In picking his top 20 of 2013, our VOD columnist favors small over big — with a few eye-popping exceptions.
Like any of the countless lists that pop up at year’s end, the following rundown of the best movies released to video on demand in 2013 is unavoidably subjective. Therefore, let me start my VOD Top 20 by giving some sense of where I’m coming from as a critic — one who likes Scorsese more than Spielberg, Cukor more than Capra, and Godard most of all.
Among recent movies about love, I adore Richard Linklater’s alternately delicate and lacerating “Before Midnight,” whereas I have only a slight crush on Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy “The Great Gatsby.” Horror-wise, “The Conjuring” doesn’t spook me in the slightest, but the witty home invasion shocker “You’re Next” totally freaks me out (and tickles my funny bone, too).
Although “John Dies at the End” grossed only a pittance compared with “Iron Man 3,” it strikes me as the stronger comic-book action-comedy by far, what with its gonzo tale of college dropouts investigating an extraterrestrial invasion while tripping on soy sauce.
As far as vulgar portraits of American depravity are concerned, I left Michael Bay’s aptly titled “Pain & Gain” feeling far more of the former, while Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” sent me reeling with its hallucinatory images and corrosive performance by James Franco as a predatory sleazeball.
In other words, notwithstanding my scorching love of “The Heat” with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, this list favors the small movie over the big one, the lesser-seen experiment over the pre-fab blockbuster.
Still, not counting “The Heat” and “Before Midnight,” both talky in the best of ways, my half-dozen favorite streamables are not unlike “Gravity” — spectacularly immersive aural and visual knockouts that, in HD and surround sound, do any home theater proud.
Set against the backdrop of irresistible tunes by the likes of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, writer-director Xavier Dolan’s “Laurence Anyways” charts a straight woman’s tempestuous relationship with a male-to-female transsexual (Melvil Poupaud) whose splendiferous array of scarves, shades, blouses, coats and pantsuits pop the eyes.
To its credit, Dolan’s epic melodrama owes a huge stylistic debt to director Wong Kar-wai, who outdid himself this year with his kung fu stunner “The Grandmaster,” a film in which even the slow motion of water droplets appears perfectly choreographed.
“The Grandmaster” sits at the tippy-top of my year-end list along with “Upstream Color” and “Leviathan,” all three possessing the rare power to alter one’s brain and body chemistry; if these weren’t movies, they’d be illegal.
Shot entirely aboard a fishing trawler, “Leviathan” seems to put all of documentary cinema under the influence with sounds and images that register as real, but more so.
As for “Upstream Color,” directed by the fearsomely brilliant Shane Carruth (“Primer”), it’s a love story whose main character is a parasite. Honestly, that’s all I know about it, other than that, for the two hours it ran, the film got fully under my skin, leaving me with the feeling of having been turned inside out. For me, there’s no clearer mark of a great movie.
The rest of the top 20
In alphabetical order: “Adore,” “The Canyons,” “Computer Chess,” “Escape From Tomorrow,” “Magic Magic,” “Moon Man,” “Nancy, Please,” “Passion,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Sparrows Dance,” and “Una Noche.”
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.