These are my ten favorite films of the year. They do not constitute a “Best of 2013” list, but rather represent the films I found most satisfying, provocative, and ambitious. Looking at my top films this year, I gravitated toward documentaries, formal and conceptual innovation, blending of the real and surreal, and direct, immersive stories.
It was a sensory year, a year reaching both toward the all-too-recent past and the not-too-distant future, grappling with the very terms of our humanity on an intrinsic level. It was, despite its grandness, an intimate year, a year that stranded us alone – in the vastness of space, on the chaotic seas, in the prisons of others’ making and in those of our own perceptions. Whereas the cinema of 2012 felt defined by the gear-grinding, turbulent process of group action in films like Lincoln and How to Survive a Plague, 2013 seems more pegged to the solitary act of survival, and of how we learn to live not just with others but with ourselves.
The following list reflects what films most thrilled, captivated, and inspired me over the past twelve months.
10) Captain Phillips
“Ok.” This is the first and last word (or nearly so) in a film filled with the phrase – the Captain’s wife says it, he says it, the pirates say it, and the Navy Hospital Corspman says it in Captain Phillips‘ truly stunning final scene. Throughout its intense ordeal, it’s clear things are not – and aren’t going to be – ok, despite the so-called “happy ending” that finds three men dead. This film complicates the triumphant narrative of the true events that played in the press, and though it focuses fairly narrowly on the major action of the story, it gestures at a context that disturbs the good-guys-versus-bad-guys conceit. It has flaws, but its lack of grandstanding and heroics is genuinely surprising. Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks both give stellar performances, as does the aforementioned Corpsman who found herself in the film somewhat by surprise. And those much-lauded final moments of this film were indeed the most affecting and honest five minutes I’ve seen in the cinema all year.
9) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
One of the year’s underrated documentaries, We Steal Secrets tells a fairly complicated story about a notorious organization without sacrificing nuance or complexity to tell it. It seems to make some undesirable representations and reach dissatisfying conclusions two-thirds of the way through, only to circle back in the third act and reveal just how malleable portrayals of polarizing figures like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning can be. (Unfortunately the film was completed before Manning’s desire to be properly gendered and called by the name Chelsea was made explicit in the press, and though the film recounts her fear of photos of her as a boy being “plastered all over the world press,” it is full of such images and misgendering.) Director Alex Gibney manages both suspense and thoroughness with a subject that has been exhaustively chronicled in the news already, making the broad strokes accessible while also painting with a very fine brush on the thorniest of tangles.
8) Caesar Must Die
I’m a sucker for Shakespeare adaptations – at least those that aren’t so “adapted” that they’re unrecognizable. This is one of the most arresting and clever that I’ve seen. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s deft and haunting variation on Julius Caesar casts real prisoners as themselves, rehearsing and performing Shakespeare’s play within the prison they live in. At first, the play inside the film is presented as separate from life in the prison; the filmmakers establish the distinctness of the two worlds, presenting actors on a stage who then return to their cells as inmates; they show the prisoners auditioning for their roles and the early stages of rehearsal. As rehearsals progress, Shakespeare’s play expands past its boundaries into the very lives of its performers – not an uncommon device of such films, but particularly suited to Caesar Must Die which is itself a surreal blending of fiction and documentary. Soon Julius Caesar takes over the film, and when the act of inhabiting its life is over we return to our cells, uncertain whether art always gives or whether, sometimes, it takes away.
There may be no other figure in this year’s cinema (real or fictional) that I have more affection for than Noriko Shinohara, the central character of Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary about marriage, art, and the compromises we make in both. Noriko and her husband of forty years Ushio are artists – he was a rising star of the 70s New York art scene looking to reinvigorate his career; she seeks recognition for her own illustrations that depict auto-biographical characters enduring a similarly chaotic relationship. Funny, truth-telling, and painful, Cutie and the Boxer explores the constant struggle of creation, of the art world, and of the ties that bind us to each other.
6) Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler’s debut feature left me stunned and wide-eyed like no other film this year. Fruitvale Station, through the mundane details of a single day, renders familiar what could otherwise be left an abstraction, and it searingly interrupts these slice-of-life passages with a swelling rumble of portents that demand, like a train approaching the station, we pay attention to what’s arriving. As I wrote in my review of the film, Coogler “serves up a buffet of details intent on tangling up our characterizations of Oscar Grant: we find out that he’s cheated on his girlfriend and cares deeply about his daughter, and we see him text his mother happy birthday as well as stash a large bag of marijuana in his closet. These details matter to Coogler not to prove that Oscar was particularly undeserving of the fate that befell him, not to ‘show us that there is much more to Oscar than meets the eye,’ as described in the Weinstein Company’s synopsis, but to insist that every life deserves more.”
Gravity could have been the best film of the year, and much more audacious, if it excised 90% of its dialogue and allowed the sensory experience of struggling in space to say what it attempted so tirelessly to say with words. I quite like reading Gravity as a parable for depression (given the shoehorned backstory I don’t think it’s far off from what Cuaron intended) – holding onto anything one can in a vast emptiness until the possibility of rebirth. And as far as technical prowess goes, there were moments during this film when I absolutely couldn’t fathom how it was made, and neither could the filmmaker that I saw it with. That’s not just eye-candy visual effects – that’s the very promise of film as a medium, and Gravity will no doubt inspire the next generation of artists seeking to put their audience into the immediate sensations of action.
4) 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is very likely the best film of the year. I hope it wins all the Oscars, even though it’s been sort of degraded in critical discussion by the notion that it’s “Oscar bait,” as though one of the darkest and most consequential aspects of our history is now merely a snare for meaningless golden statuettes. Which is another fallacy; there have been a lot of mediocre and terribly-made films about slavery – or rather, films depicting slaves and the American slave trade. Films that haven’t come close to 12 Years a Slave’s unflinching directness, its stylistic craftsmanship, or its humble and un-sensationalized truth-telling. Every shot is composed with intention, every unnerving long take saying more than any galvanizing speech scored with cloying orchestral music ever could. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Adepero Oduye give layered, powerful performances that are some of the best of the year. It’s a film that challenges its viewers, sure, but too much has been made over how “difficult it is to sit through.” It is a compelling, unrelenting journey and a masterpiece. 12 Years a Slave isn’t simply endured, and it’s reductive to its artistic virtuosity and cultural significance to say so.
My pick for underrated film of the year, Leviathan is the most embodied, sensory, and unique cinematic experience of 2013 – and that includes Gravity. Cameras ride along on fishermen’s chests, plunge in and out of the ocean, creep up on scavenging birds, and slosh around with dead fish on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel. More surreal and captivatingly alien than most science fiction, and yet more tangibly real than any film in recent memory, Leviathan is an impressive ethnographic achievement. But it’s also an immensely enjoyable film – vicariously experiential, wryly funny, and at times chillingly spooky. Some have called it the year’s best horror film. A bleak survival story, an existential epic, a dark circus act – Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s stunner defies genre but is nevertheless a documentary in the truest sense of the word.
“We’re always implicitly, if not explicitly, fighting against how bad documentary is,” said Castaing-Taylor in an interview. “Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality…but most documentaries’ representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based…Words can only take us so far. I think we want to get to a much more embodied, a much more corporeal representation of reality that’s almost a presentation of reality. Reality that transcends our representation, so it’s not reducible to a set of statements of what commercial fishing’s about.”
The most original and inspiring fiction film of 2013, in my opinion. What struck me most about Spike Jonze’s love story was how positive and natural its premise felt; perhaps not all of us look forward to a world in which someone could be in love with an operating system, but Her isn’t interested so much in the changing nature of our world as it is in asserting the unchanging nature of relationships, be they between humans or artificial intelligence. The script, the performances, the production design, and the soundtrack combine for a sublime, complete whole that is conceptually gripping and beautifully executed. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Theodore Twombly is divine and exuberantly calibrated to the tone and needs of the film, but I particularly loved Amy Adams as Twombly’s best friend. Their touching friendship in Her is nearly as revelatory as the central romance, and just about as surprising given Hollywood’s typical treatment of the opposite sexes. This is also the funniest movie I’ve seen all year, and the most joyfully pleasurable. Among all my top films, this is the one I wouldn’t mind returning to again and again, high-waisted pants and all.
1) The Act of Killing
Other writers on this site have already spoken with great eloquence about The Act of Killing (Justin ranked it as his #3 film of the year, G Clark also placed it in his top spot). What we all agree on is that this film is profoundly important, arrestingly innovative, and devastatingly challenging to the desire to put distance between unfathomable atrocities and our own humanity. The filmmakers (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director) invite the former leaders of the Indonesian death squads that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1965 – with U.S. support – to recreate their killings in the form of classic Hollywood films: gangster flicks, westerns, horror movies and musicals. What follows is a staggering intersection of artifice and truth, of incomprehensible evil and a disquieting normalcy, of terror, pride, and – possibly – regret. The act of killing is a legacy we all are heir to, and this film grants us unprecedented access to the leading actors of a living history that is totally unforgettable. As the credits roll after a haunting final scene, the film’s crew brimming with repetitions of “ANONYMOUS,” the significance of The Act of Killing‘s ambition and achievement really sets in. In my opinion, it is easily the most impressive film of the year, if not the decade.