Five years is an eternity in the life of a film.
Five years is an eternity in the life of a film. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these movies play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed films of 2013 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and The World’s End didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!
As the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight, the raucous apocalyptic hijinks of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Is the End still makes for solid escapism. Basing the end of the world not on more plausible causes like climate change or nuclear war, but rather on something more in line with the rapture and tribulation found in the Left Behind franchise, the film wisely eschews religious satire and instead hinges on the gleeful self-caricatures of its Apatowian players. Primarily a buddy comedy between Rogen and Jay Baruchel—playing versions of themselves, as does every celebrity featured here—the film kicks off with the expected dick jokes amid the copious haze of marijuana smoke, but all hell literally breaks loose when beams of light snatch away Earth’s good souls before gaping portals to fiery depths open up throughout Los Angeles and demons run amok.
The plethora of stars that are attending a party at James Franco’s sprawling pad gets whittled down considerably in the aftermath—an insufferable and unhinged Michael Cera is notably impaled by a lamp post, making his already hilariously lewd play against type even more memorable. But the interaction among the core of survivors—Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Craig Robinson, a smarmy Jonah Hill, an abrasive Danny McBride—drives the film, one that feels like the actors involved are all having a blast. With many of this cast moving on to more serious endeavors in recent years, and spending more time behind the camera as well, This Is the End remains an irreverent thrill-ride that proves just how much fun a movie can be when a group of likeminded comic actors take a bonkers concept and just run with it. – Josh Goller
Most viewers, upon seeing The Act of Killing for the first time, have a similar reaction: visceral, emotional devastation. An upset stomach, perhaps. Or a sense of total dislocation, a cold pit in the gut that suggests that all humanity has been expunged from the world.
Most films depicting genocides are sickening or cause physical discomfort in their viewers; the gas chamber sequence in the opening frames of Son of Saul, for instance, hits like a brick to the head. But most such films are ultimately trying to do either of two things: give a story arc of redemption or positivity for victims of genocide or enrage the viewer that a genocide occurred. Here is what separates The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer’s film does neither. When the credits roll, there is no hero or protagonist or person who has functioned like a character, with an arc of personal development. Among the film’s cast, there is only stasis. But there is also no fury for the viewer, no sense of righteous indignation that the international community sat by and let this happen.
This is why The Act of Killing lands like a hammer blow. And the viewer is the nail. It is all so inevitable: the killers are monsters, the world that allows them impunity is monstrous and those who are witnessing it all—including the viewers—are powerless collaborators with monstrosity. But not in a way that engenders anger, but rather helplessness. The truths of the film challenge our social technologies. What good is a nation-state, if it requires such violence? What is the point of concepts like human rights or the rule of law when such events are allowed to happen? What good is globalization and collective exchange when the people who are benefitting are those that carry out genocide?
But The Act of Killing is not a nihilistic manifesto suggesting we should just blow the whole thing up and start over. The vacuous feeling it engenders, the few moments of clarity it shows: those are proof that there is a kernel of goodness out there somewhere. – Ryne Clos
All films evolve over time, even the bad ones, but the greats have a certain habit of aging both with and in opposition to you, retaining their effervescence but shifting slightly in character and tone. The value of revisitation also extends to the status of creators, in this case star and co-writer Greta Gerwig, the ostensible muse behind Noah Baumbach’s best comedy in years, who has now completely moved out from behind his shadow. Following last year’s Lady Bird, a prequel of sorts to the post-adolescent indecision depicted here, Frances Ha is even more obvious as Gerwig’s movie.
Although its black-and-white photography marks it as a memoir, an idealized reconfiguring of the past as imagined from the present with an eye toward an imagined, prosperous future, the film feels entirely of the moment, a sentiment still preserved five years on. The loose structure, composed of quick, abbreviated sketches of incidents rife with clipped dialogue and dashed ambitions, keeps things buoyant even when they’re edging toward total darkness. Yet the portrayal of youthful instability also remains bracing, as do the accompanying economic concerns of those for whom poverty is both something of an affectation and a real possibility for the future, a high-wire act conducted without the safety net afforded to more well-off peers. Beyond its complex, empathetic Proustian outlook, it also serves as a neat chronicle of connection, both between loosely-knit networks of people and the tighter bonds that enjoin close friends, those which sustain us even as they creak and bend. – Jesse Cataldo
When directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel began work on Leviathan, they gave themselves over to their subject. Part of the team’s method was to allow their work to be born out of the experiences of the world they’re filming. Here, that world consists of a commercial fishing boat, its crew, their bounty and their surroundings. Forgoing conventional documentary techniques like talking-head testimonials and onscreen text, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel rely solely on the sounds and images collected from this world to explore mankind’s relationship to the sea, the impact of labor on the human body and the connection between people and nature.
The film had its genesis in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the town from which Herman Melville’s Pequod set sail in Moby Dick. Leviathan’s scope is no less epic. The filmmakers plunge their cameras into the water, bringing the audience close to dead and dying fish, even going so far as to strap consumer-grade digital cameras onto the fishermen’s bodies to depict the overall experience as directly as possible. The result is exhilarating, disorienting and, thanks to the constant buzz of machinery, nature and frenzied human interactions, heavy metal as hell. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel believe that most ethnographic filmmaking lacks a sensory dimension, and they make a point to convey to the audience the full experience of actually being there, but they also strive to show us aspects that go beyond our limited cognition. In Leviathan, they position the cameras in a variety of locations to better capture the ocean’s constant movement. As the boat, the crew, and the filmmakers themselves bounce along the turbulent surface of the North Atlantic, so too do the cameras, providing angles and perspectives that border on psychedelic; with a distinct lack of fixed shots, the film has made some viewers seasick. But it also evokes the forces that converge under such intense labor, focusing on the fishermen’s straining bodies and the grinding machinations of the waterlogged boat to impart not only the formidable task before them, but also the relentless onslaught of nature. Leviathan might be the only movie you can accurately describe as “a ride.” – Drew Hunt
James Wan dabbled in the gothic with 2010’s horror standout Insidious, but he came into his own with 2013’s The Conjuring. Wan uses a classic gothic trope—the haunted mansion, semi-reclaimed by the natural world—and contrasts it beautifully with the religious beliefs of its protagonists (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as real-life specter-sleuths Lorraine and Ed Warren). Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston turn in effectively haunted performances as the ghost-afflicted Perron family matriarch and patriarch, but the real draw is the film’s commitment to home-based horror; just as the Freeling family was traumatized in Poltergeist, the Perrons are targeted by the demons they inherited with their residence.
Jump scares, witches, doll-based diversions and significant familial secrets abound, but Wan admirably sticks with the classic structure here. Aided by Farmiga’s disconcerting poise, Wan manages to infuse this horror film with hope. And, more than that, hope based in the spiritual realm. In doing so, he honors his inspiration—the Warrens—but also the genre, which is built on the triumph of good over evil. Wan used the success of The Conjuring to build a cinematic universe in the style of Marvel and DC. And it has worked; subsequent pictures like The Conjuring 2, Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation and The Nun have accounted for over a billion dollars of business. – Mike McClelland
As far as post-millennial loglines go, “mustachioed personal letter-writer falls in love with his digital assistant” is a little on the nose. But Spike Jonze’s Her, a bittersweet exploration of romance in the internet age, is leagues more substantive than its “Black Mirror” premise would suggest.
In the film, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man who makes a living writing personal letters for people in a nebulous, near-future where most of his customers can’t articulate themselves emotionally. He’s an empathetic, compassionate fellow who’s as good at his particular job as he is mediocre at finding love. Spurred by sadness over his divorce, Theodore buys a new operating system for his interconnected computing devices, one that aggressively learns as much about its user as possible before transforming itself into their personal companion.
“Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) becomes Theodore’s everything; his close friend, his confidante and his lover. While the intricacies of their nontraditional relationship are more than enough to carry a film, Her’s scope extends beyond this little two-hander, peering beyond Theodore’s life into the larger ramifications of a world a step or two more evolved than our own. Through this twee tale, Jonze projects our collective anxieties about the acceleration of modern society into a something resembling a cautionary tale, only far less preachy.
Alongside production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Jonze envisions an intricately realized tomorrow that nevertheless feels welcome and familiar. It’s Apple’s approach to product design married to a warm, muted color palette. In any given scene, it feels like Jony Ive’s voice could pop up to wax poetic about chamfered edges with little to no intrusion. All of this serves to foretell how this film isn’t so much about presaging a future world of robotic romance, but to wrestle with the unforeseen strangeness of our helplessly entangled present, of the new and complex ways we interact with one another.
Her is at once prescient and nostalgic, harrowing and heartwarming, comforting and nervous. It’s one of the finest films about the modern condition ever conceived and timeless in a way films about the future rarely are. – Dominic Griffin
Richard Linklater understands the power of words exchanged. Conversations of empathy, human flaws and soulful characterizations are staples of his filmography. It is a curious talent that has evolved with the artist’s own age, especially in what is perhaps the best work of his oeuvre: The Before Trilogy.
In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first assumed the roles of Céline and Jesse, two twenty-something travelers who meet on a train and spend the remainder of their day and night exploring Vienna while slowly, maybe, falling in love. In 2004, Linklater surprisingly revisited these characters in the unexpected sequel, Before Sunset. A story told in real time, Sunset weaves its way through an 80-minute conversation as a reunited Céline and Jesse stroll around Paris while the latter slowly considers leaving his wife for the long-lost love he thought he’d never see again.
Before Midnight is about the consequences of this decision, both good and bad. Once again an unanticipated nine-year follow-up, Linklater’s third dive into Céline and Jesse’s story finds the now-married couple in Greece, vacationing with their twin daughters. A happy life, one would presume, yet Linklater slowly reveals the cracks in their bond. Jesse’s son Hank lives in Chicago with Jesse’s ex-wife, and their relationship struggles because of it. Céline is at a crossroads in her career, determining where she wants to go and what she wants to do with her life.
Talking, talking, talking is what we’re given in Linklater’s triad of minimalist character studies, but it’s the conversations that fuel our curiosity. Backstories are only provided if characters choose to reveal them and inner emotions are only determinable by the look in someone’s eyes. It’s all about the words in the long run, and what makes Before Midnight the most nuanced and adult of the three films is that the conversations have matured right along with the characters. Each entry has rightfully positioned itself as one of the best films of its respective year, and Before Midnight is absolutely no exception for 2013. – Greg Vellante
With the extended tracking shots, cocaine use, toxic masculinity and criminality, The Wolf of Wall Street hits all the marks of Martin Scorsese’s gangster classics, but this entry into the oeuvre abandons the underworld for the bright corporate lights and unfettered lawlessness of Wall Street. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter chronicle the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most magnetic performances) from his humble beginnings as penny-stock hustler to multimillion-dollar fraudster. The white-collar crime depicted is far removed from the Copacabana of Goodfellas and the stakes are less visceral—there is less of a threat of getting wacked—but the audacity and endless greed of both ends of the criminal spectrum has the ability to fascinate. At least for a time.
The Wolf of Wall Street marks the fifth and most successful collaboration between DiCaprio and Scorsese. While this vehicle allows its star to stretch his persona in darkly comic ways, the director falls into familiar, albeit expert, patterns of his previous and more interesting work. Like so many of the directors who redefined cinema in the ‘70s, Scorsese’s recent work feels so self-referential that this film at times feels like a newcomer’s idea of what a Scorsese film should be. It’s overlong and its moral ambiguity grows tiresome, but pedestrian Scorsese still entertains more than most. The beginning of the film is riveting and the performances by DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie sustain the film when its pacing moves from cocaine freneticism to a barbiturate lull. The reason these criminals fail Scorsese may be elemental. His gangsters lived by a heinous code while his stockbrokers are just heinous. – Don Kelly
Harmony Korine’s fauvist, slurred vision of youth gone wild is, on its surface, a warped tale of a gaggle of barely legal rebels whose commitment to Spring Break leads them further and further into a life of crime as the ultimate display of no-consequence fun. Pulses of neon yellows, greens and pinks beat Gaspar Noé at his own game in terms of visualizing the overwhelming, numbing intensity of club culture, which here reverberates well outside venue walls. Korine even pulls a genuinely great performance from James Franco, whose Alien is a man of such flash that every movement refracts light off his clothes, jewelry and massive grills. Irony stalks around the perimeter of the film like a panther, leaping forward in a mesmerizing scene where Alien and his new gang of unbound co-eds rob terrified college kids and frolic with shotguns to Britney Spears’ “Everytime.”
Dig deeper, however, and Korine’s ecstasy-soaked fantasia reveals copious amounts of agony, using the glossy look and carefree abandon of the characters to tacitly delve into the nightmarish quagmire of contemporary self-identity. Korine roots the characters in a hyper-specific context (tattooed youth pastors extolling the virtues of Jesus as if he were a rock frontman, Florida sleaze), only to use them to tackle larger ideas about questions of capitalist ethos, America’s obsessive youth worship, along with the effective inevitability of cultural appropriation in a country where white people have all the inherent social power yet black people set the cultural image. What at first looks like the weirdest entry into the rebellious youth genre since Wild at Heart instead stands as a stream-of-consciousness attempt to summarize the active encouragement of amoral greed as the core motive of a society via the extremity of individual application. Even the final conflict, between Alien’s ad-hoc gang and his former mentor (Gucci Mane), foregrounds Korine’s intuitive, non-demonstrative incorporation of sociopolitical themes, casting a dreamy shootout as a brutal embodiment of gentrification. – Jake Cole
Inside Llewyn Davis is both an ode to folk music and an unrepentant look at the creative process. The Coen brothers take their patented love of literature and infuse it with the story of a man who both can’t catch a break and yet assumes everyone owes him one. Nearly all the film’s songs perfectly render the era, showing the multiple layers of the folk music scene at the time. Watching Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) journey is on par with seeing someone relive the worst day of their life, with him both creating his own hell and further stepping into controversy.
The supporting cast is just as fantastic, particularly Carey Mulligan as the put-upon Jean—the only significant female character of the film—while John Goodman’s Roland Turner is darkly acerbic. There’s a wealth of scholarly research on the film’s deeper meanings, from a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey to an allegory for the different layers of Hell (subjects that are frequently revisited throughout the Coen brothers’ oeuvre). You can watch Inside Llewyn Davis and see something different every time. If this one slipped by you in 2013, there’s no time better than the present rectify that. Whether watching for the first time or revisiting, be sure to listen to the soundtrack right afterwards. It doesn’t disappoint. – Kristen Lopez