I’m a little late with my best-of-the-year list this year, but a more relevant question is whether there even is such a thing as being late on this score. Looking back on my best-of-the-decade list, which I published at the tale end of 2009, I am struck by how different it would have looked, had I known – or seen – then what I have now. When compiling lists that are supposed to have a sheen of authority to them, time is not your enemy, it’s your friend.
I’m saying this to preface that in a year’s time, or even just in a few months, this list might look radically different. Even though I saw a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your point of view) 152 films in 2013 that I deemed eligible for consideration according to my increasingly elastic rules for inclusion (see below), a variety of constraints contributed to a sense that I had missed a higher number of essential contenders than usual. Consistent health problems prevented me from seeing as many movies in theaters as I would have in a normal year, and other movies were simply not available, so there are a few holes. Among the important releases that could alter my general view of 2013 once I get to see them, I count awards bait like The Butler and Captain Phillips, festival favorites Oh Boy, Child’s Pose and Blue Is The Warmest Color, and assorted critical favorites, hits and oddities, like Wolf Children, The World’s End, We Are The Best!, A Hijacking, A Touch of Sin, This Is The End, Enough Said, Trance, The Act of Killing, Prisoners and Don Jon.
And this is not to mention all the movies that won’t premiere in Norway until this year, and thus are considered 2014 titles on my calendar, like Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, American Hustle, Fruitvale Station, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street, among many, many others.
To repeat the usual criteria: Eligible movies include ones which received either a theatrical or DVD release, first-run on television or streaming sites. or a festival screening in Norway between January 1 and December 31, 2013. Festival films whose 2014 releases are already announced, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, are excluded. The rules mean that 2012 movies (or earlier) not released in Norway until this year, do qualify for inclusion. This mostly benefits last year’s Oscar contenders, loaded onto the Norwegian release schedule in the first quarter of the year. As will become clear, I have, however, made a pragmatic adjustment to include a film that has been released on DVD elsewhere in Europe within our timeframe, but which doesn’t have a Norwegian release.
I also have a tradition of filing a list of films that could most aptly be summed up as genuinely awful. A cold and bitter “I hate you” is hereby furiously screamed at Olympus Has Fallen, A Good Day to Die Hard, Elysium, Only God Forgives, The Lone Ranger, I Give It a Year, Parker, Red Dawn, After Earth, Lola Versus, Trouble With the Curve, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Pain & Gain, The Host, Gangster Squad and 2 Days in Paris. Unfortunately, this selection is by no means comprehensive. (And yes, that means that Julie Delpy was in both a top ten movie and my least favorite movie of 2013.)
Now, to the list!:
1. The Bling Ring (Dir: Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature effort was another disive one, summarily dismissed by large swaths of the critical community as a less garish, more detached comedy-of-manners sibling to Harmony Korine’s (hopelessly over-praised) Spring Breakers. The Bling Ring is broadly comedic, yes – not least helped by masterful but terrifying supporting performances by Emma Watson and Leslie Mann – but at its heart lies a drama much more astutely observed than the hot/cold ironic sentimentalism of Korine’s picture. I know I’m pretty much alone in playing up what it says about friendship and trust first (“Would you rob me?”) over the more obvious themes of materialism and celebrity culture, but it worked for me on both of those levels, transcending the zeigeisty frame with chilling sequences that most of all reminded me of movies like Bully (2001) or The Social Network (2010). In addition, of course, it’s a gorgeously shot social satire, from those cringe-iducing Emma Watson interviews to Israel’s Broussard’s character bragging, almost shyly, that he got 800 friends requests, and that first scene from Paris Hilton’s house, a ten minute tour de force of scripted trash TV dialog that nearly melted my brain. Oh, and let’s savor the scene with Audrina Partridge’s house. (I could go on.)
2. Before Midnight (Dir: Richard Linklater)
There’s no praise I can give this third installment of Linklater’s remarkable Before series that hasn’t already been awarded to it by the critical community, but the consensus holds. As Scott Tobias said in his review, it’s a movie about “trying to stay in love”, and it is one which is as aware of the flaws of its characters as the characters are of the flaws of the other. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke bring even more depth and nuance to their portraits of Celine and Jesse in this intimate character study, a less flashy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tug of love and war. Every scene feels indispensable, up to and including the one that offers that glimmer of hope.
3. The Spectacular Now (Dir: James Ponsoldt)
The standout in a trio of coming-of-age comedy/dramas that also included the very likable The Way Way Back and the criminally ignored Kings of Summer, James Ponsoldt’s third feature is the wisest teen movie I’ve seen in years. Instead of the usual, all-too-transparent rush to include the expected beats, The Spectacular Now is just real, imperfect people trying go find out what to do with their lives. Crucial scenes with Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk and male lead Miles Teller accomplish more in a few minutes than most movies manage in an hour-and-a-half, and the chemistry between Teller and Shalene Woodley is gently electric, bringing depth to what turns out to be surprisingly dark material. It also didn’t hurt that Phosphorescent’s Song For Zula already was my favorite song of the year.
4. Holy Motors (Dir: Leos Carax)
Holy Motors opened in Norway in April 2013. Here’s what I wrote after it screened at the Bergen International Film in October 2012:
On the face of it, style trumps plot in the audience favorite from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. That said, ideas trump style, and mood trumps ideas. If this leaves you confused about the true nature of Holy Motors, that’s sort of the point. If anything, this is a film about role-playing, beautifully shot, at the same time disorienting and strangely affectng (Accordion interludes! Kylie Minogue!). Denis Lavant’s actor/hitman/father/bum/romantic interest will disgust and fascinate you, and probably make you laugh. There is also a good chance you’ll hate the movie. I’ll take that debate.
5. The Past (Dir: Asghar Farhadi)
The Past has the thankless task of following the fantastic A Separation (2011) in Farhadi’s filmography, but as with The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, such parallel, auteurist approaches tend to sell it short. The are similarities, to be sure, but Farhadi’s culturally specific storytelling comes out great here, too. Farhadi made me feel like I could understand all the characters in this intricate yet accessible family drama, masterfully withholding information to build suspense and emotional investment in the outcome. The only winners in this power play are the viewers, but our payoffs are frequent, and expertly portioned out.
6. The Great Beauty (Dir: Paolo Sorrentino)
The title says it all in Paolo Sorrentino’s epic hommage to Rome, but in more ways than one. With a title like that, it’s almost contractually bound to be visually stunning, but there’s even a certain beauty to its depiction of the self-indulgent higher social circles in which our protagonist. a famous author, has seemingly unlimited access. Drawing on a long-standing tradition for social satire in Italian cinema, Sorrentino simultaneously and effortlessly creates a beautiful, expansive film about coming to terms with the life you’ve lived.
7. Zero Dark Thirty (Dir: Katheryn Bigelow)
Zero Dark Thirty premiered in Norway in February 2013. Here’s what I wrote around Oscar time last year:
[Zero Dark Thirty] elegantly transcends the important but somewhat overblown debate about its depiction of the role torture possibly played in the hunt for Osama bin-Laden, to become instead a searing portrait of the collective American psyche after the 9/11 attacks. To my mind, the movie does not condone torture in any way, nor does it relish in its depiction for the purpose of entertainment. My closest reference in recent American cinema is David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), another meticulously crafted thriller about a seemingly unsolvable crime, told from the perspective of a person driven to near-self-destruction by inner motivation. (…) [Zero Dark Thirty] has stayed with me as a meditation on how a nation copes with a national tragedy, the constant threat of violence and the perhaps understandable thirst for vengeance.
8. The Master (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Master plays like the perfect realization of its own theme: A movie that grinds you down slowly but surely, through half-answers, evasions and charisma, leaving you convinced that you’re at fault for not completely understanding its enigmatic qualities. In a weird way, that’s exactly what I love about it. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have a mesmerizing act-off in what was perhaps the coldest movie of the year.
9. The Wise Kids (Dir: Stephen Cone)
I had to bend the rules slightly to include this u drama, but in the end I just couldn’t leave it off. It follows a trio of teenagers all struggling with accepting who they really are, and not least to get accepted for that. As regular readers would know, I am a sucker for movies that take the trials and tribulations of young people seriously, and this small-town coming-of-story even handles the intersection between religion and sexuality with care and complexity. Tyler Ross (Nate & Margaret) stands out as a vulnerable gay teen in a stellar cast. While technically a 2011 film released elsewhere in 2012, The Wise Kids has yet to get a release in Norway. I wanted to call attention to it through this list. It deserves to be on here, because you can never have too many good teen dramas.
10. The We And The I (Dir: Michel Gondry)
An utterly singular film about teenagers and group dynamics, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I kind of came and went after its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes back in 2012. It’s a hyperactive and slightly disorienting experience at first, at you’re trying to acquant yourself with its sprawling cast of teenagers on a school bus home from the last day of school, but to me, its keenly observed sociological exploration of the emotional nuances of its characters was very compelling. As if a metaphor for the plot itself, with this movie it’s the journey not the destination that’s the point, and at the final stop it packs a surprising emotional punch.
You can find my full 2013 list on Mubi.