"IT IS OUR basic human right to be fuck-ups!" shouted Simon Pegg in The World's End. "This civilization was founded on fuck-ups!" Truer words were never spoken—but as far as 2013's movies go, it actually feels like civilization might have its shit together. 2013 was a fantastic year for movies—a better one, in fact, than we've had for a long, long time.
It was also a good year for Portland's independent theaters, which left behind 35mm film and adapted to the expensive new reality of digital distribution and projection, often with help from their patrons: McMenamins gave the Bagdad Theater a renovation that respected the movie palace's history, while updating its sound and projection. Portland's quintessential arthouse, Cinema 21, expanded from one to three screens. Newberg's 99W Drive-In won a digital projector in a Honda-sponsored contest; Vancouver's Kiggins Theatre mounted a successful Kickstarter for their digital upgrade; and the Academy Theater thankfully, bravely soldiered on, despite raising only two-thirds of their needed funds for a digital upgrade via Indiegogo. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Theatre not only installed a slick, Kickstarter-funded marquee, but also continued to offer the best, most original programming in town.
In 2013, so many great movies played at those and other theaters that doing a Top 10 list seems even more arbitrary and meaningless than usual. So fuck it: Here are the 21 movies I thought were the most remarkable this year. You'll probably disagree! (Keep in mind that I wasn't able to see Spike Jonze's Her or David O. Russell's American Hustle before my dumb deadline.) Still, if you're trying to see the best movies that came out this year, here's my checklist. That's assuming you trust the guy who giddily clapped all the way through Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Twice.
12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)—Formal, forceful, and profoundly unsettling, 12 Years a Slave confronts America's vicious slaving history with brutality and smarts.
The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)—Documentaries don't get stranger or more horrifying than The Act of Killing, in which the leaders of Indonesia's death squads proudly reenact the gruesome crimes they committed. It's a movie that's impossible to look away from and impossible to forget.
All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)—This list will get cheerier, promise. But not quite yet! Because watching Robert Redford get lost at sea and stoically come to terms with his own death was one of the most gripping, stressful, and purely cinematic experiences this year.
Behind the Candelabra (dir. Steven Soderbergh)—Thanks to its subject matter (the gays), Steven Soderbergh's final film bypassed American theaters and went straight to HBO. That in no way diminishes the creepy, sad, and oddly sweet lust story of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his doomed boytoy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Blue Is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)—As is legally required for every very serious three-hour-long French drama, there's unintentional goofiness here. But what Blue gets right—the needy, naïve, desperate fervor of young love; the terrifying, exhilarating rush of stumbling into sex—it got really, really right.
Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)—One of Woody Allen's best. Which is saying something.
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)—2013's other survival stories, All Is Lost and Gravity, got more attention, but in terms of sheer, nail-gnawing tension—not to mention an unexpectedly nuanced look at both Somali pirates and the white guy they captured—Captain Phillips is impossible to top.
Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener)—Nicole Holofcener continued her impressive streak with a phenomenally written, phenomenally acted film. It's just fucking delightful. Comedy! Romance! Drama! Julia Louis-Dreyfus! James Gandolfini!
Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)—Director Noah Baumbach and star/co-writer Greta Gerwig's deceptively simple drama is funny, clever, and insightful—and, in Frances herself, boasts one of the year's best characters.
Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)—Every few years, a movie comes along and reminds you why some films have to be seen in a theater. Gravity—with its stunning spacescapes, stomach-clenching 3D, and startling, existential vastness—is that movie.
Inside Llewyn Davis (dirs. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)—One of the Coen brothers' best. Which is saying something.
Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)—Man. That MacGruber sequel got dark.
Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)—Guillermo del Toro's first film in five years was a bright, loud, beautiful celebration of giant robots who punch the bioluminescent shit out of giant monsters.
Pain & Gain (dir. Michael Bay)—Michael Bay's greasy, dodgy, ostensible true-crime comedy starring Marky Mark and the Rock is a candy-colored, mean-spirited, grotesque exercise in bad taste. It is also hilarious.
Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)—Prisoners was marketed as a squicky, shitty, Law & Order-style thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Wolverine. Prisoners turned out to be a grim, gorgeously shot allegory of America's crimes in Iraq. Whee!
Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)—Perhaps it wasn't the lurid, neon, Franco-fueled fever dream we wanted, but it was the lurid, neon, Franco-fueled fever dream we deserved.
Sightseers (dir. Ben Wheatley)—Ben Wheatley's pitch-black comedy about an awkwardly romantic couple who happen to maybe possibly accidentally on purpose murder a few people was one of the most lovely and gruesome films in recent memory.
Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)—Look, maybe you shouldn't be asking the question, "Erik, why did you cry when watching Sarah Polley's heart-wrenching portrait of her family?" No, maybe the question you should be asking is SHUT UP WHY DID YOU CRY YOU GODDAMN BAB—
Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)—Shane Carruth, the weirdo who twisted everybody's minds with Primer, somehow managed to do so again. This time the result, unlike Primer's calculated coolness, was warm and dense and strangely comforting.
The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)—In which Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio launched themselves off the rails and told the debaucherous saga of slimy stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Fucked up and fun and razor-sharp, The Wolf of Wall Street doubles as a very convincing advertisment for the recreational use of Quaaludes.
The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright)—Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost closed out their funny, heartfelt "Cornetto Trilogy"—begun with Shaun of the Dead, followed by Hot Fuzz—with nothing less than the apocalypse. And fucked-up friends. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. Which is probably the best way to get through an apocalypse. Or a year-in-review piece. Probably should've told you that at the start.