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Best I Saw, 2013 Edition

The rules for the movie lists are the same as the rules for the book list, to wit: this is things I saw for the first time this year, not movies released this year. While the spreadsheet tells me that I have actually seen eighteen movies released in 2013 this year (I believe that may be a record, or if not, that’s the first time I’ve seen more than ten during their year of release since at least the nineties), there are only four I would even consider for a top ten list. (One of those still does not have a rating listed, because I am still of two minds about it.)

And so, the following:

25. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

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“Jennifer Lawrence has gone on to be a megastar in (as I write this) just three short years; she worked for scale ($3,000 a week) on Winter’s Bone, and landed a cool ten million for Mockingjay. She’s worth it, and every frame of film containing her in Winter’s Bone attests to this.”

24. The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

photo credit: IMDB

“I’ll put it this way: my fifteen-month-old son barely has the attention span to watch a ten-minute episode of Moomins or Curious George, but I put The Adventures of Tintin on this morning and he sat in his high chair riveted to the screen the entire movie. And you know what? So was I, well without the high chair.”

23. Boy Wonder (Michael Morrissey, 2010)

Steinmeyer, in makeup, stands on a train platforn on the DVD cover.

When it comes right down to it, there’s not a great deal of plot to this, but that helps the movie stay on track, and it also leaves ample room for Morrissey to develop his characters. That’s what takes the movie from standard revenge thriller into the stratosphere. Ironically, it’s also most likely why the movie went nowhere upon its initial release.”

22. Phasma Ex Machina (Ghost from the Machine) (Matt Osterman, 2010)

Andreev, wrapped in fiber-optic lights, is the only visible element on the otherwise black movie poster.

“It crossed my mind more than once that this is the movie Primer wanted to be and, in my estimation, never managed to become. So, needless to say, Universal is remaking it, rather than using the rights to push a film that deserves far, far wider recognition than it has so far gotten.”

21. Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

Kay Hammond reclines on the poster with a come-hither look surrounded by stills from the film on the poster.

A stage performance of Blithe Spirit had just closed its run right across the street from where I work a couple of weeks before I sat down to watch the movie; by the time it was over, I was kicking myself for not having gone to see the play. That strikes me as the best recommendation I can give the silly, wonderful thing.

20. Pen Choo Kab Pee (The Unseeable) (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2006)

Wattanajinda stares out past the fourth wall in this poster for the film, while Chuangrangsri, holding a torch, spies on her through a crack in the wall in the poster for the film.

You have seen this plot before, I can almost guarantee it, but Sasanatieng does it up so stylishly, and with such heart, that some very well-trod ground feels fresh, new, and above all exciting. This is what a love story should be.”

19. Outcast (Colm McCarthy, 2010)

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“‘Urban fantasy’ has been one of the great buzzwords in publishing for about a decade now, stories of faerie transplanted to New York or LA or Vegas or London, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a movie that I can say with no qualms is a serious attempt as making a film that qualifies as urban fantasy.”

18. Last Kind Words (Kevin Barker, 2012)

photo credit: IMDB

“I have a (very) short shelf of the DTV horror flicks that, for my money, should have gotten theatrical releases, because they’re a damn sight better than pretty much any horror film that’s been turned out by Hollywood in the past decade.Cube is, of course, the one everyone is familiar with, but most horror geeks have probably seen Shallow GroundDeadBirds, or Pony Trouble!. The real nerds have dug far enough in to have found perhaps the best treasures in the bunch, Baby Bluesand Lockout. Now I’m adding Last Kind Words to that short shelf; it stands easily with any of the above.”

17. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928)

Keaton carries Marion Byron, as drawn by a caricaturist, on the movie poster.

[As this is a short, I did not review it.]

16. Last Days Here (Don Argott and Damian Fenton, 2011)

Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling in a performance shot on the film's poster.

“I’ve seen a lot of rock docs over the past few years, and even more per year since subscribing to Netflix again. The best of them all share certain qualities. They illuminate something that isn’t entirely obscure, but has traditionally stayed out of the limelight for some reason or other. The filmmakers stay out of the way and let the subjects stand or fall on their own. Performance footage is included, but it feels natural rather than exploitative (or, worse, just there in order to attract fans of whatever it is the documentary is covering). The story itself is inherently interesting, not just to fans, but to a more general audience. Last Days Here qualifies in every regard.”

15. Fire in Babylon (Stevan Riley, 2010)

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“I’m not a sports fan at all, really; T20 cricket and horse racing are the only two spectator sports I’ve ever really been a fan of. But sports documentaries? I’ve always loved them, for some reason. There’s just something about them..and Fire in Babylon has a whole lot of that something, be it using the sport as a lens for the bigger picture or highlighting the colorful personalities or scoring compelling interviews with fantastically famous people who you never knew were obsessed with the subject (again: Bunny Wailer!) or whatever.”

14. Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2011)

The title of the film, with a red barred circle, comprises the film's poster.

The evidence that this problem is much, much worse than you thought it was is sitting right in front of you. Maybe it’s time to start listening. And for the love of god, people, when the bullied stand up for themselves and bullies end up in the hospital—or underground—don’t punish them for it. Give them medals. “

13. Goon (Michael Dowse, 2011)

photo credit: IMDB

Goon is another of those movies that makes me wonder why I find myself so in love with sports movies when, in general, I can’t stand sports.”

12. The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)

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“I found this little drama (“little” in the sense of “intimate” more than “minor”) charming, and the blush hasn’t faded as it’s stayed in my memory.”

11. Antonio Gaudí (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1985)

One of the spires from a Gaudi cathedral illustrates the DVD cover.

Teshigahara focuses on Gaudí’s designs, giving us beautiful shots of buildings, sweeping panoramas followed by minuscule close-ups, focusing not only on the big, flashy buildings, but taking us to a park, a garden, a crypt, you name it. There’s a real sense of breadth here, and Teshigahara captures it beautifully.” [ed. note 2014: This is the sole thing for which I have used my family’s Hulu Plus subscription in eighteen months.]

10. Ochazule no Aji (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

The principals, seated, in a still from the film, adorn the movie's poster.

The critical consensus as They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? lists ten of Ozu’s films in the thousand best ever made as of the 2013 list (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is not one of them. Neither is Record of a Tenement Gentleman, for my money Ozu’s finest moment; it sits at #12 on my own thousand-best list as of December 2013, while The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice languishes, relatively, at #307). To put that into perspective, Scorsese has nine entries on that list, Welles and Truffaut eight, Spielberg and Tarkovsky seven; the only directors represented more often are Bunuel, John Ford, Godard, Bergman, and Fritz Lang. (Akira Kurosawa also has ten on the list.) This guy, he’s good.”

9. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (Rodrigo Gudiño, 2012)

photo credit: Amazon

“As with many of the more recent horror films I have found myself loving, this is slow, introspective, much more on the atmosphere side of things than the jump side of things.”

8. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

The train on which the majority of the film takes place adorns the movie's poster.

The Lady Vanishes is prime Hitchcock, one of his early masterworks, and one that, traditionally, has gotten very little press. Could that be because it was one of the last films he made in Britain before becoming a part of the Hollywood machine? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know I intend to do anything I can, as one small voice in the wilderness, to try and elevate The Lady Vanishes in the American consciousness to its rightful place at the top of the Hitchcock heap with other timeless works[.]”

7. We Don’t Care About Music Anyway (Cedric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz, 2009)

One of the bands (I do not know which) set up and performed for the film on a beach; this lobby card is a wide-angle shot of their equipment, with no humans in sight.

I do not believe it is the best noise documentary I have ever seen (Tom Hovinbole’s jaw-dropping Nor Noise is the other contender; both are must-see-immediately movies), but it’s nibbling at the edges.”

6. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

The cast of the film, with Santa Claus caged behind, graces the poster for the film.

“I’d heard wonderful things about Rare Exports for years before I actually sat down and watched the blessed thing, and now I have no idea why I resisted. It lives up to everything I’d heard and then some.”

5. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

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“I don’t mean to get sidetracked wondering about the death of the romantic comedy in America instead of focusing on this particular rom-com, for which one can use the term “an exemplar of the breed” (if not the exemplar of the breed; I can think of many almost as good, most mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but I can’t think of one better).”

4. Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2012)

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“Put simply: this is a life-changing film. It is not so much a documentary as it is an experience. This is important filmmaking, and it is made all the more important because, like his subject, at no point does Orlowski allow his message to get in the way of the artistry of his presentation; the entire film is beautifully shot, with Orlowski doing all sorts of little things to play up the differences between his indoor and outdoor shots (and taking into account the personalities of the subjects onscreen at the time; the indoor shots with Balog’s family are much more comfortable than the indoor shots with Balog himself, who would always rather be outdoors, for example), spending time lingering on beautiful ice shots, etc.”

3. Child’s Play (Sidney Lumet, 1972)

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“As a simple portrait of the nasty goings-on at a boys’ school, a generic slice-of-life drama, this would have been a damned good movie. But the final twenty minutes, which turn it into something very different indeed, take it from ‘good’ to ‘blow the lid off.'”

2. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

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“To make it short: if you are at all a fan of movies, even a casual fan, you can simply forget the actual plot of the film: this is a study in fascination, an endlessly-interesting look at film composition during the golden age of giallo.”

1. Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

Mary and Max eat dinner in this still from the film.

I will try to draw this out to review length, but it has been some ten months since I saw Mary and Max, and it has been hard for me to find anything to say about it but this: Mary and Max is, by far, the best film I saw in 2013. In fact, it is one of the best films I have seen in any year; as of this writing, it is currently sitting at #16 on my 1000 Best list. (The next film down the list I first viewed in 2013 is Berberian Sound Studio, which sits at #32.) It is a profoundly affecting, perfectly-related story with near endless heart. While I know there are people out there who fit the description, I simply can’t imagine anyone not loving this. And to top it all off—it’s claymation.

Plot: Mary (voice of Blackwood‘s Bethany Whitmore) is a lonely Australian girl who decides she needs a pen pal. She goes to the library, piecks out a phone book at random, and then stabs her finger down on a name, copies the address, and writes a letter. In this way, she introduces herself to Max (voice of Love Liza‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman), a forty-four-year-old shut-in form New York City. Max is, at first, hesitant, but, with a few interruptions, thus begins a twenty-year correspondence between the two, and they—both with mental issues (Mary is depressed, Max has a disorder the revelation of which is one of the movie’s big twists—though many who have friends who suffer the same disorder will be able to pinpoint it long before Max does)—find their best friends in each other.

While this is not, ostensibly, a romance (though there is an undercurrent of that throughout), I can’t imagine a purveyor of same, be they novelist, scriptwriter, director, poet, whatever, who would not be able to draw endlessly on Mary and Max for inspiration and advice; this is a textbook on how to build flawed, relatable characters that audiences can easily identify with. The deepening friendship between the two, as well, is pitch-perfect as regards its pacing and the changing emotions between the two. Nothing about this feels staged or artificial, and while I know I have mentioned this already in the review, it bears repeating: the painstaking attention to building realistic characters and situations is underlined, triple and bold, in red, by this being claymation rather than live action. No wild flights of fantasy here; Elliot gives us a simple story, simply told, and he does it with such phenomenal empathy that it is impossible, at least I find it so, not to be as affected by this as anything else I have ever seen. Mary and Max is one of cinema’s crowning achievements, as perfect and beautiful in its execution as Hotaru no Haka, and it deserves to be just as highly regarded.*****”


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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