The A.V. Club’s list of 2013’s best films was a group effort, a mathematically assembled aggregate of seven separate lists filed by our regular film reviewers—with a no. 1 choice worth 15 points, a no. 15 choice worth 1 point, and so forth. Because it can be fun to see how the sausage is made (and to know who to hold responsible for the inclusion or exclusion of a notable film), we’ve revealed the individual lists below. Each is annotated with a ballot of superlatives, including an “outlier,” or movie that made one contributor’s list but no others. Feel free to play along in the comments section and in our readers’ poll. ‘Tis the season, after all, of relentless ranking and obsessive list-making.
2. Before Midnight
4. Frances Ha
5. Upstream Color
6. 12 Years A Slave
7. The Act Of Killing
8. Room 237
9. Beyond The Hills
10. American Hustle
11. Fill The Void
12. The World’s End
13. Stories We Tell
14. Blue Is The Warmest Color
15. I Used To Be Darker
Best performance: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is The Warmest Color
Since its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the coveted Palme D’Or, the three-hour French romance Blue Is The Warmest Color has inspired an unrelenting din of debate. Are the sex scenes admirably candid or creepily exploitative? Is the epic running time justified or indulgent? If there’s anything the admirers and detractors seem capable of agreeing on, though, it’s that the film’s young lead, Adèle Exarchopoulos, is remarkable. As a suburban teenager whose world is turned upside down by a chance encounter, Exarchopoulos creates one of recent cinema’s least affected portraits of late adolescence. She appears in nearly every scene, her face frequently framed in tight, intrusive close-up. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an untested ingénue, but Exarchopoulos has a control of expression—an ability to wordlessly convey a whole range of shifting, volatile emotions—that actresses of all experience levels should covet. She’s fearless, and not just when locked in passionate embrace with co-star Léa Seydoux. For all the graphic, controversial sex in Blue, it’s the emotional nakedness Exarchopoulos exhibits that’s truly courageous.
Most overrated: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Apparently the cult of Terrence Malick has grown so devoted that even a blatant imitation of his style can now pass as a religious experience. Flush with whispery voice-over and idyllic shots of the American Southwest, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Body Saints drowns a thin, generic outlaw saga in poetic affectation. Casey Affleck, as an escaped bank robber, and Rooney Mara, as his baby’s mama, stare wistfully into space, pining for each other or maybe pining for actual characters to play. Lawmen and fellow desperados hunt the on-the-lam convict, but not urgently. Nothing much happens, but it happens romantically, to an imitation Nick Cave score and in the magic-hour glow of the setting Texas sun. Lowery, who also helped edit Upstream Color, knows how to mimic the rhythms of a Malick movie. But there’s no philosophy or personal angle to his version, which in best suited to those who prefer their sleeping aids in the form of ’70s genre cinema.
Most underrated: C.O.G.
It was a flagship year for the Sundance Film Festival: From Before Midnight to Upstream Color to Fruitvale Station, many of 2013’s most acclaimed American indies premiered in Park City. It’s strange, then, that one of the highlights of the fest, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s C.O.G., slipped through the cracks when it opened in theaters this fall. Based on an autobiographical essay from David Sedaris’ Naked, this seriocomic coming-of-age story manages to capture the self-deprecating wit of its source material without the aid of Sedaris’ first-person prose. Perfectly cast, Glee’s Jonathan Groff plays the writer as a young man, picking apples in Oregon to “find himself” after college. He learns some tough life lessons in the process, especially after being taken under the wing of a born-again war veteran (Denis O’Hare, in one of the year’s great unsung performances). C.O.G. has the leanness and punch of a fine short story, building to an ending as unsentimental as it is abrupt. No wonder Sedaris finally released the rights to one of his stories; this adaptation, the first big-screen take on his work, does the author proud. If only more people saw it.
Most pleasant surprise: Prince Avalanche
Given the filmmaker spent the past five years helming almost nothing but dopey Hollywood comedies, episodes of Eastbound & Down, and black-and-white Super Bowl commercials starring Clint Eastwood, there was no reason to expect much from the “new film by David Gordon Green.” Against all odds, however, Prince Avalanche turned out to be the director’s best effort since Undertow—a return to the shaggier, more poetic charms of his early years, when he still made Deep South daydreams like George Washington and All The Real Girls. In truth, the film’s something of a hybrid of old and new DGG, adding a lyrical touch to the buddy-comedy scenario of two mismatched road workers (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, both at the top of their games) bickering and bonding in the Texas wilderness. The bromance is unusually resonant, and Green sets it against gradually re-growing foliage, a forest coming back to life after a devastating wildfire. The filmmaker, too, seems rejuvenated—an impression confirmed by his solid subsequent effort, the Nicolas Cage vehicle Joe, which should hit American screens next year.
Future Film That Time Forgot: The Numbers Station
Unlikely to be immortalized in John Cusack’s inevitable Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement clip-reel, this remarkably unremarkable thriller finds the High Fidelity star in perpetual-glower mode. Though the plot ostensibly concerns an actual covert form of government communication, in which contract killers receive coded messages over shortwave radio, the specifics of that unique field are scarcely explored. In fact, there’s nothing specific about The Numbers Station: Its villains are faceless, its setting is nondescript, and co-star Malin Akerman—who plays the “number specialist” Cusack’s professional must protect—displays no quality that any other actress couldn’t have brought to the table. The movie’s a total blank, destined to be henceforth mentioned only by dickish trivia-night hosts looking to stump players on “That John Cusack movie where he plays an assassin but doesn’t attend his high-school reunion.”
Outlier: Fill The Void
Looked at the right (or maybe wrong) way, Fill The Void can be seen as an endorsement of oppressive tradition—a film celebrating, rather than decrying, the pressures put on the young women of devout Hasidic communities. But there’s something more complicated, more ambivalent, about this sensitively observed portrait of a rabbi’s daughter (Hadas Yaron, the deserved winner of an acting prize at Venice) being pressured to marry her dead sister’s widower, mostly to keep the grieving man from taking his now-motherless child out of the country. A native New Yorker, first-time filmmaker Rama Burshtein embraced Orthodox Judaism as an adult; that experience seems to color her perspective, torn as it between reverence for ancient customs and compassion for those pushed into arranged marriages. Ultimately, Fill The Void feels a bit like modern-dress Jane Austen, transporting an Austenish heroine to contemporary Tel Aviv. The intimate glimpse into a rarely explored subculture is reason enough to seek the film out.
1. Upstream Color
2. 12 Years a Slave
4. Room 237
5. The Spectacular Now
6. Before Midnight
7. The Wolf Of Wall Street
8. The Act Of Killing
9. Berberian Sound Studio
10. Crystal Fairy
11. In A World…
12. Valentine Road
13. The Conjuring
14. Something In The Air
Best performance: Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a bravura work on every level, from its heart-stopping cinematography to Carruth and David Lowery’s masterful editing, but it wouldn’t hold together without Amy Seimetz at its beating heart. Given the impossibly difficult task of playing a woman who’s forgotten who she is, or was, in thrall to a mind-controlling substance and then set loose in the world as a clean slate, she taps into emotions viewers may share without understanding or knowing why. Upstream could easily have been a brain-teaser like Carruth’s Primer, but instead of a puzzle to be solved, it’s a mystery to be pondered, with Seimetz’s performance the most mysterious of all.
Most overrated: Gravity
Blah blah “reinventing cinema” blah blah. Alfonso Cuarón’s LEO two-hander was a demo reel in search of a story, with a script pitifully inadequate to its spectacular visuals. Cuarón and his son Jonás crammed character notes into every available chink as if they were trying to plug a slow leak, or perhaps trying to prevent their financial backers from freaking out. To the film’s proponents, complaining about the screenplay was asking Gravity to be something it wasn’t. But the movie lacks the courage of its own convictions, neither trusting its visual storytelling—which, truth be told, renders the vast bulk of its clumsy dialogue superfluous—nor building sufficient character to make its monologues feel less like Post-Its slapped onto the cinematographer’s storyboards.
Most underrated: Room 237
It’s hard to explain why Rodney Ascher’s documentary about Stanley Kubrick obsessives is better than its largely positive reviews suggest without sounding like one of the movie’s characters: Sure, everyone likes it, but they don’t really get it. But then, that’s part of the film’s recursive genius. It’s easy to snigger at the conspiracy theorists who feel certain The Shining is Kubrick’s confession for having faked the moon landing or his treatise on the Holocaust, but the deeper it goes, the more Room 237 becomes about the process of forming meaning itself. The movie’s disembodied voices aren’t stand-ins for film critics, any more than the obsessive-compulsives of Cinemania are representative of cinephiles, but anyone who’s ever read a film against the grain will recognize a shadow of themselves and shiver.
Most pleasant surprise: In A World…
Who knew Lake Bell was an astute cultural critic and a voiceover nerd to boot? Bell’s writing and directing debut is a winning romantic comedy about a struggling voice artist trying to break into the world of movie trailers, but it’s also a cogent, yet light-fingered, critique about the domination of the male voice that would do Carol Gilligan proud. The film’s most inspired running gag has Bell stopping women in the street to correct their vocal fry—what she calls the “sexy baby voice”—which pays off in the surprisingly but retrospectively apropos conclusion.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Delivery Man
Hold “the future”: A mere month after its release, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who recall this rickety Vince Vaughn vehicle about a commitment-phobic sperm donor who suddenly discovers he has hundreds of grown children. It’s not the worst Vaughn film of the year, but it’s the most forgettable, with the post-frat star trying to push his persona into adulthood and failing, looking more than a little uncomfortable in the process. “Yo no soy David Wozniak!” Vaughn screams in one nervous moment. Yo tampoco.
Outlier: The Spectacular Now
A Sundance coming-of-age movie is on the short list of Things We Never Need To See Again, but James Ponsoldt’s romance between a teenage alcoholic and his sweetly shy classmate was executed with uncommon sensitivity and featured two of the year’s best performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (as well as Short Term 12’s Brie Larson and Nebraska’s Bob Odenkirk). In a sense, The Spectacular Now is a teen riff on Ponsoldt’s previous film, Smashed, but it’s both more hopeful and more melancholy, charged with the possibilities peculiar to adolescence as well as the knowledge that few ever live up to their potential.
1. Frances Ha
2. First Cousin Once Removed
3. Computer Chess
4. The Counselor
5. Upstream Color
6. All Is Lost
7. The Past
8. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
10. Drug War
11. I Killed My Mother
13. It’s A Disaster
15. Blue Is The Warmest Color
Best performance: Zoe Kazan, Some Girl(s)
As sometimes happens, one of the year’s most stunning performances got lost in a movie that almost nobody saw. Written (but not directed) by Neil LaBute, who adapted it from his stage play, Some Girl(s) is a mixed bag of talky two-person scenes between a clueless, entitled dick (Adam Brody) and various women from his past, to whom he’s ostensibly apologizing so that his conscience will be clean when he gets married soon. Far and away the most powerful and subversive of these vignettes—one that wasn’t in the stage version—features Zoe Kazan (Meek’s Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) as Reggie, a young woman who shared an impulsive kiss with the anti-hero back when her brother was his best friend. Of all the exes this asshole visits, none is angrier at him than Reggie, for reasons that only gradually become apparent—though those with a head for math will catch on quickly. But her wrath has been very carefully spring-loaded, and Kazan, who’s one of the most emotionally transparent actors in American movies right now, creates the disturbing impression of a person who’s spent years rehearsing this confrontation in her mind. Her delivery of the knockout punch, which takes an entirely unexpected form, is a marvel of contained fury. Kazan has yet to find her breakout role, but this might have been it had the film not quickly disappeared.
Most overrated: Fruitvale Station
This year’s winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Fruitvale Station tells the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young black man who was killed on a BART platform by transit cops during a scuffle early on the morning of New Year’s Day, 2009. The real-life incident is appalling, but first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler chose the worst possible way to dramatize it: by depicting the mundane events of the day leading up to Grant’s death. The idea, quite laudable, is to humanize someone who might otherwise be seen as a statistic. Trouble is, the movie wants so badly for its audience to like Oscar—so that there is appropriate outrage when he’s killed—that it turns him into a plaster saint. He makes the decision to quit dealing drugs; he cradles a dying dog hit by a car in his arms (foreshadowing!); he dotes on his girlfriend and his mother and his adorable young daughter; he even helps some clueless white girl at the supermarket plan a fish fry, putting her on the phone with his grandmother. Grant’s death was a travesty no matter what kind of man he was. There was no need to valorize him.
Most underrated: Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Billy Bob Thornton launched his career with Sling Blade, which he wrote and directed as well as starred in, but quickly became much better known as an actor than as a filmmaker. His second effort, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, was reportedly butchered by Harvey Weinstein. His third, the frivolous comedy Daddy And Them, went straight to video in the major markets. Jayne Mansfield’s Car is the first narrative film he’s directed since 2001, and though it’s undeniably flawed, and sometimes maddening, there’s an ornery vitality to it that’s absent from most indie cinema these days. Thornton isn’t afraid to reach, to risk looking foolish; his own performance as a war veteran (the film is set in 1969), pulls off some whiplash-inducing gear shifts from bawdy comedy to heady pathos and back again. The tale of a culture clash between a Southern family and an English family in the wake of a sudden death, Jayne Mansfield’s Car vacillates between giddy highs and mawkish lows, but the former register more strongly, and the cast, which includes Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, and John Hurt, is uniformly outstanding. Movies that hit and miss are far more interesting than those that get walked.
Most pleasant surprise: Paradise: Hope
When the first two films in a trilogy are unrewarding, there’s not much point in hoping that the final one will somehow break the pattern. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, however, is the exception to the rule. Originally conceived as one five-hour epic, it wound up being split into three separate stories, and the first two, Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith, found the Austrian director at his most didactic, hitting the same humiliating note over and over again. (Love is about sex tourism in Kenya, while Faith concerns a devout Christian woman’s relationship with her Muslim ex-husband.) But the final chapter, Paradise: Hope, lives up to its title by eschewing simplistic moralizing, even though its story is arguably the ickiest of the three. Set in a diet camp, it follows a 13-year-old girl as she initiates a vaguely romantic relationship with the camp’s 50-ish doctor, who lacks the moral integrity not to play along to some extent. Seidl isn’t interested in judging anybody this time, though, and events play out in a consistently surprising, thoughtful way, allowing the film’s characters to retain their dignity and humanity. Had all three of the Paradise films been this strong, they’d constitute one of the most significant film projects of the last several years.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Devil’s Pass
It’s a mystery why Renny Harlin, of all people, was drafted to direct this chintzy found-footage horror movie about a group of young Americans making a documentary about the Dyatlov Pass Incident—a real-life mystery (with an obvious solution, but never mind) from the 1950s. If a movie is supposed to look like it was shot by a bunch of amateurs screwing around in the mountains, there’s no point in hiring the man who made Die Hard 2 and Deep Blue Sea. But while Devil’s Pass will occupy a weird little footnote in Harlin’s biography (someone will write one someday), it’s the kind of mediocre genre flick that’s almost worth sitting through for one genuinely sharp twist, which in this case occurs in the last few minutes. To say much more would be counterproductive—just know that there’s an explanation for some of the apparent idiocy that occurs throughout, and that it’s clever enough to earn a little grudging admiration, even if it can’t retroactively make the previous 90 minutes less exasperating and dull.
Outlier: All Is Lost
It’s not surprising that J.C. Chandor’s one-man survival story didn’t make the group list, because in some ways the film is easier to respect and admire than to love. Its main virtue is its painstaking, unshowy realism, as Robert Redford’s unnamed sailor struggles to stay alive on a small boat with a big hole punched in its side. Yet few films this year were as engrossing from moment to moment as this minimalist effort, which eschews dialogue to tell a story via a series of simple tasks: patch the hole, salvage the remaining food, repair the radio (if possible), weather the storm, man the lifeboat. Chandor—whose previous film, Margin Call, was a total gabfest—exercises impressive restraint from start to finish, allowing time and the elements to fill the role of the movie’s antagonist and inspiring Redford’s most quietly dynamic performance in many years. The film’s emblematic moment sees Redford prepare for an oncoming tempest by shaving, a gesture that poignantly suggests the rituals we cling to in the face of potential ruin, as well as the implied optimism (“someone will see me again”) that hope demands.
1. At Berkeley
2. The Wolf Of Wall Street
3. Computer Chess
4. Spring Breakers
6. Frances Ha
7. Beyond The Hills
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
9. Blue Is The Warmest Color
10. 12 Years A Slave
11. Before Midnight
12. American Hustle
13. The Counselor
14. I Used To Be Darker
15. A Touch Of Sin
Best performance: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street
Wolf marks DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, yet it’s the first time the two have created a role so indelible it’s tough to imagine anyone else playing the part. Taking full advantage of his star power, DiCaprio turns Jordan Belfort into a study in debased slickness; the broker’s speed and salesmanship mask a sexually insatiable, morally bankrupt sociopath who doesn’t really seem to want anything out of life other than… well, whatever there is for the taking at any given moment. (His attention span with women is especially short.) It’s a role that calls on both the actor’s charm and his physicality—these characters probably set a new record for Most Drug Use In A Motion Picture. At 39, the baby-faced DiCaprio has always seemed younger than he is. Here, he demonstrates a restlessness, literal and artistic, that he’s never shown before; the performance suggests he’ll only deepen as an actor as he grows older. One particular monologue, in which Belfort wrestles with a personal decision while making a rah-rah speech to the company, may well be the best thing he’s ever done.
Most overrated: Nebraska
The question of whether Alexander Payne condescends to his characters has already been addressed; so, too, has the issue of how his alleged mean-spiritedness compares to that of the much-subtler Coens, who delivered their most poignant movie yet in Inside Llewyn Davis. But regardless of whether Payne is pure of heart, Nebraska amounts to the same bait-and-switch as About Schmidt: asking the audience to laugh at its characters in one scene while finding them layered and complex in another. This can be interpreted as thematic richness, but jerry-rigging abrupt tonal and behavioral changes is a lot easier than building depth. While there is much to praise in the film (June Squibb; Will Forte’s answer when asked if his father has Alzheimer’s; the use of black and white, in theory, though digital presentations do it no favors), it’s tempting to ask if the great Bruce Dern is mostly getting accolades because he’s a hoot on the interview circuit.
Most underrated: Bullet To The Head
There’s no sense in making any great claims for it, but Walter Hill’s 91-minute action vehicle is a throwback to a more efficient era of genre moviemaking, as well as the kind of propulsive celebration of Sylvester Stallone’s crepuscular star power that The Expendables unsuccessfully aspired to be. It gets plenty of mileage out of a simple mismatched-lawman scenario, in which a boundary-less hitman (Stallone) teams with a by-the-book cop (Sung Kang) to solve a murder that opens a window on a much wider conspiracy. Not just a source of wiseass comedy, the two men’s opposite temperaments and approaches suggest that only one of them can truly win in the end. The New Orleans atmosphere is a plus, as is a finale in which the dueling weapon is a Viking ax.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Killing Season
Forgotten even in its own time, Killing Season received a token release this summer; once a project for John McTiernan, it’s the kind of brisk two-hander that decades ago would have seemed tailor-made for Budd Boetticher. It’s tempting to praise the movie’s economy, but the execution—courtesy of Daredevil and Ghost Rider director Mark Steven Johnson—is borderline embarrassing, starting from the less-than-note-perfect casting of John Travolta as a cold-blooded Serbian war criminal who has gone to America to seek revenge on grizzled army vet Robert De Niro for a past action in the Balkans. The two don’t look physically up to the task of the Saw-like torture sessions the movie requires of them. On just about every level, it’s a movie with a faulty sense of proportion.
Most pleasant surprise: Drinking Buddies
Joe Swanberg confounded expectations not just by making a movie with a name cast or for managing to keep their clothes on (except in a brief skinny-dipping sequence), but also for declining to take his film’s seemingly derivative Big Chill scenario in any of the expected directions. Two couples (Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston; Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick) are separately tempted to infidelity; Kendrick’s and Livingston’s characters even share a kiss during a weekend retreat. The pair’s refusal to acknowledge this incident—to themselves or to each other—colors all the action that follows. While Swanberg hasn’t gone the full Loneliest Planet (some of the usual improvisational flailing distracts from the overall sense of rigor), he’s made a movie that’s recognizably real and wonderfully understated in its design, generating suspense out of inaction.
Outlier: Spring Breakers
Having shot Trash Humpers on VHS, Harmony Korine goes the opposite direction with this gorgeous, widescreen, neon-splattered approximation of a mainstream effort, achieving a near-perfect fusion of exploitation and poetry. It’s certainly his funniest and most aesthetically accomplished film, from a long-take chicken-shack robbery seen from the getaway car’s point of view to fragmented editing as graceful as any in To The Wonder. Following the odyssey of four Christian-college students (mostly played by Disney TV graduates) who travel to Florida to test their boundaries of getting fucked up, the movie turns increasingly satirical as it becomes clear their definition of being bad doesn’t stop short of violence. As Alien, the drug kingpin who ushers the women into a new world (and leads them in them in a jaw-dropping rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”), James “I’ve got shorts, every fuckin’ color” Franco delivers his most entertaining performance.
I’m not a full-time critic, just an off-hours one, which puts me in a tricky position come year’s end. Unlike most of my fellow A.V. Club contributors, I don’t get to see anything in advance, which means I haven’t watched any of the year-end heavy-hitters, including American Hustle, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Great Beauty, and several others. Also, I live in Toronto, where release patterns are different. If I could, I would’ve named the fantastic Brazilian film Neighboring Sounds—which played Toronto in February—as my year’s top pick, but since it was reviewed by The A.V. Club last year, no dice. (I also would’ve spelled “Neighboring” with a “u,” and that would’ve really messed things up.) So the following list is what I could muster based on what I’ve seen. I could’ve named 15 titles, but my feeling is: Why name an extra five films I merely liked rather than loved? To be totally honest, I only loved the first nine films on my list; Gravity kind of disappointed me, but was such a strong technical achievement I couldn’t bear to leave it off.
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Blue Is The Warmest Color
3. Caesar Must Die
5. Frances Ha
6. Prince Avalanche
8. Before Midnight
9. Let The Fire Burn
Best performance: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor has been giving great, unheralded performances for years (particularly in the vastly underrated Dirty Pretty Things), but with his lead role in 12 Years A Slave, he leaps into the front rank. The movie probably wouldn’t have worked without him. While director Steve McQueen brings his considerable talents, he also brings his questionable enthusiasm for extremity (see: Hunger and Shame), which could easily have turned 12 Years A Slave into aestheticized torture porn. But Ejiofor, with his hugely expressive eyes, helps keep the focus not on Solomon Northup’s physical wounds, but on the wounds to his humanity. The devil here is in the details, in the way Northup is systematically denied the most rudimentary forms of self-expression, even when in the presence of fellow slaves or sympathetic whites. In order to survive, he has to bury who he is—his intelligence, his dignity, his soul. And Ejiofor makes us feel that loss over and over again. In each scene, he somehow manages to communicate all the words he can’t speak, all the feelings he can’t express, just via the clouding of his eyes, the movement of his lips, or the furrow of his brow. As in so many of the greatest performances, it’s not what the actor does with the screenwriter’s words that matters. It’s what he does without them.
Most overrated: The Way, Way Back
The phoniness begins immediately, with Steve Carell’s “rate yourself” monologue—a speech of such improbable, epic douchiness that the audience has no choice but to sympathize with its adolescent target, the lumpen Liam James. And yet when Carell labels James a “3,” he’s not wrong—he’s actually being generous. As written, the hero is a personality void, and yet many members of the sprawling cast take an immediate, inexplicable shine to him and makes it their unspoken mission in life to get him feeling good about himself. The degree to which everyone pays attention to this thoroughly unremarkable kid is absurd. The writer-director team of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon can’t even let the cool-cat mentor character, played by Sam Rockwell, shower James with attention naturally: A good 20 minutes before he even enters the narrative, he locks eyes with James while idling in traffic, as if the two had some sort of cosmic, preordained bond. After a while, I began to wonder if the kid weren’t in his own version of The Truman Show. My breaking point is the scene by the pool, in which a group of hip kids try to humiliate James by making him breakdance on their cardboard. In five seconds, they go from wanting to beat him up to being utterly enchanted with his feeble, barely-even-trying moves. The Way, Way Back is the new benchmark for feel-good fraudulence.
Most underrated: Our Nixon
This look at the Nixon administration—pieced together from a massive, forgotten trove of home movies shot by the notorious Watergate conspirators H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin—was dismissed by some as too narrow in scope, but it’s precisely that narrowness that makes it such a funny, revelatory document. By refusing to add talking heads or any other modern context, director Penny Lane forces us to see the Nixon White House solely as the three men saw it: as a big boy-scout jamboree. These aren’t the shadowy, sinister figures of All The President’s Men—they’re a trio of squares who think they’ve boarded the Good Ship Lollipop. The three are so caught up in their own gee-whiz excitement—gala receptions! Easter egg hunts on the White House lawn! Trips to China!— they’re barely cognizant of reality. In de-emphasizing the men’s criminal chicanery, Lane helps us understand how, decades later, they could be so gosh-darned confused at how history treated them. Our Nixon isn’t a drama about how power corrupts; it’s a comedy about power turning people into blinkered boobs.
Most pleasant surprise: Frances Ha
Though I admired parts of The Squid And The Whale, I actively disliked both of Noah Baumbach’s subsequent films (Margot At The Wedding and Greenberg). Generally, I find his characters too sour and too stubbornly lacking in self-insight to merit a whole film. So when I heard that Baumbach had gone off in secret and made a feature-length film with his real-life girlfriend, mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig—and filmed it in precious black and white, no less—I expected another exercise in indie miserablism. Instead, Frances Ha is perhaps the best movie yet made about the millennial generation. (It’s like a more probing, realistic version of Lena Dunham’s Girls.) The title character is the exact opposite of Baumbach’s usual protagonists: Not only is she not cranky and deluded, she’s charming and—this is the crucial part—increasingly aware of the limits of her charms. It’s that dawning awareness that gives the movie its arc and prevents it from being yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy. Turns out that Baumbach and Gerwig are a perfect match: She tempers his misanthropy; he tempers her adorableness.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Evidence
Digital technology has enabled a lot of heinous cinematic crimes in recent years, but maybe none so heinous as the found-footage horror film. (Although found-footage predates digital, it was only the advent of cheap digital cameras and editing equipment that allowed them to become so plentiful.) The most woefully forgettable film I saw this year was Olatunde Osunsanmi’s Evidence, in which two detectives played by Radha Mitchell and Stephen Moyer hole up in an FBI screening room to watch the same tedious footage we have to watch: nearly 90 minutes of anonymous actors running higgledy-piggledy around an abandoned warehouse, chased by some masked guy with a welding torch. As per usual with movies like this, the digital images have been corrupted, so about half the running time is spent looking at indecipherable pixels or glitch moments. I had to watch Evidence via a not-so-great streaming link, so every time the screen froze I had no idea if it was the movie or the link. After a while, I realized I couldn’t care less.
Outlier: Caesar Must Die
The Taviani brothers’ Caesar Must Die can’t really be summarized, which is part of what makes it so bracing. All I knew after watching it was that I wanted to sit right down and experience its scant 70 minutes all over again. Here’s the no-frills summary: The brothers (who never appear onscreen) go to a maximum-security Italian penitentiary and film a bunch of prisoners as they rehearse a highly pared-down production of Julius Caesar. Sometimes we get unbroken chunks of Shakespeare, other times we get documentary-style material about the men’s lives. At no point is it entirely clear what’s staged and what isn’t, but the distinction almost ceases to matter: Life and art blur together, cross-pollinate, and resolve into something endlessly suggestive and strange. It’s like the more widely acclaimed The Act Of Killing in some ways, but without that film’s deeply problematic tendency toward indulging its murderous subjects. (The men here are all doing their time.) It should be mentioned, too, that Caesar Must Die is the most graphically vital film of 2013—without any fussiness, cinematographer Simone Zampagni supplies a never-ending stream of dynamic black-and-white frames. By film’s end, the inmates appear to have achieved a kind of transcendence via art, but then they’re sent back to their cells, prisoners once more. You feel bad for them, until you leave the theater and realize you’re being sent back to your own life as well—and that life without art is its own sort of prison.
1. The Act Of Killing
2. Before Midnight
3. The Past
4. The Invisible Woman
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. The World’s End
7. Post Tenebras Lux
8. Room 237
9. At Berkeley
10. The Lords Of Salem
11. 12 Years A Slave
14. Beyond The Hills
15. A Hijacking
Best performance: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Llewyn Davis is a loser—and yet, as embodied by Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, he’s an intensely empathetic one, destined to fail by both circumstance and his own character. Isaac affects a droopy, can’t-catch-a-break demeanor that conveys his musician’s frustration at a life that should be going better than it is, while also infusing that downbeat comportment with an anger that simmers just below the surface, ready to burst forth at random moments (like during an Upper East Side dinner party). It’s a turn at once familiar and still cannily multifaceted, and buoyed by the fact that when Isaac croons his character’s folk-music numbers—be it an opening Gaslight Café rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” or his later audition performance of “The Death Of Queen Jane”—he also radiates a soulfulness that speaks to the sorrow he feels about a career (and life) that won’t take flight.
Most overrated: The Conjuring
A jumble of stale clichés in service of an Amityville Horror-style haunted house saga, The Conjuring is a horror embarrassment, a work (JOLT SCARE!) of such unoriginality that its every move is the height of unintentional hilarity. To list all of the dull tropes trotted out by James Wan’s overpraised dud—including scary dolls, which weren’t even frightening (JOLT SCARE!) the first time Wan used them in 2007’s dreadful Dead Silence—would require more space than is afforded here. Even worse than its lack of imagination, however, is the way that it slaps its various borrowed elements together in a haphazard way (JOLT SCARE!) that often barely makes sense. While Wan’s widescreen compositions can occasionally be nifty (as with his upside-down cinematography during a bedroom scene), his reliance on very quiet sequences that are finally punctuated by JOLT SCARES is tiresome. Overflowing with all manner of supernatural mumbo-jumbo dialogue, it’s the most overrated genre effort of (JOLT SCARE!) the past decade.
Most underrated: The Lords Of Salem
The best horror film of the year wasn’t the one with the incessant shock tactics; rather, it was the creepy, malevolent, mean The Lords Of Salem, which again confirmed Rob Zombie as the most original and exciting voice working in the genre today. The tale of a woman (Sheri Moon Zombie, all gaunt, tattooed, stringy-haired sexiness) who falls prey to a coven of ancient witches residing in her apartment complex, Zombie’s latest is in many ways a spiritual descendant of the works of John Carpenter, with which it shares a deliberately ominous pace, a mood of dawning supernatural evil, and a fondness for widescreen compositions. Regardless of its influences, however, it’s a film of unique depravity and derangement, with Zombie’s imagery—a room lit only by a red neon cross; a mutant freak awaiting its guest at the top of a grand staircase—proving that nothing provides lasting scares more than unforgettably demented sights.
Most pleasant surprise: Tim’s Vermeer
Penn & Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer charts inventor Tim Jenison’s attempts to discover the heretofore unknown method by which Dutch master Johannes Vermeer crafted his 17th-century paintings, and then his efforts to duplicate that process to replicate Vermeer’s own “The Music Lesson.” It’s a premise that at first seems outlandish, until Jenison’s investigation into Vermeer’s use of optics leads to amazing discoveries, and spurs him to physically re-create the “set” of Vermeer’s painting in a warehouse—with Jenison doing all the design and construction that project entails—and then re-creating the work itself. Invested with Penn & Teller’s humor as well as their excited enthusiasm for seemingly impossible feats, the film soon becomes both a portrait of an inventive individual driven by passion and curiosity, as well as one about the many different (if kindred) forms of artistic invention.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Resolution
The problem with most meta-horror efforts (see: The Cabin In The Woods) is that they’re so busy attempting to be clever that they forget that their prime directive is to unsettle and terrify. Enter Resolution, a micro-budget indie from Justin Benson and Aaron S. Moorhead that barely saw the theatrical light of day in January 2013, but remains ripe for rediscovery via home video. This clever genre effort concerns a man who travels to a ramshackle cabin on a Native American reservation where his crackhead friend is headed for a death by OD—a fate that he prevents by handcuffing the addict to a pipe. Slowly, things begin to turn on their head thanks to the appearance of intimidating druggies and tough guys, as well as the discovery of various media (recorded by French researchers) that suggest a mystery involving alternate dimensions, demons, and telekinesis. What it all means may remain ambiguous, but Benson and Moorhead’s film eventually proves to be a sly meditation on itself, and the alternately constructive and deadly power of storytelling.
Outlier: The Invisible Woman
Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s novel is an immaculately crafted and superbly acted period-piece detailing the romance between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and Nelly Ternan (sterling newcomer Felicity Jones), an affair carried out despite the lovers’ decades-apart ages and the famed author’s marriage. With a composure that’s the polar opposite of the Paul Greengrass-style, shaky-cam visuals that marked his prior directorial effort, Coriolanus, Fiennes’ latest behind-the-lens effort conveys character dynamics and roiling emotion through nimble, meticulous aesthetics. While his story’s depiction of suppressed longing and oppressive social barriers is told with impressive grace, it’s performed with even greater poise, with Fiennes envisioning Dickens not as an aloof icon, but as a celebrity torn between professional ego and personal desire. Jones’ star-making turn captures her protagonist’s conflicted heart and state of mind with heartbreaking subtlety.
1. Computer Chess
2. A Touch Of Sin
4. Pain & Gain
5. The Unspeakable Act
8. The Act Of Killing
9. The World’s End
10. Drug War
13. Side Effects
14. Before Midnight
Best performance: Joaquin Phoenix, Her
In a better world, I’d be able to name Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as small-time pimp Bruno Weiss—in my opinion, one of the all-time great movie characters—in James Gray’s The Immigrant as my favorite of the year. However, The Immigrant’s U.S. release is uncertain, with plans for theatrical distribution sometime next year. (For a while, there were rumors that the film—an immersive big-screen experience—might go straight to VOD.) I therefore have to go with one of my runners-up—which, unsurprisingly, also comes from Joaquin Phoenix. Theodore Twombly, the protagonist of Spike Jonze’s Her, couldn’t be more different from Weiss, but both performances showcase Phoenix’s knack for investing body language and speech patterns with a sense of interior life. Theodore feels like a real person, not because the viewer is always privy to what he’s thinking, but because every little tic and movement seems to be rooted in some kind of emotional response. Phoenix isn’t a chameleon, but he may be the most gifted actor working today, capable of conveying a character’s past through something as subtle as a change in vocal pitch.
I’m abstaining, for reasons detailed in my response to the next question. I don’t agree with many of my colleagues on some of this year’s most well-received films, but I’d hate to think that my reaction to them is partly shaped by others’ more positive reactions. I’d rather let the movies settle a little.
Most underrated: The Lone Ranger
Will 2013 go down as the year of rapid reappraisal? Blue Is The Warmest Color experienced countless backlashes and backlashes-against-the-backlashes—which were stoked, in part, by the public feuding of its director and stars—in the six months that separated its Cannes premiere and its Stateside release. The Counselor opened to vicious reviews, but within weeks had become something of a critical darling. (It’s no. 18 on our list of the best movies of the year.) To The Wonder has experienced a less dramatic, though nonetheless noticeable, reappraisal, and the consensus on Man Of Steel rapidly shifted from blinding hype to equally blinded vitriol. Yet changing consensus is part of what keeps film culture alive. As someone who reads a lot of film reviews in addition to writing them, I don’t think I could trust a critic who wasn’t willing to change his mind about a movie—but this year, the cycle appears to be moving at warp speed. One movie, however, seems to have been left behind. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger opened to overwhelmingly negative reviews, though I gave it a B- in this publication and stand by that rating; it’s a strange and often entertaining movie with an effectively goofy lead performance from the perennially underrated Armie Hammer. Not all of it works, but it’s hardly a train wreck. Give it time, give it a chance, and don’t buy into the media narrative.
Most pleasant surprise: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan
Action-movie fans have learned to be wary of comebacks and anything that smells of fan service—which made the workmanlike, entertaining Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger team-up Escape Plan one of the year’s few genre surprises. Stallone sticks to the same principled-loner persona he’s been playing for the last few years, but seeing Schwarzenegger cut loose is refreshing. Gray-haired and paunchy, Schwarzenegger can no longer play an unstoppable fighting machine. Instead, he sticks to the one strength he has left: his goofy comic timing. Who’d think that the man who spent two Expendables movies doing embarrassing references to his previous hits would deliver one the year’s funniest performances?
Future Film That Time Forgot: Romeo & Juliet
Most people have already forgotten Romeo & Juliet, so perhaps a refresher is in order: It’s a bland, sexless adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, shot on location in Verona during what appears to be the dead of winter. Romeo climbs up a plastic vine, and Juliet is introduced with a slow-motion shot that looks like it was pulled from a shampoo commercial. It was produced by Swarovski, a company that manufactures glass jewelry, and it is the only adaptation of the play in which Romeo and Juliet are married in front of a green screen. Its writer, Julian Fellowes, insisted on adding some verses of his own (“So varied are the qualities we find / In herbs and plants and stones that we may grind”). And it was directed by Carlo Carlei, whose last big-screen production was Fluke, a movie in which Matthew Modine is reincarnated as a dog.
Outlier: The Unspeakable Act
The title is of Dan Sallitt’s fourth feature is partly ironic, since the taboo in question—incest—is pretty much the only thing that the movie’s teenage protagonist, Jackie (newcomer Tallie Medel), wants to talk about. And she talks a lot; Jackie’s voice—her distinctive speech patterns and self-consciously literary narration—dominates The Unspeakable Act. The tiny, intense Medel (quite possibly the acting discovery of the year) plays her as someone who’s smart enough to recognize other people’s delusions but hasn’t yet come to recognize her own, and the movie uses Jackie’s undisguised attraction to her older brother (she stops just short of propositioning him) as a way to explore how people—especially smart young people—try to rationalize their irrational urges. It’s part nuanced character study, part low-key black comedy—measured, but biting. Though Sallitt’s dialogue is stylized, his style is downright ascetic, with minimal camera movement and plenty of wide-open deep-focus compositions. As off-kilter as its protagonist, The Unspeakable Act doesn’t look or move like anything else on the American indie landscape.