The end of the year is upon Boston. College dorms are emptying out, the Common is lit with a kaleidoscope of lights, and the snow is still generally manageable. But once we locals are done with the shopping crowds and extended commutes, we can retreat into the warm calm of a theater or curl up comfortably on the couch for an escape, an adventure, or a dramatic yarn. And for this worthy pursuit, here’s a list (now checked twice) of 2013 movies you should watch as we ring in the New Year (and awards season).
It spans everything released throughout the year, ranging from Oscar-worthy epics to the best first film from a new director. It was the year of stories featuring misfit kids and adults struggling to grow up, of our love of consumption and lust for life, of creative cinematography and stylized editing. 2013 was a great year to spend in front of the silver screen.
In reverse order:
10. "Upstream Color." Narrowing a year in film to just 10 movies is hard enough, but 2013 proved especially challenging. I switched out my original 10th movie pick, Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” for one of the most artistically challenging movies this year. Director, writer, producer, composer, and leading man Shane Carruth tells a loose, open-ended story of trauma and cyclical patterns in nature and relationships. Carruth’s attention to detail and color makes this not only a complex narrative, but also a visual portrait of healing beyond the sense of loss and displacement. And if you pay close attention to when colors switch from warm yellows to cooler hues of blues, you can follow the main character becoming less stable.
9. "Drug War." Looking for a good ol’ fashion cop drama? Director Johnnie To released one of the best action movies of the year about China’s ever-escalating drug war. Senior cop Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) gets the break of his career when he pins drug lord (Louis Koo) into helping him get a shot at taking down the godfathers of a large-scale drug operation. Since no one can trust each other in the criminal underworld, the good cop then impersonates another gangster in order to upend the an ever-growing number of targets. The action sequences are some of this year’s best with controlled camerawork, skilled editing, and a thrilling story that raises the stakes with every second.
8. "Frances Ha." Like a modern-day “Manhattan” for millennials, this black and white love letter to city living — and an ode to the quarter-life crisis — from Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig follows the ups and down of an awkward dancer, Frances, whose career is stuck in neutral. She badly wants to run away from her failures, but can’t seem to stand on her own after several setbacks. Frances is an affable and accessible stand-in for so many college-educated twentysomethings that for folks of a certain age, "Frances Ha" will hit more like a tragedy than a comedy. But after a much-needed reality check and rocking David Bowie music, this character won’t stay down for long.
7. "Her." Your iPhone addiction is not love, and talking with Siri doesn’t make for a relationship, but director Spike Jonze plays with the idea of what if your computer’s operating system can now respond to you in an emotional capacity. Joaquin Phoenix is a loner reeling from a failed marriage when he installs a system that has its own thoughts, ambitions, and questions. It’s a touching exploration of connectivity in our digital age, and of the ever-changing way we’re incorporating technology into every aspect of our lives. But what will stick with most filmgoers is the love story, however unconventional it may be to us. For now.
6. "Gimme The Loot." This highly underrated film played less than two weeks in Cambridge before it slipped away. Two best friends and struggling artists plot an elaborate graffiti tag of the New York Mets’ iconic inflatable apple to stake their claim in the crowded street art game. The film is director Adam Leon’s first feature, and is a perceptively constructed “day in the life” story of two Brooklyn kids who have dreams and ambitions beyond their limited means and young age. If the mission of young artists trying to make their mark on the world didn’t already have you rooting for them , then the carefree rapport between Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington should.
5. "Spectacular Now." After a string of loathsome characters, actor Miles Teller won me over with his sensitive portrayal of Sutter, a high school senior spiraling out of control after getting dumped by his popular girlfriend. That is, until he finds a friend in perpetual nice girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The relationship is so sweet and grounded, yet appropriately awkward at first, that it’s easy to forgive any melodramatic flairs that come with high school dramas. Director James Ponsoldt gives his characters so much room, the movie might even feel as laid back as the slacker Sutter. But with that space comes wonderful nuance, not what you would regularly find in afterschool specials.
4. "12 Years A Slave." Excruciating, yes. Forgettable? I doubt it. The film is a masterful retelling of Soloman Northup’s harrowing true story. Once a free man working as a musician, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was drugged and sold into the slave trade against his will. Director Steve McQueen does not lighten the severity of slavery to make his audience comfortable, nor does it feel like he exploits it for shock value the way Lee Daniels' "The Butler" did earlier this year. It’s not only the violence that sticks with you, but also the cultural norms used in antebellum society to deprive hundreds of thousands of people of their freedom. In particular, how the Southern white mentality upheld slavery as part of God’s will and justified about every ungodly act with the same reasoning. It’s a challenging narrative that doesn’t let any of its slave-owning characters (even the "nice" ones) leave fully absolved from their complicity in the South's "peculiar institution."
3. "Spring Breakers." For those not intimidated by director Harmony Korine’s eclectic style and are ready to dive into the darker side of youthful hedonism, the water’s just fine. This candy-coated tale of excess and violence follows a group of college girls on their way to St. Pete Beach in search of the perfect spring break, but when the party stops, they never seem to stop falling from grace. Meme ready and dripping with subtext about consumption and destruction, this isn’t just for kids looking to live “spring break forever.” The film requires a careful eye to take in the sights and sounds Korine leaves behind in trashed cheap beach motels and the looped dialog that almost always seems to be “on repeat.” Plus, it’s given James Franco the best role he’s ever had, the rapper/ wannabe gangster Alien.
2. "The Wolf of Wall Street." Back at Boston University, our school of management was nicknamed the “sex, money, greed” college. If that held true, then "The Wolf of Wall Street" would be what happens after they graduate. Leo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, a modern-day Horatio Alger stand-in with Gordon Gekko’s greedy ethics. The self-made man rides success off the bank accounts of the customers he fleeces as a broker. Ultimately, it takes copious amounts of hard drugs, gratuitous sex, and everything money can buy to show how little humanity is left in Belfort and his band of broker brothers. In short, imagine if director Martin Scorsese brought his men in from "Goodfellas," stripped them of their honorary code, and let them loose on Wall Street.
1. "Inside Llewyn Davis." This sad soulful song of a movie stars Oscar Isaac as the titular struggling musician trying to keep artistically pure in an uninterested world. His frustration colors his world, or more appropriately desaturates it, to make it the cold and hostile place his music can’t take root in. The Coen brothers are happy to meander along this dirge, and the film plays more like a thoughtful reflection piece you can sit and listen to even if you don’t like the music. There’s enchantment in the setting, the acoustics, and in the soulfulness of the voice singing words that tenderly pluck your emotions. Which made it my favorite movie of the year.
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This program aired on December 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.