Just in time for none of my favorite movies to win any Oscars (sans Gravity which should do quite well), I present the best film of 2013. This year was a little more muted than last year, passing up bombastic plots for intense character study, marking the return of palpable blockbusters, and indie cinema rose a little further into the public space. Without further ado, please watch these movies:
1. Upstream Color
Most films come together as a result of constraints from disparate needs. Constructed almost entirely by Carruth’s hands, Upstream Color had only one need; to achieve the totality of the director’s vision; a story about the synesthesia and connectedness of experience. Upstream Color is the very definition of auteur cinema, a product sprung forth like Athena from Carruth’s mind, a colorful mosaic of the bizarre and the comfortable that tells a story which defies simple explanation. Besides being a showcase of indie cinema, Upstream Color is also an exciting and mysterious narrative that takes risks both cinematically and in story movement while somehow also managing the most striking cinematography of the year. Upstream Color is proof that movies still have somewhere unique to go, and is absolutely the best movie of 2013.
2. The Act of Killing
Great documentaries are often more concerned with the human element than the factual motifs of history. Act of Killing has, in a way, struck gold then with free access to former genocidal thugs who are convinced that re-enacting their murders for the camera is a proper tribute to their government sponsored patriotism. I say in a way, because what starts as a black satire quickly gives way to a queasy dread as the audience and the former death squad members begin to appreciate the enormity of what they did. Frankly the footage in this documentary is beyond belief despite the fact that it is not an investigative record of the genocide. Though hard to watch, The Act of Killing is an amazing statement about rationalization and our internal moral compass. I’m not sure a film like this could ever be accomplished again.
3. The Wolf of Wallstreet
A sublime comedy about the excess of our awful overlords on Wall Street, your subconscious will be burning with rage as we all know Wolf is pretty much a true-to-life depiction. Based on the memoirs of a con artist who dreamt big, every moment of DiCaprio’s rise to megalomania seems reasonably human, diagramming the moments when social Darwinism degraded his conscience and the psychological weaknesses he both exhibited and extorted. Scorsese has avoided moralizing and instead created a document about the absurdism of the super-rich and the people that surround them. What person could resist the lure of the hedonism DiCaprio and crew get to enjoy? Wolf is filled with some of the most amazing set-pieces you’ll ever see as DiCaprio and Hill drive themselves to the edge just for the hell of it, but is also a poignant reminder that without protection the wolf will always prey on the weak.
4. All Is Lost
In some ways All is Lost is very similar to one of my favorite films from last year, Life Of Pi. However what Ang Lee did with grandeur, JC Chandor does without the animals, or the narration, or the free flowing CG, or the juxtaposing events, or even other actors. A nearly wordless and actless story set on the Indian Ocean, Redford faces the inevitability of shipwreck with grim determination. Without saying a word though, Chandor and Redford are able to communicate all the same existential crises inherent in the story of a man adrift on the ocean facing doom. Somewhere on the way All if Lost transcends being a story about someone you’ll never meet and becomes a deeply personal pondering. Only the most oblivious could walk away from All is Lost without gazing inward.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
The worst part about seeing a Coen Brother film is leaving the theatre knowing you’ll have to wait a long time to see another one. The best part is heading into the theatre with total confidence that you’re in for another meticulously constructed meditation on American life from the supremely competent duo. Inside Llewyn Davis sees them stretch their range a bit, turning Oscar Issac (last seen as the victimized ex con in Drive) into a full portrait of a struggling Greenwich musician present at the genesis of folk in the 60’s. Llewyn suffers for his art and badly wants to contribute, but rather than give him an arc the Coen’s have seen fit to study Llewyn in cyclical stasis, although that’s not to say he doesn’t have his Odyssey. Although the Coens have discussed the difficulties of getting through life before, Llewyn is stuck at a unique crossroads in cinema, one where perseverance and talent may not be enough to see him through. Inside Llewyn Davis was the best portrayal this year of the conflicting motivations that pull us wither and yonder in the face of problems we may not be able to solve.
6. The Past
On the surface, Farhadi’s French-Iranian examination of the formal end of a marriage is a boiler plate story about the tension an estranged father creates when he drops into his old family’s lives for a few days. Watch then, in amazement, as everything you assume to be true is constantly shown to be wrong. All of the characters are dealing with an event that happened in the past, and their relationships to each other are dynamically predicated on their interpretations. However with each passing moment the Past proves itself to be elusive and unknowable, a monument to the failure of humanity to understand life through our narrow perspective. The daughters, boyfriends, wives and husbands all find themselves at the mercy of this storm, but Farhadi depicts this struggle in a naturalistic manner that downplays the philosophical bent and just lets the characters live through it. The Past is testament to the strengths of foreign cinema and the bounty of subtlety.
7. Pacific Rim
DOOONN. WAARRK. KSSSSHHHH. If you ever played with dinosaurs or robots as a kid, you probably had something in mind like Pacific Rim. A pure neon pleasure, Guillermo brings the style from his Hellboys but leaves the need for exposition behind. Like the popular kid in school, Pacific Rim does not the top the charts in either cunning or brutality, but instead wins by charisma. Every smashed building and plasma laser just feels right when you’re hanging out with the Jaegers, belching smoke and wiping off Kaiju blood in the parking lot behind the school. It’s not Hemingway, but you’ll leave the theatre with a huge grin on your face.
8. Computer Chess
A blast from the 16mm past, Computer Chess starts off as an unassuming retro photo-shoot of a particularly awkward moment in the genesis of personal computer hardware. Things quickly get out of hand however, as the grad students and technicians brought together in a chess program competition start to generate friction. A proffered threesome later and director Buljaski begins to show his hand; Computer Chess is a deeply weird meditation on the nature of human interactivity and consciousness, set on what might be considered the eve of a new intelligence’s birth. Why do people make weird movies like this? Risk the recursive function and you might be able to find the answer in Computer Chess.
Although slightly clumsy, Cauron’s Gravity is still an amazing technical achievement, a consistently exciting and awe inspiring journey through low Earth orbit. Akin to floating on a boat in the ocean, Gravity accentuates both the minor turbidity of surviving in space and the omnipresent cosmic connection brought by having Earth beneath you and infinite space around you. The actors have chemistry and the action is thoughtful and consequential, but really what you should be thinking is, wow, what a view.
10. The World’s End
Edgar Wright has specialized in making movies about slackers, and most of the films he’s made have dropped slackers into larger than life situations. As a fitting end to the Cornetto trilogy, he drops his most interesting slackers yet into a world teetering on the edge behind a Kmart façade. The World’s End marks Wrights first dalliances with more serious drama, while at the same time raising the belligerent stakes of his farcical combat with head crushing, bar stool wielding throwdowns. This movie has a couple thoughts in its pretty head, but like all of Wright’s movies, its mostly just daring you to have fun.
Her is a smartly realized sci fi story with that wrings a lot of empathy out of its simple premise, Stoker is a bizarre affectation about what goes into a murderer that is hard to look away from, and The Hunt deftly handles a sensitive premise while examining how much of our lives are built on assumptions and trust
Originally published on Synthetic Error February 27, 2014