My goal as a critic is to write pieces that are both functional and artistic, that translate not only a film’s meaning but that have their own as well. A big part of what’s shaped my view on movies are the people I’ve made films with and spoken to about film over the years, so I asked friends whose work and perspectives on movies I admire the most – What was your best film of 2013? I was pleased with how many responded and even more pleased – and moved – by their eloquent and personal responses. Please enjoy:
The World’s End
by Chris Braak
Above and beyond how much I enjoy Edgar Wright as one of the most energetic and playful stylists working right now – in particular, the way he uses every corner of the screen, every incidental movement, in a way that is somehow intricate without being overloaded or over-composed – The World’s End is a brilliantly subversive reversal of a done-to-death science-fiction trope. One of the advantages of satire is that it doesn’t have to pretend to have answers, so The World’s End can quite comfortably take a completely ambivalent approach, simultaneously exposing the moral poverty of cultural interventionism and the nihilistic self-destruction that’s at the heart of much of our cultural sense of rebellion.
What makes it especially brilliant is how neatly and painfully it dovetails with addiction intervention, in a way that’s simultaneously cruel and critical and deeply passionate.
Chris Braak is a playwright and novelist who writes about storytelling and movies over at Threat Quality Press. He and I often disagree, which is exceptionally frustrating because he’s often right.
by Vanessa Tottle
Being in the field sucks. It’s supposed to be full of natural romance like I’m John Muir seeing Yosemite for the first time, but camping by the firelight with the same people day in and day out gets passive-aggressive real quick. We imagine making discoveries and naming them after each other, but a month’s dig is more likely to leave me coming away with a broken ankle or hookworm. That and too much time alone to think and miss, and I’m not good at being alone with my own brain.
You see, I had to survive once. It wasn’t in the wilderness or on a dig. It was my family, growing up. Gravity is about a woman being stranded with no outlet. No matter what she does, there’s a force she doesn’t understand out to get her. She has little, but even this is taken away from her regularly. It’s not personal; it’s the way of this big, vast universe she doesn’t understand. That was my childhood. And when this woman is ready to give up, a voice on a radio is what brings her out of her stupor. She hears it by pure chance, in a language she doesn’t understand, and it’s enough to keep her from giving up. When I realized there was another voice out there, nothing was going to stop me from finding more.
Sandra Bullock didn’t play a stranded astronaut. She played me, shoving a dresser against the door when I heard raised voices and wondering why the universe hated me so much. Then she heard a voice that cared and, even if it couldn’t understand, it was enough nourishment for her soul to make her press on. That’s what sci-fi is about, right? A source of hope. Getting better. As a species, as an individual. Now when I break a bone, I’m thankful I’m the cause of it, and it’s because I heard enough voices along the way that I’m doing something I never thought I could, thank you very much.
Vanessa Tottle is completing the approximately 1,000 years of education it takes to become a paleontologist. When she’s not digging up bits of bone in barren landscapes, she’s kind enough to be my primary screenplay editor.
The Act of Killing
by Kevan Tucker
Though 2013 was one of the best years for film in recent memory, The Act of Killing is in a league of its own. It is an exploration of evil unlike anything that’s been made before and could only have been made in the medium of film. It allows us to watch as people who committed genocide take pride in, compartmentalize and regret their actions. We would like to believe that horrifying acts are done by monsters, but The Act of Killing‘s depiction of evil is more terrifying because it is so human. The subjects of the film are as bizarre, funny and relatable as they are horrifying. It shows how their actions actually rest, however uncomfortably, on the normal scale of human emotion.
The Act of Killing is also a testament to the power of art, particularly film. Not only is it a documentary that has created real political change but it is a study of the psychological process of making movies. In trying to recreate their experiences of committing genocide on camera, we get to see these killers-turned-directors unintentionally reveal themselves through each decision of how to tell their stories. As any filmmaker or artist knows, each detail and choice you make is a reflection of your thoughts, perceptions and prejudices. And examining each of those choices forces you to see them in new lights and through different points of view. Throughout The Act of Killing, we see these men’s perceptions of the past change – or stubbornly remain the same – as they present their stories to us. And their bizarre recreations of reality bring us far closer to truth than we would be able to get any other way. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever witnessed, one of the best movies ever made and should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in history, psychology or film.
Kevan Tucker is the director of the searing, coming-of-age film The Unidentified and the comedy web series Compulsive Love.
by Alessia Palanti
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, and time is the ontological backdrop of Shane Carruth’s masterwork Upstream Color. The film is a haunting, psychotropic experience. It combs through identity and memory, its gaps and fillings and their reciprocal definitions, only to arrive at their quintessential knottiness. Within the narrative, characters are hypnotized by a mysterious worm: the central element of an unidentifiable experiment that jeopardizes and interrogates identity. Simultaneously, the audience in the theatre is hypnotized by the Deleuzian spirals, where distinctions are the “things in themselves” and undermine the notion of anything existing prior to differences. In other words, the film traverses an elemental spectrum, where Carruth so closely zooms in on nuances that the difference between any one object – or idea, for that matter – is forgotten. And, as memory is key to the film (time, that is, in its personal articulations), Upstream tests on the audience a similar experiment undergone by its characters.
While the film may be reminiscent of the styles of Terrence Malick, David Lynch, and Wim Wenders, Carruth really stands alone. With his previous film, Primer (2005), he cemented his scientific cinematic inclinations, where the viewer is merely a fly on the wall of two friends testing the possibilities and dangers of a time machine apparatus. If you are a metaphysical scientist watching the film, you are in luck; if not, the dialogue is an overwhelming but intriguing mass of jargon. Upstream extends the metaphysics inborn in the director’s thematic choices, but braids them with mesmerizing aesthetics, and – although disjointed – a philosophically anchored narrative.
The film’s complex and enigmatic nature demands multiple viewings. It is a 96-minute vortex of synaesthetic enrapture. And if it leaves your blood shaky and your mind dizzy with questions whose answers you both urgently require and urgently reject, it has, indeed, done its work.
Alessia Palanti knows more about film than anyone else I know (don’t tell her I said that), and is no slouch at classical European lit either. She writes about film theory in independent and foreign-language cinema at Camera Obscura.
12 Years a Slave
by Tim O’Neill
My favorite film of 2013 was 12 Years a Slave, the kind of daring, high profile film that only gets made once in a decade. Steve McQueen’s direction is impervious to melodrama, a crowning feat in and of itself considering the subject matter. The resulting matter-of-fact narrative forces the audience to find it’s own meaning, or lack thereof, buried within the layer of broken characters. Single shots tell complete stories as those characters shift within the ambiguous landscape of survival, submission and sacrifice. Solomon Northup wants to escape back to his family, and for a while I thought he might, but ultimately he must accept the painful fact that he cannot succeed by strength or cunning, only by patience. As the credits rolled, I found myself yearning for a catharsis that was not there, filled with the unsettling feeling that perhaps not all stories, even those about universal cruelty, can be reduced to good guys and bad guys. Rarely has a movie this boldly restrained garnered the attention it so richly deserved.
Tim O’Neill is an editor whose credits range from The Unidentified to the TV documentary Tracker and Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. And he’s just getting started.
by Shay Fevre
Before I saw The Counselor, one of the smartest people I know described it to me as “frustrating, sick, and unbelievable.” Once I saw it, I decided I agreed with the first two. In the movie industry, it’s very easy to be financially and physically taken advantage of. I act in some risque movies, but I know what choices cross a line. It’s a different line for everybody, but the moment I cross it, I stop feeling at home in my own skin. I quit for a few years because I just had enough. A lot of actresses – A LOT – cross that line for promises of later opportunity. It’s easy to say they were stupid, or senseless, or ignorant, and that people who act desperately are poor and insane and beg and commit crime, right? But those aren’t the people who choose or ask someone else to choose something they normally wouldn’t allow.
In my world, the most valuable commodity is a certain lifestyle. The currency you trade to reach it is self-worth. The chronic, impulse buyers are the ones who have tasted success. It doesn’t matter to them if they’re lifestyle is great – they have a chemical reaction in their brain telling them MORE of that lifestyle will fill a hole that’s created because they already traded so much of themselves away. I think The Counselor is one of the few movies I saw in 2013 that makes much sense of both sides of the equation, and portrays what someone psychologically loses when they realize they can’t go back to how they once were.
Shay Fevre is an actress and model who escapes L.A. as often as possible. She once beat an abusive director up with her shoe. She’s launching her own production company in the coming year.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
by Russ Schwartz
I’m pretty sure that my favorite movie of 2013 is 12 Years a Slave; the only problem is, I haven’t seen it yet. I just didn’t see many movies this year. Until I see it, my favorite movie of 2013 is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Not because it’s any kind of Great Movie – I mean, I saw Gravity and that was better – but because it somehow escaped its boring, smug, annoying predecessor to become a surprising and exciting fantasy picture that made me want more. I hated the first one for letting you know what it was going to do and then finding ways to drag it out, like one of those sports or rags-to-riches movies where you spend hours of your life waiting for some urchin in hardship to get discovered or make the team or some other bullsh*t, but with kids murdering each other.
But Catching Fire – man, somehow they made it a treat to see Katniss and Peeta forced to think, to deal, to plan! Who knew (apart from those who read the books)? The sequel doesn’t telegraph its structure, giving it an immediacy that made me connect with characters I didn’t give a crap about the first time around. In my favorite sequence, the combatants band together in a show of bad sportsmanship and spin to protest the games themselves, one-upping each other to find ways to beg the audience for their lives. This is the movie where cunning, heart, and imagination enter the series; suddenly, the world of Panem and its heroes matter.
Russ Schwartz is an actor, playwright, and producer who co-founded The Penny Seats Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, MI.
by Keith Ward
Spike Jonze’s fourth feature Her might not be the best movie of 2013, but it was certainly the one that fascinated me the most. Science fiction is at its best when it serves as a critique of the era it was created in. Set at some unspecified date in the future, technology has exacerbated mankind’s introverted tendencies to the point where damn near everybody is constantly plugged into their devices. Our quiet protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) even feels the need to buy a digital companion. Scarlett Johansson plays Samantha, in what is my favorite performance of the year. Sam is an operating system: a sentient computerized life-form designed to not only fulfill the needs of the person who purchases her, but to evolve intellectually and emotionally in her own right.
Johansson, an actor and model admired for her physical appearance as much as her acting ability, brings her character to life entirely through her vocal performance. Samantha has no body, so we only get to really know and care for her through her voice. The romance that she forms with Theodore feels very much like the equivalent of a long-distance relationship. This all-too common modern phenomenon has never been so uniquely portrayed. There’s only so much that you can do through phone conversations, texting, cyber sex and other conceits of social media to keep the passion alive. Affairs of the heart require some physical contact, regardless of how cerebral and self-possessed the participants are.
Keith Ward works as a Patient Care Advocate by day, actor by night. He’s playing the lead in the upcoming feature Beyond Hello.
by J.P. Hitesman
Without a doubt, the year-end release of Her catapulted its way to the top of my best of 2013 list. I am always the most impacted by stories that explore subjects rooted in humanity, and this film fit that bill in a creative and unpredictable way. It also offered an elegant simplicity with its small cast, taut storyline and emotionally affecting performances. Joaquin Phoenix, starring as the sensitive main character, Theodore, continues to impress with his career revitalization just a year after going to opposite extremes with The Master. Amy Adams (who co-starred with Phoenix in both) exudes a warm versatility that ought to have been more recognized as the film was released practically in tandem with American Hustle. Rooney Mara continues a run of sharp and committed performances. Olivia Wilde appears briefly in a key sequence but seemed better used here than in any larger role I have seen her perform. And Scarlett Johansson ties the film together in a unique way with her voice-only role, which was recorded after principal filming had been completed – with another actress in that part. She maintained a unique and original structure to the story, while playing with the audience’s (possible) expectations of her physical on-screen persona. But I most recall the story of the film, and am considering seeing it again just for that, as it plays with the necessities and wonderment and confusion of our modern age in such a thoughtful way that it’s impossible not to be affected by the humanity, honesty, and emotional realism of Theodore and the women in his life.
J.P. Hitesman is the Renaissance Man of any theatre or stage he steps on. He blogs about theatre and film at TheatricalBuddhaMan.
The Great Gatsby
by Jessica Greenberg
The Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann has a beautiful production design that appeals to my theatre design sensibilities. Luhrmann has a theatricality to his aesthetic in both design and performance that I’ve also enjoyed in his other films, like Moulin Rouge or Romeo & Juliet. I love the way The Great Gatsby blends iconic 1920’s scenic, costume and lighting elements with a present day editing style and soundtrack.
Jessica Greenberg is a lighting designer and Assistant Professor of Theatre Design at Weber State University. View the impressive scope of her work here.
by Erin Snyder
I think this is the first time my pick for best of the year is the sequel to something I called the worst movie of its year. But The Wolverine managed to bury the bad memories of sitting through 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and even redeemed elements of X-Men 3. If you saw The Wolverine and are baffled as to how anyone could claim it was the best movie of 2013, it’s probably because we’re talking about different films. As much as I enjoyed the theatrical cut, I’d never seriously call it the best of the year. The unrated Extended Edition, on the other hand, is the hard-R Wolverine movie that comic book geeks have always wanted. Even the theatrical version delivered the best version of Logan we’ve seen in live-action to date, then overshadowed him with two female characters more interesting and – in some ways – more badass than him. But if you’re a geek and you’ve only seen the PG-13 version, you owe it to yourself to track down the extended edition. In addition to the violence, you’re missing out on a great deal of character development and far superior pacing. But let’s not understate the significance of that violence: this is a Wolverine movie we’re talking about.
Erin Snyder writes The Middle Room, focusing on sci-fi and fantasy movies, and co-writes with his wife a seasonal favorite of mine, the irreverent and addictive Mainlining Christmas.
A few others didn’t get the chance to write something or are still writing it, but named their best films. Writer Bryan DeGuire chose Inside Llewyn Davis, documentary filmmaker Amy Grumbling chose The Act of Killing, musician Azeem Khan chose Fruitvale Station, and graphic artist Eden O’Nuallain chose Side Effects.
My own choice for the best film of 2013 is The Place Beyond the Pines, which I write about in my previous post.