2013 was a remarkable year in movies, with strong offerings across all the major sectors that attain American distribution – Hollywood; American independent; international art-house; and documentary. Bright spots abounded. An unusually high number of award-season Hollywood films, for instance, were of stellar quality (and could not all make this list). Moreover, a handful of the world’s cinematic masters made movies that lived up to the lofty reputations of their creators.
As with any year, there were also big-budget clunkers, half-baked indies and overhyped stocking stuffers, but 2013 will certainly be remembered for what it achieved rather than for which films disappointed. And as with any year, I have completed this list without having seen every promising film. To name a few: Bastards (Claire Denis); The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer); Ceasar Must Die (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani); The Square (Jehane Noujaim).
Without further ado, here is the 2013 list:
1. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen): In many respects, this is the preternaturally talented McQueen’s most traditional film, but it likewise stands as his most perfect work. Breathtaking performances, a ruthless script, and uncompromising direction make 12 Years the best film we’ve had about the scandalously under represented cinematic subject of United States slavery.
2. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke): Another in ways conventional turn from one of world cinema’s true innovators, Jia’s rigorous exploration of straight-from-the-headlines violence within the underclass of industrial, rising China makes for a gripping action-drama as well as a cri de coeur for a more humane form of economic development.
3. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas): Assayas’s melancholic, mesmerizing film drifts through the post-Soixante-Huitard malaise in France. The film’s lack of retrospective sentimentality along with its non-judgmental approach to the portrayal of youthful exuberance and political conviction are marks of its power.
4. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche): Yes, one particular romantic scene shifts from necessarily revealing to perhaps male-gaze pornographic, but Kechiche’s latest is a masterpiece nonetheless. As a piece of cinema dedicated to the examination of young love as it evolves (and devolves) over time, few movies on the subject stand above it. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos captivate in their lead performances.
5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater): The dynamic trio of Linklater-Delpy-Hawke once again astound with their through-the-years Jesse-Céline tale. This just-middle-age third installment captures spot-on truth-telling sequences amidst crumbling Peloponnese ruins and glimmering Aegean seascapes.
6. Reality (Matteo Garrone): If only everyone who watched Big Brother viewed this haunting but bountiful film about spectacle, reality television and celebrity-consumer obsession. Garrone, the director of the sensational organized-crime study Gomorrah, this time reveals the troubled, entertainment-addled heart of his country, and also of ours.
7. Her (Spike Jonze): The cyber tryst between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and the Scarlett Johansson-voiced “Samantha” computer operating system plays out magically while Jonze’s anodyne, pastel-toned near-future metropolis secretly screams out in despair.
8. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai): Hong Kong master Wong reinvents the martial arts genre with this tight-focus, idiosyncratic tone poem of a film, one that feels more wistful expressionist painting than high-octane kung-fu flick.
9. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach): Mumblecore star Greta Gerwig shines in Baumbach’s whimsical study of post-collegiate New Yorkers struggling to find purpose and recognition in a world indifferent to their carefully cultivated uniqueness.
10. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler): First-time feature director Coogler and essential actor Michael B. Jordan take a tragic piece of news – the New Year’s 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III on an Oakland BART platform – and create a remarkably authentic, complex portrait of a young man whose life ended all too soon.
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): American Hustle (David O. Russell); Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola); Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen); Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée); La Grande Belleza (Paolo Sorrentino); Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami).