The Best Films of 2013

  • YES!

People who complain that 2013 has been a lousy year for movies are spending too much time in a multiplex with only three letters in its name. Of the twenty films I single out as this year’s finest, nine held their San Diego premieres at a Landmark Theatre, four at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15, and two at the Media Arts Center’s Digital Gym. Only 20% of the films on the list debuted at a mainstream multiplex. Had it not been for Marty and the fluke booking of Drug War at AMC Mission Valley, the percentage would have been even lower.

Audiences need to put as much if not more more thought into selecting a screening venue as they do picking that weekend’s entertainment. With that in mind, 2013 welcomed a new screen to town, the Media Arts Center’s comfy 48-seat Digital Gym. Credit programmer Lisa Franek with bringing a lot of fine films to town that without the facility might otherwise have passed unnoticed.

Those of you who refuse to pay to see an old movie projected in a theater can skip this paragraph (and never read this column again). Kudos to Reading Cinemas’ Jennifer Deering for making the 40-Foot Film series an all-DCP affair. No more Blu-ray projection to cock up their annual Hitchcocktober tribute. They are the only game so far with regard to quality revival screenings. Keep up the great work, Jennifer!

Here are the films and performances of 2013 that helped to supply a steady flow of oxygen to my brain. Onward to 2014!

10) Stacie Passon’s Concussion

Robin Weigert stars as a bored interior designer whose life is forever changed after her kid beans her with a baseball, and she becomes a high-price call girl. If you’re already cringing at the prospect of another “housewife-by-day, hooker-by-night” retread, think again. Stacie Passon’s Concussion is fresh and daringly erotic with a lead performance that’s so good, it took a second viewing for me to realize how big a part Weigert played in helping to plaster over a few of the film's more implausible cracks. For those of you who bought into the sappy melodramatics of Blue Is the Warmest Color, I submit this self-assured and much more seductive antidote.

Kristin Scott Thomas gives the performance of the year as Ryan Gosling's barking Ma in Only God Forgives.

Kristin Scott Thomas gives the performance of the year as Ryan Gosling's barking Ma in Only God Forgives.

9) Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives

This film came and went so fast that I never had a chance to review it. Those offended by The Wolf of Wall Street really need to rent Only God Forgives. Refn’s scumbags make Marty’s look like paragons of moral pulchritude. It’s “God,” not “Wolf” that is 2013’s most lurid, aggressively antisocial audience bucker. How do you segue from a surprise sleeper hit of a date movie like Drive to something as foul and off-putting as this? Only God knows what goes through this director’s mind, but damn if his film didn’t stick to me like crap on a barefoot stroll through Dog Park.

As Ryan Gosling’s chiseled, chain-smoking mother, Kristin Scott Thomas gives this year’s ballsiest, most unashamed performance, bar none. What’s it about? Expressionistic use of space and color. There’s also a story involving a near-catatonic Ryan Gosling who is forced by mama to hunt down and kill the revenge-seeking, Karaoke-singing sociopath who murdered her other son. Never mind the small details: when told that her baby boy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, Thomas coolly shrugs it off with, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”

Here is a film so aggressively repugnant and so stylishly told that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It’s not for everybody — if it was it wouldn’t be on this list — but there are a few of you loyal readers (I’m talking to you, Ghost_of_Dolores_Hope) that will benefit greatly from its atrocities. The Kensington Video rental copy will be returned this weekend after I get done studying the director’s commentary.

8) Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here

Four friends vacationing from Australia party the night away at a remote Cambodian holiday destination only to wake the next morning with big heads, minus a chum, and unable to recall the events of the previous evening. There is more virtuoso storytelling at work in the exquisitely elucidative opening credit sequence than you’ll find in many of this summer’s thrillers combined. The best way to describe the film in commercial terms is The Hangover for people longing to be challenged mentally, not the other way around.

7) Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon

A monumental achievement in cinema-as-time-travel. Writer-director Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy) and his frequent editor, Caroline Richards, availed themselves of the opportunity to boil down 800 hours of sparklingly restored archival footage into a chronicle of modern-day London. The duo fling wide "the Gate of God," starting with the birth of cinema and refusing to come up for air until 133 minutes later, when their variegated wild ride through a culture in which luxury and corruption too frequently go hand in hand comes thundering to a halt.

6) Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

Not since The Last Temptation of Christ has a Martin Scorsese movie pissed off so many people. Nice work, boss! Marty’s greatest sins appear to be an unwillingness to judge characters or tell his audience how to think. Fuck the bluenoses, Marty. The “controversy” is only helping to put more butts in seats, something the film desperately needs considering its weak $18 million opening.

Hao Ping is a laugh-and-a-half as “Ha! Ha!” in Johnnie To's Drug War.

Hao Ping is a laugh-and-a-half as “Ha! Ha!” in Johnnie To's Drug War.

5) Johnnie To’s Drug War

Had you told me last year at this time that 2013 would bring a wholly original cop drama, I’d probably have laughed in your face. Strap Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay to theater seats, force open their eyes, and give the otherwise blind dopes the Clockwork Orange treatment with Drug War. Maybe then these American purveyors of effects-driven shit will understand how a first-rate action film is made. No moldy police procedural or done-to-death squad car small talk from these “see the job, do the job” cops and a director who refuses to pump out more of the same.

4) Jess Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

The only 100% original work of cinema to play San Diego this year. Director Joshua Oppenheimer set out to explore the “nature of impunity” by offering celebrated Indonesian death squad leaders a cinematic platform on which to reenact their participation in the genocide of 1965 — in a genre of their own choosing. Only in a world with democracy and corruption to spare are gangsters treated like movie stars.

3) Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain

You had your chance to see Panahi’s latest masterwork when it played the San Diego Asian Film Festival. With departmental Hobbits and Disney ice princesses raking in the big bucks, it’s unlikely that exhibitors will feel the need to free up a screen for this type of extremely personal storytelling. Too bad, for the sudden, magical appearance of the director halfway through the picture exceeds any CG effect Hollywood threw our way.

Rin Takanashi in Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love.

Rin Takanashi in Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love.

2) Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love

From its opening long take — the lead character speaks from outside the frame — Kiarostami's sleight of hand draws us headfirst into this Tokyo tale of purposeful miscommunication and calculated role-playing.There is not a shot or gesture in the entire film that could not withstand rigorous visual analysis, but the film itself is not a puzzle. It’s the work of an assured master whose greatest virtue is making it all look so easy. 2012.

1) Pablo Larrain’s No

The absurdist comedy, No, is the final installment in Pablo Larrain’s unplanned “Pinochet era” trilogy that began with Tony Manero in 2008. According to the director, “Post Mortem speaks of the origin of the dictatorship, Tony Manero about its most violent moment, and No is about the end.”

This could be the most beautiful purposefully ugly movie ever filmed. Larrain was not content to rely on newsreel footage to fuel his political satire about a band of inept PR men scrambling to come up with an ad campaign to defeat Augusto Pinochet in Chile's 1988 referendum. He shot the entire film on ¾-inch U-matic tape, so it’s impossible to tell where the reality ends and the fictionalized account begins.

Runners Up: Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch; Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies; Scott McGehee & David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew; Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder; Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker; Michael Apted & Paul Almond’s 56 Up; James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer; Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting; John Crowley’s Closed Circuit; and P. J. Hogan’s Mental.

Best Directors: See above.

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse comin' at ya in 3D!

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse comin' at ya in 3D!

Best American Animated Film: Lauren MacMullan’s six-minute Get a Horse.

Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong (No), Katsumi Yanagijima (Like Someone in Love); Cheung Siu-keung (Drug War); Larry Smith (Only God Forgives); Emmanuel Lubezki (To the Wonder); Yves Bélanger (Laurence Anyways); Ed Wild (Welcome to the Punch); Giles Nuttgens (What Maisie Knew); Guillermo Navarro (Pacific Rim).

Writing: Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price (Wish You Were Here); Stacy Passon (Concussion); Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew); Avi Nesher (The Matchmaker); Tom Braby (Shadow Dancer); Steven Knight (Closed Circuit); P. J. Hogan (Mental); R.F.I. Porto (Blue Caprice).

Performance, Male: Martin Scorsese (One Direction: This Is Us); Hao “Ha! Ha!” Ping (Drug War); Christopher Walken (Stand Up Guys); Alan Arkin (Stand Up Guys, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Grudge Match); Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street); Robert DeNiro (American Hustle); Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires); Adir Miller (The Matchmaker); Melvil Poupaud (Laurence Anyways); Bruce Dern (Nebraska); Michael Shannon (The Iceman); Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now); Ron Livingston (Drinking Buddies); Rob Reiner (The Wolf of Wall Street); James Franco (Spring Breakers); Justin Chon (21 & Over); Will Poulter (We’re the Millers).

Performance, Female: Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives); Robin Weigert (Concussion); Toni Collette (Mental); Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer, Welcome to the Punch, Disconnect); Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies); Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color); Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now); Felicity Price (Wish You Were Here); Brie Larson (Short Term 12); Lucy Punch (Stand Up Guys); Onata Aprile (What Maisie Knew); Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit); Rachel McAdams (Passion); Kate Bosworth (Homefront); Essence Atkins (A Haunted House).

Best Ensemble Performance: Drinking Buddies.

Proof that Hollywood Can Still Turn Out Quality Blockbusters: Pacific Rim and Olympus Has Fallen.

Best Use of 3D: Storm Surfers 3D.

The Automatic Automatic: "Monster"

Best Use of a Preexisting Song: The Automatic Automatic’s Monster in Cockneys vs. Zombies.

Justin Chon, puking his guts up to wring a laugh or two in 21 & Over.

Justin Chon, puking his guts up to wring a laugh or two in 21 & Over.

Omitophile Award for Best On-Screen Vomiting: It was a good year for throw-up. As much as we all enjoyed watching De Niro on the receiving end of Katherine Heigl’s upchuck in The Big Wedding, this year’s prize has to go to Justin Chon’s peristaltic wizardry in 21 & Over.

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Congratulations on running a list that had on it one film I'd heard of and went to see -- "Wolf of Wall Street." It was a tour de force. Otherwise, esoteric? Show-boating? Unhelpful? All of the above. Come ON, Scott, we need a little balance here.

You're right, Monaghan. The best films of the year are "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity." Baa!

Balance? Where is it written that I must throw in multiplex fodder in order to suck up to my readers? I kinda' hope people turn to me for exact opposite reason. The majority of the films on this list were reviewed in these pages. You had your heads up. Of the 200-plus movies I watched this year, these are the ones that did it for me. As for being unhelpful, I just gave you 19 great films to rent. Get to humpin'!

The fact that that dude had only heard of TWOWS speaks volumes. Maybe he should check out USA Today's best of list.


by tward77

I think the comment was directed at monaghan.

Scott, I was too chicken to see"Gravity," though I really like fabulist Alphonse Cuaron who bases whole movies on stories his grandma told him. As for "12 Years a Slave" -- well, when producer Brad Pitt showed up as an itinerant "good" white carpenter, I just had to laugh. I was interested in the true-story part but I needed a spoonful of sugar and an intermission to make it all go down. Otherwise, I seldom rent movies and never go to multiplexes anymore -- only Landmarks and Reading Clairemont and I even went once to the Media Arts Center last summer to see a bootleg film made in Cuba.

There were two German movies last year that were really good -- one about WW II Nazi refugee kids and one about a woman doctor wanting to flee East Germany - and another strange, beautifully photographed Danish/Swedish? film called "The Hunt." And how about that Israeli documentary interviewing all those old Israeli CIA/Secret Service types? You have to fill in the blanks of titles I have forgotten, but there were probably others besides.

I think people who like movies need to know from you about about these films and others like them. Super-idiosyncratic Esoterica from the Master once in a while is fine, but "Best Films of 2013?" That's a major disconnect. As I said, I am only one person, but I saw only one of the movies on your "best-ten" list and never even heard of the rest. And I actually really liked three movies from your perverse "worst-of" list.

IMHO part of the reviewer's job is to reach regular-schlepper devotees as well as to influence the growing number of less-frequent movie-goers to leave their computers at home and get out into the dark of a non-Barcalounger movie theater to see worthy new films.

You mention a film "about a woman doctor wanting to flee East Germany" and call Scott out for not introducing his readers to that film.

I wish you'd done the research to include the film title...is this the one you're referring to? http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/barbara/

I haven't seen all of it yet, since my wife watched most of it while I was off shoveling snow or something, but I'm looking forward to seeing it, and I appreciate Scott's review as an introduction to it.

Thanks, Joel. I'll keep shoveling, too!

"The Hunt" had a great first hour before veering into made-for-TV land. A German movie about Nazis? You'll have to be a little less specific. As for "The Gatekeepers," I could never call a film that relied on video game recreations of Nazi atrocities one of the year's best.

Ward is right, Monaghan. "USA Today's" list is the work of the anti-Marks. This critic wouldn't know a foreign film if it parlez-voused her tuchas.


There is a joke going around the San Diego Film Critics Society concerning elitism. Each year when we get around to voting on best foreign film, a handful of members have to sit it out because of their refusal to watch at least 3 of the 5 nominated movies. Their justification? "It's not my audience."

Than make it your audience, dammit! When I see a film that fuels me I can't wait to get home and share the news with my readers. Can I help it if most of the movies I like don't play mainstream houses? You should be happy that you found a critic who refuses to spout more of the same. I don't write for people who rely on TV commercials aired during "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" for their weekend entertainment.

Our job at "The Big Screen" is to point people in the direction of films that in our estimation are a cut about the heaping servings of unchallenging mall fodder that Hollywood forces down viewers throats. And when the occasional time-worthy blockbuster comes our way, we're the first to crow about it. (Matthew praised "Gravity" and I personally adore "Pacific Rim" and "Olympus Has Fallen.")

The big problem has to do with programming. This isn't the '70s when a theatrical release had "legs" and would stay in theatres for several weeks. Nowadays you have to act fast. Some of the movies on this list played one week and in the case of "Closed Curtain," you had exactly two chances to see it. Why do you think I wrote a pair of advance raves on it?

Unlike "USA Turday," I am not a mirror for "regular-shleppers." The majority of the films on her list are part of the problem, not the solution. When it comes right down to it, I am a reasonably intelligent man armed with a sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. A Master of anything other than undying passion and devotion to the thing I love most I ain't. My job is to point readers in the direction of films that in my estimation are worth their time. I also want to make you folks laugh, because were it not for my sense of humor, it's doubtful that I'd have made it all the way through 70% of what I see.

I'm probably the paper's regular schlepper. And I liked Gravity a heckuva lot more than Scott.

And I liked "Pacific Rim" a heckuva lot more than you. It's all opinion. These year end lists are there for fun's sake and nothing else.

Your response makes total sense, Scott, regardless of what someone here is saying. Keep doing what you're doing! If others think it's so easy to do movie reviews. they should quit whining and try it. ;-)

Earth to Scott: I can't even follow your response, it is so full of scorn and dismissive references to mall-world and USA Today. Set aside ego and outrage and tell us about the movies themselves.

I get your "undying passion and devotion" and some of the "sense of humor," and I too appreciate Kensington Video, but I contend you lose me and other readers-as-moviegoers whom you might reach as the Reader's film critic. Isn't that the print movie reviewer's basic obligation?

Even the Reader's long-time, gold-standard, controversial reviewer Duncan Shepard -- who expressed plenty of misgivings about the movie business and popular culture -- made that effort.

No! When you wade through as much garbage as I do then maybe you have the right to tell me to can the outrage. Don't you find it odd that virtually every critic in the land has the same 20 or 30 movies on their 10 best lists? I am not a parrot nor am I here to validate opinions. And what do you mean by "tell us about the movies themselves?" I just gave you a list of 20 or so films that I think are terrific, all of which I wrote about. You won't take yes for an answer, Mon!

I agree with Marks in this forum fight because as a film critic he should point the way or out right champion films that his readership isn't aware of yet. If he didn't showcase them then the movie-going public might become convinced via The Lone Ranger's and Catching Fire's massive marketing campaigns that these are the only kind of films being made and that would make our viewing lifes a little less colorful or a downright living Hell.

Besides all of us commentors are seeking out a film website/page and should know this isn't some Byron Allen celebrity interview/puff piece show. Marks should be commended for not believing that EVERY year movies get worse or that EVERY year there's nothing worth seeing. He's like a bloodhound who's trained to sniff out truffles and it leads him to strange places!

As for what's on the list: Saw WOWS in theater because... It's Marty! C'mon! Saw Olympus Has Fallen" and thought it knew exactly what kind of movie it was and was all the better for doing so. Didn't see "Drug War" in theater, but I immediately bought it on DVD when I first saw it on the shelf because that's how much I like Jonnie To's work. I'm going to seek out "NO" and "London: The Modern Babylon" when they hit video. How'd I miss Malick's latest? slaps forehead and "Only God Forgives" seems to lurid for me at the moment so I'll wait till I'm the right mood to see it. You picked a good crop this year, Scott!

Self-admire much? Whole lotta s-s-s-smoochin' going on here. Oh, wait, I forgot....these lists are here "for FUN'S sake and nothing else".

Scott, thank you for your writing and focus on the films you review. I live nowhere near a decent cinema, so I don't get to see too many quality films up on the big screen, but I rely on you and a few others to let me know about films worth tracking down. Thanks to your lists and reviews over the years, I've caught some wonderful films, challenged my own ideas, and gained more intellectual investment in the films I watch. Granted, we have some similar tastes, but even/especially when our opinions diverge, I learn quite a bit from your writing and use it to fuel my own approach to film-watching. Cheers to 2014!

Only God Forgives, was pretty good. Passed on Drug War. To's Election superior.

To the Wonder was awful. There's no acting just puppetry and crummy cinematography. Terrence 'where actors go to die on the cutting room floor' Malick is very overrated. Wolf of Wall Street is best new movie I saw all year. I had no idea it was going to be so over the top.

Being "over the top" doesn't mean a movie is necessarily good. It's a lot more difficult for an artist to be subdued or subtle. Excess for the sake of excess reeks of egomania, lack of creative ideas, a worshipper of fat budgets, or artistic laziness. A good example: "The Lone Ranger." Less is more! Johnny Depp did another movie that was restrained and UNDER the top, and it was a masterpiece. It was titled "Finding Neverland." Rent it!

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