Sam’s Best Movies of 2013

After 365 days of quasi-voracious moviegoing, I consumed 123 new releases in 2013.

Naturally, when you experience anything that many times, one is bound to run into extreme highs and lows.

While the general public had to endure yet another abhorrent Adam Sandler trifle, we were also treated to new films from some of today’s most illuminating filmmakers (i.e. Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze).

Below I’ve compiled my list of 10 essential movies (all of which opened in San Francisco during the year) that you should have seen over these past 12 months.

Since my annotations will be concise, I’ll provide links to quality, longer-form writing (in some cases my own).

Honorable Mentions: Kings of Summer, Mud, The Spectacular Now, Viola, Lee Daniels’ the Butler, Prisoners, Enough Said, and In a World.

10.) The World’s End: Edgar Wright completes his beloved, genre-twisting Corentto trilogy with panache and feeling in the superb The World’s End.

Explained through Simon Pegg’s gleeful narration, a gaggle of high schools friends reunite after years of separation to complete the infamous Golden mile, a 12 pub marathon where one must consume one pint of beer per venue (an arduous task they attempted and failed in their youth).

But the excessive consumption of alcohol takes a backseat to what Wright is thoughtfully capturing here: the perhaps trivial nostalgia one retains for their hometown long after they’ve left it behind. (Read Calum Marsh’s review)

9.) 12 Years a Slave: For 134 merciless minutes, UK director Steve McQueen tackles the brutality of slavery with a type of subtle artistry absent in films like The Color Purple and Django Unchained.

Based off Solomon’s Northrup 1853 memoir of the same title, McQueen tells the story of a free African American man who was kidnapped and made a subservient slave. With his identity erased, leaving his family and freedom behind, 12 Years a Slave brutally exposes not only the indignity of the antebellum South, but just how barbarous humans can be towards other humans.

*This* is a true horror film. (Read our review)

8.) The Act of Killing: Those who have experienced Joshua Oppenheimer and company’s harrowing documentary have probably yet to forget it.

The subject of this provocative documentary is one that seemingly exists in another universe: for years mercenaries and death squad leaders (some of which we financed), have been heralded as heroes in Indonesia.

Oppenheimer ingeniously asks retired hired hands — most of whom are more congenial than you’d anticipate — to recreate some of the mass-killings they committed over the years for audiences.

My mouth hung open throughout The Act of Killing, dismayed that such societies exist.

And then it dawns on you — like a ton of bricks to the head — that what is transpiring in Indonesia is not only inspired by America’s hyper-violent culture, but is simply a heightened, anarchist version of it. (Read Dan Schindel’s review)

7.) Nebraska: I’ve watched no film more this year than Alexander Payne’s lovingly quaint new film, Nebraska. Something about this anamorphic black and white excursion through barren middle-america keeps me coming back for more.

Perhaps it is Mark Olson’s endearing score, June Squibb’s eccentric performance, or most likely, the father and son relationship at the center of the movie (played by Will Forte and Bruce Dern).

The mercurial bond between the two is at once familiar and foreign: a 30-something trying to connect with his aging, alcoholic father who believes he has won a million dollars.

Payne (The Descendants, Sideways and Election) has a knack for wringing palatable emotion out of any story he touches. Nebraska is no exception. (Read our review)

6.) Blue Jasmine: To quote friend and critic David Ehrlich, Woody Allen possesses a “Zelig-like capacity to bend any genre to his will.” That philosophy stands to be true with Blue Jasmine, a darker and more tragic film than we’ve come to expect from the nebbish genius.

Revolving around the eponymous Jasmine, Cate Blanchett brilliantly assumes the role of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown after her duplicitous husband (a la Bernie Madoff) gets imprisoned for fraud.

Set to tune of Conal Fowke’s endlessly listenable “Blue Moon,” the once New York socialite traverses across country to San Francisco, where she is greeted to a different sort of lifestyle by her sisters (played by Sally Hawkins).

While Woody still imbues Blue Jasmine with his traditional sardonic humor (i.e. Jasmine, narcissistic and self-involved, laments to everyone about her past, even children), this is primarily a serious film about a woman who is forced to finally claim some autonomy in her life.

The movie ultimately posits a daunting question: how does one find themselves when their identity was lost to their partner years ago? (Read Dave’s review)

5.) Inside Llewyn Davis: The recent Golden Globes nominations would lead you to believe Inside Llewyn Davis is a musical or comedy. But I can assure here now that the Coen Brothers’ latest opus is firmly none of the above.

Chronicling the nascent stages of folks music in Greenwich Village circa 1961, the film follows a week in the life of the titular musician Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac).

In just a matter of seven days with this character, who is equal parts unaccountable, stubborn, foolish and talented, we get a firm sense of who Davis is.

The songs performed in the film seamlessly progress plot and reveal character. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” especially evinces the type of sadness and hopelessness that permeates inside Inside Llewyn Davis.

Once again, the filmmaking brothers from Minnesota have crafted a film — not unlike Barton Fink or A Serious Man —  that will be revisited and analyzed for years to come. (Read Dana Stevens’ review)

4.) The Wolf of Wall Street: At age 71, Martin Scorsese directs his latest masterpiece with more youth, energy and insight than most filmmakers could or would half his age.

Presenting us with us Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who made his fortune in the 1990s illegally through a pump-and-dump system, The Wolf of Wall Street unveils the drug-snorting, prostitute-banging, morally bankrupt degenerates who have a big hand in America’s economy.

However, The Wolf of Wall Street is hardly an indictment of the dubious dealings on Wall Street. Instead Scorsese shifts his attention to us, questioning what and who we envy. (Read our review)

3.) Her: Neurosurgeons have done side-by-side comparisons of the minds of those who are clinically insane and those who are in love. The results have uncovered that the two are scarily similar.

Spike Jonze, who expanded our minds with eccentric films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, taps into this conceit by presenting us with a not-so-distant dystopic future where we are intensely reliant on technology.

So much so that a man, in this case Theodore (played by the wonderful Joaquin Phoenix), can fall in love with his computer (voiced by Scarlet Johannson).

Now that plot description may sound asinine and improbable (it’s hard to imagine falling in love with Siri anytime soon). But I contend that no film in recent years has so heartbreakingly, prodigiously and perceptively examined our ever-changing relationship with technology quite like Her does. (Read Wesley Morris’ review)

2.) Stories We Tell: Elegantly exploring the the ephemeral nature of our memories, Sarah Polley’s subversive documentary is a rather transcending cinematic experience. While that may sound hyperbolic, Polley has constructed a piece of work that is, paradoxically, both intimately personal and profoundly universal. Through investigation and interviews with Polley’s family (and narration provided by her father), Stories We Tell sheds a light on our proclivity to (often inaccurately) tell our stories and our past to both others and ourselves. (Read Michael Phillips’ review)

1.) Before Midnight: The best sort of movies are the ones that insist on sticking with you. They live inside your head days after you’ve experienced them, force you to introspect and to contemplate life itself.

I have learned over the years that few pieces of cinema have the ability to do this.

But Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third film in the “Before” series, is that rarity zealous moviegoers are in endless pursuit of. Picking up nine years after Jesse and Celine closed the blinds on us in Paris, the two are now in a committed relationship, with a pair of kids and enough issues to last the 109 minute runtime.

Before the issues are addressed, though, Before Midnight gives us a beautiful prelude on the Grecian countryside. Here existential chatter is had, stories of life, death, and love are shared by Jesse, Celine, and fellow artists.

Then, similar to what happens after the honeymoon period of all relationships conclude, reality sets in during the second-half of the movie. Through these two characters Linklater exposes the hardships of romance.

Jesse, who moved his life to Europe, wonders whether his teenage son in Chicago needs him during this phase of adolescence. Celine, too, has her doubts about the future, and whether she’s beginning to lose a grip on her career. Of the three films in the series thus far, Before Midnight most vigorously confronts reality.

The once fantastical couple has no choice but to accost the difficult issues impeding their relationship from happiness and growth. At times it appears that the two are slowly drifting away from one another — something that, of course, occurs with a sad frequency in life.

Neither overly melancholy or optimistic, Linklater ends on a note that assures us that life, whether the two split or stay together till the bitter end, will go on. After all, as Before Midnight reminds us, we are all just simply “passing through.”