Closing out our year-end coverage is individual top ten lists from a variety of The Film Stage contributors, leading up to a cumulative best-of rundown. Make sure to follow all of our coverage here and see Forrest Cardamenis’ favorite films of the year below.
2013 was a good year for films. By that I mean that, like 2012, there are two films that stand apart, with one more close behind, but there is a large number of films clumped together just behind that group in a way that there was not in 2012, (but perhaps were in 2011 or 2010), where even coming up with 10 films had a noticeable drop in how much I enjoyed them. On the other hand, I could easily craft a top 15 or even top 20 for 2013 where I still would be leaving off films that have stuck with me. Much of this, I think, is the success of American cinema this year; last year had me gasping for a small handful of American films I could call “great,” but 2013 has given me a surplus.
But less important to me is how the films signal the “strength” of the year than how the films themselves fare. Indeed, given the variance in release dates across different countries, and the distribution delays that can result in a film not being released for a year or even two after its world premiere date, I prefer to let time tell me how strong a year 2013 is. The films I have selected are films that: opened my mind to the possibilities of cinema; left me in sensory overload or deep thought; entertained, excited, or thrilled me while watching them and resonated with me long after; displayed an admirable level of skill and craft for the art of filmmaking; and seem to me (from my admittedly and necessarily short-sighted perspective) to be candidates to serve both as historical artifacts of our culture (film culture and otherwise) at this particular point in time and as timeless works of art. There are, of course, a handful of films that I have not yet seen (chief among them are The World’s End, The Past, and Faust) that may very well make their way onto this list within months, but still, I was deeply moved in one way or another by each film in my top 10.
To begin, my honorable mentions, which are a selection of five films I see as important, admirable, or simply worthwhile for one reason or another, are as follows. Beyond The Hills is simply put, a brilliant work of modernism on the page, a formalist wonder, and two great lead performances. This could just as well be #10. At Berkeley is observational cinema in the purest sense, done brilliantly. Nebraska is simultaneously a love-letter to the Midwest and a lament for what has become of it, a deeply moving family drama, and one of the funniest experiences the cinema offered this year. Paradise: Love, for the challenging and uncompromising vision of its directors and the difficult themes and questions it provokes. Berberian Sound Studio deserves a mention for its creative use of sound—something too many filmmakers fail to attempt.
10. Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter)
There were a number of strong coming-of-age dramas this year (the aforementioned Something In The Air, Mud, purportedly The Spectacular Now, and even The Bling Ring), but none fused the creation of period details with a direct script as well as Ginger and Rosa. Director Sally Potter gets a career-best performance out of the always-improving Elle Fanning, and her use of costumes gives us all the backstory we need. The films move from one brilliantly observed moment to another (as when the two girls read magazines and shrink their jeans, of when Rosa takes Ginger to a club), and a great cast of adults add distinct supporting characters to the mix that amplify Ginger’s confusion.
9. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)
Certainly the most overwhelming sensory experience of the year, Leviathan, for all its difficult sequences, rewards repeated viewings. Shot simply by mounting cameras in a variety of places—or by tossing them into the sea—and then editing the footage afterward, Leviathan is a showcase for the innovations digital technology provides and also a brutal look at the commercial fishing industry. Whether you read that look as sympathetic or callous, two things are guaranteed: you won’t be clamoring for seafood anytime soon and, more importantly, you will find beauty in the most unlikely of images.
8. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
The rest of this list will reveal that I’m a sucker for films that deal with time, truth, and memory, but with Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley made a daring conceit that worked brilliantly in her forging of super 8mm home movies. This one has received some understandable criticism for those who wish Polley was more truthful in her exploration—when she turns the camera on herself, she is constantly unsure of what she wants. But that’s precisely why the film resonates. It captures the universal search for truth while never ignoring the fear that doubt creates—just as it did when Polley’s family joked about her not really being related. Form (and more specifically) format feed content, as the forged memories reflect Polley’s own desire for closeness, and when she asks her father to repeat narration, she is really reminding us that the frames one creates when deciphering the “truth” can always, problematically, expand further out.
7. Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Lovely as the title is, Blue is the Warmest Color ought to have been released under its French title, La Vie d’Adele Chapitres 1 & 2. The American title, in referencing Emma’s blue hair, emphasizes the love story that unfolds over the course of three hours, and that story is certainly one of the better ones to grace the screen in 2013, but the film’s real treasure, as suggested by the connection between the French title and an early scene in which Adele and her boyfriend discuss the unfinished novel The Life of Marianne, is in its depiction of life’s tendency to imitate art. It was a common theme in 2013, but none said it quite so elegantly. Oh, and it also has the best performance of 2013, courtesy the young Adele Exarchopoulos.
6. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
Above all, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a work about the creation of folklore. David Lowery makes dialogue dynamic by highlighting the performance and storytelling aspects it lends itself to while also depicting the setting in golden-hour, fairy-tale bliss. It’s also a look at how love between two different people preserves itself in different ways when time and distance grow. Comparisons to Malick were a dime a dozen upon release, but upon closer examination, it is clear that there is nothing quite like it.
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