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10 Great Movies We Watched This Year: Steven Pate's Picks

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 26, 2013 5:45PM


2013 was a roller coaster ride at the Movie House. Nearly every big budget blockbuster left us low, but lots of smaller offerings picked us up again. Here, in no particular order, are my best of the year picks.

Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach is like an undeniably talented bartender who at times goes a little heavy on the Angostura. You know when he makes you something it's going to be interesting, but how long is it going to take for your palette to recover? Frances Ha profits from a close collaboration with stupendous Greta Gerwig (incidentally the best part of his previous film Greenberg). Frances Ha was funny, smart and sweet, with all the right French New Wave and Woody Allen echoes. We were left ready for another round..

The hype is real. Alfonso Cuarón made the most exciting movie of the year, a spectacular technological feat as well as an astonishing piece of filmmaking. Delivering on the promise offered by his imaginative and deft long takes in Children of Men, Cuarón's blockbuster found Sandra Bullock dialing in her Speed-era America's sweetheart charisma and from a jaw-dropping technical design. It has been a while since we've felt an entire theater audience was on the edge of their seats along with us.

Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami is a film critic's darling who deserves the hype, and his latest handiwork, a slow-burning and disturbing puzzle of a film delivers exactly what we wanted from it. A genuinely bizarre love triangle of sorts set in Japan, the film builds to a climax of great intensity. Yet it is Kiarostami's carefully orchestrated dismantling of our expectations for character-driven identities that sticks with you long after the film is over. One of those rare films we wanted to watch again immediately after finishing it the first time.

Spring Breakers
Sometimes a film is just too of-its-moment to be ignored, and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers ambushed our skepticism with a brash art house exploitation film that attacked the seams of our pop cultural edifice with surprising skill. Tackling consumerist hedonism, the fallout of the economic and cultural appropriation while luxuriating in a Britney Spears meets Srillex on bad acid vibe, Spring Breakers is strong medicine wrapped in disconcerting pop-culture candy. But don't see it unless you want to be saying "Sprang Brake. Sprang Braaaake" in James Franco's fake RiFF RAFF drawl for 3-5 days.

Shane Carruth wrote, directed and stars in Upstream Color. (© 2012 - erbp)

Upstream Color
Shane Carruth keeps doing things nobody has ever done, and the results continue to intrigue. There hasn't been any film remotely like Upstream Color, a science fiction-thriller-love story-puzzle film that you won't ever forget, but may not ever completely understand either. We called him the future of indie film for a reason. Someday someone is going to give this guy a truckload of cash (think of Christopher Nolan's evolution in scope from Memento to his Batman trilogy) to do something big, and the fabric of space-time might be in jeopardy.

12 Years a Slave
There is a danger that slathering Steve McQueen's towering achievement with more gooey praise and "shut up and give this film Best Picture" critical unanimity will keep some people from seeing it. This is not a mere "prestige" film on a controversial topic, however. It's the logical progression of a director who has been attuned to race, history and identity since the beginning of his art world ascent. McQueen was able to take the harrowing focus on the individual experience of bodily alienation present in Hunger and Shame and successfully expands that vision to a portrayal of the inhumanity of one of the worst things we have ever done to ourselves. Chiwetel Ejiofor and a uniformly excellent cast carry the day in the most important film of our still-young decade.

Before Midnight
We would have bet money that Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke could not have pulled this trick off a third time. Yet there we were, enraptured in the theater by privileged white people complaining about their relationship while relaxing amongst the casual European picturebook luxury. Maybe it was the intelligence with which these characters have been developed as they have aged, or maybe it was just that we are starved for movies about real-seeming grown ups having real-seeming grown up conversations, but this film not only left us sure there will be more, but also wishing Louis Malle had made "My Fourthmeal with Andre" and "My Breakfast with Andre." More talking, please.

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen's bounce back from the lackluster To Rome with Love (hey, you make a movie every year and this is going to happen) was built on something he hasn't had in a while: an absolute top-shelf acting performance. Cate Blanchett is this film, and her unsettling, convincing and downright depressing characterization of Jasmine hits the spot. There's more than a little "Streetcar Named Desire" in the mix, but Allen is able to keep things both stylish and fresh.

Stray Dogs
We were absolutely gutted after finishing Tsai Ming-liang film at the Chicago International film Festival. Nearly silent and often static, Tsai's oblique characterizations of an alcoholic father and his two children surviving on margins of modern society, homeless scavengers in the forgotten byways of ubermodern Taipei, are punctuated by a couple of harrowing and unforgettable episodes of a sort we haven't seen before. As a portrait of the precarity of those left behind by the merciless neoliberal utopia, and as a depiction of emotional loss, Stray Dogs lingered in our memory with perhaps uncomfortable intensity.