In an ordinary year, any of these ten films would easily have deserved the number one slot. Yet 2013, despite some high-profile misfires and disastrous would-be blockbusters, has ultimately proven to be one of the strongest years for cinema in recent memory. Here is the best of the best…
10. Upstream Color
Released nearly a decade after his 2004 time travel gem, “Primer,” Shane Carruth’s monumentally ambitious sophomore effort is bound to polarize viewers much like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” did so memorably two years ago. Bearing the structure of a sci-fi thriller, Carruth renders the details of his ever-twisting plot irrelevant. His mind-bending opus is not a mystery so much as it is an operatic allegory for the identities we create and inhabit in order to make sense of our mysterious surroundings. Amy Seimetz is electrifying as the victim of a grotesque narcotics scheme who finds herself inexplicably drawn to a supposed stranger (played by Carruth). What truly makes the film soar is the exhilarating editing by Carruth and David Lowery, which draws provocative parallels between imagery that’s otherwise unrelated…or is it?
9. War Witch
Nominated for Best Foreign Film last year (despite having not yet opened in the states), Kim Nguyen’s masterful drama would make a fitting double bill with Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Both pictures paint brutal yet startlingly humane portraits of enslaved people triumphantly maintaining their sanity in unconscionably oppressive circumstances. Shot entirely within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film centers on three years in the life of a young girl in sub-Sahara Africa who’s kidnapped by rebel soldiers and gains notoriety as an alleged sorceress. Played with astonishing assurance by newcomer Rachel Mwanza, the character is loosely based on real-life twin brothers Johnny and Luther Htoo, who began leading the late ’90s guerilla group, God’s Army, in Burma at the mere age of 10.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
The times are a-changing in modern America, with technological advances and online entrepreneurs causing time-worn structures to crumble. Those who refuse to evolve are doomed to be left in the dust. No wonder Joel and Ethan Coen’s simultaneously deadpan and disarmingly sincere portrait of a struggling folk singer in pre-Dylan-era Greenwich Village has struck such a timely chord with audiences. The cyclical structure of the Coens’ deceptively rambling plot acutely conveys the shortcomings of their otherwise gifted titular lead, who has trouble breaking out of his self-destructive patterns. Oscar Isaac never softens Llewyn’s rougher edges, yet he still manages to earn great empathy simply through his genuine desire to make beautiful music. Plus his performance of the anti-space race protest song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” is an uproarious show-stopper.
7. The Spectacular Now
In an interview held at the Sundance Film Festival, Shailene Woodley astutely observed that her romantic new film wasn’t a love story between a boy and girl, but a story about a boy who learns to love himself. She was absolutely right, and her performance in James Ponsoldt’s deeply affecting teen drama is so captivating, it raises the bar for cinematic cuteness about 10,000 notches. Miles Teller is equally sublime as the slacker who’s so enamored with her that he becomes inspired to better himself. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have a deft ear for the ways in which vulnerable lovers fumble in their attempt to convey their inner-most feelings, while allowing primal emotion to overpower their better judgement. Teller’s damaged antihero must discover that “living in the now” doesn’t require a denial of one’s future.
6. The Act of Killing
Judging by the number of “anonymous” names filling the end credits roll, it’s clear that Joshua Oppenheimer’s jaw-dropping documentary was a rather risky one to make. Executive produced by icons Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, this film centers its unflinching gaze on former Indonesian death squad leaders including Anwar Congo, an executioner during the governmentally ordered genocide of alleged “communists.” Oppenheimer asks his subjects to re-enact the atrocities that they committed in the style of their most beloved film genres. The men see this as an opportunity to honor their legacy, but as Congo is forced to watch the footage of his theatrical recreation, the flicker of a moral awakening begins to form in his eyes. Only through the creation and observance of uncompromising art is Congo able to face his own evil and begin to feel remorse.
5. 12 Years a Slave
With over a century of films to its name, America certainly earns the title of “The Great Procrastinator” in regards to making an honest film about slavery devoid of exploitation or sentimentality. It took a British avant-garde director, Steve McQueen (the visionary behind “Hunger” and “Shame”), to make the first picture in our nation’s history to tackle the most disturbing historical period of our recent past. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir was the perfect subject matter, since it’s written by a free black man whose bewildered reaction to his appalling enslavement is relatable to modern audiences. Yet McQueen doesn’t shy away from exploring the intrinsic ways in which racism has been woven into the fabric of American culture. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor is mesmerizing, never moreso than when the camera simply rests on his haunted, glistening eyes.
4. Short Term 12
Some of the best films are the ones inspired by life itself, and that is precisely the case with Destin Cretton’s profoundly uplifting ode to the cathartic relationship between mentors and neglected children. Based on the writer/director’s experiences of working with troubled youth in a foster care facility, the film revolves around Grace (played in a revelatory turn by Brie Larson), a supervising staff member who herself is no stranger to neglect. Her tirelessly taxing one-on-one work with troubled teens (including Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever, both excellent) not only serves as a distraction from her own pain but as a method to grapple with it. Captured in a single hypnotic take, Stanfield’s rap about “living your life not knowing what a normal life is like” could serve as an anthem for anyone who’s ever felt abandoned by a world oblivious to their needs.
3. Blue Is the Warmest Color
Plagued with controversy and misleading media hype, Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour Palme d’Or-winner deserves to be experienced purely on its own terms. 19-year-old marvel Adèle Exarchopoulos delivers the performance of the year as a teen caught between conflicting desires. For the film’s first third, Adèle experiments with her sexuality, while finding her encounters with boys strangely lacking. Then she catches the eye of a smitten older woman (the exquisite Léa Seydoux), and her life is forever altered. Kechiche’s artfully intimate close-ups and nakedly authentic performances cause most movies to appear staged by comparison. Sofian El Fani’s camerawork invites the viewer to share in the same sensations as the characters as they down mouthfuls of spaghetti before devouring each other. This is as real and entrancing as narrative cinema gets.
2. In the Family
Clocking in ten minutes shy of Kechiche’s film, Patrick Wang’s criminally under-seen masterpiece is no less daring or immersive. Whereas the camera in “Blue” is as restless as its heroine, Frank Barrera’s subtly powerful cinematography consists of motionless, prolonged takes that enable audiences to observe the characters in full—their dynamics, nuances and complexities. Like Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids,” Wang’s debut feature is a tremendously moving and insightful work with the power to bridge divisions between idealogical adversaries. The director impeccably inhabits the tricky role of Joey, a gay man in the midst of a custody battle over his dead lover’s son. When his lover’s sister takes him to court, Joey delivers an unforgettable monologue of such humility and grace that it could even prompt congressmen to reach across the aisle.
Four years ago, I was unable to decide which film should top my Top 10 list, Spike Jonze’s thrillingly subversive adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” or James Gray’s spellbinding romantic drama, “Two Lovers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. So I suppose it’s only natural that my top film of 2013 would be a Joaquin Phoenix romance directed by Spike Jonze, pairing two merry pranksters who also happen to be towering artists at the very top of their game. Not only is this the best film I’ve ever seen about our modern relationship with technology, it’s also one of the wittiest, wisest and flat-out intoxicating movies about love ever made. Set in a future so near it’s practically arrived, the film centers on a love affair between a divorced writer and his computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who somehow manages to create a three-dimensional, fully fleshed-out character despite never appearing onscreen. Our eyes are locked on Phoenix’s marvelously expressive face, as he discovers the value of human connection by falling deeply in love with a synthetic being. From its top tier ensemble (including hilarious vocal cameos by Kristin Wiig, Brian Cox and Jonze himself) to its inspired art direction, beautiful score by Arcade Fire and amazing script (penned solely by Jonze), this is a cinematic miracle for the ages.