I’ll get it out of the way right now: what follows is by no means a canonical list of the “best” films of 2013. I’ll admit that I have yet to see most of the officially anointed Oscar Contenders, and missed many of the most acclaimed films of the year. What this is, rather, is a list of the films that spoke most directly to me. Some are weirdo arthouse items, some are huge Hollywood blockbusters, some (read: SPRING BREAKERS) somehow managed to be both, but all of them hit the “badass” trigger in my brain, and all of them are worth checking out at least once by anyone who would read this site.
10. IRON MAN 3 (dir. Shane Black)
Yeah, it’s a big dumb popcorn movie– but no one is currently doing more exciting work in the Big Dumb Popcorn Movie genre than Marvel Studios. For this installment, the House of M made the inspired choice to hand over the reins of their snarkiest action hero to the man who practically invented the modern snarky action hero: Shane Black, legendary screenwriter of LETHAL WEAPON and THE LAST BOY SCOUT. The result functions perfectly well as both a crackerjack action film and a snide deconstruction thereof. (And yes, a lot of fanboys still have their panties in a bunch over the big twist, but honestly: how did you think they were going to pull off a villain who’s basically Fu Manchu with magical space rings?)
9. THE VISITOR (dir. Michael J. Paradise)
It may be stretching the boundaries to include a nearly 35-year-old movie on a year-end list, but given its obscurity, and the effort put forth by Drafthouse Films in its lavish re-release, it’s worth casting a fresh eye on this forgotten ’70s Euro-horror oddity. You can read my full thoughts on the film here, but suffice to say it’s the only movie where you can see John Huston play Pong with an alien devil child.
8. PACIFIC RIM (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
As I left PACIFIC RIM, I puzzled over just what made Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-vs-robots epic so much more acceptable than, say, Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS. The answer, of course, is enthusiasm: where TRANSFORMERS is literally a two-and-a-half hour toy commercial, PACIFIC RIM feels more like watching a well-loved toy chest come to life. Anyone can make a movie about giant monsters beating the crap out of each other, but it takes a true monster-kid like del Toro to insert a few lines of technobabble to justify why each monster has to look completely different.
7. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (dir. Peter Strickland)
If it’s true that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO may be the most frightening film of all time. Virtually the entire film is spent watching characters watch a horror movie, as a mild-mannered British sound designer (brilliantly played by Toby Jones) is called in to do the mix for a wild Italian giallo film. We never actually see the film within the film, but from the way it slowly unravels Jones’ psyche (and, ultimately, the very narrative) we can tell it’s a doozy. Also worth watching for the killer soundtrack by Broadcast, doing their best Goblin impression.
6. REWIND THIS! (dir. Josh Johnson)
Full disclosure: few subjects get me more irrationally sentimental than VHS nostalgia, so it wasn’t a huge leap for this documentary to win me over. That said, this film is both thoroughly engaging and remarkably comprehensive, documenting the format’s rise and fall, the ins and outs of the industry that you probably never even thought of, and the collectors and store owners who refuse to let go of their increasingly fuzzy cassettes. Director Josh Johnson managed to score a sprawling assortment of interviews, from ’80s schlocksters like Lloyd Kaufman and Frank Henenlotter, to modern fetishists like Everything Is Terrible’s Dimitri Simakis and Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson, to oddballs like outsider filmmaker David “The Rock” Nelson. It’s enough to make you cancel your Netflix subscription.
5. THE WORLD’S END (dir. Edgar Wright)
At this point, it’s tough to imagine Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost collaborating on a comedy and not turning out something special. As the promotional materials roundly spoiled, what starts out as a coming-of-middle-age buddy comedy abruptly turns into an alien invasion movie at the end of the first act. What caught me by surprise, though, is how it then slowly returns to its original themes, culminating in a gloriously metaphysical climax that recalls Douglas Adams at his best.
4. JOHN DIES AT THE END (dir. Don Coscarelli)
Someone needs to get PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli better funding. It’s been a decade since his last film, the beloved Bruce-Campbell-as-Elvis-vs-mummies classic BUBBA HO TEP, and his new adaptation of David Wong’s cult novel is just as delightfully badass. Habit-forming alien soy sauce, interdimensional meat monsters, and rapid-fire one-liners (“Have you ever heard the old Earth saying, ‘I wanna shoot you so bad my dick is hard?'”) ensure JDATE’s enshrinement in the “splatstick” canon, alongside DEAD ALIVE and the EVIL DEAD trilogy.
3. LORDS OF SALEM (dir. Rob Zombie)
I’m a fan of Rob Zombie’s previous films, but you pretty much always knew what you were going to get: gruesome deaths, MTV-style editing, and a parade of cameos from horror icons past. For LORDS OF SALEM, however, the Haverhill native seems to have made a conscious effort to subdue his usual excesses, trading his Tobe Hooper grime for Roman Polanski atmosphere, and the result is perhaps the first genuinely creepy film of his career. Oh, and the cameos are still there, with top honors going to Bruce “WILLARD” Davison as an affable Massachusetts historian and Patricia Quinn (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW’s Magenta) as a fortune-telling witch.
2. SPRING BREAKERS (dir. Harmony Korine)
SPRING BREAKERS may be Harmony Korine’s greatest prank yet: in one fell swoop, he tricked thousands of mainstream moviegoers into seeing a nihilistic, avant-garde critique of Millenial ennui, and thousands more arthouse cinema devotees into seeing a dubstep-infused titty film. He accomplished the former by filling his cast with reformed Disney starlets (all giving surprisingly solid performances) and James Franco in a career-definingly weird turn as cornrowed rapper Alien (everybody: “LOOK AT MY SHIT!”). It’s also possibly Korine’s best film– and this is from someone who will defend TRASH HUMPERS to the death.
1. ROOM 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher)
It’s hard to write about ROOM 237 without feeling self-conscious, as it effectively deconstructs the very concept of film deconstruction. The concept is fairly simple: director Rodney Ascher assembles six people who take Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING very seriously and follows them down their respective rabbit holes. Some of the theories are fairly reasonable – one can easily imagine Kubrick mapping out the Overlook Hotel and making sure its structure was impossible – but as for the others… well, it seems far-fetched that even cinema’s greatest control freak could arrange the clouds to resemble his own face. Not a single talking head is shown; the film is built entirely from other movie clips, from THE SHINING and the rest of Kubrick’s filmography to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to DEMONS. The result is a film like no other– and well worth its own cult of obsessives.