It was very difficult to pick one “best film” of 2013. Usually, the choice is remarkably simple. Overall though, this year left me feeling cold. Everyone seemed to flock to The Hunger Games and Star Trek, but they were likely bored silly with their cliched plots and terrible scripts.
What’s more disturbing is the fact that so many films that bombed it left Hollywood in a sort of quagmire. Studios throwing money at blockbusters, but audiences are wising up to the scheme and avoiding garbage like RIPD. They don’t know how to respond, and the problem has the potential to get bad very quick. I can’t say that Hollywood will die. But I can say that these next few years will be difficult if something doesn’t change. And studios don’t seem like they’re willing to ask the important questions to start that change.
What they need to do is ask is, what are films supposed to do for us. Movies are supposed to be entertaining, it’s true. But they are also meant to show us things we otherwise could not see. They are supposed to teach us about human nature. They are supposed to arrive at an emotional truth and give us pause. They are supposed to stir something in us, be it a memory, a dream, a fantasy, or a longing for something we’ve never been able to identify.
There was one film this that I felt accomplished that mission. It was a hit with audiences without pandering to their lowest values. It used effects to create something new rather than to be lazy with its storytelling. Even if it was not philosophical, it was still smart enough to tear down Hollywood conventions and remind people what movies are supposed to do for them.
I couldn’t be happier that it came along.
The Best Film of 2013
Gravity (dir: Alfonso Cuaron)
As I pointed out in my original review, Gravity is a rare film set in space that doesn’t try to weigh itself down with existentialist musings on man’s place in the universe. The set up is quite simple, actually. People are trapped in a place where they have no hope for survival. They plead, they try to save themselves, and they sometimes wonder what the point of struggling is if there is no hope for survival. There have been many thrillers that take this approach with their characters. Some are good, some are quite bad.
Yet Gravity feels fresh and original. Not just because the effects are as realistic as could be made, but because the characters are that strong. It subtly helped increase the isolation of the situation as they try to talk about really boring moments in their lives. One astronaut is obsessed with telling everyone random stories that happened nearly thirty years ago. He is not even allowed to get to a punch line before disaster strikes. The film succeeds because everyone feels so human. They act as any of us probably would react in this situation. There are no heroes – it’s all about survival.
Most Hollywood films have to at least have one super being who is indestructible and who will not be changed by the time the film ends. That’s part of the reason why they’re so obsessed with super heroes; it gives filmmakers an excuse to use that trope. Gravity inverts that by taking the same sort of effects that would have been reserved for Spiderman 8: Many Broken Windows and use it for a humanist tale about standing up against the odds.
At its heart, Gravity is a thriller that could have been attempted by any number of filmmakers. But only Alfonso Cuaron was willing to ask how that environment would feel to people stuck in such a hopeless situation. It does leave us in awe about the technology man has crafted – and how fragile that is in our universe. It was a film that had never been seen before and rewarded people who were willing to take a chance with its unusual setting. That is precisely what we needed in 2013.
The Remaining Nine
This rounds out my list. I have once again placed them in alphabetical order, as I feel that it is impossible to rank them. These films each have different goals and methods to accomplish them. How can I possibly say that one is better than the other? But each did demonstrate that there are still those who care about art in a year that was obsessed with product.
American Hustle (dir: David O. Russell)– Russell’s ode to Martin Scorsese is as exciting as any crime thriller of the last decade. It is also the most desperately energetic film since Goodfellas. Christian Bale’s Irving is such a bizarre caricature that he comes across as the truest human being in the film. The parallels between him and Henry Hill are noteworthy. All of the characters transform from evil to good and back, smashing any lines of morality most filmmakers are obsessed with following for the sake of the audience. It is also not afraid to admit that it the whole idea behind the ABSCAM scandal is a hilarious farce, showing how most people in power are interested in advancing themselves rather than bringing justice and revealing wrongdoing.
Blue is the Warmest Color (dir: Abdellatif Kechiche) – This film is the greatest film about relationships and people in love since the now classic In the Mood for Love. The film lets audiences live someone else’s life and see how they can change and grow. The film starts with a young high schooler named Adele who is starting to question her sexuality. She meets local art student Emma and they form a passionate affair that lasts for years. The film is three hours long, but that time flies by and I wanted to see even more of Adele’s life. The film avoids most of the conventions about relationships – it feels like a documentary. Everything about the film feels so refreshingly honest about everything from homosexuality to what it’s like to come of age in this society. Finally, Blue features the two best female performances of the year.
Captain Philips (dir: Paul Greengrass)– This is the best action film of the year. Captain Philips is an expertly directed film about an event people were aware of but never really understood. It has faced criticism for being inaccurate, but the film does create an emotional truth about a man captured by people who are so desperate that they feel the only way to save their families is to commit horrible crimes. Muse, the lead pirate, is one of cinema’s great villains – a man who is not evil but is so eager to convince everyone he is. It also represents a great comeback – Tom Hanks also hasn’t given a performance this good since at least 1998.
Frances Ha (dir: Noah Baumbach) – Everything that Lena Dunham does wrong, Francis Ha does right. Whereas Dunham is hopelessly romantic and about as deep and insightful as Nia Vardalos, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are brutally honest about millenial artists. Their examination of the New York hipster subculture is hilarious in how presents these hopeless people who think that their artistic ambitions is a great replacement for actual talent. Gerwig’s performance isn’t the best of the year, but it does have a certain power to it. I know many people who are like her – heck, more than one person I know would probably say I am her. I have a feeling that as millenials age this film will only grow in stature.
Inside Llewyn Davis (dir: Joel and Ethan Coen)- I’ve never understood why the life of the broke sixties folk musicians were the ultimate romantic figure. I don’t own a single Bob Dylan album and I never intend to buy one. The Coen brothers apparently agree with me. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a romantic portrait of the titular artist. But it is very evocative of the folk music scene of the 1960s and is even structured like a classic folk record. It makes me appreciate the genre of music and features the usual cast of Coen weirdos whose performances stay with you long after the credits roll. There is something so addictive about the Coen’s work – their slices of life manage to be realistic and farcical at the same time. They are completely familiar but ridiculous and unrealistic – life is funny that way sometimes. And the soundtrack is great – Oscar Isaac has an amazing singing voice.
Much Ado About Nothing (dir: Joss Whedon)- This is, essentially, the greatest home movie every made. For those who don’t remember, director Joss Whedon was worn out after directing The Avengers. So, his wife suggested he direct a film for himself rather than for any studio. He turned to Shakespeare and shot the movie in his own house, casting the friends he had worked with on his TV shows. The film works as an examination of how stories work and move audiences. The play is as good as it always has been despite the low production values – you don’t need millions of dollars if your script is good. Everyone just seems to be having a wonderful time, something that is missing from almost every Marvel sequel released.
Nebraska (dir: Alexander Payne)- Bruce Dern deserves an Oscar for his performance in this film. Beyond that, the film so gloriously sticks its head in the past that it could have been released as a BBS art film in the late 1960s without turning heads. Why did they take this approach? Because Nebraska is also the perfect representation of the dying American dream and how the recession has changed the fabric of the country. The small towns in this film are dilapidated messes, much like the character of Woody. Money has become something to settle old grudges and gain a tiny moment of happiness in an increasingly unsatisfying reality – there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for anyone anymore. The dialogue is also the funniest of the year.
Pacific Rim (dir: Guillermo del Toro)-One of the great disappointments of 2013 was that Pacific Rim was unable to find the mass audience it deserved in America. The film is an incredible achievement of special effects, making the gigantic battle scenes appropriately awe inspiring without giving us headaches. The film also creates a world in which giant monsters actually exist and people are reacting to them beyond screaming at them. Has any Godzilla film ever managed that? The film is meant to be a tribute to giant monsters but ends up being the best of that genre. Pacific Rim is a tribute that shows how people can love a genre and how they can make their own monster film in the future. These are the sort of things that inspire the next generation of filmmakers.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (dir: Alex Gibney)- As depicted in the film, Julian Assange bears more than a few resemblances to Orson Welles’ Charlie Kane. Like Kane, Assange was a man who managed to do great things but was brought down by an enormous ego and a sex scandal. But Kane never had to deal with the threat of assassinations or unjust jail sentences. What’s great about Alex Gibney’s film is that, for such a polarizing figure, it plays fair. And it does not diminish Assange’s accomplishments but does not treat him as a larger than life hero. It also demonstrates why his actions are important and will go down in history. The footage he published of the military’s murder of Reuter’s journalists is just as shocking as it always has been – as is Assange and Chelsea Manning’s efforts to get this vital moment to the public. The Fifth Estate covered similar ground, but was dead on arrival with audiences. However, the story is too important to ignore and Gibney’s film knows it.