Boy oh boy, was 2013 ever fantastic; just full of works that succeed in such divergent ways! Form-busting experimentation, great works of classical narrative storytelling, technological marvels, documentaries. The sheer variety of genres, mediums, and modes of filmmaking I was lucky enough to experience this year was just absurd. I mean, just take a look at this list! We have acid satire right up there alongside beautifully-mounted genre fare, grand humanist populism, chamber drama, impenetrable mumblecore, hellish experimentation, achingly personal non-fiction, lyrical poetry, silent throwback fairytales... just an astoundingly rich year for all shapes and forms of cinema.
Presented below are my twenty favorite films of this past year. Now, what constitutes a 'favorite' of mine and how that differs from 'films that I feel are objectively the best' is a question that I find nearly impossible to answer, as the two are so intertwined in my mind; let's leave that particular line of thought with the sentiment that those wishing to see what I think are the best films of 2013 will have to make due with this list, which I deem 'eh, close enough'.
“I want you to solve your problems by becoming rich!”
This is an angry movie. It's angry, of course, about Jordan Belfort. It's angry at the culture surrounding Wall Street. And most of all, it's angry at us. It's angry at us for enabling Belfort and blindly buying into the American myths of self-made fame and fortune. It is a film that allows us to be seduced by Belfort as played with unholy charisma by Leonardo Dicaprio before plunging us into a moral black hole of hedonism and sociopathy. That it does so while bouncing off the walls with an utterly insane amount of energy, wit, and invention is a massive achievement on the part of Martin Scorsese, and I have little doubt that this film will, in time, be spoken of in the same breath as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.
“People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. “
Prisoners is not so much about human depravity as it is about how we react to it. When does self-reliance in the face of evil become morally dubious? Are the systems we as a society have set up effective? No answers are given; this film opts to push each ethical dilemma to its extreme, leaving it to us to reconcile the events onscreen with our own philosophical framework. All ethical quandries aside, the film is a crackerjack of a thriller, jettisoning the realist procedural framework that dominates most modern crime stories for a more emotive vein of storytelling reminiscent of the hardboiled crime pictures of the first half of the 20th century. The craftsmanship employed to serve this mode of storytelling is unparalleled; special mention must, of course, be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is a paragon of visual metaphor combined with flawless deployment of all the tools of his trade to create a beautiful, haunting world of duelling colours and tones.
3. At Berkeley by Frederick Wiseman
A miraculous endeavour of documentation that sees Frederick Wiseman train his cameras on the machinations of a massive institution, capturing the byzantine complexity of its inner workings in painstaking detail. As the details pile on, one comes to realize how the seemingly disconnected scenes depicting the different aspects of campus life coalesce into a haunting portrait of the living organism that is Berkeley University.
4. Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
An existential wretch; a slog through hell that exposes the cruelty of the universe in merciless detail via the lens of a GoPro. It's an unending nightmare wherein fishermen depicted are less recognizably human than anything else presented onscreen. The mundane workings of the natural world are rendered as Boschian scenes of devastation; one such scene featuring an injured seagull failing in its attempts to overcome an obstacle is as soul-crushing as anything I've seen in years.
5. The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer
“But I can feel it. Really, I feel it. I did this to so many people. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to."
If you could meet the devil, what would you say? Countless works of art have dealt with evil, but I can't recall any that have directly confronted the ways in which human beings rationalize and come to terms with the nature of their own evil in the way The Act of Killing has. The devil's myriad replies are something to behold.
6. Before Midnight by Richard Linklater
“I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing. “
Before Sunset's premise was scary: how would two lovers deal with being separated for nine years? Before Midnight presents an infinitely more frightening possibility: how would they deal with life together for nine years? The results, aided by typically stunning work from Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, are so harrowing that the film's final grace note seems downright miraculous.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis by Joel & Ethan Coen
“Llewyn is the cat?”
Another year, another nihilistic film by Coen Brothers film about a character who's trapped in an endless loop of misery caused by some unknown concoction of their own doing and the universe's indifference and/or outright malevolence. They'd have to be the greatest working filmmakers for a schtick like that to not get old. Except they are, and it doesn't, so we get dense, tender, and formally flawless work like Inside Llewyn Davis. Thank goodness.
8. Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski
“Look, did, you ever ask yourself 'How many squares are there on a chessboard?” “Sixty-four.”
It's shot on 60s-era video cameras which look like absolute balls, the sound design stretches the limits of what we might call 'audibility', and it's about a bunch of weirdos who stumble around their lives only half-aware of the profound questions they're confronting about the nature of consciousness and the order of the universe as they attempt to put on a Chess tournament wherein the only participants are primitive computers. But it's awesome, I swear.
9. To The Wonder by Terrence Malick
“Why can't I hold on to what I've found?
Never has the all-too-common idea of a dichotomy between style and substance been more plainly exposed as the falsehood it is. The journeys of the three main characters and our connection to them is expressed entirely through formal cinematic devices, most significantly through the dance between the cinematography and sound design, which flow between perfect harmony with one another to open opposition and back throughout. If one is willing to follow Malick down this particular cinematic river, the rewards are great indeed.
10. Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron
“Either way, it'll be one hell of a ride.”
A rare film wherein the themes and the events onscreen are matched so perfectly that they practically become one and the same. It's about the inherent value in the experiences of life and the grandeur of the universe, and Cuaron's shouting-from-the-rooftops exuberance in expressing this is nothing short of breathtaking.
No matter how strong 2013 turned out (and it turned out pretty darn good), it was bound to land as a bit of a step down from 2012, given that it didn't provide a new lynchpin for my ideals of modern cinema (and only $3 to rent it in HD I can't believe it wow what a deal). Still, there was plenty to find, and it was a year of such diverse offerings that I feel more behind on last year than any other since I got into the whole "movie" thing.
Still, I'd like to think that's more a reflection of a superb year than too steep a slowdown on my part, so it feels fair to share the ten films of 2013 that have offered me the most. Each one succeeds on totally different terms, and, true to form, there's more than a little overlap with Devan's list.
1.Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve
Prisoners is first and foremost a straightforward thriller, more in the vein of hardboiled detective novels than the realist police procedurals that earn so much more praise these days. That might belie its allegorical power; Prisoners is far from the lousy kidnapped-kid cash-grab that trailers suggested. It subtly reveals itself as a savagely powerful investigation of torture and undue process. Condemnation and sympathy often emerge in the same breath. But what makes the film really astounding is its superlative craftsmanship, particularly its astounding visual splendour and metaphor, which marks both a career-best for world-best cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a major breakthrough for Canadian auteur Villeneuve.
It comes as no small joy that Side Effects is the most complex and difficult work of Steven Soderbergh’s career; one that’s been long marked by genre dissection and structural gamesmanship. The coup of Side Effects’s Hitchcockian shift (more Vertigo than Psycho, really) is that the seemingly divergent narrative tones work so well on their own terms. Side Effects betrays our sympathies and expectations, to be sure, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts: its move from takedown of the pharmaceutical system to a psychological thriller about obsession is not just a nifty trick, but a comparing of bureaucratic systems with personal motives that grows richer the further past its surface you dig.
3. Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
At least as recognizable as “horror” as it is “documentary,” Leviathan builds upon the sheep-watching splendour of Sweetgrass, co-director Castaing-Taylor’s previous film, with an intense and surreal view of offshore fishing. Leviathan’s endless streams of gulls, spilled fish guts, and the gruelling tedium of seamanship are harrowing enough on their own, but its up-close visuals lift GoPro cameras to expressionist heights that are matched by the film’s overwhelming sound design. Leviathan feels like the most furied and complete response to the ever-expanding possibilities offered by consumer cameras, creating a sensory experience unlike any other documentary.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese
As black as comedy comes, Scorsese’s biopic of ultra-hedonist stockbroker con-man Jordan Belfort is one of the most formally alive films in years, in the truest sense, hyperactively leveraging its conceits to remind and engage us with its structure. The Wolf of Wall Street fires off unreliable narration, battling voiceovers, chronology switch-ups, and more, constantly calling attention to Belfort’s performative charisma. Even the three-hour length, utterly exhausting given the insane pace, is a tool to exhaust us and make the last hour’s less-entertaining fall from grace as unromantic as possible. And any doubt of whether Scorsese condemns Belfort’s ilk is erased by the gut punch of a final shot.
5. The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer
The Indonesian killings of 1965-1966 — an act of total political retribution involving political executions, mass extortion, and genocide — have long remained nationally underexposed. Like the great Holocaust documentary Shoah, The Act of Killing evokes the past not with archival footage or photos, but by examining its effect on the present. Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited former members of a notorious death squad to stage filmed re-creations of the atrocities, to which they enthusiastically agreed. The result is more surreal, more damning, and more complex a study of perpetrators as human beings than anyone could have expected.
6. Before Midnight by Richard Linklater
The third film in a series now spanning three decades, Before Midnight ambles back into a day and night in the life of a couple who met in Vienna in 1995, and finds that their lives and relationship are more complicated than ever. The series’ usual high-minded intellectual dialogue is present, as is its skill of embedding in that dialogue conflicts and backstories that explode in the climax. But Midnight excels on a different level than its predecessors, as middle age brings Céline and Jesse to a new place in the trilogy (for now), where fleeting decisions of love and family are now for keeps.
7. Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski
A film whose budget and production scale is low enough to circumvent much of the studio system’s infernal apparatus is always appreciated, especially when it uses its means to such unusual and invigorating ends. In the guise of an 80s pseudo-documentary shot with black and white video cameras from the 60s, Computer Chess follows a national competition held in a hotel conference room, where the often eccentric or maladjusted competitors face irrational breakdowns in both their computers and their day-to-day lives. It’s an Altman-esque ensemble comedy that isn’t afraid to get weird, and when it does, it’s equal parts funny and profound.
8. At Berkeley by Frederick Wiseman
Long a chronicler of the institution, Frederick Wiseman’s study of The University of California, Berkeley finds him in his most comprehensive and daring mode. At Berkeley is a self-consciously slow and detailed film, one that demands a near-interactive commitment from its audience to yield its best rewards. But when that commitment is made, details and connections between its scenes slowly surface, all culminating in a massive sequence detailing both a student protest for free tuition (among an incoherent slew of other demands) and the institutional response to it. Wiseman’s conclusions may surprise you.
9. To The Wonder by Terrence Malick
The Tree of Life was just about as seminal an arthouse phenomenon as they come, and most any follow-up was bound to have its flaws put under a microscope. To the Wonder isn’t another rewriting of the narrative ruleset, but it is another work of astounding and emotional craftsmanship. Terrence Malick has placed more faith in the emotional power of elliptical editing than ever, and that in conjunction with his customarily sweeping, swirling visuals and expressionist sound design gives a sense of love’s dance between intimacy and estrangement, and the faith needed to survive that struggle.
10. Museum Hours by Jem Cohen
Certainly a film far from perfection — its willful stylistic freewheeling catches up with it a fair amount — but what lands Museum Hours here is its boundless love for the act of art appreciation, for the inspection and compassion and discovery that comes from poring over artwork from all manner of eras and sources. No formal slouch itself, Museum Hours is full of little tics and odd moments that draw as much attention to the idea of art as they do to its two unassuming, warm, charming leads' love of it.