7. The Place Beyond The Pines Dir. Derek Cianfrance
I imagine many list-makers and award-givers will forget Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his breakthrough Blue Valentine due to its unfortunate spring release date, but The Place Beyond the Pines was the first truly great American movie of 2013. A complex triptych about family, responsibility, ambition and the lineage we leave behind, Cianfrance takes seriously his job as storyteller while making an ambitious step forward as a filmmaker. Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes do great work with a story full of surprises and subtleties, beautifully shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. And while the actors may be accused of playing to type (Gosling is a quiet, moody drifter and Ray Liotta is.. well, Ray Liotta) the narrative moves so compellingly between storylines spanning decades that its hardly a fault; instead this is a movie that wisely uses its strengths to create something wholly original.
6. The Hunt (Jagten) Dir. Thomas Vinterburg
That The Hunt lets us know right off the bat that the teacher whose life is ruined by allegations of molestation is innocent is perhaps its most deft move. As opposed to losing the audience in a more conventional mystery, we instead immediately empathize with Lucas (played with sterling resolve by Mads Mikkelson), which makes his plight all the more heartbreaking. We understand how easily children, neighbours and teachers can be manipulated and coerced because the horror of the crime has virtually no parallel in the suburban experience. While hardly adhering to the strict principles of the Dogma 95 movement that director Thomas Vinterburg helped create, his most recent film certainly achieves that which the movement strove for: compelling human drama that provokes and stirs by hitting the audience so close to home.
5. The Act Of Killing Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn & Anonymous
The Act of Killing has been on a victory lap for the latter part of this year, collecting accolades with a momentum that will almost certainly end with an Oscar in the spring, but it’s far from an easy, populist film. The seed for the story was planted when director Joshua Oppenheimer visited Indonesia for another documentary project, and encountered men who had participated in the nation-wide (and Western-backed) genocide that the country suffered in 1965-66. Unlike others who would go on to be tried as war criminals, these now-elderly men have never been held accountable in any way, and look back at all this murder with a proud chuckle while being treated as heroes in their communities. What makes this film truly amazing, however, is the storytelling approach: Oppenheimer encouraged the men to tell of their killings in whatever manner they wanted, and several chose to stage reenactments that often took the form of crude gangster movies, modeled after the Hollywood classics that would inspire them. It’s only then, in watching themselves pretend to commit these horrible crimes, that any degree of acknowledgment or catharsis is able to begin. The film is absurd, surreal, and devastating, with a final act that delivers an extremely rare glimpse of humanity eking through the veil of what we’re used to condemning as pure evil.
4. Frances Ha Dir. Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach’s best film since his breakthrough The Squid and The Whale eight years ago is buoyed by Greta Gerwig’s charm, and a quiet confidence that lets its story run a natural course through the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking year in the life of a woman just trying to slog through it all in her own weird way. It looks beautiful, harkening back to both the French New Wave and Manhattan, and immerses us thoroughly into the New York experience also inhabited by Lena Dunham’s Girls (though I’m certain the oft-made comparison must drive Baumbach and Gerwig nuts.) Most importantly though, Baumbach’s characters once again demonstrate the galling honesty that originally made him such an acute observer of the human condition, a trait that is taken to the point of cruelty in his lesser films. He’s in top form once again, and one can’t help but heap a great deal of the credit onto co-writer, star (and girlfriend!) Gerwig.
3. Nebraska Dir. Alexander Payne
Aging is not something films often take much interest in. The elderly are either treated as sages or punchlines, but in Nebraska, they are people with simple needs and complex pasts. Woody Grant, portrayed with unwavering conviction by Bruce Dern, is an aged (semi-recovering) alcoholic who receives an obviously-phony sweepstakes notice in the mail, letting him know that he’s won a million dollars. His son David (Will Forte, succeeding in his first not-ridiculous film role) reluctantly agrees to take him to Nebraska to claim the prize, setting up a road movie with a seemingly obvious trajectory. The film truly comes alive, however, when the two make a weekend stop in their former hometown, and their ripples are felt throughout the extended family and the town that is not used to any excitement. The comedy and family drama are deftly balanced and never pandering, and the dying town and characters that populate it are giddily familiar for anyone from the prairies. The people that inhabit this tremendously unglamorous world, including scene-stealing bickering wife Kate (June Squibb) are always treated with reverence even as we laugh at their honest simplicity. Ultimately it’s a tale of human dignity, told with just enough sincerity to make it really matter.
2. Spring Breakers Dir. Harmony Korine
I don’t think any of us were quite expecting THIS. The early trailers for Harmony “Gummo” Korine’s tale of a teen dream spring break gone wrong were perplexing, presenting only superficial (and titillating) visuals like James Franco’s Riff Raff-esque rapper and lots of nubile flesh. At first glance, the marketing campaign seemed deceptive, ultimately sucker-punching audiences with an abstract art film. Now I understand its brilliance: besides making back six times the film’s budget, distributor A24 served the point of the film even better by shattering the pop expectations that audiences had going in. No matter what you were expecting, the whole thesis of the film is right there in the first five minutes, as it cuts between beautiful, idealized teen bodies and then nightmarish and severe Girls Gone Wild-ism, set to Skrillex’s abrasive, schizophrenic score. It’s about vacuous youth culture and the disparity between reality and the fantasy presented by pop music; the final scene is transcendence into that fantasy, like the Starchild reimagined as a thuggish Florida rapper. And I can’t name a better scene from a movie this year then the Britney Spears singalong at the white piano on the beach. Followed closely by “LOOK AT MY SHIT.”
1. Gravity Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Studios spend a lot of money in hopes of creating “events” out of so many movies, with slates full of overblown re-tellings of (almost always) familiar tales, each one meant to create a frenzy and hopefully a record-breaking opening weekend. It’s rare though that a film actually achieves its own defining moment in the cultural zeitgeist and truly changes the game. That Gravity is equal parts artful meditation, technical breakthrough AND world-wide blockbuster is testament to its unique power, and the capacity that film still has to still innovate and inspire like no other medium, despite the stranglehold of economics. The simple story of astronauts facing the existential horror of being alone in space was brought to life by a truly immersive experience, a 3-D ride that for the first time felt completely appropriate and in service of visionary director Alfonso Cuaron’s colossal ambition. Anyone who was turned off by the happy ending, the dream sequence or the casting is missing something tremendous: I felt walking out of this theatre the way I imagine people felt walking out of Star Wars more than 35 years ago, shocked and awed and genuinely inspired, and there was no achievement in film greater than that in 2013.