Top ten movies I Saw in 2013

by - Sunday, December 22, 2013

10. Casablanca (which was nearly tied with Vertigo)- So, these are both films that you are supposed to see if you are a cinephile. They were practically a tie for making it on to the list. We debated it for at least two sushi rolls.  We also saw both for the first time on the big screen at the Stanford, and they are both damn good looking films. The shadows and smoke in Casablanca are worth the price of admission all on their own. In fact, they may have been what pushed Casablanca into the final spot. I also like how little it actually feels like a love story, considering that is what it is usually labeled as. The musicality and sense of humor were also surprising. I wasn't that riveted by the story (perhaps because it is so ubiquitous in pop culture that I knew the ending), and I still don't love Bogey (African Queen excluded of course), but the whole thing was a gorgeous feast for the eyes in every frame. You can feel why it is still such a big deal.

9. Safety Not Guaranteed-  Safety Not Guaranteed is about a small group of reporters who go to inspect a man looking for a time traveling partner. It is the most romantically mundane sci fi movie ever. This movie is quirky to the nth degree, but what makes it so wonderful is that it is sincere and unmocking of the strangeness you think you are showing up to laugh at. There are no cheap laughs here. Instead, it is quietly hilarious and the dialogue really works.  Mark Duplass is so lovable and kind of frightening in a good way in this film, he perfectly rides the line without ever being too ridiculous.This is a great use of Aubrey Plaza's Aubrey Plazaness. Both performances feel fresh and watchable. You never have the feeling like you have already seen this movie 10 times before.

 The strange beauty is that it argues about the truth within the really odd (even the paranoid) and how problematic it is to stick to what you are supposed to want. It feels incredibly sad, in the way it always feels sad when you realize just how lonely it is to be alive, but that sadness fuels the sweetness of two people finding a strange connection with each other that fuels the total honesty in their seeming lies. I don't want to give the ending away, but it was so perfect. So often films are all premise, but this one genuinely lands in a way you won't expect. It's on netflix, and I recommend it big time for a date night.

8. Alien/ Aliens-This was a year where I watched movies about women in space, and none were nearly as good as Pag's recommendation for the Alien series. Ripley is a model filmic heroine, because she isn't just a male figure that has been sexualized. Especially in the second film, her heroicism is fueled by her nurturing spirit, her courage, and the knowledge she gained in her first experience. They go out of their way to compare her model of strength against women in the military, who completely adopt a misogynistic posture of power. Ripley is a tortured figure (Sigourney kills it in the first 30 minutes of Aliens), but you see her actually working through her trauma, not just brooding.

What I found even more interesting is the pretty pronounced psychoanalytic framework that the films work with. Theorists have suggested that the first Alien movie functions on the male fear of rape, of being penetrated, of unnatural reproduction, or of giving birth. In other words, Alien is a movie about men's fear of being women, and only a woman can survive. Cameron took this to another level in some ways by making the Aliens gendered female, and to have the final standoff be between two mothers (one of whom mothered her child "unnaturally"). You can just go on and on with these kinds of arguments, which is what makes these movies so interesting as action films. I also just think Sigourney Weaver is the bomb, and I like anything that can be action/sci-fi and still pass the Bechdel test. I mean, how many more can you even name?


7.Princess Nicotine-This movie is demented, and when you watch you can't believe that it was made over 100 years ago. I am convinced this is one of the things Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze watch when they are feeling inspired.

6. Somewhere Between-This documentary by Linda Goldstein Knowlton follows the lives of American teenage girls who were adopted from China as infants. Though it is framed by Knowlton's own adoption of her daughter, the film truly focuses on these four girls- one returns to China to volunteer at orphanages, one goes to Philip Exeter and struggles with perfectionism, one returns to China to meet her birth family, and one lives happily with her family in Eastern PA. Maybe it was the day I watched it, but I wept through the vast majority of this movie. The film really asks questions about how they consider their own identity and abandonment, how they understand themselves in their current communities, and how those wounds come into play on top of it just being hard to be a teenage girl. When Haley meets her birth family who she cannot communicate with because of the language barrier, your heart breaks for her birth parents and for her. The film was a beautiful reminder of how much each person means to others, and how important it is for all of us to feel wanted, useful, and loved in this world.

 The film raises really new and profound questions about the merits and problems of international adoption by focusing on the ways adopted children perceive themselves (rather than on the parents and their journey, which seems more common) and whether you can ever feel situated in a place and culture that is not your own. This movie never panders to cheap drama and remains so respectful to its subjects, but it is deeply affecting because of how nuanced these questions are and how deep the moments we share with them are. It made me feel just crushed and uplifted all at once.  I highly recommend this movie, though it will make you want to go adopt a child. Just a warning.

5. Witness for the Prosecution- This was the biggest surprise of the year. We took my brother and Bry to see this movie more so they could enjoy the glory of the Stanford Theater than anything.It turned out that the movie we were saying was hilarious and suspenseful. It was so twisty that we didn't see anything that happened coming, and there is great use of those chair lifts and British law wigs.

4. Say Anything- In this film, a boy falls for a girl. The girl gives the boy a pen. Then more stuff happens. This is all made incredibly romantic because the boy is Lloyd Dobler, whose best friends are all girls, who wears crew neck sweaters and trenchcoats in the summers, and who wants to be a kickboxer and house husband for a living. This is a dangerous film to show girls when they are young, because he may be an unreachable ideal, presented in such an understated and detailed way that you could mistake the dream for fresh realism. Cameron Crowe's debut is such a sweet, lovely, and romantic story about many larger issues about what it means to be exceptional or to be average. Also, what are we entitled to and what do we earn. Also, Peter Gabriel must thank his lucky stars for this movie.

3. Do the Right Thing- I thought Spike Lee's acclaimed debut would be one of my required viewings I wouldn't particularly enjoy (it was in a string with a bunch of Tarantino stuff, and I had pretty much given up on all these boy movies with boy stories), but this movie was like a bright acidy electric shock to my system. Like so many really great films, it had its own very specific aesthetic that is so sharp and bright- When I see it in my head, it is all primary colors against dusty neutrals. It actually looks like a hot day.

The story is smart and difficult, and it tackles issues that I am not always comfortable to think about. In the end, it becomes a story about an act of protest AND mercy; it is a movie that is aptly named. Also, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are so special in this. Their scene together at the very end of the film really stuck with me the entire year (as did the story of their offscreen romance).

2. The Piano- Jane Campion is a badass feminist goddess. This movie had the most feminist ending of anything I have ever seen.It is a direct and resentful response to the Victorian adultery narratives, where the heroine doesn't have to be punished for her misbehavior with death, determined by herself or otherwise. Instead, she gets to live on with a surprisingly sexy Harvey Keitel. Suck that, Flaubert!

This film deals with depression, power, sex, and voice trough a silent protagonist and the really rough New Zealand landscape. Someone needs to write something about Campion's treatment of the landscape as crushing, wild, and confining in comparison to the vastness in Peter Jackson films. You know something is up if a film about semi-prostitution with a guy with a face tattoo can trump Lloyd Dobler.

1. 12 Angry Men- I watched this all the way back in January, but I guess life was at its best then, because nothing topped it all year. This film features 12 ridiculous performances. Truly fantastic. Good enough to make me watch a bunch of other Henry Fonda films early in the year. Turns out, I really don't care much for him, but you can't deny that he kills in this movie. It is hard to pick a particular performance that trumps the others- everyone has a moment, though I really love the elderly juror (the 2nd to call not guilty), the one who grew up in a poor part of the city, and the final hold out.

What is amazing is how much we learn about these characters from how they react and interact around what seemed like an open and shut case. The film argues that we are defined by the choices we make.  In one moment, one of the jurors makes his own biases known in his arguments, and the camera pans out (for the last time until the very end) to show the men turning their backs, trying to avoid the ugliness in the tiny room.


The conceit of setting almost the entire film in one room seems overly theatrical, but the film techniques used actually elevate the feeling of pressure and claustrophobia that fuels the performances. There is a shadow of the fan that keeps returning to make the room look small. In the last 5 minutes, the camera is cropped so close that it cuts out the edges of their faces. This film is so strangely unlike anything else I have ever seen, and watching it now again, I am so struck how the climax/anti-climax can be such an intense relief. Best movie of my year. What was the best thing you saw this year?

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