Yesterday I gave you my expert take on the weirdest movies of 2013; today, I’ll be giving you my opinions of the best movies of the year, without regard to genre. This year, there’s only one title which overlaps both lists, although I imagine the average popcorn-chomper would find the top two entries on this “mainstream” list to be far too weird for their tastes. Without further ado, here’s your countdown of my top movies of 2013:
10. Drug War: The days of John Woo, Jackie Chan and the Hong Kong New Wave of the 80s and 90s already seem like a part of the distant past. Although many of the luminaries of that movement dispersed to Hollywood or Australia after the Chinese took over the town in 1997, one director who chose not to flee for greener pastures was Johnnie To. He has continued to churn out action-oriented gangster films. At bottom his latest epic Drug War is nothing fancy, but it is a superior police procedural with thrilling action scenes that remind us of the salad days of HK past. Plus, it is one of the few movies to explain why deaf-mutes make the best footsoldiers in your drug army.
9. Before Midnight: If you like actors’ showcases and relationship talk sprinkled with references to myth and philosophy, have I got the film for you! Richard Linklater returns, along with stars Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke, for the third peek in 18 years at the relationship between Jesse (now a successful novelist) and headstrong Celine. Urbane and blisteringly painful at times.
8. Spring Breakers: Harmony Korine‘s lightly experimental take on today’s nihilistic youth hearkens back (in spirit) to his 1995 screenplay for Kids. In our rundown of the weirdest movies of , I wrote that “critics who had previously loathed Korine’s grungy, transgressive works tended to view this 2013more satirical fare favorably, while the Trash Humpers set was largely unimpressed.” I confess that I am in the camp that treats this more polished work with a kinder pen. I think that the key to this movie’s success is that Korine has finally accepted that he is at heart an exploitation filmmaker working with an arthouse toolkit, rather than the other way around. James Franco should, but won’t, win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.
7. Mud: Part of a big year for Matthew McConaughey (who also impressed as the homophobic AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club), this film casts him as Mud, a romantic miscreant hiding out on an uninhabited island. When an adolescent boy finds Mud and decides to help him reconcile with his lost love, will the impractical loser be able to live up to the kid’s idealism? Accomplished storytelling that weaves in multiple subplots and minor characters, blending drama, romance and adventure with a coming-of-age message that’s neither too bitter nor too sweet. Easy to recommend.
6. 12 Years a Slave: Adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northrup, a 19th century African-American who was born a free man in New York but kidnapped and sold into slavery, 12 Years is likely to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and I won’t complain. It features fine acting by Michael Fassbender as a ruthless plantation owner, Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o as a much-abused “favorite” slave, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the noble Northrop. It’s a very good movie that falls short of being great, but it earns bonus points for being the best theatrical film ever made about American slavery. The lack of other quality movies exploring this inherently dramatic historical outrage is frankly bizarre, and it’s equally strange that it fell to a British director to make the (so far) definitive film about the topic.
5. All Is Lost: Survival movies were a major theme of 2013, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost was the purest of them all. Robert Redford stars as a man sailing around the world by himself, whose luck goes from bad to worse after his yacht’s hull is breached and the electrical system damaged. Memorably, Redford only speaks only one word in the story, but the script still manages to wring maximum tension out of a minimum elements: the sun beating down, saltwater all around, and dark clouds whipping over the horizon.
4. Captain Phillips: Another nautical-themed movie, another survival story, and another acting triumph for Tom Hanks, who keeps up a cool stoic front until the very end. Somali-American newcomer Barkhad Abdi also does well as the small-time warlord who chooses the wrong vessel to commandeer (Americans don’t negotiate with pirates, or pay ransoms). Tense and dramatic, the movie has a crowd-pleasing historical thriller vibe similar to last year’s hit Argo, but without the comic relief. If you liked Phillips, you might also check out Denmark’s A Hijacking, which describes a similar hostage scenario but emphasizes the tense negotiations between the pirates and the ship owner.
3. Gravity: Three astronauts servicing the Hubble spacecraft are marooned in space when debris shatters their shuttle; how can they make it back to earth? This space thriller with cosmic visuals plays out almost in real time, and is almost unprecedented in its plot; we’ve seen bits and pieces done in 2001, Marooned and Apollo 13, but never taken to this length before. The cosmic visuals and final-frontier setting raise Gravity to the top of 2013’s survival movie pack.
2. Blancanieves: A Spanish silent film that retells the story of Snow White (blanca-nieves) in a 1920s bullfighting milieu. The seven dwarfs are a novelty troupe of miniature matadors, and other unexpected twists on the ancient legend, some quite macabre, continually surprise. The camerawork is superlative, and the montages at times reminiscent of Guy Maddin at his most derangedly lyrical. Blancanieves is so outside of the average moviegoer’s comfort zone that I almost considered it as a “weird” movie, but eventually passed it over as ultimately too conventional. I wonder if I made a mistake?
1. The Act of Killing: A Western documentarian gives leaders of Indonesian death squads, now grandfathers and respected elders of paramilitary groups, funds to make a movies proudly re-enacting the massacres they committed as young hooligans. The films they create adapt Hollywood gangster movies, Westerns, and musicals, and frequently involve heavyset retired murderer Herman Koto in drag. The results are ironic and surreal: one concoction involves dancing girls in pink chiffon emerging from a concrete goldfish’s mouth, and another has the spirits of the slaughtered placing medals around their killers’ necks. As the film goes on, it appears that it is starting to dawn on the central figure, Anwar Congo, that his actions as a young man may not have been entirely justified—or has he just intuited what the director wants to see from him? There is a reason both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who know quality documentaries if anyone does, eagerly signed on as executive producers for this terrifying survey of the consciences of killers in a society that sanctifies their crimes. It would be impossible to dream up a character, or a character arc, like Congo’s; this film’s existence is a miracle.