Let’s be honest: No overview of the year in cinema can fully convey its range. Each year, hundreds of movies make their way into theaters, television and digital platforms, while countless others crop up at festivals around the world. Top 10 lists are particularly strange, fickle ways of reducing that dense onslaught into a more comprehensible package. But anyone bitter or clueless enough to dismiss 2013 or any other year as a particularly week one for the medium clearly didn’t experience enough of it.
And yet: This was a weak year for blockbusters. “Gravity” and the forthcoming “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” provided the top spectacles among mainstream releases, mainly by using special effects as storytelling devices rather than pure smoke and mirrors to bury other shortcomings. However, if Hollywood product sagged more than usual, the year was especially strong in virtually every other respect.
My own list of favorites released this year, which I began compiling in January, contains well over 50 movies, many of which I could easily justify placing on the following roundup of finalists. However, the following titles made the cut not only because they’re each outstanding achievements on many levels, but also because of their collective balance. As a whole, they paint a vivid picture of the movies in all their transformative capabilities: Whether dealing with major historical issues or intimate ones, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, assuming traditional narrative structures or demolishing them, conveying sadness or humor or some combination of both, they’re never less than thoughtful, engaging works of art. They have sustained emotional, visceral impacts but are also riddled with provocative ideas.
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These choices are ranked, but it goes without saying that they’re all first-rate.
One of the major problems with any year-end analysis is that it adheres to rules that have nothing to do with quality. In this case, our ground rules dictate that a top 10 list must only recognize movies that have received at least a one-week theatrical run or digital release in the United States during the calendar year. That discounts anything that has screened at a film festival but landed distribution for next year, as well as new titles that have yet to land any distribution at all (however, a list of the best undistributed 2013 movies is forthcoming). Other disconcerting qualifying rules, particularly those mandated by awards season, further complicate matters. Last year, “Room 237” received a pithy one-week run in New York to qualify for awards season before “officially” hitting theaters this past March. Does that make it a 2012 release or a 2013 one? The confusion caused by such ambiguity led the acclaimed work to wind up on very few lists.
And so it goes with “Gloria.” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s staggeringly beautiful portrait of the titular middle-aged woman getting her groove back, anchored by a remarkable breakthrough performance from Paulina Garcia, was met with great cheer at the Berlin Film Festival back in February. This month, Roadside Attractions with squeeze it into a single screen in Los Angeles to keep Garcia in the Best Actress race, but “Gloria” won’t make it to more theaters until January. By then, we’ll be peering ahead to the Sundance lineup and who knows what else, and 2014 will be off and running. So it seems fitting to single out “Gloria” here and now, without breaking the rules, when it could use a little boost anyway.
The first and last time we see the main character, a 58-year-old Chilean divorcee who gives writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s touching midlife crisis drama its name, she’s lost in the shuffle of the dance floor — at once buried by the world and free to roam it. With Garcia’s cryptic expressions saying much more than her words, “Gloria” explores this fragile state of being with extraordinary astuteness. It’s an open-ended question whether Gloria ever finds the happiness she seeks while dodging the current of middle-aged isolation, but her constant search is a valiant and deeply involving one. Lelio reveals her fluctuating mindset through sudden outbursts, solemn asides, brilliant music cues and one utterly memorable dancing skeleton puppet — whose symbolic power only slightly bests the peacock that arrives later on. Visually, “Gloria” is alive with the vivid mindset of its eternally young protagonist. Forget “Thor”; this is the superhero story of the year.
9. “Upstream Color”
Director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to “Primer” is an conceptual puzzle of existential sci-fi. But even as it initially looks like a monumental head-scratcher, the plot is actually deceptively simple: It’s the story of a woman dealing with the aftermath of getting brainwashed and having her consciousness implanted in a pig — and that’s just the starting point. What starts as first-rate body horror transforms into a soul-searching romance when she comes across another person who has endured similar troubles. Their search for collective meaning transcends the simplistic abstractions of the plot and eventually arrives at a point of spiritual awakening on the story’s own daffy terms.
There are enough clearly defined events in “Upstream Color,” starting with the harvesting of plant material in the prologue, to suggest a firm narrative about the capacity to transplant consciousness into nature and vica versa. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because the movie makes it easy to get swept up in a largely wordless progression of visuals that symbolize its characters coming to understand the world beyond the tunnel vision of everyday problems thrust upon them. In particular, Carruth’s fixation on prose from “Walden” points to Thoreau’s assertion that nature is the key pathway to understanding reality. It follows that “Upstream Color,” which finds man, pig and flower united in a struggle to find the logic of a fragmented world, maintains the framework of a story purely as a vessel to explore transcendental ideas.
In a larger sense, it effectively conveys the gap between inexpressible emotions and root causes. Carruth nails the fundamental inscrutability of the universe while remaining in awe of it the whole way through. “Upstream Color” is routinely confusing but not oppressively so; its final exquisite moments explain little yet still manage to invite you in.
8. “Computer Chess”
There is an immediate sense of change afoot in “Computer Chess,” Andrew Bujalski’s fourth feature as writer-director, visible to anyone familiar with his previous work. While Bujalski’s influential “Funny Ha Ha” — along with follow-ups “Mutual Appreciation” and “Beeswax” — were almost defiantly shot on 16mm film and focused on the interpersonal relationships of chic young adults, “Computer Chess” is a period piece set 30 years in the past and shot in black and white on low-grade analog video. Experientially, however, “Computer Chess” falls in line with its precedents while achieving much funnier, offbeat results.
Focused on a group of proto-computer nerds involved in a tournament to devise first-rate chess software for their clunky machines, the movie relishes the awkward expressions of brilliance from its introverted leads. A savvy ensemble piece set over the course of a weekend-long hotel conference, “Computer Chess” echoes Bujalski’s preceding efforts by investigating the pratfalls of miscommunication in continuing deadpan fashion. The shift in this case involves taking that idea to its logical, hilarious extreme of man versus machine.
Appropriately set in the early ’80s (shortly before 1984, to fit its technophobic theme), “Computer Chess” takes place at a conference in which nearly everyone believes the future has arrived in the form of the unwieldy processors students lug into the hotel. Viewed in a 21st-century context, this continuing assertion takes on absurdist dimensions, but Bujalski’s knack for dialogue quickly disabuses the material of any heavy satiric intentions. Instead, with an opening panel discussion headed by professor and chess champ Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary, exuding an amusing blend of sheepishness and consternation), the movie neatly establishes its world and stays in it until the very end. At first off-putting, “Computer Chess” grows on you as its subjects develop into delicate, flustered three-dimensional creations incapable of reconciling their interests with society at large. The movie delivers its witty thesis in claustrophobic terms foreshadowed by a line sarcastically mentioned early on: “A machine can’t compete against the human soul.” But by the end, that proposition remains far from certain.
7. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
“That’s a folk song,” says Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the opening scene of Joel and Ethan Coen’s aptly titled “Inside Llewyn Davis,” after playing a tender melody for the cozy room at New York’s Gaslight Café circa 1961. One could usually make a similar pronouncement about the Coen brothers’ usually eccentric works — yep, that’s a Coen movie, folks — but this one’s a different story.
Light on plot, heavy on melody and feeling, “Inside Llewyn Davis” takes some inspiration from the career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but avoids the trappings of a biopic or making broad pronouncements about the era. Instead, the nomadic Llewyn’s fleeting misadventures, which find him drifting from one couch to the next while struggling to justify his career, lead to a delicate, restrained portrait that results in a different kind of movie than anything else the siblings have produced. The directors’ gentle touch makes it easy to empathize with their down-on-his luck protagonist in spite of his rascally attitude. But it’s truly the songs that make the mood come alive. From the ironically-charged “Please Mr. Kennedy” to the utterly tragic “The Death of Queen Jane,” Llewyn’s odyssey is expressed more coherently in melodies than in any of his flustered rants. It’s a kind of muted movie magic that has never before been executed with such quietly stirring results. While Ulysses the cat plays a key role in enlivening Llewyn’s life (Uggie who?), the real star of this movie is the musician’s guitar.
6. “Museum Hours”
To date, Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. While his new feature “Museum Hours” is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story, its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work. On the one hand a sad, poignant character study, “Museum Hours” is also a treatise on art history and a love letter to architectural wonder. Predominantly set in Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the trim story involves middle-aged museum guard Johann (Robert Sommer, making a gently affecting onscreen debut), whose quiet gig has allowed him to fade into his surroundings and observe the visitors in much the same way they peer at the artwork. It’s here that he encounters the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), a woman of the same generation in town to deal with her cousin’s debilitating illness. Sensing Anne’s isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. Whether seeking meaning in paintings or their lives, their faces reach artistic heights worthy of the same scrutiny allotted to the museum’s collection.
The first sex scene in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s French coming-of-age drama about a young lesbian couple, lasts longer than any other sequence in the movie. To dwell on its length, however, shortchanges its relevance to this three-hour-long feature. After a brief heterosexual relationship in which she loses her virginity, 15-year-old Adéle (Adéle Exarchopoulos) falls hard for chic art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the moment they get the chance to take their clothes off the passion explodes. In the cavalcade of kissing, licking, slapping and moaning that follows, Kechiche makes apparent the intensity of their physical bond, which later enhances the heartbreak caused by watching it fall apart.
Exarchopoulos delivers a bold, thoroughly credible breakthrough performance at the movie’s center, portraying her character as a woman trapped by the mixed messages around her. At school, her peers encourage her to date a male classmate who has his eye on her, but balk when they figure out she’s dating a woman. Seydoux, barely recognizable during the first half under a mop of blue-dyed hair, perfectly embodies the freewheeling mentality that offers Adéle an escape from her staid existence. Their commitments to these characters carry the narrative. Yet Kechiche’s screenplay, which draws Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, manages to convey the depth of feeling shared by the couple so well partly by taking his time. The director has crafted such a believable world that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the stakes at hand. In that regard, sex is less the main ingredient in “Blue is the Warmest Color” than the overall ways that physicality impacts romantic attraction.
Appropriately titled “The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2” for its French release, “Blue is the Warmest Color” elegantly tussles with the idea of reconciling desire with other factors involved in the cultivation of healthy companionship. In Adéle’s case, the story continues.
4. “The Act of Killing”
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” a pair of gangsters — responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government — get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer’s camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers, Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, “The Act of Killing” is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes.
Oppenheimer’s main focus is a lean man named Anwar Congo, one of several former members of the Indonesian paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth. Drawing from American movie clichés for his image as a menacing bad guy, Congo and one of his colleagues indulge Oppenheimer with stories of their murderous achievements while also complaining about the perception they face from the rest of the world. “We have too much democracy,” one of them says. Frequently, the men refer to their power of gangsters as “free men,” but Oppenheimer gradually reveals that no matter how much they justify their past, they remain trapped by the lingering feelings of discomfort that their horrific deeds have planted in their heads.
The case can be made that Oppenheimer lets Congo and the other participants off too easy. They never receive a direct comeuppance. However, “The Act of Killing” vilifies these men by implication. It’s possible they might not mind the way they come off for the camera, as they’re all to eager to explain themselves; it’s that very eagerness, however, that confirms their guilt.
3. “Before Midnight”
With “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate night together in “Before Sunrise,” then abruptly parted ways, only to tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with “Before Sunset.” That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility: Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline? “Before Midnight” answers that question while asking many more, consolidating the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful treatise on the evolution of romance.
The simple answer is yes: Jesse missed his plane. Nearly a decade later, he’s still dealing with the aftermath. But nothing is ever simple with these movies, least of all the fate of its characters. In the opening minutes, Jesse bids farewell to his 14-year-old son, who continues to live with Jesse’s ex-wife in Chicago and just completed a vacation with his father in Greece. Jesse says goodbye, exits the airport and walks to his car…where Céline awaits alongside their twin daughters. After two decades, the couple has at last satisfied the fantasy of forming the life together that always eluded them in the earlier movies. Having established that much, “Before Midnight” dives headlong into determining whether it was worth the wait — and once again avoids a firm conclusion. As Jesse and Céline discuss their history together, it’s almost as if they’ve watched the earlier installments along with us. Nobody geeks out over the trivia of this franchise better than the fictional creations who lived through it, but even they can’t predict what comes next.
While still leaving open their future prospects, the movie brings the experiment full circle by returning to the existential yearning Linklater captures so well. It’s an inviting routine: “Before Midnight” is the rare cinematic achievement that implicates alert viewers in its mission to understand the mysteries of intimate connections. “I really cherish this communication we have,” Jesse says to his son, but he’s also addressing the audience.
I’m not the religious type, but the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab has restored my faith…in cinema, at least. The team responsible for the likes of “Sweetgrass,” “Foreign Parts” and this year’s mesmerizing festival offering “Manakamana” truly forged new ground with “Leviathan,” an expressonistic look at life onboard (and slightly off-board) a fishing boat in Massachusetts. Though they claim not to call themselves filmmakers, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have certainly made a movie unlike anything preceding it.
There are moments in “Leviathan” so breathtaking that it’s easy to forget they’re also familiar. Captured on small digital cameras fixed to fishermen helmets, tossed beneath the waves and strewn across the deck among the dead-eyed haul, the barrage of visuals populating “Leviathan” contain a routinely dissociative effect. The dialogue is sparse and distant, drowned out by hulking machinery, wind and water. The movie could take place on another planet; instead, it peers at this one from a jarring and entirely fresh point of view.
Despite the overload of sights and sounds, “Leviathan” adheres to a remarkably cogent aesthetic filled with innumerable painterly touches, from the red and blue gloves of the fishermen to the dark yellows of the ship interiors. Even as its perspective grows increasingly alien, “Leviathan” is full of life.
On my forthcoming list of the best documentaries released this year, “Leviathan” ranks slightly lower than certain other titles, even though it’s highest-ranked non-fiction effort appearing here. That’s because, as much as “Leviathan” takes place in this world, it’s even more effective at uncovering a new one.
1. “12 Years a Slave”
A lot of issue-driven movies delve into major historical themes with clunky artifice and didactic maneuvers that lead many viewers to give them a pass. “12 Years a Slave” isn’t one of those. It doesn’t make things easy, but it renders the plight of its luckless protagonist in personal terms. The culmination of the daring formalism the director displayed in his previous features “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen’s best work similarly conveys a combination of psychological and physical hurdles rooted in a singularly unnerving experience. But what’s particularly remarkable about the movie is that it navigates these waters while commenting on the historical dimensions of slavery by burying them in the details. Each scene has an alarming immediacy to it that makes it feel as though it exists in the present moment. No matter how haunting it gets, however, “12 Years a Slave” remains hauntingly beautiful.
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 bestseller, “12 Years a Slave” owes much to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s knockout performance, as well as equally immersive turns from Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson. Brad Pitt’s heroic arrival in the closing scenes is an act of mercy for all of us. But those who find “12 Years a Slave” unnecessarily masochistic only confirm its powers. With his slow-burn approach, McQueen converts the air of defeat into an unnervingly visceral encounter. More than a powerful elegy, “12 Years a Slave” is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by time into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you’ve been there.