At the very beginning of last year, I would never have expected 2013 to be a better year for movies than 2012 was for me. It helps that many of my favorite or otherwise more recognized directors released films in 2012; going into 2013, I was looking forward to the Coen brothers' latest and pretty much nothing else.
So naturally critics far and wide have unanimously declared 2013 the best year for film in recent memory. My wallet sure felt the unexpected impact of this year of cinematic riches; even though I still managed to miss (sometimes intentionally *coughNebraskacough*) some of the most lauded movies of the year, I managed to squeeze in 23 films from countries near and far—by comparison, last year I managed only 15. There were some truly excellent films among this year's crop, though I would hesitate to call many of them favorites. Still, in an age when journalists bewail the death of cinema on a regular basis, it's easy to get behind the year's many great achievements in film. I can think of at least three movies from 2013 that are destined to be remembered for decades to come as landmarks in the history of film. Considering how most years are lucky to boast even one such film, I'd say we have nothing to complain about.
A final note about my choices: even the worst movies I saw this year were better than the worst movies I saw last year. You may find yourself going "WHAT? how could you include x over y??!!" and that's fine by me—just know that many of the films that didn't make my top 10 were still really, really good by any standard, but just didn't connect with me the same way my top picks did.
Now without further ado, I present the Top 10 Films of 2013 (according to me, and based on the admittedly still-pretty-small sample size of movies I actually got to see):
HONORABLE MENTION: The Past
The latest from Iranian writer–director Asghar Farhadi, the mastermind behind the Oscar-winning A Separation (which you all need to go watch, by the way) is exhausting and not nearly as coherent as his previous work—I saw it as essentially two films welded together at an awkward spot at the end of the second act, and while I enjoyed both parts, I was confounded as to how to resolve their stylistic differences. Farhadi starts out by taking his time in depicting a fractured family fraying at the seams, then suddenly shifts into overdrive for a whodunit-style mystery. Both parts of the film are well done, the plotting is impeccable (Farhadi is a master at dropping clues in plain sight without making them obvious), and the acting is great throughout, but the end product just didn't gel for me. That, and Berenice Bejo's character nearly gave the film the kiss of death when she lashed out at her daughter near the end. Even though this is a case of "nobody's wrong, nobody's right," it still irked me how little the heroine seemed to care for her kids throughout the film, even knowing just how much hardship she's had to put up with herself.
10. The Grandmaster (Pleasant Surprise Award 2013)
I feel almost—almost—embarrassed that this makes the cut over The Past, but what can you do. Wong Kar-Wai's take on a martial arts flick is about the furthest thing from a martial arts flick you can get. No thanks to Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein's insistence on excising 30 minutes from the original cut of the film, the version of The Grandmaster I saw cannot pride itself on having a coherent or even well-written story. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, the lukewarm reception I knew the movie had received before I saw it, I was wowed by what it had to offer: a spectacularly-shot, incredibly well-designed period tone poem about the legend/history of Ip Man. This is no Hero (and there aren't nearly enough fight scenes here to compare), but to the director's credit, I don't think that's what the film is aiming for in the first place.
Wadjda isn't just a historic film (it's the first movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and by a female director no less), it's a plain old good film. Given the constraints director Haifaa al-Mansour was under during shooting, Wadjda is made well enough that you can hardly tell that most of it was shot with the camera crew operating out of sight in moving vehicles. al-Mansour also has some very pointed commentary about Islam and the Saudi regime to bring to bear, and the film bristles with political and feminist sentiment while still concluding on a satisfying, if bittersweet, note.
After catching my attention with 2011's environmental horror movie Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols delivers with this heartfelt, Southern-fried coming-of-age-story. Matthew McConaughey may be the face of the film, but Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) is its heart and soul, one of the many great child actors in the movies this year (see also: Wadjda, The Past, Lore). Nichols knows how to write a script, but if there's one fault I'm going to call him out on it's his tendency to streeeeeeetch things out longer than they need to go. The ending is good—really good—when you get to it, but man does it take forever to get there.
To say, as I'm sure some critic somewhere has, that Cate Shortland's tale of German children whose lives are thrown into turmoil after the death of the Führer they've been raised to adore is Malickian would be a slight to her directorial vision. Like Terrence Malick, Shortland has a knack for minimal dialogue and copious nature shots, yet the combo familiar to the former's films is used to vastly different effect here. Shortland isn't out to create a meditative tableau of life so much as to get under your skin. Lore is at times uncomfortable viewing, but that's exactly the point: by unsettling the viewer, Shortland is actually helping us to emphasize with characters whose sympathy for Hitler is totally alien for modern audiences.
Love it or hate it, Gravity is unquestionably going to go down in history as one of the great achievements in cinema. Alfonso Cuarón's vision was unmatched by that of any other director I saw this year, and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography was nothing short of knock-you-dead amazing. The opening fifteen minutes, an eerie single take that refuses to cut or let the audience breathe, manages to show off while still feeling totally natural; the camera moves organically with the action, and the long take implicates the viewer in Cuarón's world while simultaneously announcing the technical mastery to which you're bearing witness. The plot, or lack thereof, remains the single biggest point of contention for me about this film, but I think it's to the filmmakers' credit that the movie doesn't cave in. Clocking in (astoundingly ) at just under an hour and a half, Gravity doesn't overstay its welcome, releasing the audience back out into the world at just the right moment: while we're still catching our breath and feeling as jelly-legged like Sandra Bullock as she emerges from the ocean in a triumphant Dutch angle to end all Dutch angles.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers are just really good at making movies, you guys. Inside Llewyn Davis may be hard to warm up to, but it's an impeccable piece of filmmaking all around. From the beautiful cinematography that matches its protagonist's mood to the spot-on choice of music, every aspect of the film works together in near-perfect harmony. Oscar Isaac deserves all the plaudits to be plauded (...I realize that's not a real thing people say but whatever) for both his performance and his singing (who knew?). The segment with John Goodman was admittedly a head-scratcher for me that ended up knocking the film down a few notches, but nevertheless this is another worthy entry in the Coen bros. canon.
4. Before Midnight
Fact: I disagreed with nearly everything Jesse and Celine (/Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and Richard Linklater) had to say about marriage in the third installment of the Before series. Fact: I loved it anyway. Probably because the first two movies, which I saw in the week leading up to this one instead of the 18 years preceding it as the original fans of the trilogy had to, didn't do as much for me (save the excellent final scene of Before Sunset), I loved the climactic fight scene that caps off Before Midnight, an intense half hour of mud slinging that makes you reevaluate your previously-formed alliances (before this one, I had always sympathized more with Celine; not so after the tables are turned and Jesse's previously borderline-obsession with Celine turns out as something more like actual love after all). Before Midnight engages with a topical issue with an almost unusual amount of intelligence and wit for an American film, and even though I felt like picking a fight with the characters over some of their opinions myself, I walked out of the theater with an odd appreciation for a film that made the effort to provoke its audience rather than treat it like a mindless vegetable patch.
Thank God for Spike Jonze to keep Hollywood interesting. In his first attempt at screenwriting (Jonze usually partners with the equally-batty Charlie Kaufman), Jonze hits a home run—perhaps even a grand slam. A funny, touching, unnerving, bizarre movie about love, friendship, technology, and the intersection of the three, Her is a fabulous work of writing and filmmaking. Jonze's vision of the not-too-distant future is fully realized and full of believable quirks (it's not going to nab an Oscar for production design, which is a shame because the sets here are wonderful). Joaquin Phoenix plays both the everyman and the social outcast with aplomb, and Scarlett Johansson's voice work as Samantha is surprisingly deep. Her hits all the right notes, making the audience confront emotional highs and lows without ever tipping over into soul-crushing territory.
2. Stories We Tell
As some of you will be able to tell, it speaks volumes that a documentary managed to place so high on my list. Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell was one of two works of non-fiction filmmaking that grabbed headlines this year (the other being Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, which regrettably I was unable to see) by deconstructing the documentary genre. What starts as an ostensible Sherlock Holmesian investigation of Polley's family history slowly morphs into something entirely different; though by the end of the film, you realize that perhaps Polley had been up to this particular game to begin with. It's difficult to talk about Stories We Tell without giving away what makes it great, so you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that Polley's experimentations with genre and the boundaries of truth and fiction make for one of the most unique and strangely satisfying filmgoing experiences you're likely to have all year. (For the most unique and strangely unsettling filmgoing experience you're likely to have your entire life, The Act of Killing, so I'm told, comes out on top.)
1. 12 Years a Slave
Sorry to disappoint those of you who were hoping I'd diverge from what 458 critics have already declared as the best film of 2013, but I would be lying if I tried to tell you that any other film hit me harder and stuck with me longer than Steve McQueen's artfully brutal adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir. For the record, 12 Years a Slave started the year off my radar entirely; while certain circles of the internet were chattering excitedly in February about McQueen's latest, I was anticipating 12 Years a Slave to be a near-unwatchable exercise in audience torture not unlike McQueen's previous effort, the much-maligned Shame (full disclosure: I have not seen Shame, nor am I particularly eager to rush out and see it) (it is written by the woman responsible for The Iron Lady, so...). What I got instead was a near-unwatchable exercise in audience enlightenment with more soul than I ever could have expected. Thanks primarily to the grace of Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave rises above the trappings of the east European torture cinema to which McQueen is clearly indebted. Beyond the unforgettable lead performance, the film is buoyed by an incredible ensemble cast—Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Adepero Oduye are collectively excellent enough to make up for the weaker performances of Paul Dano and Brad Pitt. 12 Years a Slave is on a whole new level of horrifying, yet what makes it so utterly remarkable is how it gives the viewer a tether of hope, however thin it may be, to endure to the end of Solomon's journey. More importantly, Ejiofer's heartbreaking performance never lets you forget the real people behind those portrayed onscreen. Best Picture recognition or no, thanks to McQueen's extraordinary craftsmanship and his actors' commitment to their roles, 12 Years a Slave will not soon be forgotten.
The ones that got away (don't worry, I'll get to them eventually): The Great Beauty; The Wolf of Wall Street; Blue is the Warmest Color; Short Term 12; The Act of Killing; pretty much all the year's big blockbusters (well, maybe I'll skip out on most of those)
The best films I saw this year from other years: Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Casablanca (1942), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Tokyo Story (1953)