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The final days of the old year and the first days of the new one are typically devoted to parsing the best and worst films, music, television series and books of the previous 12 months. But notwithstanding the inherent subjectivity of ranking art (or even “art”), those lists are often comprised of stuff you’ve already checked out, or already plan to in the near future. All of which brings us to our list: the 10 most-underrated, or overlooked, movies of 2013.
While there are undoubtedly better films, in part and as a whole, than some of the titles included on the list below, these are titles that were perhaps unfairly maligned, or largely ignored by the general public, despite having qualities – performances, storytelling, artistry – that make them at least worth checking out. Let us know what you think of our choices in the comments section.
The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films)
What starts out as a gobsmacking portrait of cognitive dissonance becomes a harrowing, introspective look at the toll that war crimes takes – and doesn’t take – on their perpetrators. Documenting a group of gangsters who participated in Indonesian killings in the mid-1960s and are now revered in the region where they committed thousands of murders, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary expertly avoids easy judgments, but never lets them – or the audience – off the hook – as they start to feel the gravity of their actions.
Dear Mr. Watterson (Gravitas Ventures)
Joel Allen Schroeder wisely ignores the more conventional story of “finding” the elusive creator of Calvin and Hobbes in order to offer a broader and more emotionally powerful portrait of one of the last great pre-Internet cultural phenomena. Featuring interviews from other comic creators and fans like himself, Schroeder beautifully examines the impact of the strip, and then steps back to look at the context of its endurance as a source of inspiration and entertainment for so many people, almost 30 years later.
Hell Baby (Millennium)
While so many horror movies take themselves so seriously that it’s impossible not to laugh at them, this one encourages you to, with its tale of a husband trying to deal with the demonic mood swings of his very, very pregnant wife. Its jump scares are often surprisingly effective, but even if you find none of it scary, there’s something extremely appealing about watching a person react to supernatural phenomena in a more recognizable way – namely, with disbelief and hilarious incredulity.
In a World … (Roadside Attractions)
An actress on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough for several years now, Lake Bell has consistently distinguished herself with performances full of intelligence, humor and humanity. Unsurprisingly, these are all qualities she brings to her writing and directing debut, the story of a young woman who aspires to be the first iconic female voiceover actor. While the character’s generational rivalry with her father, an established voiceover performer, offers its own commentary on ageism and gender bias, Bell creates a remarkably dimensionalized world of interesting, funny characters that all feel deeply real, without venturing anywhere near the sort of focus that might unfairly relegate it to the status of “a movie for girls.” Affecting, sweet and frequently hilarious, In a World … is terrific, and Bell is a talent to watch, behind the camera as much as in front of it.
The Lords of Salem (Anchor Bay Films)
Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of Rob Zombie’s movies, thanks to their frequent emphasis on white-trash meanness. But even if his latest isn’t a total about face from his previous work, The Lords of Salem is an intriguing film that incorporates elements of Mario Bava and Dario Argento as it explores the resurrection of a coven of witches via the womb of a Massachusetts DJ (a never-better Shari Moon-Zombie). More disturbing than scary and not fully successful at achieving its ambitiously grandiose finale, the film exudes creepy atmosphere and features some truly striking imagery.
Only God Forgives (The Weinstein Company)
As much as I loved Drive, Only God Forgives is nothing like it, and quite frankly, that’s something every fan of his previous film should know. Eschewing the tight-lipped romanticism of his stunt driver story, Refn’s incredibly violent follow-up examines a young man – played by Ryan Gosling – caught between the Thailand authorities and his controlling mother. A virtual battle between nature and nurture with Gosling’s anguished character caught in the middle, the film is as gorgeous as any you’ll see in 2013, with a character study as provocative and interesting to match.
Rush (Universal Pictures)
Although any movie directed by Ron Howard and released by Universal faces an uphill battle at being considered “overlooked,” audiences didn’t seem to have a chance to check out the film, about the career-long rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. While Chris Hemsworth is solid as Hunt, Inglourious Basterds co-star Daniel Bruhl steals the movie from beneath him with a fearlessly unlikeable performance as his longtime opponent, a relentlessly pragmatic man in whose corner you almost can’t help finding yourself. Bolstered by a vaguely disinterested, abstract depiction of the racing itself, Howard does an amazing job getting inside not just the cars, but the heads of these two fierce competitors.
Simon Killer (IFC)
I actually saw this film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and felt so icky afterward that I vowed never to watch it again. But its eventual release in theaters in the middle of 2013 came and went without appropriate fanfare for just how twisted, complex and unforgettable the film really is. With the story of a young American who flees to Paris after a nasty breakup, director and co-writer Antonio Campos creates an upsetting and shockingly believable portrait of a sociopath coming into his own, disguising his cruel and manipulative behavior in self-pity and romantic victimization. A worthy companion piece to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake – as much as anything because of two astonishing performances by Brady Corbet – the film is terrifying not because it chronicles the terrible behavior of an unlikeable protagonist, but by showcasing how thin the line is for that sort of behavior in the very real world of forlorn, endlessly self-justifying young men.
Stoker (Fox Searchlight)
Park Chan-Wook has been a major force in international cinema for years, having made the original Oldboy and the amazing, sensual vampire film Thirst. But his first English-language debut is a triumph of the power of cinema – meaning what a filmmaker can do with the camera and a simple story in order to create an unforgettable tale. Almost an origin story of sorts for a future serial killer, the film follows young India Stoker (an amazing Mia Wasikowska) as she deals with the death of her father, and the arrival of her mysterious uncle, who seems to have sinister plans for the two of them. Beautifully tracking her coming of age as she becomes empowered through her uncle’s attention, the film takes a familiar idea – an almost Hitchcockian premise – and breathes new life into it
You’re Next (Lionsgate)
Adam Wingard gives slasher movies a much-needed shot of adrenaline – not to mention humor – with his story of a family whose weekend getaway is interrupted by home invaders. Sharni Vinson plays the film’s protagonist with strength and smarts – she’s a woman with her own secret past – and the film uses its dueling mysteries to charge the usual scream-chase-kill dynamic with fresh and almost fun energy. As the milquetoast academic who quickly finds himself overshadowed by his much more formidable girlfriend, A.J. Bowen delivers yet another terrific performance, and provides one extreme for the film to bounce back from – soft, week domesticity – as Vinson’s character is caught between that and the cruel violence of her attackers.