This is my list of what I consider to be the best movies of 2013. They are, as always, in alphabetical order, because ranking disparate films without any comparative context is ridiculous. I have only seen these movies once, so everything is based on my first impression. I saw a pathetically probable record number of films this year (175 total; 33 in a theater). Seeing so many makes it impossible not to like more than ten movies, so I have provided the usual secondary ten below them. Some of these others could have easily been in the top 10, but there are only so many places…I am sure I will change my mind as time passes and I see some again. One of my criteria for choosing films is to get readers like yourself to consider watching them. I do not necessarily think that other so-called ‘high-profile films’ are unworthy of a place on a Top 10 list, but I may not have been as particularly moved by them enough to warrant a place on my personal list. Feel free to comment on my choices and I will try to respond to whatever criticisms you may have. As always, thanks for reading.
This is the debut feature of Brandon Cronenberg (son of David). The very Cronenbergian concept alone makes this movie worth listing: in a celebrity-obsessed future, businesses trade in injectable sicknesses and ingestible enzymes made from the cell matter of particular celebrity’s bodies. The general public can buy these to put in their own bodies, so that we may feel closer to the objects of our desire. A technician from one of these virus companies smuggles a particularly new and certainly to-be-sought-out virus in his own body to profit on the black market. Trouble ensues. Shot in a detached, cerebral sheen, this film is both a great satire and a quirky sci-fi tale that just isn’t seen often enough these days (even if it has to be an in-the-family mutation).
Well before it was even over, this film made me fall in love with it (along with Gemma Arterton and Saorise Ronan, of course). It is beautiful in its mixture of Gothic-horror and pulpy-thriller. Some may take issue with the small focus of the story (where there is far more backstory unseen), but among the slew of recent cinematic depictions of vampires, this is greatness. The so-called Old World and New World exist side-by-side in this thoroughly non-American story. I feel as if there are literary influences here I do not know, but that makes the film all the more unique for me. Neil Jordan has been working (back) up to this level of enchantment for awhile.
DANS LA MAISON/IN THE HOUSE (France)
François Ozon has made some good movies, but this one is like a fantastic literary exercise on-screen. A disillusioned, French high-school literature teacher finds a student who begins writing a story with characters in his own life outside the school. As he tutors the student, and continues to receive installments of the story, the teacher becomes more involved in the story, and the line between the fiction and reality begins to blur into his own life. These stories are depicted in clever vignettes where teacher and student both comment and rewrite the narrative in front of our eyes. In a way this is a more classical, toned-down revisit of his anarchic Sitcom. Yet, Ozon brings to it better craft from the years in between making many a good film.
EVENTYRLAND/IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE (Norway)
This was one of the surprises of my year. I watched this on a whim, not knowing a single thing about it. If you must know the general idea: it concerns a young, Norwegian woman working toward reuniting with her daughter born while she was in prison. It shows us the obstacles put in the way of the mother accomplishing this goal safely. We get to see what she did, we get to question what we think she deserves and does not, and decide whether we empathize with her unexpected outcome. It’s a great story filmed in a beautifully colored clarity that lifts it out of its otherwise dreary atmosphere.
Spike Jonze delivers both the best sci-fi film of the year and quite possibly the best romance. This is a film that imagines a future not quite so far away in which our world is that much more connected through technology and disconnected from each other. Other films have broached the subject (this year’s Disconnect, while an improvement upon Crash, attempts similar themes albeit much more melodramatically), but this film contemplates the reality of artificial intelligence in a way that makes it less a fantasy spectacle (like say, that singular Kubrick/Spielberg amalgam) and more an extension of our own flawed humanity. Jonze finds a tone here that is magical. I can accept that many people will not see the greatness in it. Perhaps it does not work for them. So be it. It is not meant to be all-encompassing or universally applicable (to delve out of the particular class of people focused on in its Los Angeles/Shanghai hybrid would be too broad), yet I fail to see a more relevant discourse on the nature of desire in our coming century.
There were a lot of very good movies featuring children this year (see the end of this list), but this one stands out for me. It is a drama, with its share of comedy, about the misperceptions of love and friendship. It is about coming to terms with one’s own place in a relationship with another (husband and wife, parent and child, girl and boy, criminal and innocent, etc.). It is the third film by Jeff Nichols that I think is excellent. I’ve never been to Arkansas, but this feels authentic to me. Sam Shepard is amazing with how little he needs to do to get across his character (Nichols could fill his universe with a slew of Shepard’s own theatre characters). Matthew McConaughey deserves some sort of quantity of quality award for this past year or so. However, Tye Sheridan is the lead actor here and he carries us through this film quite well. I was jokingly expecting something like Russkies, and got something akin to Mark Twain.
LE PASSÉ/THE PAST (France/Italy/Iran)
I saw Asghar Fahradi’s previous film, A Separation, late last year. Perhaps this is why I did not definitively see it as one the best films of the year. A year later, it still stands as the masterful family drama that it is. Here he has moved from Iran to France and given us another story of divorce, but one that is entirely different in its dynamic. It is more recognizably Western (as in occidental, not cowboy), involving children from different families and marriages. Rather than an act of misplaced aggression, we have one that revolves around the consequences of depression. Rather than see conflict that stems from the roots of Iranian patriarchy, we have a story that deals with more general infidelities and untruths. This is a story about how the past continues to reveal itself to us in our remembrance of it in the present; how we may want to forget the past, and move on, but it is always intimately tied to our entire continuum of time. There are many places in the film where, near the end of a scene, a character just stops, turns around, and returns to where he or she was before. This is us remembering the past of what just happened, or what should have happened, and continuing accordingly. To see this in a motion picture is a close as we can get to seeing real life. This film certainly belongs among the best of this or any other year.
TIAN ZHU DING/A TOUCH OF SIN (China)
I’ll be honest and say this is the first Jia Zhang-ke film I’ve actually enjoyed watching. I’ve always had issues with his extremely slow pace and perhaps not understanding the cultural context well enough (which, of course, would be my fault and not his). Yet, here he essentially takes a few separate stories (which are connected in some ways, in others not so much) and gives us a tableaux of modern China through a questioning gaze. The questions he poses are not all entirely clear, but they are interesting to me as one who does not get to see them anywhere from my American worldview. One could say this is a crime picture (as the trailer persuades), which helps draw viewers, but that is a bit reductive. One could also say that this is a religious picture, but religion does not really play much of a role inside the story. Rather, it seems to be a kind of meditation on the soul of a country’s people. Much of this I do not have the cultural context to fully understand (see above). Yet, the filmmaker draws characters that I am interested in because they are both different from me and relatable in their (suffering) humanity. Not so much a cohesive picture as an incomparable achievement of a time and place in history.
UPSTREAM COLOR (USA)
Shane Carruth has made an indescribable film. For all the time-travelling complexity of his amazing first film Primer, this exists on a whole other plane. Even though I have my own plot for this film, I don’t think you can ever really know what is actually happening, because it is constructed in a way where you have to make the interpretative leaps to create your own logical sense of the outline. Yet, it gives you enough to see the deliberate way in which it does this. It is an experience like no other I have had in the Cinema (it is a bit too cerebrally science-y to have the emotional confundity of a Mullholland Drive and a bit less formally rigid than a Last Year at Marienbad, but surely there’s some precedent I’m not aware of?). After reading his abandoned screenplay for A Topiary (what he had been working on for the past several years), I have an even greater respect for this kind of unknowable, visually spatial storytelling. You could say that it occupies a sci-fi/fantasy space, in that it contains things and concepts that do not exist in reality, but it is merely a story of characters that unfolds. I am not doing this film justice in my words, so I will stop writing. Because I do this, you will stop reading for a moment. Now.
LA VIE D’ADÈLE/BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (France/Belgium/Spain)
Adèle Exarchopoulos is simply a marvel to behold here. If you are somehow unaware of this past year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner (that Steven Spielberg controversially awarded not just to the director, but to both actresses as well), it is a story of a young woman’s first, unexpected, all-consuming love. Yes, it’s three hours. Yes, there is very graphic (girl) sex. Yes, there are many uncounted for time lapses in continuity. Yes, there are valid criticisms of the characterization in places. But the feeling of this actress; this character, is a glory. The framing is so close sometimes its like you can touch her emotion. A modern love story that I loved at the cinema.
And another ten:
AT ANY PRICE (USA)
I saw this film early this year, but I remember my initial impression being mixed. Roger Ebert very noticeably proclaimed the director, Ramin Bahrani, “the new great American film director”. This is his first film after that pronouncement and his first film with so-called “professional” actors. It is also a bit (too much?) of a melodrama, in the way it focuses on the changing relationship between a particular family of Iowa farmers from grandfather to father to son. Like Bahrani’s excellent Man Push Cart, this is a socially conscious film about struggling and scheming to achieve the seemingly now impossible American Dream. I had some problems with the way the plot turned out here and I was also put off a bit by the deliberate acting of both Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid in certain parts of the film. Having said that, the film feels like it could have been one of the best of the year with some slight alterations. I can’t figure out if I’m being too critical or if I just need to see it again. I put it here for you to decide.
BREATHE IN (USA)
I enjoyed Doremus’ previous film, Like Crazy, about the problems of a British-American long distance relationship when one person’s visa expires and is sent back across the sea. This film concerns the problems that arise in an upstate New York family when a British foreign-exchange student comes to stay with them. Felicity Jones makes both of these films particularly better than average. Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan bring something that would probably make this more of a forgettable film otherwise. Music is used here as an enchanting force. I would have higher praises for this film if it omitted one particular scene that I felt made everything a bit too obvious. It would have been nice to see a bit more restraint on the part of the storytelling to make the conflict that much more engrossing. I’ll refrain from specifics.
FUTURE WEATHER (USA)
This is my idea of a Young Adult movie. The girl in this (Perla Haney-Jardine) is amazing. Her character is 13 years old and she loves science (perhaps because of, or in spite of, having so little real love around her). Her mother moves away, abandoning her in a flight of what appears to be regular fancy, at the moment her grandmother (and only other relative) is planning to finally retire to Florida. The girl tries to be self-sufficient, all the while pointing out the disastrous effects of global warming to her encouraging science teacher and others. These are some of the parts of the whole that make up this slice-of-life in the mind of an atypical teenage girl. While clearly the work of a filmmaker early in their career, Jenny Deller is one to watch.
THE GIRL (USA/MEXICO)
Abbie Cornish is what makes this movie so good. Her character is at times both unlikable and pitiable. The moral complications that she embarks upon are both deliberate and completely unguided. David Riker continues his focus here on immigration, though from a different locale and perspective than his previous La Ciduad. The atmosphere of the bordertown is filmed in an almost unnoticeably dreamlike way. The film also has a bit to say about America in its depiction of the search for luck and the certainty of desperation. Something about it continues to stick with me. This is a film that I need to see again to really know what I think about it. It is a tragedy that makes one think about the levels of adversity that exist between our different social strata. One person’s dire straits is another person’s ordinary day.
LE GRANDE BELLEZZA (Italy)
I have yet to see any of Paolo Sorrentino’s other films, but his cinematic lavishness obviously stands out as a talent regardless of the film’s content. The comparison I thought of, and it seems many others are making, is to fellow Italian Federico Fellini. Specifically, this film plays out like a contemporary La Dolce Vita. The main character, a writer of some regard, navigates through a nightlife of parties in Rome with a dry, absurdist viewpoint. We follow him through this plotless, decadent, and seemingly empty lifestyle of which he no longer feels satisfied. This is a film made by a man in his mid 40s, with a handful of feature films. Yet to me, it feels like the end cap to a long career of filmmaking. An achievement to be sure.
A girl’s Nazi-supporting parents are taken away near the end of WWII and she is left to flee with her younger siblings across the countryside of Germany. Suffice to say, they don’t have a good time of it. At a particularly life-threatening moment, a young Jewish man helps them pass a soldier checkpoint and they work together to continue to survive. This Australian film, in German, is filmed with a kind of empathy for the uncertainty of youth that transcends its political circumstances. We see characters that hold deeply ingrained beliefs challenged by circumstances that expose the flaws in their ideology. This complexity is what makes the characterizations so compelling.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (USA)
This is a film about a woman’s life while her husband serves time in jail. Many issues arise during this time and she struggles with her relationship with him, her career, her mother, and overall well-being. The time served, by her, is a kind of imprisonment that she has to come to terms with. This is a slow, small character drama featuring an African-American female protagonist. This fact alone is unfortunately worth pointing out, since it is such a rare perspective in (American) Cinema. Ava DuVernay’s first feature, I Will Follow, is another micro-budget feature that is worth checking out. I will be happy to watch anything by her in the future.
SHORT TERM 12 (USA)
There’s always been something about Brie Larson. She’s never had a lead role before this picture, but she gives what is clearly one of the best of the year here (in the English language at least). If I was allowed to give out Oscars, she would get it for this. Maybe the idea of watching a movie about line staff at a juvenile temporary psych facility isn’t how you want to spend 100 minutes. If so, it’s your loss. The movie itself has some structural problems, but the performances, hers especially, are very affecting. There are several moments in the film where I can recognize some of the facial expressions Larson is making from personal, real-life observation. I’ll just leave it at that. This is one of the most recent on the list that I’ve seen, so I’m still in the thrall of it.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (USA)
This is a story of a young child who is shuttled between caregivers as her parents go through a divorce. Updated from the 1897 Henry James novel to modern-day New York City, this is a sensitive portrait of a child made to love in fractions. Each of the parents’ caregivers play an important role in the child’s life while the mother focuses on her music career and the father some overseas business. This seems to be a story of how non-traditional family can fill a void. Yet, because most of what we observe is through the child’s perspective, we never get a judgment made on the adults involved. That’s left for us to choose whether or not to make as viewers.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (USA)
Martin Scorsese revisits the themes of several of his movies here, swapping gangsters and organized crime for stockbrokers and, well, organized crime. It is a flurry of a three-hour movie, that has many superb scenes that add up to a worthwhile, if not completely unique, whole. Been there, done that? Not in this way and not with this cast. DiCaprio is fearless (peerless?) in his portrayal of a man who cheated the innocent AND the system (It was DiCaprio who originally optioned Jordan Belfort‘s book). Jonah Hill is surprisingly adept at the tragi-comic foil (those teeth do wonders for his character). It’s slick and one-dimensional in its surface appearance, but the film brings a hedonism that crosses a line into commentary, if one chooses to simply see the forest of green (money) through the trees.
TO THE WONDER (USA)
I asked myself, “Does this film really belong on my list when there are other films I could persuade someone to see?”. So I put it here, outside the list but still attached (where it metaphorically resides in its place in the world anyway). If you haven’t seen a Terence Malick film, by God, do not start with this one (I suggest starting with the first two, or the previous three, in order). This is the first of his set in the present-day, believe it or not. Yet, it still exists in his liminal universe of what could be called “philosophical spiritualism” (ok, I just made that up). There are many beautifully composed shots of people looking, thinking, or moving without saying anything. There is much ethereal voice-over to let you know what is being thought by the minds and bodies that stand in for their representation of larger humanity (Malick hasn’t really had what you can call “characters” in a while). Fall in love with Olga Kurylenko, then think about what that means for you as a viewer. Watch the ending minutes again to see if you can figure out just what exactly is supposed to be happening (or is being imagined to, or may have, or didn’t happen). These aren’t people, they are forms of life with human actors for bodies (aliens or spirits, or maybe both). I put this here because Malick makes films like no one else. They may not be for you, but like all observable things in the universe they (seem to) exist. You are free to choose.
I’d also like to add a few documentaries that could have gone on the list, but I isolated them out to the end here just to recommend them:
THE INSTITUTE (USA)
My favorite documentary of the year follows (and continues to build upon) the strange ‘alternate reality game’ (ARG) that manifest in San Francisco circa 2011 known as The Jejune Institute. Feel free to get sucked down the rabbit hole, even though it’s too late. Nonchalance and Elsewhere live on, because the Internet archives the fantasy. The gamemakers may be starting something new sometime soon. A fun cultish journey, regardless.
THE SOURCE FAMILY (USA)
Documents a particular hippie commune culture in 1970s Hollywood supported by a burgeoning health food empire. Father Yod, a polyamorous patriarch, leads his followers into an utopian journey of self-obssessed sharing and idolatry. Interviews with some of these people in the present tense range from retrospectively damning to continued spiritual reverence. An interesting look into an, if not forgotten, lesser known slice of life from our recent, very American past. Some pretty groovy music included.
STORIES WE TELL (Canada)
Sarah Polley, Canadian actress and filmmaker, looks into her family history and decides to make a documentary about it. Yet, the document is not just of her family, but of the discovery process in and of itself. She interviews family members about stories known and unknown and even those she thought she knew but perhaps did not. She gives life to old stories, reshaping the truth of some in the process, uncovering what some thought and others knew (and vice versa). She interrogates her own family to get at whose version might be correct, finding the difference between a memory and the truth, all the while playing with our idea of it as an audience. A truly personal, yet imminently relatable story about storytelling.
In trying to find some sort of cohesion to the year in cinema, one particular tendency that stands out for me is the amount of very good films featuring children and teens (granted some of the actors are playing younger than they actually are). Aside from the aforementioned FUTURE WEATHER, LORE, MUD, and SHORT TERM 12, I would point out the following: ARCADIA, BLUE CAPRICE, ELECTRICK CHILDREN, GIMME THE LOOT, I DECLARE WAR, THE KINGS OF SUMMER, THE SELFISH GIANT, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, THE WAY, WAY BACK, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, and even SPRING BREAKERS. Many of these films could be on the list above. In fact, some of them probably should be. These films all rely on performances by young actors that bring something to the screen that sets them apart. In many of these stories, adults take a secondary role, if at all, to the emotional core provided by the younger performances. I’m not sure what this means in terms of identifying trends, but with the clear financial upswing of Young Adult literature being optioned for the screen, it’s nice to know that well-constructed stories with sufficiently complex characters are still being offered in this age range (in comparison to the likes of the YA blockbuster spectacles). Yea for Cinema.
Thanks again for reading.