I could preamble all of this with the expected and the even-handed — some think 2013 was a great year for film, some think it was not; here are some films you have most certainly heard of, and here are a few you’re invited to reconsider — but all I’ll do is state that when making my 2013 Top 30, I did not have to pause especially long to think of all the films I wound up filling it with. Films are all 2013 Theatrical releases or, in one case, VOD; the list is again in no particular order after #1, an affectation I stick with every year. While I’m certain no human being will agree with every endorsement, appraisal or compliment here, I put this list out, as ever, in a sincere hope that you the reader might find some new films to take a chance on, which will mean that my work here has done the best thing I could hope that it might.
1. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s sci-fi love story is immensely intelligent, deeply affecting, and finally both conceived and constructed so perfectly it’s the year’s most outstanding piece of pure cinema — an unforgettable dream-like vision, mixing noble and ethereal feelings about love with the tangible reality of flesh, mud and blood.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Both bruisingly realistic and brilliantly theatrical, Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s book brings the past to life with brutal patience and a refusal to blink — and also pointedly asks questions of our present, too.
3. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer and his crew literally risked life and limb to give ex-Indonesian death squad members a chance to tell their stories on film; the harrowing result is like art therapy for monsters in human skin.
4. In a World
Lake Bell’s smart, funny and movie-mad debut comedy combines pop smarts with principled ideas for a movie that’s hilariously funny and utterly winning, while managing to shame both Hollywood and its big, banal rom-com ‘products.’
Spike Jonze’s look at love in a near-future gets both the inspirational wish of love and the depressing reality that the technology we think connects us to the world is a wall or a mirror, but rarely a door.
6. After Tiller
Profiling the four doctors left in America who publicly state they do third-term abortions in the wake of a colleague’s murder, After Tiller is a moving, wrenching examination of how all politics truly is personal, and vice-versa.
7. Dallas Buyers Club
Far from the truth but close to the bone, Dallas Buyers Club turns a very specific time, place, crisis and life into a much bigger story of how, yes, we are all in this together, right to the end.
8. The Attack
A multi-faceted tragedy, as a husband learns that his wife died in a suicide bombing … and then, that she was the bomber. A detective thriller about the question of how well we truly know the people we truly love, turned majestic thanks to great performances.
9. The Spectacular Now
Not another teen romance, as Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley fall in love and make a few other stumbles in James Ponsoldt’s achingly true love story.
Putting the ‘dead’ in ‘Deadpan,’ Ben Wheatley’s comedic crime story begins as a newly-minted couple go on a camping trip and find themselves turning it into a murder spree with just the smallest pushes into the abyss to get them started; it’s hilarity with a body count, and co-writers/co-stars/co-creators Alice Lowe and Steve Oram are ridiculously talented.
The Top 11-30, again in no particular order.
Gael Garcia Bernal gives the performance of his life in Pablo Larrain’s ’80s story of the Ad executives tasked with selling democracy over fascism in Chile, with Mad Men vs. bad men in a story of politics, revolution and videotape.
12. All Is Lost
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call was brilliant, talky and urban; for his follow-up, Robert Redford is stranded on the high, lonely seas in a broken boat for a wordless survival epic that seals Chandor’s name as a major director.
13. Catching Fire
Still the best-made, most interesting, politically resonant and yet personality-driven action-fantasy franchise out there — as well as a masterclass example of clean, clear adaptation from a novel.
14. Go For Sisters
John Sayles, with his 17th film, is still making American stories about the America we pretend isn’t there, or simply can’t see — invested, smart, character-driven stuff that has real, righteous hard-won truth in every scene.
15. A Touch of Sin
Zhangke Jia’s tale of the New China — told through four vignettes of crime-and-capital that are all based on real stories and that all interconnect — is a stunning portrait of that country’s fast-forwarded move through capitalism. In fact, it’s a film so good it can’t and won’t be seen in China, where authorities have not only banned showing it, but have also banned reporters from even talking about the film. This film isn’t great because it was banned, though, if I may be blunt; the fact it’s so good is precisely why it’s banned.
16. Before Midnight
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Before Midnight as a film in isolation — and, since this is my Top Films list, I won’t bother. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reunite for yet another sublime, simple and subtle slice of a long journey through life and love.
A cautionary fable out of the Old Testament for our new, idiot age where Reality TV is God.
18. Room 237
A strange side-trip through meaning and movies, with a few digressions on just how fiercely some people hear the insights they alone seem to hear.
19. The Battery
Wickedly smart, brutally honest and firmly aware that even after the zombie apocalypse, some days are just going to be one goddamn thing after another. One of the year’s best low-budget indies, and a better zombie film than the bloated, book-abandoning World War Z.
20. Stories We Tell
Actress/director Sarah Polley tells the story of her family and of their biggest secret in a documentary as emotionally intimate as it is ultimately inventive.
21. This is Martin Bonner
Quietly assured and without a single overdone note, this is a nearly-perfect story of how hard it can be to try and be happy in the face of the world, with a great set of performances as well as a script that never condescends or strains.
A documentary masterpiece in the use and editing of archival footage, as the 1985 MOVE bombing unfolds before the audience with you-are-there shock and awe.
23. What Maisie Knew
A young girl deals with her parent’s separation as witness and victim, with Onata Aprile giving one of the year’s best young performances.
24. Wolf of Wall St.
A fizzing, fuzzy big bang of directorial energy that comes off the screen as a white-hot vapor of money, testosterone and drugs.
25. Short Term 12
Destin Cretton and Brie Larson collaborate for one of the year’s best, most heartfelt indies that never panders nor wallows.
26. Blue Caprice
A thoughtful, impressive, inspired-by-real-events indie that chronicles both madness and how silently it walks among us in every crowd with an impressive, unsettling performance by Isaiah Washington.
27. Frances Ha
Black-and-white with plenty of grey, Greta Gerwig shines in this story of a New Yorker getting her life together, with one of the year’s most gentle/perfect final shots.
28. Inequality for All
Graduate-Schoolhouse Rock, as Robert Reich anddDirector Jacob Kornbluth look at why the U.S. economy is in trouble, and where that came from.
The story is off-the-shelf, but the storytelling is avante-garde; it’s hard not to admire the film’s level of directorial vision and the application of technology to an artistic end.
30. WikiLeaks: We Steal Secrets
Director Alex Gibney’s documentary explains the paranoid modern security state for you, with far less hugger-mugger than The Fifth Estate.