Midyear Report: The Best Films Of 2013

#1  Oblivion

Scene from the movie Oblivion.

When Tom Cruise’s character in Oblivion, Jack Harper, enters his lakeside cabin retreat—situated in an enclave filled with lush virgin forestry and disconnected from the surrounding barren wasteland that Earth has become—we get a brief glimpse of Charles Dickens’ historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It immediately struck a chord with me as I began to realize what this movie was really about, and this quote from chapter nine of book two is the reason: “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend, will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof shuts out the sky.”

The concept of unknowingly surrendering yourself to some system, domestic or foreign, is not untouched (see Kanye West’s New Slaves), but it’s a supremely interesting one that works its snide little hands into the genetic code of the movie.

Themes of oppression, resurrection, sacrifice, good versus evil, and the symbolic significance of water, are the quiet engine that makes the book and movie run. Writer and director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) isn’t fully successful in sticking the landing with some of those big ideas, but my goodness does he find other ways to captivate you.

Swooping aerial shots of Cruise riding a motorcycle between hulking marooned oil tankers, gorgeously eerie sequences of the aptly named Bubble Ship navigating between the caverns of a desolate New York City, and the majesty of a home nestled in the clouds, are but a few of the moments that inspire a frenzied level of unbound wonderment.

It entranced me in a way that it helped to remind me why I fell in love with these particular types of epics in the first place. From the moment the Universal logo hit the screen to the tune of M83 front man Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese’s dreamlike and transcendental score (one of the best in recent years), I was immediately transported back to my childhood.

Towering robots versus giant monsters, or superheroes saving the day, didn’t make me feel like a kid again this year: a flawed, but elegantly crafted, piece of science fiction storytelling with heart, and youthful exuberance and desire to amaze, did.

#2 Before Midnight

Scene from the movie Before Midnight.

It’s interesting and rather brilliant how Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy found ways to progress a story that largely consists of long passages of dialogue where the various fragments of the human construct are dissected in an attempt to find meaning behind existence itself.

Before Sunrise (1995) examined the fleeting moments of everyday life and how a thousand connections can strengthen one; Before Sunset (2004) asked if love could truly prevail over the realities of life; and Before Midnight explores the notion that an unyielding relationship isn’t founded on the love of one, but the love of life.

Midnight is inarguably the coldest and most detached of the three: raw in its honesty and brutal in its affections; a filmic ice bath. The seemingly unreserved prospects of the future that Jesse and Celine held onto so passionately in Sunrise are all but gone and have been replaced with percolating disdain, unattractive accusations and the acknowledgment of monogamy as a hopeless practice.

The film is a perfect portrayal of mid-life tedium, the moment where the constant motion of the world around you comes to a deafening halt and the answer on how to move forward is a blueprint of layered perplexities.

There’s deep conversation amongst fans of the trilogy as to what order a newcomer to the series should see them in. The idea is that the first one you watch should be in accordance to your age since all three films cover different stages of adulthood. I say forget that, and watch them in sequential order. Not because I have ataxophobia, but because I believe these films should be viewed as a complete study—rather than individual studies—of how life is able to gradually lose its color.

#3 Spring Breakers

Scene from the movie Spring Breakers.

I’ve said this to many people, but Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers may very well be the greatest work of modern-day American expressionistic cinema. It’s an extremely subjective piece of filmmaking that uses the weeklong show known as spring break as an allegorical device to study temptation in its most perverse form, and how that temptation has become the foundation for the new America. It’s gorgeous, brutal, funny, masterfully directed and impossible to forget.

This is the type of film that begs for reflectance in order for all of its merits to fully surface. I didn’t allow myself enough time to let it all sink in upon watching it and ended up making the gross error of giving it a lower rating than it deserved.

Recommending it is extremely difficult to do since it requires you to leave behind all preconceptions of what you think it’s about. Make no mistake, Spring Breakers features a hefty amount of T&A, booze and drugs, but the focus here is on the psychological, not tangible, aspects of that sans souci period of adventurous filth.

#4 Like Someone In Love

Scene from the movie Like Someone In Love.

There’s a sequence in Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love where the emotional and physical bindings the lead character has to the underground realm of Tokyo is displayed in a long flowing, and seemingly real-time passage of her riding around in the back of a taxicab. The camera is held on her as she stares emptily out of the window, while the neon lights of the city glisten on her face, the whole world passing by while she is lost in translation.

It’s my absolute favorite moment in film this year, and it resonated so strongly with me that I based my final film project for my production class around it. (Which will see the light of day soon.)

The scene is intimate, mysterious, sexy, visually arousing and a perfect illustration of just how much so little can communicate.

Kiarostami fashions the entirety of Like Someone in Love in that same meditative nature, where the way a character interacts with his/her surrounding quarters is of crucial relevance in order to impose on you the world that they are occupying.

#5 Side Effects

Scene from the movie Side Effects.

To take a line from Game of Thrones, you know nothing if you truly believe that Side Effects will be Steven Soderbergh’s last cinematic foray, but if it is, it’s a damn good farewell. I had minor issues with the loopiness of the third act, but after a second viewing, I began to realize that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, so I shouldn’t either.

The characters are all a different shade of wacky and the looming storm they’re involved in echoes that to an insane degree; but what really makes the movie work is how subtle it manages to be amidst the utter chaos. Little details, such as the way a character’s reflection in a mirror hints at their mental instability, or the use of claustrophobic framing to signify psychological captivity, adds a certain level of richness to the narrative that puts Soderbergh’s superior talents as a cinematographer and director on the highest of pedestals.