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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2013

Written by on January 2, 2014 

10. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel could have earned a position for no more than the transcendent ballet between underwater gliding and soaring seagulls — a show-stopping sequence that forced yours truly to elicit something as awestruck as “oh my God” several times over a few minutes — but, even as a moment of overwhelming beauty, it’s only a portion placed amidst the most natural (yet entirely foreign) images captured this decade. I have a strong distaste for considerations of “game-changing” cinema — a strong distaste for anything that claims to forecast the medium’s future, really — but Leviathan, a first-person view equal-parts terrifying and ethereal, tests that personal preference to extreme degrees in promising a previously unthinkable terrain for documentary and experimental cinema. I can’t wait to see what follows. – Nick N.

9. Her (Spike Jonze)

I expected a lot of things from Spike Jonze’s quirky tale of an emotionally vulnerable man dating his computer, but what I wasn’t prepared for was just how gently accurate it is when dealing with the reality of human relationships, both on small, personal levels and at larger social ones too. Without ever really stopping to explain exactly how this near future operates, or what the parameters of its technology actually are, we are dropped into Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) life and made to feel the loneliness and vulnerability while expressing our own wonder at new wrinkles in this reality. Phoenix gives one of his finest and sure to be most underrated performances as a guy who is trying to recover from a broken heart while learning that he’s not nearly as connected to others as he expected. Awards or no, Scarlett Johansson is astonishing in what she accomplishes with only voice-work. Samantha, the operating system that nabs Theo’s heart, is an original and compelling creation and Jonze does her justice by structuring his film around the various evolving stages of her awareness. This is a brilliant and complex tale about the future of our technology, a spiritual exploration about what makes us tick as humans in the act of being. – Nathan B.

8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)

Jia Zhangke’s films often depict an easy overlap between politics and pop culture, whether it be the entertainers of Platform or The World, or the seeming overabundance of accessibility in Unknown Pleasures. This certainly holds true for A Touch of Sin, which — while loosely based on four real stories of violence fuelled by capitalism in contemporary China — plays with the tropes of past popular cinema as many characters come to embody modern Wuxia knights, the brandishing of Zhao Tao’s knife easily recalling the heightened sword strokes of King Hu. But as a public opera of one these classic Wuxia stories directly poses at the end, “Do you understand your sin?” As easy as it may sometimes prove to cheer on these acts of violence, every one comes with their own set of repercussions. – Ethan V.

7. Bastards (Claire Denis)

Modern-to-the-hilt noir submerged in the unforgiving blackness of digital photography, emotional currents sparked with a tactile cinema appealing directly to the senses. In retrospect, it (sometimes) seems these two edges could sufficiently define Claire Deniss Bastards, but her films can never be boiled down to a few descriptors — which might be a tinge ironic, given the immense power of a narrative system that consists of absolutely no more than each crucial component, like a cinematic razor blade slicing its way through all that’s pure. The crescendo would prove unbearable if the pleasures weren’t so extreme, and Bastards’s final moments are the most viscerally shocking of 2013: just as the final piece is about to snap in, the roving, low-resolution images dart away from an act of savagery — not for the sake of respite, but only as a promise that cycles of violence, corruption, and systematic failure are bound to continue. As Tindersticks carry into the end credits, we’re left with no choice but to embrace the darkness. – Nick N.

6. The Act Of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous)

The most affecting documentary to come out in some time, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film puts a very real and very frightening face on evil. Here we are introduced to the monsters we’ve been afraid of our whole life, and it is impossible to look away. – Dan M.

5. Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

Take out True Grit, which I still haven’t come around to, and the recent run of the Coen brothers—No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis—is as spotless as anything in American narrative cinema right now. The new film is an indelible portrait of an artist who’s both musically talented and professionally doomed. When Oscar Isaac sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the opening scene, into the smoky residue of the Gaslight Café circa 1961, it’s a performance I’d pay good money to see in person. And yet, when Isaac’s later, equally moving rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane” is met with devastating financial skepticism by F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman (“I don’t see a lot of money here”), we don’t bat an eye. That these two things—crystal-clear talent and terminal obscurity—are intertwined so flawlessly into Llewyn’s scenario is some kind of miracle of performance, tone, and worldview. The movie rejects easy nostalgia for the Greenwich Village folk-music scene and instead presents the trade as arduous, stark manual labor—an endless cycle of songs, deals, feuds, junkies, cargo, cats, cars, and couches. – Danny K.

4. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

Easily 2013’s most original film, Upstream Color combined the year’s best editing and sound design to create the most transcendent cinematic experience in quite some time. 10 years after Primer, a sci-fi film that was more concerned with being a mindbender than utilizing cinema’s natural language, Shane Carruth has moved forward by leaps and bounds, proving that he is fully aware how disparate elements, from sound to color to editing, can operate individually and/or together to craft an utterly unique and meaningful viewing experience. Trying to give a plot of even thematic summary of Upstream Color in a few short sentences is a fool’s errand, so in lieu of attempting to do so, I’ll simply say that you should watch it. Now. – Forrest C.

3. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

As I exited a Sundance Film Festival screening of Before Midnight this past January, I knew it would be hard for another film to match up in the eleven-plus months to follow. And indeed, even after a rewatch, this trilogy-capper is the finest film of 2013. Departing from the dreamlike mood of first (and renewed) love of Before Sunrise and Sunset, but retaining their deceivingly brilliant dialogue, Richard Linklater‘s Before Midnight takes an honest, difficult look at the realities of marriage. If the trio decide to return in 2022, I’ll be waiting with open arms, but if not, they’ve created one of the finest trilogies cinema has to offer. – Jordan R.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

The debate over Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece already feels tired. No, The Wolf of Wall Street does not glamorize the antics of Jordan Belfort. But it does revel in them, just like the bloodsuckers who loved him. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance as one of cinema’s great irredeemable assholes, a Quaalude-popping destroyer who, in some ways, feels like the ultimate American businessman. When Wolf finally comes to a close, at nearly the three-hour-marker, this feeling crystallizes. We watch a post-prison Belfort work his magic to a new group of wannabes, and as Scorsese’s camera lingers on their wide-eyed expressions, realize why this film, the director’s later-period classic, is so important: because it captures the allure of money and power in a manner that feels fresh, vital, and now. Everyone involved — Scorsese, DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Thelma Schoonmaker — are at the top of their game. And the result is a film that will feel as relevant in 20 years as Goodfellas does today. What filmgoer could have hoped for more? – Chris S.

1. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

It may have evolved into the “safe choice” for movie of the year, but 12 Years a Slave remains the one that I seem to compare all others to ever since seeing it this fall. Steve McQueen is at the top of his game getting amazing performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and a ton of recognizable faces from start to finish; orchestrating unsettling scenes such as falsely enslaved Solomon Northrup hanging from a tree by his neck in an excruciatingly long take; and meticulously ensuring that the look and feel of the era comes through in all its brutal injustice. People say it’s excessive, but it’s merely authentic. This is the pain and suffering far too many have forgotten. This is our nation’s darkest day, uncensored and in your face, no longer ignored but seen for its blight on our history as “land of the free.” – Jared M.

What’s your favorite film of 2013?

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