RANDALL WINSTON’S FAVORITE FILMS OF 2013
The Film Aficionado Lists His Favorites
By Randall Winston
1. Her: In an unexpectedly fruitful year for good film, Spike Jonze’s latest is a true masterpiece of the medium. Visually sumptuous without ostentation, introspective without navel gazing, hilarious without pandering, Her is a beautiful love story wrapped in a prognosticative science fiction tale. The very best science fiction delivers evocative tales of the vagaries of human nature within an allegorical exploration of the results of scientific innovation. Her jumps right to the front of the line with BIG questions “What makes us human?” “What do we need in life?” “What is companionship at its core?” The subtlety and skill with which Jonze presents potential answers to those questions creates a film that is both touching and, ultimately, optimistic and life affirming.
2. Upstream Color: Before Her came along and shot to the top, Shane Carruth’s follow up to 2004’s Primer was my favorite film of the year. Where Primer mystified audiences with its dense, complicated story of the possibilities and consequences of time travel, Upstream Color offered a no less mystifying (but arguably more accessible) narrative that leaned on almost mythical storytelling and arresting production design. Once again, Carruth took the auteur approach, stepping into multiple roles along the entirety of the production process, including self-distribution (which, I admit, heightens my love of the film to an intense degree). Upstream Color is ranked so highly as much for what it represents for the future of filmmaking as what it is as an intelligent, extremely well-crafted film.
3. Mud: I went into Mud not really knowing what to expect. Jeff Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter was incredible and McConaughey was undeniably back on the scene, flexing acting chops he hadn’t flexed since the earlier half of the last decade. However, I just wasn’t sure what to expect from a coming-of-age tale (usually not my favorite sub-genre), even one featuring these two talents, to say nothing of Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, and others. I am glad that my hesitation did not prevent me from experiencing this fantastic, straightforward yet surprising film. It can be difficult for child actors to really plumb the emotional depths necessary for really great performances, but Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as the two young boys that discover McConaughey’s charismatic fugitive on his island sanctuary, are superb and comfortable in their roles. All around, Mud is just an immensely enjoyable journey.
4. Short Term 12: On paper, Short Term 12 seemed to me like any other awards-bait Sundance offering – “Young social worker deals with interpersonal difficulties while trying to make a difference in the lives of young troubled youths.” I felt like I had seen at least one film with that exact same general description in every year since I’ve paid attention to the news from Park City. However, it was the particulars of Destin Daniel Cretton’s film–beautiful but un-showy imagery paired with understated, unvarnished, incredible performances–that made it a true standout. I remember walking out of the film feeling really satisfied on every level with what I had seen. I see a LOT of films in a given year and that kind of complete satisfaction is a genuine rarity.
5. 12 Years A Slave: When I first heard that Steve McQueen was making a film about slavery, I was equally excited and exasperated. On the one hand, I have greatly enjoyed all of Queen’s feature films, however I was worried that his take might be co-opted to ultimately devolve into an attenuated, feel-good tale of slavery’s horrors (a la typical Hollywood movies about slavery’s ills.) However, I was very glad to see that McQueen’s film was unsparing in its depiction of slavery’s brutality and debasement. Some argue that it could have gone farther (and I suppose the argument can be made). However, I think that above all, 12 Years a Slave is a giant leap in the right direction for movies about slavery and feature films in general. We still have a long way to go, but McQueen has delivered just the right pit stop.
6. Fruitvale Station: I generally abhor the term “important films”–that designation tends to denote films to which general consensus attributes importance of the sociopolitical kind. However, like “indie” or “Sundance,” the abstracted term “important” tends to overshadow the actual merits (or demerits) of a film, codifying it as an film that audiences should see solely because of a general critical attribution of social significance, which then transforms it into a trend rather than a necessarily difficult and meaningful viewing experience. Annnnyway, while I think Fruitvale Station highlights a historically and socially significant event that should be spoken about within the context of today’s racial and economic inequalities, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut succeeds for me because it does what 24-hour media cycles and internet message boards fail to do–it humanizes Oscar Grant and does so with a superb directorial confidence.
7. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty: Terence Nance’s mixed media tour de force is a true wonder to behold. A love story featuring both live-action and various types of animation, Nance’s whimsical, bittersweet tale plays with the idea of artistic expression and the interplay between realistic and unrealistic expectations in romantic encounters. That it does so as a surreal, stream-of-consciousness exploration of a filmmaker’s cinematic rendering of the object of his affection/obsession is a testament to the rich imagination and vision at the helm. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a playful, energetic meta-fiction that suggests great work to come from Terence Nance.
8. The Hunt: Thomas Vinterberg’s excellent meditation on uncertainty, mass hysteria and the tense, violent consequences of group-think is a brilliant display of the worse tendencies of human nature. Mads Mikkelsen’s turn as the kindergarten teacher protagonist is outstanding. The film’s intelligent writing and confident direction are completely necessary to craft such a taut, dread-filled thriller. The Hunt possesses a tense, nervous energy that only continues to heighten as it pits its imperfect, wrongfully accused protagonist against a town of well-meaning but blindly suspicious people fueled by fear. A suspenseful thriller that exemplifies the genre.
9. The Square: Beautifully filmed, intimately framed and structured, and globally resonant, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary detailing the ongoing political upheaval known as the “Egyptian Revolution” achieves a rare level of balance between filmic elegance and narrative power in the documentary form. From the opening shot of a conversation among friends in a dark room lit by a single candle the final, breathtaking night shots of the crowd in Tahrir square, the entire film is a testament to people who work and organize tirelessly to change a life of violence and oppression to a life of freedom on their own terms, however nebulous and contested that freedom may appear in the present moment. The power of the film is perhaps best encapsulated by the following quote from the coda, “We are not looking for a leader to rule us because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader.”
10. The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer’s idiosyncratic and deeply moving documentary about two perpetrators of Indonesian death squad killings in 1960s Indonesia is one of the strangest and most affecting docs I’ve ever seen (and this was in the same release year as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s extraordinary experimental doc Leviathan.) The film’s decision to allow the two men to dramatize their own past killings creates a surreal atmosphere where–even for people whose lives and actions could be described as monstrous–violence and memory collide in heartbreaking, fascinating ways.
Special Guest-star: No: While technically a 2012 release, Pablo Larrían’s fantastic film about political action via marketing campaigns in Pinochet’s Chile of the 1980s was released in February of 2013 in the United States, just eking out a special spot on this list. From its vintage magnetic tape cinematography and detailed production design to its naturalistic performances, No fires on almost all cylinders. While it is controversial with Chilean audiences for its heavy focus on advertising rather than on-the-ground political organizations and actions, here’s hoping that the success of No increases global public interest in nuanced, diverse portrayals of social and public life from Chile and other countries in “Latin America.”
Honorable Mentions: In A World…, Computer Chess, The East, Berberian Sound Studio, Blue Jasmine, Don Jon, The Wolf of Wall Street, The World’s End, Leviathan, After Tiller, Spring Breakers, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Mother of George.
Written and Compiled by Randall Winston
Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Design by Mina Darius
Film Still from Her, Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures