Top 5: Discoveries and Surprises of 2013

Each week Filmspotting‘s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larson share their respective Tops 5 of a given topic (often, but not always, tied to the main review of that week’s show) on the podcast. It’s December, so right now they are looking back at the year that was with lists about 2013 Discoveries (FS #470) and Surprises and Disappointments of 2013 (coming up on FS #471). I don’t like to dwell on disappointments, but ever since I’ve heard this week’s show I’ve been contemplating what my cinematic discoveries and surprises of 2013 have been.

My Top 5 Discoveries of 2013

These don’t necessarily have to be films or filmmakers that burst onto the scene this year, but those that I discovered during the last twelve months.

Martin Scorsese's Who’s That Knocking at My Door

Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967)

1. Martin Scorsese

When I started my (still ongoing) rewatch of everything Scorsese has ever directed earlier this year, I had only seen three of his films: “The Departed,” “Shutter Island,” and “Hugo.” I knew that I was in danger of having my cine-cred revoked if I didn’t catch up with “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” or “Goodfellas,” but I discovered that his smaller, lesser known works, like “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967), “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) and “After Hours” (1985) were speaking to me much more than his epic stories ever did.

The body of work of Martin Scorsese, especially the earlier years, is my biggest discovery of 2013, and with it many other things that were new to me, like the genius of Harvey Keitel and the masterpiece that is the original(!) “Cape Fear.”

2. Matthew McConaughey

The transformation of McConaughey from rom-com co-star to one of the greatest actors of our time started a few years ago, but I have only caught up with it in the last twelve months, when I saw “Magic Mike,” “Killer Joe” and “The Paperboy.” I’ve yet to watch “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” but I’m looking forward to them, as well as, of course, Scorsese’s upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street.” McConaughey has proven himself to be an incredible versatile actor, and I’m glad he’s finally taking (and given) chances to prove that.

3. Seven Up!

What started as a short, made-for-TV look at some seven-year-old kids from different social backgrounds in 1964 England has become a vibrant, important and totally enthralling document of the human condition and the passage of time when filmmaker Michael Apted decided to visit these same children seven years later – and every seven years, since. I watched all eight installments this year, and I hope I get to see several more in the future.

4. Max Ophüls

A Filmspotting discovery, as it was their Ophüls marathon that introduced me to the German-born director and three of his movies: “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “La Ronde,” and “Madame de…” I was vaguely familiar with the name Ophüls before, but I had never seen any of his work, which is full of wonderful, funny, steamy, and romantic people and themes, and a gorgeous visual style, at that.

5. Paul Eenhoorn

I was eager to check out Chad Hartigan’s latest, “This Is Martin Bonner,” because I was a fan of his previous film, “Luke and Brie are on a First Date.” “Martin Bonner” did not disappoint, it is a thoughtful, evocative character study that, I’m convinced, would land on many a critic’s year-end Top 10 list – if only they had seen it. (It’s on Netflix!)

Australian actor and apparently all-around great guy Paul Eenhoorn gives maybe my favorite performance of the year as Martin Bonner. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, fiction and reality overlap as Bonner listens to an old tape of a song he recorded decades ago – which happens to be one that Eenhoorn recorded with his band Kopyrite in the late 60s.

My Top 5 Surprises of 2013

Evil Dead 2013

Jane Levy in “Evil Dead” (2013)

I very much detest these condescending cries of shock when someone you deemed incapable of it suddenly displays a talent that was really only ever hidden from your eyes, not the world at large. “Miley Cyrus sings with The Roots, sounds surprisingly good.” “New trailer for the ‘RoboCop’-remake looks surprisingly good.” Ugh.

So the list of cinematic surprises I encountered this year shall in no way signal any doubt I had in the abilities of the filmmakers involved. Instead, these are films that caught me off-guard, that weren’t on my radar, that I didn’t expect to be for me.

Ranked by how much they surprised me, the films are:

1. Senna” (2011)

For me, racing cars has long been tied with boxing for the least-appealing “sport” a person can attempt. So a documentary about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, made up mostly of actual race footage didn’t sound very interesting to me, but what director Asif Kapadia and editors Chris King and Gregers Sall present here is not only one of the most exciting documentaries I’ve seen, but one of the most emotional cinematic experiences I have ever had.

2. Bachelorette” (2012)

The trailer made it look like a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of “Bridesmaids” and the general critical consensus was that “Bachelorette” is a dud. I watched it anyway (it’s a mere 87 minutes, after all) and what I found was only the funniest film of the last few years. The cast, led by Kirsten Dunst and including the-man-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up James Marsden is impeccable, the plot moves along swiftly and the jokes seem tailor-made for me. I’ve seen it twice already and have no doubt there will be many more repeat viewings.

3. Dredd” (2012)

I don’t read much, so I was only vaguely familiar with the character of Judge Dredd. I don’t think I’ve actually seen the Sylvester Stallone movie from the 90s, and I barely registered the fact that this new version was even released.

But it got good reviews and even landed on at least one big Top Ten list that year. (I think? I can’t for the life of me find it now but I remember reading it.)

I watched the movie when the blu-ray came out and then again a few months later. “Dredd” has a very distinctive visual identity that’s as cool and gritty as Karl Urban’s portrayal of the Judge. I love that this is basically just another day in the life of Dredd and not the world at stake, as it so often is these days. Which is not to say that the movie lacks excitement. There’s plenty, and for once I could actually follow the action. (I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness.”)

4. Evil Dead” (2013)

The original “The Evil Dead” and its two sequels aren’t quite in my pantheon of untouchable movies that I never, ever want to see remade or rebooted, but when I heard they were making this movie I feared it would be just another generic cabin-in-the-woods slasher-flick, trying to rake in a few extra ticket sales by associating itself with a beloved franchise.

I saw “Evil Dead” at a midnight screening and I was impressed. The familiar story and characters were given a bit of depth by adding a context of addiction, but what really won me over was director Fede Alvarez’s old-school approach to creating the gory effects. Some minor moments of CGI aside this movie is a celebration of the make-up and practical effects crafts, achieving a look and feel of terror that I hadn’t seen in this genre for quite some time.

5. Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

Wait! Hear me out!

Obviously I wasn’t surprised that “Lawrence of Arabia” is a great movie. But a three-and-a-half hour period piece? I expected it to drag along a bit, for sure. And given the subject matter I suspected the story to be as dry as the desert it’s set in.

That’s where the film surprised me: long, yes, but never boring. Dramatic, but funny, too. If only someone had told me… I wouldn’t have waited so long to finally see this masterpiece.

Those are my discoveries and surprises of 2013. What are yours?


3 thoughts on “Top 5: Discoveries and Surprises of 2013

  1. So relieved you liked LAWRENCE OF ARABIA! I’d forgotten how funny it is, too, until I saw it again in 2012. Can’t remember if I was introduced to Apted’s UP series with 28 or 35, but they are fantastic. DREDD is still at the top of my to-watch list. By the end of this year, I promise!

    Not sure I can name 5 discoveries or surprises, since I know what I like, I tend to be narrow-minded about what I watch, and I don’t take as many chances as you do. If anything, my surprises would likely be disappointments — movies I expected to like a lot but didn’t. However, none really stand out this year. ELYSIUM wasn’t as good as I expected or wanted it to be, but it wasn’t so bad that I’d call it a surprise.

    So I’m going to name 2 Discoveries and 2 Surprises.

    Discovery #1: Oscar Isaac. I first saw him in 2010, in the Russell Crowe ROBIN HOOD (which I liked!), and the only other thing I’ve seen him in is his small role in THE BOURNE LEGACY (which I also liked), but I definitely noticed him, and I keep meaning to seek out his other earlier films. I like him so much that I’m willing to give INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS a chance, and that’s generally not my kind of movie *at all.*

    Discovery #2: Increasingly, my favorite films each year are smaller, lesser known ones — often ones I’ve seen during FilmFest DC, which rarely get a real release — a real shame. Am I simply being contrarian by picking obscure films? Is it a sign that I need to expand my horizons and take more chances? Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to watch FRANCES HA.

    Surprise #1: OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. I expected mindless action, and that’s what I got, BUT I didn’t expect to be as tickled by the film as I was. I saw it *three* times in the theatre.

    Surprise #2: Ben Kingsley in IRON MAN 3. You told me to give it a shot, despite my complaint about the film having two villains, and you were right. His performance might be my favorite performance of the year [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] — simply because it was such a surprise and it was so funny. I thank the gods that I’m not a comic book geek, so I couldn’t complain about the film “ruining” the Mandarin.

    I’ll Tweet my favorite films of 2013 nearer to the end of the year. After all, I still need to see the 2nd Hobbit movie and 47 Ronin!

    • I thought about including “Olympus,” but I never expected not to like it. You’re right that it’s much more enjoyable than it seemingly has a right to be, though.

      I didn’t even consider Kingsley since I only looked at movies, not performances for my surprises, but he definitely deserves a mention. Seen the film twice now and his big scene is just as delightful the second time around.

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