My two favorite films of 2013 are To the Wonder and The Wolverine. Though I hope dearly that my love for these two movies stems from the things they made me feel and think rather than a purely reflexive (or, ick, “contrarian”) critical sensibility, I stand largely alone in naming them for such an honor. I am not sure what to make of this—especially regarding To the Wonder, which seemed all but primed for accolades when rumblings of its release began in early 2010. Many of the critics who roasted director Terrence Malick’s sixth film are ones I read and admire, and I wouldn’t dare accuse them of dishonesty or narrow-mindedness. I reserve my right to remain bewildered, however. The critical response to To the Wonder, so disheartening in its near-unanimous exasperation, seems to me incommensurate with the movie itself, which I watched and loved one idle December night after a copy of it had landed in my lap. It is a wonderful, mysterious film that feels like it belongs right next to its towering brethren in Malick’s filmography.
I don’t have any world-changing revelations to pass on to those who hated To the Wonder, who I know come from all kinds of different backgrounds, have all types of opinions on Malick’s oeuvre as a whole, and watched the film in all kinds of settings. The movie’s cryptic sublimity just did the job for me. Apparently it garnered sneering laughs from those in its Venice premiere audience; I see nothing to laugh at, and a lot to love. I have always adored Malick’s directing, but newly applied to a modern environment (that of Paris and small-town Oklahoma), it feels even more potent—not exhausted, as the film’s critics felt, but renewed. When Malick shoots the exterior of a suburban home or a laundromat, they feel like glimpses into an entirely new and mysterious masterpiece, waiting to unfold before us. Maybe Olga Kurylenko’s unnamed character twirls around a little too much; maybe the movie’s a bit heavy on “What is this love that loves us?” (It’s worth pointing out that Malick’s previous films certainly had their share of twirling and love that loves us, but somewhat inexplicably their fancy-schmancy digressions received due charity from audiences, whereas this one was left in the dust.) Quaint a notion though it may be, I think that To the Wonder is the kind of movie you just have to give a chance. It has its share of hiccups, but one thing is certain: it will love you back.
The Wolverine wasn’t critically scorched with quite the same alacrity as To the Wonder, but it nonetheless strikes me as another film that earns re-evaluation. As an offshoot of the not-particularly-distinguished X-Men film series, The Wolverine might seem at first like a waste of cinematic space. But once in a while the absurd trend-hopping of the mainstream just sort of works, and The Wolverine is an expertly paced, funny, and occasionally absurd superhero flick that had me captivated for its entire 126-minute runtime. After an onslaught of mainstream action movies that seemed like a bunch of dead weight, climaxing almost instantly and suggesting a momentum that their various convoluted plots could not uphold (and which ran the gamut of critical opinion: I’m talking here of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but also of the charitably received Pacific Rim), The Wolverine had something of a redemptive power. It helps that the film is skillfully directed by James Mangold, who I only know for his dreary 3:10 to Yuma remake and Walk the Line, the well-received Johnny Cash biopic I loved on first watch nine years ago but which probably deserves a re-evaluation. Here, Mangold proves an adept guide to the various locales of Japan in which the movie takes place; especially titillating is a scene that finds the film’s two protagonists, Hugh Jackman’s titular Wolverine and Mariko, played by Japanese model Tao Okamoto in her film debut, in an urban “love hotel”. This kind of setpiece could be easily juiced for uncomfortable culture-shock gags, but Mangold finds in it the neon-glow beauty of a film like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola or Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, although without the latter’s browbeating aesthetic maximalism. Even when its plot points don’t quite connect (the motivations and origins of Viper, one of the film’s antagonists, remain a mystery to me), The Wolverine is chock full of immensely satisfying sequences that seem to stack on top of each other without toppling over. It’s an impressive balancing act, but more than that, it’s a hell of a movie.
Because I don’t voraciously gobble up contemporary movies as some of my peers do (I’ve yet to see, for example, The Act of Killing or Before Midnight), in lieu of a standard top 10 I’ll include here a list of the fifteen best non-2013 movies I saw for the first time in 2013. Godspeed.
Batang West Side (Lav Diaz, 2001)
Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1991)
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirō Ozu, 1962)
The River (Tsai Ming-liang, 1997)
Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)
L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2005)
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
And the Pursuit of Happiness (Louis Malle, 1986)
Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)
Ploy (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007)