We seem to have accepted as conventional wisdom, in this year-end crush of critics’ awards and Oscar chatter and best-of lists, that 2013 was an exceptional year at the movies. The overwhelmingly high caliber is both a matter of quantity and quality; throughout the fall season — when the Prestige Movies™ tend to hit theaters — each week gave us an embarrassment of cinematic riches, and even before the leaves turned, we’d seen a remarkable array of diverse, smart, moving films. But the pictures tumbling out of the fall festivals and onto movie screens this year had an urgency, an intensity, an immediacy; they tackled vital subjects with emotion and intelligence, all the while making bold strides in style and technique and, on top of all of that, entertaining and riveting audiences. These are the best films of 2013.
THE TOP 5 DOCUMENTARIES
5. Room 237
Director Rodney Ascher begins with a gimmick: five slightly cuckoo Kubrick geeks with wild theories to explain oddities and errors within the filmmaker’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining. He adopts the style of a homemade YouTube documentary, all clips and voice-overs, deliberately recalling conspiracy docs like Loose Change, but the more they talk, the more the film reveals itself as a clever meditation on the very act of analysis and interpretation, and a sly commentary of the logical pretzels we’ll twist ourselves into in the name of subtext.
4. 20 Feet From Stardom
In the most memorable sequence of Morgan Neville’s electrifying documentary, legendary back-up singer Merry Clayton tells the story of how she was summoned to a Los Angeles recording studio after midnight, heavily pregnant and hair in curlers, to record a duet part for some English rock band she’d never heard of. The band was the Rolling Stones and the song was “Gimme Shelter,” and as Neville plays the isolated track of Clayton’s “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away” line, it gives you goosebumps. The song is simply unimaginable without her contribution, and that’s what the film is all about: giving credit to the incredible artists who are too often kept in both the literal and metaphorical background.
3. After Tiller
Filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson tackle the hottest of hot-button issues, late-term abortion, by profiling the only four remaining doctors to perform third-trimester abortions following the murder of George Tiller. But it’s less about those doctors than their patients, its lengthy scenes of discussion, consultation, and recovery powerfully treating this procedure as a difficult and personal decision, rather than a political talking point.
2. The Act of Killing
The most graphic and intense horror fictions of the year couldn’t touch the chilling quality of Joshua Oppenheimer’s grisly documentary, in which he helps members of Indonesia’s death squads reenact their crimes on film (and in a variety of genres). These monsters are now celebrated as heroes, and in capturing that glorification, and seeming to assist in it, Oppenheimer creates a scary snapshot of true, proud, unapologetic evil.
Alex Gibney’s provocative examination of the online information clearinghouse came and went without much noise (aside from what was generated by Wikileaks itself) back in the spring, but my thoughts keep returning to its structural genius and moral complexity — Gibney spends the first half of the film vaunting the organization, and the second really asking the more troubling questions about founder Julian Assange. Gibney’s filmmaking has never been sharper; it’s expertly edited, and paced like a tight political thriller. But more than any of that, in this year of NSA bombshells and high-profile privacy exposés, We Steal Secrets dives deep into the pressing questions of who owns whose secrets, and why.
THE TOP 20 FILMS
20. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s 2010 comedy/drama Greenberg featured a star-making performance by indie fave Greta Gerwig, and Baumbach clearly knew a good thing when he saw it — not only did he build his next film around her, but he brought her on as a co-writer. They construct a warm, funny, and utterly convincing portrait of 20-something New York ennui; Gerwig shines as a dancer who’s getting just a little too old to be as aimless as she is (and feels).
19. Blue Caprice
Director Alexandre Moors (in an astonishing feature debut) dramatizes the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks with remarkable tact and restraint, focusing not on the body count (or even, aside from one brief scene, the logistics), but on the complicated, psychologically needy relationship between the two men responsible for it. In doing so, Moors forgoes the sensational and lands on a power-play dynamic far more haunting and unforgettable.
In this wistful, quiet, and downright gorgeous film, writer/director David Lowery tells the story of Texas outlaws in love, but it’s not a pressing, insistent narrative; the filmmaker and his top-notch cast (including Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine) are more interested in the pauses between lines and the reactions that prompt them, in the look and feel of its small-town setting, in the way its characters regard each other, and themselves. Comparisons to Malick’s Badlands were plentiful and earned, but it equally recalls Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Lowery manages (as few other directors have) to learn Altman’s lessons about the importance of not just looking at (and through) his characters, but listening to them — and carefully.
17. Beyond the Hills
Writer/director Cristian Mungiu is less interested in the sensationalistic aspects of this true story (of a young woman’s attempted exorcism at a Romanian monastery) than he is in the motivation for it; why was this woman there, he asks, and why did she subject herself to this? As a writer, he has a gift for discerning what to articulate in dialogue and what to leave unsaid, for undercutting expectation, and for making his themes clear without smashing us over the head with them. He ends up with a story of faith, friendship, and responsibility — and the difficulty of choosing between them.
Few films have been more divisive among the critical community than writer/director Derek Cianfrance and star Ryan Gosling’s post-Blue Valentine reunion; I’ve seen as many proclaim it one of the year’s worst as best. But I found its narrative ambition and stylistic audacity thrilling — it’s not a timid movie, as Cianfrance uses his triptych structure and leisurely running time to create three movies (a crime picture, a police corruption procedural, and a coming-of-age drama) for the price of one.
15. Touchy Feely
Director Lynn Shelton debuted this tender and fascinatingly tentative picture at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; she premiered the wonderful Your Sister’s Sister there last year, and is unveiling a new film, Laggies, at January’s installment. That’s Woody Allen-level productivity, and the comparison seems apt — like Allen, she’s creating a body of psychologically searching yet wise and witty work, and this family comedy/drama hits many notes similar…
14. Blue Jasmine
…to Allen’s latest, which fuses genuine wit and psychological character study with a deftness it feels like the filmmaker’s been working towards for years. In the midst of this award-giving season, Cate Blanchett’s performance is starting to suffer the inevitable backlash. She’s accused of too much capital-A ACTING, as though that’s not absolutely right for a character whose entire life is a performance, lies told and retold in the hope that they’ll eventually become her truth. Her closing scenes are quietly shattering, and though the picture is as funny as Allen’s recent best, the laughs stick in the throat.
13. Drug War
Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To has been in the game for decades, yet somehow manages to keep topping himself. His latest traffics in the familiar elements of HK action cinema: cops and criminals, undercover deception, friendship and loyalty. But none of it feels warmed over; To hurtles through the tale with what feels like improvisational energy, feeding off the quick thinking and skin-saving of his protagonists, and the extended shoot-out that closes the picture feels like a this-is-how-it’s-done memo to Hollywood’s unimaginative action purveyors.
12. Blue Is the Warmest Color
The many, many controversies surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel — over its sex, its rating, its male gaze, its director’s contentious relationship with his leading ladies — have turned it into a bit of a cause célèbre. And that’s a shame, because it feels less like the work of some button-pushing provocateur than a heartfelt account of coming of age, discovering one’s self, falling into true love, and finding oneself utterly wrecked when it is finally, incontrovertibly over.
11. Fruitvale Station
The true story of Oscar Grant III, the young man senselessly murdered by BART cops in the early hours of January 1, 2009, is given weight, pathos, and power by first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. They’re not just making a Lifetime movie here, or a bitter exposé; their film is a powerful, searching inquiry into the continuing devaluation of young black men’s lives, and in the year of the Trayvon Martin trial, its questions couldn’t be more timely.
Like Blue Is the Warmest Color, director James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of the popular YA novel remembers what it is to be young and in love, real love, for the first time: intoxicated by your partner’s essence, their look, their feel, the way the understand you, the way they feel next to you, and even (and this is key) their flaws. Its implicit subject is idealization, the way that you can convince yourself that someone is perfect even when all signs point in the opposite direction — and in the role of the idealizer, Shailene Woodley is astonishingly believable and dizzyingly true.
Spike Jonze’s five-minutes-into-the-future techno-romance also delves into the tricky waters of (seemingly) true love, this time with the story of a lonesome schlub and the artificially intelligent operating system that it seems really, truly gets him. Some would’ve played the central conceit with a snicker or a leer, but Jonze takes it seriously, and in doing so, he creates a delicate film that explores how even the most limitless of technology cannot match the intricacies of the human heart.
A leisurely bit of Southern storytelling in the Mark Twain mold, this coming-of-age drama from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) sneaks up on you: for long stretches, it seems to be going nowhere in particular (albeit entertainingly), but its third act pulls all its threads taut, and reveals exactly how emotionally invested we’ve become in this story of tough kids, their damaged parents, and the enigmatic drifter who becomes their unlikely friend.
Co-writer/director Richard Linklater and co-writer/stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return for the third installment of this ongoing chatfest, and take off in an altogether unexpected yet even more affecting direction. By correctly guessing that another round of near-missing won’t fly, the trio instead asks what happens when this idealized romance must function on a practical, day-to-day basis; the answers they come up with are sometimes funny, frequently uncomfortable, and bracingly relatable.
The skies are always overcast in the Coen Brothers’ latest, both literally and figuratively, and their protagonist, a folk singer whose window is closing fast, spends much of the tale in an appropriately dark mood. The brothers have tackled the creative process before (most memorably in Barton Fink), but seldom with so much profound resignation; they’re gleefully subverting traditional — and boring — storytelling tropes, telling the story of a sour guy who doesn’t become famous, and whose aimless odyssey does not, contrary to ritual, make him a better person. They end up with both one of their grayest works, and one of their funniest.
The great Alexander Payne hands career-defining roles to Bruce Dern and June Squibb (and a fine, understated supporting turn to Will Forte) in his gorgeous black-and-white Midwestern road trip movie that’s as bemused as it is quietly tragic. For much of its running time, it’s amusing and deftly played, but little more; it’s only in the miraculous third act that you realize what Payne’s up to, and that he’s pulling it off. Much like his 2011 film The Descendants, Nebraska is a film about family, and the strangely empowering act of deciding to let the people in your life be exactly who they’re going to be.
Director Paul Greengrass could easily have assembled a tense, breakneck tick-tock of Captain Richard Phillips’ kidnapping by (and rescue from) Somali pirates back in 2009, amping up the action and framing it as the same kind of hoo-hah ‘Murica true story nonsense as Lone Survivor. But Greengrass, screenwriter Billy Ray, and star Tom Hanks go deeper, asking why this happened instead of how, forging a fascinating dynamic between Hanks’ Phillips and Barkhad Abdi’s Muse, and tallying up the human wreckage in their astonishing final scenes.
Martin Scorsese’s latest pulses with the drug-fueled momentum of its protagonists and graphically dramatizes their excesses, but with a cynical, satirical edge; they’re not just con artists, but overgrown children, and we (well, most of us) don’t have to be told that such drug-and-booze-and-hooker-fueled conspicuous consumption represents the worst of what is all-too-rhapsodically deemed “The American Dream.” Scorsese revisits the form, structure, and manic energy of Goodfellas, but with a pronounced sense of disbelief that the earlier picture’s wiseguys were somehow more honorable than these bastards.
The filmmaking is bravura, the storytelling is direct and effective, the emotions are pure and free of cynicism, and the tension is unbearable. Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D IMAX sci-fi story is enough of a spectacle to satisfy moviegoers seeking a popcorn roller coaster, but it also has the satisfying simplicity of pure cinema: a place, a person, and an obstacle. The result of those basic ingredients is a triumph of mainstream moviemaking.
Empathy is a quality in short supply these days, in our movies and in our lives, and no film this year made us simply feel the experience of another as urgently and intensely as Steve McQueen’s searing, vivid true story. His camera looks the horrific institution of slavery directly in the eye, and sees the violence, pettiness, insecurity, and contradictions at its center. Harrowing, terse, raw, and often unbearably emotional, this was a towering achievement from one of our most commanding filmmakers.
And somehow, even 25 slots don’t seem enough. A few RUNNERS-UP: American Hustle, Much Ado About Nothing, The Bling Ring, Enough Said, Short Term 12, Stoker, The World’s End, Like Someone in Love, Stories We Tell, Let the Fire Burn, God Loves Uganda, Blackfish, The Grandmaster (International Version)
And finally, HONORABLE MENTION: Dallas Buyers Club, Some Velvet Morning, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, C.O.G., Drinking Buddies, A Teacher, Don Jon, The Way Way Back, Only God Forgives, The East, Iron Man 3, Computer Chess.