For movie lovers and movie critics, the end of the year brings an avalanche of "best of" lists to analyze, pick apart, and argue over. Here at CT Movies, knowing that every critic and every movie lover brings different tastes, interests, and perspectives to the table, we've decided to take a different approach.
Each of our regular critics came up with a list of "best" films in categories of their own choosing, and we'll be running them over the next week. These aren't necessarily the year's best films, nor even the best movies these critics saw all year—just a sampling of the riches of 2013. We hope you'll find something to love.
Best Movie With Theological Resonance
(Rated R for language, sexual content, and brief nudity)
This is tied with the last film on this list for my favorite movie of the year, and when I saw it a second time this week, I realized that it's far more complex than it appears on the surface, with thought-provoking themes about love and friendship, technology and media, reality and artifice, and more. But it's okay, because the story sweeps you along the first time through and leaves you breathless. Brett McCracken's excellent review for CT points out the theological resonances, particularly regarding incarnation, and I blogged a little more about some of the interesting bits I noticed the second time around. (No spoilers in either of these, of course!)
Most Heartbreaking Movie
The Spectacular Now
(Rated R for alcohol use, language, and some sexuality)
This movie flew under my radar and I wasn't going to cover it at all, until my husband sat me down and made me watch the trailer—and Shailene Woodley (who will be starring in Divergent next year and, I think, is the next Jennifer Lawrence) sold me on it. After I saw the film (and sniffled a bit at the end), I found out it was based on an equally excellent YA novel, and the adaptation is particularly well done. The film is also notable for how it deals with one (teen) character's high-functioning alcoholism. And though it's ultimately a life- and love-affirming film, it dwells on how we hurt one another with our choices—friends, lovers, and children alike. (Alissa's review for CT.)
Best Post-Mumblecore Film (and Best Answer to When Harry Met Sally)
(Rated R for language throughout)
Though Frances Ha probably could have easily taken this category, I think, in the end, that I like Drinking Buddies a little more. Mumblecore, in case you never encountered it (and that's pretty likely, since it wasn't so easy to watch) was a school of filmmaking in the last decade or so that featured a lot of improvisation, low budgets, naturalistic dialogue, and amateur actors—sort of like the French New Wave without most of the social commentary.
Drinking Buddies stars professional actors you have heard of—Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston and Jake Johnson (aka Nick from New Girl)—but it's directed by Joe Swanberg, one of mumblecore's princes, and boasts the best parts of the genre. That is, it's about relationships among vaguely hipster-y urban twentysomethings, and about navigating the world we live in today. The acting feels natural; it's the sort of movie where you think they had fun making it. Two of the characters, in particular (who work together at a microbrewery) have to confront the age-old question of whether men and women can be friends, especially when it seems like they're perfect for each other. It's also about whether commitment makes us happier. The answers might surprise you.
Best Repackaging of the Bonnie & Clyde Myth
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
(Rated R for some violence)
I'll admit that this wasn't high on my list when I first saw it (partially because the screening I was in involved a major technical snafu in the middle), but I find that the measure of a good film is often whether I'm still talking and thinking about it months later—and with this one, I am. It's particularly notable for how it treats the Bonnie and Clyde-style story: rather than glorify it or revel in their violence, it shows all the ways that their life of crime led to sorrow, while also focusing on the strength of love between a husband and wife. We ran an in-depth profile of director David Lowery this summer and discovered there are both cinematic and Biblical resonances intentionally planted throughout the visually poetic film. And I'll watch nearly anything that stars Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Rooney Mara.
The Movie I'll Watch Over and Over Again
Inside Llewyn Davis
(Rated R for language, including sexual references)
I love this movie. I love it so much that it was a nightmare to write about it, and I wished I had much more time to think about it. It richly rewards a rewatching, and its soundtrack is superb; even if you don't want to see the film, you'll like the soundtrack if you like folk at all—it's got folk legends on it, including Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and also some of our best new guys, like Marcus Mumford and Punch Brothers (the band where Nickel Creek's genius mandolinist Chris Thile now plays) and the film's star, Oscar Isaac, who turns in unbelievable performances both as an actor and as a singer.
But really, what Inside Llewyn Davis does for me is remind me first that the work of making things is hard, that we can't predict the future, that the best thing to wish for is to keep good company on our journey. And maybe a cat. (Alissa's review for CT.)
The One Movie I Wish Everyone Would See
Short Term 12
(Rated R for language and brief sexuality)
I really did not expect to like this movie when I went to the screening; all I knew was that it was low budget and about a foster care facility for teens, which didn't sound like something I wanted to see at 10 in the morning on a sunny summer day.
Turns out this is one of the best films I saw all year, starring the prolific Brie Larson (who was also in The Spectacular Now) and John Gallagher Jr. (from The Newsroom). Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton originally wrote this as a short film that was nominated for a Student Academy Award, then won a fellowship from the Academy to develop it into a full-length movie. The result—which can be hard to watch, since it's about kids whose parents utterly failed them—is nothing short of stunning, and I haven't stopped collaring people and telling them to see this movie all year. You'll just have to read my review for the rest.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets at @alissamarie. Her full top ten list is on Letterboxd.