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
The new film from revered Chinese director Jia Zhangke expands the artist’s palette by weaving genre influences into a nuanced exploration of alienation in modern China. A Touch of Sin comprises four distinct sections, each following a marginalized and downtrodden citizen who lashes out violently against the system that makes political or cultural communication impossible. Jia has always excelled at visualizing this disconnect among people, but the touches of Chinese mythology and wuxia action in this film make a productive counterpoint against Jia’s social realism.
Somehow director David O. Russell managed to turn a true story of political corruption into a relentlessly charming and breezy piece of Hollywood escapism. American Hustle is sexy, funny and propulsive, but it’s the implacable love it exudes for all its characters that makes it great. “Joy” is the prevailing theme of the love affair between Christian Bale’s pudgy, small-time crook and Amy Adams’ small-town grifter with big dreams; and joy is the prevailing emotion of Russell’s movie, privileging exuberant filmmaking over scandal and violence.
At Berkeley quietly debunks the great myth of documentary filmmaking: the possibility of objective observation. Frederick Wiseman’s eye—expressed in his patient long takes and structuring montage—is far from objective: it’s pointed, detailed and incisive. Wiseman’s work, and At Berkeley in particular, shows that direct moralizing isn’t necessary to make a cogent, persuasive and political argument; the building blocks of film itself, when wielded with the precision of a master like Wiseman, are perfectly suited to the job. (Read my full review.)
Llewyn Davis is a brilliant artist, and his medium is suffering. In the Coen Brothers’ film, artistic beauty and a profound, consuming melancholy are braided together like the strands of a double helix, or like the doubling of time as the film folds in on itself in a closing touch of mythic grandeur. The key to this sad beauty (beautiful because it is sad; sad because it is beautiful) is, of course, the elegiac folk music performed magnificently by Oscar Isaac. Llewyn views his brand of folk as the only true expression, scoffing at the rest of the fantastic music in the film, but the Coen Brothers never do. It’s simply Llewyn’s choice to embrace this sad beauty, a feeling to which he dedicates his art and his life.
Her is the rare film that’s provocative both intellectually and emotionally. Spike Jonze’s ode to true connection transcends its high premise (a man falls in love with an operating system) by diligently imagining the world, the technology and the intense longing that makes that premise possible. Featuring a delicate performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Her uses its light science-fiction not just to explore what makes a relationship with an operating system unique, but also what makes it familiar. As a result, the film manages to suggest complex ideas about technology and artificial intelligence while remaining recognizably human to its warm, gooey core.
Director Steve McQueen cements his reputation as a visionary film artist with this harrowing and stirring account of slavery. 12 Years A Slave literalizes the nascent themes in McQueen’s previous films: the politics and economics of the body. His unflinching gaze (demonstrating the moral act of the long take) documents the brutality of slavery, yes, but it also seeks out moments of visual grace. Adding thematic weight to the painterly qualities of McQueen’s work, 12 Years A Slave is also an examination of the psychological toll of violence on everyone involved. (Read my full review.)
OK, so I admit I’m a sucker for Terrence Malick (my favorite living filmmaker) and that To the Wonder will probably be a hard sell for the uninitiated. Still, the critics have it wrong: To the Wonder is another piece of soul-stirring visual poetry, and another step forward in the evolution of Malick’s groundbreaking production style. Malick famously finds his films, capturing small fragments of life through improvisation and an agile, stripped-down crew, then assembling the pieces to ebb and flow like a body of water. With To the Wonder, the viewer can really feel Malick searching for the same sustained, divine love as his characters. But unlike his characters, Malick finds this celestial beauty everywhere, in every beam of light and every blade of grass.
Provocateur Harmony Korine has performed a career-defining act of cinematic sabotage by getting this deeply bizarre, decidedly uncommercial film into multiplexes across the country. With a cast of Disney-approved starlets, Spring Breakers seemed to promise a bit of partying and promiscuity, and it does, but many viewers were also blindsided by its insidious danger and near avant-garde style. Korine’s films always push buttons and revel in bad taste, but they also always contain images of surprising sincerity, and Spring Breakers rides this divide perfectly. Now a performance of Britney Spears before a candy-colored sunset joins the ranks of wrestling folding chairs (Gummo) and skydiving nuns (Mister Lonely) in Korine’s singular oeuvre. (Read my full review.)
The third film in Richard Linklater’s improbable Before trilogy is also its richest, deriving much of its power from the nine-year gap that separates each film. The characters of Jessie and Celine have grown older and more mature just as the actors themselves have evolved, and Linklater deeply understands cinema’s closeness to this experience of time. Linklater reflects time both internal—through the many unbroken takes that maintain the nuance and integrity of the film’s dialogue—and externally, by mirroring the development of real people over real time. As a result, Before Midnight doesn’t just capitalize on the combined duration of the previous two films, but the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since these two characters first met. Of course, their relationship has changed over time as well. While Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are about the romance of a spark of connection, Before Midnight is about the agonies and ecstasies of sustained love.
The experience of life—all kinds of life—aboard a commercial fishing vessel reaches almost mythic proportions in this experimental documentary. Like the best films, Leviathan‘s form and content are inextricably linked, two sides of a single artistic expression. The grainy, low-grade video images of the filmmakers’ GoPro cameras don’t just yield breathtaking abstract imagery, they help achieve the fracturing of perspective that the film proposes. From one shot to the next, our perspective swings across every corner of this floating ecosystem, gradually constructing a composite beast made from equal parts of man, nature and machinery. Leviathan positively floods the senses, and the result is a unique and exhilarating cinematic experience and the best film of the year. (Read my full review.)