The best movies you may not have seen – These alternative film gems from 2013 are worth tracking down

"Frances Ha" IFC Films photo
“Frances Ha”
IFC Films photo

End-of-Year Lists in Film get a bit redundant after the 10th or so. The consensus is formed — and rightly so: “Gravity” was awe-inspiring amazing. Woody Allen finally made a good film again with “Blue Jasmine.” “Before Midnight” completed the excellent trilogy. “12 Years a Slave” is probably going to win everything, deservedly so. “Dallas Buyers Club” will also pick up awards for its two strong leads. And then there are the ones that have just opened (“Inside Llewlyn Davis”) or are about to open (“American Hustle”), but most of us aren’t film-festival hoppers who saw these in Toronto or Cannes.

So here’s a list of the unsung, the little seen, the ones that passed us by, the streaming-only, and the ones you need to seek out, in no particular order … plus a few guilty pleasures. (Caveat: not everything has a copyright stamp of 2013 on it, but this year is when they became available)

"The Grandmaster" The Weinstein Company photo
“The Grandmaster”
The Weinstein Company photo
"The World's End" Focus Features photo
“The World’s End”
Focus Features photo
“Upstream Color”

Fans of the excellent 2004, no-budget “Primer” maybe thought director Shane Carruth had given up but no, he was just writing, directing, producing, shooting, composing music, editing, and acting the main role in “Upstream Color,” an abstract adventure of a couple meeting not so cute over a shared, insect-like organism living in their bodies and affecting their minds. Or something like that. Yet, inside this weird plot is a very warm film about togetherness, like talking to Terrance Malick after a few tabs of acid.

“Frances Ha”

Noah Baumbach’s snappy, hilarious, and heartfelt comedy is the star turn Greta Gerwig’s been looking for (she helped write it). While it shares certain actors with HBO’s “Girls,” it’s less affected and cynical. On repeated viewings (this critic has had a few), the script only gets better and better, and will put a well-deserved smile on your face.

“Spring Breakers”

Unfairly dismissed as jiggle porn from Harmony Korine, and sold as such by marketers, instead this film turned out to be a hypnotic, headtrip closer to the films of Gaspar Noé. Mr. Korine’s tale of four college girls who head to Florida with dreams of MTV excess set about shattering and confounding not just their expectations, but the audience’s. And James Franco ate up the second half of the film with his metallic teeth.

“Berberian Sound Studio”

Peter Strickland’s film, along with the similarly nostalgic “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” is something of a new sub-genre: hauntological mood films. Neither progress much in the way of plot, but they offer us a mind-melt of sounds and visions, like the dreams we had as teens after watching something “out there” on late night television. Expect more of these films in 2014.

“The Grandmaster”

Even though it was shorn of 30 minutes by The Weinstein Company — who surely knows better than we mere plebes— Wong Kar-wai’s biography of Wing Chun master (and Bruce Lee’s teacher) Ip Man is probably the best of this popular Chinese historical figure’s tales. Actors from Donny Yen, Dennis To and Anthony Wong have played him, but Tony Leung is the best. The film is nothing but sumptuous, much like his more romantic films. Call it “In the Mood for Punches.”

“Room 237”

This amazing doc explored the effect “The Shining” — Stanley Kubrick’s film, not Stephen King’s original novel — has on people. It’s just one of those films — and Kubrick was one of those filmmakers — that exists as a sort of open text, inviting conspiracy theories of the looniest but very compelling kind. Rodney Ascher gave nine theorists center stage, illustrating their points, and wisely never letting us see their faces. I didn’t believe a word of it, but that’s the point — the film retains its aura of mystery.

“The World’s End”

Edgar Wright’s conclusion to the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” (along with “Shawn of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) roundly satisfied and satirized the whole idea, “you can’t go home again”… unless of course the apocalypse happens.

“The Conjuring”

Think of James Wan’s exorcist tale as spaghetti and meatballs. Very basic ingredients you’ve seen many, many times before, but man, this was one of the best plates of spaghetti and meatballs you’ve had in many a year. Scary, dreadful (in the old sense of the world), and playful, it did just what it said it would do. Mr. Wan is a craftsman, no doubt.

“The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s doc is unlike anything you’ve seen: giving war criminals in Indonesia a chance to recreate their crimes in any genre they wish, using special effects for the violence. As audacious as anything out there, the film acts as a springboard for endless ideas in the viewer, and stays with you for a long time.

Others to check out: “Resolution” (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead); “Drinking Buddies” (Joe Swanberg); “The Spectacular Now” (James Ponsoldt); “Our Nixon” (Penny Lane).

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