A quick caveat before we get started: I didn't see everything this year! My 2013 has been especially lacking when it comes to foreign films (I think any quick perusal of this list will make that more than obvious). I can give you the very basic practical reason for this, but excuses about the size of Los Angeles and the far-away locations where many foreign films screen will not change this list in any way. Just know that if your first thought is to go to the comments with an exasperated "No love for [foreign film]?" that I am owning up in advance.
But even without the foreign films that I have seen make other lists (it isn't that I didn't see ANY foreign films, it's just that I seemed to have missed the ones everybody else went nuts for and they're not on home video yet), 2013 was an impressive year. So impressive that I've fallen back on an old tactic, the Top Fifteen. Let's be honest, the top ten is arbitrary anyway (if we had a different number of fingers we'd be counting off the top eight or something), and in a year as rich as 2013 I like having the space to really spread some love around.
What's more, I would argue that the top four films on this list are more or less a tie. The top three for certain are so close together as to be nearly indistinguishable, but what I love about them is that they're so easily distinguished from each other. The one thing they all have in common (besides not being foreign films. And being directed by men, I guess) is that they're all spectacular examples of the way cinema can move us and educate us and make us a part of something so much bigger and more magical than ourselves. Any year would be lucky to have one of those top four in it; that 2013 has all of them is insane.
Way back in the olden days they used to make movies for the big screen. Every movie was made for the big screen, and nobody ever thought you might watch the film on anything smaller than a huge single-theater screen. Gravity is a movie in that tradition; yes, you'll eventually get to watch this on your phone, but Alfonso Cuaron made Gravity to be seen on the big screen. It's an event in the best possible sense of the idea, a movie that uses the overwhelming sensory overload of the theatrical experience as a way of transporting you off world. Will I ever watch Gravity at home? I don't know, but I do hope it becomes a rep house staple in the years to come. I could see myself going to the theater to see Gravity once a year, the way my grandparents went to see The Wizard of Oz.
When he's off, Woody Allen makes some truly awful movies. But when he's on he creates films that are wonderfully human and funny. Yeah, all of his movies feel slightly out of step with the modern world - everybody in a Woody Allen movie acts sort of like a 70 year old Jew - but there are some aspects of the human condition that are timeless. Blue Jasmine is extraordinary in the way it gets to the timeless stuff surrounding motherhood, grief and mental illness. The film slowly unwinds alongside its main character, and as the story goes on it becomes clearer and clearer that we've been watching a tragedy all along. Woody Allen isn't always the greatest director of actors, but in this case he has gotten astonishing performances from Cate Blanchett, Andrew "Dice" Clay and Bobby Cannavale.
Thank god for Paul Greengrass, whose films reflect back to us the uneasy, confused and increasingly militarized world in which we live. There was some controvery about how true Captain Phillips is, but who cares? How good is it should be the question, and it's very, very good. Greengrass keeps the screws on the audience, continuously tightening up the tension as this hijacking story keeps going awry. But what makes Captain Phillips a best of the year isn't the tension, it's the fact that the film humanizes the pirates just as much as it does the sailors. And at its core is a Tom Hanks performance that will, in the end, stun you into silence.
The Spectacular Now
2013 was a banner year for coming of age movies, but the one I keep coming back to is The Spectacular Now. It's a beautifully told story overflowing with honesty, but what truly sets this film above the other great coming of age stories this year is the casting. Leads Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are magical, giving performances actors twice their age must envy. I have problems with the film - especially the ending - but they all fall to the wayside when I watch these two sharing a scene. I look forward to the wave of filmmakers and actors who grow up with, and are profoundly impacted by, this movie.
All too often foreign filmmakers come to Hollywood and make a movie that is either a pale imitation of the best stuff they did back home or is just a piece of crap in general. Not Chan-wook Park, whose Stoker is the best film he has made in years. It's stylish and beautiful, but it's also absolutely sick and sleazy. Stoker builds the tension of a central mystery, and when it finally lets the audience in on what's exactly going on - in a shower scene that will surely taint your future viewings of Alice in Wonderland - the shock is explosive. Mainstream movies don't go there very often, but Park blithely takes this movie all the way.
This Is The End
Some movies should be bad, and This Is The End is definitely one of them. A group of rich, pampered Hollywood comics decide to make a movie about themselves facing the apocalypse - what could be more tediously self-absorbed? But a funny thing happened on the way to the cinema: This Is The End became absolutely fucking hysterical. In a lot of ways this isn't that different from old Abbott and Costello or Marx Brothers movies, films where comics were basically playing versions of their public personas again and again. Of course those old movies never got as riotously filthy as This Is The End, but they also never had an unexpected heart of sincerity either.
There's so much love in Frances Ha. A lot of it is the love Noah Baumbach has for his leading lady - it's like his camera has an Adore Greta Gerwig filter on it. But there's also a lot of love for people in the film, which is a warm look at a woman who is adrift and a bit of a fuck up. The movie isn't casting a lot of judgment on Frances Halladay, making it a slacker movie unlike most other slacker movies - and that's not even taking into account this is the rarest of birds, a female slacker movie. Frances Ha is light on plot and heavy on Gerwig; if she doesn't work for you the movie will be torture. But for me she was a joy, and so was the movie.
I hate Harmony Korine. I think his movies have been, until now, barely watchable shit shows coming from the mind of somebody allowed behind a camera when he was way too young. But Spring Breakers is so good that now I feel like I need to go back to Trash Humpers and Gummo and the rest of that crap and give it all another chance. Maybe he was brilliant all along. Spring Breakers is gorgeous cinema, it's a scathing indictment of youth culture and capitalism, and it's an incredible prank - all at the same time. It's a movie that casts tween star Vanessa Hudgens in a role that will upset her fanbase while smuggling smart critique and beautiful cinematography in a movie whose setting and soundtrack will piss off stodgy arthouse types. And that's not even getting to James Franco's Alien, one of the great characters of 2013. It's fucking AMAZING.
The Act of Killing
I almost didn't include documentary The Act of Killing because it's being released by Drafthouse Films, and I didn't want to have some sort of ethical morass on my hands in a fun, friendly top ten (fifteen) list. But fuck it - this movie is just that good. And when I say good, I mean it in every sense: the film is compelling as entertainment but it's also profound in what exposes about humanity, and the way it explores how we tell stories and use them as fire walls against the harsh truths about ourselves. You almost can't believe what you're watching in this film - men who engaged in genocidal war crimes in Indonesia fifty years ago voluntarily re-enact them for movie cameras, playing out mass slaughter and rape and admitting their complicity in atrocities. It's mind-boggling, and it offers an insight into how these things happen; after the Holocaust we all promised never again, but it's happened again and again, and The Act of Killing tries to shed some light on how that's possible. It's a crazy movie, one that will thoroughly rewire you for weeks to come.
It took a long time for Shane Carruth to make another movie. It was worth the wait. It isn't that Upstream Color is obtuse - anyone can tell you what happens on screen in the film - it's that Upstream Color is coded, a movie that unravels its meaning to you over time. It's about addiction and creativity and love and art and loss. It's a remarkable science fiction movie and it's a remarkable character movie. It's a movie that's the product of a singular vision - Carruth wrote and directed and shot and edited and produced and acted in the movie - and as such it's a totally singular film.
The World’s End
I like thematic trilogies, which is maybe why I like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Three Flavours (British spelling preserved) trilogy so much. The films don't have anything in common when it comes to story, character or even setting, but taken as a whole they present one of the most compelling examinations of friendship I've ever seen. There's a lot more to all of these films - they're also very much about being a man, and different definitions of what that entails, and they're really about movies, even the ones that aren't about nerds - but I love how this movie really hones in on how friendships age and change and sometimes don't change at all. The World's End is the most thematically meaty film of the trilogy, and that's part of what makes it one of the very best movies of the year - not only is it very funny, not only is it filled with great characters, it's a movie with a lot to chew on. Edgar Wright's films always pay off more on repeat viewings, but I think The World's End will be the Wright movie that will truly reveal itself the more you watch.
The Wolf of Wall Street
He's 71 years old and he's making movies with more energy than filmmakers half his age. Martin Scorsese is a global treasure, and The Wolf of Wall Street proves it. Funny, scabrous, profane and insane, the film is a whirlwind indictment of capitalism that never once denies the pleasures of the system. It's simply pure cinematic joy.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers are cinematic pranksters, but the prank of Inside Llewyn Davis might be that they're pretty damn sincere this time. Llewyn Davis, the story of a 60s folk singer who never makes it, is the most emotionally honest movie the duo have ever made, a film that is as clever and dark as the best of their past movies but dripping with a kind of feeling they've rarely let into their work. That's a big part of what has already rocketed Llewyn Davis to the very top of the 'Best of the Coens' list for me. It's a movie that is great on the first viewing, but becomes transcendent on the second viewing. The Coens have been accused of being misanthropic in the past - Inside Llewyn Davis should end that complaint. On top of all that, Oscar Isaacs' performance is absolutely complete and perfect.
12 Years A Slave
I've heard some people claiming that Steve McQueen doesn't go far enough in 12 Years A Slave and I simply don't know what the fuck they're talking about. If he went any further he would have turned this story into a grotesquerie; if he threw any more pain and horror at the screen he would dilute the impact of the pain and horror already there. And there's a lot of pain and horror; 12 Years A Slave is sometimes a grueling experience, a movie where the psychological toll of keeping humans as slaves is as pronounced as the physical toll. McQueen is showing us how the institution of slavery was destroying everyone involved, even the slave owners. It presents slavery as a cancer that eats away at the basic humanity of all, filling the spaces within them with tumors of evil. It's powerful, made all the more powerful by the harrowing performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the ultimate Wrong Man. Is 12 Years A Slave more mainstream than McQueen's Hunger? Yes, but that's not a sin - a movie like this should be watched by people, not left on lists of movies they should eventually see.
I feel like it's really important to reiterate that my top three films are basically a tie. I could have made any of them number one, but I chose Her symbolically - it's the most hopeful and uplifting of the three. I've had a shitty 2013, as have many of my friends, and I find comfort in the fact that Spike Jonze's film portrays a future where things are working themselves out. I also take comfort in the fact that Her, while being one of the most odd love stories ever told, is reassuring in its basic honesty. Romance is beautiful and it changes you, but it also ends. And yet we must never give up the basics of human connection; life is wonderful because of other people, not despite them. It's also the first film to truly reflect what American life is like in the age of the internet and ubiquitious smart phones. But more than that it's the movie this year that does best what so many of the other movies on this list did for me: reflected back my humanity, presented me with a vision of the world that was familiar but challenging, that allowed me to think deeply about my life while also being immensely entertained. Humanity is what I wanted out of the movies in 2013, and I truly got it in this movie about a guy in love with his phone.