In the lead-up to the unveiling of our definitive Top 50 Films of 2013 list, we’ve asked some friends of Paste to tell us their favorites of the year. Tune in for a different list each day. Today’s contributor is Dan Mirvish, who directed this year’s Between Us (pictured), among others, and is one of the co-founders of the Slamdance Film Festival.
As a working filmmaker who was on the festival circuit for much of this year with my own film, I’d love to say that I saw hundreds of movies. But in reality, at these festivals I mostly saw my own movie, Between Us, over and over again. And I went to parties. And ate a lot of finger food. Then when I’d come home, if I saw a movie at all, it was with my kids. Since I’m not in any Hollywood guild (I get dental coverage through my wife’s job, so why join the WGA?), I don’t get self-pirated screeners from the studios, and I’m not savvy enough to figure out BitTorrent. I rarely make it to a grown-up movie outside of a festival, and my local multiplex doesn’t have many awards-contenders even in the best of times. But they do have free parking. Consequently, my list is a bit weird.
Last year, I met the guys from the company that invented the robotic systen Alfonso Cuaron used to film much of the movie, so I’d heard about the movie early. I normally hate 3D films (those damn glasses hurt my nose), but for Gravity it made sense. It was undoubtedly a damn hard movie to make, but Cuaron pulled it off with style and substance to back it up.
Just saw it and I think it also lives up to most of the hype. Great acting, especially from Amy Adams. The only things missing from her performance are an Oscar and a bra. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence also were terrific, but I found Christian Bale to be weirdly miscast (a fat, bald New York Jew? No amount of makeup, combover and cronut binging did the trick for me). The story is a bit of a mess, and as a student of Congressional scandals, it was dissappointing that it didn’t hew to the real story of ABSCAM more. But moment-to-moment, it was everything you want in a movie.
Winner of the Slamdance Grand Jury Prize in January, Kevin Smith picked up the film for his proto-distribution label. As a co-founder of Slamdance and MC for many of the Q&As, I do actually see a few films there, and this was one. A brutally funny and jaw-droppingly honest and heart-breaking look at school shootings, Matt Johnson’s The Dirties shows that occasionally you really can make an indie film about self-referential young filmmakers that is actually ABOUT something. The fact that more critics either ignored this movie or never saw it all shows how screwed up the studio-publicist-critical-industrial complex really is.
If I don’t include my own film on my ten-best list, how can I expect other people to? An adaptation of an Off-Broadway play, Between Us is an intense drama about two couples yelling and throwing things at each other. Starring Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour, I’d stack their performances up against those in American Hustle any day (Stiles actually shot her role as J-Law’s sister in Silver Linings Playbook after we shot Between Us. Damn you, David O. Russell, you’ve lapped me!). Harbour won the Best Actor prize at the Woods Hole Festival, and Between Us won the Grand Jury Prize at the Bahamas International Film Fest. All together, the film played at 23 fests in 7 countries, and had a theatrical release in over 50 cities this year. Seen with an audience, the film works beautifully – as a director it’s truly gratifying to see audiences laugh, cry and shriek in all the right places. Not a perfect movie for sure, and definitely not for everyone, but I’m quite proud of myself and my team for pulling it together. (Available now on VOD, DVD, iTunes, Starz and Showtime) And if you want to see Julia Stiles in something funnier, then check her out in It’s a Disaster – essentially our sister-film since it also had half the same crew.
I was on the jury at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and we unanimously gave this Cuban film our Grand Jury Prize. First-time director Carlos Lechuga pulls together a unique story of an impoverished couple in a rural town that could take place anywhere in the globe, but happens to be in Cuba. Perhaps bit of a “European pacing” for everyone’s taste, but it’s deservedly won countless film fests around the world.
Ecuador’s official submission to the Oscars this year, I saw this at the Gijon Film Festival in Spain last November. It enjoyed a successful theatrical release in Ecuador this year, so I think that counts for 2013. (What? You didn’t see your top ten films in Ecuador this year?) Javier Andrade directed this compelling family crime drama with a stellar cast of known Ecuadoran actors and non-actors. A graduate of Columbia Film School, Andrade brings a New York indie sensibility to the production (including shooting on RED cameras with still Nikon lenses, for all you film geeks out there). But he pulls off what few American indie filmmakers can’t or don’t do well, and that’s to put the film into a socio-political context that elevates it to world cinema levels. Though it already got cut from the Academy’s short list of foreign language films this year, it’s an honor just to be eligible!
A fantastic German film that I saw last year at the Oldenburg Film Festival (where my own film was premiering). First time director Jan-Ole Gerster crafted a beautiful black-and-white movie about a day in the life of a slacker wandering around Berlin. Even more than The Porcelain Horse, it wears its New York indie film influences on its sleeve. It’s like a Woody Allen meets Matthew Harrison movie, but as with the Ecuadoran film, it packs an emotional punch with a uniquely German political subtext. The film was the David to “Cloud Atlas’s” Goliath at the German Lolas (equivalent of the Oscars) cleaning up all the big categories, and just won another big prize at the European Film Awards. It had a successful theatrical release in Europe, but not sure it’s hit the US yet.
This is one of two popcorn films that were perfect to see with my 14-year-old daughter. I’m a sucker for magic (I always preferred Bill Bixby in “The Magician” to his role as “The Incredible Hulk”) as well as for Usual Suspects-style endings. Louis Leterrier did a great job with the film and Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg have never been better. Holding his own, Dave Franco proved to be more than just a useful clone of brother James when the latter’s too busy or tired to show up for a movie. The raison d’etre for the ending isn’t perfect, but I would still vote for a sequel. And my daughter came up with the perfect title: Now You Don’t.
Another really great father-daughter film, and a nice addition to the Channing Tatum oevre. Most reviews neglected that the film’s hero really is Joey King as Tatum’s White House-trivia spouting daughter. Marketed as an action comedy, the movie’s greatest strength was really as a tween empowerment film. I’m probably one of the few who saw both White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, and the former is definitely better. But if a studio exec ever tells you you can open a movie three months after a similar movie comes out, throw a toaster at his head and edit your movie faster.
When it came to films I saw this year with my 10-year-old son, Star Trek Into Darkness beat out Iron Man 3. Knowing in advance that the plot had something to do with Wrath of Khan, we did our homework two months in advance of the release: We watched episodes of the original series, “The Next Generation,” and the first JJ Abrams movie, visited the sound stage on the Paramount lot where they filmed the original series, acquired several plastic Enterprise models, and started following Leonard Nimoy on Twitter. So by the time we saw Into Darkness, we had plenty vested in it, and it didn’t disappoint…much. Though not as groundbreaking as JJ’s first reboot, it should keeps us going until the next Star Wars.
In this new bizarro world of VOD releases, for many independent films, the festival circuit has become their de facto theatrical release. Consequently, the “year of eligibility” can in reality stretch over two years. So in case they don’t quite get theatrical releases in your home town, here are two other films of note that I saw on the fest circuit this year:
James Duff’s debut feature won the Audience Prize at Slamdance last year, and it’s continued its festival adventures, just winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Napa Valley Film Fest (yes, I was on the jury there, too). It’s a very sweet, creative movie that hits a uniquely uncynical romantic note. The fact that fellow Husker Jim had been my 2nd Assistant Director on my first film Omaha (The Movie) 20 years ago has very little to do with his current success. (Oh, and did I mention that we just debuted Omaha (The Movie) digitally on Amazon Instant after being buried in my garage for the last decade?)
This hilarious indie romantic comedy is a really fun ode to Austin hedonism, and to Air Sex competitions in particular. Air Sex? Think air guitar, but naughtier. A fantastic ensemble of young actors (at Napa Valley we gave it the Best Ensemble prize), and director Bryan Poyser’s sure-handed editorial approach elevate this movie to what should by all rights be a college cult classic. I know they’re planning on doing some sort of college tour with the film this spring, so keep an eye out for it.
Lists from other friends of Paste:
Director Lynn Shelton
Director Megan Griffiths
Producer Natasha Giliberti
Author Kayli Stollak
Actor Josh Radnor
Author Anna Goldfarb
Director Paul Rachman
Director Karin Hayes
Producer Anne Hubbell
Director Stacie Passon
Actor Sophia Takal
Actor Beth Grant
Actor Tallie Medel
Director Adam Leon