The media landscape is awash in top 10 lists every December. Movies, TV episodes, news stories, et al get their due in publications and websites alike. It’s exhausting, and more than a little too “final” for my taste, and a big part of the reason I don’t usually write them. This could be wholly due to my bias as a non-professional who is unable to see, hear, read, or generally experience these media in the time they are released. If I make it to the top of the film criticism mountain, perhaps I’ll one day feel better about choosing what represents the best films of a given year. But as things stand, I am left every year with a pile of potentially great movies I was unable to see for financial, time, or availability reasons. It usually takes me until the following summer or later to get a solid understanding of a year’s cinematic slate. Even then I have plenty of blind spots I wouldn’t if I were, say, Michael Phillips, who sees 400 or more new releases every year.
This is a long way of saying my annual top 10 list is a constant work in progress, even if it ultimately, mostly reflects the general consensus of other lists of its kind released months earlier. Maybe I’m violating the media rule of timeliness, but I have also had more time to reflect on 2013’s best films than the deadline-focused people I look up to. I think that reflection has value and gives perspective.
Now, before I get to my constantly shifting, amorphous blob of a top 10 films list, I feel it’s important in the name of full disclosure — as much as I’d like to be, I’m still far from an expert — to list every movie I saw that had some sort of release (theatrical, video on demand, Netflix Instant, film festival, etc.) in 2013, in chronological viewing order. You’ll note that I am still missing plenty of notable movies, including Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, The Act of Killing, and many others.
1. Sun Don’t Shine (dir. Amy Seimetz)
2. The Playroom (dir. Julia Dyer)
3. 42 (dir. Brian Helgeland)
4. Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
5. Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black)
6. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
7. Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder)
8. The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)
9. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
10. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
11. Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher)
12. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)
13. John Dies at the End (dir. Don Coscarelli)
14. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
15. Pain and Gain (dir. Michael Bay)
16. Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)
17. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
18. Star Trek Into Darkness (dir. J.J. Abrams)
19. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
20. This is the End (dir. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
21. Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive (dir. Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern)
22. John Hodgman: Ragnarok (dir. Lance Bangs)
23. Salinger (dir. Shane Salerno)
24. Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (dir. Seth Barrish)
25. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
26. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
27. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)
28. The Heat (dir. Paul Feig)
29. Red 2 (dir. Dean Parisot)
30. White House Down (dir. Roland Emmerich)
31. The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)
32. Stoker (dir. Park Chan-Wook)
33. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
34. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
35. Prince Avalanche (dir. David Gordon Green)
36. Passion (dir. Brian De Palma)
37. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
38. Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor)
39. Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Valée)
40. Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles (dir. Liam Lynch)
41. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
42. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
43. All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)
I’m unsure 43 is even a statistically significant number of 2013 releases to have seen to determine the year’s best, but based on this sample, I can say 2013 was one of the finest cinematic years of my life. Very few of these were even mediocre, and I’d say none of them were true disasters. Even the worst ones, like Oblivion and Passion, had a lot to offer from visual and thematic standpoints. That’s a tremendous achievement for an industry perpetually on the media chopping block for “always” catering to the lowest common denominator. It’s difficult to choose just 10 from this list, and I can only imagine the choice will become more difficult as I continue filling in the gaps throughout the year as more DVDs become available. That said, here is my for now top 10 list of 2013 films.
10. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)
As will become a theme in this list, Nichols is among a group of wildly exciting young filmmakers — with the semi-arbitrary age cutoff of 45 — who have had just as much impact on my psyche as the industry’s elder statesmen and long deceased masters. His three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and now Mud are among their years’ best, with Take Shelter being an all-time classic of paranoia and religious devotion to one’s beliefs. Mud might not quite reach those heights, but it is a sizable achievement itself. Nichols internalizes Mark Twain’s greatest works about boys longing for adventure and juxtaposes that desire with Matthew McConaughey’s title character, hiding from both the law and organized crime on a small island near his and the boys’ hometown; he’s the grown-up boy adventurer who never took responsibility. Regret, disillusion with modern romantic relationships, divorce, and devotion play major parts. The seemingly anachronistic explosive climax worked for me better than it did most, largely because it is symbolic of Mud’s realization of the reality he lives in. He takes responsibility and sees his world blow apart in a visceral way.
9. The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)
Wright, another in the under-45 group, has long shown a knack for depicting different stages of friendship onscreen while displaying a kinetic visual style and love of genre conventions. Shawn of the Dead was about man children finally becoming adults and Hot Fuzz was about men with extremely different (and difficult) personalities coming to appreciate and work well with each other. His latest with his frequent collaborators, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, grows up without losing the energetic camerawork or genre trappings. The “robots” these friends fight on their (mostly reluctant) 20-years-in-the-making pub crawl are among the best of the Body Snatcher mold, but the film has more on its mind than simple entertainment. Pegg’s Gary is a variation on the arrested development character he played in Shawn, but he and Wright take a far darker tack with him. His alcoholism is a problem for all his lapsed friends, and none want anything to do with him, although he promises a night of fun to escape their equally (though more socially acceptable) dreary adult lives. The film’s primary choice — forced enlightenment and security versus intellectual, however limited, liberty — is a deep one, and it does not shy away from the downsides of both choices.
8. All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)
Director Chandor, on only his second feature, creates something unlike the rest of the current filmic landscape. All Is Lost is close to being a silent film, but with a modern twist: sound design plays a huge role. Robert Redford’s sailor may not say more than a couple lines, but the creaking of the boat, the rushing waves, the rubbery stretching of the life raft craft an aural experience which, when paired with the harrowing images, envelopes the audience in the moment. Small nods to Buster Keaton abound, but Chandor deftly makes these moments horrifying rather than comedic. He understands how film techniques are elastic and shows a magnificent grasp of how to manipulate them to make them his own.
7. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Refn might be my favorite director in his prime. Much like Chandor’s entry on this list, Refn’s film does not place a premium on speaking. Only God Forgives rather takes stark, archetypal images and pits them against each other in a hyper stylized world that looks rather unlike our own. Ryan Gosling’s Julian goes on a Freudian quest, at his domineering mother’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) demand, throughout Bangkok’s underground boxing scene to avenge his brother’s (deserved) death. Psychological horror imagery pervades, hands are lost, karaoke is sung. It’s a semiotic smorgasbord, one I cannot wait to see again and again.
6. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
Although it is perhaps the most important — for America’s grasping its brutal history, for the director’s race — film released in 2013, 12 Years a Slave does not prop itself up on its own importance. It’s a vibrant work that captures the beauty of the American south — the wind going through the weeping willow trees is pure art — and the brutality inflicted on slaves. It is not a film concerned with entertainment, so much as discussing, in blunt terms, what it means to keep other human beings as property. Devin Faraci at Badass Digest wrote that 12 Years a Slave is a horror film, and I’m inclined to agree. Everything that happens to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is akin to the terror inflicted in slasher movies, but McQueen takes the judgmental distance out of the equation, which is itself remarkable. McQueen’s images speak for themselves, and he presents them matter-of-factly so as not to editorialize something that is inherently evil about the world.
5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke continue their saga of Jesse and Celine, nine years after we last saw them in Before Sunset and 18 years after they met in Before Sunrise. They’re now in their 40s, married by common law but not ceremonially, and they have twin daughters. They’re bored and struggling with what it means to stay monogamous over a lifetime. The emerging fight throughout the runtime is shattering, with both sides making great points about sacrifices made for each other, and neither being happy about the tradeoffs they’ve made in life. Gone is the soaring butterflies of the first two films, replaced with hard reality; it’s the difference between an uplifting campaign and the difficulties of actually governing. Despite the world-ending rhetoric of their fight, the film’s ending suggests this is another in a series of arguments they’ve had, and they remain a couple, maybe not forever, but for now. That’s more realistically hopeful than the endings of either previous entry in the series, and I look forward to seeing where Jesse and Celine are as they cross 50.
4. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Remarkably similar to All Is Lost, Cuarón’s film is even simpler, possibly the simplest story of everything on this list. It’s a parable of dealing with and moving on from life’s challenges. He does not need to imbue it with more to chew on, because that’s as powerful a message as any in human existence. From the opening calamity to the joyous final shot, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone only has survival and rebirth on her mind. If she succumbs to self-doubt, she won’t make it. If she doesn’t succumb to self-doubt, she still might not make it, but she’ll have her pride intact. So she tries and she overcomes every mounting problem. It’s beautiful without considering the technological marvel the film is. The spectacle of sitting by myself, fully enraptured by the screen, is one of my favorite moviegoing experiences, one I hope to replicate in the years ahead when Gravity becomes a staple of repertory houses.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Untrammeled, gleeful greed is not something the movies often show onscreen, even if that is the reason behind making most of them. Usually filmmakers are burdened by trying to give the audience characters to like and root for. Here, Scorsese is unconcerned, and he weaves a story about the most money-obsessed culture — indeed, that’s their only focus, as they are unconcerned with providing services or products to others — in our society: Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort builds an empire based on tricking people into thinking they will become rich, and he teaches even the dimmest bulbs in his circle to defraud other human beings. His system is something anyone who has spent time in sales has experienced, and that bell rings clearly and frighteningly with every immoral transaction Belfort makes. Scorsese shows how exceedingly fun this lifestyle is, because greed is fundamentally fun, but he never fails to show the emptiness at its heart. The fact that Belfort and people like him led to the 2008 financial crisis and haven’t received more than a slap on the wrist is unsettling at best, and Scorsese wants us to know that this is not all right.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
This has to be the most serene movie the Coens have made. It’s funny, but not uproarious. It’s unordinary, but not truly absurd. Its protagonist is a misanthrope but not one totally undeserving of sympathy. But despite it not reaching for the extreme, it never fails to be sublime. Llewyn is a pathologically difficult person, but he comes from a place of uncompromised art, which we of course admire when it’s successful. Orson Welles may have been an unqualified genius, but his dealings with people before the Mercury Theatre must have been insufferable, what with all the eating, drinking, and womanizing. What if he’d stumbled out of the gate instead of lucking into the complete artistic freedom afforded him to make Citizen Kane? I bet he’d have ended up something like Llewyn. And it’s not like the movie takes place in an ironic universe devoid of hope that one might expect from the Coen brothers. Ulysses the cat finds his way home. Llewyn’s dementia riddled father flashes a moment of recognition that resembles pleasure at hearing his son’s music. The cat he hits on the road might be cut, but it limps away seemingly dazed but otherwise okay. And most of all, the ending should give Llewyn, a man with a morose, but talented, singing voice all the hope in the world: If Bob Dylan’s nasal, wiry voice could make him a superstar, surely the smoother, melancholy Llewyn Davis can scratch out a (somewhat) steady living in the folk environment.
1. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
Technology will continue to seamlessly integrate itself into every aspect of human experience. That’s an important idea to consider, and could be the subject to any number of films going forward. But it is merely background in Her. What concerns Spike Jonze, like all great storytellers, is human interaction and possible ways forward when complications arise. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is crushed by the baggage of his recent past, and his rut is threatening to derail his life permanently. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his artificially intelligent operating system, is a thinking, learning, growing entity capable of loving him the way he needs. At least for a time. What about what she needs? Is Theodore able, or more importantly, willing, to sacrifice his desires for her? The give and take between Her‘s principle characters is something every person in a relationship deals with, and the heightened sense of distance between them — they can never truly touch — makes matters worse. Is physical distance a true killer for a relationship, or can people work through it? More profound is the way Jonze builds an emotional and psychological distance between the characters, as Samantha’s unique ability to learn creates a zen-like worldview, frustrating to the necessarily more grounded Theodore. And if things end in a life changing relationship, is that truly a bad thing? If a lesson is learned and love occurred, Her suggests it’s a rich time in one’s life.