... also succeeds in showing us a side of the film industry that’s overlooked despite its ubiquity.
Three hours of raging excess wrought by penny stock boiler room hooligans sounds like nothing but sheer punishment. Enter Martin Scorsese, seventy one years young and to this day still capable of making movies with the energy of a hungry, fresh-faced filmmaker who has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. The Wolf of Wall Street should have been torture; instead, it’s one of 2013’s very best films.
The fact that I can mainline anything and everything Middle-earth all day long and never lose my taste for it should speak to just how much the second entry in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy let me down. It’s fun, but it’s also paced with the creaking propulsion of a worn-down Yugo; Dwarf on Elf romance (straight out of the pages of chintzy fan fiction), barrel rides, and one incredible dragon don’t make up for how much PJ stalls this one out.
It’s one thing to be dumb. Dumb movies can be a blast. But dumb movies that aspire to something resembling intelligence, well, they’re something else entirely. World War Z comes backed with a brilliant pedigree courtesy of Max “Son of Mel” Brooks’ excellent mockumentarian novel on worldwide zombie apocalypse, but Marc Forster squanders all of it with a white savior complex and frivolous antics of brain-defying stupidity.
Somehow, Ryan Coogler’s earnest, no-frills, beautifully crafted interpretation of the events that led to Oscar Grant’s 2009 murder at the hands of BART officers has been lost in the shuffle since its July release. This is an injustice. Coogler’s film, and leading man Michael B. Jordan’s performance, are both defined by a sincere urgency, forcing attention onto our country’s most pressing social issues; it’s a debut that demands to be talked about.
Joel and Ethan Coen don’t make films that can be easily understood in one viewing. Inside Llewyn Davis, their portrait of the 1960s folk revival scene in New York City, is no exception; it’s a story that opens up the more that you revisit it. Normally, this is where I would put something goofy and genre-oriented (say, Pacific Rim), but the fact that Inside Llewyn Davis – an excellent film on first watch – can get better with repeat screenings is kind of a miracle.
Sometimes, it pays to be creative and go for the unexpected choice. Other times, there is no other choice, and your job as a critic is simply to point to what you honestly think is best. 2013 has had its fair share of great turns by great actors – some of those films even appear here – but no one imbues their role with so much humanity off the page as Chiwetel Ejiofor in Steve McQueen’s magnificent 12 Years a Slave.
Everybody in America made a movie about the indulgences of the elites; turns out people elsewhere in the world have a thing or two to say about that, as well. Paulo Sorrentino doesn’t just add his voice to the cacophony of protest against wealth culture, he takes a snapshot of an Italy scarred by the ravages of the Berlusconi political era as Toni Servillo strolls his way through a world of disillusionment, disenfranchisement, and disinterest in piercing the blah, blah, blah.
Spike Jonze’s Her does what all great science fiction films do: it examines humanity’s future by drawing on its present. The jokey throughline here, of course, is that Her is the one about the guy who falls in love with Siri, but in telling that story, Jonze – along with stars Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson – daringly takes the conceit all the way and then some, never once holding back or cutting corners. What ensues is not just a smart exploration of our modern dependency on technology, but also one of today’s great love stories, and a wonderful piece on what it means to be truly connected to another person.