Top 10 Films of 2013

It has been a while since I updated this blog, as I’ve focused on other writing that has taken me away from adding reviews here, but I couldn’t not come back for my favorite films of 2013 on the eve of the Oscars, when we put a period at the end of the long run-on sentence that was the year in movies.

I’ve seen 73 films released theatrically in 2013. I eventually may see more, but for now I think these were the best among them.

The Square
The pinnacle achievement of Jehane Noujaim‘s documentary about the Egyptian revolution is her ability to tell a clear, concise story about a complex political movement while also introducing us to individual revolutionaries who we care deeply about, even when they are at cross-purposes. An emotional look at the process of change from the ground up.

Much Ado About Nothing
I love Joss Whedon, but I love him the most when he’s doing little labors of love like this rather than gargantuan contraptions like “The Avengers.” This film made me giddily happy from beginning to end, shot in beautiful black-and-white and featuring an excellent cast of frequent Whedon collaborators (led by Amy Acker, whose performance I would hold up against any Best Actress nominee this year). Shakespeare’s dialogue didn’t hurt.

The Hunt
What makes this film so effective is showing how even adults with good intentions can spread a false rumor like wildfire and almost destroy several lives in a close-knit town. Under Thomas Vinterberg‘s script and direction, we sympathize with most everyone involved, especially the wrongly accused man (Mads Mikkelsen), and the father of a supposed victim of abuse (Thomas Bo Larsen). What’s scary as viewers is wondering if we might behave exactly the same way.

Her
An impressive achievement in world-building. Spike Jonze creates a plausible near-future full of plausible fashion, design, and technology, including a sentient operating system that may be four or five generations removed from Siri. Even more impressive is how he and actress Scarlett Johansson create a complete character out of the O/S (she’s never on screen but it’s still one of Johansson’s best performances), and then build a romance between her and her operator (Joaquin Phoenix) that is treated as a truly new meeting of minds. It’s odd, but it’s also thoughtful and hopeful about the way we interact with the new world we’re creating.

Before Midnight
I liked “Before Sunset” a lot, but for some reason I appreciated “Midnight” more. Maybe the passage of nine years has affected me as much as the main characters, who talk and talk and talk in a luxurious character study built entirely on conversation. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy create intimacy between the characters and with the audience even though we’ve only known them for a short time. Funny, I still haven’t seen the first film, “Before Sunrise.”

In the House
A mischievous story-within-a-story, entertaining for the way it blurs the line between truth and fiction – a writing teacher tutors a promising student who tells questionable stories about the private lives of another family – but even more so for how it tacitly implicates us all, storytellers and their audience, as voyeurs. The intent isn’t to scold us, however, but to join us in the naughty curiosity of peeking behind someone else’s curtain even when we know we shouldn’t. One of my favorite screenplays of the year.

Gravity
Ranking my top four is tough, because in most other years any of these films would have been number-one. No offense to “(500) Days of Summer,” but I would have killed for movies I was this passionate about in 2009. “Gravity” I rank the lowest of the four just because I don’t have quite as much emotionally invested in it compared to the above three.

That’s not to say I’m unemotional about it. Far from it. Though it gets a lot of credit for its technical mastery, “Gravity” is only a great film because it’s also a great story – simple, direct, and powerful. The technology just serves to immerse us in it, to make us feel like we are experiencing the terror of space along with Sandra Bullock. At that it succeeds magnificently.

The Act of Killing
This film punched me in the gut. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets stunning access to the inner circle of men who committed genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s. By allowing them to tell their stories in their own films within the film, he distills the horrors of their crimes, illuminates how conquerors whitewash history, and in the case of one killer, Anwar Congo, reaches through for a powerful moral reckoning. This film supports the late Roger Ebert’s belief that film is the ultimate “empathy machine.”

Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley wants to tell a story about how we all write our own narratives and come away with different truths, but I wonder if that very conceptual approach is a defense mechanism against how personal this story is to her and her family. She interviews her siblings, father, and family friends to learn more about her late mother and suss out her own origin story. Her discoveries lead to places so moving that by the end I felt grateful to Polley for opening up her family to us in this honest, clear-eyed, unguarded manner.

12 Years a Slave
No one who has heard me talk about this film should be surprised by this ranking. I saw it back in September, and even with many films left to see during the year I knew chances were slim I’d see a better one. I felt it so personally that I found it difficult even to make eye contact with the rest of the audience on the way out of the screening.

It’s not just the subject matter. Yes, it’s important, but importance isn’t greatness. Greatness comes from scenes like the one where Solomon hangs from a tree after an attempted lynching. Director Steve McQueen holds the shot for quite a while, and in his use of the foreground and background he communicates volumes about the slave experience.

Greatness comes from Solomon’s interactions with other slaves, who show him and the audience alike how their survival demands unthinkable moral compromises. When abused slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) makes an unthinkable request of Solomon, for instance, he makes the only reasonable decision for a civilized man, but by the end we wonder what the more merciful choice might have been.

Greatness comes from how matter-of-factly McQueen shows us horror shows like the meat market at which Solomon is first sold, but also how judicious he is in showing us physical violence. The only graphic on-screen violence comes near the very end, where it’s necessary for us to see the brutal consequences of this way of life before Solomon is finally freed. He gets away, but in the process must leave many behind to suffer.

This is not a great film because it’s about an important subject. It’s simply a great film about an important subject.

RUNNERS-UP

Enough Said Short Term 12 You Will Be My SonEnough Said was a very close 11th. It features Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of the best performances of the year as a middle-aged woman insecure about her choices in life and love. Nicole Holofcener writes and directs with her usual attention to character; she is so observant of their subtle shadings and motivations that I feel like I know them inside and out.

You Will Be My Son was not widely seen in the US; I actually don’t know anyone else who has seen it. It’s an exciting French melodrama with a Shakespearean bent, where the outcomes are surprising but seem inevitable, because they arise from a finely written and acted set of characters.

Short Term 12 has one of the best opening scenes of the year. You could pick it apart and study it for how well it establishes setting and character in just five minutes. The rest of the film ain’t bad either, a drama about foster children with great performances led by Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield.

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