2013 has been a banner year for cinema with a slew of quality pictures that makes you wonder how only nine got enough first place votes to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Most of my favorites could have filled that elusive tenth spot for some added acclaim—whether having a chance to win or not. I hadn’t even seen a good chunk of these until the calendar flipped to 2014, the sheer amount of winners was too vast. And after only awarding three films a 10/10 rating last year, I’m glad to bestow the honor to six and counting so far. I have a feeling one or two more may join them before long.
Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10: 20 Feet From Stardom; The East; I’m So Excited!; The Lords of Salem; Quartet; Dead Man Down; Europa Report; John Dies at the End; Simon Killer; After Tiller; Kaze Tachinu [The Wind Rises]; Museum Hours; Oldboy; Omar; La Vénus à la fourrure [Venus in Fur]
15. Before Midnight, review: It’s not the best of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but boy does it pack a punch the two previous entries never could considering where leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s relationship was. A wonderful depiction through wall-to-wall dialogue of what stress and familiarity can do to a couple so many years down the line despite the absolute love and devotion we all know exists between them, you can’t help but relate to his incredulity or her yearning for more than the stagnancy to which they’ve fallen prey. It’s honest, full of the warts we began to see crop up at the end of Sunset, and an authentic look at how much more complex love is beneath the façade we allow to be seen in public.
14. La vie d’Adèle [Blue Is the Warmest Color], review: A never-dull portrayal of love’s genesis and deterioration that transcends its lead characters’ sexual orientation too many enjoy letting overpower the rest, Blue is the Warmest Color may be the first film I would actually accept someone’s description of an actress being “brave”. It’s the type of adjective that is generally seen as a cop-out, blanket phrase for any female who sheds her clothes on screen, but Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos both bear their souls whether they’re naked or not each and every frame. You need the explicit love scene to understand their passion before interest wanes with time and rapturous sexual attraction proves less important than initially believed.
13. American Hustle, review: The perfect example of a filmmaker taking a true story and making it cinematic rather than hoping it will translate on its own, David O. Russell’s caricature of the ABSCAM operation of the 70s/80s is entertaining, involving, and genuinely funny beyond the vintage clothes and hairstyles. Christian Bale and Amy Adams were shoe-ins for Best Actor nominations while Jennifer Lawrence continued her domination of the independent scene on top of her success in Hollywood. Don’t discount Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, or a slew of memorable supporting players, though, because everyone plays their role to perfection alongside Russell’s inventive use of time and heavy voiceovers that actually enhance how the story unfolds for more laughs and a welcome twist or two.
12. Le passé [The Past], review: Despite my loving Asghar Farhadi‘s A Separation, I was left cold to a certain degree. The same cannot be said about his follow-up The Past—a sure-fire Oscar snub for Best Foreign Film. On the surface it looks like a love triangle about to ignite in jealousy and dramatic vitriol before proving to be anything but. Ahmad has resigned himself to the fact his marriage with Marie is over and Samir is ready to take the next step in his relationship with her. Add in a comatose wife and a daughter with a dark secret, however, and you have some of the most emotionally volatile scenes of the year culminating in a single tear showing how forgiveness should never be taken for granted.
11. Al-Midan [The Square], review: This is revolution in the digital/social media age wherein kids anywhere in the world can hold their government in contempt and show its atrocities to all who are willing to bear witness. Jehane Noujaim‘s document shows us a leader amongst the Egyptian youth, a foreign-born celebrity ready to die until this injustice is rectified, and some little-reported humanity of the Muslim Brotherhood courtesy of a conflicted member who acknowledges the value of life over indoctrination. There’s three separate fights as part of a continuing cycle replacing one regime for another until future victory can be secured. We don’t have to be afraid of optimism as long as the people’s voices can still be heard and the heroes sacrificing their lives remembered. Silence is no longer a viable weapon for totalitarian states.
The Top Ten of 2013:
10. Frances Ha, review: I mistakenly put this on my list last year, but it is good enough to go on again now that it finally saw release outside of the festival circuit in 2013. Easily and understandably labeled by some as twee and obnoxious fare suitable for hipsters and few else, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s look at twenty-something angst, insecurity, and lack of motivation is a delight. Consistently funny and endearing without the mean-spirited edge the director has fallen prey to more than once the past decade, it’s easy to relate to the titular Frances as she traverses a world maturing too quickly for her to catch up or comprehend how everything she thought would be forever has left her behind.
09. Spring Breakers, review: Right from the Skrillex beats at the start, you know Spring Breakers is going to be something special. Harmony Korine explosive commentary on youth culture and its penchant for leaving all consequence behind also finds a way to shatter the idea of child celebrity by casting three tween idols of Disney and CW fame in sexy, vulgar, and sociopathic roles. Their descent into the hell that awaits their cooped up, sheltered minds yearning to break free and let loose during a week of hedonistic desire is all bubble-gum colors, Britney Spears covers, and a stunningly real portrait of authentic caricature on behalf of a James Franco having a blast. If you ever wondered whether morality was dead, the evidence here may be too much to handle.
08. Jagten [The Hunt], review: A devastating look at a jaded world of guilty until proven innocent justice, the angry, frustrated tall-tale of a young girl sets up a chain reaction of abhorrent malice towards the man she accuses of something she doesn’t even comprehend. Mads Mikkelsen is amazing as a pillar of the community that soon finds cold shoulders and disgust everywhere he turns. Refusing to give it to the accusations or throw away the life he’s tried to build in the midst of an ugly divorce and an estranged son so close to coming home, he stands tall to throw the hatred flung his way back onto his aggressors. His dignity and nothing-to-lose attitude threatens his life every time he steps out of his home, but it also forces these newly born monsters to face the snap judgment we’d probably jump to if the victim was a daughter of our own.
07. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, review: Another love story—there appears to be a trend here—David Lowery’s subtle and quiet portrait has a tad more dysfunction than the rest considering the crimes we witness Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck commit before she’s made to raise their daughter alone while he serves a stint in jail. Stunning cinematographer and a sure hand from the director paint this 1970s-era Meridian, TX landscape with complexity and danger as an undissolvable love risks ripping them apart when the distance proves too much for Affleck’s Bob to simply take laying down. A brilliant character study wherein every person on screen is faced with a hard choice resonating beyond the law, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a gorgeously bittersweet romance where survival is forever intertwined with tragedy.
06. Fruitvale Station, review: What could have been an exploitative look at an instance of police brutality and the unfathomable outcome wrought from fear and abuse of authority in an incident more complex than simple racial undertones might describe, writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station decides instead to show how integral each life on this earth is to those he/she loves. It isn’t about vilifying the white murderer or turning the black victim into a hero; it’s about showing the life of a complicated man with faults and a checkered past finally understanding what matters above selfish wants and desires. And with some of the year’s best performances—Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz—we’re made to understand both the good and bad results of our actions and that things are never as cut and dry as we’d like to believe.
05. Short Term 12, review: Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton takes an experience from his past and crafts an emotive drama about the psychological unrest the youth of America faces on a daily basis. We like to believe children can be shielded from their hardships, malleable enough to bounce back from adversity and abuse as though a distant memory relegated to nightmare. But it never quite works that way. Set within a group home for troubled kids, we watch the aftermath of unimaginable suffering on behalf of those who should be carefree and possessed by only joy in their hearts. It’s not just a new generation either as the exposed past of staff leader Grace (Brie Larson) shows just how much of an expert she is on everything they’re going through. It’s a star-making role supported by some of the most heartbreaking and hopeful performances of the year.
04. The Wolf of Wall Street, review: If Martin Scorsese said he only had 3-4 films left in him before retiring into the night last year I would have understood. Saying it after one of his most raucous, hilarious, and sprawling character studies that’s easily his best film in two decades, however, makes me genuinely sad to think a time where new Scorsese pictures are impossible is on the horizon. His adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s real-life age of debauchery, drug comas, and million dollar weekly paychecks contains one of the best performances of the year (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slew of supporting successes (Jonah Hill & Margot Robbie), and the sort of bit parts to have you humming weirdly improvised melodies days after watching (thanks Matthew McConaughey). It’s three-hours long but feels no more than two; is laced with the profanity and nudity you’d expect from such hedonistic excess; and never steps off the throttle until its 21st century epic cuts to black.
03. Upstream Color, review: I’ll admit that it took until the end of Shane Carruth’s newest science fiction slowburner before I truly appreciated its superiority in 2013, but once I did I couldn’t get it out of my head. Definitely not for everyone with its oddly connecting road forks, pig/human collective consciousness, and parasitic horrors, Upstream Color makes good on Primer’s promise that this cinematic renaissance man chose wisely when he gave up an engineering career for the shoe-string budget genius he’s captured on screen. It’s a film that will haunt you, challenge you, and—out of all those on this list—make you want to watch it again and again to decipher its secrets because you never know how long the wait will be until Carruth reemerges with his next.
02. 12 Years a Slave, review: It may have evolved into the “safe choice” for movie of the year, but 12 Years a Slave remains the one I seem to compare all others to ever since seeing it this fall. Steve McQueen is at the top of his game getting amazing performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and a ton of recognizable faces from start to finish; orchestrating unsettling scenes such as falsely enslaved Solomon Northrup hanging from a tree by his neck in an excruciatingly long take; and meticulously ensuring the look and feel of the era comes through in all its brutal injustice. People say it’s excessive, but it’s actually just authentic. This is the pain and suffering way too many have forgot. This is our nation’s darkest day, uncensored and in-your-face so you can no longer ignore its blight on our history as “land of the free.”
01. Her, review: I did not think anything would come along in 2013 that could surpass my appreciation of 12 Years a Slave until Spike Jonze‘s imaginative look at love in the twenty-first century’s beyond touched my soul with its uniquely original take on science fiction and romance. I scoffed when Scarlet Johansson won Best Actress in Rome for a completely vocal role, but boy was it deserved. Her Samantha is a complete entity with wit, curiosity, compassion, and humanity—a perfect foil for Joaquin Phoenix‘s eccentric yet infinitely relatable Theodore. Lost in a recognizable future shrouded in a yesteryear aesthetic, Jonze’s characters help shake all thoughts he was little more than a collaborator for Charlie Kaufman‘s scripts and prove he’s both among the best and most important directors working today. If you think the synopsis looks stupid or the idea of a man falling head over heels for a computer program is silly, just know you’re preconceptions are forcing you to miss one of the most memorable films in the past decade or more. It truly is a modern masterpiece.
1. Jagten [The Hunt], review
2. Le passé [The Past], review
3. La vie d’Adèle [Blue Is the Warmest Color], review
4. Una noche [One Night], review
5. Les salauds [Bastards], review
6. Poziţia copilului [Child’s Pose], review
7. 天注定 [A Touch of Sin], review
8. La grande bellezza [The Great Beauty], review
9. そして父になる [Like Father, Like Son], review
10. iNumber Number, review
1. Al-Midan [The Square], review
2. Leviathan, review
3. Blackfish, review
4. Call Me Kuchu, review
5. A Band Called Death, review
6. L’image manquante [The Missing Picture], review
7. Blood Brother, review
8. Cutie and the Boxer, review
9. Narco Cultura, review
10. Downloaded, review