Another year, another best-of list. Let me start by saying that 2013 was a truly remarkable year for movies. The films released in the past year are of such an astonishing caliber that making this list proved extremely difficult. Here’s an example to illustrate my point: Jeff Nichols’ film Mud. A fantastic film, one that probably would have been been in my top 5 if it saw a wide release the previous year. Instead, it doesn’t even crack my top 10. That’s a testament to the level of quality we saw this year. Now that I’ve set the stage, here are my definitive best films of 2013.
10. Prisoners (Dennis Villenueve)
Prisoners is one the most relentless thrillers to come along since Christopher Nolan’s Memento. There’s an incredible sense of dread that permeates through every scene, and it only amplifies as the plot progresses toward one of the most unforgettable final acts in recent memory. It’s not a perfect film, but it works remarkably well thanks to masterful pacing and a commitment to character and exploration of morality in the face of unspeakable horror. Some scenes were so intense that I caught myself biting my knuckles in anticipation of how the scene would unfold. Prisoners keeps you guessing, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, but most importantly it keeps you thinking long after the credits roll.
9. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
In 2013, Nicolas Winding Refn reunited with Drive star Ryan Gosling to craft another hyper-violent revenge fantasy. The result was one of the most critically polarizing films of the year. Critic Jeffrey Wells described Only God Forgives as “a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff… I was repelled by this film in ways I didn’t know I could be repelled before I saw it.” Needless to say, there was a ton of negative attention drawn to this film. However, I was able to look past its narrative short-comings and admittedly heavy-handed symbolism to appreciate it as an evocative exercise in style over substance. Due in large part to cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) and composer Cliff Martinez (Drive), every scene possesses a sort of hypnotic potency. I found myself completely absorbed by Refn’s Oedipal vision of two men beyond redemption. It may not be easy to digest, but Only God Forgives stands as the most visceral film experience of the year.
8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Gravity is meant to be seen on the big screen, with a room full of people all clenching their armrests tightly in anticipation. It’s a visual spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. In between the catastrophic scenes of destruction, Gravity captures the immense scope and emptiness of space better than any movie before it. That’s what I appreciated most about this movie. Yes, I held my breath for what seemed like minutes at a time, and yes, George Clooney is a sexy astronaut. But the quiet moments, the ones that are content with simply standing back in awe of the cosmos, those are what make the film for me. It’s quite simply one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinema I’ve seen. If director Alfonso Cuarón gave us a little more in the story department and probed just a little bit deeper into his grandiose themes, Gravity easily could have topped this list. But as it stands, I don’t see myself revisiting this one much in the future except to marvel at its vast beauty.
7. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
When the topic of best film trilogies of all time comes up, Richard Linklater’s Before films deserve to be right up there with The Godfather and the original Star Wars movies. Before Midnight largely ignores the wistful romance and optimism of the previous films, instead opting to explore the darker perspective of relationships. It’s funny at times, arduous at others, but it never compromises character for the sake of plot. Unlike most movies in the modern era, Before Midnight eschews sentimentality and genre formula, instead relying completely on intelligent dialogue and fine performances. Love can be messy, love can carry deep resentment, but above all love is about commitment to another human soul. Never before have I encountered a film that so completely embraces this concept. In another year, this could have easily been the best film released. It’s only because of remarkable competition that Before Midnight is toward the bottom half of this list.
6. The Place Beyond The Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Unlike the preceding film on this list, The Place Beyond The Pines completely embraces melodrama as a storytelling technique. It’s a sweeping, ambitious story set in rural America that explores the impact of a father’s mistakes, and the adverse effect those mistakes can have on a son’s life. Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) in his second feature-length film again constructs a narrative that feels more like an epic, intimate poem than a standard movie. The affecting subject matter is anchored by fantastic performances from everyone involved, especially Ryan Gosling as the erratic bank robber whose story makes up the first of three acts. There are a few narrative missteps in the film’s final act, but they are redeemed by the powerful, slightly ambiguous ending. It may not have received the attention it deserves, but in a year populated by some absolutely incredible films, The Place Beyond The Pines ranks up there with the best.
5. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t totally on board the Steve McQueen hype train until I saw 12 Years A Slave. For me, he was a filmmaker who showed incredible promise with his unflinching approach to material, but struggled with execution. All of that went out the window after seeing this movie. It may not be my favorite of the year, or the best for that matter, but I can say with certainty that it was the most important. For the first time, a director approached the subject of slavery in America with a refusal to back down from showing the explicit horrors of that period. 12 Years A Slave is incredibly difficult to watch at times, but it needed to be. Every scene is relentless, and the cumulative effect of watching these people subjected to such extreme abuse and hatred takes its toll on the viewer. By the time the credits rolled, I was an emotionally devastated mess. Few films I’ve seen possess this level of narrative power over the spectator, and that’s an achievement in and of itself. However, there are some minor complaints I have with the film that prevent it from reaching even higher. The passage of time is handled rather poorly, and the dialogue occasionally strays from authenticity. These are admittedly slight objections, but in a film where commitment to realism is crucial I found myself taken out of the experience by these missteps. Regardless, 12 Years A Slave has absolutely become the definitive slavery period piece.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen)
What was at first considered a minor work from the Coen brothers has instead proven to be one of their very best. Inside Llewyn Davis is an earnest and deeply melancholy story of a downtrodden folk musician in the 60’s Greenwich Village scene refusing to compromise his artistic vision for greater success (much like the Coens themselves). Despite the dreary premise, it’s actually very funny and features some trademark strange characters. Llewyn Davis is a beguiling protagonist, one whose motivations and history remain a mystery for much of the film. He’s a flawed character, but his shortcomings endear him to the viewer. In typical Coen fashion, the movie is largely about bad things happening to good people. The film comes full circle by the end with a darkly ironic conclusion. Lets just say I didn’t leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. Llewyn Davis is an artist doomed by his own aspirations, sabotaging himself at every opportunity. The movie rises above simple black humor, becoming a gloomier, existential exploration of what it means to be an artist. It’s up there with No Country For Old Men and Fargo as one of the best films from two extraordinarily gifted filmmakers.
3. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
Dallas Buyers Club features the two strongest performances of the year, bar none. The film addresses the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, and the unlikely story of a man clinging to life longer than anyone expected, changing thousands of lives along the way. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto will largely be remembered for their drastic physical transformations, but the true strength of their roles came from their vulnerability. The relationship between the two transitions from mutual disgust, to reluctant business partners, and eventually blossoms into true fondness. Dallas Buyers Club completely avoids the trappings of a typical “individual fights terminal disease” story. It’s not overly sentimental, and it isn’t cloying in its approach to character or the drama. Everything felt honest, which is what made the emotional impact of the material all the more devastating. I left the theater with a profound melancholy, not because the resolution left me sad, but because the film instilled in me a deep desire to appreciate everything about my life. Dallas Buyers Club is a weighty, heart-breaking piece of biographical cinema.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
“Guess who’s back. Back again. Scorsese’s back. Tell a friend.” After a stretch of good but not great films by one of the most decorated and influential American filmmakers of all time, Martin Scorsese returned to form this year with The Wolf of Wall Street. Put simply, it’s three hours of pure, debauched insanity. It’s irreverently funny from start to finish, and there was never a dull moment for me. The antics of stigmatic stockbroker Jordan Belfort, while excessive, are never outright glorified thanks to the film’s sharp satirical bite. In his portrayal of Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio conveys a remarkable frenetic energy. This is a career best performance for him, one that could easily garner him his first Oscar. It’s the familiar story of the rise and fall of a man defined and destroyed by greed. The film romps from one outrageous scene to the next with a misguided morality, making for the most entertaining cinema we’ve seen from the director since Casino. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese working at the top of his game, and it’s the most fun I had at the movies all year.
1. Her (Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze is a creative talent unlike any other working in the industry today. Not only is he responsible for some of the most imaginative films of the past 15 years, he’s also the co-creator of the Jackass franchise, and he directed many of the most iconic and influential music/skate videos of the 90’s. Her is the remarkable culmination of his immense talent. It’s a love story for the digital age. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Her is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. A skeptic could read it as a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology, but it digs much deeper than that. It blurs the line between man and machine. It questions the definition of love as it’s now defined. It penetrates to the very core of human interaction, supposing that even though we’re more connected than we’ve ever been, in many ways we’ve never been more lonely. Her is populated by people who are never truly in the moment. A man passes by emitting a belly-busting laugh. A businesswoman in full professional attire chats into thin air. Theodore Twombly suffers through an emotional breakdown on the steps leading down to the subway. These are all people, seemingly experiencing some genuine emotion, but they’re doing so through an artificial lens. That man is laughing at some joke his brother emailed to him that his bluetooth is now reading to him. The businesswoman is simply responding to emails on her way to work. Theodore is going through a break-up, but not with a human. I’m weeks removed from seeing the movie, and I still think about it every single day. Her is haunting. Poignant. Unnerving. Hilarious. Scary. Beautiful.
Honorable mentions: The World’s End, Mud, Blue Jasmine, Prince Avalanche, Drinking Buddies, Stoker, The Spectacular Now, Captain Phillips, Pacific Rim, Frances Ha, Fruitvale Station.
Biggest disappointments of 2013: American Hustle, Man of Steel, Monsters University.