It’s been an anticlimactic year for The Binge. After bursting into existence in February as a self-branded offshoot of the work I’d been doing at Spinning Platters for the previous three years, The Binge steadily gained steam and momentum—for approximately three months, until I got a new job in May that effectively mined all the restless energy I’d been pouring into blogging while toiling as a copywriter at Gap and Old Navy. While I haven’t been able to write about pop culture and pen movie reviews with the frequency I formerly displayed, I have still seen pretty much everything that’s come out thanks to my membership in the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. And although it’s been a somewhat miscarried year for The Binge, it’s actually been a pretty good year for movies! So let’s dive in, shall we?
10. Enough Said
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has never made a bad movie. On the contrary, she is at the forefront of smart, insightful American comedies that tend to focus on complex female characters. Her last several films (such as Friends with Money and Please Give) have been ensembles, but for her fifth film, she wrote arguably her most protagonist-driven film yet—simultaneously crafting her most focused and potent character study. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is aces in her first live-action film role in over 15 years, while James Gandolfini gives what will be remembered as one of the great grace-note posthumous turns as her schlubby but soulful love interest. One of the year’s sharpest scripts and most refreshingly mature narratives.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis
I wasn’t sure what to make of this the first time I saw it; my kneejerk inclination was to dismiss it as minor Coen Brothers in the manner of A Serious Man. But upon viewing it a second time, I began to appreciate that inimitably deadpan Coen sense of humor, as well as the vividly realized specificity of its details. Is it really about anything deeper than just a talented folksinger who can’t stop getting in his own way? Who knows? The Coens have never been the most didactic filmmakers around. But as a deep-dive snapshot of a time and a place, with pitch-perfect performances from Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman, an enchanting soundtrack co-produced by T-Bone Burnett, and several unforgettably executed centerpiece sequences, Inside Llewyn Davis is a superb musical time capsule.
8. The Place Beyond the Pines
One of the year’s most underrated dramas is also one of its most powerful. A work of tremendous feeling and ambition, The Place Beyond the Pines finds director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance in a much more grandly cinematic mood than his emotionally punishing and bleak Blue Valentine. Partners in ludicrous handsomeness Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper each do memorable work in this sprawling three-part man opera, but ultimately it’s Eva Mendes (in a criminally unsung performance) and young third-act players Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen who provide the film with its emotional core and payoff, respectively. Pines was one of the first dramas I watched in 2013, and it stayed with me for the rest of the year. Watch my interview with Derek Cianfrance.
Alexander Payne provided an apolitical, people’s-view counterpoint to the con artists of The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle with his gently elegiac and ruefully funny meditation on the death of the American dream and the sad conclusion to the Greatest Generation. Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime as an elderly Montana man determined to travel to Nebraska and collect the millions of dollars he wrongly believes he’s won due to Publishers Clearinghouse-style junk mail. Will Forte is impressively nuanced as the son who agrees to take him on this misguided road trip, and firecracker June Squibb gives one of the most crowd-pleasing turns of 2013 as Dern’s no-shits-to-give wife. Beyond its performances, thematic resonance, and exquisite black-and-white photography, Nebraska also captures the experience of visiting elderly relatives in the Midwest with greater accuracy than anything I’ve seen.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
A spectacularly obscene and kinetically paced three-hour tragicomic American epic that plays as energetically as a 90-minute action flick, The Wolf of Wall Street is all the more impressive as an example of the work Martin Scorsese is still doing well into his 70s. Those who claim the film glorifies the asinine douche-god memoir on which it is based are missing the point entirely. Rather than merely giving morally corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort another spin in the spotlight, it pulls off the neat trick of telling his grandiose story in a way that unmasks, indicts, and mocks him as the smug face of American capitalist greed (he is nothing if not the quintessential job creator) while still wringing every last ounce of masterful filmmaking excitement from his excesses. Not only does it expose Belfort and other aspiring masters of the universe for the primitively cynical criminals they are, but it confronts its audience with an uncomfortable truth: our complicit willingness to buy into get-rich-quick schemes, from attending wealth-making seminars to allowing so-called financial experts to swindle our money in the name of “playing the stocks,” is a crucial part of what allows this vicious cycle of theft and income disparity to continue.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill give the most gonzo, balls-out performances of their careers, while Aussie stunner Margot Robbie gives a surprising breakout turn as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, who transforms from a Long Island Barbie trophy wife to a dehumanized, ferociously desperate mother before our eyes. Any randomly selected sequence in The Wolf of Wall Street would be considered the most unforgettable moment of nearly every other film on this list. The indifferent-to-negative responses I’ve been seeing to this film stupefy me, especially coming from those who advocate for the vastly less inspired American Hustle as their 2013 financial con movie of distinction.
5. Spring Breakers
Yes, this. The most rapturous sensory experience offered at the movies this year, Spring Breakers combines art house filmmaking and low-brow subject matter in thoroughly unexpected, smartly provocative, and even borderline-profound ways. It provides an audacious and bold reflection of American culture in all its vapidity in 2013. Harmony Korine has assembled a deceptively simple, shallow, shiny package, but make no mistake: there is tons to unpack here. Way too much for a hyperbolic best-of-2013 column. And while it’s easy to mock James Franco for his ubiquitous dilettantish presence, I defy his critics to think of another household-name actor who’d commit to this kind of high-wire performance with such reckless yet controlled abandon. Plus, Spring Breakers accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens interesting. Read my original review.
4. Blue is the Warmest Color
PROSTHETIC VAGINAS! Also, one of the most emotionally and psychologically affecting portrayals of first love in the history of cinema. Much was made of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s visual approach in telling the story of Adèle (the revelatory Adèle Exarchopoulous), who begins the film as a naïve high school student and concludes it as a hardened teacher. But what the controversy seemed to miss was that the lengthy, ostensibly gratuitous way he filmed the sex scenes was the exact same banal, vérité manner with which he shot everything: from family dinners to inane chatter with friends, even sleeping. Through this approach, as well as his pointed choice to continually film Adele in extreme close-ups, he creates a singular experience: watching the three hours of Blue is the Warmest Color, the viewer gradually and intractably finds themselves fusing with Adèle. One begins to view life through her eyes, and by the end, it truly feels as though we’ve walked several years in her shoes. It is a remarkably transporting thing.
3. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s most potent drama in ages also marks Cate Blanchett’s long-overdue return to leading roles in film for the first time in six years. Offering yet another perspective on the topic of financial corruption and ruination, it tells the story of a deluded Park Avenue socialite who, after her husband (Alec Baldwin) is convicted of defrauding his investors, must start over in a city that looks an awful lot like San Francisco and yet resembles it in no other way. Yes, ho ho, the Bay Area had a ball laughing at Allen’s not-even-trying “depiction” of our city, which he essentially seems to be using as a stand-in for the Bronx with no character or cultural details changed. And yes, he borrows liberally from A Streetcar Named Desire, which Blanchett had fortuitously starred in on stage during her absence from leading screen roles. But none of this makes Blue Jasmine any less sharp or masterful of a character study, with Blanchett giving Allen the most staggering dramatic lead performance he may have ever captured on film (historically his best work has been with supporting actors, since his protagonists are usually his onscreen surrogates). Both atypical and deeply traditional for Allen (it ends, as many of his films do, with its morons as the only happy characters), this is his most haunting masterwork.
2. Short Term 12
This year’s finest example of the kind of deeply personal, delightfully unexpected film experience that can appear out of the blue on the independent film circuit—in this case, the SXSW Festival, at which Short Term 12 had its premiere after being passed over at Sundance (if any further proof were needed of that festival’s ever-declining relevance) before going on to win the top prize. Written and directed by the auspicious Destin Cretton and based on some of his own experiences, it is the profoundly compassionate tale of a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, and the young supervisors who work with then (the lead counselor is played by the magnificent Brie Larson, giving the finest lead female performance this year outside the Hollywood establishment). It seems to be asking: what do we do with all this brokenness in the world? How do we respond? How can we care for one another while experiencing unattended pain deep within ourselves? Maybe it has something to do with all being in it together? A beautifully acted perspective-shifter, Short Term 12 is the kind of film that could help save the world.
I could talk about this film for hours. It achieves the kind of transcendence that leaves me feeling inadequate with words, especially since it is this year’s ultimate embodiment of so many adjectives I’ve already thrown around in this list: it is nakedly personal, achingly profound, stunningly beautiful, fearlessly acted, and also, I would imagine, quite prophetic. Directing from one of his own original screenplays for the first time, Spike Jonze has crafted a futuristic love story that seems like it could happen now. Joaquin Phoenix, in what is essentially a virtuoso one-man act, gives this year’s most vulnerable and heartbreaking performance as an emotionally wounded man looking for intimacy in the digital age—which he finds in the form of an intuitive new OS that names herself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson (deftly challenging traditional definitions of what constitutes a “performance”). What does it mean to be human? What is intimacy? What impact does digital intimacy have on human relationships? What does authenticity look like in a digital world? If our basic human need to be known is being met by something that is not itself human, does that make it any less valid? Her has a lot on its mind, and after you watch, so will you. From its script to its cinematography to its production design to its costumes to its score to its actor (Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, and Chris Pratt among them), Her creates an entire world. I have zero hesitation in declaring it the greatest film of 2013.
20 Honorable Mentions…in alphabetical order
12 Years a Slave [dir: Steve McQueen—trailer]
The Act of Killing [dir: Joshua Oppenheimer—trailer]
Afternoon Delight [dir: Jill Soloway—trailer]
All is Lost [dir: J.C. Chandor—trailer]
Before Midnight [dir: Richard Linklater—trailer]
Gravity [dir: Alfonso Cuarón—trailer]
The Heat [dir: Paul Feig—trailer]
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [dir: Francis Lawrence—trailer]
In a World… [dir: Lake Bell—trailer]
Mud [dir: Jeff Nichols—trailer]
Philomena [dir: Stephen Frears—trailer]
Side Effects [dir: Steven Soderbergh—trailer]
The Spectacular Now [dir: James Ponsoldt—trailer]
Stories We Tell [dir: Sarah Polley—trailer]
This is the End [dirs: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg—trailer]
Warm Bodies [dir: Jonathan Levine—trailer]—read my interview with Levine, Dave Franco, and Analeigh Tipton