by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Top 20 Films of 2013

December 31, 2013

For a while, it seemed like 2013 had front-loaded its highlights; many films making our Top 20 either played the festival circuit in 2012 before finally getting their official theatrical runs Stateside (Like Someone in Love, Frances Ha, and our top pick) or they premiered in May of this year at the Cannes Film Festival (Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue Is the Warmest Color). As a result, by the time September rolled around, awards season was starting to feel more lackluster than usual, barring ‘aberrations’ like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. But then, just as the year in movies seemed all but over, in early December, Martin Scorsese roared onto the landscape with The Wolf of Wall Street, not only upending many a Top 20 list on our own staff at the last minute, but inspiring the kind of intense critical debate that hearteningly reminds us that cinema — despite all the crowing to the contrary from certain quarters — is as healthy an art form as it ever was. As usual, you just have to know where to look. Kenji Fujishima

1277506_585056454907572_824124252_o20. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is awe-inspiring in its every technical aspect — a fact that’s agreed upon even by the film’s detractors. But it’s also more than just an achievement in visual splendor. Buoyed by Sandra Bullock’s commanding lead performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity is that rare film that achieves emotional catharsis by way, or even because, of a harmonious confluence of elements. The extreme circumstances of Stone’s space-bound journey are masterfully melded with the stakes of a simple, but gripping, survival story, leaving audiences at the edge of their seats, rooting for the exploits of the hero. As thrill rides go, they don’t come much better than this. John Oursler

laurence-anyways-still319. Xavier Dolan’s third feature, the emotionally exhausting, decades-spanning trans odyssey Laurence Anyways finds this always-talented filmmaker finally connecting with his material on a deeper-than-aesthetic level. Some credit goes to Dolan’s leads: the mousey, androgynous-at-times Melvil Poupaud, in the title role, and Suzanne Clément, whose manic-but-never-a-caricature performance, as Laurence’s fiancée in a perpetual struggle with her lover’s life choice, most closely align this to messy, character-driven John Cassavetes dramas like A Woman Under the Influence. But, surprisingly, it’s Dolan’s pen that really triumphs in Laurence Anyways: The year’s most underrated screenplay finds its author in the throes of a transformation himself, taking the youthful boorishness that’s defined his films — to arrogant, even solipsistic ends — and weaponizing it as a force against intolerance. And in a small filmography already brimming with big, loud gestures, the best moment may be a simple “hello”; a scene that transcends gender or sexuality, speaking, achingly, to a desire everyone’s felt in love to reset the clock, and the cinema’s capacity to do it. Sam C. Mac

the-counselor-movie18. In many ways, The Counselor represents the perfect companion piece to another 2013 release, the fishing documentary Leviathan, with both films, in their own ways, concerned with men who find themselves caught within the confines of a rigid system of violence that’s guided by invisible, inconceivable forces. But instead of the passive churning ocean waves in Leviathan, the faceless drug cartel within which the eponymous Counselor (Michael Fassbender) finds himself embroiled represents evil at a near-biblical level. It’s no surprise that Ridley Scott‘s film left many people cold; the majority of it is composed of didactic conversations between the Counselor and various figures involved with the cartel, all spouting nihilistic pronouncements about fate and death. But when one is working with a script by Cormac McCarthy, conversation becomes spectacle in and of itself. The particulars of the fateful drug deal are of little consequence in the end; what matters is that as soon as the Counselor entered the cartel’s orbit, he was, for lack of a better term, screwed. Nick Usen

19-blue-is-the-warmest-color17. In much the same way that Brokeback Mountain became known dismissively as the “gay cowboy movie,” Blue Is the Warmest Color has become unfairly pigeonholed as the “French lesbian movie,” with certain controversies surrounding it eclipsing its artistic merit. What makes Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour love story so remarkable is how little the sexuality of the girls matters; while most of the conversation surrounding it has focused on explicit sex scenes and Kechiche’s supposedly leering direction, the core is a simple story of a young woman’s sexual awakening (beautifully portrayed by the luminous Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her subsequent taste of first love (with the seductively mysterious Léa Seadoux). Blue Is the Warmest Color is, in fact, one of the most painfully honest films about love in recent memory. We have all felt the all-encompassing passion and pain of love, and Exarchopoulos and Seydoux bring it all to messy, unbridled, heartbreaking life. Mattie Lucas

the-wind-rises-hi-res16. Jiro Horikoshi’s dreams of flight consume him. He wants only to build the perfect airplane, but when he’s finally given the chance, it becomes clear that his talents are being used to build weapons of war. And yet, Jiro remains resolutely focused on his goal, to the exclusion of not merely his family, but quite possibly the good in his soul. Hayao Miyazaki, like any great artist, knows something about his dreams being released into the world, as well as the feeling of helplessness as the work is misappropriated or misunderstood. He is, however, also a patriot, one who sees both the beauty in the promise of an idealized Japan and the danger of the blind nationalism that has marked his country’s history and present. With The Wind Rises, supposedly the legendary animator’s final film, this chronicler of the Japanese people’s imagination, youthful exuberance, and inexhaustible spirit could end his career on a wise note of caution, a warning that those great things are not the only things. To dream of the perfect future is to risk destroying all the possibilities of beauty in this world. Matt Lynch

The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai15. No one makes an aesthetic statement quite like Wong Kar-Wai — and the director’s most recent film, a kung-fu epic about wing chun master Ip Man, exalts a glorious pairing of Wong’s rich cinematic style and the genre’s adrenaline-inducing kinetics. A potent study of thematic antipodes — languor and zeal, romance and chivalry, special effects and authenticity, lyricism and mano-a-mano — The Grandmaster also examines a geographic divide between China’s north and south, both as a generalization and as specified in the country’s early 20th-century history. Ip Man (Tony Leung) and ba gua heiress Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) define the separation via kung-fu traditions, southern style, and northern style, respectively; but more importantly, via an emotional chasm of their own making. Leung carries the film with his confidence and sadness, but it’s Zhang who represents the film’s core, exuding a heartbreaking intensity. Of all the memorable sequences in The Grandmaster, none are as evocative as the the one in which where Gong Er, surrounded by the floral tableau of a brothel, prepares to redeem her father’s honor by fighting Ip Man, her stern eyes juxtaposed against the curious and soft ones of the prostitutes. Kathie Smith

The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-017114. At the ripe old age of 71, Martin Scorsese somehow imbues his The Wolf of Wall Street with a youthful vitality, his camera kinetically soaring over yachts and tracking through the chaotic maze of the Wall Street trading floor. Though much Internet ink has been spilled over the bacchanalian excess and resplendent wealth that Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loutish gaggle of miscreant brokers worship, and bask in, what is truly shocking is how hysterical this film is. Moments that would be blown up to tragic set pieces in lesser works — such as the recollection of a fellow broker’s suicide and his wife’s penchant for blowjobs — are instead turned into terse sight gags, as Belfort sighs and quickly proceeds with his self-mythologizing narration. The film’s comic centerpiece, though — of Belfort consuming enough Quaaludes to kill a horse and attempting to navigate his now-unresponsive limbs into a white Ferrari — stuns because it presents Belfort in microcosm, and feels a bit like watching a white dwarf implode at a ludicrously close proximity. The only thing funnier than watching Belfort caught in a drug-induced spin cycle is realizing that this buffoon managed to defraud would-be investors out of one billion dollars. We laugh to keep from crying. N.U.

drug-war-1200-1200-675-675-crop-00000013. Johnnie To’s collaborations with writer-producer Wai Ka-fai frequently tend towards the absurd (Fulltime Killer, Mad Detective, and Vengeance are rife with weird little bits of comedic business, and both Fat Choi Spirit and Running on Karma, well, almost have to be seen to be comprehended). But Drug War is a different animal altogether: a spare, blunt film, with a driving plot that moves inexorably towards an inevitable, apocalyptic finale. Film scholar and Hong-Kong-cinema specialist David Bordwell has suggested that, as a Chinese co-production shot entirely in mainland China, To and Wai simply elided any bits of characterization that might have led to battles with the censors. Instead, it’s all business all the time, with characters’ personalities emerging organically from the narrative proper. On paper, Drug War sounds like boilerplate cops-and-robbers stuff: Caught producing meth, a crime that carries the death penalty in China, a criminal is forced to work with police to bring down a large syndicate. But To infuses the proceedings with a mournful, solemn melancholia, reinforced by Cheng Siu-keung’s overcast, gun-metal-gray cinematography — and a shockingly blasé attitude about killing-off characters, good or bad. It’s a brave new world, and To seems horrified by it. Daniel Gorman

ComputerChess_still3_WileyWiggins_PatrickRiester__byComputerChessLLC_2012-12-03_08-01-09PM.jpg_cmyk-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fill12. Instead of making a film about “how we live now” by filling it with pop-culture references and signifiers, Andrew Bujalski investigates “how did we get here” through one of the most uniquely singular films in years: Computer Chess is a documentary hybrid set in a motel in a pre-Deep Blue era where early computer nerds gather their machines to play chess against each other. Instead of telling a story about how computers dominate our lives, Bujalski instead pinpoints, in the early teleology, a type of digital psychology — a willingness to think creatively and exponentially, but always within certain parameters. Bujalski continually finds humor by throwing wrenches into the thought process of his mechanized humans, and surreal comedy in their reaction to wild programming and human interaction, before finally becoming lost in a loop, so to speak. Beyond the film’s analog technologies (especially the aptly-cruddy VHS-style black-and-white) is the future of not only programming, but governmental relationships, New Age spiritualism, sexism, even cat memes. Computer Chess works both as a time capsule and as a way to consider how the digital revolution has changed our approach to simply thinking; its weirdness is only a sign of the possibilities of the future. Peter Labuza

hfafxp4qpsstp4vvg8r711. When Frances Ha was released back in May, a common claim among critics was that it represented a break from the typically caustic tone of Noah Baumbach’s previous films. You could even call it effervescent, in the way the film’s title character, played by Greta Gerwig, literally dances through life. Yet as charming and exuberant as it is, Frances Ha is not a thoroughly sweet movie. Like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and her HBO series Girls, it’s about the difficulties of becoming your own person in a world made for those with deep pockets. There is a real sense of anxiety in Frances Ha, which you can see in Gerwig’s expressive eyes; until the very end, you think she might just drown in the world’s expectations, with her own stubbornness dragging her down like a ball and chain. Gerwig plays the part beautifully, and the fact that she co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, the movie really belongs to her more than him. Her struggle is the millennial’s, in general, and she perfectly captures the desperation of becoming a fully formed person in the 21st century. Andrew Welch

davis110. Already canny documenters of the eerie quaintness of middle America (Fargo), the volatile dust tracks of the Midwest (No Country for Old Men), and on the west coast, the Golden Age of Hollywood (Barton Fink, Joel and Ethan Coen’s eclectic interests turn now to a city (and a generation) where failure can be as noble and beautiful as success. A portrait of the folk music scene in the New York of the 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis is also — first and foremost — a character study of a man hopelessly uncommitted to anything but music. Unreliable and downright dislikable at times, Llewyn Davis is immersed in a situation endemic to many artists and musicians of his moment, following a path that puts value on his passion as an artist above all us — a path that can be terribly lonely one. Through Llewyn, and a masterfully realized time and place, the Coens’ film achieves a healthily unforced amalgam of national nostalgia, bravura musicality, and unsentimentalized human melancholy that’s rarely seen in cinema anymore. Calum Reed

upstream-color9. After a nine-year absence from filmmaking, writer/director/editor/actor Shane Carruth finally re-emerged this year with his second feature, the delicately inscrutable Upstream Color. It should surprise no one that the creator of Primer — the most twisted-pretzel-logic time-travel movie of all time — would eschew traditional narrative structure; what is surprising is just how beautiful this new film is. Amy Seimetz is a revelation as a woman who finds herself the victim of a horrific, and very literal, identity theft. After being drugged with a parasite, left penniless, and emotionally shattered, Seimetz’s character’s gradual reawakening to the world around her — with the help of a love interest played by Carruth himself, a man fallen victim to the same parasite who has also just barely begun to piece his life together — forms the film’s backbone. It’s a heady sci-fi premise for sure, and Carruth keeps things purposefully vague and elliptical, the better to reflect his characters’ unstable psyches. But the film is also shot through with a lovely, wistful camerwork, with a shallow depth of field that abstracts as much as it reveals. Upstream Color ultimately reveals itself to be a tale about connections, not only between each other but with nature, which is here defined, alternately, as cruel, indifferent, but ultimately sublime.  Daniel Gorman

HER8. On its surface, Her is a simple love story about the interwoven nature of joy and pain and the grief that saturates a relationship when one half of a couple outgrows the other. Adidn’t the novelty of a man-OS liaison may have been enough of an innovation of this story for many, but writer/director Spike Jonze is up to so much more here. In documenting the arguably natural evolution of our relationship with technology, and the impact that it can have on our psyche as individuals, Jonze has crafted something affecting and thought-provoking without shading it with the self-conscious stylings of a less-confident auteur. He handles his futuristic bent with a careful calm, refusing to overemphasize the science-fiction elements or become strident with the central allegory. Instead, Jonce allows his story and characters to develop organically, imbuing Her with a lived-in sense of familiarity which lets the realities of this world sink into our skin until all that remains is the primal, profound humanity left to roil in its wake. Luke Gorham

Spring-Breakers-2947. These last 12 months were quite the time for films about the American Dream, but Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers did the best job of turning that dream into a waking nightmare. While to some, the narrative may feel familiar and slight, Spring Breakers is all about chasing infinity and the honest heartbreak that washes over its characters when they fall short of their aspirations. The danger, brought on by a career-best James Franco and his character Alien, meshes gracefully with the film’s ever-expanding milieu of pop-glow colors and surfaces. For a film caught up in the trappings of superficiality, Spring Breakers exudes a richness and urgency that is impossible to shake. Ty Landis

Executioner Anwar Congo (left, with a prop dummy) appears in the film -- sometimes as a victim of atrocities he participated in or oversaw.6. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing — for all intents and purposes a documentary — the leaders of the military-sanctioned civilian death squads that helped perpetrate a genocidal (and U.S.-aided) anti-communist purge in 1960s Indonesia have been asked to create their own cinematic reenactments of their crimes, a request they gleefully, surreally indulge. Raised on macho American genre films, they present themselves as equally performers, crusaders for justice, and folk heroes. This boldly confrontational gambit subtly poisons its audience by exposure even as it gives these men a stage for their unrepentant evil. And so when Anwar Congo, now an elderly man, stands at the scene of his likely dozens and dozens of gruesome murders, and begins to retch uncontrollably as if trying to expel some physical remnant of his horrible soul, it’s tempting to see this as an act of contrition — but there remains the strong possibility that this too is a facade, another performance just like the one he claims he was putting on during his crimes and while restaging them for the camera. The darkness only becomes more unknowable the more it’s examined. Matt Lynch

12f6c396-09b5-4693-b248-8bec195c0cca5. Set in, and about, Vienna and its historic Kunsthistorisches Museum, Jem Cohen‘s Museum Hours centers on an impromptu friendship forged between Anne (singer Mary Margaret O’Hara), a melancholy tourist, and Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard at the local museum where Anne often takes refuge from a cold Viennese winter. The two walk through the museum and city in between her hospital visits to a sick cousin, engaging one another on life’s ephemerality through casual conversation. Johann’s internal monologue provides the film’s narration: He reflects on the art he sees on a daily basis, associatively philosophizing on people and places. “I’ve had my share of loud, and now I have my share of quiet,” he remarks at one point, indicating that, like Anne, he too welcomes observation over participation. A quiet film about quiet people, Cohen’s meditation on life as art and art as life is as life-affirming as any cinematic work could possibly be. John Oursler

Chiwetel Ejiofor4. There is a moment, about halfway through Steve McQueen’s brutal, unforgettable 12 Years a Slave, when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s former free man Solomon Northup, who had desperately resisted the idea that he belonged amongst the other slaves in his company, finally accepts, while singing an anguished spiritual at the grave of a fallen friend, that he is among his kindred. It is a painful moment in a film full of them, but it‘s also when this film acknowledges that it isn’t merely the story of one man suffering grave injustice — it’s about and for an entire people, individuals whose own stories may never be told. The “peculiar institution” of American slavery has been occasionally dealt with in ways offensive (The Birth of a Nation), respectful (the TV miniseries Roots), and outrageous (Django Unchained). But never has it been treated with such jaw-dropping, earth-shattering frankness as it is here. 12 Years a Slave is one of those rare cinematic events, the kind of film where you can watch history being made before your eyes — a landmark classic-in-the-making that will be remembered for years. Mattie Lucas

Like-Someone-in-Love-Main-Review3. With its seemingly generic narrative of metropolitan ennui and interpersonal catharsis, nonchalant images, and suave jazz-bar ambiance, Abbas Kiarostami‘s Like Someone in Love at first seems like an intentional softball after the cascading layers of intellectual rigor that comprised his previous film, Certified Copy. As is typical of this Iranian director, however, initial expectations regarding the tone, shape, and the aim of his film are derailed, this time around a third of the way through. Though Like Someone in Love never stretches beyond its placid but subtly disorienting formalism, its narrative evolves constantly; motivations and demeanors shift drastically across the space of a single cut, and casual misunderstandings jolt characters in unexpected directions. With an uncanny ease of touch, Kiarostami unfolds a slow-burning horror film about the conscious role-playing and self-deception that pollute the texture of everyday life. Carson Lund

before-midnight-greece12. After the ecstatic highs of the initial stirrings of romance in 1995’s Before Sunrise and the unexpected rekindling of said stirrings nine years later, in 2004’s Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight acts as a bitter dose of truth serum, with its unsparing depiction of the harsh realities of middle-aged disappointment and day-to-day living that hit our two aging lovebirds, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). In this context, the picturesque Greek backdrop acquires an extra layer of irony — especially as the tension between them eventually explodes into a torrent of hard-edged bitterness in the film’s second hour. But oh, how we had been flying so high with them just moments before, recalling past glories! In its roller-coaster ride of emotions and the ambiguity of its tenuously happy ending, Before Midnight reveals itself to be the wisest chapter yet in Linklater’s modern romantic saga. K.F.

1_wide-8e438e886408c15eeb7bfa83f1eb608812e57d3c1. The year’s most eye-opening use of technology in cinema is not shot with an IMAX 3D camera, nor does it contain a single frame of CGI graphics. Besieged by the roaring sea surrounding a commercial fishing, Leviathan co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel — of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab — were forced to abandon their professional-grade cameras and original shooting plan; instead, the duo strapped a dozen of GoPro cameras on themselves and on various fishermen, then tossed the rest into the sea and other places that few movie cameras have traveled. The resulting images not only vividly capture the ferocity of these fishermen’s working conditions — they open up a realm among the fish and birds as well that was previously unknown to the human eye. Leviathan also embraced the crude capacity of the digital image, creating an aesthetic that — combined with its blistering soundscape, otherworldly framing (if the word “framing” even still applies), and seamless editing — that is truly in a league of its own. In the throes of the unforgiving wrath of Mother Nature, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel offer up an indelible artistic demonstration of “survival of the fittest,” adapting and innovating in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Francisco Lo