The night before I was to start compiling my 10-best list for 2013, I dreamed of Inside Llewyn Davis. Or rather, I dreamed inside Inside Llewyn Davis: The setting was some version of that film’s smoky, dim Gaslight coffeehouse (albeit equipped with the secret rooms, labyrinthine passageways, and emotionally withholding exes that whoever production-designs my dreams loves to furnish in excess). Upon waking, it was clear that the Coen brothers’ latest would find its way onto the list, not because it’s flawless—as I note in my review, it could lose two-thirds of the John Goodman scenes and be fine—but because when a movie burrows its way into your REM sleep, it’s got you where it wants you.
Conversely, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which provided maybe the most sheerly thrilling experience I had in a theater all year—the movie that, of all those I saw, most effectively made its own running time vanish—didn’t make the cut, because as intense a sensory experience as it was at the time, that film failed to take up permanent residence inside my skull. (I do plan to see Gravity again, in IMAX this time, if only to re-experience what Sandra Bullock’s stranded astronaut somewhat cornily calls “a hell of a ride.”) I don’t generally think of myself as someone who would prefer the new Coens to the new Cuarón, but if there’s anything good about this end-of-year list-making business, it’s that it shakes a critic out of such needlessly rigid self-definitions.
The movie that seems to me an indisputable choice for must-see movie of the year (at least for American viewers), Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, is also not on my list. Why? Lord knows it left me more devastated than anything else I saw, and nearly four months later I still haven’t been able to bring myself to revisit it. 12 Years is a major achievement, a vision of American history that strips the South, once and for all, of its veil of antebellum nostalgia. And the film contains moments of intense, almost unbearable human truth; that agonizing “happy” ending, or the moment when Lupita Nyong’o, as the sexually abused slave Patsey, begs Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon to end her life of misery by taking her out and drowning her. Yet there’s something besides the film’s emotional and physical brutality that’s keeping me from rewatching 12 Years a Slave—something I can only qualify as a certain dramatic flatness, a sense that the dynamic between filmmaker and audience is a closed loop of suffering: You will take it, and you will like it. This sadomasochistic ethos is perhaps best conveyed by the tone of Michael Fassbender’s performance, which is at once searingly intense and, somehow, remote: His alcoholic slavemaster is so monstrous and predatory, he’s more a degradation delivery system than a character. Yet on the terms of McQueen’s film, Fassbender’s performance is a success, since the film explicitly sets out to test out the audience’s limits, to make us keep looking no matter what horrors unfold before us, and, it sometimes seems, to shame us for looking away. Maybe that’s a legitimate artistic goal given the subject matter, but it’s not a director-audience contract I’m sure I’m willing to sign.
All right, enough about what’s not on here. “Tell me who you love, tell me who you love … ” croons the repellent-yet-seductive Llewyn Davis in a Len Chandler song on that film’s exceptional soundtrack. So, with thanks to 2013 for its many unexpected seductions, here is my list of beloveds (in alphabetical order, because Mama don’t rank).
The Act of Killing (U.S./Indonesia). This hallucinatory, genre-defying documentary about a decades-old mass slaughter in North Sumatra, co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an Indonesian collaborator who worked anonymously for fear of reprisals, took the dizzying risk of inviting the still-unpunished murderers to re-enact their crimes in the form of cinematic action sequences: a film noir interrogation, a Western-style cowboys-and-Indians battle, a Bollywood-esque musical number by a waterfall. The result is a movie that’s as frightening (and sometimes, as twistedly funny) as it is profound, with a last scene that will be with me till I meet my maker.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, U.S.). We’re allowed to pick some on the pleasure principle alone, right? Linklater’s sun-warmed romp through the Grecian countryside with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—if you can call a movie that traces the (possible) dissolution of a long-term relationship over the course of one night a “romp”—made for the perfect last panel of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s two-decade-spanning romantic triptych. (Oh, who am I kidding—I would be first in line for 2023’s Before Noon, in which we watch an aging Jesse and Céline flirt, fight, and wisecrack over bowls of All-Bran.)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania). Like Mungiu’s brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is a psychological horror story centered on the friendship (here, a potentially poisonous one) between two young women. A novice nun at a remote Orthodox convent tries to bring her troubled childhood friend into the fold, with chilling results (including an exorcism sequence that, without any special effects or graphic gore, makes William Friedkin’s The Exorcist look like Home Alone). Lest this subject matter seem abstractly medieval, it’s worth noting that Beyond the Hills is based on real events that took place in rural Romania in 2005.
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, U.S.). There’s something wonderfully painful and painfully wonderful about the fact that James Gandolfini’s second-to-last film role revealed to us his consummate skill at comedy—and not just the dark, violent comedy of The Sopranos, but snappy romantic banter in the modern-screwball mode. There’s no one making films right now who writes that kind of dialogue better than Holofcener, the Jane Austen of contemporary American manners. And it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking it better than Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus—who also reveals new range here as a dramatic actress. This physically mismatched middle-aged couple—the bird and the bear—made for the on-screen romance of the year, rendering that Romeo and Juliet remake even more redundant than it already would have been.