7. Ender’s Game
Forget the connotations of this being a YA adaptation. It’s from a book from a time before the YA explosion. And even if now on the page the story feels like nothing more than Harry Potter in space, Gavin Hood has centered on the most important themes of this tale of kids tasked with wiping out an entire alien race. Tackling such things as video game violence, drones, child soldiers and genocide, it’s a smart address of where warfare is headed and how much it depends on technology that desensitizes and distances us from the enemy. On top of that, this is a movie that looks amazing and is shockingly well-directed given that it’s Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) at the helm. Also, Asa Butterfield is phenomenal, surely a movie star in the making. I can’t say I’m surprised this didn’t do well given that it’s about a lot more than spaceships and aliens and explosions, and even then the distance of Ender from the action probably left audience not caring about the mission. I do really hope they make a sequel, though, but it does seem unlikely.
There’s technically no fantasy elements in this retelling of the Snow White story set in 1920s Spain, unless you count the final shot. And even then it’s a maybe. But I tend to accept classic fairy tales within the confines of the fantasy genre, and this bullfighting twist on the Grimms’ work definitely has an aura of magic and wonder, even if a lot of that has to do with the magic and wonder of cinema. Pablo Berger‘s silent film throwback is often cliche and cheesy for what it’s aiming to replicate but it’s still an enchanting and engrossing little film about a young woman continuing her father’s legacy under threat from an evil stepmother.
5. Upstream Color
At least with Primer, the foundational concept of time travel was familiar and exciting to audiences. For his long-awaited sophomore effort, Shane Carruth stuck with the complexity level of his debut while also offering a very confusing concept of a parasitic life cycle. Whether you get it or not, though, this is one of the most hypnotizing films in years. Every step of the way is stunning, both visually and narratively. Amy Seimetz is an extraordinary presence as a young woman who serves as our guide in the mystery of, well, just more mystery, and she’s especially magnetic in the first part of the film, when she’s more of the centerpiece before Carruth joins her on screen. Like a number of films on this list, Upstream Color is a love story that screws with everything that we know about love stories. I have to admit that I went from really liking this movie to really hating it to respecting it to wanting to re-watch it over and over. I think it might have somehow implanted a worm into my brain that has me forever intrigued by everything on screen.
4. Europa Report
Disregard any stigma attached to the found footage idea (even though this film makes the best reasoning for that idea since the climactic fight in Chronicle), and Europa Report is an easily enjoyed and constantly chilling interplanetary mission movie about a crew traveling to the titular moon of Jupiter, where there seems to be signs of life. This smart, modestly budgeted yet perfectly realized effort should be the antidote for all who hated Prometheus (I love both, actually), as well as to all the bloated sci-fi movies we got from Hollywood this year (including another co-starring Sharlto Copley), but it still doesn’t seem to be catching on as the sleeper hit it ought to be. Having been a fan of director Sebastian Cordero for a while, I can only wish this is at least a stepping stone to him becoming the Ecuadorean Alfonso Cuaron. Very interestingly, The History of Future Folk co-director Jeremy Kipp Walker was a producer on this very different kind of sci-fi film.
3. The World’s End
Edgar Wright finished out his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with another bang-up job, his take on the alien infiltration invasion film that ended up being surprisingly more Douglas Adams than Jack Finney. Extremely quick-witted and speedily plotted, The World’s End follows a group of men seeking nostalgia in the form of a pub crawl, which turns ugly when they discover the townsfolk are almost all pod-people robots from another planet. It not only has one of the most interesting sci-fi plots of the year — in spite of its initial familiarity and the fact that the plot doesn’t kick in for a really long time — this is also probably the funniest movie of 2013 and the one that we will look back upon and remember as the moment we realized Nick Frost is actually a very talented actor.
Spike Jonze‘s near-future tale of a man who falls in love with his operating system is the most perfect look at where we are seriously headed as a culture since Children of Men. No, since Minority Report. Or Gattaca? Regardless, it joins the few prophetically minded sci-fi masterpieces with its address of social media and how artificial intelligence would lead us from our current obsessions with our computer devices. Also the fashion. I’ve never applauded the costuming of a sci-fi film so much, not even The Fifth Element. It doesn’t matter that it’s so much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that it winds up being sort of predictable (with good movies, though, I like to use the term logical rather than predictable) because it’s not so abstract or based on an unlikely premise. And also because its whole speculative set up is based on what’s reasonably predictable about us and our self-involved desires. Her is the first movie I’ve seen, I think, that I felt deserved to be immediately named to the National Film Registry for being a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. It’s all three, already.
1. Mr. Nobody
Jaco Van Dormael, one of the most underrated visionary filmmakers of the 1990s, finally delivered his third feature in 2009 following a 13-year absence. It took another four years for me to finally see it, and it was well worth the wait. Mr. Nobody tells the epic story of a man named Nemo Nobody (which basically means Nobody Nobody), played by Jared Leto, who is the last mortal man alive in the year 2092 (everyone else is now immortal) and who has trouble recalling exactly how his life went from the time of his parents’ separation during his youth. There are three different courses we see him potentially following, each one involving a different love interest and career and location, and it’s like the greatest adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut book never written. This isn’t a film for everyone. It’s rather long at more than two and a half hours, it’s even less linear than Cloud Atlas and it all builds up to a statement about chance and choice, which is probably what appeals to you in the first place if you do find yourself diving in and making it that far. It’s a tremendously dense film but it never comes off as being too heady or pretentious or concerned with much else besides characters moving on a course that may not have been the right one for them to take — even though one point of the movie is that all courses are the right course. As a bonus, Mr. Nobody has a special connection to my very favorite film of the year, Sarah Polley‘s documentary Stories We Tell, which she basically started thinking about while acting in this film — she even tells the story of working on this and getting the call that set the other film in motion in that film. The two would make an interesting double feature about love and memory and life choices. If you see this or don’t see it, you’ve made the right decision, but I recommend you give it a shot.