The Best Films I Saw in 2013

Last year, I did something a little different.  I wrote down all of the films that I saw in theaters and at home.  So, when deciding which films to highlight as the best of 2013, I actually have a list to go off of, which can be accessed here:

For the sake of my pics for best films of 2013, I am only including first-run films.  That means that some films from 2012 could make the list, if I saw them in 2013.  It also means that films I saw in 2014, but were released in 2013, won’t make the list.  Confusing enough for you?  Here we go.

15. Much Ado About Nothing (Josh Whedon)

A wonderful retelling of the Shakespearean play, done in modern times but in the original iambic pentameter.  A particularly good Beatrice from Amy Acker.

14. I Am Divine (Jeffrey Schwarz)

An exhaustive documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead, more commonly know as the performer known as Divine.  If there’s anything about Divine’s life that isn’t covered in this film, and isn’t covered with sensitivity, humor, pathos, or a combination of the three, I would be shocked.

13. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling)

This wonderful documentary is about a married Japanese couple who live in New York City.  While the husband has had the more illustrious (or infamous) career as an avant-guard artist, it is the wife who is the more interesting person.  While she has previously lived for her husband’s work, she is a talented artist in her own right, with a series of paintings centered around Cutie, a fictionalized version of herself and her life with her husband.  They also have a son, and in a discussion I had after seeing this film, we agreed that he is the best artist in the film, combining the strengths of his father’s flashy style with his mother’s more assured technique.  A gem of a film.

12. What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

Much of this film’s success hinges on its young star (Onata Aprile); the rest is due to a great screenplay that keeps the movie focused on Maisie’s perspective while also clueing in the audience to connections that Maisie may not be aware of.  It doesn’t hurt that Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore, playing Maisie’s parents, are excellent in their roles, particularly Moore.

11. Blackbird (Jason Buxton)

This movie, about a boy who writes about killing several of his classmates and finds the adults in the community taking the threat more seriously than he intended it, is a good reminder that paranoia is an unhealthy state for society to be in.  And yet, the film is on this list because it doesn’t follow the formulaic route that it could have followed.  Instead, the movie stays true to this teenager’s personality, and the circumstances in which he finds himself, which leads to a much more satisfying, and personal, place than if it had concerned itself with the reaction of the town, rather than the person at the center.

10. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

An even better use of silent film techniques than The Artist, this film is a retelling of “Snow White,” except that the title character is the daughter of a once famous bullfighter, who is confined to a wheelchair after a horrible accident in the ring.  The evil queen is her stepmom, who is a bit of a sadomasochist, while the dwarves belong to a troupe of bullfighters.  Poignant, beautiful, and sad.

9. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a man wrongfully accused of sexually molesting a child.  Unlike Blackbird, this film is entirely concerned with how paranoia and a series of wrong-headed decisions can lead to horrible behavior toward an innocent person thought guilty.  While some of his friends believe in his innocence, Mikkelsen’s character is treated as a pariah by most of the town.  Even long after his name should have been cleared, some people still treat him with suspicion.  Mikkelsen is excellent in this film, as is his young accuser, played by Annika Wedderkopp.

8. The Silence (Baran Bo Odar)

A girl is raped and murdered in a field.  The case remains unsolved, though the audience sees who the killer is, and who his accomplice is.  They are both pedophiles, though the accomplice has long suppressed his urges.  After the murder, Timo (the accomplice) freaks out and leaves the town, and Peer (the killer), behind.  23 years later, another girl is found dead in the same field.  Is it the same killer, and if it is, why has he killed again?  Now married with children, Timo secretly returns to the town to see if his “old friend” is responsible.  This great crime thriller shows how these crimes affect the characters involved, including the wife of the first child, the parents of the second child, a police detective who worked on the original case, and even the killers.  And yet the movie is really about people’s relationship with the past, and how it can destroy both those who wish to remember it, and those who wish to forget it.

7. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

Another of several great documentaries I saw this year, this one deals with Tilikum, an orca whale who has killed three people since being placed into captivity, including an experienced trainer at SeaWorld.  The real story, however, is how the conditions into which these whales are thrust lead to situations which don’t benefit the whales or the humans.

6. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Polley’s brilliant documentary about her mother starts dropping bombshells 30 minutes in, made all the more powerful by how matter-of-factly they arrive.  My family would never be this open about one of their own, and yet the film wouldn’t work if they weren’t.  Behind these stories is a deeper purpose: how we use stories to make sense of the people in our lives, knowing that these stories can never sum up an entire person’s essence, and realizing that some of them may not even be true.

5. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)

The best teen movie I’ve seen since Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything.  The first part of this film is about the burgeoning relationship between Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (the amazing Shailene Woodley); the second part delves into darker (and deeper) territory.  I felt like an emotional train wreck by the end of this film, and I mean that in the best possible way.

4. Horses of God (Nabil Ayouch)

I almost forgot to list this film, since I saw it as a screener, not in theaters.  I’m glad I remembered, for this film about two brothers and their friends growing up in Morocco is truly one of the best films of 2013.  Similar to City of God in its subject matter, but to tell you any more might spoil the film (as does IMDB’s listing of what the film is about).

3. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

The best documentary of the year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, in which gangsters responsible for a communist purge in Indonesia are asked to tell their story using various film genres, is a study in how ordinary people can justify committing unspeakable acts, until they are faced with the full impact of their actions.  More than any other film this year, this movie shows how powerful films can be, both for us and for its participants.

2. La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino)

The Great Beauty (as it’s known in the U.S.) is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, one in which the camera has complete freedom of movement.  This is as close to an epic film as I’ve seen all year and came within a hair’s breath of being my pick for the best film of 2013.  In style and substance, it reminds me of La Dolce Vita in how it tells its story through the lives of its characters (and through LIFE), but it also encompasses Rome, where these characters live, work, breathe, and party.  Tony Servillo, as the main character, has one of the most wonderfully expressive cinematic faces in history.  Except for some fake-ish looking CGI (used to create certain animals and in flashbacks), this film has no flaws worth mentioning.

1. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda)

Narrated by her daughter, Wolf Children follows a young woman from her initial meeting of her husband through her struggle to raise her two kids (a girl and a boy), who like her husband are half-human, half-wolf.  The film deals with the struggles of adulthood and the growing pains of childhood, while the transformation sequences and movement of the wolves adds beauty and poetry to an already poignant film.  It’s animated, it’s in Japanese, and it’s brilliant.

Special Jury Prizes: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) , Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Why these two films?  The first one for one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in a theater, one that hinges on a woman’s decision to give up and die or fight on and live, rather than hinging on a story; the other for one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship I’ve seen onscreen (minus sex scenes that went on a little too long and felt a bit staged) and the two best and most natural acting performances of the year (from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux).  Plus, both looked brilliant: the former in its use of 3D to heighten the claustrophobic feel of enclosed spaces within and the vastness of space without, the other to register every facial tick that its two main characters displayed.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Philomena, Short Term 12,  The World’s End