Top Fifteen Films of 2013

Despite my worries after a pretty darned depressing summer blockbuster season, 2013 turned out to be a pretty great year in the theater, easily the best of the past few years. Of the 104.5 films with 2013 US release dates, I would at least reservedly recommend about 70 of them, which is a staggering hit rate. Because of that, I couldn’t limit myself to a top ten for this year. Had to get the extra five (plus five honorable mentions) in there. It wouldn’t be right not to.

Honorable Mentions

Stories We Tell is a twisty documentary about Sarah Polley’s quest to find the truth of her parentage that makes some fascinating statements about the power of storytelling and how it shapes our perceptions (and is a very nice companion piece to the excellent French film In the House)

Captain Phillips is a rollicking thrill ride, masterfully played out by action tension specialist Paul Greengrass and elevates itself with Tom Hanks’ chilling and remarkable performance of its final scene.

Much Ado About Nothing is cinematic champagne. Joss Whedon’s bubbly and breezy adaptation of the Shakespeare classic is a joy to watch, especially for us silly Whedon devotees who would prefer to see Amy Acker act in in everything ever (and that Denisof chappie isn't too shabby either).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire deserves praise simply for being the only blockbuster of 2013 that gave us a wholly satisfying cinematic experience, but that would not be giving this spiritual heir to The Empire Strikes Back enough credit. The biggest surprise of the year for how shockingly great it is.

The Place Beyond the Pines is an at times messy triptych about how family can really screw you up for life. Many decry its third section, but I found it intensely satisfying. The middle segment (the one that relies the most on Bradley Cooper) is a little weak, but the grand, generational scale of this tale resonates.

Now that those are settled, let's get going for the main event.

15. In the House

The quiet French drama from director Francois Ozon is a fascinating look at storytelling, how the way we see the world can be influenced by those around us, and the lengths we go to in order to find a family when that support cannot be relied upon in our own homes. The teacher-student relationship and all of its implications is strongly presented, and the film takes some wonderful meta twists in its second half, like a sort of mini-Adaptation. A small pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

14. The Spectacular Now

Bolstered by strong, believable performances from leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now is an effective look into the lives of teenagers groping around for a connection in their formative years. It’s especially impressive in its handling of Teller's casual teenager alcoholism and the way it slowly affects Woodley, not turning it into some kind of after-school special, waving a nagging finger at Teller’s misdeeds. But it’s also not something that is endorsed in any way, but is simply a trait of the character as presented. Teller and Woodley have an effortless chemistry between them that makes you fundamentally believe their relationship is genuine.

13. All is Lost

J.C. Chandor’s 180 degree turnaround from his first film, 2011’s super talky and complex financial crisis picture Margin Call, is a spartan experiment in pure human survival. Working off a nearly wordless script of approximately 35 pages, Chandor takes his camera, puts it in front of an aging, weathered Robert Redford, and simply watches him fight for survival. The product is a stirring look at the lengths man will go to in order to withstand his greatest enemy: nature. Redford is a marvel, playing a character existing entirely in media res with no name and no back story, but retains that movie star quality that gives him a sort of unstated prowess on screen. You need a strong performance from your lead in a movie like this or there is literally no reason to make it. Luckily, Redford is up to the task.

12. Frances Ha

If I had my druthers, there would be an emergency compartment in every home that you could break in the event of a bad day, and it would immediately show you a double feature of Much Ado About Nothing and Francis Ha, Noah Baumbach's ebullient black and white indie comedy. A wonderful look at the sort of post-college intellectual malaise of Kicking and Screaming seen through the lens of a society less conducive to such liberal arts flights of fancy. Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote) is a marvel, but Mickey Sumner should not be overlooked as Frances' best friend Sophie. Their friendship is central to the momentum of the film, and it's a wonderful and not often plumbed aspect of our lives.

11. Mud

Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to the southern gothic horror classic Take Shelter may not be as good, but it’s still a wonderful look at two young boys and their reaction to Matthew McConaughey’s titular character, an outlaw on the run who’s really just looking to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend, played by Reese Witherspoon. McConaughey is getting a lot of press for Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street, but his best performance of the year can be seen here. Tye Sheridan’s performance as the lead boy, Ellis, who just wants to trust that love is a sacred emotion only to be disappointed by everyone around him, is a wonder, and one of the more memorable child acting performances we've seen in some time. The first 85% is the stuff of kings, but it falls into a few cliché pitfalls in the third act that hold it back just a tad. Mud proves that Jeff Nichols is a creative force to be reckoned with in cinema.

10. Spring Breakers

It took a second viewing for me to sync up with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, the most audaciously weird movie in a year packed full of weird movies. There is so much surface noise, from the casual nudity to the Skrillex soundtrack to the clear social commentary about the fickle nature of youth culture to the Mallickian overtones of slow motion montages set to Franco’s slow drawl of “Sprang Break foreeeeeeeevah.” But underneath that, underneath the decision to cast Disney princesses as out of control party animals, is the story of people who just want to feel a connection to something. Some of the girls get that from debauched partying, some from a disturbing predilection for gleeful and shocking violence. But the real star is Franco, whose Alien is one of the very best characters of the year. He’s subtle in his bombast, and plays his true intentions and fears expertly with sideways glances and worried stares that belie his outward actions. This may take a few tries, but it is something special.

9. The World’s End

The third installment in the Cornetto trilogy throws a lot of folks off in its first act, in part because Simon Pegg’s Gary King isn’t actually all that funny. As you realize this is intentional and make your way onto the same wavelength on which Pegg and Edgar Wright (and Nick Frost and the rest of the cast) are operating, you discover a film that may not be as overly funny as Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, but is exponentially deeper in its themes, tones and characterizations. Gary King is such a fascinating character on whom to drape a comedy, a massively depressed case of arrested development who hasn’t felt alive in 23 years and just wants to reclaim his past glory through one epic night of drinking with his old high school friends. But you can’t go home again, and Pegg and Wright make that theme literal with its science fiction elements. The World’s End may be one of the most intellectually satisfying comedies in years.

8. Like Someone in Love

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami takes his talents to Tokyo for this touching story of a young student/prostitute who has a fateful two days when she is sent on assignment for some companionship with a much older man. Told through extraordinarily long scenes (there are only about six set-ups in the entire film), it’s a wonderful meditation on love, friendship and identity. It also features what could easily be considered the best scene of the year, a heartbreakingly lonely cab ride endured by the main character, who quietly listens to her missed voice mails from her grandmother who’s only in town for a few hours and wants to meet up with her. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the story is a satisfying, slow burn. Great, unique use of sound design during the last scene, too, which ends in a quite fascinating way.

7. The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s certifiably insane documentary about a genocidal regime in Indonesia being offered the opportunity to film reenactments of their atrocities is unlike anything you will see this year, if ever. The fact that these guys are movie fans and decide to film the scenes as tropes from gangster movies or war epics or musicals is something else. The plight of Anwar Congo and how it evolves over the course of the film is fascinating to behold, and it ends with a moment of pure, uncompromising (and utterly uncomfortable) power. This film is difficult to describe. It must only be experienced.

6. Her

Spike Jonze’s return to the feature director’s chair (and first time bringing a script he wrote entirely by himself with him) after a four year break is a thoroughly layered and personal film that is at times about the awkward nature of new relationships after a break up (and how we cope with that crushing in-between time), and at times about how technology shapes our modern world, and at times about how we demonstrate and understand love and relationships changes with both time and technology. It’s about much more than that as well, grounded by the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, who successfully sell that a man can, under the right circumstances, fall in love with a voice. The film is brought home by its wonderfully understated future, a world that is not an active dystopia or technological wonderland, but simply a plausible and slightly enhanced present. A treasure.

5. 12 Years a Slave

My most anticipated film of the year turned out to be just as good as I hoped it would be. Steve McQueen’s antebellum epic about the true story of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal as a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery is a dark and unflinching look at humanity’s capability for both casual and pointed malice toward other men. Bolstered by one of the best ensembles of the year, Chewitel Ejiofor deftly gives us a window into Northrup’s soul through those eyes and stoic stares (and that doesn't even cover Michael Fassbender or Lupita Nyong'o, who frequently light the screen on fire), while McQueen makes sure to ratchet up the tension and never betray his tone or convictions with the sort of grand sweeping melodrama that so often rears its head in slavery epics. It’s not a pleasure to watch in the slightest, but it’s powerful and profoundly affecting filmmaking. McQueen continues to ply his trade on the cutting edge of film art, and his next project will be awaited with equal fervor.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens newest film might be their strongest since No Country for Old Men, a deeply satisfying and often dizzyingly hilarious look at a folk singer trying to make it in the pre-Dylan world of the early 1960’s. T-Bone Burnett’s new songs and adaptations of classics bore into your brain and refuse to let go, but the real power comes from the performance of Oscar Isaac; Llewyn Davis is a man who is haunted by the death of his partner but refuses to let that define his interactions with the world. With striking, desaturated coloring and stark cinematography, Inside Llewyn Davis looks the part, and the script and acting make sure it feels the part as well. Often as sad as it is funny, the film is a delicate and sumptuous portrayal of the relationships that define us even after the people themselves are no longer in our lives.

3. Upstream Color

It took nine years for Shane Carruth to give us his follow-up to his debut cult time travel film Primer, and this one is a doozy. Often just as heady and narratively dense as the twists and turns of his first film, Upstream Color takes those predilections and shunts them off in a completely opposite direction, replacing the clinical nature of Primer with the emotional love story of Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), as they try to piece their lives back together after a disturbing kidnapping experience that leaves them in shambles. The narrative isn’t entirely comprehensible on one viewing, but the torrent of emotions, the dreamlike tone and the gorgeous cinematography makes for an unforgettable story of human connection in the face of an unfeeling and at times enormously unfair and mystifying world.

2. Before Midnight

The third installment of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s triptych is a more sobering affair than its two prequels, offering us a look at what a life where Jesse and Celine got married and had twins together would resemble. Much of the first half to two-thirds of the film is like a warm blanket, watching these two have a boisterous lunch with friends or walk the ruins of Athens is a treat like it always is. But the film takes a turn when it puts them in a hotel room and lets the sparks fly, as years of conflict and resentment we had never seen boils over into a prolonged, gripping and fundamentally upsetting fight that lasts for much of the third act. There was always a sense of storybook romance in the first two films, and Before Midnight shatters that by letting the real world, with all of its messy and volatile emotions, in for a spell. The fight is difficult to watch in part for how real it feels; the tension filling that room can be difficult to endure at times, but the important thing to take away is that Jesse and Celine really are two human beings trying to find their way in a difficult relationship, and that’s the sort of approach anyone can latch onto.

1. Blue is the Warmest Color

Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial epic of one woman’s journey into womanhood is the most indelible experience of a 2013 that was full of indelible cinematic experiences. Buoyed by one of the most incredible performances of the year, the story of Adele’s coming of age and sexual awakening unfurls over three hours of unflinching close-ups and breathtaking cinematography. Adele Exarchopoulos is a wonder, fully inhabiting the life of this woman who devours everything in her sight, and Lea Seydoux’s Emma is the perfect foil for her both romantically and intellectually. Those who got hung up on the extended sex scenes (really a drop in the bucket when considering the film’s length) or the stories about spats between the director and his stars are not seeing the forest for the trees. Blue is the Warmest Color is a devastating epic in the grand tradition of bigger-than-life love stories, and pretty comfortably the best film of 2013.

And there we have it. Another year in film in the books. Stay tuned for Golden Globes coverage as we shuffle our way toward Oscar season