I’ve seen roughly 150 films in 2013, my most ever in a calendar year. This has been a truly outstanding year for film, with the most five-star releases I’ve encountered and some of the most promising young talents emerging on screen. I love so many movies this year that making a top twenty was beyond difficult; that’s why I’ve included the numerous honorable mentions that barely missed out on my list. Part two, with my top ten films of the year, will be posted tomorrow. But for now, here are the best films of 2013, numbers 11 through 20:
11. Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station is defined by its plea for humanity and change. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant (in one of the year’s finest performances), a troubled man that is neither saint nor sinner, but one defined by his love for family and his hope for a better future. Based on the true story, parallels will be drawn to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; this is a story of similar prejudice, albeit backed by a fictionalized version of this man’s one day journey to bettering himself. It’s not perfect, but its imperfections help build upon its characters; they’re flawed but hopelessly well-intentioned. Melonie Diaz, alongside Octavia Spencer, also delivers a triumphant performance. It’s an emotionally gripping, heartbreaking film.
12. The Place Beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance is emerging as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers, crafting a highly ambitious, morally complex feature in The Place Beyond the Pines. Divided into three parts (a new take on the three-act structure of a film, since each section carries through to the next while also having their own rises and falls), the movie follows a motorcyclist (Ryan Gosling) that turns to crime to support his son, a fledgling cop (Bradley Cooper) that raises his son in a world that even he doesn’t fully understand, and those two children in high school as they face the repercussions of their father’s actions. I think it’s a brilliantly woven feature that communicates a message of how fathers and sons change each other’s lives, and the way in which context can change the meaning of a person’s actions.
Mud is tenderly affecting and crafted with an intimacy for characters and their struggles. Jeff Nichols made one of the best films of the past five years in Take Shelter, and continues his cinematic vision with a gothic fairy tale set by the Mississippi River. It follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan, in one of the best young performances in years) as he ventures to a piece of land where Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is hiding out. He’s wanted and considered a criminal, but they form a friendship that works largely due to McConaughey’s power on screen. He gives Mud a romantic side that fits perfectly with Nichol’s romanticized look at this place and its inhabitants. The film has a better idea of setting than almost any other film in 2013; it’s poetic, beautiful, and deeply moving.
14. The Hunt
I finally caught The Hunt a week ago, and what a profoundly subtle, tragic film it is. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a man persecuted because a child claims that she was sexually abused by him; it’s a simple lie that transforms into not a destruction of self, but a destruction at the hands of society. It plays like a modern day, quieter witch hunt with far more psychological damage. The girl never lies, according to her father, and that’s where the nature of this topic emerges: this is such a deeply serious issue that it can never be taken lightly, but when it’s a false accusation, it has unpredictable consequences. The film doesn’t shy away from this dark topic, but uses it to enhance the impact it has on the central character, both physically and mentally. Its ending is one of my favorites this year, and it’s a grueling but highly rewarding watch.
15. 20 Feet from Stardom
Probably the happiest documentary I’ve seen since Bill Cunningham New York, 20 Feet From Stardom centers on the unsung heroes of music’s greatest hits in the past fifty years: the back-up singers. The talent on screen is unbelievable. This is one of those documentaries that is not a particularly showy film in terms of its direction, but it’s one of the best film stories of 2013. There’s a scene in particular, where Mick Jagger sings “Gimme Shelter” with the iconic female voice, Merry Clayton, and it’s goosebump-heavy and chillingly beautiful. These singers are some of the most talented in the business, and they’re often ignored; it’s a travesty. This isn’t a film heaped in sorrow, though, but in celebration of these talents, and that’s why it’s a great documentary.
16. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s ambitious and seemingly impenetrable thriller Upstream Color is one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year. The movie washes over the audience in a way that’s eerily reminiscent to Terrence Malick’s works, particularly Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life. The narrative is surprising because it’s unpredictable and could be interpreted literally and symbolically to an equally entertaining effect. Carruth doesn’t give the audience an easy way out, but it’s not particularly difficult viewing; it’s the epitome of rewarding. His work remains some of the most exciting in the business because he understands filmic syntax and crafts thematically dense works; I could say this is a tale of the symbiotic nature of love and that would only scratch the surface. It’s a brilliant film that, after more watches, could go much higher on this list.
17. Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club features three of the year’s best performances, and might be the most definitive film about AIDS ever made. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic man diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and his struggle to accept the terms of his situation. He meets Jared Leto’s Rayon along the way, a transgender woman that becomes close friends after they are both diagnosed and decide to sell drugs that might help these patients. This is a film about love and the tenderness we can show for humanity. It’s a plea for acceptance and understanding and one of the many films this year that remains optimistic at its core. These are good people, however deep we may have to dig to find that, and even a smaller supporting turn by Jennifer Garner carries more emotional weight than expected. It’s a lovely, deeply felt film.
18. What Maisie Knew
Reminiscent of Kramer vs. Kramer, What Maisie Knew portrays a custody battle in a dense, thematically complex manner. These are two sides that attempt to justify their actions no matter how flawed they may be, and Maisie is a young girl stuck in the middle with a better understanding of her surroundings than anyone thinks. Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard are outstanding in their roles, with Steve Coogan and Joanna Vanderham supporting and helping craft their romantic relationships. I don’t know if there’s ever been a film made about the effect that an adult’s selfishness can have on a child (at least a story this detailed and emotionally driven), but this one depicts how ambivalence toward raising a child creates a hostile, romantically entangled environment. I love this film.
19. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is Bonnie and Clyde if it were made with a Southern inflection and Terrence Malick’s visual influence. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck star as crossed lovers separated by his stay in prison; he hopes to meet the daughter he’s never seen by breaking out, and to escape the grasp of the police officer that desperately hopes to hunt him down. Mara is remarkable in a role that could’ve asked very little; instead, she works with David Lowery’s expert script to craft a detailed portrait of a struggling mother. His direction is some of my favorite this year because it understands the romanticized view of the world the movie should have, considering the star-struck nature of their romance. This story is the essence of tragedy, though, and the movie’s closing shot is quietly beautiful.
20. Frances Ha
One of my favorite film characters of 2013 is the titular character in Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s film that provides the audience with a look into a woman that doesn’t know what exactly she’s doing with her life. Society tells her that she needs to figure that out, but Frances is a 27-year old dancer that hopes to find enjoyment out of the things she loves while simultaneously making a living. It’s not as easy as it seems, especially while living in New York. Greta Gerwig gives Frances a sometimes maddening personality, but she’s always endearing and likable. She’s honest, unconventional, highly unpredictable, but grounded in what she likes doing. Baumbach’s film, shot in gorgeous black-and-white, reminds me of Woody Allen’s best features.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Armstrong Lie; Berberian Sound Studio; Blue Caprice; Blue is the Warmest Color; The Book Thief; Drinking Buddies; The East; Enough Said; Frozen; In a World…; Nebraska; Oblivion; Philomena; Prince Avalanche; This is the End; To the Wonder; We Are What We Are; We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks; The World’s End