The Top Ten Films of 2013: Outer space, financial foul play, and broken hearts

One of the things I’ve come to expect in the fifteen years I’ve been making top ten lists online is that every year, someone will argue with me about what it actually means to pick ten films to represent a year. Are these the “best” films of the year? Are they my “favorite” films of the year? Is there a difference between the two things as far as I’m concerned? Should there be? What movies qualify? What movies don’t?

Since we’ve introduced letter grades here on HitFix, it also introduces the variable that people believe any film I give the highest rating automatically has a place on my personal end of the year list. I disagree, and the reasons I disagree probably say a lot about the way I view the discussion of film in general. A letter grade is, to my mind, a way of saying how well it feels like the film accomplished its particular goals. But there are times I might find that over the course a year, a B+ film becomes something that I watch repeatedly, that connects for me on all sorts of personal levels, and so that film ends up in my top ten, while a beautifully executed film that impresses me across the board might slide further down just because it’s not something I find myself revisiting, no matter how well it works. The end of the year is not about me telling you, authoritatively, that there are only ten films that we are allowed to treat with respect and any argument is wrong. That’s ridiculous. This is a time to share thoughts on the things we love, the things that matter to us about movies, and if you get upset about my list, then I would suggest you are reading into it a purpose that simply isn’t there.

I don’t think there’s any rule about how we each sum up a year in print, nor do I think there ever could be. That’s the point. My year in movies was not the same as your year in movies, for a thousand different reasons. There are films I have access to that a vast majority of you do not, or at least not at the same time, and that’s part of what I have to consider when I write this list. Because festivals are so much a part of my movie-going year, I absolutely count them when I consider what I include in this final consideration. For my purposes, any new film I saw theatrically or at a film festival or that was released directly to VOD for the first time this year counts as a 2013 movie.

Early this morning, I ran my list for numbers twenty through eleven on the list, and I talked about how many other films I also enjoyed. It has been a strong year, and even when I listed that many titles, I’m sure I excluded even more films that I thought were worth my time. If I was as irritated by movies as often as some of the other people I read, I can’t imagine doing this, writing about movies all day every day. I hope that comes through in my work now as much as the first time I ever published anything, because the truth is that I was writing about movies for free for friends long before I was paid to do it online. I used to send friends group e-mails about things, and especially at the end of the year when I would urge people to catch up with all sorts of great stuff that I thought fell between the cracks. One of the things I love most about movies, even now, even after doing this as long as I have, is that we can talk about everything when we talk about movies. They are a way to share feelings and experiences, and ultimately, all of this talk about lists and rankings aside, the highest compliment I can give a film is simply sharing thoughts about it with someone else. There are so many movies that vanish the minute I am done watching them, truly inconsequential films, and those bum me out more than the outrageous terrible. I would always rather seem an impassioned catastrophe than a forgettable bland product.

Enough preamble? Enough thoughts about the nature of making lists? Fine. Let’s get to it. Let’s talk about the big ten.

10. “Cheap Thrills”

When Drafthouse Films releases this in March, I sincerely hope it is their first significant box-office hit. They know what film they’re putting out, they believe in it, and the film is every bit as good as they’re going to tell you it is. It’s a small film, basically a four-person two-set play, but it has some very big things on its mind, and it pulls no punches in the way it sets things up. The script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga ratchets things up from scene to scene in a very smart way, and the way E.L. Katz orchestrates things would be impressive from a guy with a long feature career under his belt, so this being a debut feature is downright confounding. Pat Healy has been steadily proving himself one of the most versatile character actors working for the last few years, and here, he emerges as a lead who generates a massive amount of sympathy, essential if we’re going to follow his character, Craig, on what becomes a very long dark night of the soul. Ethan Embry is both very sad and very scary as Vince, an old friend of Craig’s who is prepared to completely forget about the past if it guarantees him a future. And as the twin smiling faces of evil, Sara Paxton and David Koechner are excellent. Koechner uses that slightly deranged persona he’s perfected as a comic and shows us how scary it would be if we ran up against it in real life, and Paxton plays a woman so numb to sensation that it takes the extreme to get her to even notice. If this was just a blunt-force metaphor about the way we’ve been screwed by the richest people in this country, it wouldn’t be as good as it is. It works as thriller, as metaphor, as character piece, as comedy, and it is as angry as it is smart. What a treat.

9. “Stories We Tell”

Every now and then, I’ll publish something and then I’ll get feedback from friends who say they’re surprised at how personal it was. It’s not something I am consciously aware of most of the time, because I long ago made my peace with the idea that if criticism is going to be worth anything as a body of work, it has to be personal. You have to be willing to engage a work of art fully and you have to be willing to try to discuss why and how something worked on you. One would assume  the same is true of filmmakers, but there are plenty of people who make movies that are not particularly personal. What Sarah Polley did this year with her extraordinary movie about the question of who her father is was both intellectually thrilling and emotionally exhausting. I love the film craft of how she chose to tell the story, and if you’ve seen it, then you know that there comes a point where the entire nature of what we’re watching shifts. You suddenly realize that what you’ve been looking at isn’t necessarily what you’e been looking at, and it underlines just how good she’s gotten at staging scenes that have the rough-hewn quality of life. I think she’s got an amazing voice, and I can’t wait to see what her eighth film looks like or her fifteenth film. I want a long career of movies seen from her point of view, and I hope she becomes an example to young women considering film as a career. More than that, I hope she becomes an example to young men considering film as a career. Her voice isn’t important because of her gender. It’s important because of how clear and authentic and genuinely curious about life it is, and that’s what every filmmaker should aspire to.

8. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

I am not who I thought I was going to be. If you’d asked me at age 20 what my life in 20 years would look like, I would have told you about my long filmography and my bags full of money and it would have been nothing but sunshine and rainbows. It would have had nothing to do with family, because I was fairly convinced I didn’t want one. I would never have imagined the life that I am actually living now, and the distance from one version to the other is something that can drive people crazy. I would be a liar if I told you that there weren’t times where I wish things had worked differently, but the things I wish I could change might surprise you. I don’t regret anything about the way my life is today, and I am constantly reminded how truly blessed I am. I get to make a good life for my sons, who I care about deeply, by doing something that I consider essential. I am able to share this adventure not only with them but with literally millions of people around the world. I have no reason to complain, and I know that, and I embrace that. But in the darkest moments, in moments from the past, I have certainly despaired, and there were times where I wanted to give up. I’m not even sure what that means, because I couldn’t ever really do that, but when you spend your life doing something that requires the approval of others, “giving up” sometimes seems like the only rational response. The way “Inside Llewyn Davis” paints life at the end of the rope is brilliant and beautiful, and once again, I see some critics accusing the Coens of misanthropy. How could anyone who hates people make a movie that takes such a direct and empathic look at someone in free fall? They don’t hate Llewyn Davis. They couldn’t. They know what it feels like when you are living under a comically dark cloud, no matter what you do, and if they laugh, it’s because what else can you do? Oscar Isaac’s performance here can’t be undersold. He’s a guy who has been on the verge for a while now, and there’s something rich and perverse about the idea that playing someone who has reached the breaking point may be the thing that finally brings Isaac the roles he so fully deserves.

7. “Spring Breakers”

I feel like I want to take an entire article sometime to break down how rich and disturbing this film is, and I’m not surprised at all that other people can’t make it past the first ten minutes without getting irritated and turning it off. To both be the thing that you are complaining about, and to also perfectly illustrate why that thing is horrible, is not an easy feat, but “Spring Breakers” manages to enlist this disturbing mob that descends on Florida into savaging themselves as well as the entire laundry list of what they’ve been sold as aspirational. I can’t even imagine the way this was shot, the experience of being there as Korine whipped these crowds into lathers and just let things happen. It is a beautifully made film filled with grotesque things. The way it shows the dreams that fuel these girls, the things that they feel the world has promised them, and how little they are willing to do to get it, makes me despair, and I think it is frighteningly true. I think there are plenty of people whose lives are little more than downtime between sensations, and we’re moving towards something post-literate for a chunk of the population. Korine isn’t just pointing a finger and mocking, though, and that’s what makes the film so great. He feels deeply for these girls, even as he recoils from them, and Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson in particular give truly great and dedicated performances that have no vanity involved at all. Rachel Korine scares me in the film. She has a dead-eyed thing that happens when she gets really drunk that I’ve seen in real life, and it never, ever leads to anything good happening. Selena Gomez is fine in her scenes, but she’s out of the film about the time it really starts to get great, and much of that is due to the introduction of Alien, the character played by James Franco. In my original review of the film, I talked about his “Great Gatsby” moment where he entreats the girls to “look at my shit,” and I remain serious about how important that moment is to understanding who this film is really about. I can imagine Alien as a kid, and I can see what pop culture he consumed and what dreams he soaked up and how he chased those goals, and when he shows off his TVs with “Scarface” running around the clock, it makes me want to cry. He’s living his dream, and the problem is the dream itself. As the girls vanish down a rabbit hole of video game violence and rap video sexuality, Korine’s daring you to figure out who to blame for this curdled, scary, broken version of the American Dream, and urging you to realize that there’s no simple answer to the question.

6. “12 Years A Slave”

I have wondered what I would have done if I had been born into the American of the mid-1800s. The public definition of morality was very different, but I’d like to believe that I would have had the same personal sense of right and wrong that I do now. I want to believe that I would have been on the right side of the debate about slavery, and that it would have made my skin crawl with the same force that it does now when I consider it. “12 Years A Slave” does many things well over the course of its running time, but perhaps its greatest strength is the way it refuses to let anyone off the hook. Michael Fassbender’s character is basically a high-functioning psychopath, aware of the cognitive dissonance in the way he treats the slaves he owns and driven completely mad by it. Paul Dano is a pathetic powerless figure who needs the enforced power structure of slavery in order to make himself feel whole. But Benedict Cumberbatch is shown as the “good” slave owner in the film, and the sheer idea that there could be such a phrase is so inside out and morally corrupt that it affected the way I view this moment in American history. It forced me to re-examine the idea that there is any morally correct position in a country that allows one person to own another person as property, and it pushed me to a perspective that I don’t think I’ve ever had on it before. Steve McQueen’s film packs a powerful punch, and I’ve had so many conversations about it this year that have been passionate and personal and political that I think it goes well beyond being a simple history lesson. It is an exercise in virtual reality empathy, and as moving and challenging an experience as I’ve had all year in a theater.

5. “Gravity”


4. “The Wolf Of Wall Street”

I’ll be publishing my full review of this tomorrow, so I don’t want to write things here I’ll just be repeating in 24 hours. Suffice it to say Martin Scorsese looked around, saw how many people these days are making “Martin Scorsese” films, and decided that it’s time to show people how it is really done. This is a blisteringly funny and furiously angry movie, and it may well be the only rational response to the financial collapse of the last few years.

3. “Short Term 12”

How many times have we seen some variation on this formula? There’s a white girl with her own problems who works with troubled kids of color, and in the end, they heal each other. Ugh. Even typing the description makes me roll my eyes. The key to telling a story like that well is, of course, authenticity, and if there’s any common thread on my list this year, it is that I am struck by how strong and clear these voices are and how honestly they express things. Dustin Cretton’s movie, based on his own time working in a facility for at-risk youth, features a tremendous ensemble of young actors who each bring these troubled kids to vivid life, not a easy stereotype among them. Brie Larson, as Grace, gives one of the most intense performances of the year as a young woman who has already given up on her own happiness, focusing instead on helping others get there. John Gallagher Jr. deserves equal credit, though, as Mason, the guy who loves Grace in spite of all the ways she pushes him away, and I love the two of them together in this film. While I admired the performances in “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and the film’s eye for detail, I thought it was undisciplined and ultimately didn’t fully work for me. Here, we get a love story that is just as keenly observed but in a tight, concise film that works as a whole, and I was deeply moved by the whole film, not just one or two scenes. It may be one of the smallest films on this list, but it has an infinitely huge heart, and like the two films above it on the list, it left me emotionally spent each time I saw it. I would have happily spent an entire TV season with these characters, and I look forward to whatever Crettton does from this point on. This guy has an amazing facility with character and with revealing volumes through simple behavior. This is a mammoth breakthrough on a modest scale, and one of the most exciting discoveries of the year for me.   

2. “Before Midnight”
1. “Her”

I honestly don’t know how to write about either of these films at this particular point in time. I could tell you about the great performances and about the almost invisible structure of the films and how deceptively loose they are. I could tell you how Rick Linklater and Spike Jonze have each honed their art over time to the point where I feel like they make their points with surgical skill, expressing precise and profound things while making it look off-hand and spontaneous. But to fully explain why these two films hit me like the twin barrels of a shotgun, I’d have to dig into the way I see my own marriage reflected in the art, and I’m not sure I am able to articulate that fully. I have no perspective right now, and it’s all so raw and immediate that it hurts to even dig in.

“Before Midnight” serves as a signpost for me, because I remember who I was and where I was when the first film came out, and I remember how much had changed when the second film came out, and I can’t help but feel the full weight of everything that has changed again in the time between that and the release of this latest entry in the most unlikely film franchise currently running. 24 year old me and 43 year old me have vastly different life experiences to draw on in terms of what we react to in art and what we’ve been through in terms of happiness and heartbreak, and “Before Midnight” is about totally different people than the Celine and Jesse who star in “Before Sunrise.” I believe that love can endure through all sorts of difficulties, but I also think letting someone go can be an act of kindness at a certain point. Figuring out the right thing to do can become more and more difficult the longer you are with someone, and once kids are involved, it’s an exponentially different thing.

While “Her” is a science-fiction film on the surface, there’s nothing outrageous about the emotional lives of Samantha and Ted in the film. The film is a microcosm of the entire journey of a relationship, from the first flush of attraction to the rush of connecting deeply with someone to the discomfort that can rise when someone evolves or changes and someone else doesn’t, and it charts a journey in the course of about two hours that is not unlike the arc of the entire “Before” series so far. The difference is that the “Before” films are about two people who can’t walk away from each other because of all the connections that are there no matter how much anger gets piled on top, and “Her” is about the entire process of learning how to open yourself up again after loss and how to learn what it is you really want from someone else. “Before Midnight” feels to me like a conscious decision to try to make things work, an intellectual desire working at cross odds with emotional drives, and I practically crawl out of my skin while watching it because of how closely it mirrors moments I have had in my own life, moments I am living in the present tense in some cases. “Her” is about the idea that there can be hope even in heartbreak, and that each experience, each time we allow ourselves to love, we are making our heart stronger. Even the pain is part of that. It is easy to retreat from the things that hurt us, and especially when they strike at something as core to who we are as our need for love and connection. But to pick up, to continue, to keep trying, to keep ourselves open and ready and able to love, that is positively goddamn heroic. And essential. No other films this year resonated as deeply with me, and I view these films as life rafts, as the signposts I needed to make it through one of the hardest years of my adult life. And neither film offers anything like a defining answer to the questions posed about life and love, which is also appropriate. There’s no guarantee 2014 is going to be any easier for me, and yet I face the year without fear, without hesitation, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is because of Rick Linklater and Ethan Hakwe and Julie Delpy and Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams that I am able to face things with any sort of optimism at all. Art is more than diversion, more than escape, and in 2013, these are the two movies that stand as permanent newfound parts of who I am.

Enjoy the video embedded above, which is a beautiful companion piece to the list that the video team put together for me. I’m not sure I say it enough, but I love the video work we’re doing at HitFix these days, and I think video obviously works in a different way than text, and that we’re lucky to be able to bring you both. And please… I want to know what films made this year better for you as well.

This isn’t the end of the conversation, but hopefully, just the start.