The Top 10 Most Fascinating Films of 2013

What were the 10 best films of 2013? Which 10 films were the worst? The loudest? The densest? The most likely to impregnate you with a litter of gerbils?

These are weighty questions which we will not answer. (Except for the gerbil thing; stay away from Grown Ups 2.) Instead we will investigate the ten most fascinating films of 2013. A top-ten list is required for all film blogs each December and we pulled ‘fascinating’ in the random draw.

I was hoping for ‘pestilent’ or ‘scantily clad’ but ‘fascinating’ isn’t too bad.

Fascinating is a factual adjective; it is scientific. One can determine with certainty which films kept our brains boiling well after each screening came to a close. We can recognize those films that made us remember that being alive is a weird weird thing.

Some of my favorite films of the year do not make this list. Behind the Candelabra, for example, made my toes wiggle with pleasure, but it did not make my mind percolate. Breaking Bad too, I have been informed, is not actually a film—although nothing captivated my brainstem this year quite as much as the best television show ever (as long as we don’t count Sesame Street).

Also not appearing on this list is Gravity. This was a visually stunning film that left me with nothing to think about whatsoever save how the production was accomplished technically and why anyone would send an untrained doctor of medicine into space to install computer hardware that was readily configurable from Earth.

Enough waffle. More syrup! Here is the list, in exacting order of increasing fascination:

10: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Did you, like Supreme Being, not appreciate THG:CF? What if you tried reading the title out loud including punctuation? Yes. The Hunger Games Colon Catching Fire does sound instantly more interesting, doesn’t it?

Whatever you. I really dug this film and not just because Jennifer Lawrence has been sending me psychic love pigeons for months. There’s something totally bonkers and fascinating about lead character Katniss Everdeen. This is a young woman with action heroine skills—already something worth talking about—who deliberately avoids taking control of her life even when her life is on the line.

What other film does that?*

As someone who has a hard time remembering what it felt like to be a teenaged girl, Katniss’ behavior nonetheless reverberates within me. Many of today’s youth seem content flipping society the bird and sticking their heads in the sand, to mix avian metaphors. Politics? Civil rights? Global warming? Disparity of wealth? What evs. Too busy watching the remake of Logan’s Run to digest how ingrained in the world I all-too-soon will be.

Youthful folly isn’t anything new, but something about the technological shift in society appears to be weakening the fault lines. Perhaps there’s a big quake coming?

In any case, THG:CF is a spicy dose to your intellectual rectum. Boggle at Katniss’ reluctant awakening. Empathize with Peeta’s totally lame turn as the sex-object and realize how it must feel to watch pretty much every other action film if you’re female.

At least they didn’t make him flash his tits in the shower (yet).

That might come in Hunger Games parts 3 & 4, when we all accept that the world is impossible to save, even if you’re awesome with a bow and arrow and generous with love pigeons.

9. The Lone Ranger

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Hey buddy. You’ve got a bird on your head. Pssst. Hey. Hey. Bird. On your head. Oh forget it. We’ll just roll with it, shall we?

Good call. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is exactly as fascinating as everyone said it wasn’t. Many thanks to Jesse Hawthorne Ficks and Midnites for Maniacs for cluing us in. What seemed like an extra moronic bucket of fake butter slathered popcorn is actually a Trojan horse. Inside this Hollywood blockbuster lurks an attack on the evils of excess, greed, and immediate gratification. Surprise!

So that’s why you’re wearing the bird? It’s so we remember that the ruin we’ve made of our past still clings to us? I guess that does make sense. Well then what do you have to say about heroism and the myth of America? WHAT?!? Are you sure this a Lone Ranger film?

You are one strange dude, but I like you. Can I feed your dead bird now?

8. John Dies at the End

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This door cannot be opened. Speak clearly into the bratwurst. Wait, is that me calling you on the other line?

If it is, tell me that I’ve been thinking about it and I’m pretty sure that both is and isn’t the same ax that slayed you.

If you don’t know what I’m on about, then clearly it is time for you to watch John Dies at the End, one of two films on this list that I saw twice in the theaters. It is about one-third as nutsy-cuckoo as the book it’s based on, and that’s twice as bizarre as any film should be. From start to finish, you will be so flummoxed you will nary have a second to think.

This is a good thing because John Dies at the End doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But attempting to make sense of it in retrospect will fascinate you for a good long while. Don Coscarelli has actually managed to top Bubba Ho-Tep with this amusingly insane tale of alien/demon/narcotic meatmonsters that look just like your ex-girlfriend. It’s made for about one-zillionth of what J.J. Abrams spends on nerdy glasses, has practically no one in it you’ll recognize, and eats Star Trek and Star Wars fanboys for tea.

7. All Is Lost

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If you’re at all like me you spend an unhealthy percentage of your life wondering how you’d handle a real crisis. Not a first-world problem like your router conking out, but a first-first-world problem, like your sailboat being hulled by a rogue shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Well, wonder no more, because whatever you imagined, the Sundance Grandpa himself, Robert Redford, will show you what solitary man + utter fiasco really equals. That’s J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost and it’s fascinating stuff.

You’ve probably seen a ton of disaster films. Everything from the hyper-dreadful 2012 to the improbable The Poseidon Adventure to this year’s highly lauded Gravity. It turns out this entire genre—now that we have the lens of All Is Lost at hand—isn’t really about disasters at all. They’re about how humans interact during disasters.

If there’s no one to save but yourself, and no one to impress or appeal to for help (including a presumed audience or a hallucinated George Clooney), then I think there’s a good chance we’d all go down like Redford. Quiet. Frightened. Resigned.

All Is Lost has exactly one cast member. Robert Redford offers up some brief voice over at the beginning and once he almost gets someone to talk to on the radio. That’s it. He doesn’t narrate his struggle like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. He just keeps doing the best things he can thing of to keep his fragile body alive.

After watching Into the Wild years back, my crisis fantasies crystalized. I kept scheming about how I would have survived if I had been in Christopher McCandless’ place. After seeing All Is Lost, however, those same fantasies simply dissipated into self-awareness. Now there’s no camera, no Greek chorus, just the slow waves and the stuff in my head.

6. Wrong

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Not too many people saw Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong, and that’s a damn pity. Unlike his previous film Rubber, which was about a murderous tire, this one is a little strange. In it, Dolph loses his dog. This makes him unhappy.

I guess that synopsis needs work?

Wrong is all kinds of wrong but only because it slaps the hell out of narrative convention and makes it admit its complicity in dosing us with brain laxative.

In the film, people have the conversations they never have and do the things they never do because I don’t know why. We’ve got this system of societal norms that seems totally reasonable but they’re just what we’re used to. Other things, like treating the woman answering the phone at the pizza place like a real person—that’s crazy talk. So is going to work solely because you want to.

I’ll tell you this about Wrong. Every time I see its poster pop up on Netflix I think, “I need to watch that film again.” It made me chew over what I unthinkingly expect and accept and what else life could be if we just decided to start questioning what was right and what was, now that I notice it, completely wrong.

5. Escape from Tomorrow

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For longer than would seem prudent, people have been hyping their handheld, indie-on-the-go films; even when those people are Paul Greengrass shooting Tom Hanks in Captain PhillipsEscape from Tomorrow is another breed of horribly mutated mouse.

Maybe you heard about this film, all shot under the radar at Disney World? It is a creepy, hallucinogenic descent into the Hades of the Magic Kingdom. The film is chaotic with symbolism and light on signposts, leaving you more or less to paw your way through the crowd on your own. While I’m not sure I understand precisely what director Randy Moore was on about, I feel him. His is the Disney that corrupts us in some perverted version of original sin.

We—and our children—don’t have a chance of escape. Walt’s minions have so attractively packaged childhood fantasy that by the time we notice that it’s just a blind for big hungry business, the princess dress is charged to your card and you’ve got Dumbo inked across your ass.

Well they won’t get me without a fight. I haven’t even seen Frozen yet and it’s been out a week! Take that Disney! You can’t buy my childhood! What? They own Marvel Comics and Star Wars now? Shit. Pass the teat.

Escape from Tomorrow is high on this list both because it shouldn’t exist and because of how it does. Like the best films I’ve seen, there’s meaning there to be interpreted if you care to invest. Just because it’s not perfectly coherent doesn’t mean it isn’t completely fascinating. This is a guerrilla film in the truest sense.

See it and stage your own small revolution against the mouse.

4. 12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave isn’t a movie about being forced into bondage. You might watch it and see Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup enslaved, endure his physical and spiritual torment, and then—12 cinematic years later—rejoice at his miraculous release. But even though all but the last minute of this film deals with the barbarity of American slavery in the 1800s, that’s not what McQueen is illustrating.

He’s showing us something else. He’s exposing the effects of slavery, the ones that last even after the lash has been coiled and the chains struck off. The ones that remain today, even with Barak Obama as a two-term president.

I’ve seen films about slavery before, both exploitation-type films and pseudo-documentary pictures. It was no surprise to me to see how horrendous people behaved or how untenable the life was. What did surprise me—and what remains with me—is how Solomon Northrup felt upon regaining his old life.

After watching 12 Years a Slave I understand something of immeasurable import that I never coherently grasped before. For that, I will always be in Steve McQueen’s debt.

3. Upstream Color

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Upstream Color was my favorite film of 2013. And no matter how good you say The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, I’m pretty sure Upstream is going to stay at the top of my list. With it, Shane Carruth took the visceral, intimate style of his film Primer and pulverized it into a star field of darting emotion, lyrical beauty, and ascendant pain.

It is the sort of film one could watch twenty times in a week and not see the same movie twice. So much of what emerges from Upstream Color comes from the crevasses of your own psyche. As aware and introspective as you are, that’s how good Upstream Color is.

Does that make it the most fascinating film of 2013? Close, but no. As often as I have and will watch this film, I feel assimilating it is inherently a personal experience. I can talk with you about what Carruth means with it, but really what I’m telling you is who I am.

And I am not that fascinating. Not nearly as fascinating as Carruth. I am pretty damn fascinating though, especially when compared to a CGI dragon and some tiny fantasy dude with feet that are almost as hairy as mine.

2. The Act of Killing

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I would not be shocked at all to discover, upon the world finally shutting up shop for good in a pell-mell of space junk and giant earwigs, that The Act of Killing was the only film in the history of time to so perfectly capture a monster coming to terms with his own monstrosity.

Watching The Act of Killing is like being in the pot of water with the proverbial frog when it’s put on the burner. As unbelievable as it might seem, the film’s subject, Anwar Congo, does not initially realize that he is not being held up as a paragon of heroism and wisdom by the documentarians. As this Indonesian political gangster reenacts his vicious, bloody crimes he slowly—and finally—begins to consider who he is and what he has done.

People say they’d go back in time and kill Hitler, which is a good idea, but a better idea would be to trick him into facing the reality of what he has wrought. Well, Hitler’s dead. Again. What we’ve got is Anwar Congo. Watch him pal around with his neighbor, whose dad he may have had killed. Watch him accept accolades from current Indonesian politicians. Watch him demonstrate his quick and easy way to murder whomever it was most expedient to murder.

Watch him try to take a moment—just to clear his head—as he appears for the first time to consider that maybe, just maybe, he has done awful things.

1. Spring Breakers

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Look, I am as shocked as you that the most fascinating film of 2013 is Harmony Korrine’s Spring Breakers. This candy-coated, Skillrex scored, boobs-a-poppin’ fairy tale from Hell totally took me by surprise, and I was well warned.

In it, a quartet of entitled, shallow young women filch down to St. Pete’s for some spring break Bacchanalia. There, when the spilt beer turns fetid and sticky, they find James Franco’s drug dealer Alien and the flip side of the party.

But nothing as caustic as reality can stop spring break. Spring break forever!

Korrine bleeds his heroines off one by one as the cold fluorescents of dawn etch evil shadows through their neon bikinis. Some refuse to release the dream, though. Freed from their constraints, resistant to any sense of consequence, these girls make Katniss Everdeen look soft. They make Disney face its complicity in corruption. They take wrong and make it their bitch.

Even Anwar Congo would look askance at Brit and Candy, wearing hot pink balaclavas, submachine guns, and not much more.

Saying Spring Breakers is about the folly of youth is like saying Godzilla is about urban decay. Will the awakening generation of information-empowered kids even notice the darkness that pervades every corner of this film?

Will they wake to the consequences or has Pandora’s Box broken wide open? Now that our youthful indiscretions are permanently inscribed in the internet and anything recorded is already stolen, can ‘spring break forever’ be anything but ironic?

This is the question—more than any other—that fascinated me this year.

*And yes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Spring Breakers deal with the recalcitrance of young women facing an unappealing adulthood. The question is, what can be done about it?

 

Last year, I struggled to come up with ten films worth writing about to cap 2012. This year, I was hard pressed to limit myself to that same number.  We’ve got great blockbuster entertainment, truly indie brain bombs, insane documentaries, and more than a few films about and starring women. I declare 2013 a good year for film. And I haven’t even seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet.

 

8 responses on “The Top 10 Most Fascinating Films of 2013

  1. Fascinating. I agree that all of those are mightily fascinating films. Except for All Is Lost and The Act of Killing, which I haven’t seen yet (drat!). But they certainly appear fascinating. And then there’s Catching Fire, which bored me to sleep. But you knew that already.

    Meanwhile, think I’ll at least see The Wolf of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis before compiling my own top ten films of notable note, just in case they’re as good as advance word suggests.

    • I figure if they’re more fascinating than these 10 I’ll just go back in time, kill Hitler, and rejigger this list.

  2. Wow..Spring Breakers, who would have thunk it? Maybe I should actually see it before writing it off, a New Years resolution? nah, I’m way too stupid for that. Great to see The Act of Killing up there, easily the most disturbing and unnerving film I have ever seen. Thanks for all your hard work in brightening up the world wide web of mediocrity…Merry Christmas from New Zealand. Anthony

    • Anthony, you should see Spring Breakers. No matter what you expect, it’s something you’ll have a hard time ignoring or forgetting. Consider it our Christmas present to you.

      Best back to you and all the other Kiwis. Used to live in Wellington and I still miss the Ambassador Theatre! Best cinema I’ve ever been to, hands down.

      • I’m renting it this very evening…I too lived in Wellington and yes the ambassador was one of the best cinemas (the best being the robbins hyde park cinema in Leeds ), now in Auckland which has a couple of great little of cinemas, my local being The Victoria Cinema in Devonport. Happy hols…

  3. I’ve only watched two of these (Hunger Ganes and The Lone Range) a few haven’t been released over here yet though. Really looking forward to 12 Years a Slave and Wolf Of Wall St in the new year.

    I decided to list every film I watched this year, I’m up to 95 now and I think I will probably get 2-3 more in before the end of year. Most of the really great films I’ve watched are all quite old. I just watched M and All About Eve last weekend. M was really good but then last 20mins just elevated it for me, amazing film.

    • Ninety-five is a solid number Mash. That makes you a bona fide film nut. If I were you, I’d make sure it was an even 100. Get yourself some Spring Breakers and Act of Killing and John Dies at the End. Although if you haven’t seen Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas’ performance is far and away the best of his career.

      It’s stunning.

      M is great stuff. Always been a big Peter Lorre fan. All About Eve, too. Just one of those perfectly assembled pictures.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.