Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

I stopped counting how many movies I'd seen in 2013 when it hit one hundred. That was a few months ago, and that doesn't include the older movies I still watch on a regular basis. Hell, I finally saw Hell Comes to Frogtown, Ronin-Gai, Things to Come and marathoned two seasons of Person of Interest and the third season of Homeland...and that was last month. How I found the time for anything not made in 2013 is beyond me much less find the time to write about it.

But I like writing. Specifically, I "enjoy" writing. There's a difference between liking and enjoying something, I think. At least for me. I like movies. I enjoy writing about them. I find the process therapeutic, plus it helps me when I have writers block on other projects I'm kicking around.

So, for those hundred-something of films I saw, here are thirty in some sort of order. In reality, though, any of these are well worth your time no matter what bland and uninspired number sits next to them. Many could be re-arranged and I would be fine with them. Some of them I've already seen multiple times or have seen different cuts, but it's all essentially the same:

Great movies no matter the order, but here's an order to at least make reading about them interesting.

First up, as always, honorable mentions.


Honorable Mentions: Drinking Buddies, You're Next,  Rush, Upstream Color, The Wind Rises, Monsters University, Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena, In a World, Big Bad Wolves, Pain & Gain, Wadjda, Iron Man 3

At some point almost all of these were on this list, but upon further reflection, things move around and views change. Except for the fact they are all really good movies and you should see them.  But on to the main 30.



30: All is Lost

A harrowing tale of just a man, a boat, lots of water and the camera. I was concerned it might turn stagnant if not outright boring, but there's a command of the cinematic language going on here, all the more impressive considering it's it's only a second feature from the director. Then again, JC Chandlor's previous film, Margin Call, was an incredible debut. With Robert Redford selling every moment and Chandlor letting the experience wash over you (not dissimilar to Gravity in a way), All is Lost is one of the best thrillers of 2013.


29: The Way Way Back

"Dramedy." I hate that word. It sounds pretentious, like the word "pretentious." Or using the world "film." Anyways, this film is one of those that is difficult to describe. Yes, it's funny, but it's also a family drama. It finds humor in that, which isn't surprising considering this comes from The Descendants writing duo. Sam Rockwell arguably steals the show here, but the kids are the selling point with two great young leads.  Just a great coming-of-age story that doesn't ever feel forced as we live a summer that's probably not too dissimilar to some of your own.


28: The Hunt

The Hunt is an incredibly uncomfortable film to watch. Not just because of the subject matter, but how easily lies can destroy. It's on the short list for foreign Oscars but doesn't seem to be getting as much buzz. It plays the thriller and human drama angles so well, not to mention an ending that really stays with you not because of what it says or does, but what it implies. Mads Milkelsen is incredible in this movie as well and carries it as he is tested on about every emotional level you can think of.


27: Enough Said

There's really not enough going around about Enough Said, a wonderful comedy about re-finding love in middle-age. James Gandolfini shows no sign of the rougher, tough-guy roots people know him, and sometimes typecast him for, meanwhile Julia Louis Dreyfus shows she can easily be a leading lady in any movie if given the right script, and boy is this script right. Clever, funny without being forceful and often painfully honest, it's a gem that many have yet to discover and I hope they eventually will. It's the type of romantic-comedy I truly enjoy because it doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to make you laugh. It all comes naturally.


26: Dallas Buyers Club

Perhaps next to 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club is one of 2013's more "important" films. You know the kind: a movie that has more to say and show you than just a simple story. It took a couple decades to finally reach the screen, and it's one of those movies that can really stick with you well after it's over making that wait worth it. If you're going to tell the story, you better tell it right, and they do here. After 2013, with this, Mud and a brief stop in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey shows he's one of the best actors working today if you bothered to notice.


25: Spring Breakers

One of the most divisive films of the year, but there's one thing that both lovers and haters agree on: it's a movie that can be hard to shake off. It's like a fever-dream - drifting in and out of sanity and insanity as we float around shots of nudity, drugs, violence and James Franco being one scary lowlife. Then again, the supposed "good" girls are arguably scarier. Franco's "Alien" knows what he is and doesn't hide it, with our young co-eds, the darkness is far more subversive, and far more scarier. While I can easily see how this film is divisive, it's one you certainly can't forget about.


24: The Past

A latecomer that actually knocked some movies back and off the list, The Past is a family drama meets mystery tale. Much like The Hunt, also on my list, it has to do with lies and regrets, mistakes and rumors and people assuming and presuming everything. You wouldn't think to get so invested into this movie, but every scene seems to unravel something to be addressed in the next scene as we begin to put pieces together (of the past, hence the title) and try to understand it all. Also, the final credits sequence is beautiful. 


23: The World’s End

I have yet to see a movie by Edgar Wright I didn't love or enjoy or see a movie that Simon Pegg is in where he didn't make it better. The World's End hinges on both those elements, combining Wright's child-like glee of filmmaking and storytelling with Simon Pegg arguably doing the best acting of career. I mean really, Gary King is a fully-realized completely unique character that never feels like Pegg is acting at all. A bit darker than the previous films, and though the ending doesn't quite feel right at some moments, as though a few scenes were left on the cutting room floor, the journey is brilliant.


22: Captain Phillips

Ask and ye shall receive. I wanted good tension and good acting from Captain Phillips, and it succeeds immensely.  More interestingly, though, is our "bad guys" aren't painted as "bad." They're painted as "human beings" and that's something that's a bit unexpected. Less pirates taking a ship and hostages and more human beings with no options in life put to the test. Captain Phillips is a tight, taught thriller from beginning to end with a strong center of acting chops by Tom Hanks and supporting star Barkhad Abdi.

 


21: Mud

Oh, Mud. How sad so many of the year-end awards stuffs have forgotten you. This tale of adolescence and innocence lost is like the antithesis of what The Way Way Back might have put out there. Where as that is optimistic, this one isn't as much, though both leave it open to know or not know what the future entails for their characters. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has come in to his own as a new and distinct voice to watch out for.

 


20: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Every problem I had with the first Hobbit film becomes rectified in this second act, which is odd considering it's a second act and has no beginning or end. What it does have is great pace and great characters. Basically, it's always finding something to do and to make sure its relevant. If only it came out during a weaker year for film, it probably would place much higher. But as far as adventure and action goes, this one just hit every beat you could have asked it for. Enjoy it while it lasts, there's only one more of these left and high-fantasy will likely go dormant again afterwards.


19: Short Term 12

If you just showed a clip of Short Term 12 to a group of people, they might just mistake it for a documentary. It's a powerful piece of independent cinema that makes you forget that it's "just a movie." I wasn't entirely on board of Destin Cretton's debut feature, I am Not a Hipster, but this re-imagining/adaptation of his old short film shows a unique cinematic voice that will grip you with heartfelt emotions without the pandering, and the honesty without the soapbox.

 


18: The Place Beyond the Pines

The first really good movie I recall seeing in 2013, The Place Beyond the Pines didn't grip as many people as it did me, but this tale of fathers, sons and generations I couldn't tear myself away from. It's a film that people seem to love or hate, but I know I loved it and would be remiss if I didn't have it on my favorites list. It's a bit ponderous, but I liked the threads that it was creating and the points it was trying to make. And there's something about that final scene that is the purest expression of "bittersweet" that I can think of.

 


17: Maniac

2013 was a damn good year for horror and Maniac was my favorite one. As much as I enjoyed You're Next or was surprised by The Evil Dead or appreciated the old-school The Conjuring, Maniac just did something new and interesting and made me squirm more than once. From a technical standpoint alone, Maniac is fantastic, taking POV to a new level and without having to resort to "found footage" excuses. You're in a killer's head, and like it or not you're stuck there...just like he is. 


16: Inside Llewyn Davis

When it’s all said and done, and the history of film is written, the duo of Joel and Ethan Coen might just be at the top of the list of the greatest american filmmakers. Of course, making lists is stupid, much less attempting to rank things…wait a minute….

Anyways it's a musical, believe it or not, but it's a period-piece musical where it all makes sense and stunningly heartfelt. The ability of the Coens to always surprise me never surprises me. 


15: American Hustle

Farce: "A light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect." There's an odd backlash going against American Hustle, I've noticed. I can't really say why. At the end of the day, it's an incredibly entertaining movie and hard to not enjoy. Unless you go in to it expecting to not enjoy it, I assume, or not know what a farce is. It's a sloppy movie, don't get me wrong, but it's a fun, silly sloppy movie with hammy acting, outrageous clothing and a lot of humor that works. 


14: Pacific Rim

The most fun movie of 2013, a movie that understands and knows the elements it wants to work with. I applaud that. As much as I like ambition, I like an understanding of what to do and what not to do more. In the case of Pacific Rim, it understands to keep it basic and let the action speak for itself, unlike some other high-budget films this year that tried desperately to be more than they weren't. On an artistic level alone, a palette of neon and shattering metal with blue Kaiju blood, Pacific Rim was a feast for the senses and incredibly entertaining to boot. 


13: Blue is the Warmest Color

Though it's on many Top 10s, Blue is the Warmest Color just missed out here, but hey, it's still here now isn't it? Not always an easy watch, tracing the rise and fall of one relationship with such intimacy (and no, that doesn't just mean the explicit sex) is bold.  What sets it out from the norm are the two leads, and again not because of the explicit sex. There's a casualness to them that makes you understand them, believe them, invest in them and conversations that never feel forced even when they themselves are forceful with each other - more than enough to break your heart. 


12: The Wolverine

There were a handful of superhero movies in 2013, but this superhero movie really should be labeled with an asterix. Sure, it's based on a comic book hero, but it challenges your preconceptions of what that means. Instead of a boilerplate plot, we have a character study about regrets, redemption and finding love. The hate towards the movie makes no sense until you realize that the people complaining are probably the same ones that don't like to be tested like that. I do, and the superhero film needs more of it. Oh, and if you watch the unrated version, you're in for a treat which involves an ice-chopper, ninjas and lots of blood. 


11: Frozen

The surprise film of the year? Probably. Disney did it with Tangled a few years ago and repeated it here, even down to the bad marketing. But it didn't matter, it made a ton of money, has a wonderful story and some of the best music in an animated film in years (something often missing in animated films these days). Wonderful characters are what make this such a great movie, and that song...oh that song...once you hear it, you'll never forget it.

 


10: The Wolf of Wall Street

I love reading about people who think this movie "glorifies" the awful people in it. That makes me think they didn't see the movie, because there's nothing glorious about them. These are bad people doing bad things. Period. Not much different than gangsters in Scorsese's past works, and the line between those criminals and these is drawn pretty clearly if you've paid attention. Yes, they may make a lot of money...but they also have no souls. Scorsese is one of only a handful of directors that has sustained himself brilliantly for so long...and I hope he never slows down.


9: Fruitvale Station

There were a lot of films this year that pushed the emotional envelope - films that can truly move you or make you think or just reveal something you didn't know about. In the case of Fruitvale Station, it all comes together seamlessly and mostly thanks to Michael B. Jordan, a young actor that will make you take notice in his depiction of real-life Oscar, and how easy a life can end on any normal day.

 


8: Blue Jasmine

The more I sat and thought about Blue Jasmine, the more it rose in the ranks. I love the characters of this film. Despite the occasional contrivance, it's a character piece and a presentation of actors at their finest craft. It manages to be endearing without being sentimental, and comedic without trying. Cate Blanchette reminds us why she's one of the finest actors today as she paints a portrait of a woman who had everything and has to rebuild her life...and the struggles it would take to accept it. 


7: Frances Ha

I would be lying if I said that Frances Ha isn't on here because I see it as a mirror of sorts. It's about millennials and that lack of finding a path in life in today's world. Some might call us lazy, but in reality we're often looking for that "dream" we had ingrained to us as kids, and it takes a while to realize it's not going to happen. Frances is just that, and Frances Ha is Noah Baumbach's finest film. Also of note is the gorgeous cinematography of the film, rich and black and white calls back to Italian neo-realist cinema in both form and function. 


6: Prisoners

Thrillers rarely wow me anymore. Often times they try to be too clever or "twisty" for their own good. Often they forget about the human element. And often they have bad acting. None of that happens here. Sure, there are twists, but they come easy as you start to put the pieces together. A necklace here. A snake there. A photo you just glanced at. Supported by some wonderful directing and cinematography and damn-good performances, particularly Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners found a place on my list early on this year as a great, wonderfully paced slow-brew thriller. 


5: Before Midnight

If this is how they finalize the "Before" series of films, then it's a good farewell. I've always appreciated the approach to relationships these series have taken, but none moreso than Midnight because it offers a dash of honesty. Sunrise and Sunset were optimistic, good people having good things happen, but here it's as its title implies: eventually that honeymoon is over, and as life continues on, the flaws and cracks begin to be seen.

 


4: Gravity

A technical marvel. A ride of tension and intensity, ebbs and flows, a series of unfortunate events brought to the brink of what I have no problem calling an "experience" more than just a movie. Alfonso Cuaron knows how to manipulate you with the camera like few do today, taking long extended takes and making sure there's always something new or something revealing - to always have a purpose somewhere in the frame. Gravity seems to be one movie most people tend to agree on in 2013: there's nothing else like it. 

 


3: 12 Years a Slave

Whether you like it or not, 12 Years a Slave is, at the very least, an important film. Some might write it off as "oh...it's playing to the heart strings and going for sympathy." Yeah. So? It's also a record of a man. A man who went through a lot and came out the other side (to quote Shawshank Redemption). It's a look at not just the man, though, but the entire system and just how engrained it was in society. It was that easy to strip a man of everything he was to make him into nothing. Emotionally resonant, visually powerful, 12 Years a Slave is the Oscar-favorite for a reason, and I don't know a person that would complain if it swept. 


2: Nebraska

It's very much an "Alexander Payne" film. So think back to Sideways or The Descendents, what you liked and didn't like, and that's what you have here. The thing is...there's not a lot in this past films I didn't like, and therefore there's not a lot I didn't like in Nebraska either. It's a wonderful journey to take through the midwest, finding humor and humanity  in the most basic of places: your average family. 

 


1: Her

Is it unfair to put one of the last films I saw in 2013 at the top of the list? No. I mean, it's just a list of great movies, who cares? For me, though, Her just makes you think. No, not about the sci-fi aspects of falling in love with an artificial intelligence, though that's very much there, but about relationships in general, artificial or otherwise. What is "artificial" to begin with? It's a tale of love by way of Spike Jonze, capturing moments in a life, dealing with elements of break ups, falling in love, romance, the joy of good conversations, first date jitters, the needs and wants of people and never once making the fact that "Samantha" isn't a person the "thing" it hinges itself on. Her is a complex and poetic film that demands re-watching, and I can't wait to.


 

A few notes. There's a couple of films that I didn't get to see in time of putting up this list. True, they may or may not have made it, but at the same time I like to have everything ready for at least consideration. Despite mixed reviews, I know The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the type of movie I usually enjoy. The same can be said for Only God Forgives, a movie that I started yet didn't finish, and truth is it probably wouldn't have made the list but it might have made Honorable Mention.  Also, as usual, I leave documentaries off because those are so difficult to gauge. Blackfish, Sound City, A Band Called Death and The Stories We Tell are great and I never got around to seeing The Act of Killing.

But, as always, "lists of stuff" really mean little. A good film is a good film no matter the number next to it or the awards it garners. Go out there and enjoy some movies, folks. 


 

 


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