I love so many movies from this year that making a top twenty was beyond difficult; these top ten could easily be moved around and still hold the impact I want, since this year has many great films worthy of being at the top. Part one, with the eleventh through twentieth best films of 2013, was posted yesterday. Without further adieu, here’s part two, featuring the top films of 2013:
1. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s fierce, relentless, unwavering masterpiece depicts slavery in the most human way: through the eyes of a free man who has seen his world transform from accepting to pure evil. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers the year’s most compassionate performance as Solomon Northup, a free man in the North who gets tricked and sold into slavery, falling into the hands of a sadistic plantation owner, played by Michael Fassbender. McQueen’s masterful direction holds still as it observes Solomon hanging from a noose with his feet working a tiptoe act; he looks at Lupita Nyong’o’s sympathetic slave’s lashing for her inability to love her master; and he closes in on Solomon’s face as he loses himself emotionally in song. The movie’s full of emotion and speaks to the most simplistic notion of humans being able to live; Solomon’s reconciliation in the film’s final moments reduced me to tears in a way no film did this year. This is the year’s strongest, bravest film, and the best film of 2013.
Gravity remains the only film this year that demands to be seen on a big screen, with a powerful sound system, and a pair of 3D glasses. Alfonso Cuarón’s bold exploration of survival in space centers on Ryan Stone, a medical engineer played by Sandra Bullock, who becomes untethered from her space station after a run-in with an orbiting satellite. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography amazes with methodically long, meticulous takes that navigate space in an ever-expansive and increasingly claustrophobic manner. Bullock is brilliant in the lead, carrying the film after George Clooney and other crew leave the picture. Cuarón infuses the film with spiritual components that carry the film near 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of the wonder it creates, and his character study challenges its main character and her faith marvelously. Gravity reminds us of the power of cinema.
3. The Act of Killing
Perhaps the greatest documentary ever made, The Act of Killing redefines film’s social standing as a means of commentary and propaganda. Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinarily harrowing film focuses on Anwar Congo and his henchmen, who seized power in Indonesia in the 1970s after exterminating over one million communists and ethnic Chinese. They were influenced by gangster films from the movie theater they ran, and consider gangster to mean “free man.” Congo himself strangled thousands of men with piano wire because he didn’t care for blood, and Oppenheimer examines them by asking them to make a film reenacting their past. His film captures cinema as a means for crafting history and influencing a culture as it has done to these men; the transformation that Congo undergoes almost humanizes him, but we don’t sympathize. The Act of Killing is unforgettable, a towering and brilliant documentary.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
I’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis twice, and I’m convinced that every viewing will make the film more profoundly tragic and masterful. It follows the title character, played heartbreakingly and lived-in by Oscar Isaac, in the 1960s folk scene in New York as he struggles to thrive in music; he goes from couch to couch and doesn’t hold the best personal relationships. His on-and-off affair with Jean (Carey Mulligan) has led to a stewing hatred from her that only grows each day, and his inability to latch onto the musical opportunities provided show him as a man defined by his hubris. The movie’s evolved into one of my favorite Coen Brothers films because it establishes them as the most distinct storytellers in the business, spanning genres with ease and understanding the scope of cinematic narratives.
5. Before Midnight
Before Midnight closes out one of the greatest romances in the history of cinema. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke play Celine and Jesse, respectively, and are both tremendous not just for their performances, and not just for their beautifully detailed writing, but for their commitment to these roles and the bravery they display. These are aging souls, no longer lost in the power of spontaneous love that attracted them to each other in the first place. They now have kids, they’ve both put on weight and have lost their youth. Yet they’re still the same wonderful souls searching for understanding through dialogue that navigates a scene and characters masterfully. A hotel scene near the film’s conclusion challenges a notion surrounding love’s permanence that very few romances tackle. This is one of the year’s best films.
6. Short Term 12
Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 tells a rare story for film: one of people taking care of others because they haven’t had others take care of them in their pasts. Brie Larson is a revelation in the lead, playing a supervisor at a place for troubled teens and giving her character a grace and understated quality that other actresses would’ve overacted. It’s a film that effortlessly layers its characters, never having big reveals for characters or monologues that tell all. These characters give speeches, sure, and they provide us with intimate details through long discussions. But not everything complex about these characters comes forth at first. It’s a slow, sometimes painfully intimate study of people who want love more than anything else. Short Term 12 demands to be seen, because it’s a beautiful, heartfelt feature.
7. All is Lost
A shipping container and a thunderstorm have never loomed over a film quite like they do in All is Lost. The film contains less than one hundred spoken words, outside of Robert Redford’s opening monologue, and centers a nameless protagonist that is lost at sea in the Indian Ocean. We know nothing of his origin, why he is so far out at sea in a sail boat, or why a shipping container has broken into the side of his ship. Yet J.C. Chandor’s film emerges as a stark allegory for financial ruin while also remaining a simple tale of survival; it’s the barebones cousin of Gravity. Redford’s performance is miraculously effective and embodies the essence of this tale; it’s compelling to see his transformation into a role that’s so devoid of Hollywood norms. The ending is profoundly poetic, putting forth religious aspects perfectly, and the film’s a masterpiece.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is gluttonous, over-indulgent, misogynistic, and coke-addled, much like its main character. Martin Scorsese’s rampant, viciously entertaining film tells the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young gun who goes to Wall St. in hopes of making a success out of his life. Lo and behold, he falls into the downward spiral that seems to epitomize many of these wealthy, selfish individuals: he sleeps with 5 or 6 prostitutes a week, does at least a few bumps of coke a day, treats himself to some Quaaludes when he has the chance, and throws some midgets around for good fun. This is one of the most striking examples of an individual hoping to attain the American Dream in modern film, coming full circle in the scenes after Belfort’s decline. Scorsese captures his story of excess and the way in which greed can lead to a destruction of self in an exciting, insane film.
9. Stories We Tell
This has been an incredible year for documentaries, with some strangely compelling topics making for fascinating analyses of film as a medium. Stories We Tell deserves attention because it’s Sarah Polley’s finest work to date, and also a brilliant character study disguised as a documentary. It’s a tale of family and stories that we all hold dear about the ones we love. My, how those can change in an instant. Polley investigates the truth of her birth father and the results are shocking; they’re heartbreaking yet optimistic, never once losing sight of its emphasis on likable personalities. This a lovely, heartfelt, and deeply personal feature; I can’t deny its effect. She discovers details about her personal life in the guise of a feature, and the audience learns as much of her as it does of its subjects. That’s a rarity in film, and it’s beyond rewarding.
10. The Spectacular Now
The Spectacular Now has a focus on teenage life that isn’t one-dimensional: you won’t find idealistic talks of life here or kids hating every waking moment of their lives. These are people on the verge of beginning their adulthood, trying to find their way in a world that hasn’t dealt them many distinct hardships, but has left them emotionally unstable. Sutter and Aimee (played wonderfully by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, respectively) fall in love in an occasionally brutal, but also remarkably funny and sincere film. There aren’t developments that feel disingenuous, nor do the most familiar scenes feel clichéd. They fit the characters, the characters fit them, and the conclusion feels more like the beginning of an even more telling story. It’s one of the best tales of high school love and woe ever made.