My Top Picks of 2013 - The Best Festival Indies of the Year

As 2013 comes to a close, it's time to take stock of the year in cinema and post the requisite "Best of" list. However, this one won't look like any other you may see. And for good reason. Rules, disclaimers, and those good reasons follow for those who are as passionate about the subject as I am.

My world revolves around independent films and festivals so this list includes only indies which I saw at festivals for the first time in 2013. I specify "first time" because there are several which I saw in 2012 but were still on the circuit this year and saw again. Obviously I don't count those even though they may still have been among the best I saw at those particular 2013 fests.

Next, defining an independent film is something else entirely. I try to avoid including pictures produced and/or distributed by Hollywood studios or major studio specialty arms like Fox Searchlight, even though I may have seen them at festivals. However, in some cases there are truly independent films which were acquired for distribution just prior to, during, or after the festival in which I saw it. In those cases I simply use my best judgment.

It follows from the above that while many of these do not yet have distribution (and, perhaps, never will) there are some which have already been released in theaters. So you may see some of these films on other critics' lists. But you'll find that this list can be quite different from others because most critics use date of theatrical distribution as a rule. Therefore, you may see some being nominated and winning awards now which were actually on my list last year because they weren't released until this year. It's not uncommon. This year is a perfect example. I saw The Hunt at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and placed it on my Top 10 from that fest. One year ago, at the end of 2012, I named it one of my Top 5 Foreign Language Films of the Year. It was released earlier this year and is now winning awards and showing up on many Best of 2013 lists. So you won't see it here because I picked it a year ago.

There are many instances of this situation in previous years. Submarine was on many 2011 year-end critics' lists and won a slew of awards that year. It played dozens of film fests and hit theaters in June 2011. But it was on my list in 2010 because I saw it, and selected it as a Top Pick, after its World Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Alpha Dog, which I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, made my year-end list in 2006 but it wasn't released until January 2007. Fierce People debuted at Tribeca in April 2005 and had a small release in theaters in September 2007, but most didn't see it until it finally came out on DVD in February 2008, almost four years after it was shot. I attended the World Premiere of Cook County at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival and it opened Christmas season 2011, over three and a half years later. But perhaps no film will ever surpass All the Boys Love Mandy Lane in this category. I attended the World Premiere at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, placed it on that fest's Top Picks, and then on my year-end Best of 2006 list. But it took over seven years for the film to finally get a proper theatrical release, just a couple of months ago. There are quite a few movies that come to the attention of other critics long after they've debuted at festivals which had been on my Top Picks in the years I first saw them. So my lists are often quite ahead of the curve.

While I do choose a list of Top Picks for each individual event I attend, taking a list from one and comparing it to another is like apples and oranges. First, the quantity of films at each one is different. I saw a whopping 69 features this year at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival but just 26 at Sundance. Since my favorites list for each festival is based on how many I saw, my Sundance Top Picks has only eight films on it, but I named 25 Top Picks from Fort Lauderdale. Second, the quality of the lineup can vary greatly from one to another. For example, my #1 Top Pick from one festival might not even make a list of Top 10 Picks from the next. So to then compile some sort of grand list becomes quite difficult. At first glance it would seem to make the most sense to slice off the cream of the crop for each festival to come up with an overall list of Top Picks. But, alas, some simply fall short when compared to others. I'll leave it to the reader to do some research and read between the lines.

So those are my criteria. Now my job is to tally up all my 2013 film festival Top Picks and see what stood out. But forcing an artificial limit of 10 begs the question -- why 10? Looking back, I posted a Top 20 at the end of 2006. In 2007, I attended 11 festivals, saw 200 films, and narrowed that down to 25. In 2008, I attended 10 and saw about 150. I did manage to choose 10 but only with great difficulty. (I'm still not sure why I didn't just do what I did the year before -- maybe it was just a bad year overall.) In 2009 I went to nine festivals and saw around 125 films. I thought the smartest thing to do was to go back to my 2008 criteria and simply pick the ones with the biggest "wow" factor, so I chose 16. I did the same in 2010. I was able to come up with a meaningful Top 10 without much difficulty in 2011. Then again, I did also name 10 Honorable Mentions. I also named five I liked but had "limited audience appeal" (like rock docs). Oh, and I singled out four others for good measure. Okay, so I guess it really ended up being a Top 29 list. Last year I separated my favorites into Narratives (15), Foreign Language (five), and Documentary Features (four), for a total of 24. I threw in eight Honorable Mentions for good measure. It was a big list but I'd seen over 200 films at 10 festivals in 2012, including a cumulative 70 Top Picks.

So do I try to chop them down to 10 as I've been trying (and failing) to do for the past seven years? Or do I do what I've always ended up doing and just go with my gut? It's a dilemma -- and I'm not alone. Even such esteemed critics as The New York Times' A.O. Scott has not limited his Ten Best list to ten. Several years ago he chose 19 titles for the same reason. This year I attended seven festivals. I saw approximately 220 films in total (vs. 200 last year) and selected 82 collectively (vs. 70 last year) as Top Picks. This was based on my guidelines of about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total per fest. So this list will come from that pool of favorites. There's no doubt in my mind that this year's overall crop of movies was at least as fine as in 2012. So here's my decision for 2013...

I don't always list narrative features and documentaries separately, nor domestic vs. foreign, but this year's breakdown of titles was similar to last in terms of the number of narratives vs. documentaries as well as English vs. foreign language films. This year there were 19 docs among my Top Picks (vs. 11 last year) -- and many were exceptional, so I've chosen the seven that stood out the most. In addition, while English-speaking films are the ones which traditionally get released and are seen by North American audiences, I always try to see as many "foreign films" as possible -- particularly subtitled ones (as opposed to "foreign" films from English-speaking countries). In the vernacular of the Academy and many critics' groups, these would be known as "Foreign Language Films." Last year was the first time I considered those in a separate category, and with 20 foreign language titles among my pool of 82 favorites (vs. 15 of 70 last year), I'll single out seven that deserve special recognition. That leaves everything else -- English language narratives -- which includes 43 eligible films (vs. 44 last year). Of those, I've selected 15. Therefore, this will be a year-end Top 29.

I've also included a list of "Honorable Mentions." These include titles that came very close to making my list but had to be set aside for various reasons (explained below).

Here are my Top Picks of 2013 (countries of origin in parentheses).

Top 15 English Language Narratives (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):

Adore (Australia, France)

August: Osage County (US)

Before Midnight (US)

Coldwater (US)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (US)

Evil Dead (US)

Imagine (Poland, Portugal, France, UK)

Joe (US)

The Kings of Summer (US)

Lonely Boy (US)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (UK, South Africa)

Mud (US)

Oculus (US)

Walking with the Enemy (US)

The Way, Way Back (US)


Top 7 Foreign Language Narratives (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):

Concrete Night (Betoniyö) (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Russia)

Moebius (South Korea)

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (Hungary, Germany, Austria, France)

Nothing Bad Can Happen (Germany)

The Rocket (Australia)

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (Japan)


Top 7 Documentaries (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):

Artifact (US)

Broadway Idiot (US)

Downloaded (US)

Medora (US)

Lion Ark (Bolivia, US, UK)

Sound City (US)

Twenty Feet from Stardom (US)


I would also like to acknowledge the following films, some whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which I believe deserve recognition nonetheless. There are also several movies that were shown at film festivals but produced and/or distributed by Hollywood studios (as opposed to being acquired post-festival by studio indie arms) which were among my favorites from their respective festivals. Also included are films that were "on the bubble." Keep in mind that just because a film is an Honorable Mention shouldn't take away from the fact that I loved it. Remember, I saw dozens of pictures which you don't see listed in this article at all, including many that I selected as Top Picks from their respective festivals.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):

ENGLISH LANGUAGE NARRATIVES

American Milkshake (US)
Patrick (Australia)
Philomena (UK)
Plus One (US)
Prisoners (US)

FOREIGN LANGUAGE NARRATIVES

7 Boxes (Paraguay)
Borgman (Netherlands)
Eastern Boys (France)
Little One (South Africa)
Maruyama, The Middle Schooler (Japan)
R100 (Japan)

DOCUMENTARIES

16 Acres (US)
Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors (US)
extraordinary: the stan romanek story (US)

Some of these films have already played theaters and come out on VOD, DVD, or are awaiting home video release, others are playing now or will be soon, and the rest don't yet have distribution in the States or overseas or both. But all are worth your time. Try to see them if you can -- I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
 



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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