This week I’m happy to share my Top 10 films of 2013. You can see my 11-20 here, and a ranked list of all the films I saw this year here, but 2013 was such a strong year for film that I’m glad to finally get to the top of the list.
This year’s Hollywood prestige films really delivered, with interesting entries from American directors both old and new. For once, the Oscars couldn’t go too wrong (except, of course, they did by snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis). Despite this high quality of American output, fewer great international films reached our screens. Only one non-English film made my Top 10, the lowest since I began compiling lists this decade, though plenty more enriched my film-watching year (No, Pieta, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet).
A few noticeable themes and trends emerged as well, such as critiques/celebrations of materialistic excess (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Blind Ring, Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain), and a fractured, impressionistic editing style influenced by Terrence Malick (Spring Breakers, Upstream Color, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Malick’s own To the Wonder.)
Let me know what you think. Please leave a comment below.
Regrets: Blue is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wind Rises, The Past
Honorable Mentions: Computer Chess, Enough Said, All Is Lost, The World’s End
2013 was an incredibly rich year for cinema—certainly the richest since I’ve been writing FilmCapsule.com—so there’s more excuse than ever to extend my year-end list to 20 titles. Hopefully this collection can shed some light on great films both foreign and domestic that you might not encounter on other critics’ lists. Stay tuned for my Top 10 later, but in the meantime consider catching up some of these titles, many of which are already available on Netflix Instant.
Something in the Air
20) Stories We Tell / Sarah Polley
Exploring the deeply personal domestic drama of her own parentage, Sarah Polley turns her documentary Stories We Tell into a powerful and universal investigation into memory and narrative. She’s concerned not just with uncovering the identity of her biological father—a compelling narrative mystery in its own right—but with interrogating how individual perspectives and the march of time obfuscate any notion of “truth.” Polley may have pushed her use of contrasting documentary form even further, but as it stands the film gestures towards the notion that truth can only be found within a multiplicity of voices. Read more…
At Berkeley / Frederick Wiseman / 2013 /
Active Ingredients: Thematic editing; Political tone without didacticism
Side Effects: Improvisational feel to photography; Inconsistency in later scenes
“What is it about Berkeley,” a professor asks her classroom in Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. Over the course of the film, we see several possible answers. It’s an historical myth, an ideal and a hotbed for radical politics. It’s a collection of classrooms, boardrooms and lawns; a concert hall, a library and a stairwell. It’s a location meant for learning and studying. The problem only arises when these locations are filled with people.
Like all of Wiseman’s films, At Berkeley painstakingly details how public institutions, by definition, pit the communal against the personal. The University of California at Berkeley, like any public institution, is equally composed of its organizational mission and the people it serves, and while these two elements need each other to exist, they necessarily find themselves at odds. Filmed over two particularly tumultuous years around campus, which find the university struggling to cut costs while continuing to offer high-quality education, At Berkeley exposes the wonderful contradictions that make any institution succeed—and fail—to function. Read more…
All Is Lost / J.C. Chandor / 2013 /
Active Ingredients: Dramatic purity; Pacing and visual composition
Side Effects: Clarity of action; A few showy moments
I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another writer/director whose first two features are more dissimilar than J.C. Chandor’s. 2011′s Margin Call is an ensemble piece following a dozen main characters in the hours leading up to the recent financial meltdown, its script packed to the gills with speeches, banter, exposition and recapitulation. All Is Lost, on the other hand, features only one actor (a world-weary Robert Redford) and almost no on-screen dialogue. It’s a bold transition from Chandor’s debut to his sophomore effort, and it’s this newer film that proves his talents by wringing so much out of so little. Read more…
12 Years a Slave / Steve McQueen / 2013 /
Active Ingredients: Ejiofor and Fassbender; Painterly images; Acute psychological understanding
Side Effects: Distracting star presence, including Brad Pitt
[12 Years a Slave is part of The New York Film Festival, and opens in limited release on October 18th.]
Only three features into his filmmaking career, visual artist Steve McQueen has cemented his position as a major cinematic talent. His subject matter is challenging and volatile (prison brutality in Hunger, sex addiction in Shame), and his compositional skill and poetic, textured imagery supply the visual weight to match. McQueen’s films can be aggressive and heavy, but there’s always a sensitivity and even a tenderness the underlines the experience. Tackling the physical violence and violent psychology of slavery with his harrowing new film 12 Years a Slave, McQueen demonstrates both of these tonal tendencies and confirms his status as a director to watch. Read more…
Gravity / Alfonso Cuarón / 2013 /
Active Ingredients: Rollercoaster thrills; Technical accomplishments
Side Effects: Immateriality; Lack of formal precision; George Clooney
Gravity has proven to be one of the rare films that captures the attention and esteem of critics and audiences alike. Nor should it come as a surprise. The film boasts a talented and ambitious director in Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), a reliable cast, and even delivers both exciting action and thematic weight inside a grand sci-fi spectacle. Gravity is a ride I was happy to go on. Still, I find myself shying away from the hyperbolic response the film has received. It may, as Time Magazine declares, “show us the glory of cinema’s future,” but is Gravity‘s weightlessness really what we want for the future of cinema? Read more…
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty / Ben Stiller / 2013 /
Active Ingredients: Comedy; Global locations; Earnestness and sincerity
Side Effects: Overuse of music; Emotional manipulation
[The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, playing at the New York Film Festival, opens wide on December 25th.]
Ben Stiller’s fifth directorial effort is certainly his most ambitious film, though probably not his riskiest. Reimagining and embellishing James Thurber’s famous short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty blends comedy and drama, reality and fantasy to show how a thoroughly average man overcomes his fear of the world. It’s a familiar narrative, inviting us to embrace all that life has to offer, and Stiller successfully manages these tones, but the film doesn’t hide its effort to tug on our heartstrings. Read more…