Despite the current state of independent film (increasingly fewer screens, economically challenging business models, compressed distribution windows) 2013 proved to be one of the best years in a decade for films large and small. In some ways almost every film I loved was a new take on an old subject (horror, spring break, slavery, the 60’s, the 70’s). The actors and actresses we love continued to reinvent themselves, trumping everything that has come before with performances seemingly inspired by the past and the future.
1) Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan)
A Coen brothers film about a folk singer is still a Coen brothers film. Llewyn Davis is a perfectly crafted moody time-bomb of a character, drifting from couch to couch in the cold winter of 1963 New York. As in all their films, the Coens here cover quite a bit of ground in what seems like a simple story. It is both an examination of the West Village folk scene right before Dylan changed the game completely, and also an uncannily authentic look at New York intellectuals and their blue collar counterparts.
But like many of their most recent films, “Llewyn Davis” is a film where the music itself is an important leading character. Oscar Isaac gives an award caliber performance both playing a folk singer and performing as one. He carries a kind of fragile humanity right behind the surface of a loathsome exterior. Less accessible, or perhaps just less upbeat than many of their films, “Llewyn Davis” is a patient, incredible precise slice of a time and place, and even greater gem for fans of new and old folk music.
2) Her – Dir. Spike Jonze (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen)
“Her” is easily one of the most creative romantic films in eons. Like “500 Days of Summer,” “Upstream Color,” “Like Crazy,” and “Eternal Sunshine,” but obviously something completely different, Spike Jones has crafted one of the weirdest, but most genuine love stories of all time. In his semi-futuristic world, true love is neither physical nor it is even reciprocal in the truest sense of the word. It is more of a state of mind, or state of intellectual compatibility.
It would be hard to imagine this film without the effortless vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix, and the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson who exists only as a voice through an earpiece. To fall for an operating system is really no different than falling in love with a character from a book, a voice on the radio, or a picture in a magazine, except that the idea also understands you. Like a dream captured on film, “Her” falls like fresh snow, slowly, beautifully and ephemerally.
3) 12 Years A Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender)
In sheer contrast to Tarantino’s “Django,” McQueen’s masterpiece is a brutal, but beautiful reflection on our shameful past. There is nary a smile or laugh to be had, just an endless sea of largely horrible masters and powerless defeated slaves. As in his previous films (“Shame” and “Hunger”) McQueen can’t help but make you confront history and suffer through long, graphic reenactments.
Every character is clearly defined, most of the time without words, but with angry or hopeless expressions. This is not really a film to enjoy so much as to confront, endure and then ultimately appreciate. Although filled with cameos from everyone from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, the film belongs to Chinwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Good and evil personified. Although not for everybody, perhaps it should be required viewing for everybody.
4) Fruitvale Station – Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordon, Octavia Spencer)
There is no waste in “Fruitvale Station,” it is a perfect little film based on a totally avoidable tragedy. In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that took place in his hometown, and approach it with the kind of unemotional distance you wouldn’t have thought possible. Michael B. Jordan, whom we have watched grow up on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” is Oscar caliber playing the real life Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART police on New Years Day 2009.
Like Cassavetes, Coogler’s debut is a subtle hand held masterpiece, as he manages to get close enough to Oscar Grant to expose him as a massively flawed but hugely empathetic person. In lesser hands this story becomes a racial-political statement that exposes history yet again repeating itself shamefully. But somehow the story just flows along so quickly and easily that before you have time to poke holes it is over. Simplicity in filmmaking is the hardest thing to accomplish, but here it is impeccably executed.
5) Before Midnight –Dir. Richard Linklater (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy)
Beyond the “Godfather” trilogy I can’t think of another trio of films that I have loved as consistently. Where the Godfather films are sprawling epics, Linklater’s films are precious- basically just one long rolling conversation between two people who think and speak as cleverly as most people wish they could, and have a relationship both as fleeting and occasionally perfect as any.
In this chapter Delpy and Hawke are now married with children and living in Europe. At this point we know both characters quite well. We both love them and hate them. They bicker and spat, hold hands and kiss, reminisce and dream, and then start all over again. Like the previous films nothing much happens, except of course one of the most curious and naturalistic modern love stories of our time.
6) The Wolf of Wall Street – Dir. Martin Scorsese (Leo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill)
Some directors just tend to get better with age: Eastwood, Mike Leigh, and Scorsese who is on a tear lately. “The Wolf” is another brilliant collaboration with DiCaprio who further solidifies himself as one of the finest actors of our time, playing the manic, but loveable Jordan Belfort. The film is very much a character study, but doesn’t feel like bio-pic. The pace is fast, cinematography perfect, the antics unbelievable – but largely true, and the cast is uniformly great.
This film is really two films that play out over 3 hours. The first explores the golden era of the boiler room, pre-internet pump and dump, pink cheat chop shops. It is playful, excessive and endlessly funny. The second film is really about a man who once had it all, living through its unraveling. It’s the classic riches to rags story, with DiCaprio inhabiting a character who in some ways isn’t a stretch at all.
7) The Conjuring– Dir. James Wan (Lilly Taylor, Vera Famiga, Patrick Wilson)
Truly scary movies are very few and extremely far between. I love them, but for every “The Shining” and “Halloween” there are piles of lame cheesy vampire and zombie flicks and low-grade slasher films. “The Conjuring” is one of the scariest films in the past quarter century and it doesn’t even have a single drop of blood, a surprise considering that director Wan’s first film was “Saw.”
The first half of the film has a deep 70’s feel, as a family moves into a rustic country house on a remote lake and almost immediately things start to feel strange. Gradually the film evolves into a very tasteful mash of “Evil Dead / Exorcist.” The film is impeccably cast and acted, which goes a long way in this genre. The wonderfully retro visual style and relentlessly creepy story are as compelling as anything this year.
8) Mud – Dir. Jeff Nichols (Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon)
The best independent films are always the ones that focus in on colorful regional communities (“Junebug,” “Sling Blade,” ” Winter’s Bone”). Often they are off the better-traveled road, rural American towns, but manage to avoid patronizing inhabitants – they merely observe. This film is the second in a year of three incredible McConaughey films, “Killer Joe” and “Dallas Buyers Club” being the other ones.
“Mud” is the story of two boys who escape their scruffy homes and stow away on a motorboat to explore a desolate island down the river. There they discover a dirty, broken toothed drifter named “Mud,” (McConaughey) who is on the lam after committing a crime of passion. In the end this part-thriller, part dialogue driven talkie, part love story succeeds in all directions. A real joy.
9) Dallas Buyers Club - Dir. Jean-Marc Vallee (Matthew McCounghey, Jennifer Garner)
It would be easy to merely appreciate this film on the basis of the star’s courageous and transformative weight loss and serious subject matter as its claim for greatness, but that would be doing “Dallas Buyers” a huge disservice. McConaughey is again brilliant as a damaged redneck, but it is more his ability to create both admiration and revulsion that makes the film so compelling.
With the domestic scare of AIDS softened over the years, it seems that now is the perfect time to revisit the actual history of the epidemic with a story that refuses to pander to sentimentality, and instead follows such a little known voyage. Like Hanks in “Philadelphia,” Bale in “The Machinist,” and Fassbender in “Hunger,” mere weight loss isn’t enough, the character has to be as rich as the physical transformation.
10) Nebraska – Dir. Alexander Payne (Bruce Den, Will Forte)
The hype machine often kills small movies, but in the case of “Nebraska” what you think you know about the film from previews and reviews mercifully leaves much to be loved. Alexander Payne, who has a near perfect record as a director, has created such a quiet, nuanced film about growing old, familial dysfunction, and unfulfilled hopes and dreams that despite the depressing veneer, it is also every bit a comedy.
Much will be said about Bruce Dern who is wonderful as a bumbling but stubbornly determined Woody Grant, who says very little and superficially has very little to say. He is remarkable in one of the most restrained performances in eons. Shot in stark, plain black and white, across the run down abandoned landscapes of the Midwest, the film is about how quickly time passes and its effects on everything around us.
11) American Hustle – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, B. Cooper, C. Bale)
There is not an official category for “coolest” film, but if there were, “American Hustle” would win hands down. Like all great 70’s era films, “American Hustle’s” soundtrack is warm and rich, the costumes and hairdos are perfect, and the overall texture makes you think for a moment that perhaps the best decade ever is long gone.
With a slate of Oscar-worthy performances (Cooper, Adams, Lawrence, and Bale) it would be hard to have any complaints, but somehow the plot only barely hangs together. There are a series of cons that tend to roll straight out of Bale’s comb over, right onto the screen, but they never seem to come with that satisfying, clever ah hah you’d expect. That said, the film is an easy joy to watch. Like a Vampire Weekend record, mass art doesn’t have to be challenging to be enjoyed and respect.
12) Spring Breakers – Dir. Harmony Korine (James Franco, Selena Gomez)
What you expect from a Harmony Korine film, and what you’d expect from a film called “Spring Breakers” starring Selena Gomez and James Franco are two totally different things. But that is exactly what makes this film so great. Although superficially the film tracks the well trod rites of passage of a bacchanalian spring break, the real story is a decidedly warped and unsettling vision.
Everything about “Spring Breakers” takes what we think we know and twists it into and trippy mess. From Franco’s over the top drug dealing, gun loving, rapper (loosely based on some amalgam of Riff Raff/Dangeruss), to the former Disney stars making an enormous leap from the magic kingdom into a brave new world. Seeing is believing.
13) Gravity– Dir. Alfonso Cuaran (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney)
It would be easy to discount “Gravity” as a great film given its hype and profile. But it is a truly a mesmerizing, cinematic feat. It is to now, what “2001” was to then. To see it in 3D is to both see a film but also to feel the film. Never before has weightlessness, loneliness and isolation been so vividly captured. It is a film about friendship, camaraderie, fear and loss.
Ordinarily I much prefer naturalistic films that don’t need CGI and effects to make points and tap emotion, but “Gravity” is the most naturalistic sci-fi film since “Blade Runner.” Then again, it is really only superficially a science fiction film. We are up in space and have been for fifty years, but it is amazing how far we have come and how far we will likely go. In the end though humans, whether on earth or drifting in space, will always feel the same emotions they always have, no matter where they are.
14) Afternoon Delight – Dir. Jill Solloway (Kathryn Hawn, Josh Radner)
Some movies are made by yuppies for yuppies. Often this results in predictable stories about unsympathetic people facing high-class problems with only the shallowest resolutions. “Afternoon Delight” could have very easily become one of those films, but director Jill Solloway has written a script so tight, with characters so specific, that the scenario is impossible to resist.
It is the story of a couple caught in the middle of a 30-something malaise, when they decide to take in a homeless stripper. What follows is a film that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Kathryn Hawn is incredible as the wife and mother looking for something she can’t even define. Above all it is a story about how there is nothing relative about being lost. Everybody will struggle to be happy: it’s just part of being alive.
15) Don Jon – Dir. Joesph Gordon-Levit (Scarlett Johansen, Tony Danza)
This is not a deep film (largely about being addicted to internet porn), but it certainly is wickedly relevant, deeply genuine, and relentlessly funny. Love and sex have always been two uniquely different experiences for most people. One seems largely elusive, hard to find and even harder to keep while the other is at times merely a biological need. This is what the film unpacks for the viewer through the lens of very well written and acted comedy.
Gordon-Levit is (along with James Franco and Ryan Gosling) one of the smartest, most talented actors working today. He has impeccable taste in the movies he makes (“Brick,” “500 Days of Summer,”) and in this, his directorial debut, proves a really light hand behind the camera. With love, porn, sex, dating, hook-ups, just a click away, the future of human interaction is being rewritten as we speak.
16) Kings of Summer – Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Nick Offerman, Nick Robinson)
I love coming of age films: “Stand By Me,” “Adventureland, ” anything by John Hughes. In this small budget, criminally under-seen film, three boys build a fort in the woods and spend the summer out there to escape their nagging parents and bullying peers. It is a little piece of heaven: honest, funny, and occasionally heartwarming.
Unlike many of the teen films of today, “Kings” features a cast of unknown, fresh faced good kids. Sure there are hormones and even a few cans of beer, but mostly the kids retreat to the woods (a kind of less introspective set of young Thoreaus) in a laugh out loud comedy about getting off the grid, even though they are just a gulley away from the highway. That this film lasted only a week in theaters is a sad sign about the short rope indie’s are given these days. Not to worry though, you can already stream this comfortable film from your even more comfortable couch.
The rest of the best …
17) Enough Said – Dir. Nicole Holofcener (James Gandofini, Julia-Louise Dreyfus) It’s hard to believe that the last time we will see Gandofini, is the first time we will see this side of him. Both he and an excellent Julia-Louise Dreyfus, are vulnerable but still full of life and hope. Playing divorced parents of children about to head off to the college, they find each other looking for a fresh start not just to help fill an empty nest, but because occasionally you can find a kindred spirit. Enough said.
18) Upstream Color – Dir. Shane Carruth (Shane Carruth, Amy Steinmetz) Some films wash over you like a warm summer rain. You don’t understand where it came from and how it moved past so calmly. “Upstream Color” is the bizarre and beautiful follow-up to the lo-fi sci-fi classic “Primer’ and explores themes like who we are, the meaning of love, and the importance of all kinds of freedom.
19) All Is Lost – J.C. Chandor (Robert Redford) A man struggling to survive on a boat, with almost no dialogue, and only the rawest most instinctive desire to survive, is one of the most insightful films of the year.
20) Blue Is The Warmest Color – Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos) Too much has already been said about the behind the scenes, or the 8 lesbian minute sex scene, but more than anything this is a beautiful meditation on class and love.
21) Frances Ha – Dir. Noah Baumbach (Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver) Noah Baumbach is a master of small films, featuring distinctive characters moving slowly, mired in the simple decisions that come with everyday life. Shot in stark black and white, Frances is a restless, listless millennial looking for love, a career, and a place to live. “Frances Ha” is a small film, but in fact probes the most universal preoccupations of modern age: the pursuit and achievement of happiness.
22) The Crash Reel – Dir. Lucy Walker (Shaun White, Kevin Pearce) Some of the best documentaries start in one place and become something completely different while they are being filmed. “The Crash Reel” begins innocently enough as a film about the great rivalry between two of the finest snowboarders leading up the 2008 Olympics. This portion of this great film takes all of 10 minutes to tell. That the story takes place in real time is a testament to the power of film and the power of family.
23) Sound City – Dir. Dave Grohl (Frank Black, Paul McCartney) Part autobiography for Grohl who first recorded at the legendary studio with Nirvana in the early 90’s, and part a colorful history of all the amazing albums that were made there, the film tells the story of the history of modern music. In it Grohl, who is perhaps the most respected and well adjusted rock star of our time, brings together some of the most important musicians to tell stories and pay tribute to the room, and a hallowed mixing board that captured some of the most important music of our time.
24) A Place Beyond The Pines – Dir. Derek Cianfrance (Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes) The opening scene in this dark drama is one of the most sonically and visually compelling scenes of the year. Ryan Gosling, reunited with director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), plays a motorcycle stunt man in a kind of low grade traveling circus. What follows is a richly detailed account of a man living on the fringes of society just doing what he can to survive.
25) Prisoners – Dir. Denis Villenueve (Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrance Howard) This is a harrowing, creepy and impeccably acted film about child abduction and the vengeance and hopelessness left in its wake. Albeit hard to watch, it was also impossible to stop watching. “Prisoners” has the same kind of drab grittiness as films like “Se7en,” but in this story the reality is almost too close to home.
26) Blue Jasmine – Dir. Woody Allen (Cate Blanchette, Alec Baldwin) Although this is far from his best film, Woody continues to extract perfect tragic characters just trying to make it in changing world. The SF local is a welcome character in the film, and Blanchette channels Blache Dubois in the best possible way.
27) Inequality For All – Dir. Jacob Kornbluth (Robert Reich) There is nothing more tedious than preachy, obvious political documentaries espousing the truth but padded by marginal facts and figures. Perhaps some exist in this years “Inconvenient Truth / Waiting For Superman” but it’s hard to argue with the current reality. Reich is polarizing, but at least he is tackling something as undeniable as climate change and education reform.