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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2013

Written by on January 2, 2014 

20. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

I don’t watch many films again — let alone in theaters, four different times, with four different sets of friends or family, all in 3D — but Gravity was a special case. Director Alfonso Cuarón has crafted the modern blockbuster masterpiece. It’s entirely engaging on a surface level, with the terror of space and its infinite vastness alongside the unpredictability of orbit that can become predictable chaos (just set your watch to it). But Cuarón has clearly enjoyed infusing the film with themes of religion, evolution, and more. – Bill G.

19. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais)

A twilight masterpiece that gleefully eschews old-man reflection and nostalgia, and through expertly deployed digital cinematography instead strives to contribute toward a future its own maker only has so much time left to see. While the meta-cinematic gambit is best discovered for oneself, narrative (even this, [technically] one of the most studied in human history) is of less importance than the act of observing faces and voices that have shaped generations of cinephilia. I’m immensely glad to know Alain Resnais has one more film premiering in only a couple of months’ time, but, for all intents and purposes, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is a final statement par excellence. – Nick N.

18. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, the actor-director’s documentary exploration of her family and lineage, is one of the finest works about family and memory in recent years. Yet it’s a difficult film to discuss, as every detail seems like a spoiler. I noticed, in the time between the film’s TIFF 2012 premiere and my seeing it, that almost every review or piece about the film referenced “spoilers” or included a “spoiler alert.” I found that rather obnoxious, but now I see why that was so important. There are unforgettable moments throughout, including one that left me confused, breathless, and exhilarated, and that is the feeling that has lingered for me. Even discussing what Polley is actually up to here as a storyteller feels like a reveal, and that makes for an incredible cinematic experience. – Chris S.

17. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)

Another love story—there appears to be a trend here—David Lowery’s subtle and quiet portrait has a tad more dysfunction than the rest considering the crimes we witness Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck commit before she’s made to raise their daughter alone while he serves a stint in jail. Stunning cinematographer and a sure hand from the director paint this 1970s-era Meridian, TX landscape with complexity and danger as an undissolvable love risks ripping them apart when the distance proves too much for Affleck’s Bob to simply take laying down. A brilliant character study wherein every person on screen is faced with a hard choice resonating beyond the law, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a gorgeously bittersweet romance where survival is forever intertwined with tragedy. – Jared M.

16. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi)

I can’t say much more now than I did in my full review, but Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain is a thrilling meditation on—literally—the liberating powers of cinema, an exploration of where hope comes from, and a chilling cry for help. What begins as a fiction slowly reveals itself to be a visualization of one filmmaker’s creative process, as well as a more fleshed out exploration of what constitutes a film and how digital technology can impact filmmaking that Panahi examined in his previous work, This Is Not A Film. That this one still doesn’t have a distribution deal is a travesty. – Forrest C.

15. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a Carax-appropriating scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. A perfect film? It sure feels that way. – Christopher S.

14. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)

A rich, behind-the-scenes look at academia, Fredrick Wiseman studies his largest institution yet while barely scratching the surface. Berkeley is a challenging subject, a laboratory of many issues percolating in higher education, however, administrators interested in transparency give Wiseman tremendous access. Each scene never overstays its welcome as the film captures many fascinating moments from the bottom up. Juxtaposing administrators crafting a public safety and PR response to a planned protest, with a classroom where freshman undergraduates struggle to define their roles in society, At Berkeley, the 38th institution-centered documentary by Wiseman, is not only one of his best, but his most accessible, despite its four-hour running time. – John F.

13. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

Presumably Tsai Ming-liang‘s final feature, Stray Dogs appropriately sees slow-cinema, an art film “movement” of which he’s considered one of the defining members, at its most extreme. With shots lasting around ten minutes in length — and, more often than not, displaying acts ranging from mundane to outright inactive; in particular, an extended “climax” that’s simply two people looking at a mural — the film could easily be described as “difficult.” Yet while it becomes an even trickier narrative piece by the final third, venturing into the obtuse (or as my interpretation sees it, the afterlife), the film’s emotions are always crystal clear. Tsai’s form doesn’t adhere to the tenets of stylized realism with some distancing anthropology, but displays an intimacy of character, setting, and, above all, time. No wonder we come to look at two still figures as a living, breathing version of the very mural they’re turned to tears by. – Ethan V.

12. Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

When this film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it caught most festival audiences off guard by the raw emotion and heartfelt performances from it’s two leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. It’s for good reason as well, since watching the electric chemistry between these two actors makes for one of the most exhilarating and draining love stories in years. Director Abdellatif Kechiche elegantly captures the various movements in the symphony of an emotional relationship, from the initial spark to the sweeping swell of carnal pleasure before disintegrating into a sea of heartbreak and sadness. Despite all the controversy post-release, Blue is the Warmest Color remains one of the most emotionally resonant testaments to the beauty and pain of falling in and out of love. – Raffi A.

11. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

The incalculable sorrow conjured by To the Wonder is evinced in a four-word line scribbled by Darren Hughes: “Where’s all the shit?” That this is Malick’s first fully contemporary film isn’t just some vague piece of intrigue or juicy bit of trivia for auteurist die-hards—it’s the absolute essence of what makes the film impossible to dismiss. Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s view of the contemporary world (particularly, that of suburban America) is so foreign and alien that it’s hardly comparable to anything else, even despite the technique’s fervent similarity to that of the other films in Malick’s 2000s period. Olga Kurylenko (in one of the year’s most luminous performances), Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem—to see these people roam around in 1950s Texas or in The New World would be one thing (a poetic revision of history/memory, an aesthetic rendering of a bygone era, etc.); to see them do it in Oklahoma in 2012, in empty houses and barren streets, is strange, paranormal, beautiful, kind of fucked-up, and definitely unforgettable. – Danny K.

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