Saturday, January 25, 2014

My Favourite Films of 2013

It’s that time of year when the internet is flooded with top tens so I thought I’d add my own drop in an ocean of lists. A film qualifies for this list if it was first available to be seen in Ottawa sometime in 2013. This rules out those movies that received festival and limited releases in 2013 including The Wind Rises, Le Passé, La Grande Bellezza and many more. This also rules out Spike Jonze’s absolutely amazing Her, which would have ranked extremely high in this list if it was released earlier. I still have to catch up on a few but I have at this point seen 77 films that do qualify and because so many of them were so good this is going to be a long list (therefore I’ve written only a few short blurbs). Also, I’ve sort of presented the films from best to worst but please don’t take the order seriously because it’s slightly arbitrary, kind of slapdash and will certainly change over time. OK, wordy disclaimer done. Let’s get to it.

12 Years a Slave

“And that servant which knew his Lord's will... which knew his Lord's will and prepared not himself... prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes... D'ye hear that? Stripes. That nigger that don't take care, that don't obey his lord - that's his master - d'ye see? - that 'ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, "many" signifies a great many. Forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes.”
A rare case where every level of filmmaking comes together to create a work of staggering artistry, cultural importance, emotional power and dramatic intensity.

The Act of Killing

“All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets” -Voltaire
Surreal. Disturbing. Brilliant. One of the greatest artistic achievements of the year and one of the greatest documentaries of all time. 


“You have anybody down there, looking up in the sky waiting for you to come home?”
Good lord, the long takes! Cuarón and Lubezki make their triumphant return with a film that achieves the blockbuster ideal: visceral jaw-dropping action, an effectively minimalist narrative and ground-breaking special effects. Like Children of Men, it follows a character whose child has died long ago through a story about the survival of hope in an infertile environment told alternatingly through intense chaos and serene beauty.

The Wolf of Wall Street

“Oh my God, the emperor of Fucksville came down from Fucksville to give me a pass! Hey, what are the citizens of Fucksville doing today when their emperor's gone? Is it, is it mayhem? Are people looting and raping? What are all the little fuckheads doing while you're here?” (yeah, there’s over 500 F-bombs in this movie)
Scorsese and his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, sustain an incredible energy in this three hour, razor sharp satire of capitalism and hilarious comedy of debauchery and greed. It also features astonishingly funny work by Jonah Hill and probably the very best performance of DiCaprio’s illustrious career.

Before Midnight

“You are the fucking mayor of Crazytown.”
The exceptional dialogue and acting typical of the series continues exploring the clash of romance and idealism with reality to endlessly entertaining and heartbreaking effect. This belongs to one of the greatest trilogies of cinema. 

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Where’s the scrotum, Llewyn? Where’s the scrotum?”
What a sad, funny, beautiful film. Many elements of the Coen’s other films can be found here: chasing after something and losing your dignity (Miller’s Crossing, i.e. the hat/cat), the struggle between art and commerce (Barton Fink), emasculation (The Big Lebowski), a musical odyssey, a character named Ulysses and a man of constant sorrow (O Brother, Where Art Though?), existential despair (No Country for Old Men/most of their films) and existential comedy (A Serious Man). The grey, washed-out color palette is perfect and the exceptional music and lead performance are central to the film’s deep emotional resonance.

Frances Ha

“When did Puss n’ Boots start?” (one of the all-time most depressing lines)
Despite possibly being one of the more uplifting Baumbach pictures, as well as its incredible character-based cringe-meets-screwball sense of humour, this one really tapped into my fears for the future, for instance in the trip to Paris scene. So many elements of this Nouvelle Vague style film are richly detailed including the New York hipster dialogue and Gerwig’s outstanding performance.

Spring Breakers

“I am starting to think this is the most spiritual place I've ever been. I think we found ourselves here.”
The only thing I can be sure about of this movie is how great the cinematography and editing are. Racism, patriarchy, capitalism, violence, superficiality, irony; it involves these things yet is not about these things; it both critiques these things and revels in them and does neither. It is such a complex film that I think an evaluation of its quality is nearly impossible.


“There are fierce powers at work in the world, boys. Good, evil, poor luck, best luck. As men, we've got to take advantage where we can.”
While it’s no Take Shelter, this is a beautiful (although pretty conventional) coming-of-age drama with moments that evoke Spielberg-like feelings of wonder. The democratically empathetic story fleshes out the major characters and their motivations as it progresses. Jeff Nichols is 3 for 3.

The Place Beyond the Pines

“Got a kid? You wanna provide for that kid? You gotta do that using your skill set. And your skill set? Very unique”
Seductively cinematic, structurally bold, and gorgeously shot epic study of fatherhood. Derek Cianfrance trades the consistency and intimacy of his excellent and thematically similar previous feature, Blue Valentine, for a more ambitiously novelistic work.

The World’s End

“And if we needed to make a quick getaway, we'd say: "Exit, Pursued by a Bear". And then, it was: "Exit, Pursued by Yogi Bear". And then, it was just: "Let's Yogi and Boo-Boo". And then: "Let's Boo-Boo”
While it may not reach the comedic heights of his previous three features, it is Edgar Wright’s most thematically developed work to date.

Short Term 12

“Christ. That was my cupcake”
This is a ‘feel-good’ movie in the best possible sense. The emotional uplift is earned by the film’s willingness to explore the deep hurt of its characters which the script and performances bring to life with great nuance, naturalism and compassion.

Iron Man 3

“A true story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound... Chinese. But they're actually an American invention. Which is why they're hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth”
Subversive, surprising and funny with creative action scenes. Like Shane Black’s masterwork Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this has his personality all over it.

The Grandmaster

Wong Kar Wai brings his ‘liquid atmospherics’ aesthetic and romantic, melancholic tone to the wuxia genre. The low frame rate slow-motion, set and costume design, beautiful music, striking compositions and use of colour, light, shadow, rain, snow and steam all come together to create one gorgeous film. The final lines ‘what’s your style?’ is an open challenge from the cinema’s grandmaster of style.

Much Ado About Nothing

“O that she were here to write me down an ass. But masters, remember that I am an ass: though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.”
So. Much. Fun.

Blue Jasmine

“Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there's only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
A different kind of time travel movie than Midnight in Paris, this character study for 99%ers is focused primarily on Blanchet’s incredible performance but it’s offset beautifully by its ensemble cast (including the loveable Sally Hawkins).

The House I Live In

“It'd be one thing if it's draconian and it worked. But it's draconian, and it doesn't work”
This superbly edited documentary interrogates the history, politics, economics, racism and classism behind the American drug war. It touches on many of the themes of The Wire, in part because David Simon is the most prominent of a diverse group of talking heads.

The Counselor

“To partake of the stone's endless destiny, is that not the meaning of adornment? To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. At our noblest, we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”
A stylish, entertaining and completely fascinating neo-noir whose story and rich dialogue espouses a bleak fatalistic philosophy (embodied in the film’s ludicrous “bolito” device).

To the Wonder

“And you say, ‘I can’t command my emotions; they come and go like clouds.’ To that Christ says, ‘You shall love, whether you like it or not.’”
Malick’s worst film is a very good one (and the one the least amount of years in the making). It’s a profound exploration of both the beauty of the world and our failure to be happy in it. A crisis in faith, a couple falling out of love, and the earth’s shadow creating a line of dark blue above the horizon, all expertly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki.

A Touch of Sin

An anthology film made up of stories linked by little more than an animal motif, the theme of dehumanization in modern China and shifts into genre cinema violence (the English title is a reference to the wuxia classic A Touch of Zen).


“My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.”
Park Chan-wook once again displays his mastery of mood and visual composition in his first American film.

Cutie and the Boxer

“Love is a roar”
A moving portrait of two artists beautifully shot, edited and scored.

All Is Lost

The Spectacular Now

Like his previous film Smashed, Ponsoldt directs a conventional relationship and self-improvement story involving alcoholism. The uplifting coming-of-age tale is as charming as its lead actors and features an impressive supporting cast. The overall sincerity, authenticity and genuine sweetness of the picture make its clichés feel fresh and relatable.

Fruitvale Station

This intimate social realist drama depicting the final 24 hours in a young man’s life through handheld camerawork is an impressive directorial debut. Michael B. Jordan’s (Wallace from The Wire!) charming and complexly human performance evokes great pathos.

Very Honorable Mentions

I would feel horrible if I didn't mention the following films, so in no particular order, here are my honorable mentions:

Only God Forgives

“Wanna fight?”
Refn’s stylish, red and blue lit nightmare is an unforgettable experience. This Lynchian, Oedipal story of karaoke and ultra-violence is undoubtedly one of the best horror movies of the year.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth displays a real artistic maturation in the nine year gap between his first and second films. The same puzzle film style of storytelling that refused to speak down to its audience to a fault that was used in Primer is here applied to the arthouse film. There is room for a multiplicity of interpretations (both simple and complex) if the time and thought are put into it but it’s also just a crazy film to experience.


The Hunt

Intense and engrossing film from Dogma 95 veteran Vinterberg with Mikkelson displaying mad acting chops.

Drug War

Star Trek Into Darkness

“If it isn't Captain James Tiberius Perfect-Hair! Did you hear that? I called him ‘Perfect-Hair’.”

Monsters University

This Is the End

Dirty Wars

US-backed warlord: “America knows war. They are war masters…They are teachers. Great teachers.”
Covered-up unlawful killings of unprosecuted Americans, innocent men, (pregnant) women and children by American raids, drone strikes and US-approved warlords are revealed in this cinematic piece of investigative journalism. Sadly, the Obama administration’s most enduring legacy may be its covert and self-perpetuating method of warfare. See this film if you’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty (or if you haven’t).

American Hustle

Side Effects

Another absorbing experiment from a master formalist. An intelligently designed film that evolves as it goes on.

Well that about does ‘er, wraps ‘er all up. There are many other films I could mention, like Berberian Sound Studio and Stories We Tell and Captain Phillips and What Maisie Knew and 56 Up and Dallas Buyers Club and West of Memphis and Blancanieves and…oh, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves; catch you later on down the trail.