Top ten lists are a funny creation, meant to illustrate perceived consensus by critics for the years to come. They’re also meant for validation, and seeing who got it right and who didn’t. And if, in six months time, anybody did. They’re a little bit arbitrary, especially in years where most films are of seemingly comparable quality and delineations seem slight, or what about the movies that plant seeds, and that may not blossom for many months to come? Especially because end of the year movies are often seen in such proximity, loud movies like American Hustle seriously risk drowning out the quiet movies like Inside Llewyn Davis. These lists are prone to such unavoidable bias that how well they represent much of anything is up for debate, but nevertheless, we make them. 2013 was a year of surprising audacity and bravery, with many filmmakers defying expectation. Though slow and soft for most of the year, until October really, 2013 emerged as what might become one of the most memorable years of the 2010-2019 decade in cinema. That’s unexpected, and cool. I still haven’t seen Her, which is a serious contender for making my top ten. This is the best, and most accurate, representation of 2013’s year in film for The Metaplex:
10.) Captain Philips- The best execution yet of Paul Greengrass’ trend-setting revival of cinema verité realism, the film sucks out the air of your lungs and leaves you gasping your breath. It’s riveting cinema, especially in how smoothly Greengrass navigates through the trappings of a thriller while always keeping the geopolitical undertones in focus. Take for instance an early scene where the Somali Pirates are given a brutal speech on how to earn ripped write out of Glengarry Glen Ross. This is one of two marvelous performances by Tom Hanks this year, but this is by far the better. It may be his best.
9.) Nebraska- The Descendants never struck a personal cord with me, but Nebraska did. It’s an efficient dramedy led by a shocking turn by lead actor Bruce Dern, most known for playing grizzly and violent character actors (most recently seen in Django Unchained as a viscous slaver), as a gentle but stubborn old man. He won lead actor at Cannes, and Nebraska is all him. Comedy and drama are exchanged freely and cleverly throughout, with many of the film’s most poignant moments sharing both. The sweeping black and white photography emphasizes the necessary nostalgia of the piece, and it’s a great and endearing portrait of aging.
8.) Prisoners - One of 2013’s surprises, this child-gone-missing thriller uses its generic premise as grounds to explore deep and troubling themes about humanity. How far will a man go? Director Denis Villeneuve is one of the best rising directors today, and he dramatizes big questions with a surprisingly potent veracity rare in big studio movies today. It wouldn’t have gotten made without the support of lead actors Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom give high nuanced and fantastic performances. Though forgotten by awards season, it’s still one of 2013’s best films.
7.) The Desolation of Smaug- A huge upgrade from the first Hobbit film in almost every way, Smaug literally left me on the edge for the final picture. The set pieces rank as many of the best in Peter Jackson’s career, and Smaug himself is one of the greatest achievements of computer wizardry to date. Each location serves as a different political perspective on Middle Earth, and from the Dickensian Laketown to the Isolationist Woodland Realm, the world building is truly excellent. So is the movie.
6.) The Act of Killing- In this revolutionary documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the least publicized genocides is investigated. But, instead of the usual Wikipedia-like information download documentaries often can be, Oppenheimer asked those behind the documentary to recreate some of their killings in their favorite movie genres- the western, the gangster film, the musical, and others. Celebrated in their home country as much they celebrate themselves, these men provoke serious thought and discussion, making The Act of Killing one of the most surreal and powerful films this year.
5.) American Hustle- Christian Bale is at his transformative best, Bradley Cooper has never been this spontaneous or wired, Amy Adams gives one of the most complex performances of her career, and Jennifer Lawrence might win a second Oscar. Hustle’s all about the characters, and that cast nails it. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the most breezily entertaining movie in recent memory, one that uses its late 70s style to hilarious ends. Of David O. Russell’s previous three movies, this is easily his best.
4.) The Wolf of Wall Street - Leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio has been trying to get this made for half a decade, and it’s easy to see why. Shakespearian tragedy told by way of cocaine, masturbation, hookers (so many hookers), and stock fraud, Wolf is one of Scorsese’s best. It also doubles as the best showcase of Leo’s talents yet, and his is the best performance this year. The three hour running time flies by, and a certain scene involving Lem(m)ons is so funny, you’ll leave the theater with your sides stinging.
3.) Gravity- Gravity grabbed the world by storm and went on to make more than 650,000,000 dollars worldwide. This is an astounding accomplishment, proving studios can take a mega-risk on the artistic elite and still make a buck. It’s not just one of the most tantalizing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater, but it’s also become an instant classic in sci-fi cinema in general. It’s the movie that made you feel like you’ve been to space, dramatizing the cosmos with beauty and terror in equal measure. It’s a stunner.
1.) Blue is the Warmest Color- A film that, to heartbreaking effect, encapsulates what it is to love in the modern age. In America, Color is famous for a nine minute long lesbian sex scene where prosthetic vaginas were used to simulate real sex. That’s a shame, since Color is nothing less than an artistic triumph on the part of all involved, and deserves far better. It unanimously won the Golden Palm award from Cannes, its highest award, and, famously, protocol was broken to give the lead actress award to both of the film’s leading ladies. They’re transcendent. This is a must-watch, and its Criterion Blu-Ray is only months away.
1.) 12 Years a Slave- Back in mid-October, walking out of the Chicago International Film Festival, I predicted this as best picture. Not because I also suspected it would top my top 10 of the year, which it clearly has, but because director Steve McQueen does for slavery what Steven Spielberg did for the Holocaust. It’s accessible enough to show your friends, but at such an artistic high it will satisfy any cinephile. Slavery has never been seen as heartbreakingly vivid or fully realized, and it has haunted me ever since. A tremendous achievement, and, if it wins, will be one of the most deserving ever.
Runner Ups: Mud, Pacific Rim, The Place Beyond the Pines, Upstream Color, Dallas Buyers Club