It may have gotten off to a slow start but by the time the curtain fell on 2013, it was clear that it was one of the strongest years for film in recent memory. Though there wasn’t one film that knocked my socks off quite the way that “The Master” did last year, the sheer quantity of great films from great filmmakers was simply overwhelming. This year I saw a record 133 films in the theatre (with 100+ of them being new releases) and saw 40+ of those at Sundance, SXSW, TIFF and NYFF. I also had a chance to revisit nearly every film in my Top 10 and found that many played even better on second viewing, allowing me to accept their flaws and further appreciate in their accomplishments without the burden of expectations. 2013 was such a good year that it’s the first time I can remember where I wasn’t invested in the awards race simply because the frontrunners are all so good: McQueen, Cuaron, Scorsese, the Coen Bros., Jonze, O. Russell. Whoever ends up on top, I think most cinephiles would agree that we already won. Here are my favorite films from 2013.
1. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) Back in September, when the lights first came up after the TIFF premiere of “12 Years A Slave,” I didn’t know I had just seen the best film of 2013. I knew I had seen something powerful but it wasn’t until the dust settled a few months later that it became clear it was the only choice for #1. A beautiful, brutal, emotional portrait of the horrors of slavery, this film absolutely gutted me both times I saw it. With just his 3rd film, visual artist turned virtuoso director Steve McQueen proves he is the real deal by his unflinching portrayal of the era. I was brought to tears not just by certain scenes but by certain images — like the overhead shot of Solomon and his fellow kidnapees stacked up against one another on a truck bed — that were just too overpowering to process. And I’ll probably never forget the film’s final minutes which were accompanied by audible sobbing from my entire auditorium (as well as my own lip quivering tears). A second viewing allowed me to appreciate the film on a more technical level, admiring the structure, its judicious use of flashback, the beautiful assemblage of each searing montage and the powerful simplicity of Hans Zimmer’s score. Images of Solomon’s journey have been brandished into my subconscious: men gathered in the field, a plate with some blackberries and a crumb of biscuit, the skin of someone’s back lashed to fraying ends, a black body swinging in the summer breeze. McQueen uses both picture and sound like blunt instruments. He doesn’t want you to forget and with this film, he has truly left his mark.
2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) Each year the multiplex is full with films that are supposed to inspire awe and wonder with each spectacular CGI-assisted set piece but despite this bigger-bigger-bigger, more-more-more insistence on showing audiences the impossible, we’re so rarely thrilled by these sequences. Why? Because 99% of the time, we know it’s all CGI and once the magician shows you his hand, you have a harder time believing in magic. Leave it to Alfonso Cuarón to make us all believe in the magic of the movies again with “Gravity,” his minimalist space epic. Just watch that dizzying, 17 minute opening shot of the astronauts slowly orbiting into frame and it’s impossible not to feel your own feet leaving the ground. From there Cuarón slowly and confidently raises the bar, with each successive scene designed to make sure your jaw never leaves the floor. So why the hell don’t you get that feeling during “Iron Man 3”? Because Cuarón understands how important it is not just to show you something impressive, but to make you truly believe it. To pull this off, he and his crew spent 5 years making the film inventing the technology as they went and hoping it would be ready by the time they needed it. (Compare that to the standard 18 month rush to meet a release date of most would-be blockbusters and the difference is clear.) But the gamble paid off. The film isn’t perfect — admittedly I didn’t connect to the emotional journey of Sandra Bullock’s despondent astronaut as much as I wanted to — but it is a landmark and an awe-inspiring reminder of why we all go to the movies in the first place.
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) It occurred to me at some point during Martin Scorsese’s debauched 3 hour epic “The Wolf Of Wall Street” that Leonardo DiCaprio is the most important movie star alive. He’s the only A-list actor making only the films he wants to make and yet he’s somehow managed to keep both his box office appeal and artistic integrity in tact without compromise. This makes him the perfect, if not the only, actor who could’ve brought Jordan Belfort to life (which is to do as much with his clout as with his talent). But oh, what a performance. After a decade of furrowing his brow for a variety of tortured characters, DiCaprio finally gets to cut loose and looks he’s having the time of his life. Spastic, comic, charismatic, despicable, overcranked and utterly fearless, he gives the best male performance of the year and possibly the best of his career. At 3 hours the film flies by and somewhat brilliantly sidesteps the typical third act of these kinds of narratives where the morally corrupted lead gets what’s coming to him. His punishment here is so inconsequential that many have wondered if the film is indicting Belfort at all rather than celebrating him. But rather than slap the character on the wrist to let the audience off the hook, the film’s final shot puts the indictment back on the audience itself, the one who just went along for the ride. While I’m not sure ‘Wolf’ sits on the top shelf of Scorsese’s filmography next to “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull,” that’s hardly a slight. It’s a great film whose mixed reception only proves that it will stand the test of time.
4. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) It’s no coincidence that the rise of digital filmmaking over the past decade has coincided with the rise of documentary films. Most docs fall into a few basic categories (political, narrative, entertainment) and one’s interest in the film can usually be gauged based on your interest in its subject. But every so often a documentary comes along that seems to break the form wide open and reminds us of the limitless possibilities that the format provides. Enter Sarah Polley’s lovely, magnificent “Stories We Tell,” an autobiographical doc that examines the filmmaker’s own tangled family history centering on her mother, an actress whose big personality left an indelible mark on everyone she was close to. On the surface this would seem to be an exercise in extreme navel gazing, but what may have begun as a family photo album blossoms into an exploration of the fleeting nature of memory and how the truth may be a little bit different depending on who’s telling it. While the events that occur in the film are interesting, the way that they unfold is unforgettable. Through interviews, old home movies, newly staged voiceover and a few other surprises, Polley follows the story through its many unexpected twists, uncovering secrets she hadn’t set out to expose and uses the structure of the film to reflect and underline the themes of the story itself. It’s a truly rare doc where the story being told is enhanced so dramatically by the way in which it’s being told. Polley may have happened into the twisty nature of her film by accident but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.
5. Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton) Rejected from Sundance, “Short Term 12” went on to become a mini-sensation at SXSW and currently sits at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes with over $1m at the U.S. box office (more of a milestone for indie film than you think). It’s really the little movie that could and should be the success story of the year but you probably haven’t seen it maybe for the same reasons that I skipped out on it: it sounds like it’s going to be an after school special. In the film, Brie Larson plays Grace, a worker in a foster care facility who has dedicated her life to helping the kids who have slipped through the cracks and if you’ve seen enough indies, you’ve probably seen a dozen films like this veer into the obvious, the dire, the cloying. Admittedly I walked into the film a little bit skeptical but that cynicism quickly vanished as the film walks the tightrope and miraculously manages to get everything just right. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton has experience working in these facilities which helps the film avoid the pitfalls commonly made by outsiders. The film is funny, warm and utterly human and over 96 short minutes I was completely swept up in this world. The kids are all wonderful and there is such a tremendous empathy for these characters that it extends beyond their fictional representations. But the true anchor is Larson — a former child sitcom star and recent scene stealer in “The Spectacular Now” and “21 Jump Street” — who gives what should be a star making performance as Grace, the complicated but compassionate young woman who is the beating heart of the film.
6. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) The opening scene of “Spring Breakers” is a grotesque menagerie of bikini bodies, writhing to the sounds of Skrillex. It’s ugly and hilarious and immediately a warning that, despite some MTV-friendly promos, this is not going to be the escapist fare you probably had in mind. I first saw the film at its raucous SXSW premiere and like most of the crowd, was alternately thrilled and bewildered by it. It’s wild and chaotic, occasionally a little boring but never less than beautiful to look at thanks to Benoit Debie’s neon-lit cinematography and Harmony Korine’s eye for the absurd. With this film Korine brought his outsider art to the mainstream by co-opting celeb teen princesses and MTV imagery for this subversive-corruptive-hilarious-fever dream that looks like a Hype Williams video but feels like a neon nightmare. It plays less like a traditional narrative and more like a 94 minute montage of recurring images and sounds. (Korine said he was inspired in the editing by EDM.) The centerpiece of this experiment is the now infamous gonzo Britney Spears sequence which begins at the piano with James Franco’s Alien warbling the words to “Sometimes” and is continued by Ms. Spears herself over a montage of complete insanity. Coming in a close second is the "Look at my shit!" speech, the robbery and the dark fairy tale finale which offers no resolutions or retributions. But the thing I love most about the film is that it’s going to scar a generation of tweens looking for something fun and a little dangerous and will find something much more subversive staring back at them. Spring break foreverrrr.
7. Her (Spike Jonze) Who knew that a decade on from his two Charlie Kaufman-scripted collaborations “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” that they would turn out to be the most commercial films in Spike Jonze’s still young career? Just compare those with his most recent pair of films, his “Where The Wild Things Are” adaptation and “Her,” his sci-fi romance (both scripted or co-scripted by Jonze), and you’ll see that left to his own devices Jonze is a much looser and bolder filmmaker than most people had given him credit for. His latest, probably the strangest and most effective love story since “Punch-Drunk Love,” is dividing audiences who either connect deeply to the central character’s longing for connection or find its heart-on-a-sleeve narrative too emo or affected. I thought it was a fascinatingly messy film whose brilliance (Jonze vision of the future, his desire to ask questions without answering them, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, etc.) far outweighed its shortcomings (it feels a little long). Though his earlier features were more polished, there is something utterly singular about his more recent films. There are few filmmakers unafraid to bare their emotions quite like Jonze has lately and as much as I adore his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, with “Where The Wild Things Are,” his 30 min short “I’m Here” and “Her,” it’s great to finally see Jonze’s voice onscreen. There’s nothing else like it.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Bros.) Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Coen Bros. had an unimpeachable track record but seemed to lose their way in the aughts through work-for-hire jobs, comedies that missed the mark and adaptations where their unique voice felt muted. As much as “No Country For Old Men” felt like a successful step outside their comfort zone, it also felt like the Academy had rewarded them — four Oscars including Picture, Director & Screenplay — for not being themselves for once. And while I enjoyed ‘No Country’ I’ve felt a much stronger affection for their recent character studies “A Serious Man” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” for being the most distinctly them of their career. Like the aforementioned ‘Serious Man,’ ‘Llewyn Davis’ is a droll, hyperspecific comedy about the randomness — or is it earned? — cruelty of the universe and the daily suffering endured by a man just trying to live his life. In this case the man is the titular folk singer (portrayed to perfection by Oscar Isaac) and his universe is Greenwich Village in 1961 where his every decision will come back to haunt him. The film has a brilliantly circular narrative and tugs at a half dozen story threads it never bothers to tie up because it has no interest in doing so. Loosely based on a biography of mostly forgotten folk legend Dave Van Ronk, what separates the Coens from most of their peers is that rather than adapt it into another lame biopic, they’ve cherry picked the best details as inspiration for something wholly original and infinitely more satisfying. As close to perfect a film as I’ve seen this year.
9. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro) I know what you’re thinking and yes, I am aware that “Pacific Rim”’s central conceit is kind of ridiculous, the script is built on cliches and Charlie Hunnam is a bland lead with a questionable Fauxmerican accent. But I just don’t care, because Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic was easily the most fun I had at the movies all year, which is ironic because prior to its release, I had not been especially been looking forward to it. So while I went into the film fairly skeptical, somewhere around the 40-minute mark, with a giant smile plastered across my face, I had an epiphany that put everything into perspective: maybe del Toro just isn’t an “A” filmmaker and maybe he never will be? Unlike some of his contemporaries who sought to elevate genre material into something more respectable, with “Pacific Rim” del Toro made one of the biggest “B” films of all time that just happens to look like the most beautifully realized “A” movie you’ve ever seen. Del Toro’s passion for the material, silly as it may be, bleeds through into every joyous frame. While I’m not generally a fan of CGI or 3D, this film proved to be quite the exception: a beautifully stylized world that I just wanted to spend more time in which may explain why I ended up seeing it 3 times in theatres, more than any other film this year. So while I can’t really argue with anyone who couldn’t see past their issues with the film, if you didn’t shriek with delight when that fucking monster sprouted wings, I just don’t know what to tell you.
10. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery) A little over a decade ago, in the midst of my cinematic education, I began visiting a message board with a small group of other budding cinephiles. Most of us were in college, many in film school and prior to Twitter and Facebook, it was really the best way to find a group of like minded movie geeks and argue about whatever you were discovering that week. Cut to a decade later and I’m seated for the World Premiere of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” an outlaw romance starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Keith Carradine, written and directed by my old message board buddy, David Lowery. Because of the talent attached, expectations were high but I needn’t have worried. A 1970s influenced, intimate drama with great performances and cinematography that would make Gordon Willis proud, ‘Saints’ was one of the most rapturously received films at the Sundance that year and the best thing I saw at the festival. Though it may be impossible to extricate my feelings of pride for the author with my feelings about the film itself, that doesn’t stop this from being one of my favorite cinematic experiences of the year. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
11. Afternoon Delight (Jill Soloway), 12. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater), 13. This Is The End (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg), 14. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay), 15. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), 16. American Hustle (David O. Russell), 17. About Time (Richard Curtis), 18. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay), 19. Nebraska (Alexander Payne), 20. The Kings Of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts).