Rekindling the magic of the cinematic art form, 2013 was a year that shined for the numerous outstanding performances and films that will go down as timeless classics. From Science Fiction to period pieces and everything in between, acclaimed veteran directors like Scorsese and Woody Allen or fresh voices like Ryan Coogler and Destine Cretton together made for an unforgettable year in the filmmaking realm. The following list includes an eclectic mix of Oscar-hopeful studio films, foreign art house gems, indie standouts, and the occasional oddball.
In order to make the list as accurate as possible I have only included titles that were released this year in the U.S. Therefore, films like Gloria and many others that I absolutely loved from the Foreign Language Academy Award submissions will have a spot in next year’s list. On that same note, films that were in festivals in 2012 but which opened early 2013 are included here (Lore, NO). A year’s end list that includes 30 films might seem excessive to some. However, given the fact that hundreds of them were released, and that I personally watched close to 200, this amount barely scratches the surface of the vast works critics and audiences were able to witness. Here are, in this writer’s humble opinion, the 30 best films of the year. Please let us know what you think were the best.
30. Drinking Buddies
Dir. Joe Swanberg
It’s hard to say if this film will revolutionize the occult craft beer industry. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic tiny film about very real people and their complex relationships. Its small scope allows the brilliant cast to shine in every scene. This micro-analysis of love reaches grandeur via tons of heart, and gallons of mood altering beverages.
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
Jared Leto is completely unrecognizable as the drug-addicted yet charming Rayon, while McConaughey brings to life an HIV-infected man who is willing to risk it all to save his life and that of others in his situation. The film is simultaneously a showcase of masterful acting, and a lesson in humanity.
Dir. Joss Whedon
Following an outlandish blockbuster like The Avengers with an independent re-imagining of a William Shakespeare play testifies of Joss Whedon's absolute command of the cinematic language. In his witty adaption, the classic characters take on new lives when placed in the present. Irresistibly intelligent, elegant, and superbly acted, the film is a perfect small gem.
Dir. Cate Shortland
The Australian director’s bold feature focuses on the children of the Nazi perpetrators during WWII, and the interchangeable nature of guilt and innocence.A thought provoking, captivating, and relevant film, which dream-like imagery of disillusionment will endure the test of time, and will surely move many viewers
Dir. Carlos Reygadas
Although it follows the lives of an affluent Mexican family living in the countryside, the film disregards preconceived notions of cinema, and wisely chooses powerful imagery over narrative clarity. Reygadas’ latest is a perfectly created, nightmarish collection of existential concerns. Powerful stuff indeed.
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Hated by many due to its lack of narrative coherence and wrongly compared to Winding Refn and Gosling's previous venture together, the Danish auteur's latest is a hypnotic dance of color, ethereal sounds, gushing blood, depraved sexual innuendo and lots of intriguing commentary about morality. Some will accuse Refn of making a pretentious vehicle to showcase brutality with no substance. Let them, as this is a self-indulgent piece, but there is as much existential debate here as there is gore and style.
Dir. Ryan Coogler
Poignant and honest, Coogler's debut feature recounts the last hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young African American man killed by a policeman in the Bay Area on New Year's Eve 2008. Added to Michale B. Jordan's heartfelt performance, the filmmaker skillfully portrays Grant as normal man never crucifying nor praising him as a hero. His film truly proves the power of images as catalyst for social change.
23. Frances Ha
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Modest in its conception, this Black-and-White study on friendship, purpose, and life itself through the eyes of an aspiring dancer in New York is simply brilliant. Penned by both Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who also plays the main role fantastically, this is an original and amusing work, which is certain to surprise and captivate audiences.
22. The Wind Rises
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
No one makes animated films like Miyazaki. His latest, and tentatively his last, is a full-blown historical drama set against the backdrop of WWII. It follows Jiro an aircraft designer who has dreams of creating an airplane unlike any other, while also falling in love with an ill young woman he meets during his travels. Gorgeous visuals and the Japanese master's signature mixture of realism and fantasy make for the best animated film of the year.
21. The Hunt
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg
As one of the founding fathers of the cinematic movement known as Dogme 95, Vinterberg has an affinity for thought-provoking stories. His latest work is an unsettling drama about the destructive power of an evil lie on a man’s life. Furthermore, Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding and undoubtedly gives one of the most affecting and unforgettable performances in recent memory.
20. Blue Jasmine
Dir. Woody Allen
Cate Blanchett is completely engrossing in this elegant drama by the veteran New Yorker. As a wealthy woman who loses it all after her husband is taken to prison for fraud, the actress exposes her characters' insecurities in a naturalistic fashion. Going from a radiant, cultured socialite to a broken, unstable woman at the edge of her sanity the actress displays her immeasurable talent helped by the storytelling genius of the auteur.
Dir. Park Chan-wook
Korean director Park Chan-wook, better known for his gory thriller OldBoy, returns with the story of a dysfunctional family with a morbid secret, which is in turn his first English-language film. Completely surpassing the language barrier, this visionary filmmaker creates a film that is at once perversely beautiful, and disturbingly hypnotic.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Driven by any parent’s worst nightmare the story is a thriller about the abduction of two young girls,but it plays out like a moral exposé that takes both the characters and viewers into some of the darkest shades of the human psyche.Working from the terrific screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, director Villeneuve crafts an astonishing film proving that his captivating measure of suspense and brilliant acting didn’t get lost from the art house field to the mainstream.
Dir. Pablo Larraín
Starring the great Mexican actor Gael García Bernal
, Chilean director Pablo Larrain's Oscar-nominated film
is an evocative film that uses a peculiar style to tackle the importance of the media in social change. It is an extremely entertaining work that seamlessly juxtaposes the visual aesthetic of the 80′s with contemporary cinematic language. More significantly, it is the testimony of a nation fighting for a better future against all odds.
Dir. Alexander Payne
Continuing with his explorations on the unseen side of the United States, Alexander Payne takes on the Midwest with a charming family tale. Veteran actor Bruce Dern plays a man seeking to cash in on a fictitious prize. His estrange son, played by Will Forte, will join the senile elder in his seemingly pointless journey. Payne knows how to create profound stories out of the mundane. Nebraska is endearing, smart, and full of great performances.
15. To the Wonder
Dir. Terrence Malick
This is a one of a kind experience, more than a narrative film, it's an attempt to translate the irrational qualities of love into cinema. To express the hate, anxiety, fear, and uncontrollable urge for connection experiencd by someone in love. Malick's approach is only comparable to that of a religious leader trying to explain divinity to mortals. Moreover, it is possible to count with the fingers on one hand all other films that will even get close to this in terms of gorgeous imagery – the other films are probably Malick’s too.
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Drugs, money, and debauchery permeate the new joined project from Scorsese and DiCaprio. Despite all the excess, acting takes the center stage here. 3 hours of dark comedy and intense commentary on the country's obsession with status and material wealth, are fertile ground for the leading man to show why he is one of the best actors of his generation. Entertaining and completely deranged.
Dir. Pablo Berger
A Black-and-White silent retelling of Snow White set in Spain, the film reignites the true significance of film as a visual medium in its most essential form. Director Pablo Berger not only reinvents a literary classic to make it
irreverently Spanish, but he does so using a beautifully original
stylistic approach. This is the work of someone whose passion for filmmaking goes beyond the surface, which creates a unique and timeless work of blissful cinematic magic.
Dir. Derek Cianfrance
Cianfrance's ambitious and profound film stands out for its great performances and meditative beauty. The director set out to create a piece of monumental, even mythical proportions in every aspect. Having Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling in equally heartbreaking roles makes for one of the most impressive American dramas of this or any other year. Fatherhood is in full view here as the most defining role in a man’s life – to leave a legacy or a curse
11. American Hustle
Dir. David O. Russell
A prodigious con artist meets his demise when he falls in love wit an equally disturbed woman in David O. Russell's sexy and fun 1970s "dramedy". Every cast member is at the top of the game, being Amy Adams the standout performer. Classic filmmaking combined with an audacious and intelligent screenplay bring to life a colorful and uncompromising story about very likeable criminals.
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
With its opening sequence Cuaron's space drama throws out any preconceptions of what a Science fiction film could be. Mesmerizing and compelling, the film reassures the power of the medium and provides a breathtaking experience. Sandra Bullock is simply marvelous. She carries the film with nothing but her desperation to survive and the infinite emptiness around her, and that is more than enough. The Mexican director utilized all the technology available to bring to the screen the most powerful, realistic, and unforgettable outer space tale ever made. It's hard to think it could be outdone.
The legendary directing duo returns with a musically driven character study of a man who is essentially not very likeable, stubborn, selfish, but undeniably human. Visually ethereal and imbedded with quirkiness and delightful wit, the film is a fascinating homage to folk music via a relatable antihero. Oscar Isaac gives a career propelling performance both acting and singing with admirable truthfulness. Once again the Coens take a chance and venture into something special and evocative, yet authentically their own. This is by far one of the best films of the year, and one of the most memorable works of their career.
Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
In Paolo Sorrentino's love letter to Rome the amazing vistas, dazzling colors, and Toni Servillo's acting come together to create exuberant moving poetry that revels in the beauty of a city and the memories of a man. This feat for the eyes and the soul is a masterpiece of the higher caliber. Like the great Italian filmmakers of the past, Sorrentino enhances reality with pure beauty and contagious passion.
Dir. Harmony Korine
Deceiving the viewer by casting a squad of Pop stars as a gang of party-crazed teens, Korine's latest is a completely atmospheric film. The plot is not
particularly complex, but the delivery is full of excess. Foggy, dream-like effects over the Girls-gone-wild-influenced scenes give the audience a sense of fragmented reality. Such overpowering and graphic style speaks of what pop culture
irradiates today, and why it’s so disturbingly detrimental. As
corrosive as the media's antics to alter the way the youth perceives and
experiences life, Korine has created an in-your-face cinematic revolt
otherwise impossible with a subtler aesthetic. Spring Breakers not only takes a song by Britney Spears and transforms it into an artful musical statement, but it also shows James Franco in his most daring role to date. A definitive piece of
filmmaking for this generation.
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
This astonishing documentary is not a political film. It is rather about the failure of a political system in Indonesia. A system that allowed, and even ordered, the execution of more than a million people and which hails the executioners as national heroes who are above the law. Chilling and very hard to watch, yet almost morally unacceptable not to, because the impunity of their atrocities must not remain unknown. On the other hand, the psychological investigation into these characters’ minds makes for the most truthful horror film of them all, in which the real mass murderers are given freedom to reinterpret their heinous acts for the world to see. Unmissable.
Dir. Destin Cretton
Spearheaded by Brie Larson, who delivers one of the best performances of the year, this film about kids in a foster-care facility shows that in filmmaking story overpowers anything else. No
embellishment can save a bad idea, and likewise, simplicity can’t
diminish great writing. Few films can successfully weave so
many stories into a cohesive unit about love and the meaning of
family as Cretton's latest. Its blunt depiction of the characters troubles hits like a
tender blow that is hard to forget. Teary eyes are allowed, laughter is encouraged, and heart-warmth is inevitable.
Dir. Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s magnum opus is the most vivid
retelling of a time that is not often discussed, but that lingers in
the subconscious like the most stubborn scar in the American collective memory. Needless to say the director elicited miraculous performances from his impeccable ensemble cast, from which Chiwetel Ejiofor stands out giving the best male leading performance of the year. To not watch this film is
at once depriving oneself from a masterful work of art, but it is also
an irresponsible act against the memory of those stripped of their
humanity, many of whom died waiting to know freedom. McQueen is fearless and shows violence never in a
gratuitous manner but with the intention to expose the viewer to an
experience that serves no one's interest but the TRUTH. No
sugar-coating or artificial euphemisms are in place here, not in
language or in imagery. Its entrancingly beautiful cinematography collides with the crude reality of
not only racial relations but also horrifying dehumanizing behavior making it the defining film about slavery.
Dir. Richard Linklater
Simply magical. That’s the best way to describe a film like this.
Departing from a flawlessly crafted screenplay the two leads and their
director set out to create the latest chapter in the most honest series
of films about love. Is as if Delpy and Hawke have been born only to
play these roles. As if for the past 18 years they lived as Jesse and
Celine continuously just waiting for the next installment. There is
not a single false move in Before Midnight, every line of
dialogue, gesture and timing is genius, perfectly arranged to seem
effortless and for that, all the more effective. The simplicity of its
premise and the profound magnitude of its message make it an utter delight. Linklater and his two longtime artistic companions are the authors of one of the greatest trilogies in the history of film, and the only one that is undeniably riveting relying only on two superbly memorable characters.
Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
The Franco-Algerian director’s latest film could be described as one of intimate ambition. It follows its characters for over a decade expanding 179 minutes of evocative imagery, which flies by on the screen with incredible fluidity, never giving the audience any indication of its length. Instead, the incarnations -- since such great takes mustn’t simply be called performances -- by the two leading actresses are so tremendously captivating that it is impossible to look away or not to be submerged into their passionate relationship. Blue is undoubtedly the work of an auteur. Even after all the scandalous accusations and discomfort towards the film, there is no denying this is a riveting piece of filmmaking. Every move and every touch is carefully planned to create a realistic yet dreamy account of two women who are consumed by ravaging love, who suffer through it, and who survive it. No one in cinema has ever gotten closer to conveying the mix of torturous anguish and insane joy of what it means to be in love as have Kechiche and his fearless protagonists.
1. The Past
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
Comparing the Academy Award-winning A Separation to Asghar Farhadi’s French-language film The Past, his first film outside of his native Iran, is like comparing two equally beautiful diamonds cut differently by the same master jeweler. The only reasonable way to put them on the same ground is to note the masterful caliber of storytelling achieved once again by the Iranian auteur. It is hard to think of any other working writer/director that has such a perfectly calibrated talent for creating tension out seemingly ordinary circumstances. Days after watching his latest work, its powerful themes and even more riveting mystery still linger refusing to be forgotten. Continuing with his fervent interest in failed relationships Farhadi proves that in his stories, just like many times in life, the end is actually only the beginning.
He crafted a story about the past entirely told in the present.
Refusing to use flashbacks or to fully reveal the events that lead to
what unfolds on
screen, his drama reaches higher stakes as the characters faults are
revealed one by one in an inconspicuous manner. Plagued with red
half-truths there is no clear villain or unquestionable motivation.
Written with full knowledge and command of the human condition, the
director has scored
another masterpiece of grand emotional value and keeps on pushing
the boundaries of storytelling. His subjects are never left
unaccountable for their
actions or free of consequences, yet, for all the terrible outcomes
of their past mistakes Farhadi offers them a new redemptive chance. He
allows them to
forgive, but not to forget. Definitely this writer's absolute favorite film of the year.