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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2013

Written by on January 2, 2014 

30. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

On their own, the first three sequences of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy follow-up—the long conversation in the Tokyo bar, the infinite-voicemail nighttime cab ride, the initial meeting between Rin Takanashi and Tadashi Okuno—comprise some of the best pure filmmaking of the year. The chemistry between what’s on-screen and the space and sound that’s lurking just beyond the frame is irresistibly playful and, often (as in the cab sequence), profoundly sad. Far from diluting his auteur value, Kiarostami’s ventures outside his native Iran have solidified the universal resonance of his thematic interests and inimitable formalism. – Danny K.

29. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)

What could have been an exploitative look at an instance of police brutality and the unfathomable outcome wrought from fear and abuse of authority in an incident more complex than simple racial undertones might describe, writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station decides instead to show how integral each life on this earth is to those he/she loves. It isn’t about vilifying the white murderer or turning the black victim into a hero; it’s about showing the life of a complicated man with faults and a checkered past finally understanding what matters above selfish wants and desires. And with some of the year’s best performances—Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz—we’re made to understand both the good and bad results of our actions and that things are never as cut and dry as we’d like to believe. – Jared M.

28. Jealousy (Philippe Garrel)

Due to the constant influence May ’68 has on his work, Philippe Garrel’s films often concern a fruitless pursuit of something lost — and, with Jealousy, maybe the simplest human concept: happiness, is the object of this typically talky trek. Amidst the festival circuit’s plentiful offerings of bloat, whether through glibly provocative subject matter or tired recycling of arthouse aesthetics, the relaxed 77 minutes comes as not only a relief, but a reminder of the power found in simple expressiveness. The best way to say it is that Jealousy feels like a story told only through the very images it requires, the multiple perspectives drawing from Garrel’s own life as a father, lover, and child all made wholly clear. – Ethan V.

27. Finishers (Nils Tavernier) 

Finishers is a wonderful, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, inspired by the real life Hoyt Family. Starring Fabien Heraud as Julien, a 17-year old with congenital palsy, he gravitates towards his mother (Alexandra Lamy) while his relationship with his father Paul (Jacques Gamblin) has remained distant. After several attempts, Julien convinces Paul to carry him on his back for the grueling Iron Man France triathlon. Packing a physical and emotional punch, Finishers (currently without a US distributor) is a first-rate family sports drama that left not a dry eye in the house when it premiered at TIFF. – John F.

26. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Premiering at Cannes Film Festival back in 2012, Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Hunt received a minor theatrical release this past summer. A gripping character study exploring what can happen when one lie spreads throughout a small community, Mads Mikkelsen delivers his finest performance in this harrowing drama. With a final sequence that still haunts my mind, The Hunt is one of the most powerful films of the year. – Jordan R.

25. The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

As grand as they come, Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel is perhaps the sloppiest film to ever grace a year-end best-of list. When it misses (ill-advised bookends) it misses by a mile, but when it hits (DiCaprio’s Gatsby, that party scene, that music along with much else) it hits the bullseye. – Dan M.

24. Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour)

Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda is a small miracle of a film. The first Saudi Arabian feature directed by a woman, it’s a humorous but tremendously moving story, both universal in its larger themes and microcosmic when it comes to observing the lives of females within the male-dominated culture. The subversion is subtle, excluding the men from its inner circle of characters, while focusing on one of the community’s youngest, Wadjda, a little girl whose big act of rebellion is that she wants to buy and ride a bicycle. At first glance, the observational style of the film recalls fables like Bicycle Thieves and the Iranian gem Children of Heaven, but Mansour rises to the occasion of her film and makes it stand on its own as a sensitive and joyful portrait of these women. She shepherds an amazing child performance from Waad Mohammed, and through breathtaking compositions, generously turns the camera towards her female brethren, letting their lives speak for themselves. – Nathan B.

23. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne’s latest feature is his best, a wonderful film that does so much right from its unique tone (shifting quietly from parody to melancholy) and its relationships. The story is centered around the life of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, in a brilliant performance) and potentially his alternative life as he returns to rural Nebraska on his way to claim a prize. Enabling the stubborn old Woody is his son David (Will Forte), a lonely stereo salesman. June Squibb also gives a hilarious performance as Woody’s wife. Nebraska is a rough, yet lovable movie, hitting notes so rarely seen. It is one of the best road comedies ever made, embodying the old notion that road movies are about the journey, not the destination. Here is a film that reflects on journey in truly profound and often heartbreaking ways. – John F.

22. American Hustle (David O. Russell)

David O. Russell’s latest success has been brushed off as “Scorsese-lite” in some circles, but that’s a silly, baseless criticism. In fact, American Hustle feels as wonderfully free-form as Soderbergh or Altman, a character study more interested in mise-en-scene and dramatic fakery than plot. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and, especially, Jennifer Lawrence have never had such meaty parts, and all have never been stronger. It’s a glorious high, and one can imagine Russell smirking on the sidelines, as exhilarated as we are. – Christopher S.

21. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)

There are two bookend moments in Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 that highlight this warm yet hard-hitting indie drama’s immense appeal. In both, John Gallagher’s shaggy, likable Mason is regaling his fellow foster home workers with colorful anecdotes from his tenure, each sunny myth interrupted by the reality of the job. Cretton, once a foster care worker, has much of Mason in him, illuminating the power of what a shared hug, hand on the shoulder, or simple impromptu birthday card may do for those who feel rudderless and alone. For all of that, he’s also got a quality that Mason, and his pregnant girlfriend Grace (Brie Larson), the real focus of Term, learn along the way; that the harsh reality of life is just as integral to our journey’s meaning as the brighter moments. Term is filled with brilliant performances, undeniable truths and an unwavering—and yes, brave—belief that there’s boldness in optimism and sophistication in unconditional kindness. – Nathan B.

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