Best of not-2013

It’s the annual round-up! The best films I saw in 2013, that weren’t released in 2013.

honorable mention: Road House (1989)

Yes, it shames me as a Patrick Swayze fan, but I had not taken in the glory that is Road House until this past year. This is one of those films that I thought I’d seen at some fuzzy point long ago, but as soon as it was rolling, I realized it was completely fresh Swayze action. And oh, how I basked in it.

Listen, you don’t need me to tell you why Road House is awesome. It exists on a plane that requires no explanation.

10. This Is Not a Film (2011)

Filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s documentary capturing a day in his life under house arrest in Iran is necessarily an odd exercise. Banned from making films or leaving the country, and facing a possible prison sentence for making “propaganda against the regime,” even this seemingly (perhaps deceptively so) loose, unpolished piece of work was so risky to make he had it smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive in a cake. Though it’s often hard to tell what moments are the most “real” and which have been staged in some way, it doesn’t really matter. The stakes at hand, and the emotions of someone facing severe political and artistic oppression, cannot be questioned. The final melancholy moments will twist the insides of anyone who values freedom and creative expression.

9. To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

The tiny subgenre of comedies made about WWII while WWII was still happening is so, so odd. To Be Or Not To Be would have to be admired simply for the boldness of its message and dark humor, but given that extra touch by director Ernst Lubitsch, the crazy package becomes a screwball masterpiece. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play married actors working in Warsaw who get involved in a spy plot against the Nazis, and soon their whole troop of oddball thespians is involved. The only thing I would’ve changed would be more screen time for the gloriously funny Lombard—especially since this would turn out to be her final film, as she was killed in a plane crash not long afterward.

8. Morvern Callar (2002)

I so wish Lynne Ramsay made films more often. Her arresting visual style—close up in moments, often making the gruesome beautiful or the beautiful gruesome—causes her odd character studies to brand themselves on my brain in ways that quirkier or more purely observant films don’t. The style perfectly serves Samantha Morton here as the title character, a working-class Scottish woman who, upon her boyfriend’s suicide, steals his unpublished novel and calls it her own, leading to various unexpected events both good and terrible. Morton is an underrated actress, able to somehow simultaneously seem otherworldly and like the girl next door. Her performance combined with Ramsay’s direction creates a hypnotic film.

7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

As both a character study and a meditation on the search for perfection, David Gelb’s documentary is a smashing success. 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono—who runs the most well-regarded sushi restaurant in the world out of a small space in a Tokyo subway station—makes a fascinating subject whose single-mindedness might seem over the top if it was found in a fictional character. His son, a master sushi chef in his own right who remains in his father’s shadow, provides a compelling emotional counterpoint. An engrossing portrait of a life, a family, and a passion.

Highly recommended to have sushi on hand while watching.

6. Hopscotch (1980)

The great Walter Matthau’s particular talents fit beautifully into this uber-leisurely-paced political comedy about CIA agent Miles Kendig, who decides to expose his corrupt colleagues in a memoir, then easily outwits their every attempt to track him down. If you need more than just Matthau in your comedy (but come on, who does?), there’s also Glenda Jackson as his delightful and delightfully-named lady-friend Isobel von Schonenberg, and Ned Beatty as the increasingly irate boss-man Myerson. Few actors have ever been as fun to watch play frustration as Ned Beatty, and the gleam in Kendig’s eyes every time he gets one over on Myerson brought warmth to my heart as only Matthau can.

5. Greenberg (2010)

I watched this as the back half of a double feature with Frances Ha, and was surprised to enjoy Greenberg far more. In fact, this was the most I’ve ever liked a Noah Baumbach film, with Ben Stiller’s performance finally really selling his style of humor for me. (Perhaps this was also helped along by the sharp LA jokes, what with my being a new resident here.) Rhys Ifans as Stiller’s semi-estranged best friend also shines, creating one of the more compelling male friendships I’ve seen on film in a good long while.

4. She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West’s humor and personal brand of anti-slut-shaming should bring a smile to the face of any contemporary feminist. We’re not talking about a complex storytelling achievement here, but the sheer amount of enjoyment packed into 66 minutes (!) cannot, cannot be beat. Come for the pre-Code luxury and luridness, stay for the baby-faced Cary Grant.

3. Thief (1981)

I watched Michael Mann’s Thief for the first time and was raving about it just before it was announced that it was getting the Criterion treatment, which of course made me feel a little burst of cinephile pride. This is another case of a director’s specific style finally really clicking for me. Gritty beauty, a fantastic Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and young James Caan perfectly covering his character’s inner desperation with a layer of grimy swagger—it’s all right on the mark.

2. The Messenger (2009)

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are two of the best actors of their respective generations. The subject matter of Oren Moverman’s film (co-written with Alessandro Camon; rightfully Oscar-nominated) could hardly be more heart-breaking. Foster plays a new recruit to the small band of soldiers who notify families when other soldiers have been killed in action. Harrelson’s character teaches the new kid how to do the job, and gradually reveals the significant toll it takes. No bit of pain is shied away from by the actors or the filmmakers, and the result is something profound.

1. The Conversation (1974)

How good is this movie? I avoided it for a while because in my head I associated it with various crime films of the ’70s that insist on a level of inscrutability that annoys me (The French Connection, The Long Good Friday, etc). But damn am I glad that Netflix’s insistence made me finally give it a chance. The mystery is thrilling (and comes with an actual explanation!), the exploration of anxiety in the age of surveillance even more relevant today, and Gene Hackman’s performance might be my favorite I’ve seen of his. Outstanding all around.

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Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

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