The Best Films of 2013 You May Have Missed -- You can tell it's close to the end of the year when the quality of movie releases starts to rise faster than those holiday cookies and eggnog shoot up your cholesterol level. Many times a film will squeak out a limited release just before the midnight bell on New Year's Eve so they can qualify for a shot at the potentially lucrative awards season.
Of course, there are plenty of excellent movies that don't contrive for a late year release and may get overlooked by the awards nominations as a result.
For example, director Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") delivered yet another low key masterpiece back in May of this year with "Frances Ha," the funny and moving story of a young woman struggling to find herself in the post-collegiate world in modern day Manhattan. Baumbach's sharply observed screenplay conspired with Greta Gerwig's memorable performance to create a complex, intriguing movie character that is entirely worthy of the film's title.
Gerwig shines at giving Frances enough personal confusion and vulnerability to make her more than just a character in a movie, and instead a fully formed, flesh and blood individual. The actress bravely lets her character's flaws and insecurities all hang out, allowing them to mingle with her personal charm to suggest that contriving to making her a likable figure was the furthest thought from anyone's mind.
Meanwhile, Baumbach's decision to shoot the movie in black-and-white perfectly compliments the film's preference for authenticity over romance here, and allows the film to accentuate its "fly on the wall" atmosphere with brilliant results.
Another film that succeeded at creating a "fly on the wall" atmosphere in a completely different way was "Fruitvale Station." When 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a white Rapid Transit police officer while in custody on a BART train platform in Oakland, Calif., on New Year's Eve 2008, tensions in that racially volatile city exploded.
Providing an intimate portrait of Oscar's final day of life, director Ryan Coogler appropriately adopts a documentary-like shooting style and succeeds in giving a newspaper headline an identifiable human face. Portraying Oscar Grant's day in all its ordinariness, the tension unfolds with an inescapable undercurrent of foreboding as seemingly minor daily events inevitably take on an added significance. As a result, the film slowly unfolds with the mounting tension of a well-crafted thriller.
Crucially, first-time director Coogler finds his film immensely complimented with a naturalistic performance from Michael B. Jordan that makes events all the more compelling. Just as Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach refused to ingratiate their character with their audience in "Francis Ha," Jordan similarly provides a "warts and all" portrayal of Oscar as well, and creates an undeniable level of emotional authenticity. This, along with director Coogler's objective and even-handed portrayal, makes the outrage surrounding Oscar's death that much more palpable and ultimately moving.
Meanwhile, by the time "The World's End" saw its release during the last weekend of August, it seemed the film had missed the summer blockbuster season completely, like a high school kid who turns in his term paper a day late and ends up failing the course. Which is indeed fitting, and not just because filmmakers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were probably the kind of class clowns that would not have taken their school studies very seriously.
After all, this remarkable filmmaking duo are less interested in competing with blockbusters than they are in sending them up in hilarious fashion. Their previous outings, "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," were such witty parodies of, respectively, the zombie movie and the over-the-top action blockbuster that they managed to be at least as entertaining as the films they were lampooning.
Giving away too much of the plot of "The World's End" would spoil the fun, as this filmmaking teams' preference for narrative surprises and a completely unpredictable story is again in full bloom here, making the movie a relentlessly entertaining experience. Suffice it to say that when the emotionally stunted Gary King (Simon Pegg) decides to reunite his mates from for a never-completed pub crawl from 20 years previous, the foursome have no idea what's in store for them. Describing the movie as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" meets "Monty Python's The Holy Grail" should be enough to prepare you for anything here, and even if movie ultimately ends on a note as silly as a cherished Monty Python skit, then again, what did you expect from this pair?
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.