If you take a close enough look at the plethora of Top 10 film lists floating around this month, a pattern emerges: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, etc. All excellent films, and all worthy of year-end hosannas. But there’s a point at which the “best films of the year” start to blend together in a homogenous circle of seemingly mandatory recommendations. To offset the critical must-sees—which everyone by this point has read about ad nauseam—here is an alternative Top 10 list that compiles the most overlooked and underrated films of 2013. Whether due to niche genres or initial critical ignorance, the following films unjustly slipped under the 2013 radar (all listed alphabetically):
The Counselor: With a high-profile director (Ridley Scott) and an all-star cast (Brad Pitt! Michael Fassbender! Cameron Diaz! Javier Bardem!) it was a shock to see this crime drama fall so flat on its face with both audiences and critics. The film was so poorly received that it even snagged a “D” rating from audience-testing tool CinemaScore (the last major-release film to score that badly was 2012’s Killing Them Softly, also starring Pitt). Perhaps the fault rests with 20th Century Fox’s marketing, which positioned the film as a rat-a-tat-tat thriller, rather than the slow burn and wordy film that it is. Granted, “wordy” is not often thrown around as a compliment, but with a taut and twisty screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor practically reinvents the language of the crime-drama genre. Add Scott’s for-once restrained direction and a classic scene involving Diaz and a Ferrari, and you have the makings of an instant classic.
Escape From Tomorrow: Filmed in secret at Disney’s theme parks in Orlando, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., Randy Moore’s surreal drama could have easily coasted on its shocking production story alone. Yet Escape from Tomorrow is more than a stunt—it’s a hypnotic and darkly hilarious dissection of the nuclear family and the lengths corporations go to maintain the illusion of a brand. The picture get a little too David Lynchian in its final act—and, well, undeniably gross—but it heralds a great new talent in Moore. You will also never look at Epcot Center the same way again.
John Dies at the End: A time-looping comedy about frozen-meat monsters, amateur ghostbusters and a drug called “soy sauce,” John Dies at the End sounds like a disaster on paper. But thanks to the deft hand of director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), this adaptation of David Wong’s cult novel is a gleeful masterpiece, as absurd and fun as anything you’ll see this year or the next. That Coscarelli managed to rope in Paul Giamatti to co-star—playing a cranky journalist skeptical of all things supernatural—is icing on the Lovecraftian cake.
Much Ado About Nothing: This one is a bit of a cheat, since it made some critics’ end-of-year lists. Still, Joss Whedon’s black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation did about 1/155th as well at the box office as his previous effort (a little thing called The Avengers), so it can use all the exposure it can get. Aside from the expert pacing and delightful script—granted, that’s not totally Whedon’s doing—the director assembles a murderers’ row of actors from his previous TV projects (Firefly‘s Nathan Fillion, Angel‘s Amy Acker, Buffy‘s Alexis Denisof) and lets them make absolute fools of themselves, in the best way possible.
No One Lives: Even in a strong year for horror—see You’re Next, American Mary and Maniac—Ryûhei Kitamura’s No One Lives stood out thanks to a clever deconstruction of the genre and an intense performance from Luke Evans. The film may have been ignored by critics due to its association with the less-than-inspiring WWE brand (pro wrestler Brodus Clay has a small role), but it’s their loss. The bloody and taut thriller is a film made for the dark, and marked a comeback for Japanese director Kitamura, whose previous English-language effort was the disappointing, if excellently titled, Midnight Meat Train.
Only God Forgives: Most critics—including my colleague Brian D. Johnson, who I normally agree with on just about everything—absolutely hated the latest effort from blood bros Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, going so far as to boo it during its Cannes premiere. It’s not hard to see why. After their previous effort Drive, all synth-heavy cool and L.A. slick, bowled over so many in 2012, it was easy to expect a similar aesthetically minded trip this time around. Instead, the pair delivered an abyss of human misery (corrupt cops, rapists, one of the most terrifying mothers in cinematic history) set against the blinding neon of Bangkok. Viewed as a straight narrative, then no, it doesn’t work all that well. But if analyzed as a sort of cinematic performance art—with its lingering camera serving as a voyeur’s eye into the underbelly of, well, everything—then it’s absolutely beautiful. Terrifying, sure. But beautiful.
Pacific Rim: It’s not exactly accurate to call this robots vs. monsters epic “overlooked,” but when an action movie comes along that completely reinvents the game, and just barely cracks the $100-million mark at the domestic box office, then I think it’s fair to say something is wrong with audiences and/or their expectations (for comparison’s sake, the dreadful G.I. Joe sequel made $122-million, and that was without even trying to break a CGI sweat). Guillermo del Toro’s passion for his film and its ultra-detailed universe can be felt in every frame, yet in a summer where reboots, sequels and comic adaptations ruled, even his (vaguely) original idea couldn’t provoke much fandom. The monsters truly have won.
Pain & Gain: Michael Bay, you brilliant bastard. While it’s become easy and even fashionable to slag the Transformers director, there’s no denying he possesses a truly singular vision. It’s just that particular vision happens to be focused on excess and nothing but. Thankfully, Bay found the perfect (non-Autobots-related) tale to ground his sensibilities in this roided-out tale of the American Dream. A million extra points for casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a born-again muscle-head with a propensity for violence, the role he was born to play, forever and ever.
Prince Avalanche: After a long odyssey with Apatow crowd, director David Gordon Green returns to his low-stakes rural roots with this charming and surprisingly emotional comedy about two odd-couple road workers. Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd make drudgery look fun, which is what I imagine my pullquote on the DVD box will be.
Wrong Cops: The latest fever dream from director Quentin Dupieux is, at the very least, true to its title. Focusing on a handful of corrupt and morally repugnant L.A. police officers, the gonzo comedy is never easy to watch, but often hilarious, if only for its dedication to its own sheer weirdness. A true work of outsider art, even if it’s best appreciated very late at night.