Overstreet’s Favorite Films: 2013

In short, a conversation between a counselor and a recently paroled prisoner in a Las Vegas diner made a much bigger impression on this moviegoer than any comic book hero showdown, any fantasy roller-coaster ride, or any special-effects extravaganza in outer space.

It was a year characterized by box-office-busting exhibitions of excess. Consider the bloated, ludicrous, and unapologetically unfaithful ruination of The Hobbit; the Superman movie in which the “hero” contributed to massive casualties; and an outer space epic that gave us ten minutes of glory and then 90 minutes of seemingly unrelenting destruction. Curiously, it also offered artistic explorations of the problems of excess. Compare and contrast the epic stories of Jay Gatsby and Jordan Belfont, for example. (Wasn’t it strange, how the two characters looked so much alike?)

But the films that meant the most to me were those that sought not to overwhelm me but instead to draw me in.

For all of the many millions of dollars spent on wild and crazy big-screen spectacle, what impressed me were characters, conversations, silences, questions, faces, and visions of a world far more beautiful and interesting than any CGI artist managed to conjure.

In fact, the first four of my top five movies of 2013 — This is Martin Bonner, Museum Hours, Before Midnight, and Upstream Color — were about two characters in conversation, getting to know one another, inspiring one another, disappointing each other, and navigating difficult personal challenges and crises. I could have placed these in any order and been happy with my list, but I give Martin Bonner the edge because it accomplishes so very, very much with the simplest of moviegoing materials. Where other films seemed desperate to entertain, Martin Bonner captivated me by looking closer and closer and closer at what was readily available — two human beings.

There was a lot of fuss about two films that focused on how one human being endured a brutal ordeal alone out in the elements — Gravity and All is Lost. I still haven’t seen All is Lost yet — an oversight I mean to correct soon. It looks more promising to me than Gravity, which dazzled almost every moviegoer I know, but left me frustrated and bored. (Its enthralling opening scene quickly devolved into what was, for me, a wearying onslaught of special-effects chaos distressing a particularly uninteresting character until its predictable conclusion.)

But the fifth of my top five was a film about a ship at sea and the elements that assail it. The people on board? Well, they barely register as human beings. They seem to be part of the machine… and lost in all kinds of ways.  Leviathan is a film that should never be watched on anything but an enormous screen with an immersive sound system… because it exists to plunge you into visceral sensory experiences you’ve never experienced. And it isn’t just shock and awe — there is poetry in the imagery, poetry about humankind’s relationship with the natural world, and it has all of the ferocious energy of a war movie. The fact that it’s all 100% real, none of it animated, is the most unsettling thing of all. I clung to my seat through the whole experience, feeling 110% alive and awake, leaning forward into images unlike anything I’ve seen before. Again, be warned — if you try to get a sense of it at home, you just won’t understand, unless you have an enormous screen, powerful surround sound, a very dark room, and a commitment to endure without interruption or popcorn breaks.

So here it is, my list of 20 favorite films of 2013. To be clear, these are films that had their first commercial release in the U.S., either in theaters or VOD, in 2013. Many of them played elsewhere in the world in 2013.

  1. This Is Martin Bonner
  2. Museum Hours
  3. Before Midnight
  4. Upstream Color
  5. Leviathan
  6. Like Someone in Love
  7. The Wolf of Wall Street
  8. Short Term 12
  9. Her
  10. The World’s End
  11. The Act of Killing
  12. Frances Ha
  13. To the Wonder
  14. Stories We Tell
  15. 12 Years a Slave
  16. Inside Llewyn Davis
  17. The Kings of Summer
  18. A Hijacking
  19. Captain Phillips
  20. The Counselor
  21. The Great Beauty
  22. All is Lost
  23. Wolf Children
  24. Mud

If you want two longer lists — one a list of world premieres, the other a longer list of American releases — visit my permanent 2013 film page, where I will go on updating lists as I see more and more films released in 2013.

 

 

 

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  • Michael

    I love childrens movies, animated movies, and the occassional adult drama, but I hate Will Ferell so have no interest whatsoever in seeing Anchorman 2, and Walter Mitty sounds boring as hell to me. Sorry for liking what I like. I apologize.

  • Michael

    My favorite films are in order:

    42
    So Undercover
    Cloudy with a chance of meatballs 2
    Despicable Me 2
    Epic
    Planes
    Walking with dinosaurs
    Smurfs 2
    Monsters University
    Grown Up’s 2

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I guess I’ve been watching the wrong movies!

      • Esther O’Reilly

        Michael was going to add Walter Mitty and Anchorman 2, but he forgot.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    LOVED Mud and Kings of Summer. But dude. “Wolf of Wall Street,” a favorite? Okey-dokey.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Absolutely, Wolf of Wall Street! Rates near the
      top of the Scorsese films I’ve seen.

      A perfect example of exposing
      American monsters for what they are. It’s truthful about the allure of
      wealth and power and all that comes with it, truthful about the
      consequences, and truthful about how hard-hearted and inhuman a person
      must become in order pursue what most of America considers “happiness.”

      It’s a boastful self-portrait by a legendary American salesman, but
      that self-portrait has been remade, touched up, and presented by someone who knows better… who wants us to see just the soullessness, the lies, the contempt for humanity, the black hole of selfishness that’s at this salesman’s heart. It’s important, because many of the people who own the vast majority of this country’s monetary resources and power are cut from the same cloth, and now we’re finally seeing them, on the big screen that so often sells us the lie.

      And then it turns the tables, reminding us that monsters exist because we play the games, succumb to their sales pitches, and support them. It’s horrifying and ugly, but at last the cancer is up on the same screen where we usually see the lies that cause the cancer.

      It should contribute to any healthy suspicions we might have whenever we’re on the receiving end of a sales pitch. And it may well give us glimpses of ourselves, as most of us do, from
      time to time, make compromises in order to sell something for the sake of self-interest.

      But please note — that’s not a recommendation. It’s an appreciation. This movie is likely to do some viewers more harm than good. I’m glad Scorsese made this movie, and I’m glad I saw it. But as with any film, each viewer needs to attend to their own conscience, and consider why they’re drawn to it. And if they see it, they need to do the rigorous work of interpretation, contemplation, and discussion… or else it’s just a rush of images.

      • Esther O’Reilly

        Maybe it is presenting the truth, but not all truth is worth preserving on film. There are lots of filthy song lyrics out there that are probably telling the truth about how the writers/performers feel, but that doesn’t make the songs great.

        You’re trying to say there’s a deeper purpose here. Beneath all the obscenity and pornographic filth, we find the profound message that… America sucks/capitalism is evil? Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but bear in mind that if Scorsese is par for the course in Hollywood, he’s coming at this from a very leftist economic bias.

        The reason for decadence and evil in high places is that man is basically evil. Consequently, it takes a rare man through whose fingers gold flows and yet has no power. But not all well-known American businessmen have been “wolves.” Many of our innovators and industry giants were statesmen with a sense of integrity—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Hershey. In the 20th century, Disney. Building something from the ground up and making lots of money off of it doesn’t have to be a bad goal necessarily. There is truth in the saying that power corrupts, and certainly money can too, but I get the feeling that deep down, Scorsese is trying to stick it to the capitalist spirit writ large.

        • jeffreyoverstreet

          I’m “trying to say” there’s a deeper purpose here? No… there is no “try.” I’m definitely saying that there is a deeper purpose here. I picked up on it right away while watching… I’ve been discussing it with a wide variety of moviegoers who picked up on it as well… and I’ve read interviews with the director about that “deeper purpose.”

          There’s a difference between “pornographic filth” and a movie about someone who revels in pornographic filth.

          In porn, porn is the goal, porn is the method, porn is the purpose. In movies like this, the goal, method, and purpose are something else entirely. They’re about exposing a cancer… one so dangerous that it is, on the surface level, alluring. But the movie doesn’t stop there. It shows the sinister nature of that cancer, and how it turns people into vampires, preying on others for their own self-interest, until they become hateful, broken, hypocritical devils.

          Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy write stories about soulless depravity, but their stories are not depraved. I find the same kind of vision at work here. If someone comes away from this film wanting to be Jordan Belfort, then that moviegoer had big problems already, before he entered the theater.

          A “leftist economic bias”? That’s a big ugly political term, but it doesn’t help me understand the movie. What I saw was a movie about greed, about what it does to people, and about how those living within that world of gluttony and self-interest rarely ever think about or even see their victims… except when they close a deal, succeed in a seduction.

          Jesus spoke more about the poor than almost anything. I think it’s essential that Americans see the ugly truth about the way many (I never said “all”) rich people live, and what drives them. I’ve already read all kinds of testimonies from viewers who say, “That’s just the way Wall Street is. I’ve been there. I’ve seen those people. I have even participated in that culture.”

          I feel in this movie a powerful drive to show America just what many of the super-rich think about the poor, or the middle-class, or anybody other than themselves. And the fact that it’s all coming from the first-person testimony of someone who reveled in it… well, that makes it pretty hard to deny. Even more interesting to me, though, is that the director of the movie is interested in showing us more than that man’s skewed vision. He gives us other angles on the story that call Belfort’s testimony into question.

          I’m not interested in finding political labels to pin on filmmakers so I can judge them. I’m interested in considering the film itself — its strengths, its weaknesses.

          Sure, there are some admirable figures who have been rich. But in this time when not one single “I have no recollection of that” banker or organization has been brought to justice for the massive fraud that has been committed against Americans, this feels like very timely big-screen medicine indeed.

          And as I said before, almost every chapter of this film offers us food for thought about the role of salesmanship in our culture (a theme it has in common with, believe it or not, Anchorman 2). I found that relentlessly interesting.

          As a storyteller myself, I’m particularly interested in what this film is doing with point of view. It’s extremely playful and thought-provoking, if you’re willing to think about it. What Belfort *says* … and what we see through his eyes… often doesn’t match up with what we hear and see when we’re made privy to other points of view in the film.

          But that’s a big subject for a full essay.

          Anyway… I got a great deal out of this film. And I’m going to keep on thinking it through with those who are interested in doing so. I’ve discovered quite a bit about what’s going on inside it from reflection, reading, and discussion. I encourage everyone to proceed with caution, if they proceed at all.

        • Esther O’Reilly

          Yes, I understand that’s your opinion. :-) FWIW, although I disagree strongly, I am glad you’re willing to state it in objective terms instead of resorting to the mealy-mouthed, “Well, of course, this is all based on perspective, yadda-yadda.” Luther’s adage about sinning may apply to being wrong as well.

          As far as it goes, it’s good that the movie intends to portray the pornography as evil and destructive. I’m saying that regardless of the purpose, to show pornographic acts on screen is never morally or artistically edifying.

          I’m a cinephile and a free-lance journalist myself, certainly not “unwilling to think about film.” No offense, but your snobbery is showing a little bit. ;-) As for the bias, surely you would agree that understanding an artist’s biases may shed fresh light on the art he creates. Of course I don’t believe “everyone has a bias,” or that “every piece of art has a worldview.” I’m sure you’re tired of those catch-phrases, as am I. I’m just saying that when an economic liberal creates a picture where every single rich person is a villain and their capitalist drive is the culprit, it’s quite possible he wants to say more than “These PARTICULAR rich people use their position in society sinfully.” That was it. But, something tells me we would disagree about economics too, so perhaps the point was lost.

        • jeffreyoverstreet

          It’s not snobbery to say I’m going to keep on considering and discussing this film with people who are willing to do so. If you are willing, great!

          It is snobbish, however, to make fun of another commenter for his list of favorites. So I deleted your comment about Michael’s choices.

        • jeffreyoverstreet

          Here’s some excellent, useful writing from Richard Brody:

          1. The Wild, Brilliant ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

          2. The Lasting Power of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’


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