Every year has great films if you really look. To be honest, this year I really had to look hard. There weren’t many popular domestic releases that were seared into my memory. Then again I’ve been known to be a bit of a film snob, and that’s a fair criticism. But at the end of the day, different opinions are what make art and cinema so great and diverse.
I missed a few important 2013 releases, I admit, but I won’t forget to catch them in 2014. These include Scorsese’s The Wolf On Wall Street, Cuaron’s Gravity, Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, Farhadi’s The Past and Jonze’s Her. I’m sure one or two of these would make it onto my list after I watch them, but I can only speak to the films I did happen to watch.
That being said, I created this list not as a definitive document but as an instrument of discussion and discovery. My opinions are no more valid than yours. I made this list to give the spotlight to some great films that many missed this year, many of them foreign. Many critics forget that cinema is an international art form, and as a result their lists are constricted to mostly wide releases by big studios. Hopefully some of these films pique your interest and you go out and discover them for yourself.
1. Neighboring Sounds/O Som ao Redor (Brasil)
Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho made, without a doubt, the most memorable film of 2013. Neighboring Sounds is a haunting film about the divide between different classes in a developing Brazilian neighborhood and the tensions that arise as a result. Filho creates an atmosphere and mood that leaves you anxious and thirsty for answers, which don’t come easily. Hauntingly beautiful and odd, the somewhat ambiguous ending will frustrate some but still stands out as my favorite of 2013.
2. Caesar Must Die/Cesare Deve Morire (Italy)
The premise is simple: a group of inmates serving varying sentences, some for murder, in an Italian prison rehearse for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Sometimes simplicity is best, and that’s certainly the case here. The Taviani brothers basically put a modern twist on the presentation of Shakespeare, as the inmates rehearse their parts in their cells and the empty hallways of the prison and the play materializes before your eyes through rehearsals. Some of the mafia-involved inmates relate passages in the play to their own lives, giving poignancy to the performances and the rehearsals. Short and sweet.
3. 12 Years A Slave (UK/USA)
A riveting performance from the entire cast. Read my review here.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (USA)
Every Coen Brothers film is worth watching, even the “bad” ones. Lucky for us as an audience, their output in the last decade or so has been nothing short of superb, and that doesn’t change with Inside Llewyn Davis. A film about struggle and the brief popularity of folk music in the 60’s, Oscar Isaac puts on a performance to remember as the titular character. The film isn’t made to give you easy answers, but it’s a whole lot of fun trying to figure them out. A seemingly simple film about a lot of different things, this is a must-see.
5. The Great Beauty/La Grande Bellezza (Italy)
Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino reunites with his muse Tony Servillo for one of the most satisfying films of the year. A bit of a musing on life in modern Italy, the film tells the story of Jep Gambardella (Servillo), a popular author who is at the center of the extravagant lifestyles of the Italian super-rich, and the existential questions he asks himself as he grows older. Doesn’t hurt that Sorrentino shoots the best party scenes in modern cinema, hands down.
6. Mud (USA)
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) is a master of telling stories that feel genuinely American. Adapted loosely from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, McConaughey plays an escaped convict who enlists the help of two adventurous young boys in locating the love of his life. The film is about more than that, including growing up, but it’s also a solidly entertaining trip to the South. Nichols has been at the forefront of independent American cinema for a while now and he doesn’t seem to be backing down.
7. The Hunt/Jagten (Denmark)
Mads Mikkelsen (you may know him at Le Chiffre from Casino Royale) plays a divorced kindergarden teacher whose life suddenly spirals out of control when a young student tells a random lie involving him. That’s all that really needs to be said. Mikkelsen is excellent and the film oozes with tension.
8. The Place Beyond The Pines (USA)
The first two thirds of this film are nearly perfect. Simply put, this is the story of fathers and sons and the decisions that connect them. Director Derek Cianfrance crafts a genuine and original story that radiates tension. The last third feels like too much, but that can be forgiven based on the strength of the rest of the film. That being said, this is a film that shouldn’t be missed.
9. Prisoners (USA)
An excellent cast, including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis, is all the reason you need to go watch this film. Luckily for us, there are even more reasons to check this one out. A tense thriller about a man whose daughter and her friend disappears and the lengths he will go to find her, Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve adds a European sensibility to the film that elevates it to something more than you would expect. Gyllenhaal is excellent as Detective Loki, the man tasked with finding the missing children, and the masterful cinematography by Roger Deakins is dark and chilling. The film is a bit too long for its own good and includes a slightly muddled subplot, but overall this is a solid choice.
10. Before Midnight (USA)
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite for a third time in Before Midnight. Perhaps the most mature of the “Before…” trilogy (the first two being Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are now married with children, continuing their discussions about love, life, marriage, friendship and commitment. That may sound like a simple premise, but as you watch it becomes about so much more. An absolute delight.
Here’s to 2014, the beauty of new discoveries, and the evolution of cinema.