Best Movies of 2013: Staff Picks

Survey any group of 10 to 15 people from different cities around the world about their favorite movies of the year and you’re sure to get some varied responses. So much goes into the accumulation of our favorites in any given year of cinema. It depends upon what is available where we live, what our social circle is talking about and what we have time for on any given Friday night. It also depends heavily on one’s commitment to seeing as many movies as possible, so as to curate a well-rounded list. That last part is what makes the members of the Film School Rejects staff a group whose lists are worth reading: we all eat, sleep and live movies. So our lists, however varied, don’t just represent a few good movies, they are evidence of a year of ups-and-downs. Evidence of blood, sweat and tears shed in dedication to the cause of weeding out the best of cinema 2013.

It all leads us here, to our annual Staff Picks. This year, we not only asked our staffers to each provide their five best movies of the year, we have used those lists to create an aggregated list of the Ten Best Movies of 2013. The aggregated list includes not just the lists you’ll see herein, but also that of our lead critic Rob Hunter, whose individual list will be published next week in the Critic’s Picks article. All in all, the staff nominated 31 different films among the best of the year. All ten of the top ten received multiple votes, with our number one film receiving a unanimous 8 votes to be named best film of the year. What is that best film of the year? Click on through the break to find out.

To view any of the individual top five lists, click on the names below:

The Top Ten Movies of 2013, according to the FSR Staff:

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Short Term 12
  4. Her
  5. Gravity
  6. Upstream Color
  7. The Wolf of Wall Street
  8. Frances Ha
  9. Stories We Tell
  10. Pacific Rim
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Neil Miller

Publisher
Austin, TX

Gravity

The work that Alfonso Cuaron and his technical team did with their saga of space solitude is nothing short of pure movie magic. In an era dominated by glossy, obvious CGI effects and 3D overload, it was nice to see something that felt like old school craftsmanship, all while being far ahead of its time. The story of an astronaut trying to survive the vacuum of space is simple enough, but it’s the relentless roller coaster ride of Gravity that made it one of the most memorable theatrical experiences not just of this year, but of many years.

Short Term 12

Toward the end of the year it can be easy to forget about little movies from early year film festivals. Sometimes they get lost amongst the onslaught of Oscar marketing campaigns. Luckily there is nothing forgettable about Short Term 12 and Brie Larson’s breakout performance. I would go as far as to say that it has one of the better ensemble casts of the year, from troubled teens to the wavering spirits of 20-something counselors at a short term care facility for youths. Add to that the spectacularly moving script and steady handed directorial work of Destin Cretton and it’s not hard to see why Short Term 12 is the breakout film of 2013. Across the board, this movie is showing us that young talent is alive and well in Hollywood.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth doesn’t make movies that you simply watch, he makes movies that you feel in your chest. Like his previous effort PrimerUpstream Color has not shortness of density. But the emotional resonance is unavoidable, even for an audience member who isn’t entirely following along with the story. A strong central performance from Amy Seimetz is one of the more overlooked performances of the year. In fact, overlooked might be the best way to describe Upstream Color as a whole, outside those of us who had already been following Carruth’s work.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Some things get better with age. Fine wines, a good book, Marty Scorsese. The latter has come into some sort of quaalude-infused autumn period of his career, in which he and Leonardo DiCaprio have together become completely unhinged. The good news is that we all get to watch the result in the form of this highly energetic, seamlessly magnetic 3-hour film about the excess and greed of Wall Street. It’s the shortest 3-hour movie of all-time and perhaps one of the most electric performances that Leo DiCaprio will ever have. As I noted previously (and won’t ever find a way to say it better), The Wolf of Wall Street “takes off like a shot and never lets up. It’s surreal and exhausting and inarguably brilliant.”

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen has made a name for himself making challenging movies. From Hunger to Shame, he’s never shied away from the darker aspects of the human condition. With 12 Years a Slave, he’s made his most accessible film, as it chronicles a dark mark on our country’s history that has reverberated throughout the generations that followed. But even with a film that speaks to a broader audience, McQueen has maintained the hardened authenticity that has become his signature style. This film presents a brutal vision of slavery in America that feels free of any inhibition that may have come had it been made by an American. It’s a tough watch, but there’s no arguing the fact that 12 Years a Slave is one of the most finely made films of the year.

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Scott Beggs

Managing Editor
Germany

Gravity

Living overseas has limited my ability to see certain movies (and the opportunity to catch stuff like Oblivion early has its downsides), which is why I’m thankful for blockbusters that deliver. There’s a reason this stunning piece of cinema was chosen as our film of the year: it was a powerful conversation starter that also felt deeply, personally experiential. I can never thank Alfonso Cuaron enough for taking me to space or for giving me a coronary with that final breath-holder.

Mud

If you’d told me five years ago that Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon were working together, I’d have bet money it was Sweet Home Alabama 2. Instead, they’ve bolstered a heartfelt and often difficult piece of summer heat. A sucker for Jeff Nichols’ films who still thinks Take Shelter was criminally underwatched, I was overjoyed to see him tackle of coming-of-age story that felt like Stand By Me with a southern mafia taking over Kiefer Sutherland’s role. Nichols has reached a stride, and with McConaughey in the middle of his career redesign, they’ve made something sweaty and magical. No surprise from one of the American masters of interpersonal drama.

Upstream Color

It seems like cinema needs to be injected with a Shane Carruth movie every once in a while to rattle our veins and confuse us into poetic submission. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that treatment more than once a decade from now on. This gorgeous, painful romance is a perfect example of a slightly difficult puzzle being endlessly rewarding. Carruth and Amy Seimetz share a cold chemistry as two people formerly (and unknown to them) destroyed by conspiracy, and while mainstream flicks push more and more toward a spoonfed diet, Carruth delivers all the pieces while delightfully omitting the rules of the game. Few films are interested in the audience actively discovering as an act of watching, but if Carruth (as writer/director/producer/actor/etc.) can maintain the quality level, we’ll all do better to take our medicine more often.

The World’s End

Oh fuck off, ya big lamp! Everyone in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto closer was a walking gag until we got to share a pint with them. The storytelling patience here is beyond impressive, and the jokes are even bigger. Instead of relying on old familiarity, Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were ambitious enough to build something new that pushes the emotion of nostalgia against scenes where Pegg slams into a fence. A tricky balance that few could pull off, there are even fewer who would have had the guts to stick with that ending. The don’t call him The King for nothin’.

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh created something suspicious and tantalizing with this thriller about psychiatry and pill popping. A Hitchcock for the 21st century. Rooney Mara is a magnet as usual and Jude Law sinks into a vulnerable heroic role without getting aggro, but the real star is the unraveling thread that leads to the dark heart of this fantastic, level-headed piece of insanity. As devastating a popcorn-inhaling experience as we’ve had in years.

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Kate Erbland

Associate Editor
New York, NY

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ tale of a folk singer drop-out never-was (not even a has-been, a never-was) has plenty to recommend it – aces acting, catchy jams, a rambling story, a vividly remade New York City, a bunch of cats – but what stuck with me many months after first seeing it was the slow-simmering sadness lurking just below the surface. Oscar Isaac’s big heartbreak isn’t that he’s not going to make it at this singing racket, it’s that he no longer has a partner to share that pain with, as his old pal Mike Timlin heaved himself off the George Washington Bridge some time prior. Llewyn might fight on, but it’s out of stubbornness, not a search for salvation. Oh, and it’s also funny (I swear).

Frances Ha

If you could somehow bottle joy and exuberance and fun and youth and then throw that mixture on to the big screen, you might have some sense of how damn delightful Noah Baumbach’s Greta Gerwig-starring coming-of-age comedy is. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, the heart of the film is about friendships (and friendships that come and go), but when Gerwig’s Frances is tasked with breaking free of her broken best friendship, she excels. Fine, she stumbles and trips and spends way too much money, but she eventually soars in the sweetest way possible. If you can’t smile after seeing Frances Ha, I am fairly certain we can’t be friends (please smile after seeing Frances Ha).

Her

Yes, Spike Jonze’s latest romance is about a man who falls in love with his operating system and yes, that sounds like some sort of commentary on society, but what’s most striking about the film is that, well, it’s not. Her is actually sort of timeless, because it doesn’t matter that Joaquin Phoenix is in love with his AI-influenced computer, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, because the struggles the duo face in their relationship can easily translate to human-only romances. Put it this way – you could be a technophobe who is afraid of Apple products, but as long as you’ve struggled to make things work with someone you love, Her will still strike a chord with you.

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s powerful period piece is must-see entertainment, an important historical artifact that also serves as a showcase to his craft and the commitment of his talented actors. The film is no easy watch, but it’s a fulfilling one, rich with the kind of details and emotions we don’t often see.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

If the only thing you know about Blue Is the Warmest Color is that the three-hour-plus epic has a mess of graphic sex scenes in it, well, that’s the pretty much the main thing that most people know about the film, and we can’t blame you for that. But while the film does have plenty of erotic interludes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s bold production is much more satisfying when it comes to emotions. Adele Exarchopoulos turns in a staggering, starmaking performance as young Adele, who blossoms and crumbles repeatedly before our very eyes.

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Christopher Campbell

Weekend Editor
Atlanta, Georgia

Stories We Tell

It’s incredible to see the little girl from one of my top five favorite films of 1989 grow up to direct my very favorite film of 2013. Then again, she also made one of the few fiction works to make my top ten last year, so I should just accept Sarah Polley as one of the best filmmakers of today, period. This one is a personal documentary about her late mother, who died when Polley was 11, and it features her family and friends offering memories, some of them conflicting with others’ or merely less clearly recalled. Including a big twist of a revelation and a bunch of reenactments that you’d swear were archival footage, this doc is full of surprises and it plays with your perception in a way that makes it the best nonfiction work to invite Rashomon comparisons since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. And the best “home movie” since Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March.

Inside Llewyn Davis

It’s one of my least favorite Coen Brothers movies, but in most years that they put out movies they take the number one slot. I don’t really like the soundtrack (and I like a lot of ’60s folk), don’t really care for Carey Mulligan in it and much of the time while watching it I wasn’t interested in what was occurring on screen, yet I came out loving it, thinking about it continuously since. The ending is one of the greatest game-changers as far as making me re-consider all that I’d just watched. It also helps my favor subjectively that I really identified with the character and his life for all good and bad reasons. It may just grow on me enough to become one of my most favorite Coen Brothers movies in the coming years, or maybe I’ll lose interest in it down the line. For now it’s at least the one that’s percolated in the mind the longest afterward. It’s in my head as a whole far more than “Please Mr. Kennedy” is, thankfully.

Vivan Las Antipodas

I’ve always loved maps and globes, and this documentary by Victor Kossakovsky is a gift to any geography enthusiast. But this film, which uses the gimmicky conceit of spotlighting antipodal locations around the world (as in diametric opposites, such as Hawaii/Boswana, and rural Argentina/Shanghai) is a marvel for any viewer who appreciates the variety of life and terrain we have on Earth and the promise of seeing things in whole new ways. And it’s not all about the spectacular cinematography, as there are some enjoyable narratives, such as one favorite involving a lost dog in a very strange place to live.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Very few “narrative” films completely held my interest or attention this year, but Martin Scorsese’s latest had me leaned forward, eyes glued, mouth either agape or in wide smile, wholly captivated for all 257,760 frames on screen. I wanted to re-watch it immediately. It is hilarious, disturbing, delightful and infuriating but most importantly both smart and entertaining from start to finish. Not one bad (or more appropriately ill-fitting) performance among the bunch, and I’m especially grateful for finally realizing the subtly brilliant talents of Kyle Chandler.

This Ain’t California

There’s been very little talk of this German documentary, and what little there is has mostly been complaints that it’s not really a documentary. I say it is, but in the context of this list which includes both fiction and nonfiction cinema, it sure doesn’t matter. It’s a terrific, riveting film about the skateboarding scene in East Germany in the 1980s, only it focuses on a made up individual to move the history along. Director Martin Persiel isn’t out to fool us nor does he mean for this to be a “mockumentary” as it does aim for a certain kind of truth. I really hope that eventually the controversy or stigma involved with its style and level of accuracy disappears and this becomes at least a cult classic down the road.

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Adam Bellotto

Contributor
Richmond, Virginia

Inside Llewyn Davis

Finally, a movie for the cat lover in all of us. Llewyn Davis’ feline counterparts mean so much, they represent his hero’s journey and his loss of innocence, draw parallels to James Joyce and Homer, and even inspire a tasteful scrotum joke or two. Of course, Inside Llewyn Davis has other merits, too. It’s unbelievably well acted, running the gamut from the subtle (Oscar Isaac and Carrie Mulligan) to the screamingly unstable (John Goodman). It’s also a deft blend of A Serious Man‘s dark comic weirdness and O’ Brother Where Art Thou‘s adventurous musical weirdness; a film that runs dry and somber, only to sing out its true emotions in gorgeous song… and the occasional cat scrotum.

Gravity

That 17-minute long take at the start of Gravity does what so many have tried (and failed) to do: make something legitimate out of the 3D craze. The 74 minutes that follow do something even more incredible: they’ve converted me into a Sandra Bullock fan, after years of scoffing at The Blind Side and Crash and Miss Congeniality. Now if only Gravity would get an Oscar season re-release, and it could legitimize that too.

Pacific Rim

Is Pacific Rim well-acted? No. Well written? Not really. But when Guillermo Del Toro picks up his 2,000 ton, $100m action figures and starts to play pretend, Pacific Rim is the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in years. It’s pure, unadulterated entertainment, and a worthy successor to the crown Destroy All Monsters has been holding for decades.

The Act of Killing

Watching The Act of Killing is a little like being held hostage by a movie screen. It delves into the ugliest humanity has to offer; a world where a man fondly chuckles to himself as he recalls finding his stepfather’s mutilated corpse, or where women and children volunteer to be horrifically assaulted on film. The film’s bright pink hues and its goofy surrealism threaten to make the film lighthearted (clearly an effect of Stockholm Syndrome), but then Anwar Congo or one of his many colleagues will laugh off another war crime and you’ll go right back to being disgusted and fascinated all at the same time.

12 Years a Slave

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a that far outclasses the most unfairly stacked cast in recent memory. Steve McQueen applies his chilly, unflinching eye to the Hollywood epic (and a subject that’s normally met with sappy sentimentality) and comes away with a perfectly realized vision of American slavery. There’s a reason critics were falling over themselves to proclaim 12 Years a Slave the greatest movie about slavery ever made.

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Allison Loring

Contributor
Los Angeles, California

Stoker

Everything about Stoker is odd from the character’s behavior to the focus on off-putting sounds to the way the movie is filmed to look like it exists in a time all its own – but that is also what makes Stoker such a stand out. Chan-wook Park creates a unique world that keeps you on edge while never allowing you to look away. Tied together with beautifully haunting score from Clint Mansell and fearless performances from the entire cast, Stoker is one of those rare films that embodies the fear of human nature while still depicting it in a compelling way.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Coming across like a fever dream, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints takes the story of an outlaw and turns it into a slow dance. The film is an aching tale surrounded by beautiful cinematography as Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster play characters we have seen before, but in a whole new way. The story may have familiar elements, but the way director David Lowery approaches the narrative strips things down to their bones and what is left is endlessly captivating.

Short Term 12

Brie Larson had a breakout year, and her performance in Short Term 12 proves why. Larson seamlessly sinks into the skin of Grace and creates a character that feels real, but is amazing to watch as she tackles so many different emotions in a single scene without ever going over the top. Larson is surrounded by a solid cast that take this simple story of life in a foster care home and turn it into something more.

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen knows how to tackle a difficult story and proves his skills once again with 12 Years a Slave. He rounds up some of this year’s best performances and sets them against ironically beautiful backgrounds as we watch the brutality happening within them. 12 Years a Slave will make you feel anger, sadness, hope, and horror – sometimes all at once – to create a palpable film-going experience. (Something McQueen is the master at doing.)

Fruitvalle Station

First time director Ryan Coogler creates a slow burn of a narrative that packs one of the most intense emotional punches of the year. Based on the true story of Oscar Grant, Fruitvalle Station is driven by Michael B. Jordan who proves he is a talent to watch as he delivers a layered performance of this troubled young man with a target on his back. Real and raw, Fruitvalle Station never shies away from its combustible subject matter, but still leaves you wanting to know more.

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Jack Giroux

Contributor
Los Angeles, California

The Congress

Ari Forman’s incredible science-fiction film. It’s a mesmerizing experience that might have Robin Wright’s best performance to date. Forman shows us a future, and performance, we’ve never seen before.

Mr. Nobody

The Congress and Mr. Nobody would make for a perfect double-feature, as both films explore the power of choice in their own ways. This long-delayed drama finally came to the US this year, and it was well worth the wait.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s rise and fall story is his funniest film since After Hours. This epic moves as ruthlessly as its lead, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), on coke. Belfort is a total buffoon, but what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so great is you still empathize with that buffoon by the end, no matter how insane he acts.

Inside Llewyn Davis

A 104 minute journey all about failure. Sounds fun, right? Well, in the hands of the Coen Brothers, Llewyn Davis self-inflicted woes make for great entertainment and drama.

Her

The most honest movie about relationships is about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his OS (Scarlett Johansson). One of the few filmmakers working today who can fill such a concept with humanity, passion, and care is writer/director Spike Jonze. Like his introverted characters, Jonze just gets people.

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Kevin Carr

Contributor
Columbus, Ohio

Captain Phillips

Damn the haters! Damn the truth reports! Damn the makers of Dramamine! I don’t care if Captain Phillips isn’t the most accurate account of what happened on the Maersk Alabama. Paul Greengrass delivered one hell of a nail-biter with this film. The cast was excellent, spearheaded by Tom Hanks in a superbly understated performance, as well as newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader. Like Greengrass’s other harrowing real-life award contender United 93, Captain Phillips put the viewer on deck with the action, and while I knew how the events unfolded, I remained on the edge of my seat until the very end.

Gravity

Like Captain Phillips, this is a gripping film with excellent performances. Not only does Sandra Bullock command the screen throughout the film (often being the only person on screen), director Alfonso Cuarón takes us through a maze of survival with brilliant special effects, nerve-wracking pacing, and beautiful cinematography. I know Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave the film what-for on Twitter after seeing it, but for Earth lubbers like myself, it was as realistic as I could imagine.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Forget the crap that Ben Stiller usually stars in (I’m looking at you, Little Fockers). His directing efforts are usually top notch. This update to the 1947 film offers a slick look at dreams and reality. Reminiscent of the excellent Stranger Then Fiction, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a feel-good movie that reminds us it’s okay to put a feel-good movie on your best-of-the-year list.

Her

Spike Jonze can always be counted on to deliver a different film. In a world of technology, making a movie about technology often results in overblown special effects and unrealistic sci-fi gadgets. Yet, Jonze uses his canvas to show us an understated film about human emotions. This love story between a man and a machine offers possibly the most realistic human relationship ups and downs I’ve ever seen committed to screen.

Pacific Rim

With my other four favorites end-of-the-year award-bait movies, I felt the need to highlight a movie that was just fun as hell to watch because it was fun as hell to watch. Guillermo del Toro’s tribute to kaiju monster movies may not have great characters or great acting, but it has giant freaking robots beating the snot out of giant freaking monsters. And Charlie freaking Day. Pacific Rim delivered some of the greatest action set pieces of the year, with love and respect to the genre it was honoring. To quote Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailer,” I agree that it was “the summer’s guiltiest pleasure that’s either the most awesome dumb movie ever made or the dumbest awesome movie ever made!”

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http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/author/landonLandon Palmer

Contributor
Bloomington, Indiana

A Touch of Sin

A work of national cinema meant primarily for an audience outside of its home nation, A Touch of Sin is a disturbing mosaic of contemporary global China, depicting the excesses and injustices of a country growing through an unprecedented combination of organized labor and capitalist exploitation. A potent combination of genre play and political commentary, Zhangke Jia’s episodic film is as much a masterwork of a tightly controlled, discomfiting tonal range as it is a revealing micro-examination of uniquely 21st-century forms of economic injustice. I believe we’ll be talking about this molotov cocktail of a film for years to come.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens’ most interesting, challenging, and unconventional films have always been their character studies, and now they can add Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis alongside Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik in their repertoire of struggling, unheroic protagonists. The most mature and restrained film the Coens have made to date, Inside Llewyn Davis is a brilliant folk antibiopic that never confuses the beauty of art with either a romanticization of the artist or an opportunity to divulge in hazy nostalgia for “his era.” Instead, Inside Llewyn Davis intricately illustrates how impossible it is to place oneself within the infinitesimal venn diagram that intersects important music and commercial fame. For Llewyn, the art of music is an inherently destructive trade because of the false equivalence of self-worth and commercial viability.

No

Pablo Larrain’s No might be the most important narrative film about politics to have been produced so far this century, depicting with incredible insight and wit the cultural transitions that have made it impossible to disentangle democratic participation from consumer choice. One of the most ambivalent of Pablo Larrain’s films about recent Chilean history, No chronicles the toppling of a dictatorship through a form of civic discourse that reduces complex ideas to an ad-friendly slogan, and engages in a layered critique of neoliberalism through an absolutely thrilling horse-race of a campaign. But when victory is predictably achieved, No implores the viewer to reflect, “At what cost?”

Blue is the Warmest Color

The French title of Abdellatif Kechiche’s years-spanning romance translates to The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, referring to the younger of Blue is the Warmest Color’s much-lauded couple, magnificently played by Adele Exarchopoulos. The French title is far more fitting, as it ignores the film’s overextended hue-based theme in favor of recognizing the exceedingly intimate character study that this film actually is. Outside of the film’s voyeuristic and tonally inconsistent sex scenes (which I blame on the director’s misplaced gaze, not on the acts themselves), Kechiche maintains his camera tightly on Exarchopoulos’s face for nearly the entire three-hour running time, through which we not simply witness but experience her coming-of-age through eating, crying, loving, kissing, and possessing varying levels of shy contentment. I don’t remember another film of recent memory in which I was invited to so immersively live in somebody else’s psyche; at times I literally forgot I was watching a film.

12 Years a Slave

Several well-intentioned critics have referred to Steve McQueen’s stunning depiction of Solomon Northup’s harrowing move from freedom to slavery to freedom as the “definitive” movie about American slavery. But the true brilliance of 12 Years a Slave is that it achieves exactly the opposite, refusing to ever homogenize the subjugated pre-Civil War African-American experience, depicting slavery not as a unified subjectivity but an experience dependent upon a myriad of circumstances pertaining to many identity positions and social rules. Beyond Chiwetel Ejiofor’s astounding lead turn, the supporting cast speaks to a variety of different orientations and historical truths without ever being reduced to a token for Northup’s narrative (excepting Brad Pitt’s white savior). Rather than pursuing any notion of a definitive story of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is expansive, attesting by its existence alone the fact that there are so many stories that have yet to be told about our history’s ugliest institution.

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Nathan Adams

Contributor
Chicago, Illinois

Frances Ha

So many low budget indie dramas are about confused people in their mid-twenties trying to figure out their lives and romances that it seemed like we didn’t ever need anyone to make an indie drama about confused people in their mid-twenties ever again. But then Noah Baumbach teamed up with Greta Gerwig to make Frances Ha, and now it’s pretty clear that we’ll always need these things. Far from being redundant, Frances Ha is just about the most charming, happy-making bit of cinema comfort food that’s come out in a long time. Gerwig is so magnetic as the lead here. I could watch her run-dance for eternity.

Short Term 12

You’d think that a drama about a shelter for troubled and traumatized youths would be melodramatic, and the various subplots that Short Term 12 explores probably could be described as melodrama when you break down their content, but the script that writer/director Destin Cretton penned for the film is so nimble and assured that it somehow never plays as melodrama regardless. Instead it’s a hard-hitting, effective, and somehow also really entertaining piece of small budget cinema. The performance that Brie Larson gives as the lead here has to be seen to be believed.

Like Someone in Love

As you watch Like Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami’s eye for photography dazzles your eyeballs while his insight into human nature and our need for connection stabs at your heart. It’s the perfect slight of hand trick, only Kiarostami isn’t stealing your wallet, he’s going for your soul. Tadashi Okuno and Rin Takanashi are both amazing here as a lonely old man and a rudderless young girl who develop an unlikely connection. Like Someone in Love needs to get some sort of home video release in the States so more people can see it ASAP.

Stories We Tell

Director Sarah Polley’s pseudo-documentary look at life of her late mother and the truths surrounding her parentage, Stories We Tell, doesn’t just build an interesting mystery and contain a cast full of wildly entertaining characters, it also manages to be a powerfully interesting dissection of the nature of storytelling and how history alters as we absorb it, change it to suit our needs, and then alter it even further as we recount it to others. Plus, it has the most entertaining mid-credits stinger of the year. Suck it, superhero movies.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The ear worm-filled folk soundtrack and charming period setting of Inside Llewyn Davis makes it, on the surface, one of the easiest to enjoy Coen brothers movies that the virtuoso filmmakers have made in some time. But, because of the way death hangs over the film, and the fact that it’s permeated with a constant tone of sadness and futility, it’s also a layered enough work that it will probably get lumped in more with their dramas than it does their screwball comedies. I only just saw this one, and seeing as Llewyn Davis is such a complex character and Inside Llewyn Davis is such a complex film, it’s going to take a little more digesting, but I can already tell that the more I think about it the more I’m going to like it.

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Samantha Wilson

Contributor
New York, NY

Inside Llewyn Davis

From the first chords of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the Coen Brothers’ latest exercise in showing us the miserable sad sacks of America (and John Goodman!) is enough to keep you hooked. The problem, or maybe brilliance, with the “Hang Me” opening number is that it sets up our titular folk singer as a wildly talented musician while the rest of the film is devoted to people trying to convince him just the opposite. Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful, depressing and somehow deeply funny glimpse at a small slice of the sixties and a man that you shouldn’t want to win, but just keep cheering on. Kind of like Llewyn says, it was never new and it will likely never get old.

Spring Breakers

Maybe it’s because I never experienced a spraaang breaak quite like our heroines, but I can be counted as one of those enthralled by Harmony Korine’s beach blanket bingo. In a world cast in neon light and narrated by poor little Selena Gomez’s phone calls home to Grandma, kegstands and gross frat boys with weed seem so much more sinister than in the normal haze of day. Florida is their church, and Alien, with his promises of a better time than anything they could ever experience on their own, is their minister. Consider this shit.

Her

It could have been far too easy for Her to mock its lead, making him just some pathetic loner who falls in love with his phone, or even turning the story into a cold critique about how we’re substituting technology for human contact, but it instead makes the relationship sincere. Much of that has to do with the warmth brought by Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, the Operating System of Joaquin Phoenix’s dreams that manages to feel like a flesh and blood person. The bond between Samantha and Theodore is tender and sweet, and maybe not that distant of a future. Plus, has anyone ever seen a more sparkling clean and beautiful Los Angeles before?

Computer Chess

Spring Breakers might have had James Franco enthusiastically fellating a handgun, but Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess was by far the weirdest film I’ve seen this year. It’s somewhere between a mockumentary, a straight comedy, science fiction and a mind melting work of paranoia as a group of computer programmers clash with a cultish group of swingers at a hotel convention while nefarious characters (who might be sent from the US government) watch it all play out. Shot in grainy handheld 16mm in mostly black and white, you’ll feel as if you stumbled onto some footage that you weren’t supposed to watch – but you’ll want to keep watching.

Short Term 12

I cried, y’all. There are some films you sit and watch, and realize that you’re witnessing something great unfold – Destin Cretton did that here. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. give phenomenal performances as a couple attempting to run a group home for foster children, and at the same time coping with the toll the job takes on their own lives. It’s surprisingly funny, touching without being cloying – and yes, emotional – without pandering to its audience; it blew me away.

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