And what's more, in 2013 you didn't have to trek to the theater to see the giant movies. Countless films that I missed screening I could just watch on iTunes or On Demand -- on the same weekend. This is how I saw things like Ryan Gosling's violent, misunderstood thriller "Only God Forgives" or the terrific documentary on George A. Romero's zombie classic, "Birth of the Living Dead."
While there were a handful of lightning rod movies that people couldn't stop talking (or writing) about, for every "12 Years a Slave" there were 12 other equally interesting movies that fell through the cracks. In the spirit of end-of-the-year completion, I offer up ten of the very best movies of the year... that you probably didn't see. Most are on home video or on demand now, or will be quite shortly.
Gallery | The 10 Best Movies You Didn't See in 2013
- 'Trance' (Danny Boyle)
It seems almost unfathomable: the arty, white-hot director of "127 Hours" and "Slumdog Millionaire" (not to mention the triumphant opening ceremonies of the London Olympics), pairs with James McAvoy for a sexy art world thriller centered around the world of hypnotism... and nobody shows up. But this is the fate that befell "Trance" this past spring. A violent, clever, occasionally quite shocking little psychosexual thriller, it costarred Vincent Cassel (as a small-time gangster who recruits McAvoy to steal a priceless painting) and Rosario Dawson (as the mysterious hypnotist tasked with retrieving McAvoy's memories) and was an absolute blast. The narrative is twisty and turny, like a neon-lit version of "Memento," and there are some genuinely jaw-dropping sequences. But the response to "Trance" was the critical and commercial equivalent of a tumbleweed blowing past. Rent it and turn your sound system all the way up.
- 'The Bling Ring' (Sofia Coppola)
People complained that Sofia Coppola's dramatization of the recent string of burglaries perpetrated by bored teenagers against members of the listless Hollywood glitterati, was too vacant and superficial. That's because it's supposed to be vacant and superficial. If it was anything more, than it would be missing the point. It's a movie told from the point of view of the trendy burglars, as if it was a movie that they themselves were making. Of course it's going to be shallower than a kiddie pool. That doesn't mean that it's not also one of the year's very best films, featuring a host of fine young actors giving A+ performances (among them Taissa Farmiga, Emma Watson, and Katie Chung) and some genuinely gorgeous cinematography, including an all-in-one-shot nighttime break-in that's reminiscent of Brian De Palma's glitzy thriller "Body Double." Coppola, it turns out, was the perfect director to tackle this material. You got the sensation that she knows both the perpetrators and the victims a little too well.
- 'Upstream Color' (Shane Carruth)
Going into last year's Sundance Film Festival, only one thing was on people's minds -- "Upstream Color," the sophomore film by Shane Carruth, the mysterious director of cult favorite time travel flick "Primer." Rumors were rampant that it was one of the features Carruth had unsuccessfully tried to rally in the years following "Primer," or a plot-less, three-hour long, meditative sci-fi experience. It turns out it was neither. The film, which costars Carruth and Amy Seimetz (whose own film, "Sun Don't Shine," should be on this list but isn't), is one part love story, one part look at the interconnectedness of living organisms, one part heist movie (involving strange larvae), and all parts weird. The movie is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and a conversation starter for an adventurous cocktail party. But also strangely relatable, at least in the way that the couple at the center of the film seems to blur into one person. If you've been in a relationship long enough, you can sympathize with the experience. What's up with those pigs, though?
- 'Sightseers' (Ben Wheatley)
Imagine if Alexander Payne had directed "Natural Born Killers" and you can kind of get a sense of what "Sightseers" is like. The work of restlessly brilliant British director Ben Wheatley (whose other 2013 mindbender "A Field in England" awaits US distribution courtesy of Drafthouse Films), the film stars and was co-written by comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. They play a couple going on the most unappealing vacation of all time -- in a rusty camper, through Britain's highlands. Along the way, they camp, sightsee and, oh yeah, murder. Saying any more would give away the gleeful, pitch-black fun. While "Sightseers" was selected for the Directors Fortnight program at Cannes and produced by British comedy kingpin Edgar Wright, it had a hard time finding its audience stateside, aided only by a small-scale release by IFC Films (it's now on home video but couldn't even get a Blu-ray). Don't wait until Wheatley's entire filmography is meticulously reappraised (which it will be, one day) -- get on the "Sightseers" bus now. It's a devilish hoot.
- 'To the Wonder' (Terrence Malick)
Everyone lost their minds over Malick's epic "Tree of Life," but "To the Wonder," a similarly obscure and poetic (but way less cosmic), look at love, is the far better film. More intimate in scale and modest in ambition, but no less powerful, the film stars Ben Affleck as a man who falls in love with a beautiful European woman (Olga Kurylenko) and who moves her (and her young daughter) to the dreary American south. The couple falls in and out of love, with Affleck taking up with a childhood flame (Rachel McAdams, who also starred in 2013's equally under-appreciated "Passion") and communing with another old friend who is now a priest (Javier Bardem). Emotionally gripping even when you can't make heads or tails of it, "To the Wonder" is full of Malick's gingerly swirling cinematography and attempts to grasp at the elusive fundamentals of humankind. It's beguiling and baffling, all at the same time. And this time: no dinosaurs.
- 'After Tiller' (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson)
A documentary about the four remaining late term abortion doctors isn't exactly going to be the kind of subject matter that's going to get asses in the seats. But "After Tiller" should be required viewing for everyone, no matter what side of the reproductive rights debate you're on. A touching, unflinching work place drama about these doctors, "After Tiller" never sentimentalizes its subject matter and never tries to make a "big point." It just shows these women and doctors as they are, and allows the viewer to make up his or her mind. While documentaries this heavy usually have the chalky taste of good-for-you medicine, this one is actually engaging as well. One of the most essential documentary films of the year.
- 'Short Term 12' (Destin Cretton)
There was only one movie that everyone at SXSW was talking about this year, and that movie was "Short Term 12." Written and directed by Destin Cretton, it's the story of a home for at-risk teens, and stars Brie Larson (in a star-making performance) and John Gallagher, Jr. as the center's eager employees and Kaitlyn Dever as a young girl admitted to the facility (much to her chagrin). "Short Term 12" is the kind of beautifully soft spoken independent drama that will make you bawl your eyes out, without ever resorting to manipulative or melodramatic tactics (no small feat). Like the kids that make it out of the program, it seems like kind of a miracle -- it's low budget and gorgeous-looking, is seemingly about an issue without ever becoming preachy, and features the kind of performances that would be showy if they weren't so nuanced and perfectly calibrated. When you watch it, you'll understand why everyone at SXSW was jumping up and down about it. It's that good.
- 'Metallica: Through the Never' (Nimrod Antal)
The year's biggest and most pleasurable surprise was "Metallica: Through the Never," a gonzo, IMAX 3D hybrid that blended ear-shredding concert footage with a mind-blowing narrative concept. The results are WTF-worthy in all the best ways. The ways that the narrative stuff (with Dane DeHaan playing a low-level lackey sent out on a mission by the band, on the eve of the apocalypse) and the concert footage melded, in surprisingly satisfying, altogether electric ways, felt like it bordered on the revolutionary. It was like a theme park ride from the bowels of hell. While the film's central mystery -- what, exactly, DeHaan was sent to retrieve -- is never answered, it's kind of beside the point. By then you'd already spent close to two hours in head banging heavy, so it was kind of hard to complain. Even those of us that know maybe a handful of Metallica tunes were satisfied; it's a bold, borderline experimental experience directed with aplomb by the chronically underrated genre filmmaker Nimrod Antal. After the movie, I kind of wanted to by a commemorative T-shirt.
- 'Prince Avalanche' (David Gordon Green)
Set in Texas after the Bastrop County fire, the film stars Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd as a pair of workers repainting the stripes in the middle of the road. They bumble around and talk about life and that's kind of it. But out of this seemingly simplistic idea (itself a remake of an Icelandic film called "Either Way") came one of the more emotionally resonant, charmingly oddball independent comedies in recent memory. Much of this has to do with the pitch perfect performances of both Hirsch and Rudd, who seize every scene as an opportunity to riff and bicker, with amazing dexterity and wit. There are little surprises along the way, too, that keep you hooked for the entire 94-minute run time, and it felt like a welcome return to the smaller, more naturalistic work of director David Gordon Green, who started out with small comedic dramas, like "All the Real Girls," before transitioning to big-budget studio fare, like "Pineapple Express." Oh, it's also freaking hilarious.
- 'The Lone Ranger' (Gore Verbinksi)
Before "The Lone Ranger" opened, it had the stigma of being a "trouble production" and a marketing roll out that tried, desperately, to convince potential audiences that it was like "Pirates of the Caribbean" on horseback, a tactic that makes even less sense looking back on it now. When the movie was finally released, critics seized on talking about its budget more than the actual, you know, movie. The result was a box office dud that wound up costing Disney almost $200 million. How similar was it to "Pirates of the Caribbean" now? Directing with a knowing-winky flair by Gore Verbinski and starring a more-than-game Johnny Depp as Tonto (the titular ranger was played by Armie Hammer), the movie was dark and weird and complex, incorporating everything from Native American genocide to the transcontinental railroad to mystic shamanism in a tale that was, ostensibly, supposed to be a feel-good summer blockbuster. The schizophrenic tone can be chalked up to its unreliable narrator (an old-age version of Tonto), and there was no tent pole that looked quite as good as "Lone Ranger." Plus, it was anchored by the most jaw-dropping action sequence of the year -- the greatest, most wittily constructed cinematic train chase of all time.