Is it fair to compare a lesbian love story told by a Tunisian-French director to a documentary about a wave of killings in Indonesia in which the still living assailants recreate the scenes of slaughter? Or to state which is definitively better; the tale of man sold into slavery, separated from family and brutally beaten as told by an ascending black British director, or the story of a wealthy, beautiful socialite fallen on hard times as described by an legendary Jewish New Yorker?
There is no comparing these films, really. They will never be played as double features. There is no better, no worse, only different, and the rest is subjective to the viewer or critic. But still we feel a need to put things in order, to create lists, to put numbers in front of those lists.
And perhaps it does serve some purpose beyond filling out Year in Review content for websites and magazines; when we see a list of films from a critic or friend or website whose opinion we respect, it gives us a place to start when sifting through the hundreds of films that come out each year in order to find the few dozen most of us will have a chance to enjoy with our limited entertainment time and budget. It gives us a platform from which to argue about or recommend a film. It might not be fair, but it can be useful.
Here then are Cinephiled’s 11 Best Films of 2013, a list created by taking the lists of our many writers and tabulating them together (see each writer’s full list below). In a year that was as full of worthwhile films as this past one was, there’s a very good reason why each of the films below made the cut. Enjoy. – Noah Walden, Editor-in-Chief
11. All Is Lost, directed by J.C. Chandor
In a truly eye-opening movie, a man — not Our Man, but a man, for all that — cuts wood for most of a day, eats supper, heads home. Lisandro Alsonso slowly morphed La Libertad (2001) into a mystery play, turning work, a man’s industry and skill in the material world, into secular ceremony and metaphysical significance. That’s J.C. Chandor’s riveting All Is Lost in spades. The field of endeavor in this spectacular high-seas adventure is vast. Waves, wind, storm dwarf Our Man (Robert Redford’s best performance ever) and mock his stubborn, resourceful efforts to stay afloat after a derelict container gores his yacht. Here’s that rarity, a brilliantly directed American film sans dialogue, with a cast of one, a Hemingway isolato adrift in the kind of nothingness that conjures gut-wrenching questions about the human condition. In the big picture, Our Man, Everyman, struggles heroically to survive, to write his “Kilroy was here” before going under. But Chandor’s allegory isn’t abstract; it signifies through brutal, tactile, exhilarating physicality. The youthful Redford often wore his beauty like armor, seemingly a little too safe in his own skin. In All Is Lost, the 77-year-old’s weathered countenance projects confidence, competence; but as he witnesses the death of his beautiful boat, that composed face begins to come apart—and fear of ceasing to be bleeds through. — Kathleen Murphy
10. Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth
In an era when ‘Independent Film’ too often means slumming TV stars and all-too-familiar plots about big contests, failed romances or roadtrips of self-discovery, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color exploded out of the Sundance Film Festival self-financed, self-distributed and mostly self-made, all propelled by the vision and talents of its writer-director-star. Shunning everyday multiplex and art-house storytelling in favor of smart shots and strange, subtle thematic elements, Upstream Color feels like a dream of love with the nightmares built in too, so that they might make the dream all the sweeter. Like Her, Upstream Color is a sci-fi romance, but while Her asks what happens if you can’t be with the one you love, Upstream Color asks the deeper, scarier question of what happens when you can’t be separate from the person you love, caught up in constant connection. Shot through with the true beauty of the everyday while also informed by smart, deft sci-fi notes that explain themselves with time and patience, Upstream Color is a fully-realized work of genius, a truly independent film, a gorgeously crafted piece of cinema and one of the year’s most touching romances. — James Rocchi
9. The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous
The Act of Killing is a very difficult film to sit through. It makes 12 Years a Slave look like The Care Bears Movie. But if you take a chance on the documentary’s tough subject matter, you’ll be rewarded with 2013’s most powerful moviegoing experience.
In 1965 and 1966, the Indonesian Army led an anti-communist purge, murdering over 500,000 people. The mass killings were the instigating factor in a political movement that transformed the country from a guided democracy into a military dictatorship. The masterminds behind these killings are alive today and were never prosecuted for their crimes. Most still believe they did nothing wrong.
The Act of Killing follows these men as they shoot dramatic reenactments of their favorite murders. Many adore classic Hollywood westerns and jumped at the chance to play hero on film. One even goes so far as to dress in drag for the female lead.
Watching these killers step into the shoes of their victims is an unforgettable experience. The role reversal causes some gut-wrenching empathy where, for the briefest of moments, the men realize the gravity of their actions. The Act of Killing shows how art can hurt and heal. It shines light on an incident that is still passed over by most Indonesian textbooks. It is the reason I love documentaries.
The Act of Killing hits DVD on January 7. Please see it. — Frank Paiva
8. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
Despite having a star-studded supporting cast, this powerful and moving slavery drama wasn’t even supposed to be an Academy Award contender. That honor was supposed to go to the now-seemingly-forgotten Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Director Steve McQueen’s pre-Civil War era drama was based on true story of Solomon Northrup, a musician and free black man who was kidnapped and then sold into slavery. Because of its still-relevant subject matter and strong performances, the movie resonated more with viewers and reviewers than that aforementioned, would-be award winner.
And best of all, it finally afforded the right leading role to go to English-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s been consigned to supporting roles for most of his career, several of them villainous in nature (such as a memorable turn in the fan-favorite Serenity). Here, the soft-spoken Ejiofor takes center stage and commands our attention, as well as gaining our sympathy as Northrup.
Getting back to that supporting cast, it includes Michael Fassbender, the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt (who also co-produced the movie). All of them are excellent, and yet Ejiofor more than holds his own with them. Hopefully this will be a launching pad for the next great leap in his actor career. — Jeff Michael Vice
7. Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s cinematic output these days consists mostly of mediocrity, with a few outright misfires and the occasional hit sprinkled throughout. Blue Jasmine, however, is not just one of 2013’s best movies but one of the few authentically great pictures Allen’s made in recent times. Forget the wildly overrated Midnight in Paris or the compelling yet redundant Match Point. Seemingly disguised at first as a comedy, Blue Jasmine is a sobering, ultimately tragic character study rooted in current events and fueled by honest emotional responses. The pain and anger in the film are palpable, and come from unexpected sources.
Cate Blanchett is, of course, beyond outstanding as Jasmine, the former New York socialite whose charmed existence is torn away from her. But even on her way down, the self-centered, increasingly distraught Jasmine is capable of causing pain to others the way her late investor spouse Hal (Alec Baldwin) inflicted it on his clients. Both are personified in Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the ex-husband of Jasmine’s sister (Sally Hawkins) whose one modest dream for himself and his family was destroyed by Hal and whose heartbreak radiates off him.
Clay shows a depth and vulnerability that is astonishing, matched by Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’ new boyfriend. The way the fates of these working people are tied to that of Jasmine is a clear and, for Allen, surprisingly angry indictment of our current economic and social system. The tragedy is not that the once regal Jasmine seems to be headed toward homelessness and dementia, but that so much gets taken down needlessly in her wake. — Don Kaye
6. Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
It’s so disappointing how a couple of controversies surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color have stolen the conversation from what the film is actually about: first love, overpowering desire, the excitement of discovering yourself and the fear of what others may think of you. As Kathleen Murphy so beautifully observed, Abdellatif Kechiche explores the lives of outsiders looking for their place and Adèle (played with so much vulnerability by Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a young woman who finds herself with another woman (Léa Seydoux), an artist whose self-confidence is as attractive as her physical beauty. The graphic (though not explicit) sexual coupling in the opening act is all anyone seems able to focus on. And yes, it’s provocative, but this is no peep show or erotic spectacle. It’s about letting all boundaries go and giving in to desire and pleasure, about devouring another and being devoured, and it shows the gap between her potential and her fear of embracing her identity and her love in front of a world. As the original French title of the film, La vie d’Adèle: Chapters 1 & 2, suggests, Adèle is a work in progress and Kechiche explores all of her stumbles on the way to finding herself. — Sean Axmaker
5. Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater
It’s a rare movie sequel that rises above the original. The Godfather, Part II comes to mind as does The Empire Strikes Back. One film that can be added to that list is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third entry in the story of Jesse and Céline, an American man and a French woman played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater). The first film, Before Sunrise (1995), was a romantic tale about two young people who meet on a train and spend the night walking around Vienna before disappearing from each other’s lives. In the first sequel, Before Sunset (2004), they run into each other in Paris nine years later but both are involved with other people. Now, in Before Midnight, another nine years have passed and Jesse and Céline are finally a couple — and the parents of twin girls. The new film is the strongest of the lot precisely because the romanticism of Jesse and Céline’s earlier experiences has been replaced by the considerable challenges of committing to a real-life relationship. Hawke and Delpy have matured into their roles and have a stunning ability to convey the unvarnished truth of these characters, warts and all. We see petty squabbles that turn into knock-down drag-out fights fights and then ultimately find a poignant resolution that always rings true. After 18 years of following these characters, I feel fully invested. I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jesse and Céline! — Danny Miller
4. Her, directed by Spike Jonze
Warner Bros. has been (smartly) advertising this science-fiction/romantic comedy as “A Spike Jonze Love Story,” which really tells you everything to know about it. Well, except for maybe that it has more heart and poignancy than anything that oddball filmmaker and occasional Jackass collaborator Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are) has done so far.
This time, Jonze is working from one his own scripts, rather than those penned by either Charlie Kaufman or novelist Dave Eggers. Her follows a lonely professional letter writer (Joaquin Phoenix) who begins an at-first-awkward relationship with his new, interactive operating system, which has taken the name Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson).
Yes, it’s an odd premise, but the back-on-his-game Phoenix really sells this far-fetched story. And, if they’re only going to reward live-action performances, the Academy Awards may need to create a new acting category that’s strictly for voice performers like Johansson. As Samantha, she’s equal parts sexiness, shyness, naïveté and wry charm, which isn’t easy with this kind of role.
Also, the film scores points with its observations about the perils of “traditional” relationships, as well as the ones about our technological dependence. It’s a uniquely thoughtful and moving experience, and maybe Jonze’s best work to date. — Jeff Michael Vice
3. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s space odyssey is a visionary sci-fi tale on the grand scale of 2001. While the director and film have taken flack from the scientific community for various factual inaccuracies (which Kubrick never received for his masterwork), they can be forgiven since Gravity’s story is ultimately a metaphor for its protagonist’s personal journey. Sandra Bullock plays medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone, whose first mission aboard the space shuttle Explorer ends badly as wreckage from a Russian satellite strike begins hurtling around the globe, damaging her craft and forcing her and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to try to reach another orbiting space station and get to earth before the deadly debris circles the earth again. Beyond the utterly fantastic, groundbreaking cinematography (the long opening shot is stunning) and eerie, pulsating score from Steven Price, the simple yet effective story serves equally well as an emotional rollercoaster as Stone, still reeling from the death of her young daughter, is trying to reclaim her life and ground herself. It’s been years since we witnessed a silver screen sci-fi spectacle that is both epic and intimate, especially one dominated by just one character. Once you get sucked into Gravity, you’ll want to float untethered into space with her again. — Bryan Reesman
2. Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne has been to Nebraska before — born there, in fact — but from the terrific first shot of Nebraska the movie, he and we are someplace new. Here’s Bruce Dern, bent forward, making his way toward us on a straight line at center screen in a … let’s call it a determined shamble. The shot would be ordinary — guy walking edge of road — except that it’s ultra-widescreen and the streamlined vacancy of the road angling by at left, in the clean splendor of black-and-white, exerts a tremendous pull, as if in protest that it should be the proper focus of the composition. Soon enough, it will be. Dern’s character, an unreformed drunk and possibly going-senile coot named Woody Grant, lives in Billings, Montana, but needs to get to Lincoln, you-know-where, because a form letter in his pocket tells him a million-dollar prize awaits him there. No one else believes that … although after a certain loony pivot point, almost everyone will, and start going crankily, selfrighteously nuts. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive the old man to Lincoln just to have the matter settled. They eventually get there, but not until other, unanticipated stops have been made. Is Nebraska the funniest and the saddest movie of the year? Payne’s hand couldn’t be surer: the obsessive quest of Woody Grant (cracked echo of “American Gothic” there?) is neither ridiculed, sentimentalized, nor exalted. Up till now, Payne has seemed like a novelist accidentally turned film director. Actually, he’s never written a novel, and this is his first film on which he has no screenwriting credit. Yet he’s never before written as eloquently with his camera. — Richard T. Jameson
1. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen Brothers
When I watch a Coen Brothers movie, I feel a fully realized world opening up before me, as if they were taking me into a place in space and time that’s always been there, just out of sight, that nobody’s ever noticed before. The blend of familiarity and peculiarity generates tension that’s simultaneously comical and unsettling — which, I guess, is why some people complain (complain?!?!) that they don’t know whether or they’re supposed to be amused or repulsed or both. Well, that’s the whole point: The Coens don’t care. They’re just interested in putting you in that position. What you do with it is up to you. As Mr. Park says in A Serious Man: “Accept mystery.”
And when it comes to audience response, Llewyn Davis doesn’t care, either. Sure, he’d like to be making a living off of singing folk music (“if it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song”), but he sees himself as an authentic working artist — folk singing is both his job and his art — and he is only interested in success on his own terms. (To quote Charles Foster Kane: “Those are the only terms anybody ever knows — his own.”) Llewyn is kin to Barton Fink. The latter is an artist who achieves a measure of success with little demonstrable talent and fails miserably. Llewyn also fails miserably, personally and professionally, but he displays loads of talent, along with poor judgement. The thing is, he either can’t or won’t connect with people. That and he happens to be a narcissistic jerk who sabotages himself at every turn. And he has really bad luck, too.
That’s the premise of Inside Llewyn Davis. The milieu is the Greenwich Village folk-revival scene in the grey winter of 1961 — the post-Beat, pre-Dylan, pre-commercial-explosion days of Dave Van Ronk (on whose life it’s very loosely based), Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers, Ian & Sylvia. And not only do the Coens vividly capture the details — the look, the feel, the sense of place, the music (thanks, T-Bone Burnett, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands!) — they pose some eternal questions about the role of the artist in a society that sees everything in terms of money. — Jim Emerson
Blue is the Warmest Color / La vie d’Adèle
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Something in the Air / Apres Mai
Night Across the Street
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. All Is Lost
5. The Act of Killing
6. This Is the End
7. Behind the Candelabra
8. The Stranger By the Lake
9. The Great Beauty
Richard T. Jameson
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Blue Is the Warmest Color
6. American Hustle
7. Like Someone in Love
8. Enough Said
9. All Is Lost
10. Fruitvale Station
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Blue Jasmine
5. 12 Years A Slave
6. Short Term 12
10. A Hijackin
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
2. Apres Mai (Olivier Assayas)
3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
4. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (Alain Resnais)
5. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth0
6. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
7. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
8. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
9. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
10. Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Inside Llewyn Davis
Breakfast with Curtis
Stories We Tell
Saving Mr. Banks
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. Blue Is the Warmest Color
4. All Is Lost
6. Stories We Tell
9. Blue Jasmine
10. The Wind Rises
1. The Act of Killing
2. Before Midnight
3. Blue Jasmine
6. 12 Years a Slave
7. Blue is the Warmest Color
8. Frances Ha
9. 20 Feet from Stardom
10. Room 237
3. The Conjuring
4. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
6. The Wolverine
7. The Butler
9. The Purge
10. The Place Beyond The Pines
1. Upstream Color
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. The Act of Killing
4. In a World
6. After Tiller
7. Dallas Buyers Club
8. The Attack
9. The Spectacular Now
Jeff Michael Vice
1. The World’s End
4. The Hunt
5. Before Midnight
7. The Crash Reel
8. The Act of Killing
9. Blue Jasmine