It's the final week of 2013, so we're wrapping the year up the way movie people are supposed to wrap the year up: Lists! Friday, we each gave our five worst movies of 2013. Today, we each count down our No. 6-10 best movies of the year, and tomorrow, we finish off with each of our top five.
We'll confess to being overly nerdy about our top 10 lists. In fact, we're so weird about them that we won't even show each other our lists until January 14, the day before the Oscar nominations come out. This is a tradition that has gone on since we were sophomores in high school and will surely continue until one or both of us are dead. So as you read our top 10s—we each only hit Nos. 10-6 today—know that neither one of us will be reading the other's. We think this makes this the first blog post that requires spoilers for the people who wrote it.
For the sake of perspective, here are our past top 10s that have been published online:
All right. Here's Nos. 10-6.
10. Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski.
Strange, hilarious and curiously moving. Shot in period monochrome (at some points, you'll feel like you need to adjust the tracking), it's a chronicle of a fictional computer chess tournament in the early-to-mid-'80s, in which various computer "geniuses" try to come up with programs to defeat a chess master. At first, you worry that Bujalski—who is known best for his early supposed "mumblecore" films—is just going to make a bunch of Rubik's cube jokes, but once you get past the hideous clothes and mustaches, the film becomes an elegant, mysterious, almost haunting comedy about the early moments of human realization concerning the Pandora's box it opened with technology. It's also an impressively observant character study, with all of these weirdos given their own slices of humanity as they help usher in a world that might just extinguish it. One of the oddest, most rewarding movies you'll see, if you're willing to give it a chance.
9. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron
I'm still not convinced we need the backstory of Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone, and the whole last 20 minutes feels a little too Contact New Agey for me. But wow, Grierson's got it right: That first 15 minutes is overwhelming. The rest of the movie holds up too; by Vulture's count, there are 26 deeply terrifying scenes in the film, and even though it's only 90 minutes long, that feels low. You want to admire the technical achievement, except it never feels like a technical achievement. It just feels like you're there. And desperately want to leave.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese
Yes, it's a little redundant at times, and it can be a bit much. But this movie sticks to the ribs. The notion that Scorsese is somehow endorsing the antics of his monstrous main character is absurd; I don't know a single human who would watch this film and think, "Man, this movie just loves that Jordan Belfort!" (I'm sure they exist, though. They're all bankers.) The comparisons to Goodfellas are apt, I think; this isn't as narratively strong, but it has that same kinetic, propulsive immersion, that sense of the highs and the lows, the notion that for some people, this is the only way life could possibly be lived. The joke this time is that Belfort doesn't end up some schnook. Real life doesn't punish him. Why is Scorsese supposed to? Of all the films of 2013, I bet this one will end up growing the most in estimation as the years go along. I, for one, am not getting on the wrong side of history.
7. Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth.
Having seen it twice, I still don't quite understand everything that happens, but, as is with the appeal of all of Carruth's movies (Primer), I suspect there's an answer there, if I just look a little harder. The difference between that film and this one, though, is that Upstream Color has a soul to go with all its story puzzles. This is a movie about damaged people trying to fix each other; it's a film, really, about love. It also helps a ton that Carruth has Amy Seimetz, warm-hearted and open, desperate but feeling, as his lead actress; she softens him up as both an actor and a director. It's an optimistic brain-melter for Carruth. He's moving in the right direction. Even if I still don't get the pig farm.(Original review here.)
6. Blue Caprice, directed by Alexandre Moors.
A recreation of the DC Sniper shootings of October 2002, this, bravely, focuses only on the two shooters and their relationship with each other. The shootings themselves are a small part of the narrative, almost the inevitable conclusion to their story. It's cold, clinical and almost mean, this movie: It never strays from its very specific mission, which is to look, unblinkingly, at these two men. It doesn't try to assign them facile motives or give them easy-to-understand backstories. That they are so hard to figure is the ultimately terrifying point. It is a portrait of monsters, but the true horror is that there's nothing special about them at all: They are just mad, and motivated, and capable. (Original review here.)
Blue Is The Warmest Color
To The Wonder
10. The Unspeakable Act, directed by Dan Sallitt.
A small, unpredictable, unexpectedly moving character study, The Unspeakable Act concerns the awkward coming-of-age of Jackie (Tallie Medel), an insecure teen girl who doesn't think there's anything wrong with the fact that she's desperately in love with her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). He's aware of his sister's romantic attraction but rebuffs her—although not too much so as to completely discourage her pining. This could be the setup for a calculatedly cringe-inducing black comedy, but writer-director Dan Sallitt goes in a far more interesting direction, delivering a study of one seemingly normal New York family's quiet desperation. The actors all perfectly walk the line between farce and tragedy, especially Medel, whose Jackie is simultaneously one of the strangest, most deadpan characters of the year and also one of the most relatable and heartbreaking.
9. This Is Martin Bonner, directed by Chad Hartigan.
This Is Martin Bonner has the intimacy and precision of a perfectly realized short story. Paul Eenhoorn plays the Australian title character, a middle-aged onetime rocker who found Jesus and now works in Nevada as a spiritual guide and support system for recently released prisoners. His latest charge is Travis (Richmond Arquette), who's less interested in the Lord than in just finding a friend after spending 12 years in jail. One of the hits of Sundance's low-budget, under-the-radar NEXT section—which in past years has been the launching pad for Compliance, Sleepwalk With Me, Bellflower and The Sound of My Voice—this drama has plenty to say about aging, faith and forgiveness. But it's most prominently a film filled with rich, complicated characters that feel as lived-in as the people around you. This Is Martin Bonner barely made a ripple in theaters, but that's almost fitting for a movie about quiet lives that are in danger of slipping through the cracks.
8. At Berkeley, directed by Frederick Wiseman.
For most people, college is one of the fundamental turning points in our lives, a crucial transition between childhood freedom and adult responsibilities. But director Frederick Wiseman's engrossing, observant documentary about the University of California at Berkeley goes one step further, suggesting that all of life can be found on a college campus if we just know where to look. At Berkeley runs four hours to prove his point, sitting in on a multitude of different classes—from poetry to the sciences—to create a stimulating CliffsNotes of ideas and philosophies that don't just shape young minds but also become the intellectual material that defines the course of human history. At the same time, Wiseman also shows us how a university works on a nuts-and-bolts level, pulling back the curtain on administrative meetings where budgets and curriculum are debated and decided. None of this is dry: At Berkeley makes a pretty compelling case that few institutions are as fascinating and electric as a top-flight university. It's almost inspiring enough to make you consider going back for that graduate degree.
7. Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley.
There may soon come a time when we don't think of Sarah Polley as an actress who happens to make the occasional movie. As good as she's been in films as diverse as The Sweet Hereafter, Go and Splice, Polley has really hit her stride as a director, first with the fictional Away From Her and Take This Waltz and now with the documentary Stories We Tell. It's her best work yet, perhaps because it's the most personal: an examination of her relationship with her vivacious, mysterious mother—she died when Polley was just 11—and her quest to uncover the identity of her biological father. Emotional and thoughtful, tough and funny, Stories We Tell is a portrait of Polley's extended family, but it's also a surprisingly universal exploration of the secrets and disappointments that we all carry around with us. And as someone who's seen it twice, I can tell you that knowing the twist doesn't dampen the film's impact. If anything, Stories We Tell grows richer with multiple viewings. (Original review here.)
6. Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth.
Nearly a decade has passed since writer-director Shane Carruth's first film, the mind-bending Primer, and for a follow-up he confounded his audience further by producing what is, essentially, a straightforward love story about second chances. Granted, Upstream Color is still draped in mysteries—What is The Sampler doing? What's with the characters' obsession with Thoreau?—but those riddles ultimately seem secondary to Carruth's interest in how people remake themselves after tragedies. Far more visually sophisticated and emotionally complex than Primer, Upstream Color also demonstrates that Carruth has improved exponentially as an actor: He and costar Amy Seimetz have a symbiotic rapport that nonetheless illustrates how scary and strange it is to give your heart to another person.
Cutie and the Boxer
The Spectacular Now
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.