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Nathan Bartlebaugh’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Written by on January 1, 2014 

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 Nathan Bartlebaugh’s favorite films of the year below.

At first glance, 2013 doesn’t stand out as a stunning year for film. Certainly at the multiplexes, the trend of rehashed franchises and half-baked genre exercises continued to clutter a landscape that offered little original or exciting. What set 2013 apart was not any new emerging style or movement, but rather, something far more elusive and precious; compassion. For the first time in many years, there was a great outpouring of film that focused on the human condition in ways that made empathy, understanding and forgiveness traits to be cherished, celebrated and utilized as an active part of our film-going experience. I can’t recall the last time this happened in such a big way.

For every big ticket studio tent pole that landed with a thud, there were small, challenging and exuberant films like The Spectacular Now, All Is Lost or Mud that stuck in the memory and captivated the heart. Master filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Hayao Miyazaki—delivering his last animated feature with The Wind Rises—found new ways to delight and surprise us one more time. New faces like Ryan Coogler and Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour burst onto the scene with work so honest, confident and appealing that one might assume they were veterans of the craft. Even at the blockbuster level, it was hard to argue with the escapism offered by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Francis Lawrence’s Catching Fire.

Yes, it was a year that was filled with treasures large and small, and the output was so good that it would have been just as difficult to whittle this list down to 25 great films as it was for 10. In fact, each of these top ten entries could really be considered a tie for the number one spot, and each feels destined to be the kind of film I’ll return to over and over again as the years go by.

Honorable Mentions:

10. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves may be a silent film in form and function, but the delivery method is more than a fashionable gimmick. Berger adorns his bewitching black and white fairy tale with the kind of alluring, direct poetry that cinematic descendants Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau specialized in and the result is a fantasy masterpiece as transporting as their best. Spain may take over for enchanted English forests, Snow White has become a matador, her stepmother a withering dominatrix, and the dwarves diminutive circus bullfighters but the mystery and magic of the original tale is magnified here in a true feast for the senses. If you’ve tired of contrived big-budget wonder, seek out Blancanieves and watch it cast its formidable spell.

9. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous)

No film on this list affected me more on an emotional level than The Act of Killing, and to call what Joshua Oppenheimer has concocted here a documentary is a severely limiting generalization. Confronting evil in a true form shorn of its sensational cinematic mask is no easy task, and revealing it to itself more difficult than even that. It’s a genuine surprise that when Oppenheimer approaches these mass murdering cinephiles—members of the 1960’s Indonesian death squads—and asks them to talk about their brutal crimes, they enthusiastically agree. Most fascinating is that The Act of Killing isn’t staged as a reckoning upon which these men confess atrocities. Instead, they gleefully reenact their past crimes in the style of the films they love—westerns, musicals, gangster flicks—and we watch them as they are presented, face to face, with the reality of their own inhumanity.

8. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg aims an inquisitive arrow straight at the heart of our cherished conceits of community with this riveting tale of unassuming school teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who finds his friends and neighbors turning against him thanks to a child’s obvious lie. Masterfully conceived as one man’s internal struggle with an entire town’s shunning of him, The Hunt avoids exploitation or rote sermonizing and delivers a simple, thrilling drama that inspires us to look more closely at our personal notions of truth and civility. Mikkelsen, not to be forgotten, is the magnetic center of The Hunt, the unmovable, heart-breaking foundation around which all its intriguing notions orbit.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

At first glance, Inside Llewyn Davis looks like a mix tape sampler of the Coen bros. greatest hits; another folk music collaboration with T Bone Burnett, one more quirky road trip with John Goodman, yet another tale of a frustrated dreamer jilted on the road to success. Underneath all that is an understated and yearning testament to how ephemeral and exhausting the artist’s quest to retain their integrity can be. Oscar Isaac evokes an unforgettable Coen character in Llewyn; arrogant, pretentious, just aware enough to suspect he might not be all he imagines, he’s more endearing for his very human flaws than any virtues he might possess. What transforms this from a very good Coen outing into one more of their considerable gems is that melancholic sense of impermanence that haunts each frame, recognizable to anyone who ever created something and wanted to protect it.

6. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

If you thought there was nothing else to be said on a movie screen about America’s history of slavery, then you owe it to yourself to see Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the finest narrative film to ever be made about the subject. The aesthetic details are immaculate and rich, but all that accumulated rigor pales in comparison to just how human and nakedly honest the film itself is. There’s great compassion imparted in Chiwetel Ejofor’s performance as Solomon Northup, deep, soul-aching sadness in relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, and a tumultuous rot implied by Michael Fassbender’s brutish slave owner. Never indulgent or melodramatic, McQueen’s greatest contribution is his focus on the moral decay at the very heart of slavery as an institution, one not lessened by “good” slave owners or benign practices, but characterized by its ravaging effect on the souls of the oppressed.

See Nathan Bartlebaugh’s top five >>

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