I have two criteria to determine the most overlooked films of 2013. First, the film had to have made less than $25 million in its theatrical run. Now, $25 million is a lot of money; I certainly wouldn’t turn it down. When it comes to movies, though, 99 made more than that in their U.S. runs last year. I may champion Oblivion as a sci-fi classic and argue that The Lone Ranger is cleverly subversive, but they both made a good chunk of change last year. That means audiences saw them. They’re not allowed on this list, especially when I can sneak them into my introduction. Second, to be overlooked means the film earned no major awards consideration. Dallas Buyers Club and Inside Llewyn Davis each earned a handful of Oscar nominations, so they’ll get four straight hours of advertising on March 2. Here are my most overlooked films of 2013:
In The East, a corporate intelligence agent, Sarah, goes undercover with a domestic, eco-terrorist group. Star and co-writer Brit Marling herself spent time with an anarchist group in order to research the role. The film is both a criticism of the mega-corporations that consider undrinkable water or unthinkable side effects the costs of doing business, as well as a judgment against the groups that claim the answer is drastic violence. As is the case with many terrorist acts, Sarah reveals that the group’s ideological claims are nothing more than excuses for vengeance based on personal grudges. She is caught between two groups too invested in destroying each other, obsessed with winning rather than doing the right thing. The East is thrilling and has some profound points to make. Marling sticks to the most independent of indie films, but she’s on her way to becoming a terrifically important actress. The East also proves that Ellen Page (Juno), as one of the anarchists, can do more than just play a quirky kid. It’s rated PG-13.
In a World, one of the best comedies to have come out last year, stars Lake Bell (who also wrote and directed) as Carol, a vocal coach who trains actors how to get rid of or develop an accent. Her father, Sam, is an iconic voice-over actor whose booming voice accompanies the most legendary of movie previews. It’s a big deal for both when a new trilogy of films announces it’s bringing back the most epic of voice-over gigs, starting with the words, “In a world…” Sam insists a serious movie can’t advertise with a woman’s voice-over, and Carol does what most kids do when a parent tells them they can’t do something. It’s a simple premise done well as the two compete for the role. Unlike most movies about Hollywood, this one avoids industry in-jokes and plays more like a romantic comedy. Comedian Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry (“The Daily Show”), and Eva Longoria (delightfully butchering a cockney English accent) co-star. It’s rated R for some brief sexual references.
Mud is the very definition of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Two Arkansas kids, Ellis and Neckbone, sneak out at night to explore the swamps along the Mississippi River. They dock at a lonely island and come across a drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He’s waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but needs the boys’ help. See, he can’t go into town because cops and bounty hunters are looking for him. Neckbone comes from a broken family and Ellis’s is breaking around him, so Ellis increasingly looks at Mud’s plight as his last chance to have faith in family and love. The tension is first-rate and McConaughey delivers a spellbinding performance. “Mud” is rated PG-13, and reminds me of a less fantastical version of the slow-boil movies Steven Spielberg made when he was first getting started.
Side Effects is allegedly Steven Soderbergh’s last feature film, so I’ll bend my $25 million rule just this once. He’s the most dynamic director of our time, best known for Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brokovich, and Traffic. Here, Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays Emily Taylor, a woman suffering from manic depression. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is a Wall Street banker just being released from jail. Soderbergh hits a lot of points early on. The same way convicts develop gang connections in high-security jails, Martin uses a minimum-security prison to develop his Wall Street connections. Emily goes through a retinue of pharmaceuticals, each with new side effects, before her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) decides to try her out on a new, experimental drug. Soonafter, Emily begins to sleepwalk. Tip of the day – don’t sleepwalk and try to dice vegetables with a kitchen knife at the same time.
Side Effects goes through a lot of twists and turns. It lets you outsmart it just long enough to outsmart you. What starts as psychiatric drama becomes a legal thriller, and as soon as you’ve settled into that, you’re watching a family drama turn into a conspiracy film with shades of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run films. If there were an Oscar for Best Twists and Turns, this’d be the film to get it. Soderbergh’s career is defined by changing style from one film to the next, so if this is his swan song, it’s a fitting one. A film that changes genre, tone, and protagonist so quickly can’t just pass a genre sniff test; it can’t just be functional. It has to be a very good movie in each of its genres. That’s where Soderbergh is better than any other director, and that’s where he takes most advantage of Mara and Law – their characters suffer the drama and threat, but there’s always a hint of the actors having fun with it. It’s an approach that keeps heavy material very light on its feet. Side Effects is rated R.
Spring Breakers. I’ve already written a good amount on the qualities of the film and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance of James Franco as rapper/courtroom-pickup-artist Alien, so let me preface by saying this: Spring Breakers is not appropriate for anybody. It’s a film that levies judgment on a materialistic, celebrity culture by being absolutely obsessed with it. We follow four college girls to spring break in Miami, where they’re arrested on drug charges. Alien bails them out with an offer to chauffeur them around the city for a day. He introduces them to a hedonistic lifestyle that hits on the darkly possessive side in many.
One in particular turns away from the temptation, a girl named Faith (Selena Gomez), while the others draw into Alien’s wiles. I have my doubts as to whether Gomez is capable of succeeding as a serious actor. She’s got more than enough comedic timing and popularity to lead her own sitcom, so I applaud her for taking on thankless roles when she could still be printing money out of Disney. Sometimes a role is lightning-in-a-bottle, and her last scene opposite Franco, the moral tatters of one girl being broken down by a remorseless, consumptive creature without conscience, is the terrifying, overwhelming heart to a film that’s simultaneously very difficult and disturbingly easy to watch. Spring Breakers might be the film we most deserve right now, a hard-R-rated movie so sex-and-drug filled that it numbs the viewer to either, edited the way rap songs are tape-looped, constantly recursive to the point of cannibalizing itself. It’s balanced between the repercussion-free zone of absurdism and your own conscience. It’s a brilliant achievement.
You’re Next is both my favorite horror movie and dark comedy of 2013. The set-up seems familiar. Three masked attackers invade a home and terrorize a helpless family, but there are a few things that make You’re Next different. The first is how passive-aggressive this family is. Even as they get picked off one by one, they can’t stop bickering. The second is the twist, halfway through the film, that gives the attackers’ actions their logic and turns everything on its head. The third is that one son brought a date, Erin (Sharni Vinson), who was raised as a survivalist in the Australian outback. Setting traps and fighting back, she’ll quickly become one of your favorite horror movie heroes. You’re Next is rated R.