I have seen more than 170 motion pictures released in 2013, and so I can confidently label it a special year for film. While it had its share of duds (Getaway, The Big Wedding, Hansel and Gretel) and disappointing blockbusters (Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Elysium), it also included at least two films likely to pass the “Are You A Classic?” Test of Time (Gravity & 12 Years a Slave). Moreover, it produced many other high quality pictures, so many, in fact, that three movies (Mud, Dallas Buyer’s Club and her) fail to make my 2013 Top Ten but might have been my 2012 Number One, if they had been released a year earlier. Another half dozen movies (Frozen, Gravity, The Spectacular Now, The Conjuring, The Square and Blackfish) might have made my 2012 Top Five.
And I haven’t even mentioned the high quality performances that dominated the year. So many leading males deserved award recognition that Michael Shannon’s performance in The Iceman, Tequan Richmond’s turn in Blue Caprice, and Terrence Stamp’s nuanced portrayal of an aging, misanthropic husband all went unnoticed, more or less. Multiple leading females were equally ignored, no matter their skill, including, but not limited to, Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies, Olesya Rulin, and—most of all—Elle Fanning, whose performance I label the best of the year, by anyone. Many supporting actors (Octavia Spencer, Melanie Diaz, Casey Affleck, Sarah Polley, Ryan Gosling, Lea Seydoux, Gemma Arterton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Vanessa Redgrave, and more) suffered the same fate.
All of which leads me to this: there are not many years in film history that are as successful as 2013, something that made compiling this list especially difficult.
Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-nominated film is chauvinistic, features zero likable characters, and includes only one female with any personality. By rights, it is not the sort of film I normally like. But Scorcese’s artistic choices and his actors’ performances are so sensational that The Wolf of Wall Street overcomes my established biases. It also helps that this film is riotously funny while still being satirically and thematically powerful.
Short Term 12’s writer/director Destin Cretton crafts a memorable and impacting drama, primarily because his screenplay is one of the year’s best. He develops his characters well, and his dialogue is also remarkable, all the more so because he makes exposition interesting. Dynamic performances, especially Brie Larson’s, do not hurt.
Sally Potter’s film is not precisely entertaining, but it is emotionally gripping and technically brilliant. She has a knack for period detail and an even greater touch with actors. Elle Fanning (Ginger) is awe-inspiring, and Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland) and Christina Hendricks (Natalie) are memorable, too.
At first glance, Stories We Tell seems incapable of success. How can a single family’s personal story justify a feature length documentary? In director Sarah Polley’s hands, however, it does. Because she makes it about so much more than her family. While Stories We Tell is not the only, or highest rated, film in my Top Ten that the Academy ignored, I consider it the year’s greatest Oscar snub. Two of the nominated documentaries are so middling that I cannot understand how they topped this one.
The Coen brothers latest is edited brilliantly, shot remarkably and exact in its period details. Even better, it is psychologically introspective, proving to be 2013’s best character study. Soulful music and strong performances, especially from Oscar Isaac, help make Inside Llewyn Davis memorable.
Anchored by remarkable sound design, impressive camerawork, and a brilliant screenplay, Fruitvale Station is an emotional experience. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), the protagonist, isn’t perfect, is, in fact, often his own worst enemy, but his imperfections just make him more relatable. As does director Ryan Coogler’s ability to set tone through ambience.
Director Thomas Vinterburg creates one of the most artistically memorable films of the year, exceeded, perhaps, by only Gravity. Between ordinary sets, mundane camera angles, unobtrusive lighting, and a subtle score, Vinterburg makes us feel we’re watching real people respond to a real crisis. His actors help him in that regard, as does his cinematographer, who is careful not to let any of The Hunt’s shots be too beautiful.
Fittingly upsetting, The Act of Killing is thematically resonant, making us consider the nature of immorality. In crafting The Act of Killing as a hybrid drama/documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer proves an exceptional director, one who uses simulations to make us feel, not just to inform. Oppenheimer’s refusal to openly judge his subjects is just as wise; he gives them enough room to condemn themselves, as it were.
While Steve McQueen’s epic treatise on Systems Theory and slavery isn’t my favorite film of 2013, it is the best made. McQueen’s camera is unflinching, and his willingness to immerse in discomfort is truly admirable. Ditto that for how he accesses the viewer’s emotions without manipulating them. 12 Years a Slave will be studied for years to come.
I cannot claim that Wadjda is more powerful than 12 Years a Slave. Nor can I argue that its director, Haifaa Al Mansour, is more artistically gifted than Steve McQueen. But I can submit that Wadjda is thematically timeless, well acted and emotionally moving in its own right. I can also opine that its screenplay is the best of the year, if only because Al Mansour makes her political points without ever sacrificing her feel good narrative. Wadjda mightn’t be 2013’s best movie, but it is my favorite.