One of the things I've come to expect in the fifteen years I've been making top ten lists online is that every year, someone will argue with me about what it actually means to pick ten films to represent a year. Are these the "best" films of the year? Are they my "favorite" films of the year? Is there a difference between the two things as far as I'm concerned? Should there be? What movies qualify? What movies don't?
Since we've introduced letter grades here on HitFix, it also introduces the variable that people believe any film I give the highest rating automatically has a place on my personal end of the year list. I disagree, and the reasons I disagree probably say a lot about the way I view the discussion of film in general. A letter grade is, to my mind, a way of saying how well it feels like the film accomplished its particular goals. But there are times I might find that over the course a year, a B+ film becomes something that I watch repeatedly, that connects for me on all sorts of personal levels, and so that film ends up in my top ten, while a beautifully executed film that impresses me across the board might slide further down just because it's not something I find myself revisiting, no matter how well it works. The end of the year is not about me telling you, authoritatively, that there are only ten films that we are allowed to treat with respect and any argument is wrong. That's ridiculous. This is a time to share thoughts on the things we love, the things that matter to us about movies, and if you get upset about my list, then I would suggest you are reading into it a purpose that simply isn't there.
I don't think there's any rule about how we each sum up a year in print, nor do I think there ever could be. That's the point. My year in movies was not the same as your year in movies, for a thousand different reasons. There are films I have access to that a vast majority of you do not, or at least not at the same time, and that's part of what I have to consider when I write this list. Because festivals are so much a part of my movie-going year, I absolutely count them when I consider what I include in this final consideration. For my purposes, any new film I saw theatrically or at a film festival or that was released directly to VOD for the first time this year counts as a 2013 movie.
Early this morning, I ran my list for numbers twenty through eleven on the list, and I talked about how many other films I also enjoyed. It has been a strong year, and even when I listed that many titles, I'm sure I excluded even more films that I thought were worth my time. If I was as irritated by movies as often as some of the other people I read, I can't imagine doing this, writing about movies all day every day. I hope that comes through in my work now as much as the first time I ever published anything, because the truth is that I was writing about movies for free for friends long before I was paid to do it online. I used to send friends group e-mails about things, and especially at the end of the year when I would urge people to catch up with all sorts of great stuff that I thought fell between the cracks. One of the things I love most about movies, even now, even after doing this as long as I have, is that we can talk about everything when we talk about movies. They are a way to share feelings and experiences, and ultimately, all of this talk about lists and rankings aside, the highest compliment I can give a film is simply sharing thoughts about it with someone else. There are so many movies that vanish the minute I am done watching them, truly inconsequential films, and those bum me out more than the outrageous terrible. I would always rather seem an impassioned catastrophe than a forgettable bland product.
Enough preamble? Enough thoughts about the nature of making lists? Fine. Let's get to it. Let's talk about the big ten.
10. "Cheap Thrills"
When Drafthouse Films releases this in March, I sincerely hope it is their first significant box-office hit. They know what film they're putting out, they believe in it, and the film is every bit as good as they're going to tell you it is. It's a small film, basically a four-person two-set play, but it has some very big things on its mind, and it pulls no punches in the way it sets things up. The script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga ratchets things up from scene to scene in a very smart way, and the way E.L. Katz orchestrates things would be impressive from a guy with a long feature career under his belt, so this being a debut feature is downright confounding. Pat Healy has been steadily proving himself one of the most versatile character actors working for the last few years, and here, he emerges as a lead who generates a massive amount of sympathy, essential if we're going to follow his character, Craig, on what becomes a very long dark night of the soul. Ethan Embry is both very sad and very scary as Vince, an old friend of Craig's who is prepared to completely forget about the past if it guarantees him a future. And as the twin smiling faces of evil, Sara Paxton and David Koechner are excellent. Koechner uses that slightly deranged persona he's perfected as a comic and shows us how scary it would be if we ran up against it in real life, and Paxton plays a woman so numb to sensation that it takes the extreme to get her to even notice. If this was just a blunt-force metaphor about the way we've been screwed by the richest people in this country, it wouldn't be as good as it is. It works as thriller, as metaphor, as character piece, as comedy, and it is as angry as it is smart. What a treat.
9. "Stories We Tell"
Every now and then, I'll publish something and then I'll get feedback from friends who say they're surprised at how personal it was. It's not something I am consciously aware of most of the time, because I long ago made my peace with the idea that if criticism is going to be worth anything as a body of work, it has to be personal. You have to be willing to engage a work of art fully and you have to be willing to try to discuss why and how something worked on you. One would assume the same is true of filmmakers, but there are plenty of people who make movies that are not particularly personal. What Sarah Polley did this year with her extraordinary movie about the question of who her father is was both intellectually thrilling and emotionally exhausting. I love the film craft of how she chose to tell the story, and if you've seen it, then you know that there comes a point where the entire nature of what we're watching shifts. You suddenly realize that what you've been looking at isn't necessarily what you'e been looking at, and it underlines just how good she's gotten at staging scenes that have the rough-hewn quality of life. I think she's got an amazing voice, and I can't wait to see what her eighth film looks like or her fifteenth film. I want a long career of movies seen from her point of view, and I hope she becomes an example to young women considering film as a career. More than that, I hope she becomes an example to young men considering film as a career. Her voice isn't important because of her gender. It's important because of how clear and authentic and genuinely curious about life it is, and that's what every filmmaker should aspire to.