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This was another great year for movies. The best since 2007. It makes 2012, which was pretty good, look like shit. Unlike most years, where there’s usually a handful of truly great movies and a whole bunch you have room in your heart to love, 2013 was one where a masterpiece or two seemed to come out every month. Even months that are traditional dumping grounds for movies no one gives a shit about.

Occasionally there’s a theme for the movies that come out. Or at least, I find one that I notice in them. I’m not sure 2013 has a theme except for just how solid and even the quality has been. Some people are learning lessons from the huge, lazy productions that made no money in the last couple of years. Even movies like Star Trek: Into Darkness, written by hacks, manages to run off a competent screenplay. But don’t worry, it’s not on my Top 15 list.

Now that you’re sitting down again, please feel free to have a look at previous years’ lists after you’ve read this one. It can be kind of fun to look back at my picks and then bug me about how I’ve changed my mind about some of them. People are fallible and distance yields insight. I do these reviews, and these lists, to have fun with the practice of criticism. It keeps the pencil sharp and, more importantly, it keeps me writing.

In some ways, this was one of the least agonizing Top 15 lists I’ve done since I started doing them. Last year was torture by comparison. It could be because I missed many of the big prestige films that started coming out around October. It could be because I am just way more solid about my love for these films. Because I did miss so many, I think 2013 may be another year where I look back and feel the strong desire to shuffle things around. 2008 was like that, what with Synechdoche, New York and There Will Be Blood not featuring on my list at all.

Hopefully it interests you, dear reader, that I’ve picked several films for this list which can only be considered controversial choices. 2013 had more than its fair share of unfairly reviled, underrated films. Usually these kinds of movies simply slip under the radar and everybody pays attention to (and loves) the big dumb movies that cost all the moneys. I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing that these underrated films even got noticed, but I wish I didn’t feel so alone in my quest to champion them on the internet.

Oh well. Let’s get on with it!

The usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of your preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock. Read the rest of this entry »

Prisoners_2013_1

Roger Deakins, eat your heart out.

Prisoners feels like the closest thing to a genuine Alan Moore movie that I’ve ever seen. It may seem cheapening to the work screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski did (stellar work, by the way) to say that, but I mean it as an utmost compliment. While Prisoners will make its way into the world on its strengths as a thriller featuring great performances, unpredictability, and moral ambiguity, there are layers within layers of symbolism, allegory, and inquiry being performed within what appears to be an eccentric, but straightforward kidnapping film. Alan Moore is a touchstone for me because of his penchant for layering symbolism in his narratives, attaching occult elements or bits of weird history into his stories. From Hell, the graphic novel, is what immediately comes to mind as I think back on this film.

I can’t think of a recent mystery thriller more surprising than Prisoners. This will probably be one of the things that leaves the biggest impression on audiences. Because the film takes its time (it’s 153 minutes long) and is very selective about what it shows and tells, it’s very difficult to predict the twists and turns. There’s a flirtation and subsequent abandoning of the conventions of the genre. It starts out feeling more formulaic, only to steadily layer uncertainty even on the level of its structure, which rolls out into the narrative and characterizations.

Prisoners is a very intelligent film. A lot of its merit will be lost on people who go into it only willing to engage with the surface. That said, it’s laudable that the movie works entirely on that surface level. It’s not perfect. There is a bit of bloat here, and there are scenes and moments that are not easily clarified in the context of the story nor its thematic significance. This can be confusing and unsatisfying as some of the lingering questions after the film aren’t the good kind.

This is a film you DON’T want spoiled. Do not read this review if you care about that and/or you’re planning to see the film. Read the rest of this entry »

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