2013 was an outstanding year for cinema, and I say that having missed quite a few films I wanted to see. Here’s a rundown of my favorites of those I did manage to catch — including a few from previous years that I belatedly saw on Netflix or DVD. A couple of notes: I haven’t bothered to rank these in order of preference, though I did like some better than others. They’re just alphabetical. Also, I haven’t tried very hard to avoid spoilers, so if you care about that kind of thing, BEWARE!
12 Years a Slave – Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches in this depiction of a free black man’s capture by slave traders and subsequent years of abject servitude in the Deep South in the mid-1800s. Physical and emotional abuse, hideous overwork, and death by lynching or other means are the everyday realities by which he and his fellow slaves are surrounded, and as the months stretch into years we can see all the hope pressed out of Northup as if he were being slowly crushed in a vise. (Chiwetel Ejiofor is astonishing in this film.) Yet there is complexity to each person’s circumstances, and not all slaves are treated the same way. The contrast between Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey and Alfre Woodard’s Mistress Shaw is striking — almost surreally so. This attention to the particulars, as well as the formal beauty of the cinematography and the exceptional acting of the main characters, make the film much more than an evocation of misery and horror. It is a truly great work of art.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Set in an indeterminate future along the southern coast of Louisiana, this film is a mix of gritty specificity and magical realism that washes over you like a weird dream. I loved the imagery, the main character (a tiny girl who is always the fierce protagonist of her own story), and the music. Hell, I loved the whole thing. A wonderfully original creation. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)
Catching Fire – As an enormous fan of the Hunger Games books, I can’t say I come to the movies with a sense of critical detachment — for me, it’s all about how well they capture the essence of the original works. And this sequel was impressively faithful to the dystopian spirit of the series — more so than the first film, which softened and confused things a bit with its infamous shaky-cam. Under Francis Lawrence’s direction, Catching Fire looks straight at what is happening, and the result is both disturbing and gripping. When it ended, I found myself wondering if there were any other PG-rated franchise films that had ended on such a downbeat note, expecting you to come back for more. So far, I haven’t thought of any.
Fish Tank – A naturalistic and stark account of a few weeks in the life of Mia, a British teenager whose father is absent and whose mother acts more like a jealous and immature sibling than a parent. It’s easy to see why Mia is overflowing with anger, and it’s easy to identify with her as she reaches for the few sources of positivity in her life. That’s why her connection with her mother’s new boyfriend (played by Michael Fassbender) is so charged and ultimately gut-wrenching. A disturbing but vital film. (released in 2009, but first seen by me in 2013)
Friends with Kids – Two friends (played by Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) decide to platonically become parents to avoid the conventionality and stagnation that has overtaken their married friends. There is more than a whiff of romantic comedy cliché hovering, but the film defies expectations by taking the characters to some dark places and leading them to endings that are in some cases surprising, but all feel earned. (released in 2011, but first seen by me in 2013)
From Up on Poppy Hill – I was skeptical after Goro Miyazaki’s first Studio Ghibli outing, “Tales from Earthsea”, really disappointed, but I found this small-scale evocation of Japanese life in the 1960s to be funny, carefully observed, and quite touching. A favorite sequence was the trip several of the young protagonists took to Tokyo to convince an influential member of the school board to stop the demolition of a beloved building on their high school campus. Even though the lone female, Umi, is shy and hardly says anything, her words are carefully chosen and highly persuasive, and the important businessman is swayed. It’s a subtle and welcome statement on the power of authenticity and understatement as well as an intriguing depiction of gender roles in 1960s Japan.
Gravity – A film about grief, loneliness and the fragility of life. Sandra Bullock’s space-walking scientist is given a slim backstory to illustrate the themes, but the amazing visuals do most of the work. It was very easy to imagine myself floating in that vast sea of black with nothing to hold on to and very little chance of getting back to safety — at one point, I found myself on the verge of tears. I don’t think I was the only one. (Bullock’s darkly muttered, “I hate space,” roused one of the few laughs from the audience in my theater.) The final scenes — the only ones to take place on the Earth’s surface — are like a desperately awaited homecoming. I can’t think of another movie that has filled me with such a visceral feeling of love for this planet we all live on. Well done, Cuarón.
Moonrise Kingdom – Set in the 1960s on an island off the coast of New England, Wes Anderson’s 7th film is a tale of grand romance between two oddball children who run away together and get half the population chasing after them. Early on, it feels like pretty standard fare for Anderson, with its meticulously arranged compositions and eccentric humor, but as it goes on it loosens and expands into a third act climax of wild proportions, both meteorologically and emotionally. It’s simultaneously heartwarming and cathartic. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)
Thor: The Dark World – I may be an outlier on this, but I enjoyed this quite a bit more than the original Thor, which I found to be an awkward mix of Earth-bound romantic comedy and Asgardian bombast. There is a nonsensical and fairly boring villain in this sequel, but I was so entertained by the gonzo multiverse plot and the return of Loki that I didn’t really care. My favorite moment: the silent calculating stare between the tortured trickster and a super-powered warrior who has just broken everyone else out of Asgard’s prison, but departs without releasing Loki from his cell. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? Maybe not. Hiddleston continues to do a great job with this charming but completely untrustworthy character; you never know what he’s going to do. This might feel arbitrary and annoying eventually, but for now it’s still entertaining.
The World’s End – A 40-something alcoholic with a bad case of arrested development rounds up his old school buddies to have another go at an epic pub crawl they attempted in their younger days. Once they’re back in their hometown, they start to notice some unsettling changes that turn out to be a lot weirder and more otherworldly than any of them could have imagined. This third and last of the “Cornetto Trilogy” of films by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, is a darker and more interesting commentary on conventionality vs. individualism than its predecessors. Simon Pegg plays Gary King as an only-occasionally-charming asshole transparently using others to shore up a sense of personal failure; he’s really kind of pathetic. Yet his refusal to play by the rules ends up saving the day (sort of). If that makes him a hero, it’s of a rather broken and annoying kind. Strange as it might be, I like that ambiguity.
Zero Dark Thirty – A visual marvel (as I’ve come to expect from Kathryn Bigelow), but also an oddly emotionless depiction of brutal events and morally suspect actions on the part of the C.I.A. in the aftermath of 9/11 that left audiences unsure of how they were supposed to feel about what they had seen. It ended up being a sort of filmic Rorschach blot — reactions ran the gamut from outrage at the film’s perceived advocacy of torture to impassioned defenses of the filmmakers’ intentions and the importance of artistic complexity. The ensuing debates in the press and the blogosphere about “the war on terror” and what the thirst for revenge has done to American principles were fascinating and urgently needed — kudos to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for sparking them. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)