Sunday, January 26, 2014

Year in Review: Zach's Top Ten Films of 2013

            Hollywood boasted that 2013 was its best year for movies ever, but because this claim is almost entirely predicated on higher ticket prices rather than actual attendance figures (as well as the timely overlooking of numerous high-profile box office flops), the issue isn’t really about how much money was made, but rather, why people continue to go to the movies.  The answer depends entirely on the movie.  If you ask why people went to see Gravity (#7 highest grossing movie of 2013), the answer is: “Because audiences were awestruck by its groundbreaking 3D special effects.”  If you ask why people saw Iron Man 3 (#2 highest grossing movie) and Despicable Me 2 (#3), the answer is: “Because audiences loved the first one.”  If you ask why people saw Frozen and Oz: The Great and Powerful (#4 and #10, respectively), the answer is: “They are wholesome movies for the family.”  And if you ask people why they saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the answer is: “Jennifer Lawrence.”
            So special effects, franchises, family appeal, and star power lay at the heart of most of 2013’s most successful films.  But if that was the case, why did The Lone Ranger fail so spectacularly?  By my count, it meets for three of those four aforementioned qualifiers (and whether Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto is a significant departure from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is debatable).  Yes, it got bad reviews . . . but so did Man of Steel (#5 of 2013) and Oz: The Great and Powerful (#10). 
            My theory?  People didn’t see The Lone Ranger (myself included) because there was always a better option.  Why spend two hours and 29 minutes of your life watching a glorified mashup of Pirates of the Caribbean and Wild Wild West?  In that same amount of time, you could watch the Breaking Bad finale, an episode of Girls, every scene of Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, most of Frozen, Bound 3, and the magnificent uninterrupted opening shot from Gravity.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that movies need to be shorter, but with the proliferation of personal electronic devices and social media, audiences simply don’t have the patience to sit through boring, perfunctory movies like The Lone Ranger anymore.  Even in movie theaters, where social decorum once existed and has now grossly eroded, the cell phone has now frequently become the superior entertainment option.  Social media has not only replaced human interaction, but even the process of escaping to the cinema to avoid human interaction (this idea may reappear somewhere on my list).
            All of this is really a roundabout way of saying there were a lot of good movies in 2013, and instead of lambasting the industry for continuing to put out crap and expecting audiences to shell out extra money for tickets and 3D gimmicks, we should laud filmmakers for being able to put out a handful of movies that not only entertain us, but manage to keep us off our cell phones.  We are an ADHD generation, and in order to grab the attention of audiences, movies are forced to revert to two options: (A) Enhanced explosions and mindless special effects, or (B) Screenplays, actors and filmmakers that continually strive for originality, fearlessness and intelligence.  My choice of the top ten films of 2013 -- the first year of many without the sage guidance of Roger the Great -- reflects films which opted for the latter.

Films seen: 51
“Thumbs-up” percentage: 64.7%
Lead Actor Performance: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Lead Actress Performance: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Supporting Actor Performance: Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines
Supporting Actress Performance: June Squibb, Nebraska
Underrated Films: To the Wonder, Pain & Gain, Jack the Giant Slayer, Don Jon
Overrated Films: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Way Way Back, The Spectacular Now, 42
Worst Movies of 2013: Broken City, Movie 43, Elysium
Worst Final 30 Minutes: The Call, Prisoners, Now You See Me
Honorable Mention: Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, 56 Up, Jack the Giant Slayer

10. The Hunt (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

This was a fascinating, unpredictable take on a taboo subject matter that would never be tackled in mainstream American cinema: The (false) accusation of child molestation.  Mads Mikelsen (AKA Le Chiffre from Casino Royale) plays a recently divorced teacher who takes a temporary job at a preschool before allegations are made which result in his dismissal and banishment from the community.  What is interesting about the movie isn’t really the story (which thankfully never moves into hysterical or exploitative territory), but the relationships between the male characters and the scathing portrayal of how close-knit communities (even in “progressive” Scandinavia) respond to rumors, gossip and groupthink.  We are left wondering how the numerous real-life headlines of rape and abuse that ultimately prove unfounded ever originate in the first place (that is, outside of Tallahassee, Florida).

9. Rush (Dir: Ron Howard)

The best sports movie of the last several years.  Like Amadeus, the movie profiles two real-life rivals -- James Hunt (Chris Hemworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) -- who grow to dislike each other so much that it grows to an odd sort of mutual admiration.  It is also a movie of universal truths -- that the guy just above you who you despise keeps you more motivated than almost anything else -- and although Rush profiles the world of Formula One racing in the 1970s, you do no have to be a racing fan to appreciate the movie.  I do not follow racing and I found the events of the film gripping, unpredictable, and fairly unbelievable.  Howard also displays something we haven't really seen from him since Apollo 13: A key understanding of how special effects in movies should work -- not simply to display, but to give impressions, feelings, and manifestations of the innermost anxieties of characters.  And like all great movies, it only gets better as it goes along.

8. To the Wonder (Dir: Terrence Malick)

“Slow-moving,” “inaccessible,” “obtuse,” and “self-indulgent” were some of the most popular words used to describe Malick’s latest foray into the ephemeral nature of human subconsciousness. Of course, all these words could also apply to The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, but for some reason, critics found particular disdain in To the Wonder primarily because (A) its main actors were all incalculably attractive, and (B) there was little clear connection between the Olga Kurylenko/Ben Affleck story thread, and Javier Bardem’s tortured Catholic priest.  All true.  But what got overlooked was how affecting the story was, the truths it revealed about the idealism and volatility of romantic relationships, and how Malick is actually a remarkably clear storyteller.  Like the great silent filmmakers of the 1920s, he doesn’t rely on exposition to give us comprehensive portraits of his main characters.  Instead, we are left with fragments, which are frustrating but also infinitely more poetic and even perhaps closer to us in their ambiguity.

7. All is Lost (Dir: J.C. Chandor) 

All right, so it’s basically a remake of Cast Away, but who cares?  There are worse movies to emulate than Cast Away.  And there’s no desert island and there’s no Wilson (although Robert Redford relies heavily on his handy sextant for geographical and mental direction).  And it’s a lot more nihilistic.  But Redford is phenomenal, taking what would appear to be a gimmick (no dialogue and no other characters) into a riveting, exciting movie about gradually accepting near-certain death (hence, the title).  The movie doesn’t have a message and it doesn’t preach; it simply observes, rendering viewers frustratingly powerless but increasingly sympathetic to Redford’s nameless everyman.  As I kept watching it, I was wondering how the Chandor would end the story without complete and total helplessness, and improbably, he manages to do it flawlessly.

6. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

This was the toughest movie of the year.  How do you react to it?  Is it sexist?  Is it a modern-day example of what Laura Mulvey famously identified as “the male gaze?”  I found the sex scenes absolutely guilty of the criticism they received: They are excessive, distracting, tedious and (because there’s no other term for it) pornographic.  See this movie and tell me those scenes are not pornographic.  But unlike right-wing prudes, I also don’t believe pornography is a universal evil, and the sex scenes are necessary in order to show – in a way no other previous movie has ever shown – how integral sex is for young people who have only encountered it through rumors, misinformation and what society tells us are “appropriate” sexual orientations (it’s also a much-needed relief from mainstream films content to show only nonthreatening, sexless homosexual relationships). The sexual bond created by the two protagonists (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) provides the backbone for their entire relationship, which spans over the course of several years.  There are good times, there are bad times, there’s jealousy, sadness, sexual awakening, and deep self-questioning.  It’s probably 25 minutes too long.  But because the movie is French, it refreshingly allows its characters to think and have intelligent conversations.  An American movie would have reduced Blue’s narrative structure to a 90-minute rom-com.  But Kechiche and his remarkable leading actresses have eschewed formula and instead offer us a riveting, engrossing, and frequently sad look at human longing.

5.  Lore (Dir: Cate Shortland)

Like Blue is the Warmest Color, Lore profiles a young female protagonist whose sexual awakening crucially coincides with a rise of political consciousness (and yes, needless to say, it’s European).  But this film takes place in the waning days of World War II, when Lore, the daughter of defeated Nazi cadres, must escape Allied capture in order to transport her younger siblings to their grandmother’s house.  Along the way, Lore (played by Saskia Rosendahl in a remarkable debut performance) encounters displaced war victims who gradually make her question her mindless adherence to Third Reich ideology.  The core question of the movie is at what point are children responsible for their own thoughts and actions (and are no longer the unfortunate byproducts of the way their parents raised them).  In that sense, Lore isn’t really about the Holocaust or bad parenting or even about Nazi ideology, but about the process of becoming an adult.  This makes the story universal, and even though Lore is not always likable, she is a reminder that as adults, we are forced to live with the misguided actions of our youth.

4. Nebraska (Dir: Alexander Payne)

It’s black-and-white, has no A-list actors, features an 80-year-old protagonist, and has no sex or explosions.  How did this film get made again?  Like Sideways, this is a movie that captures perfectly the awkwardness and anxieties of human interaction and somehow manages to be as heartfelt as it is cynical.  It also features the best performance of Bruce Dern’s career as a man who may not be completely mentally coherent (although he may be, we never really know).  There are also great supporting performances by Will Forte, June Squibb, and Stacey Keach, and the final moments of the movie are just about perfect, reminding us that triumphant endings don’t always have to involve grand gestures, but instead, everyday acts of selflessness.  It’s the type of movie that intelligent audiences give standing ovations to.

3. Gravity (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron)

Like Avatar, the first question we have to ask is whether it’s a great motion picture or a great motion picture experience.  And unlike Avatar, it actually manages to hold up to both questions (I saw it both in Imax 3D and on a home theater system).  What else can be said about it that hasn’t already been said?  It’s thrilling to watch, features great performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and quietly offers a very intelligent screenplay.  And yes, the special effects are amazing, transporting us seamlessly into outer space without making us skeptical of CGI for a single moment.  The camera movement too doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, as Cuaron has been guilty of in the past, and like the great movie epics of the 1950s and 60s, it transports us to a place we never thought we could see so clearly.

2. 12 Years a Slave (Dir: Steve McQueen)

McQueen’s Hunger was #1 on my 2009 list, while Shame was probably the most disappointing film I saw in 2011.  12 Years a Slave is a return to the incredible potential he has as a director, beautifully balancing artistic ingenuity with sophisticated, compelling storytelling.  In an era in which Django Unchained is the most widely-seen cinematic representation of slavery, this film is a much-needed reminder of the true brutality and horror of life in the Antebellum South (and no, Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t get to blow up Michael Fassbender’s house).  Many critics have spoken of the film’s many violent scenes and how difficult they are to watch, but there are also a great deal of more subtly devastating scenes (such as an exchange between Ejiofor and Fassbender involving an unsent letter and every scene with Adepero Oduye in it).  There was no better performance in a 2013 film than Ejiofor here.  He doesn’t have a lot of flashy scenes, but instead, more realistically portrays a quiet, contemplative man who is very nearly depleted to his core during his 12 years of torture and banishment.  The final moments have an emotional power that is rare, and is the only 2013 movie that is virtually guaranteed to be remembered for generations to come.

And the three-way tie for best movie of 2013:

1. The first 53 minutes of The Place Beyond the Pines.

When I saw this movie back in April, I knew I was watching something special, and thought it would unquestionably merit a very high spot on my list.  Unfortunately, the last two-thirds of the movie really don’t hold up to the first third, but that should not prevent you from still seeing it (after all, it was Todd’s #5 movie of 2013).  Ryan Gosling’s performance in the first 53 minutes is absolutely stunning, and the movie offers an experience in a special way which very few other movies can claim: It throttles you.  You have no clue where it is going, and are just thankful to be on board in the backseat.  There are a few images which leave an unforgettable impact (here and here).  It is cinema at its most transcendent.  I know it sounds sort of gimmicky to name your best movie of the year the first 53 minutes of a movie, but you tell me what you think after watching it.

1. The final episode of Breaking Bad.

So OK, it’s not a movie, but taken as a whole, I’d argue that Breaking Bad is better than any movie that has come out the last five years.  The final eight episodes are gripping and feature tremendous performances and marvelous dialogue.  Without giving too much away, there is a scene in a garage that had my heart racing like it did during United 93; there is a gun death in the desert that was equally tragic and inevitable and horrific to watch; and the final episode, which gave resolution and catharsis without being overly preachy or indulgent, contained moments which were painful and true.  The performances were all amazing, but Bryan Cranston was particularly astonishing in the way he balanced being both sympathetic and horrific.  And the choice of the final song to close out the series was perfect, probably leaving David Chase wondering why he couldn’t have done the same.

1. The real best movie of 2013: Disconnect (Dir: Henry-Alex Rubin)

If I haven’t made it clear enough already, I thought 2013 was a very strong year for movies, so putting Disconnect as my real #1 should not be taken lightly – it wasn’t the result of being the most notable film in the midst of a mediocre year (as has possibly been the case in the recent past).  I did not honestly expect much going into it, but I was blown away by how tight, intelligent, and unpredictable it really was.  In weaving a Crash-like narrative involving three intersecting storylines, the movie constantly moves from one interesting character to the other, probing deep questions about the use of social media and technology in modern American life.  Each story uses problems we often hear about on the news as starting points (cyberbullying, online sex trafficking, and identity theft) but brilliantly moves past the veneer of personal electronic devices to examine the human effects of seemingly faceless, humanless actions.  Rubin doesn’t really preach against the bad effects of alienation from face-to-face interaction (in spite of the film’s tagline, “Look Up”) – that would be too easy.  Instead, he accepts the notion that technology can also bring people closer, and in doing so, social media becomes the vehicle for understanding the deeper personal motivations and anxieties of each of the characters.  While watching the movie, you keep waiting for the scene which it will turn stupid or phony or unrealistic – and it simply never happens; even at the end, which could have gone for the conventional “happy” angle, but instead offers something much more realistic and unresolved.  There’s an energy and remarkable clarity that makes Disconnect remind us that movies are still capable of deeply moving us. 

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Upset that Spring Breakers somehow did not on my list? Let me know below!


  1. Hard to argue with much of this, but here are a few points:

    1. I agree with your overview of 2013. I too thought there were an abnormal amount of great movies, even if there weren't any real timeless ones. Maybe "12 Years a Slave" will be, but it is hard to tell at this point.

    2. I love that you included "Rush" on the list. It was a really good movie, maybe the best sports film since "The Wrestler". It is confusing how overlooked that movie was. It was so appealing, and it only garnering $26 mil at the box office is a shame.

    3. You wrote "Shame" twice instead of "Hunger". We basically feel the exact opposite with those two, but we knew that already.

    4. Chiwetel Ejiofor did indeed give a tremendous performance, but he is simply doing his thing. The more I see of him, it is clear that his deep Poitier-style voice dominates scenes, and his subtlety is what is going to keep him from ever winning an Oscar. Every time I see him, like in "Talk to Me" for example, I think he is award-caliber, but it is never showy enough. That always bothers me.

    5. Maybe you should have gone with the final SEASON of "Breaking Bad". The final episode was amazing, but in cases like that and "Six Feet Under", the finale is always singled out because it wraps everything up. There were far better and more authentic episodes in that final season than "Felina". "To'hajiilee", "Ozymandius", and "Buried" were the class of season 5 (and the entire show).

    6. Having "Disconnect" as the best of the year is a little strange. It is like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" being hailed as the #1 of 2012, but even more obscure. More like Atom Egoyan's "Adoration" being #1 in 2009. It is a really good movie, maybe even has shades of greatness, but calling it the best is a little baffling.

    8. Yes, deeply disappointed you didn't include "Spring Breakers". If I included partial movies on my top 10 like you did, the "Everytime" scene with Franco and the girls would be included for sure!

  2. 1. Agreed. I gave more four star movies this year (8) than any year since 2007. Maybe I'm just getting softer, but I think there were some genuinely awesome movies this year.

    2. My theories to why "Rush" didn't do well at the box office:
    A. American audiences are not familiar/interested in the European race car scene from the 1970s;
    B. The poster ( was really unclear about showing what the movie was about and bore an eerie resemblance to Ed Harris in the modern-day classic "Copying Beethoven" (;
    C. The R rating (and subject matter) alienated Chris Hemsworth's biggest demographic -- 13 year old girls.

    3. Fixed it. Must have been a Freudian slip. I recently rewatched "Shame" and stand by my initial impressions.

    4. Yeah, his performance is a little like Josh Brolin in "No Country" and Jeremy Renner in "Hurt Locker." Unless you scream to the heavens, wear a shit-ton of makeup, or do a dance number Jean Dujardin-style, you're not going to win the Oscar. But hey, these are the same people that didn't even nominate Paul Giamatti in 2004, so their opinion is meaningless IMO. And two other great Ejiofor performances: "Kinky Boots" and "Dirty Pretty Things." This guy is amazing (and pretty funny in interviews too).

    5. Absolutely agree. "Felina" does not have half its impact without those outstanding preceding episodes, particularly "To'haijillee" "Ozymandius" and "Blood Money." However, that being said, I still think "Felina" was the best overall episode of the entire series.

    6. Now this I don't get. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower?" Ouch. I think you may be reacting to the fact that "Disconnect" came out in March, had virtually no audience, looks like a direct-to-DVD release, doesn't have any single performances worthy of an Oscar, and is smaller in scale than "12 Years" or "Gravity."

    I just find the movie outstandingly well-written and tight. There's not a spare of excess to be found. It's very moving and subtle and is also pretty ambitious too -- it manages to bring three completely different stories together without feeling gimmicky. I loved "12 Years" and "Nebraska" but I cannot deny the film that had the greatest impact on me -- and has stayed with me for eight months.

    7. Agreed. I would also nominate the scene in James Franco's bedroom where he tells the girls to "Look at my shiiiit!"

    Has Terry seen "Wolf of Wall Street" yet so he can agree with me?

  3. Agreed about Ejiofor. He was terrific in "Dirty Pretty Things", I agree. Never seen "Kinky Boots". I am also one of the few people who really dug "Redbelt". I have always been a big fan.

    Something about "Felina" seemed a bit too dream-like. Everything worked perfectly for basically the first time on the show. Not exactly a bad thing, but it just lacked the honest messiness of those other episodes. There really is no better way it could have ended though...

    What I mean about "Disconnect" is it is an interlocking story indie without much audience about taboo subjects centered on young people, though I admit that it is better than both films I mentioned (my #21 of 2013). It has a bit of "American Beauty" in there too, I guess. "Adoration" is definitely its closest relative, though. It just seems like an odd choice to single out, especially from you, but it is hard to have a problem with a personal pick.

    I got "Scarface"...ON REPEAT!!!

    He hasn't seen it but needs to ASAP, so he can give it 3 stars and let us forever disagree on it.