The Overlooked and Underseen Movies of 2013

Lionsgate/Focus Features/The Weinstein Company Movies

With the tidal wave of Hulu Plus, Netflix Instant, Crackle, Amazon Instant Video, Apple TV, and VOD titles crashing into our queues every week, it can be nearly impossible to keep up with the small (and big-small) movies of the year. That’s why Grantland does this post every year, to provide you with a raft of options in these coming holiday weeks, to catch up on the year’s most graceful martial arts film or the most underrated animated comedy or the freakiest horror flick. These are Grantland’s Overlooked Movies of 2013. Get to downloading.

You’re Next

Chris Ryan: Do you ever find yourself thinking, Man, I liked The Strangers, but what it really needed was more victims, and perhaps a less intimate sense of terror, so I could actually enjoy the viewing process more? Well, have I got a movie for you. Let me tell you about the best 2013 horror flick you didn’t see: You’re Next.

“Home invasion” is pretty low on my horror subgenre power rankings. I prefer “There’s something out in space,” “There’s something in the woods,” and “ZOMBIES!” So I went into Adam Wingard’s feature with fairly low expectations. But 95 minutes later, after some assault by deadly kitchen appliances, arrows through the forehead, and terrifying masks, I was giddy. You’re Next has gore, screams, and chases — the holy trinity of horror — but it also has genuine laughs and a charming unpredictability.

The plot is standard: A family of brats and head cases gathers to celebrate their parents’ anniversary. Everything is going dysfunctionally until someone shoots a crossbow into the dining room and all hell breaks loose. Why are people in masks attacking this clan? And is this a random crime or something more calculated? Wingard keeps things fun with some gallows humor, and he pulls off a neat trick of constantly shifting the audience’s allegiances, adjusting how sympathetic characters are throughout the film.

You’re Next features Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color), Joe Swanberg (director of Drinking Buddies), and Ti West (director of The House of the Devil) in the cast, but its tendencies are more drive-in than art house. The movie has the fast, cheap, and out-of-control recklessness of an ’80s slasher flick, and in Sharni Vinson, Wingard has a classic “final girl.” I loved a lot of movies this year; many of them, from Gravity to Blue Is the Warmest Color, were very challenging. But You’re Next was the one that had me smiling as I left the theater, thinking about how much I loved going to the movies.

The Wind Rises

Emily Yoshida: There’s been some controversy in the U.S. in recent weeks about The Wind Rises, which is likely to be the final film directed by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Depressingly, it’s a controversy that runs almost in direct opposition to the dustup surrounding it in its native country. In Japan, right-wing nationalists were quick to denounce the regret Miyazaki expressed — both in the film and in an impassioned letter he wrote to the government shortly after its release — over the crimes his country committed during World War II, calling him “anti-Japanese” and a “traitor.” To those familiar with the country’s current political climate, The Wind Rises’s depiction of prewar Japan is an eerie echo of current events, from the devastating Kanto earthquake of 1923 to the subsequent economic collapse and a rising sentiment of pro-military nationalism that easily swallowed the crippled country. (Part of the intent of Miyazaki’s letter was to urge the government to rethink its recent deliberations on repealing Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan, which has forbidden the country from maintaining a military since the end of the war.)

But American audiences aren’t watching The Wind Rises in Japan; many might not be familiar with Miyazaki’s long-standing antiwar, pro-environment politics (though a quick jaunt through his filmography should easily get you up to speed). It’s understandable to raise an eyebrow at any account of war coming from a country responsible for many of its most brutal, unthinkable casualties. In critical circles on this side of the Pacific, both The Wind Rises and its protagonist, the real-life engineer Jiro Horikoshi, have been accused of being too ambivalent about the horrors brought about by the A6M Zero, the notorious fighter plane he designed. The film’s “bloodlessness” (we never see the Zero in action, or any typical war scenes) has been read as a kind of dishonesty by omission.

While the concerns of these criticisms are real and valid, they miss the larger humanist thrust of the film. The Wind Rises is the story it is because of the time and place it occupies, just as Jiro, an otherwise quiet, nerdy dreamer, becomes an engineer of killing machines because of the time and place he was born. But in a more universal sense, the film has so much to say about the fragility of our best, noblest ideals in the face of the sociopolitical climate we live in. To say there is no regret in the film is a terribly literal reading — Horikoshi’s hindsight is 20/20, but all he has to show for it is thousands of dead soldiers and the charred remains of the machines he worked so hard to perfect. The Wind Rises is about how the purest pursuit can be politicized and perverted, and there is no silver lining to that observation. As a war story, it is sobering; as a beloved director’s final work, it is heartbreaking.

Computer Chess

Alex Pappademas: It’s almost 1984, and a computer has yet to beat a human at chess. A group of programmers gather at a hotel to test their machines’ mettle against that of some flesh-and-blood masters of the game. In their off-hours they drink, do drugs, worry about World War III, and question the true nature of consciousness. Then someone leaves a CPU out in the rain. Director Andrew Bujalski’s first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, were mumblecore ur-texts; this one, shot in milky black-and-white on temperamental analog video equipment from the ’60s, is more deliberate, an Altman-esque social-anthropological comedy disguised as a poker-faced mock-doc. It’s the keenly observed portrait of pre-Internet, pre-monied nerd culture that Joshua Michael Stern’s banal Jobs was too invested in its subject’s official mythos to give us. Bujalski’s nerds are prickly, anxious problem solvers in short-sleeve dress shirts, not capitalist rock-stars-to-be. They’re wholly and realistically unaware that computers are about to change the world, although at one point it’s suggested that people might one day use them to find dates. The period detail (neckties, haircuts, overhead projectors) recalls old Spike Jonze videos, as does the general deadness-of-pan. But what really makes the story ring true is the cast, including Wiley Wiggins (unrecognizable behind a John Hodgman–like mustache) and a number of terrific non-actors, including film critic Gerald Peary, novelist Jim Lewis (who’s great and Gandolfini-esque as one of the chess champs), and Wiggins’s real-life business partner, software developer James Curry, who offers some wisdom about coding under the influence: “A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.”

The Grandmaster

Brian Phillips: I, personally, overlooked it twice: once when it came out (I didn’t see it) and once when I finally streamed it (I said “meh” with the dexterity and power of an Eagle Claw–style nerve strike). But it stuck with me. Wong Kar-wai’s claustrophobically lush fusion of a kung fu epic and a 1930s biopic may not make much — any — dramatic sense, but it creates a weirdly resonant Venn-diagram overload of genres; imagine Kill Bill if Quentin Tarantino cared more about Chinese history than Uma Thurman’s feet. One story follows the god Tony Leung as Ip Man, the real-life kung fu teacher who trained Bruce Lee. The other follows Zhang Ziyi as an imploding opera of a kung fu heiress prevented from assuming her father’s mantle by (1) gender, (2) gender, and (3) the treachery of a dude whom she may or may not fight on a train platform at the end. The two characters are in love, naturally, but this is a Wong Kar-wai movie, so three guesses how that works out.

The Leung story is basically a scholarly anthology of kung fu styles, as Ip Man, a Wing Chun master, goes about the quiet, sober work of defeating and unifying the dozens of fighting schools scattered all over China. Some amazing rain pelts some amazing fedoras, but there’s not much plot to any of this. The Ziyi story, on the other hand, is all hearts on fire and smoldering looks and incredible fur collars. You know how some people’s faces belong in a museum? Her face belongs in a museum. She also gets the best fight scenes, some of which may or may not take place on train platforms and be sensationally cool.

The Grandmaster is not a great kung fu movie, and it’s not a great Kar-wai movie, but it’s worth seeing if you care about either of those categories. If nothing else, there’s something extremely badass about a fight film in which the heroine beats the hero in their only encounter, and then defeats the villain without his help at the end. And the shot of Ziyi, so chic and sad and dangerous, stalking away from the fallen body of the bad guy and spitting back, “You didn’t give it to me, I took it” — that’s kind of a great movie on its own.

It’s a Disaster

Mark Lisanti: There is a ring of hell reserved for the brunchers of Los Angeles, who spend their Sundays crammed up, shoulder to shoulder, against strangers at a trendy spot serving brioche French toast, jalapeño marmalade, and earfuls of overheard complaints about botched auditions, about overbearing studio notes, about unreturned agent phone calls. Inside that ring is a tighter circle for those unlucky souls trapped around the kitchen tables for uncomfortable couples’ brunches, hoping against hope that the simmering interpersonal drama of their scramble-proffering friends won’t boil over until everyone has escaped to their own couches, awaiting the sweet release of Sunday-night TV.

It’s a Disaster takes place inside an even deeper, blacker pocket of that ring of Hades. Brunch was not bad enough. Nor was couples’ brunch. So they exploded a dirty bomb in downtown L.A., trapping everyone inside to live out their last, miserable hours among lukewarm carafes of orange juice, a few hastily purchased bottles of Trader Joe’s wine, and petty fights blanketed with the looming shadow of imminent apocalypse.

Because hell is other people. At brunch.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Amos Barshad: With The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance had himself what is as close as one can get, in 2013 on the indie circuit, to a can’t-miss prospect: not just Face of Young America Ryan Gosling, but Face of Young America Ryan Gosling doing full-on swoon-worthy rock-and-roll rebel-mumble. I mean, the guy was on a goddamn speeding motorcycle, robbing banks, crushing the Globe of Death, letting cigs dangle effortlessly betwixt his lips, riding like lightning and/or crashing like thunder. And that movie disappeared.

I doubt, though, that Cianfrance is dealing with much confusion, regret, or PTSD right now. He knew going in: It’s one thing to puff up Gosling’s everyday louche, alt-superhero sizzle into some ridiculously palatable — and, yes, of course, just plain ridiculous — gutter-punk glory. It’s another to SPOILER ALERT NO SERIOUSLY SPOILER ALERT send him flailing down to the cement. When Luke Glanton falls out that attic window, not more than an hour into the movie, how many of us felt like some cruel boot-clad invader had just stomped into our grandmother’s living room, swiped a forearm across her mantle, and sent her carefully cultivated collection of porcelain figurines smashing to the ground?

I won’t try to sweep all the movie’s failings under the “You were sad about Gosling!” rug. But I will say this: Its baton-passing structure was innovative and justified; the general air of solemn grandiosity was earned; and Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, as sweaty, tortured, and generally scared-shitless high school kids, were almost uncomfortably spot-on. And maybe, maybe, you were too busy thinking about how you should really go help Grandma pick up all those damn porcelain shards to notice.

Side Effects

Sean Fennessey: I miss the golden age of the erotic thriller. I grew up on the erotic thriller. I learned about the world with the erotic thriller. You remember those halcyon days, when all you needed to secure $30 million at the box office was Billy Baldwin, a sex scene, and a smeared lens. Steven Soderbergh hasn’t forgotten that time. And while his 2013 was celebrated for his comically burnished TV biopic, Behind the Candelabra, and a chilling but insightful talk about the state of cinema, it was the movie that came before it — his final theatrical release — that bears the hallmarks of True Soderbergh. Cool, flat, slithering genre fare, washed-out and tumble-dried into a nifty, entertaining 105 minutes.

Soderbergh gets a lot of credit for contemporary auteurism. For refocusing indie fearlessness with sex, lies, and videotape. For the might of his intelligence, thanks to probing “idea” movies like Schizopolis, Bubble, and The Girlfriend Experience. He gets Hollywood love for the shiny pop art of the Ocean’s triad (the best trilogy of the last 30 years — there, I said it). He even still gets high marks for his poorly aging pair of early-aughts message movies, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. But Soderbergh has never been more in control than in these final years, when all he wanted to do was strip-mine and hand-buff ’70s and ’80s genre corn into modern midrange entertainment. Contagion is The Andromeda Strain. Magic Mike is Valley of the Dolls. Haywire is Hopscotch and early Bond. Even the wonderful, forgotten The Informant! has tinges of Being There.

Side Effects is Dressed to Kill and Body Heat and Sliver, spring-loaded with razor’s-edge commentary about our unmanaged prescription drug culture. It’s not a great movie — too preposterous, too aridly observed. But it moves the way those movies did, slinkily and with steam coming off it.

The Croods

Zach Dionne: It’s hard crying “Overlooked!” about an animated film that earned a Golden Globe nom, almost $600 million worldwide, and a 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — till I mention Pixar. Aside from Cars, everything Pixar makes earns a place in adult conversations about great movies. The Croods not only deserves more respect than anything DreamWorks Animation has done (including How to Train Your Dragon and Antz), it deserves as much as your Incredibles, your Ratatouilles. With a strong script, stronger animation, and lively voice work from Emma Stone, Nic Cage, and Catherine Keener, it works hard not only to keep the adults entertained alongside the kids but to actually keep viewers of all ages entranced at the same level of wonderment. Maybe I’m just biased because, as was not the case with the admittedly solid Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me, I didn’t have to hide my sleeping face from my daughter during this one. Ditto for the second viewing.

Go Grandriders

Hua Hsu: Go Grandriders is a documentary about a gang of octogenarian Taiwanese people who decide — against the better judgment of their doctors and loved ones — to trace the circumference of the island on their scooters. It’s a uniquely Taiwanese road trip, albeit one usually taken by teenagers or young newlyweds. Or people with sharp motor skills. Along the way, our eightysomething grandmas and grandpas encounter rain-slicked roads and treacherous curves, broken bones, and a lot of friendly shouting. Some of them haven’t driven a scooter in years. One guy falls asleep at the wheel, another affixes a photo of his late wife to the front of his scooter to guide his way. Many of them have never ventured far from the towns where they came of age. It’s all exactly what you expect to happen.

“Watch This Elderly Man With His Mutant Eyebrows and Liver Spots Look Toward the Horizon — You Won’t Believe What He Did Next.” As I watched Go Grandriders, I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t actually a very good movie. Its production values and lush, sentimental soundtrack called to mind a promotional video for either Taiwanese tourism or Christianity. Its lingering close-ups of pensive old folks felt cloying and manipulative. As well: The very premise of a band of aging brothers touring the island on two wheels was already popularized a couple years back by a bank commercial aimed directly at the Taiwanese people’s special appetite for sentimentalism. But none of this mattered. It wasn’t a good movie; it was an entirely different kind of experience. It was artless and unavoidably moving. It was glorious and then it was devastating. It short-circuited my ability to be critical. It was an occasion to step outside of life and imagine what aspirations would still hold a half-century from now. It was a reminder that it’s never too late to see what’s on the other side of the island.

Before Midnight

John Lopez: Maybe it sounds odd to call Before Midnight “overlooked”: It made its handful of box-office millions; no one outside a ’90s time traveler would call Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, or Julie Delpy a discovery; and the Before trilogy already has a well-established cult of Gen X hopeless romantics for whom Jesse and Céline are touchstone-of-a-generation alter egos. But in my opinion, that’s not enough. Why? Because Before Midnight was the best film I saw all year. And, aside from maybe another nominal screenwriting nod from the Academy, the Linklater-Hawke-Delpy trio probably won’t get the recognition it deserves from the alphabet stew of award shows whose prime function is to laud pretty much every good film this year — so long as it came out after August.

Before Midnight doesn’t have the 360-degree-rotating cameras of Gravity, or the sadomasochistic social critique of 12 Years a Slave, or Leonardo DiCaprio throwing stuff, but it has something far rarer in films these days: humanity. That achievement only becomes more incredible when you rewatch the previous two Before films and realize that this time around, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy transformed what was essentially an idealized fantasy into two painfully real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Awards aside, their culminating fight will take its place in the cinematic pantheon of perfect scenes; but the whole film is an artful tapestry that gets taken for granted precisely because the seams are invisible. Maybe you think meandering, talk-filled films are simple and easy because they’re inherently low-budget. However, I assure you — as do the myriad would-be auteurs who’ve tried to imitate Richard Linklater — it takes writing, acting, and directing firing perfectly on all cylinders to do right. That’s every bit as hard as calculating the color of sunlight reflected off George Clooney’s nose in space.

Fill the Void

Tess Lynch: Fill the Void is the debut feature from Rama Burshtein, an Israel-based filmmaker (and the first Israeli Orthodox woman to create a feature film intended for a mainstream audience). The plot has been described as a Jane Austen story set within the Orthodox community, telling the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron, whose performance is spectacular), who grapples with the possibility of marrying her deceased sister’s husband. It’s a fascinating movie — a sensitive, intimate look at a culture we seldom see from an insider’s perspective.

Pain & Gain

Molly Lambert: Who knew Michael Bay took his critics seriously? I might have, for beneath all the bluster beats the heart of a sensitive emo who loves West Side Story and might be John Frankenheimer’s secret son. Having spent the last few years embroiled in dreadful Transformers movies, even Bay may have tired of the “bigger and louder are always better” CGI-drowned aesthetics. His break from those films for what he called his version of an indie movie turned out to be the delightful Pain & Gain: an ode to big stupid men and their big stupid dreams that was one of the year’s funniest, most cynical comedies. Bay got back to the basics: slow-motion car crashes, slow-motion bodybuilding, and guys walking away from things exploding.

But not just any guys — the trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie made for an anabolic Marx Brothers. Wahlberg’s trademark lunkhead, who is always mad because he no think good, was perfectly juxtaposed with Johnson’s God-fearing, coke-sniffing gentle giant and Mackie’s Dan Marino jersey–sporting, Rebel Wilson–loving neurotic. All the casting was perfect, from Rob Corddry’s sweaty desk jockey to Ken Jeong’s motivational speaker Johnny Wu. Tony Shalhoub, as the kidnapping victim, is easily as despicable as his captors. Ed Harris shows up in the third act and makes it a neon Western. Israeli model/actress Bar Paly is hilarious as a Russian dumb bunny, equal parts sexy and slapstick. Nearly everyone in this movie is a borderline idiot, which is part of what makes it so fun. Comparisons to the Coen brothers’ Fargo were not far off, including one particularly gruesome scene that ought to dredge up memories of that film’s wood chipper incident. It even has Peter Stormare! In Pain & Gain, bodies are oiled and bronzed and curvy everywhere. They are not flat. The movie is incredibly homoerotic and doesn’t really shy away from it, aestheticizing the main trio’s perfectly toned bodies just as much as it lingers on the tan roundness of female poolgoers’ asses. There’s also that warehouse full of dildos, which is funny every time it comes onscreen. You might worry that Michael Bay would pound this material into the ground, but he actually has kind of a light touch, which is why it works so well. The three leads have incredible chemistry, and he lets the scenes play out without extraneous jump cuts or other postclassical MTV editing tropes. It’s the most classical movie Bay has made since Bad Boys, and it’s an interesting exercise in watching a director stretch himself way beyond his traditional bounds to positive end. It’s a movie about trying to perfect your body through crooked means and applying this work ethic to everything. As the boys get bigger and bulkier, so do their bank accounts. But fatefully, not their brains.

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