We all have cinematic blind spots. For many professional critics, those spots are filled in at the end of the year as the studio mails them screeners of the films they hope will earn awards. Since I don’t get screeners, I’m still a bit further behind than I’d like to be in catching up on all the films of 2013. I still haven’t seen Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, or Stories We Tell, despite hearing nothing but universal praise for all three. I fully intend to see all of these movies, but I just haven’t had time to catch up with them yet.
Keeping in mind the fact that I haven’t seen a few of the top contenders for what many other critics would likely put on their own lists of the best indie films of 2013, here’s a list of my own. Why am I doing this? Because I loved these films, and I want to spread the word about them as often as possible and hopefully convince you to seek them out. Just watching blockbusters all the time isn’t a very well-rounded cinematic diet, so consider this my attempt to help point you in the right direction of something that’s not cinematic junk food. Believe me, I love cinematic junk food, but if you’re looking for something with a little more substance to it, I hope you’ll find it in one of these films. Here are my six favorite indie films of 2013, in no particular order:
The Spectacular Now
This is not your average coming of age teen film. The Spectacular Now covers a lot of the tropes of the genre (first love, the girl next door, the party guy who has a seemingly great life), but does it in a way that feels more meaningful than many of its contemporaries. It’s funny and extremely charming, but director James Ponsoldt also deals with some pretty dark territory: one of the main characters is an 18-year-old alcoholic whose father abandoned him when he was young. Miles Teller’s cocky Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley’s sweet, quiet Aimee Finnerty share great chemistry, and I fully expect that when these two are huge stars in the next decade or so, I”ll look back at this movie as the one that got them started on their path to greatness.
The Way Way Back
Sam Rockwell’s character in The Way Way Back is my favorite movie character of the past five or six years. He’s a slacker manager of a small town water park, and while the bulk of the movie surrounds a kid whose family moves to that town and how he deals with the change (and his mom’s dickish new boyfriend, played wonderfully by Steve Carell), Rockwell’s effortless wit and perfect delivery dominated the movie for me. The film is the directorial debut of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the guys who won an Oscar for writing The Descendants, and this movie is a great mix of comedy and drama that I wish a lot more people had seen this year.
Jeff Nichols blew me away with Take Shelter a few years ago, and his follow-up, Mud, has cemented itself as one of my favorite films of this year. Matthew McConaughey does excellent work, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the whole movie takes on the feel of a piece of classic literature. It’s symbolic, thrilling, suspenseful, and just an all-around great movie.
I’ve written at length about this movie before (most recently in my piece about the two prominent film themes of 2013), but I’m convinced Harmony Korine has made one of the smartest movies of the year. Beneath the neon haze of writhing bodies lies a blistering critique of the YOLO generation and a twisted version of the American Dream, embodied by four girls who want what they feel they deserve and a you’ve-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it performance from James Franco as a Florida rapper named Alien. It’s a hard movie to watch, but I think those who dismiss it outright are missing a lot.
Richard Linklater’s third entry in his Before series is the most personal and emotionally devastating movie of the bunch. The way he and co-writers/stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are able to continually dig deeper into the lives of Jesse and Celine after all these years is mesmerizing, and though the film consists of little more than people sitting around having conversations, the realism on display makes the actors truly disappear into these characters. It’s inspired filmmaking, and this trio has managed to pull off something that no one else in film history has been able to do: tell three stories over the course almost twenty years, which take place essentially in real time, and explores themes of love, marriage, commitment, and sacrifice through the evolving relationship between two main characters. It’s astounding how such a simple concept can be so affecting.
The Kings of Summer
A group of teenagers get fed up with living life under their parents’ rules and set off to build their own life in the woods. I’d put the first half of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ directorial debut up against any other film when talking about funniest movies of the year (“Parks and Rec” star Nick Offerman’s delightfully dry humor is a highlight), and though it gets a little heavier thematically in its back half, it’s still a terrific film full of heart and life lessons about relationships, family, and friendship. Plus, it features an instantly iconic performance from Moises Arias as the eccentric and bizarre Biaggio. He alone is worth the price of a rental.
What indie films did you see this year that should have made this list? Sound off below.
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