Movie Bummys 2014: Best Movies of 2013

I find myself explaining this every year, but it seems necessary. The reasons I wait till September to do the Bummys are these:

  • It gives me some space from the hype cycle that inevitably colors everyone’s year-end lists in the middle of awards season.
  • It gives me a chance to watch everything I want to watch, though I never actually get to watch everything.
  • Hindsight is 20/20.

I realize in this Internet age, everyone reading this forgot we had a 2013 last year, and so these posts are borderline irrelevant to everyone’s life. I missed the window by about 10 months. But I don’t care. Hopefully you’ll see something on this list that interests you, something different from the kind of movie you usually watch. Maybe you’ll seek it out at your local library or Netflix or Blockbuster (R.I.P.), and you’ll find you like it. That would be the greatest success for me.

Top Ten

movies1010. The Past: Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s premiere filmmaker, knows melodrama better than any American director. If The Past were an American movie (even an independent film), all the little holes in the backstory would be filled in early on, and we’d be waiting for the cathartic ending that reminded us why life is worth it. I’m not saying that would be a bad movie, but The Past as it is will always be the better version. Farhadi knows that the hook of the movie (Why is Marie’s daughter, Lucie, really against her mother getting married to Samir?) isn’t the ultimate point. He knows it’s all in that final shot, the shot of a hand we’re all waiting on to move. Sometimes life doesn’t have cathartic endings, and we just keep waiting.

movies099. American Hustle: In my review of American Hustle I complained about the cop-out of an ending. I don’t think I was wrong, but in looking back at 2013, American Hustle, in all its imperfection, stands out as one of the most exciting movies of the year. I want to pin it all on the spectacular cast, but then I remember the stomach-flipping pop music and David O. Russell’s hyperkinetic camera movements, both matching the chaotic nature of the characters and the story without removing you from either. You could dwell on the fact that literally none of the movie is believable as a story, whether it had been fiction or truly non-fiction. But in dwelling, you’d miss the sheer audacity of everything onscreen. So just sit back and enjoy the bullshit in all its coiffed glory.

movies088. Short Term 12: I’m learning all too well and all too quickly at my job in the Oklahoma City school system that you can’t help everyone. There are too many kids that come through your school, and they’re going to leave, so you love them the best you can with the time you have and you let them go. Short Term 12 is the story of a woman coming to terms with this reality at the group home she helps run. Brie Larson gets the starring role she deserves, and the teenage actors they chose for the kids at the group home deserve starring roles of their own someday. But the kicker of Short Term 12 is that maybe the best way to come to terms with having the kids only for the short term is to fight as hard as you can against that transience.

movies077. The World’s End: One of several comedies last year about the apocalypse, The World’s End stood head and shoulders above the rest. This Is the End had an equally wacked out ending, but The World’s End is far nuttier throughout. As the end of an ostensible trilogy, you’d expect some measure of closure for the man-child Simon Pegg has played in all three. And director Edgar Wright does get to some lesson-learning, but you end up caring a lot less about that than the uncharted directions he takes the story. Comedies are so often limited by the need to please the audience; Wright and Co. know the best way to please the audience is to forget about them and make something totally and completely different.

movies066. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass’s movies are simple, finding fascinating the routine processes we go through before our lives are thrown into chaos. And once a wrench is thrown into the mix, Greengrass is methodical in showing you how his characters fight to maintain an even keel. Tom Hanks gives perhaps his best performance as the titular captain, fighting to protect his crew and maintain peace when Somali pirates (led by Muse, played by the remarkable Barkhad Abdi) board his ship and take them hostage. True to Greengrass’s M.O., it’s all fairly straightforward, until it’s not. At some point, you have to grapple with the fact that the Somalis come across onscreen just as human as the Americans; it’s a good time to remember this, in light of ISIS and the terrible stories we’re hearing from Iraq.

movies055. Gravity: Space is the final frontier, so it only makes sense that the most pioneering movies should take place there. Even so, Gravity was a wholly unexpected delight last year. Sure, we’d known Alfonso Cuarón was making it, and we knew it would be good, because Children of Men. But we didn’t know it was going to be this good. Sure, the critics can’t help but bring up the simplistic screenplay, but aren’t you nitpicking at that point? Gravity, as an experience, swept me up utterly and completely, and I don’t think my feet have touched the ground since.

movies044. Inside Llewyn Davis: It’s about the cat. I’ve been trying to come to some sort of conclusion as to why I like this movie when its protagonist (and, come to think of it, most of the cast) is pretty loathsome. Yes, it’s beautifully shot by the Coen brothers; its circular plot is rich with themes about art and death and accomplishment; and the music is sublime. But still, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a total jerk. It’s the cat; he takes care of it the whole movie, so he must be okay, right?

movies033. Her: Frankly, the trailers sell this movie short. They make Her out to be a twee romantic comedy between a dweeb and his iPad. I’m not saying that’s not true, but Her contains so much more. There’s a moment in Her when Samantha (the AI operating system that Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with, as voiced by Scarlett Johansson) interjects into an otherwise normal conversation between humans a comment about how she’s glad she doesn’t have a body and won’t be limited by death. The other people (humans) in the conversation look around at each other, and Chris Pratt’s character says, “Yikes,” while we watch Theodore cringe and look as if he’s about to defend Samantha or maybe chastise her. Her isn’t a comedy, so much as a detailed study of how relationships dissolve after one of the parties has changed and the other hasn’t.

movies022. Before Midnight: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood sounds amazing, but Linklater already did this trick, and arguably more effectively, since he had three movies to really let the passage of time sink in rather than one. Going back to watch Before Sunrise or Sunset is like stepping in the time machine of someone else’s life. Before Midnight brings us Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in middle age, after we’ve already seen them in their hopeful early 20s and their beaten down late 20s. Now they are both disillusioned and married with kids (Yes, those two are mutually exclusive), though Jesse is more apt to adopt a devil-may-care attitude than Celine’s more cynical approach. Midnight gives us the same kinds of deep, philosophical conversations as the first two, but more people are included, which is a nice change. But the climax is just Jesse and Celine in their hotel room, fighting the same fights they’ve fought both out loud and in their minds when they bite their tongues, wondering if they were really meant to be together or to stay together.

movies011. 12 Years a Slave: Sometimes the most awarded film really is the best; it may have been recognized for the wrong reasons, but it still deserves that recognition. Sometimes decisions made to be on the right side of history are still the right decisions. Sometimes it takes a Brit to tell America’s most shameful story. Sometimes it’s worth sitting through a story that induces such shame in order to confront your own prejudices, to find your place in a drama that forces you to make decisions about your own morality. Sometimes keeping the camera still while your black star hangs from a rope is the right choice, so the audience can confront what our country allowed to happen over and over and over again. Sometimes black people should be allowed to direct movies, because white people aren’t the only auteurs in the world. But let’s not make any hasty judgments here- this is only sometimes. Most of the time white people should direct, because most of the great movies have been made by white people. Most of the time we shouldn’t let our cameras linger on hate crimes, because it’s upsetting. Most of the time we should avoid movies like this, because they’ll be hard to sit through. Most of the time Americans should make movies about race too, higher-grossing movies, about white people saving black people, like The Help or The Blind Side– those were hits, let’s make more of those! Most of the time people don’t want brilliant movies, they just want to see what they’ve seen before. Most of the time these kinds of movies are just made for the awards, anyway. 12 Years a Slave is the exception, not the rule. We wouldn’t want to learn any lessons here, would we?

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: I wish more movies were bold enough to tell their stories through their visuals as much as through their dialogue. But that’s what makes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints so precious. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster are unforgettable as, respectively, an outlaw, his bride, and the man that enters her life after her husband goes to prison.

Blue Caprice: Chilling in its sober depiction of the Beltway snipers. Last year, my wife began watching a series of CNN documentaries on the most horrendous American crimes of the 20th century, and we both watched the installment on this 2002 incident. Blue Caprice and its star, Isaiah Washington, give far more insight into the thoughts that go through a killer’s mind than any documentary ever could.

The Conjuring: A fairly standard horror film that’s far more than the sum of its parts due to an attention to detail, particularly when it comes to its character development. The Conjuring is plenty scary, thanks to James Wan’s direction, but it’s scarier because Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Lili Taylor give us plenty of reasons to care about the characters. These aren’t your typical horror movie bimbos; these are real people whose lives are threatened.

Fruitvale Station: It’s a testament to how strong the performances were this year that Michael B. Jordan’s in Fruitvale Station didn’t make my Top 5 Best Actors. But he’s stupendous in this movie, as real as real gets. There’s never a bad time to revisit this heartbreaking movie about the day that Oscar Grant III was shot by a confused cop, but now may be the best time.

The Great Beauty: It’s easy to see why critics compared The Great Beauty to the Fellini classic La Dolce Vita. They share similar predilections for excess and ennui. But Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece is more concerned with admiring the beauty of Rome, eventually finding some sort of meaning within it; Fellini’s enjoyed aspects of Rome’s beauty, but it was far too jaded to find any meaning.

The Great Gatsby: Did anyone else love this movie? My affection for Gatsby is big and unabashed. You could never mistake it for the masterpiece of the book, but director Baz Luhrman does capture something of the American dream and all its perils, helped mightily by Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Did anyone else love this movie either? The Butler is a joy to watch, putting aside the fact that half of the movie is completely fabricated for the sake of the movie. You forget the movie’s backstory and just focus on the brilliant product on the screen, scenery-chewing performances by all the star cameos as 20th-century political figures, pulpy plot developments, and grounding performances by the great Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

Let the Fire Burn: Anyone surprised by Ferguson hasn’t heard the story of MOVE. In 1985 (a short 29 years ago), the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the cult organization’s headquarters in the middle of the city and allowed the resulting flames to spread and kill members of MOVE, as well as a children inside the building. The director Jason Osder takes the refreshing approach of using only archival footage; no annoying talking heads here.

Monsters University: Another underrated mainstream gem. Apparently this is on the lower end of Pixar’s output, but I loved Monsters University, maybe even more than the original. It starts as a typical college movie, albeit with monsters, but it takes a more creative turn in the third act that elevates it among Pixar’s best.

Much Ado About Nothing: To go from The Avengers to a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation set in his house was quite the magic trick by Joss Whedon. But the real magic is how natural the whole cast is in one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Whedon finds clever ways to use his house to aid in the development of both the plot and the characters, giving us a small delight of a film.

No: Released near the beginning of 2013 and included in the nominees for that year’s Academy Awards, everyone seems to have forgotten about No. Telling the story of a 1988 advertising campaign in Chile to get people to vote against the incumbent president in Chile’s first election in decades, director Pablo Larraín made one of the year’s most visually interesting movies. You see the potential of advertising to fight to influence people’s minds, and Gael García Bernal gives the movie its human center.

Room 237: Admittedly, this movie probably won’t appeal to most people, unless you have a genuine appreciation for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and have a desire to listen to slightly delusional people illuminate their theories on what it all means. Their ideas range from intriguing to downright ludicrous, such as the one that posits that Kubrick made The Shining to apologize for helping to fake the Apollo II moon landing. Room 237 is a fascinating deep dive into how we interact with great art and an ode to Kubrick’s meticulous eye for detail.

Star Trek into Darkness: Much maligned by fanboys and critics alike, Star Trek into Darkness was actually the best action movie of last summer. I get the idea that J.J. Abrams and the filmmakers might have borrowed a little too much from the original Wrath of Khan, but it just didn’t bother me. The new versions of these characters are so well-established, and the movie was paced so well, that I easily overlooked their reliance on the earlier story’s beats to revel in the exciting action sequences.

Stories We Tell: The theme of this documentary is right there in the title: we tell stories for a variety of reasons, but a main motive is to make sense of our lives. Filmmaker Sarah Polley interviews her family to tell the story of her childhood and her complicated relationship with her father. I won’t spoil any of the revelations she includes, but I will say that if this film is any indication, along with her first fiction feature Away from Her, Polley is already a master storyteller.

These Birds Walk: Another stellar documentary. 2013 was the year for non-fiction films to break from the documentary’s usually rigid formats in order to more fully tell their stories. These Birds Walk shows us the children who seek shelter at the Edhi Foundation in Pakistan, presenting a visual poem of sorts about their broken lives.

Previous Top Tens

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

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