For many critics and cinephiles, 2013 was an especially exemplary year for film. Some hail it is as one of the best movie years in, well, years, citing past consensus favorites like 1999 and 2007 as recent, comparable benchmarks. As far as I’m concerned, however, every year is an exemplary movie year: if you dig deep enough (which means watching films that may not show at your local multiplex) and see enough, any year will prove richly satisfying. 2013 was, like 2012 and 2011 before it, one of those richly satisfying years.
There were notable themes among my favorite films. One of the most significant was individuals separated from their environments, and even sometimes from themselves, in terms physical, psychological, or philosophical. These characters were torn precariously between modes of independence and codependence, singularity and acquiescence, stoicism and resignation, their futures as unsettled as their very unspooling presents. Whether it was staring into an existential void, battling the elements, or wrestling with self-contradictions amidst society’s seemingly unfeasible demands, characters in 2013’s best films had to learn how to make it on their own, for better and for worse.
Also prevalent were investigations into truth, family, reality, history, and the cinema itself, some of which took the form of boundary-pushing documentaries. These films, in their vibrant storytelling and invigorating formal experimentation, reaffirmed that film is as personally, culturally, and politically important as ever.
Sadly, there were films I wanted to see that I wasn’t able to before I made the list. These include, but are not limited to: To the Wonder (what’s a Malick fan to do?), Post Tenebras Lux (or is that a 2012 film?), In the House (ditto), August: Osage County (something tells me it wouldn’t have made it…;), Fruitvale Station, and The Great Beauty.
Without further ado, my top 10 films of 2013:
10. Stranger by the Lake / Alain Guiraudie
The other gay-themed film to premiere at Cannes 2013 (and by far the better one, if you ask me), Alain Guiraudie's ultra-minimalist erotic thriller ingeniously utilizes a single location and a few actors to craft a deft and haunting examination of the perilous traps set by love and passion. Allowing us access to no other place but the beach where men go to carry out anonymous sexual flings, Guiraudie paints a portrait of geographical and psychological demarcation that questions the extent to which we're willing to set boundaries in our lives and in our relationships. The final shot, a near-pitch black image of our protagonist stranded in the night, was among the most heartstopping movie moments of the year.
9. The Act of Killing / Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Few documentaries prove the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" better than The Act of Killing, a bizarre, brilliant, ethically dubious act itself, in which Oppenheimer and his filmmaking team (many, tellingly, listed simply as "anonymous") tasked former Indonesian death squad leaders with reenacting their crimes for the camera - all in the style of their favorite Hollywood genres. The result is even stranger than you would imagine, an eye-opening account of systemic corruption, national brainwashing, history-writing, collective delusion, and, finally and most unbelievably, a moral awakening spurred on by, of all things, cinema itself. Politically conscious filmmaking in this day and age hardly comes more radical or provocative than this.
8. Leviathan / Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Another documentary, this one just as unorthodox but in an entirely different way. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel set out on a commercial shipping vessel in the Northeast, where they attached tiny cameras to various surfaces, humans, and even creatures aboard and around the massive boat. The footage that came from it is utterly hypnotic, collaged together in ways that turn potentially mundane sights like fishing, gutting, and underwater views into ecstatic, constantly shape-shifting abstracts. A shot of dead fish sliding up and down a waterlogged deck, with the camera positioned at ground level, is one of the most strangely beautiful things I've ever seen. No second feels wasted - this is cinema of the most experiential kind, a testament to what the medium can do with just its most basic, primal visual faculties.
7. Stories We Tell / Sarah Polley
I promise I did not mean to have these three documentaries listed one after the other. But here it is, and how well it goes with the previous two films' playful formal and narrative experimentations. Sarah Polley's film, however, is its own uniquely and creative thing, an intimate investigation into her family history that blossoms into a profound, all-encompassing map of human frailty, fallibility, and dignity. But it doesn't settle at just that, either. As the story unravels, it begins to branch out in all kinds of unexpected directions, with revelations emerging out of revelations like an infinite series of Russian nesting dolls. The film then becomes a treatise on the very form through which it speaks, a consideration of stories and storytelling, and the new, ever-oscillating meanings and perspectives they acquire when they're told and re-told. It's a complex, multi-faceted patchwork that conjures, before our eyes, vivid personal histories, ones that almost imperceptibly become ours, too.
6. Gravity / Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón's awesome, dizzyingly immersive 3D spectacle was as taut and exciting a moviegoing experience as one could have, in this past year or in any year. Emmanuel Lubezki's sterling, vertiginous camerawork makes you feel as if you're as unmoored as Sandra Bullock's isolated Ryan Stone, trying desperately to grasp at the spinning world around you as you ineffectively attempt to fight off the zero Gs. But Gravity is not merely a visceral ride or a display of cutting-edge special effects: the reason it works so well, why it strikes such a resounding human chord, is because it effortlessly taps into our fears and anxieties, and in ways so visually simple (not simplistic) that we hardly even need to think about them before they've hit us straight in the gut. Who can't relate with just not being able to hold on? Or, by the same token, not being able to let go? Cuarón's film distills these concerns into a highly original and, yes, nerve-wrackingly visceral visual language. Then, he shows us the human species' greatest, most intuitive strength: perseverance.
5. All is Lost / J.C. Chandor
A wonderful companion piece to Cuarón's film, All is Lost is also a survival tale focusing on an individual battling the tempest of a volatile, unpredictable, and perhaps indifferent world. Where Gravity took to a more macrocosmic portrait of adversity and endurance, Chandor finds his lone hero (lovingly titled "Our Man") in a more socially and economically precarious situation. It also, wonderfully, does away with dialogue almost completely, leaving us in a state of contemplation and diligent observation similar to that of Redford's main character. While the film takes place entirely in the middle of the Indian Ocean with only one person ever seen on screen, it never wants for thematic or visual inspiration. Every shot and beat of this thing is exhilarating, with Chandor and his superior team of artists drawing out not only the mythical implications inherent in such a story, but also the more unexpected sociological ones. It doesn't take long for us to recognize "Our Man" as a regular, rough-hewn American upended by economic crisis, beginning to slowly and painfully realize society may have moved on without him.
4. Frances Ha / Noah Baumbach
If you wanted to put it simply: delightful. Lovely. Warm. Sprightly, quick-witted, clever, and funny. Frances Ha was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, a shimmering black and white urban coming-of-age comedy that bounced along on notes of delicious deadpan humor and offbeat character interactions. That's only half of why it's the fourth best film of the year, of course. What really makes this one stick with you is its open-hearted and poignant portrait of a woman awkwardly stretched between life roles, paving uncertain pathways towards adulthood, independence, success, and self-actualization. Greta Gerwig, as the arrested-in-development title character, gives one of the most winsome performances of 2013, and she is as fully fleshed out as a character who doesn't quite know who she is yet could possibly be. Whether you're 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or even 100, Baumbach's film is impossible not to relate to, a paean to (trying) to grow up and out that rings with utter truth. In the end, it offers no false consolation, only the acknowledgement of life's small, messy vagaries. That's comfort enough.
3. Her / Spike Jonze
Her takes a vaguely sci-fi premise - a man falls in love with his sentient operating system - and mines it for robust, unspeakably soulful insight on relationships, technology, and the vicissitudes of the human condition. Jonze's clever script works through multiple strands and contexts all at once: his film may be a slice of speculative futurism on the surface (and it's a damn good one - everything he puts on screen reverberates like a prophecy), but its sci-fi trappings are incidental to its profoundly moving dissection of love, relationships, and the process of learning and growing through experience. A masterfully subtle Joaquin Phoenix guides us through a relationship that, like real human ones, is dependent on two wholly autonomous, free-thinking, evolving participants. Simply but ingeniously, Jonze substitues one side of that relationship for a rapidly evolving tech, a device not unlike ones we enjoy today, that briefly meets its human counterpart eye-to-eye before, inevitably, outgrowing it. Her pinpoints the juncture in a relationship where both sides - human or not - recognize how they're fundamentally changing through each other, and must reconcile their former selves with the ones they're evolving into. This is a remarkably compassionate, sanguine vision of a near future that charts not our decay, but our immeasurable capacity to flourish.
2. Nebraska / Alexander Payne
In another year, Alexander Payne's faultless Midwestern portrait would have been my number one film. Directing from a wry and tender script by Bob Nelson, Payne's father-son road trip with the perfectly paired Bruce Dern and Will Forte takes us on an unforgettable foray into the stark beauty of America's heartland, its vibrant inhabitants, and its humble small town values. The regional detail is spot-on - scene after scene feels ripped from any midwesterner's life, with people and places that are so naturalistically rendered we never believe for a second they're fictional. The film presents, like Stories We Tell but in a more linearly narrative fashion, a kind of geneological excavation, with every moment and character interaction revealing new depths in this complicated and wounded family history, one that includes not just the battle-axe wife played by June Squibb and a host of hilariously mum sons, brothers, and cousins, but an entire township of colorful past friends and acquaintances. Everyone in this film knows each other somehow, and learning how they do and what they make of it now, all these years later in their fading little town, is a journey of endlessly beguiling surprises. And I haven't even mentioned just how hysterical Payne's film is, how I literally had tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard. Like the members of our own families, these beautiful characters are frustrating, strange, lovable, hilarious, and, in the end, completely real.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis / Joel and Ethan Coen
The atmosphere is entrancing. Glowing, burnished wintry blues, emeralds and grays envelop us in a state of sustained, trancelike rhapsody. Mellifluous music haunts the heavy air like a specter. A man, ashen, despondent, exhausted, wanders through the milieu in a stupefied blur, arriving at crossroads in which he will decide whether to continue wandering in circles, or if he will find a more concrete and gratifying path. It's 1961 in a folksy Greenwich Village; then it's on the road to Chicago. Then past Akron, back to New York. A circle. It feels less like reality than a bewitching, sad dream, or maybe a long ago memory you could have sworn was a dream, or a dream you could have sworn was a memory. The inimitable Coen brothers' newest film is a thing of miraculous, diaphanous beauty, a wispy, wistful, elegiac tone poem that is also one of the most vivid, tangible things I've ever encountered through a movie screen. It is a tribute to the artist's struggle, of which it is one of the most bruisingly accurate I can think of. Llewyn is an artist, which means he is passionate and creative, unwilling to compromise his vision. It also means he is caught in a cycle of self-doubt, indignation, melancholy and self-sabotage, stubborness and uncertainty. He is unwilling to sacrifice his artistic integrity, even if it will lead to success. He knows a part of himself needs the dejection and the pain to keep creating the art he's creating - to be keyed into the pain of life in order to express it, unfettered. He also knows there's no money in living like that. It's the artist as masochist, Sisyphus, tortured and self-tortured genius. The Coens turn him and his world into something sublime. Long after the movie ends, you keep exploring its alleyways, its diners, its empty streets and snowy highways and dusky cafes. It becomes a part of you. How seamlessly the Coen brothers craft their masterpieces. Their latest is the best film of 2013.
And the great, very worthy runners-up:
12 YEARS A SLAVE
For its restraint and bluntly elegant artistry, and its powerful depiction of an institution that infected body, mind and soul in ways we can never let ourselves forget. Spectacular performances.
THE WAY, WAY BACK
For its achingly poignant coming-of-age arc, realistic grasp of teenage introversion, and its emotionally walloping mother-son catharsis. And its hilarious ensemble.
For its Twain-esque magical realism and novel-esque script, and its heartbreakingly lovely central performance from young Tye Sheridan.
For its jazzy, free-riff vibe and surprisingly substantial tale of fraud, one-upmanship, disguise, survival, and reinvention.
For its full commitment to being loopy and bizarre and totally original, and for its rather brilliantly realized formal conceit.