By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 31, 2013 at 11:40AM
Katie Walsh's Top 10 Films Of 2013: I tend to like to pick a theme for my Top 10 list, but this year has proven difficult to settle on just one. Much of 2013 was about the ugly excesses of capitalism and explorations of that effect on human nature. Films like “Spring Breakers,” “Pain and Gain,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle,” and “Blackfish” looked at the ways that crimes of capitalism can often pay, but at the expense of your soul. Even smaller indies like “Nebraska,” and “Frances Ha,” took up the issue of poverty, money, and class mobility as themes in their larger stories. Clearly, filmmakers this year have their minds on money and money on their minds, and that theme resonated with me this year.
On the other hand, I found myself increasingly drawn to work by and focusing on women. Often a female perspective created a film that resonated deeply with me on a level that even the flashiest and splashiest of indictments of bad people having fun doing bad things couldn’t touch. From shows like “Orange is the New Black,” to “Girls,” to films like “Touchy Feely,” and “After Tiller,” these female-created works burrowed themselves deep into my soul. It should surprise few that I am a proud feminist and feel a duty to the honest exploration, celebration, and discussion of women-created works, and this year was a fantastic one of that, happily.
Also a note: I’ve tried to catch up with all or most of the major releases this year, but I haven’t seen everything, so bear that in mind.
10. "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Martin Scorsese’s latest isn’t quite up to vintage Scorsese standards, as it never really achieves the glorious transcendence that something like “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver” does (two perfect films, in my estimation), or even the taut and tight “The Departed.” “The Wolf of Wall Street” is excessive in its excess, and while that’s what they seem to be going for, it feels a bit baggy. Still, it’s remarkable work and Leonardo DiCaprio is working overtime as Jordan Belfort in one of the most insane physical performances I’ve ever seen, from vein popping sermonizing to ‘lude-induced near paralysis. Jonah Hill goes toe to toe with the formidable DiCaprio, and their relationship is one of the best love stories in cinema this year. If you consider ‘Wolf’ in the lens of Scorsese’s other works, it falls into many of his oft-repeated themes: obsession, homosocial relationships, the dark depths of the human soul, religion. The religious theme was especially interesting to consider in such a godless movie, but the speeches that Jordan delivers to his subjects at Stratton Oakmont feel like tent revivals, his preaching lathering up his minions into a religious, almost cult-like fervor as they pound their chests in the rhythm of Matthew McConaughey’s hypnotic chant. For all the sex (which isn’t even that sexy—another Scorsese hallmark), drugs, shipwrecks, ODs, and wild criminal excesses of the film, these scenes of blind worship at the altar of money are the most important takeaway, and one hopes that those who are swept away by the titillating bad behavior understand that this is not a celebration but an indictment. It should be noted, that for however long and excessive the film is, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is the most visually brilliant part of the film and is the engine behind the complicated storytelling. Both Schoonmaker and DiCaprio deserve every award and plaudit for this flawed but often great film.
9. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
“Catching Fire” made me believe in big Hollywood filmmaking again. Somewhere around July, whenever movie blogger Twitter collectively lost its shit over whatever dumb villain was revealed by Marvel in San Diego, and in the wake of a disappointing screening of “Pacific Rim” (total silly nonsense) I just decided that nope, I was boycotting big budget, action, superhero movies. They are never really that good to begin with, so that standard by which we hold them is drastically different from that to which we hold other movies. Then I saw “Catching Fire,” which utterly swept me away. Okay, so I’m a fan of the books, but this film is a near perfect adaptation, which is a very difficult thing to do. I was emotionally immersed from the get go, taken with the performances, design, storytelling, etc. But what “Catching Fire” gets so right, which is the downfall of most other big superhero action movies, are the stakes. Everything in the film has deadly serious consequences—every smile, every look, and every action of Katniss (the always excellent Jennifer Lawrence) carefully considered and used for or against her, and these stakes, big or small, are pitched perfectly. The film truly makes you care if the characters live or die and that there is actual weight and heft and consequence to their actions. Every performance is near career best, from Stanley Tucci to Elizabeth Banks to Jena Malone to Jeffrey Wright. Basically, I loved every second of it, flaws and all, and I had a huge smile plastered on my face the whole time. Katniss made me believe in superheroes again (I’m still not seeing “Batman vs. Superman” though), and I can't wait to watch it with my tween niece.
8. "Frances Ha"
"Frances Ha" is reminiscent in its style and milieu of Woody Allen’s "Manhattan," with Greta Gerwig’s Frances as the neurotic struggling protagonist. It’s nice to have a new Woody Allen, especially since our feelings about the old one are pretty conflicted, both personally and professionally (Cate Blanchett IS remarkable in "Blue Jasmine," but that is NOT a women’s picture. It’s a picture about a man’s idea of women, and a rather mean-spirited one at that). The broad planes of Gerwig’s face, her large eyes and blonde hair soak up the black and white cinematography of “Frances Ha”—she’s like a Lempicka portrait, with her almost Art Deco facial structure a perfect complement to the cityscape. As much as Frances is looking for (a modern) love, and struggles with being undateable, what we learn is that it’s really the story about the twilight of a romance between best friends, and ultimately a love story of Frances and herself. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have created a character who rings with the delight and sadness of recognition: we see Frances in ourselves and others, but the greatest achievement of Frances is that we only want to see more of her.
7. "The Act of Killing"
Many get caught up in the sheer psychological horror of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about Indonesian war criminals and murderers, but the film is about so much more than the act of killing, it’s about the impact of films and filmmaking itself. These death squad leaders (former movie gangsters who scalped tickets) took inspiration from their favorite Hollywood movies for their acts, and Oppenheimer uses the filmmaking process as a way too elucidate and illuminate for these men the horrors that they visited upon innocent people. The look of devastation that finally cracks Anwar Congo’s face when the true impact of his actions dawns on him illustrates the power of the reflective mirror of cinema. “The Act of Killing” is unlike anything else, and it careens from the absurd to the horrific to the sublime, never allowing the viewer to stew in a particular emotion for too long. It’s hilariously funny at times and exceedingly grotesque at others; it leaves a feeling of deep spiritual and intellectual destruction long after it has ended. More than just an exposé of these crimes, it’s a landmark documentary that pushes the form of storytelling in the genre and demonstrates the power of what this medium can do.
6. "The Punk Singer"
Coming in late in 2013, this documentary bio of Kathleen Hanna, feminist punk icon and founder of the riot grrl movement, instantly made its way onto my list of favorite films for the year. Archival videos capture Hanna at her most vital: pure bouncing energy radiating off the stage as the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and interviews with other grunge and punk artists as well as feminist thinkers add context and commentary. The film (directed by Hanna’s friend Sini Anderson) seeks to understand why Hanna stopped performing in 2005, and while that quickly drifts away in the retelling of the legend of Kathleen Hanna, later in the film it is finally revealed that Hanna has been suffering from late-stage Lyme disease, nearly debilitated by the mysterious autoimmune disorder. Despite the drama and tragedy of the disease, that the film is really about her and her legacy more than anything else demonstrates what an iconic force of energy Hanna is. And her relationship with Beastie Boy Ad-Rock is the best rock love story of the year. Inspiring and enlightening, here’s hoping “The Punk Singer” will introduce Hanna to a new generation of fans.
5. "Touchy Feely"
Lynn Shelton’s latest isn’t perfect, but damn if its highs don’t exceed just about everything else I’ve seen this year, packing more emotional wallop into a single scene than most films do in their entire running time. In the story of a physically detached massage therapist, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), and her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist who discovers his own healing touch, Shelton expands the scope of her cinematic universe with more characters and relationships, creating a web of missed or fleeting connections. Abby’s niece Jenny (Ellen Page) is stuck in limbo working for her father and harboring an illicit crush on Abby’s younger boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) who is utterly mystified by Abby’s new bodily disgust (Allison Janney as her Reiki guru steals the show as always). Shelton’s films find the fantastical in the everyday, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the magic in the mundane, but it’s all grounded in reality, which is both devastating and uplifting. Culminating in a song by Tomo Nakayama, exes Abby and Adrian (Ron Livingston) share a moment, while elsewhere others find connection in different combinations all too briefly. This scene is a moment of true love but also an emotional gut punch, packing both a swoon and heartbreak. It’s lovely to see Shelton’s progression, and we’re lucky to witness her continuing to work and grow as a filmmaker.
4. "Crystal Fairy"
I didn’t expect to be so taken with the hippie-dippie road trip film “Crystal Fairy,” but Gaby Hoffmann’s brave and intoxicating return to the screen, and Michael Cera’s brilliant playing against type, combined with a trio of chill Chileans completely won me over. Sebastian Silva’s film seems light on the surface: well-off American asshole Jamie (Cera) goes on a journey to find a hallucinogenic cactus with his Chilean buddies and a tag-along hippie named Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann). The film has an easy way about it, charming and quirky, with laughs at the expense of Crystal’s copious body hair, and Jamie’s neurotic jerkiness. But towards the end, it reveals a much darker, and more loving, side to it than expected. It’s really a film about transformation, and about acceptance of oneself through the acceptance of others (and vice versa?). Hoffmann, a former child star, has recently returned to acting, and she is simply magnetic on screen (she's also the standout of the forthcoming “Goodbye World"). It’s refreshing to see Cera working a different groove, proving there’s more to him than expected; and Silva’s brothers, as their Chilean buddies, are utterly winning. A gem of a picture.
3. "After Tiller"
For their documentary debut, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane bravely took on one of the most controversial subjects that begs for discussion in this country: abortion. The result is a delicately wrought, sensitively told, and deeply intimate film that pays loving tribute to the four doctors in the U.S. who continue to perform late-term abortions, as well as the women who seek out their services. Wilson and Shane were granted access to confidential counseling sessions (shooting the women and men from the neck down), which allows them to capture details such as a hand wringing a Kleenex, or a nervously tapping shoe, but also, the heartbreaking decision-making process that these women and couples have had to go through. These sessions also capture the deep sensitivity of these doctors, so often labeled as “monsters” by anti-abortion groups, and which this film portrays as anything but. The remarkable thing about a film like “After Tiller” is the way in which Wilson and Shane take such a political topic and turn it into something so personal. The feminist movement that bore Roe v. Wade declared “the personal is political,” and it seems Wilson and Shane are attempting to remind us of that in a world that, politically, remains staunchly divided and antagonistic. While lawmakers debate the ins and outs of women’s reproductive rights, “After Tiller” quietly and steadfastly shows us the personal stories of those who are most affected by those laws. In their exploration of the world after the late Dr. Tiller, a film like this reminds us of his motto: “trust women.”
2. "Spring Breakers"
Harmony Korine’s tribute to/skewering of the American tradition of spring break was one of the most radical, anarchic films of recent memory, rippling with a heady, revolutionary energy. I have referred to “Spring Breakers” as “Scarface 2013,” for its similarities in colorfully depicting what is essentially a capitalist existential crisis, all in an outrageously outré package. “Scarface” (1933) and “Scarface” (1983) were films that represented the violent appropriation of the American Dream by those who were denied fair access to opportunity in America—racially outcast immigrants. “Spring Breakers” creates a world in which young women (similarly oppressed, but in different ways), take up this gangster narrative in order to insert themselves into this system. Objectified and sexualized by society (see: opening sequence), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) use their sexuality as an in to this dark underworld, and then take it over from the inside. But regardless of these associations and allegories, the film is a remarkable piece of art: a dreamy, woozy film that abstracts memory, fantasy, horror and debauchery into a neon-smeared, cannabis-dusted work that’s one of the more immersive cinematic experiences of 2013. An “Apropos de Nice” for the millennial generation. Spring break forever, bitches.
1. "Short Term 12"
Destin Daniel Cretton’s second feature is a finely crafted piece of cinema that excels in every aspect: performance, cinematography, emotion, storytelling, and tone all coming together to create a film that is specifically of a piece, and what a piece it is. Cretton’s ability to balance the dark and light moments of life at a short term foster care facility, and taking the effort to focus on each character’s story creates a film that feels very authentic and very fresh. He also has a sensitive and devastating way of revealing information about the characters and their stories, peeling back layer after layer, weaving a story of trauma, sadness, and ultimately hope. Brie Larson, as the troubled Grace, gives a stunning performance of a woman trying to balance it all and her own fucked up past, and she is riveting, by far one of the best female performances this year. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, capturing every aspect of life: humor, desperation, devastation, rage, love. Emotional and perfectly balanced, Cretton’s sensitive storytelling is the kind we need to see more of.
The “12 Years a Slave” Question:
Steve McQueen’s work is challenging in a way that not many other films are. He presents total abject suffering in beautiful and painterly ways, his mastery of cinematic form and ability to elicit performance unparalleled. However, when I paid my 14 bucks and sat down in my seat, my only feeling was dread. “WHY am I paying to do this to myself?” I asked out loud. And there were two sequences where I was slouched down almost horizontal in my seat, hands over my eyes, repeating the mantra “I don’t want to do this,” under my breath (yes, my film going companions were extremely annoyed). “12 Years A Slave” is a crucially important film that many, many people should see and experience, but I don't know if I loved or even liked it. Those words seem woefully inadequate to even describe a film like this. Particularly compared to last year’s “Django Unchained,” which I found offensive and tacky in its portrayal of slavery, McQueen’s vision is sorely needed and desperately important. But it was one of the most miserable film going experiences I’ve had in a long time. And, really, that’s kind of the point.
Other Notable Releases:
The Coens' “Inside Llewyn Davis” has continued to grow on me the more I think about it, and Oscar Isaac is fantastic, but the film is so egregiously shitty to its female characters who are either harpies, bitches, hags, or all three that I can’t in good conscience put it on my Top 10. The soundtrack is great though, and it’s really stuck with me. I also loved the big dumb “Pain and Gain,” a blast of sheer energy—the American Dream on 'roids. “Mud” was fantastic, with Matthew McConaughey just hitting it out of the park, as he also does in the great “Dallas Buyers Club.” “In A World…” is probably my favorite feature debut of the year, and I can’t wait for Lake Bell’s next. “Nebraska” is a sweet slice of nostalgia, fusing old time values with new world realities. “American Hustle” is a total mess, but it’s almost worth it for the scene of Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams disco dancing (a remake of “Saturday Night Fever” starring those two could be awesome), and Adams is the absolute best of that film.
On the doc side, “Blackfish” rendered me absolutely speechless—a snuff film that skewers corporate capitalism and PR speak on the tip of its harpoon. Both “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City” celebrated the heyday of making music in two very different and very special places. Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” was a fantastic approach to non-fiction storytelling, but something about the reenactments left me a bit cold. Still, Polley is one of the most creative filmmakers working today. The Robert Reich doc “Inequality for All” lays out the problem of wealth inequality in stark, yet humane ways—a double feature with “Wolf of Wall Street” would be stunningly sobering.
2014 Films To See
I was lucky enough to see a trio of films by female filmmakers this year that were truly remarkable, medium-pushing and daring in voice that I must recommend seeking out. The first, “It Felt Like Love,” directed by Eliza Hittman, paints a vibrantly honest and authentic portrait of adolescent female sexuality that is anchored by two stunning performances by newcomer actors Gina Piesanti and Ronen Rubinstein. It played in the 2013 Sundance NEXT category and will be released in early 2014. A dark and dreamy debut, definitely keep an eye out for it. The others were documentaries that played at Rooftop Films this summer: “i hate myself :)” by Joanna Arnow and “Elena” by Petra Costa were the two most creative and innovative documentaries I saw in 2013 and pushed the boundaries of the medium in new ways. In “i hate myself :)” Arnow fuses cinéma vérité with Lena Dunham-style confessional cinema, turning the lens on herself and her relationship with volatile poet James. Quickly though, the film becomes less about him, and more about her, her relationship to herself, her sexuality, her family, and to the filmmaking process itself. It’s very bold and very brave. “Elena” is a tribute to Petra Costa’s late sister, an attempt to recreate and retrace her steps; to bring her back to cinematic life (in attempt, a bit like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” in result, more like the abstractions, memories, and poetic cityscapes of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil”). The film is sensual, intoxicating; a heady brew made up of home videos, letters and diaries read by Costa, and footage of New York City and their native Brazil. Abstract, artful and heartbreaking. I highly recommend all three when they become available, and perhaps they may even make it onto my 2014 list.