Top Ten Films of 2013
Best of 2013: Film

If I’ve learned one thing over the last few years, it’s that the more movies I see, the more I feel the need to see. I more than doubled the amount of movies I saw in 2013, and still have dozens I’d like to take in before writing a list like this. So I’ve put it off as long as possible in an effort to see every film possible before filing this. Usually, I post my Top Films of the year on the last Friday of December, but this year, I have waited until the last possible day (I am committed to publishing the list within the year it honors, even if that leaves off some deserving films I’ve yet to see). Below you will find my Top Ten Films of 2013, along with five unranked honorable mentions, listed in alphabetical order:

Honorable Mentions:

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Director David Lowery channels Terrence Malick and finds style of his own to spare in this elegiac, gorgeous tale of fugitive Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) on a desperate quest to reconnect with his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara). Though the film confronts its characters with increasingly dangerous situations and deeply troubling issues, it is always more interested in contemplation than in the resolutions the characters arrive at. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints plays around with the old aphorism “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but reveals the bitter truth that lies beneath it: that it is always easier to love the person you imagine someone to be than the actual human in front of you on a day-to-day basis. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a captivating film, with painterly visuals so perfectly executed you could watch the movie on mute and still be moved, and a meditative story that is quietly transcendent and wonderfully even keeled.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

Though awash in controversy from the moment of its release Blue Is The Warmest Color is likely to live on as a detailed coming of age story, an intimate epic focused acutely on one young woman growing into adulthood and learning of the highs and lows of love and loss firsthand. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulous, in an astounding central performance) is a young woman learning who she is in virtually every respect. She falls in love with Emma (Lea Seydoux, equally excellent and surprisingly adept at turning something of a cipher into a living, breathing woman), and that love helps to open her eyes to the world. Director Abdellatif Kechiche has been attacked for his on set behavior, perhaps rightly, but his passion, dedication, and artistry are evident on the screen. Beautiful, heart-rending, and deeply affecting, Blue Is The Warmest Color captures an adolescence, with all its prickly particularities, in full.

Short Term 12

Brie Larson’s quietly titanic performance as Grace, a supervisor at the titular foster care facility, anchors Destin Cretton’s feature-length debut, a film of explosive interactions that succeeds because of how carefully and delicately it lays the ground work between them. The film is an exposed nerve that manages to be a story about survival in situations that often seem unlivable. Short Term 12 expertly captures the built-in routines of the group home that exist as often futile attempts to control the chaos swirling beneath the surface of each individual and thus, of the ecosystem as a whole. Featuring stellar supporting work from newcomer Keith Stanfield and alum Kaitlyn Dever (who is giving Kiernan Shipka a run for her money in the child actor department these last few years), Short Term 12 is an expertly accomplished high-wire act between the quiet moments of lived-in trauma and the intensely powerful sequences where rage and tragedy are finally unleashed.

The Spectacular Now

The most realistic, well-realized, and painstakingly developed teen romance since Say Anything…, The Spectacular Now is a stellar, quiet little gem of a movie that pulls you into its sway and dares you not to love its characters for all of their flaws. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are flat-out incredible as Sutter and Aimee, a drunken party boy and bookish dreamer who fall into each other’s orbits and begin to rub off on each other in ways both good and bad. The film is a story about being a teenager that feels general enough to make all viewers cringe with recognition, but specific enough to be a story about real people coming up against real problems and groping desperately for solutions. There is a naturalism to the performances that is absolutely captivating, with both Teller and Woodley handling a variety of complex, conflicting emotions without missing a step. The Spectacular Now is a story about incipient adulthood that is bracing in its honesty and endearing in its hardwon optimism. This is the best “teen movie” I’ve seen in years, a captivating, emotionally resonant, smart, funny, and moving look at what it means to stare the future in the face and blink, and what it takes to overcome the fear of what you might find when you open your eyes.

The World’s End

Expectations could not have been higher for the final chapter in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (following the hilarious, insightful, emotionally resonant Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), but somehow, miraculously, The World’s End did not disappoint. Simon Pegg is heartbreaking and hilarious as Gary King, a morally bankrupt addict at the end of his rope who desperately decides to reunite his high school friends for one last shot at recapturing the glory of their youth by taking on The Golden Mile, an epic drinking challenge in their home town. What they find when they return is strange, depressing, and yes, alienating, a dark, truthful, and wildly funny genre homage that becomes, like the films that preceded it, something far more than just a parody. The film is obsessed with the way modern society chips away at individuality and uniqueness in favor of forced conformity. Gary denigrates his friends for the way they have become mindless slaves to society’s expectations while he has remained free, he forces them to conform with his vision for the night despite their protestations, they visit bar after bar that has been crafted to provide some modicum of comfort and a measure of expectable semi-quality—each location is good enough, made slightly better because everyone who goes there knows exactly what they are going to get. That’s the benefit of conformity, and the danger of individuality the film so smartly exploits: conformity is safe, individuality is dangerous, possibly deadly. Those who conform may never achieve greatness, but they can expect a pleasant existence and general societal acceptance. True individuals are often iconoclasts, assholes, and obnoxious irritants in society’s ointment. That a film so dedicated to exploring individualism and consciousness does so through the lens of liquor and the way it can subsume both is just icing on the cake. The World’s End is a bold rebuke to the conformity it decries, not just in society, but in film as well—it is a brave, brutal, brilliant film about the dangers of nostalgia, making it an apt conclusion to a trilogy that wouldn’t exist without its creators’ love for the genres they grew up on.

10. Nebraska

Alexander Payne returns again and again to stories of aging white men in crisis, but Nebraska is one of his funniest, most painful, and resonant films yet. Woody (a note-perfect Bruce Dern, who wears decades of disappointment on his weathered face) is aging into senility and out of his freedom and his sense of self. Henpecked by his battle-axe of a wife Kate (June Squibb, both hilarious and heartbreaking) and overprotected by his sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, two comedic performers playing it largely straight as men who have settled into comfortable mediocrity), Woody longs to break free and to make something of himself one last time. So he clings to a sweepstakes letter that claims he is now a millionaire, and forces his son, and eventually his whole family on a road trip that takes them back to the place where Woody and Kate grew up, and where decades of history, resentment, and regret wait for them. Woody’s central quest is an act of obvious delusion, but its also a desperate grab at agency from a man who feels his control over his own life slipping away, a wounded soul whose innate kindness and ancient traumas kept him from the success he felt entitled to and now hopes to achieve through sheer force of will. Woody wants to claim what time he has left for his own, wants to leave his mark on a world that, rendered in Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s austere black and white, seems to be fading away into obsolescence before his very eyes. Some looked into Nebraska and saw only misanthropy and satire. What they missed, what some people seem to miss in each of Alexander Payne’s continuously excellent works, was the huge, beating heart. Payne is one of our most empathetic filmmakers. He doesn’t require that we love (or even like) all of his characters, but he does ensure they all resonate as real people worth respecting. In Nebraska he takes that inherent empathy and applies it to the Midwest as a whole, viewing it as a land with an ever-receding history and an uncertain future, a place (like every place) where the past never completely disappears and the future is uncertain, but maybe, just maybe, beautiful.

9. Gravity

Gravity single-handedly brought the word “spectacle” back into discussions of cinema after a lackluster summer at the movies. Director Alfonso Cuaron is a virtuoso, and along with Emmanuel Lubeski, arguably the greatest cinematographer working today, he created a roller-coaster ride of a movie like nothing else I saw at the movies this year (even including All Is Lost, a very solid film with an exceedingly similar plot and a marginally different ultimate aim). I left the theaters breathless, eyes wide and palms sweaty, a changed man in the way only great movies can accomplish. After years of attempts, Gravity was the film to finally justify the existence of 3D’s revitalization, a pulse-pounding film that, like Cuaron’s best work, uses showy techniques to bring you into the emotional core of a character. Gravity is evidence of what happens when you let the inmates run the asylum, an endlessly inventive piece of living, breathing cinema that beats with endless stylistic verve. Featuring career-best work from Sandra Bullock, who holds the screen throughout, Gravity is a film about survival and rebirth, about the beauty and the terror of being alive. It is an argument for the vitality of not just film, but the human experience as a whole, delivered with aesthetic mastery by one of our great cinematic showmen.

8. Mud

A beautifully shot, wonderfully observed Tom Sawyer riff for modern times, Mud is an examination of masculinity and extended adolescence that feels downright novelistic with its eye for detail in character, theme, and metaphor. The film follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who is excellent) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) as they help a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey, astounding at a period in his career where praise is becoming almost redundant) and learn more about love and adulthood than they bargained for in the process. The film develops full characters out of moments, and plays with motifs in a way that further confirms director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) as a voice to watch in the years to come. Mud is very smart about the way relationships work, the particular blindness we all develop toward those we love, and the way blame gets thrown around even when it is not accurately attributed. It slowly reveals itself to be playing a long, smart game in terms of gender roles as well, revealing that the women in the film appear to be unfaithful betrayers only through the willful blindness and immaturity of the men around them. Featuring compelling supporting turns from Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon, Mud is an excellent, gorgeous, moving portrait of adolescence (both actual and of the type that extends well into adulthood), first love, and the way both of those things shape the people we eventually become.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wow. The Wolf of Wall Street is the last film I saw this year, one I thankfully managed to fit in by giving myself these few extra days (and saved you all from having to read a disclaimer up top about its absence from consideration), and boy am I glad I did. The film is a three hour tour-de-force from Martin Scorsese, a visceral, primal parade through the lizard-brain antics and amoral posturing of financial criminals gleefully capitalizing on the naïve desires of their targets to get rich quick (naïve only because the victims here are the taken in a financial system that rewards only the takers with rapid windfalls). Leonardo DiCaprio turns in career-best work as Jordan Belfort, and Jonah Hill is surprisingly stellar as his even more depraved associate Donnie. Blisteringly funny as a black comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street is also a slow-moving horror-show that keeps you laughing even as the pit in your stomach grows darker, deeper, and more insistent. This is an indictment of capitalism and the twenty-first century’s catastrophic and grotesque mutation of The American Dream, a funhouse mirror of the lives we think we want and the sort of people who waltz through the world, tearing it down around them and toasting the way they dance on the razor’s edge, always a mere step ahead of the flames. It is an indisputable masterpiece by Scorsese in a career full of them, another tale of gangsters laid low by hubris and lives of excess, writ in a mythology for this century, in a tone and in a way that rings closer and closer to home. These are lives of debauchery in a system that rewards callousness and indifference. This is the America we live in because it’s the America we made, and continue to make with our daily acquiescence to the dark allure of the world Scorsese forces us into and asks us if we wouldn’t be better leaving behind.

6. The Act of Killing

A documentary that defies reality, The Act of Killing is a stomach churning, brain-curdling examination of mass murderers vaunted as heroes and viewing themselves as legends in a mold formed by the legacy of American cinema abroad. Director Joshua Oppenheimer miraculously remains anonymous as he guides his subjects through recreations of their most heinous crimes as high spectacle in a cinematic vein. As they mount their various (horror) shows, the killers casually discuss their bloody pasts and their lack of guilt about the hundreds or thousands of lives they have taken. The Act of Killing’s length allows it to become a meditation on abuses of power both personal and national, and a case study on a country and a human soul gone horribly, nightmarishly awry. The Act of Killing is the sort of film that will stick in the recesses of your mind for months after you see it, haunting you all the more because, try as you might to rationalize or escape it, this really happened, is happening, will happen again. This is the power of delusion. This is the strength of narrative and rationalization. This is humanity.

5. Before Midnight

Both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset declared themselves as bold statements in cinema, as if to say “this will be hard to top.” Yet, like Sunset before it, Before Midnight arrives with such confidence, such assertive force and comfortable amiability, it immediately makes an argument for itself as the trilogy’s crowning achievement. Director Richard Linklater, along with stars and co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, know their central duo, Jesse and Celine so well, that it feels simultaneously like no time has past since we left them and as if they have been living with one another, day in and day out, for the nine years since we left their sides. While both Hawke and Delpy are capable performers elsewhere, they inhabit Jesse and Celine like second skins—they write these characters, they live with them tucked away inside themselves, and the discourse between performance and reality is so fluid and tenuous, it is a wondrous thing to behold. Before Midnight isn’t the next chapter in a fairy tale, it is another installment in a story that is beautiful in large part because it feels real. As we travel through the idyllic Greece from a difficult goodbye to a hotel fight that rivals Godard’s Contempt for blistering honesty (and stings all the more for the weight of accumulate history we share with these characters), Before Midnight reminds us that falling in love is easy; its staying in love, and making it last, that are truly difficult, but perhaps more worthwhile for their struggles.

4. In The House

In The House is a phenomenal meta-textual dissertation on storytelling, narrative, and the way those two things shape our lives and perceptions. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is a high school literature teacher, bored and disaffected by his students’ detachment and low-quality work. Until, that is, he discovers Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a brilliant creative writer he thinks may have a chance at greatness. Things become complicated, though, when Germain learns that Claude is writing about his visits to an upper-middle class friend’s house, and about the family, and the problems, he finds there. As Germain becomes increasingly drawn into Claude’s work, it becomes hard to differentiate the real from the fictional, and increasingly unclear whether Claude is extrapolating, inventing, or simply manipulating the subjects of his work to follow along with plot suggestions Germain throws out. In The House is a beautifully wrought, suspenseful, deeply engrossing film about the way we tend to reduce others in our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we sometimes get caught up in them.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

A deep, dense, intensely detailed character study, Inside Llewyn Davis follows the titular wandering folk singer (Oscar Davis, in a star making performance if ever there was one) through a week in his life, as he crashes on couches, performs in dive bars, and struggles to be recognized for a talent only he seems aware of. Llewyn is prickly at best, a misanthropic asshole who infects all those around him on worse days, but he is a struggler, a true artist laboring to be seen in an uncaring universe. Llewyn has lived hard and continues to scrape by, pushing constantly against forces out of his control, and largely ignoring the problems he could solve himself. He fits cleanly into a traditional Coen Brothers mold alongside such characters as Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, yet he is also a creature of his own creation, a problematic man who refuses to make his life any easier on himself by improving as a person. Inside Llewyn Davis is a gorgeously somber film with the Coen’s standard black humor buried deeper than usual beneath the chilly exterior of the film’s wintry Greenwich Village. The film is beautifully melodic in structure, complemented perfectly by its astoundingly moving soundtrack. When Llewyn sings, he can open up about the hurt, disappointment, and yearning he feels in his soul. “If it’s never been new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” Llewyn tells his audience. In that way, Inside Llewyn Davis itself fits into the musical tradition, a story we’ve heard before that feels audaciously new all the same, about a man the world will never recognize who just can’t bring himself to give up, even when he thinks that’s his only recourse.

2. 12 Years a Slave

Easily the most brutal film of 2013, 12 Years a Slave is also, in passages, its most beautiful. Director Steve McQueen uses this to highlight, again and again, the film’s central dichotomy between surviving and living. Chiwitel Ejiofor gives the year’s finest leading performance as Solomon Northrup, a free man kidnapped and sold into a dozen years of slavery. Arguably the greatest film ever made about the psychological, philosophical, and physical toll of slavery, 12 Years a Slave is a ruthlessly insightful look into the world that allowed for such heinous treatment, and the people who tried to make their lives under a system of unimaginable oppression. The full cast, including Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano, is stellar, but it’s McQueen’s gorgeous, empathetic direction and John Ridley’s beautifully poetic screenplay that help guide the film to its status as an all-out masterpiece.

1. Her

A film about love itself, and the way we find, or fail to find, connections in the modern world, Her is nearly perfect, an examination of the way growing as a person often means growing apart from those closest to you, a look at one man trying to move into the world the only way he knows how, a look at how relationships can bruise us and save us simultaneously. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are both phenomenal as the shyly soulful man and the energetic, questioning artificial intelligence who fall in love and are forced to confront themselves and each other in the process. Her is a film about Phoenix’s Theodore recovering from the end of a life-long relationship that also documents the life of his next relationship, about Johansson’s Samantha and her tentative, painful existential searching and how what she finds challenges her formative love for Theodore. But mostly, it is a treatise on the state of loneliness that so much of humanity exists in, and on the desperate, foolish, occasionally crazy ways we try to escape the bubbles we’ve built for ourselves and truly develop intimacy with other people. We’re all looking to be felt, to be heard, to be seen, to be understood. We’re all hoping to experience the joy that comes with finding someone else who wants to understand and be understood. It’s complex, messy, confusing, and more than a little insane. But it’s life, It’s love. It’s everything that makes us who we are, and, it’s Her, the best film of 2013, the film that reminds us to live, to love, to grow, and change, and challenge each other and support each other and know each other. It’s the masterpiece in a year with a surprising amount of them, a film of breathtaking scope and devastating ambition that manages to achieve everything it sets out to do and more. Her is a thing of beauty, a piece of cinema to be examined, analyzed and, most of all, treasured.

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