There is an assumption that the best movies cannot also be the ones everyone sees. Whether that’s elitism or some other kind of bias we can’t really know for sure because it’s too often true. Big budget movies don’t have to be the best to do well and since that is their primary motivation for existing, perhaps it’s best not to try. But as we learned from The Avengers, it doesn’t have to be that way. And 2013 put a finer point on it. This year’s best came from anywhere and everywhere. Sequels great and small and originality at its most extreme. Various languages of word and of storytelling. From the past to a tiny hint of the future. 2013 left no stone unturned. Hopefully you didn’t either or you may have missed something.
1. Iron Man Three – Shane Black has no business making a movie on this scale. There’s nothing in his past as a director that would indicate he could. Never mind that he steps into a franchise with which he heretofore had nothing to do. So to have made by far the best one of the series doesn’t seem like it was ever a possibility. Granted, the characters and relationships were already established. But he may as well have established them himself. It helps that Iron Man happens to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. and that Tony Stark may as well be a refined version of Harry Lockhart from Shane Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (starring Robert Downey, Jr.) But that’s just an entry point. We’ve seen plenty of supposed perfect fits go terribly wrong even without the danger of veering from a course already plotted.
It helps as well, perhaps, that Iron Man 2 was such a downturn from the first. But Iron Man Three goes beyond a return to form. It does everything the first one did right (specifically, Tony’s megalomania and his and Pepper’s relationship) and nothing it did wrong (having Iron Man fight someone less qualified to operate a giant metal suit.) And yet, it’s even more than that. The coordination of the final battle alone is cause for celebration. But Shane Black does so many things that shouldn’t work and turns them into the movie’s greatest qualities. He puts a kid in it for twenty minutes, sets the whole thing at Christmas and turns the villain into a joke, all without it ever stepping out of the universe he had nothing to do with creating. It’s truly incredible. The Marvel universe was poised for a step backward after Avengers, there didn’t seem to be any choice. But there was and they made it and everyone else about to start trying to copy them should just lay down their arms and swear fealty because it’s only going to be embarrassing otherwise.
2. Before Midnight – What a year for thirds of things! Of course, very unlike Iron Man Three, Before Midnight is monumentally enclosed and sometimes painfully static. It can be a joyous look into the unlikely but ultimately ordinary lives of these characters you’ve known for so long, but it can also easily turn into something you feel like you shouldn’t be allowed to see. And worse than that, something you maybe don’t want to see.
Equally as funny and touching as it can be painful, and able to turn on any of these things in an instant and back again, Jesse and Celine feel both exquisitely true and perfectly aggrandized for dramatic purposes. Any of the four major scenes taken alone could be considered greater than most any entire movie to come out this year. There is so much happening inside each of them but it never feels like anything but a lengthy conversation between two people we already know love to talk a lot.
No matter how to choose you interpret how things have gone with these people, and no matter what you choose to take from that, it is impossible not to be stirred in some way. Whether you are depressed or uplifted, gutted or elated, whether it makes you examine your own relationship or thankful not to have one, Before Midnight will change you, simply by being itself.
3. 12 Years A Slave – There is a moment, while Solomon Northrup is hanging from a tree, barely keeping a toehold on an open airway, when it will dawn on you that everything about this movie is by design. And that may normally not be something a movie wants you to realize while it’s happening. But it doesn’t matter so much here. Not because of the subject matter, though obviously that is important. Not because of the content of the scene itself, which is wrenching both as representing actual events and simply part of a movie. But because as the frame slowly reveals all that is happening around him while he hangs there, from the awkwardly mundane to the imminent threats and countermeasures, you are unable to not see the purpose saturating every possible piece.
It’s not that other movies do not possess this. Of course not. But in a story that could easily turn into a Passion Of The Christ type endurance test of horrid tortures, it becomes a welcome widening of the horizon. For as much as 12 Years A Slave can force you to feel the helplessness of Solomon Northrup, it is not content in that being the sum total of its meticulously created parts.
With Shame and Hunger before that, director Steve McQueen showed obvious command of the pieces, but in 12 Years A Slave he is able to put them together to form a complete masterwork. This movie has an immediate timeless quality that we should hope all our Best Pictures possess.
4. Furious 6 – With Fast Five, it was clear something new was happening. Not just within the Fast & Furious universe (which in itself, having to call it a universe, was a strange development) but perhaps with the idea of a franchise in general. For such a forgettable (if profitable) series to suddenly become one of if not the best action movie of the year was something not just unprecedented, but triumphant.
Despite a Marvel-like post credits tease promising further universe developments and the same team in place to deliver it, it did seem unlikely a sixth installment could possibly equal its predecessor. But with an outsized cast, outsized plot and outsized craving for elevating the action genre to its own standards, Furious 6 easily surpassed them all.
An opening credit sequence that plays like the final episode of your favorite TV show, a breakneck pace that manages to leave not one of the ever-growing cast behind and one of the craziest fantastical satisfactory climactic fight scenes you could ever wish for, Furious 6 has most likely forever cemented its place as the greatest 6th installment of anything there will ever be. In the mean time it gives others a much better target to shoot for.
5. White House Down – I told you this was coming. But you probably still figured it was a joke. And unfortunately, that’s how too many people feel obligated to disguise their love for White House Down.
I’m assuming. I actually don’t hear a whole lot of outpouring in its favor. Though to be fair, I don’t hear much about it either way. It’s a little bit baffling that something like this could go so thoroughly unseen. And that’s without telling you that it is one of the most perfectly executed family action movies you’ve ever refused to watch.
For a movie so unrestrained, it certainly takes its time getting to know everyone. And it even does that entertainingly. More importantly, if it didn’t, all the rest would be crushed under its own weight as so many of these types of movies are. But no matter how expansive you may find it, this foundation will not crumble.
There’s no sense telling you about it. It will all sound stupid if you’ve already made up your mind. Out of context, it is stupid. But in context, it’s what you wait for this type of movie to be. And that is everything a movie can be.
6. The Act Of Killing – When terms like “daring” or “courageous” precede ones such as “art” or “filmmaking” it’s generally difficult to take seriously. Because it isn’t serious. It is grasping for words to relate the mostly unrelatable. But you can use it here.
The Act Of Killing is a documentary only in that it can’t be anything else. It feels like its own entity. To embed yourself in a war is obviously a terrible risk. But to infiltrate the winners of war in order to expose their unfathomable cruelty and institutional psychosis seems like suicide. When towards the end, one of its subjects addresses the director on camera, it’s kind of shocking. There’s someone there with these people that is a lot more like me than them and they are looking to him for guidance. It shouldn’t be weird. That’s how it works. But by then, you know these people to be monsters; seeing that makes them people again.
And such is the delicate fluidity of The Act Of Killing. It can put you off humanity for good only to bring you back momentarily, if only to satisfy your curiosity. It’s as much a look into the minds of killers as it is into the creative process of people who are anything but creative. It’s nauseating, funny, perplexing, daunting, maybe overwhelming. Maybe more than anything, it is unique. More than that. It’s singular. There is nothing else like it. Putting it here on this list contradicts that, but what else can I do?
It’s enough to watch these men talk about their past. They are so prideful and self-satisfied about it, that alone would have made it one of the best of the year. Getting them to do so under the auspices of helping them make their own movie about it is dumbfounding. And then on top of all of this there is the off camera reality that the people making it are basically doing dangerous undercover work in order to bring it to you. Pur together, it’s a dizzying effect. One you might never shake.
7. Jagten [The Hunt] – There’s a lot of helplessness in this year’s best movies that aren’t about saving the country. And it’s difficult to say that the one that isn’t about slavery might put it across best of all. Because while you can’t fight crazy Michael Fassbender and the institutional hatred and control he represents, at least you want to. When your subjugator is a little girl who has no idea what she’s done to you, it’s difficult to find the fight in you.
Mads Mikkelsen trudges through The Hunt like a wounded wolf through the woods, just waiting to be pounced upon by his former brethren. And you want so badly for him to do something, anything, if not to change his situation, at least to let everyone else know he’s not going to just take their reactionary bullshit anymore. But when he finally does, all you want is for him to take it back. Because that’s not the way out. There may not be one. And while that’s hard to accept, even just as the audience, it’s impossible to know what else to do.
And that’s the most astounding part of The Hunt. It’s ability to immerse you in this story, immerse you in the solitary experience of this character, without allowing you to forget that you’d probably just be one of these awful townsfolk if it happened down the street from you.
8. Don Jon – A lot of people seem to be taking the old adage to write what they know a little too literally. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt realizes that it doesn’t mean we want to know about what you went through necessarily [unless you happen to be Solomon Northrup (and I obviously hope you aren’t)], but that you can shape the things and the people you know into a story of its own.
So goes Don Jon, an incredibly insightful movie about someone who seems like kind of a dummy. His outlook is so simple and so fully realized, by the time it begins to slip away, you’re fighting against it with him, no matter how obvious or logical it may prove to be. Learning this along with him therefore, leaves as indelible impression as it does on him. All of it facilitated by effortless comedy that on the surface can pass for ordinary but almost always goes much deeper than that.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hit Record message might be bad news for our culture, which had embraced that everything-is-worthwhile mind-set well before he brought it up, but we can hope he sticks to it himself.
9. The Counselor – Never has there been more tension in a movie about an unnamed guy who doesn’t do anything.
You might spend all of The Counselor waiting for something. Not that nothing happens, but when it does, it generally involves people you don’t really know. But none of it is extraneous. It’s all connected, just not in that Seinfeldian or even Garry Marshall Holiday Extravaganza way. It’s all part of the terribly non-conventional story you’re being told.
Literally told. The crux of the movie lies in its dialogue. More than maybe any other ever has. Not because it can’t do anything else, or because you learn so much about the people populating it, but because there’s philosophical insight in everyone and it all feeds the one governing the destination of this one man, The Counselor. Names don’t matter, relationships don’t matter, because who you are doesn’t matter. It’s all brutally laid out in a fantastic cameo by one of many voices of (non)reason, Ruben Blades: It doesn’t matter what you do now. You’ve already done it.
10. Wadjda – I suppose this might qualify for the earned usage of daring as well. The first feature directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia probably was not the least challenging or safest endeavor imaginable. But unlike The Act Of Killing, it doesn’t remind you of that at any point.
While the titular character certainly has some challenges simply by virtue of being female, she doesn’t seem terribly bothered by it. Wadjda is largely oblivious to being a rebel, which makes her one of the most likeable ones you’re ever going to see. Of course, being a rebel in Saudi Arabia doesn’t take much. You write on your shoes, you tape things off the radio, you want to ride a bike. That’s way more than enough. Wadjda’s determination to do these things despite everyone’s misgivings is charming enough. These things serve as distraction from her splintered (but seemingly typical) home life, but for us it becomes a vital part of the multi-faceted picture of both a specific exotic situation as well as a deceptively universal one.
Gravity – Even some terribly forced dialogue cannot dilute the power of the most wrenchingly awesome imagery in cinema history.
Frances Ha – The weirdest performance of the year is also the most charismatic. You won’t even care that you can’t stand everyone Frances seems to like and what that might say about her.
The Spectacular Now – When was the last time you didn’t wonder what at least one half of an onscreen couple saw in the other?
Her – The future looks bright, but even technology can’t change some things.
The World’s End – The regular non-fantastical beginning is going so well, it’s almost disappointing when the robot/alien/replicants show up. But that, of course, is when it goes great.