Standard operating procedure for making year-end culture lists says to rank your ten favorite films/albums/books, but I’ve recently soured against this convention. Choosing a pre-determined number of “the best” among many great works, as all award shows do, is great entertainment but entirely arbitrary. So this time around, I decided to institute my own arbitrary yet entertaining convention of naming the best 13 films, albums, and books from 2013 I encountered last year.
This omnilist honors the fact that consuming art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t wait to watch a movie until I finish reading a book, or until I’ve listened all the way through an album. These things happen concurrently, swirling around my head and heart together like cultural stew. With that in mind, I heard, saw, and read a lot in 2013, but these are the ingredients (divided by form and alphabetized) that came together the best in 2013.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
I followed Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and ISS commander, on Twitter during his mission last year. In addition to the beautiful ISS-view photos of cities he’d frequently post, Hadfield made several short videos documenting how quotidian tasks like cutting fingernails and using the toilet are accomplished in zero gravity. Likewise, his memoir brought his life as a pilot and astronaut down to earth, describing the lessons on leadership, work, and sacrifices he’s learned both on this earth and outside of it. Entertaining, informative, and very insightful, this book shows that Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t the only Space Publicist out there.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
I heard about this book after I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. At times memoir, biography, history, and cultural commentary, Little Way documents Dreher’s struggle to come to peace with the small Louisiana hometown he fled, and his saintly sister Ruthie, a schoolteacher who happily stayed put. When Ruthie gets terminal cancer, Dreher sees how the town he couldn’t wait to leave rally around his sister and her family, leading him on his own emotionally-fraught journey home. Dreher writes honestly, lovingly, and critically of his sister while pondering the true meaning of home.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This was the first book I read in my nine-novel November marathon, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It also initiated me into the Gaiman oeuvre, something I’m keen on exploring more after reading this novel. The prose’s lean style allowed the fantastical elements of the story to interplay nicely with the more grounded parts, like the boy’s interactions with his father and the new woman in his life. I often forget how life could seem more terrifying as a child, but I forget just as often that we undervalue the strength that kids have to overcome that terror.
Unapologetic by Francis Spufford
I found this very much of a feather with N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, another whirlwind theology book I read this year. While I also enjoy the earnest, intellectual theological writings of C.S. Lewis and the like, books like this one breathe much-needed fresh air into the faith-based discourse that can often come off as stuffy and anticultural. This is a book of and for the heart. Spufford isn’t asking if we can believe the reality of God; he’s asking if we can feel it. The Message translation of the Bible set out to rewrite the scriptures in contemporary language to keep its message “current and fresh and understandable,” but I think Unapologetic does this far better.
Honorable mention films here.
12 Years A Slave
It’s hard to avoid the trap of talking about a film like this in award-season terms, judging its quality and worth by its viability as an award contender. This film is and will be an award-winner, but that descriptor in itself doesn’t say much about the tense, focused interpretation of Solomon Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Michael Fassbender’s typically immersive and impressive performance as a strident slaveowner. Two decades before the Civil War, Northup fought against the dehumanizing institution of slavery as an unwilling combatant, a Northern free man in a Southern slave’s shoes. If Abraham Lincoln became the biggest political lever of the Civil War, then Northup was the fulcrum. This film duly honors the pressure and pain Northup endured serving as the metaphorical fulcrum of the struggle against slavery’s destructive regime.
When I saw this with Jenny in Chicago this summer, we got to the showing a few minutes early and walked into the theater. The movie was already playing, which I found odd since I knew we were a bit early. But we sat down and watched what we soon figured out was the very last scene. Lightbulb: we were in the wrong screening room. We went to the correct room and watched it from the beginning, but I found this snafu altogether fitting: seeing the end of this film (and presumably of the all-time-great series) at the beginning echoed the start of the whole trilogy, which found Jesse trying to convince Celine, despite all the odds and circumstances, to take a chance on him. Kudos to Richard Linklater & Co for making this beautifully wrenching and wrenchingly beautiful series happen.
Though another (very fine) 2013 film already has this title, Gravity could have just as easily been named The Spectacular Now. For all its fireworks and heart-pounding brinksmanship and wide-eyed views of Earth and outer space, Gravity never departs from the now, the relentlessly present moment Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts are experiencing. Director Alfonso Cuarón grabs hold of us right away and says, Better hold on… and we do, barely. But the spectacle of the ensuing ninety minutes, for me, wasn’t just a nonstop roller-coaster (which it pretty much was), but a series of beautiful images like the one at top: Bullock’s capsule, accompanied by flaming space debris, catapulting toward Earth like a chariot of fire.
In a year full of thoughtful, challenging films, this one has inspired the most post-viewing contemplation. It’s a kind of Rorschach test for the digital age: when you see this story of a broken, unsocial man who is befriended by, then falls in love with, a highly intelligent and customized operating system, do you think it’s a dream or a nightmare? Does this futuristic fable portend the end of human interaction, or does it show technology’s restorative promise? That the similarities between Her‘s near-future setting and the present day are so many—the constant connection to mobile devices, the self-imposed social isolation—suggests that we don’t have to wait for the future to answer that question.
Like Someone In Love
I don’t watch horror films because I don’t want to be haunted. Little did I know that Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to Certified Copy would be as haunting as anything I’ve seen in a while. There’s nothing paranormal in this Tokyo drama, but rather a fraught, mysterious air that permeates the simple story of an elderly widower connecting with a prostitute in unexpected ways. Like This Is Martin Bonner (below), the restraint Kiaronstami shows tightens everything on screen like a vice. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. (This was released in 2012 but not in the U.S. until 2013).
Short Term 12
If Her is for the brain, then Short Term 12 is for the heart. This portrait of the staff and patrons of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teens focuses on Brie Larson’s Grace, but moves around the facility’s sphere, capturing connections between Grace and the kids, and between the kids themselves. When Grace’s own troubled past starts hijacking her attempts to guide the teens through their own crises, her tough shell starts to crack. In addition to having young actors who can actually act, this movie sympathizes with the risk opening up requires.
This Is Martin Bonner
“I’m inclined to believe that director Chad Hartigan is some kind of superman when it comes to restraint.” That was critic Jeffrey Overstreet (who has been a particularly passionate supporter of this film) on Martin Bonner, which follows a pastor and a prisoner on their interweaving paths through life. Overstreet rightly praises the film’s restraint, which other faith-based films often lack. But the faith in This Is Martin Bonner isn’t didactic or caricatured; it’s real, which means it’s messy and imperfect but infused with love. This is currently available on Netflix, so see it while you can.
House of Cards
Like any good work of art, House of Cards rewards repeated viewings. Knowing the full trajectory of the first season allowed me, when rewatching it, to see all of Frank Underwood’s gears turning as his master plan progressed. It’s also a visual feast, taking the noir aesthetic from the David Fincher-directed pilot and propelling us further into the dark underworld of politics and power-wielding. Not sure if I have Valentine’s Day plans yet, but I hope season 2 will be part of them.
Lucius EP by Lucius & Days Are Gone by Haim
(I’m cheating here by listing two separate albums in one slot: my omnilist, my rules.) Wedding receptions are pretty much the only place I full-on dance. But when listening to Lucius and Haim, I can’t help myself. How can you not move and sing along to the Michael Jackson-flavored “Falling”? Or to Lucius’ “Turn It Around”? If women-powered dance rock groups is becoming a trend, consider this guy on the bandwagon.