Overlooked Films of 2013
With 2013 all wrapped up, the beginning of 2014 will be the same as every other year. Like late August/early September, January is a dumping ground for studios. Usually the only things worth seeing this month (and for most of February) are the Globe/Oscar/etc. nominees that you haven’t caught up with. So why not spend this time looking back on 2013 and catching up with some of the more overlooked films of last year?
These films may not have made it on our Best Films of 2013 list, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing. As enjoyable as it is to pick favourites of the year, there’s a downside that comes with it. 2013 was a great year for films, one filled with an embarrassment of riches, and reducing it down to a small number means that plenty of other wonderful films get excluded.
Below are just a small amount of films from last year that we think deserve to get some time in the spotlight. Before 2014 ramps up again, it’ll be worth your while to see these.
First-time director Alexandre Moors’ take on the Beltway Snipers in Blue Caprice is a more daring one compared to most true crime films. Rather than focus on a factual retelling of what happened leading up to, during and after the random shootings that plagued several states in 2002, Moors goes for the bigger questions: What exactly drives people to commit senseless acts of violence, and why do they do it? Isaiah Washington, playing the mastermind of the attacks, is terrifying while newcomer Tequan Richmond portrays a transformation into evil that’s just as scary. Moors’ takes a refined approach to the material, and when the film finally gets to the attacks every moment is overpowered with dread. What might be the most horrifying part of Blue Caprice is the fact that, by the end, we aren’t any closer to understanding why such violent acts happened. Trying to understand something so irrational is a fool’s errand. The only thing you can do is hope that you won’t be one of the unlucky ones caught in the crossfire.
Availability: Now available on DVD and streaming.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Ricky Jay is arguably the greatest sleight-of-hand artist alive, and his timeless showmanship and impeccable card-handling skills have made many wonder: “Who the hell taught him this stuff?” In Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, we delve into Jay’s superhero origin story, as he recalls his encounters and relationships with the master magicians who shaped him into the performer he is today. Jay’s unforgettable voice (which Rian Johnson utilized to great effect in The Brothers Bloom) almost justifies a watch in and of itself.
Availability: Currently on DVD. Also available to watch on iTunes, Redbox, Hulu Plus and Amazon.
Based on a true story, Eden’s title character is a teenage girl who is abducted and forced to become a sex worker. It sounds like the plot out of a European film, except this actually happened in Nevada during the mid-90s. Director Megan Griffiths creates a world where human life is given little to no value (Case in point: a subplot involving a sex worker jealous of Eden ends abruptly when the film cuts to her corpse getting tossed into a quarry). Eden knows that it’s a matter of time before she’s no longer useful as a sex worker, and with that fate hanging in the balance she strategizes to earn a role on the business end of things to ensure her survival. It’s truly harrowing material, made all the more disturbing by its basis in reality.
Availability: Currently on DVD, Netflix, Amazon and iTunes
Escape From Tomorrow
I will admit that the story behind Escape From Tomorrow is equally, if not more, fascinating than the film itself. One of the most talked about stories from Sundance last year was how first time filmmaker Randy Moore was able make a film inside Disney World without permission or raising suspicions from the park. The film was shot using guerrilla filmmaking techniques like using a consumer-looking camera (Canon EOS 5D) and communicating inside the park via phones. This production process alone warrants a documentary. The film is a surrealist expression of how the “happiest place on earth” is a living nightmare for a certain individual who witnesses cute cartoon characters transform into terrifying ones. Escape From Tomorrow employs a neo-noir look by having the film in black and white, which also aids the horrifyingly dark look of the self-proclaimed paradise. Thankfully, Disney ultimately decided to ignore the film rather than seek damages, which at the very least would have delayed the film’s release. Be sure to watch this mind-bending fantasy horror film. It will be unlike anything you have seen before.
Availability: Currently available on VOD and all major streaming platforms. Will be out on home video this spring.
Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 may have gotten a bigger reception this year, but earlier in 2013 his excellent Hors Satan finally saw a release in the States. In a small French town, a drifter appears and strikes up a friendship with a teenage girl in the village. Since this is a Dumont film, the friendship isn’t exactly an ordinary one; shortly after they meet, the drifter murders the girl’s abusive father, and it’s soon revealed that the stranger has supernatural powers. Other than the mention of Satan in the title, there are no overt references to religion in the film. We never know who this man is, what his purpose is or why he has special abilities. Dumont’s mysterious approach brings out a meditative quality to the film that highlights just how blurred the line can be between good and evil. Dumont’s oblique style will frustrate many (which it certainly did when it premiered at Cannes), but if you embrace the mystery it makes for one of 2013’s most fascinating films.
Availability: Currently unavailable, but readers across the pond can buy it on DVD. New Yorker Films distributed it in early 2013, but they haven’t revealed any information about a home video release.
The Last Time I Saw Macao
In Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (one of our favourite films of the year), the film’s characters head back to their childhood town only to discover that it’s been warped into something sinister. The Last Time I Saw Macao establishes a situation that’s similar but far more unsettling. What if you went back to where you grew up, and found out it completely vanished? The film’s main character was raised in Macao when it was owned by the Portuguese, and at the start of the movie he returns to his home town after receiving a call for help from an old friend. The story turns into an old-fashioned film noir (with plenty of references to classics of the genre, including Kiss Me Deadly), but The Last Time I Saw Macao is much more fascinating when its main character ruminates on how much things have changed since the colony changed ownership to China. The film’s style, where no faces are ever shown and the action plays out on the soundtrack, only accentuate the loss of identity that echoes throughout the entire film. The Last Time I Saw Macao is a rare kind of genre hybrid, where the deeper and more resonant subject matter are actually preferable to the genre elements.
Availability: Cinema Guild is distributing the film, and it might still be playing in some theatres across America. No news has been given about DVD or streaming availability.
The Legend of Kaspar Hauser
Director Davide Manuli’s The Legend of Kaspar Hauser is the strangest movie I saw in 2013, and it’s one I look back on fondly. Based LOOSELY (I mean, really, really loosely) on true events, the film follows a young boy (played by a not-so-young woman, Silvia Calderoni) as he washes up on the shores of an unnamed island in the Mediterranean. He’s picked up by the infamous Vincent Gallo, who proceeds to give the absolute nuttiest, off-the-wall performance of the year as the island sheriff. There are UFO’s involved, a lot of awesome, thumping electronic music, and it’s all shot in Bergman-esque black & white. It’s unapologetically nonsensical and bizarre, and I grew to adore it.
Availability: No word yet on when it will be available in the US.
Like Someone in Love
Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s enigmatic Like Someone in Love is set half the world away from his home country, in present-day Japan. Alluring and elusive in its storytelling, the film explores familiar Kiarostami themes like mistaken identity, authenticity, and companionship, through a more meditative lens than his last film, Certified Copy. His images are gorgeous as per usual, but here they’re richer and more colorful and evocative than ever before. It’s a humble, moving film that will seep into your skin and stay with you for days. The extended, stationary opening shot is an immediate jaw-dropper.
Availability: IFC released it last year, so a home video release is imminent. Don’t be surprised if you see it pop up in the Criterion Collection later on this year. UK readers can go pick up a Blu-Ray right now.
A charming, resonant adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children is a film that centers around the children born on the 15th of August 1947, otherwise known as Independence Day in India. A stunning piece of magical realism, the story tells of how each of these children have a special “power”, the strongest powers going to those born closest to midnight: Saleem and Shiva. As we follow their lives and hardships in the midst of newly independent India, we’re taken on a journey that has much more to do with politics than we might initially realise. With a cast whose talent extends to even the smallest roles, and beautifully surreal cinematography, director Deepa Mehta provides a unique insight into the lives of Indian children in a way that is heartfelt, but does not exoticize. Particularly thanks to Rushdie’s involvement as a co-screenwriter, it is easy to feel not only the characters of his novel coming to life, but indeed, the mystical quality of its history.
Availability: On DVD and a lot of popular digital rental outlets.
Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl created the undisputed best trilogy of 2013 with his Paradise films, a series that portrays the dark side of human desire to achieve paradise. The strongest film out of the three is the first installment, Paradise: Love, which stands perfectly well on its own. Capturing complex themes such as desire to find love, body image, human objectification, and racial exploitation, Paradise: Love is a powerful watch. If you have seen any of Seidl’s other films you know that he does not shy away from showing the ugly side of human nature and perhaps it is this uncensored exploration that makes his work so controversial, and subsequently limited in mass appeal. Of course, this makes distribution for the film a challenge. Therefore, a lot of people would not likely stumble upon this film without seeking it out. But do yourself a favor and watch one of the most powerful and underseen films of 2013.
Availability: On DVD and Netflix Instant. Also streaming on Amazon.
Brian De Palma’s return to filmmaking, and the genre that established him as a legendary director, expectedly has some issues. A remake of the French film Crime D’Amour, Passion is so unhinged that it’s hard to tell if De Palma is slyly winking at the audience or completely losing it. I personally take the former stance, as Passion is a hilariously insane film. Filled with dumb plot twists, schemes and hammy performances from Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, Passion is De Palma gleefully making a mess and daring the audience to keep watching. Whether you like it or hate it, it’s nice to see De Palma being playful again.
Availability: Currently out on DVD & Blu-Ray. Available to rent from Redbox and Netflix. Available to stream/rent/buy online from iTunes, Amazon, Google and YouTube.
Director James Marsh, well-known for his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, also likes to make fictional films from time to time. Shadow Dancer takes place in Ireland during The Troubles. After a botched attempt at bombing a subway, Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is coerced by an MI6 agent (Clive Owen) to become an informant. Marsh seems to have lucked out with his cast here, as they all do terrific jobs elevating what could have easily been another standard espionage/crime thriller. A plot turn in the final act threatens to bring everything down, but a nice stinger of an ending helps keep things afloat. It’s a well-crafted thriller, and Marsh does an effective job showing how, on both sides of the law, trust is the hardest thing to find.
Availability: Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, Amazon, Redbox, Netflix Instant, and pretty much everywhere else.
When I saw Simon Killer at last year’s SF Indiefest, I was immediately taken by its sludgy imagery, great performances, and uninviting atmosphere. Made by the folks behind Martha Marcy May Marlene (Antonio Campos directs) and starring Brady Corbet, the film follows the gradual unraveling of a young American man lost on the streets of Paris. Simon’s descent into madness unfolds at a patient, deliberate pace, and the horrors of his true nature creep up on you slowly before ripping your heart out.
Availability: Available on DVD, and currently streaming on Netflix. UK readers can grab the fantastic Blu-Ray set put together by Eureka and enjoy the creepiness in HD.
Sun Don’t Shine
Amy Seimetz made a big name for herself as an actress last year, but not as much notice was given to her directorial debut. Sun Don’t Shine focused on a couple (Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley) driving down to Florida for a few days, but not for a vacation. Sheil’s dead abusive husband is in the trunk, and the two of them are on their way to ditch the body and create an alibi for themselves. Seimetz’s decision to shoot in 16mm turns out to be essential to the film’s success. Every frame of the film oozes sweat, humidity and murkiness, which only heighten Sheil’s complete breakdown in the film. Sheil is a revelation here in a role that should hopefully help launch her career, and Seimetz (along with cinematographer Jay Keitel) shows an incredible handle of tone/mood for a first time filmmaker. Seimetz’s career may be taking off in front of the camera, but hopefully she’ll be able to make some time to return to the director’s chair again.
Availability: You can digitally rent or buy the film on Amazon or iTunes.
This is Martin Bonner
There’s a quiet, beautiful grace to This is Martin Bonner that immediately makes it stand apart from every other indie film released last year. The title character (Paul Eenhoorn) has just moved to Nevada after his divorce, working with recently released prisoners trying to integrate back in society. At the same time, Travis (Richmond Arquette) has just gotten out of prison and wants to re-connect with his daughter. Travis meets Martin briefly, but the two become more drawn to each other as they’re both men trying to respectively start over. Shot in a restrained, realistic style, This is Martin Bonner never resorts to cynicism or despair with its subject matter. Its two central characters, while trying to find their identity, are constantly looking forward rather than dwelling on their past. Director Chad Hartigan’s hopeful approach to the material, combined with the terrific cast and cinematography, come together to make this one of 2013’s quiet triumphs.
Availability: Currently on DVD and streaming on Netflix. Also available on iTunes and Amazon.
The urban legend goes like this: In York, Pennsylvania there’s a red gate leading into a forest. As you go through the gate and go deeper into the forest, you will come upon 6 other gates. As you pass through each gate your hold on reality begins to slip, and once you pass through the last one you go directly to hell. Director Jason Banker uses this urban legend from his hometown as inspiration for Toad Road, but don’t think that the film will be another run of the mill low-budget horror piece.
Banker casted a group of real-life friends, and most of Toad Road’s first half is comprised of real-life footage Banker took of his actors taking as many drugs as possible while engaging in plenty of debauchery. The blending of reality and fiction casts a compelling atmosphere around the film, and when parallels start being made between the urban legend and drug addiction it becomes clear that Banker is operating on a level above most modern-day horror filmmakers. What starts out as an utterly strange horror film turns into a brutally raw and unflinching look at aimless youth.
Availability: Currently on DVD, as well as available to digitally rent/buy on iTunes and Amazon.
The We and the I
After a mixed reception on the festival circuit, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I was given a very small release in the first half of 2013. It’s an unfortunate fate for what turned out to be the director’s best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Working with a group of inner city kids, Gondry has the entire film take place on a city bus taking a group of teens home on their last day of school. The film starts out obnoxious, with groups of kids preying on anyone they find worthy of ridicule. Move past the abrasive first act though, and Gondry’s message (along with the title’s meaning) begin to make sense. As more kids leave the bus, the remaining characters on the bus begin to open up and reveal their insecurities with each other. It’s an engrossing examination of the roles we play as a group versus how we behave as individuals. Gondry’s visual inventiveness is still here, but it’s probably not a coincidence that his most stripped-down film is also his strongest in years.
Availability: Currently on DVD, as well as available to digitally rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes
Welcome to Pine Hill
If you are looking for the most underrated indie film of 2013 than look no further than Welcome to Pine Hill. There is a good chance you have not heard of Keith Miller’s microbudget film, despite winning the jury prize for Best Feature at the Slamdance Film Festival (the smaller and more indie film festival in Park City). The story found within Welcome to Pine Hill is nothing new; a former drug dealer trying to turn a new leaf, reconciling his past after being diagnosed with cancer, and trying to escape racial stereotypes. But what makes the film stand out from the rest is how it handles these issues. Instead of trying to force-feed these topics the film approaches them with a sense of ease. The result is a film that is emotionally intimate and free of manipulation. Welcome to Pine Hill is the best indie film of 2013 that you haven’t seen yet.
Availability: Currently available to digitally buy on iTunes
What else?: We could honestly keep going if we could, but we had to stop somewhere. There’s the disorienting fishing boat docu Leviathan; Jem Cohen’s gorgeous Museum Hours; Asghar Farhadi’s riveting The Past; Rodney Ascher’s documentary on Shining obsessives Room 237; Blackfish which has made some serious real-world impacts; Lake Bell’s original and hilarious comedy In A World; Intense political thriller The East; Grand Prix winner at Cannes Reality; Intense found-footage documentary Let The Fire Burn; Johnnie To’s terrific action film Drug War; Cristian Mungiu’s terrific Cannes winner Beyond the Hills; Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said; Andrew Bujalski’s crazy retro Computer Chess; Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher; Terence Nance’s imaginative and personal An Oversimplification of Her Beauty; And Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars, a documentary that gives a terrifying glimpse into post-9/11 warfare.