With 2013 gone forever, it is time for those pesky Best and Worst of List. This is the Best of 2013 So Far, and I add the 'so far' because I haven't seen every film that came out or that was sent to me. As a result, this list will be ongoing, but for now I will give you the ones that I have seen.
I got the titles based on the rankings I gave them, a grade from A to F, then the ones that got a particular grade were ranked against each other. I have seen 55 films, which is low due to a particularly heavy school load. Now we go by order, starting from 10.
The Act of Killing is in turns weird and fascinating. The documentary about Indonesian thugs who killed 'Communists' after a failed coup who talk about their crimes by having them recreate them in various film genres has you horrified at how casual they are about their deeds. One of these thugs seems to have an odd fixation of constantly appearing in these 'movies' in drag, which lends a more bizarre angle to an already nutty premise, but seeing the other thug slowly come to realize just how monstrous he was is seeing belated justice and gives us the sad realization that as much as we may not admit it, there but for the Grace of God...
In A World... is a smart, sharp comedy that works as both a sweet romance and a satire on Hollywood. Lake Bell does triple duty as writer, director, and actress and never fails in each turn. As a writer, she manages to not make any of the characters 'villains' but real people who have flaws and ambitions, and within that story is a pleasant and positive romance of two hesitant people. As a director, Bell (part of a small group of female directors) keeps things rolling for the most part, and was able to rank up the comedy when needed and ground it when needed. Finally, as an actress she was funny without being witless, and her character never felt false or a typical 'dumb girl in need of boyfriend'. She was likable without being cloying, and I found myself quite amused by this small gem of a comedy.
Ender's Game failed at the box office, and for me, that's a terrible shame. I think it might be because it was a little too intellectual, and by that I mean rather than just an action film about aliens at war with humans, Ender's Game asked the questions about morality in war, the loss of innocence when children are made into combatants (something like the child soldiers in African and Islamic-nation wars) and the cost of a 'win at all cost' mindset. It had solid performances from most of the cast, and it made me want to read the source material. Granted, it was not a faithful adaptation (that would require a miniseries-type running time), but Ender's Game was well-acted, well-visualized, and I think a great adaptation.
Quartet is a debatable choice in that it might count as a 2012 film, but since the wide release was in 2013, I count it as a 2013 film. Quartet was a delightful trifle and never pretends to be anything else. It shows that the 'old folk' still have a role to play, and that just because one reaches a particular age it doesn't mean you stop living, loving, laughing, crying, working. A cavalcade of Sirs and Dames (Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon) show they are still very much in the running to still show the new kids how it's done, and I was ultimately charmed by this confection of artists who have yet to give their final act.
You can argue about the historical accuracy of Saving Mr. Banks. Some of the reviewers have also been particularly harsh, almost spiteful, about the Disney Studios making a film about the making of a Disney Studios film, seeing it as the ultimate in cross-promotion or product placement or even cynical whitewashing: the studio celebrating itself via a movie about itself as 'the good guys'. Well, I am not cynical enough to put that as my focus on Saving Mr. Banks. Besides, Disney and Mary Poppins aren't suppose to be cynical (they may be, but we don't think of them that way). This behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties of getting Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers to part with the rights to her work has an interesting (albeit inaccurate) story and a great performance by Emma Thompson as the persnickety Travers (I wasn't that impressed with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney). It may all be fantasy, but then, when the legend becomes fact...
It is hard to remember today just how difficult it must have been for Jackie Robinson to be 'the first' and break the color barrier in baseball. With athletes of all races playing in all sports and a black President, it seems so unnatural to think that within our grandparent's lifetime sports were segregated. It took not just a great athlete but a great and courageous man to be 'the first', always a daunting task. 42 chronicles the struggle for Jackie Robinson to withhold the righteous fury at the taunts, insults, and even death threats to silence all his naysayers with his talent and grace on and off the baseball field. It has great performances by rising star Chadwick Boseman and veteran Harrison Ford and a delightful turn by Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, who stood alongside his teammate, not the 'Negro' player. Courage requires so much, and 42 is a fitting tribute to a true American hero and icon.
A comedy that also serves as a caper film and a character study? American Hustle has it all. Contrary to what one might have heard American Hustle is not that difficult to follow. It is completely enmeshed in its 1970s style and there isn't a bad performance in the lot. If anything American Hustle is a showcase for the main cast, in particular Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who show that their success is not a fluke (particularly with Cooper, who has not been given his due as an actor). It also shows that Jeremy Renner continues to be one of the best actors around and that he can do some form of comedy, or at least not be as dour as he appears to be on screen and off. A smart and clever story and great direction from David O. Russell show that someone can come as close as possible to making a Martin Scorsese film while Scorsese is off working with his muse Leonardo DiCaprio on something else.
It feels like forever since the Disney Animation Studios made something actually good. However, with The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and now Frozen, the Mouse House is on a tear. Frozen has a wonderful mix of action, romance, and comedy (I think children will forever love the summer-loving snowman Olaf). It has a beautiful soundtrack where despite the sheer number of songs they never feel jammed in, the showstopper being Let It Go but I found other numbers like Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, Fixer-Upper, and Love is an Open Door to be memorable and more important fit into the story. The movie doesn't feel long and has a beautiful look all around. I was so highly impressed with Frozen that I will treasure showing it at Christmas to my children and grandchildren and will find pleasure in it without them as well.
What I found most incredible about Gravity was that it was such a short film. However, in those 90 minutes we got an intense, frightening, and ultimately uplifting about the desire to live, to survive. Gravity flows beautifully, never letting us leave the situation or allowing us a moment to breathe a sigh of relief until the bitter end. It is also probably the most astonishing-looking film of 2013, and with its amazing performance by Sandra Bullock and the 'you are there' visuals and settings, it is one of a handful of films where you need to see it in 3-D to fully appreciate just how beautiful and powerful it is.
I don't think I have been moved so emotionally in any film of 2013 as I was with The Spectacular Now. I could relate to the characters despite being almost old enough to be their father. Curiously, it is the absence of fathers in both the main character's lives that shape them for good or bad, but the slow and beautifully acted romance between Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley gives The Spectacular Now what we need: a sense that these two will eventually turn out all right. Miles Teller is a young actor with such intense promise (see his small roles in Rabbit Hole or Footloose) who is being relegated to second-rate comedies (perhaps don't see Project X or 21 and Over). I hope his career is turned towards showcasing his true range and not just be part of an American Pie style of performer. There simply is nothing I can say to express how beautiful Woodley is in The Spectacular Now. She will soon be in the same category as Jennifer Lawrence and Mia Wasikowska, two other young actresses who are both beautiful and just great, great ACTRESSES, genuine actresses who can play the roles and not just be pretty onscreen (though that they all are too).
If there were any justice on this Earth, Woodley and Teller would be shoe-ins for Best Actress and Actor at the Academy Awards, but the Academy loves the old people (Streep, Cate Blanchett, Thompson...all Oscar winners already) and those who made big splashes (Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor). Nothing against any of them: they all did great work. However, it is time for the Millennials to have their own genuine legends, and if things go well, Teller and especially Woodley will join the ranks of genuine actors who are also stars. The Spectacular Now will be this generation's The Breakfast Club, only more serious. It is a beautiful film that both broke my heart and uplifted it too.
For my money, The Spectacular Now is not just the Best Film of 2013 so far, or even the Best Film OF 2013. It is one of the best films I have seen, period.