This Was an Outrageous Year of Cinematic Bounty: Dana Stevens’ Top 10 of 2013

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 10 2013 8:02 AM

The Best Movies of 2013

It was an outrageous year of cinematic bounty.

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Courtesy of Alison Rosa/CBS Films

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.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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 Slavesomething 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.

Her (Spike Jonze, U.S.). To say too much about Jonze’s complex, cerebral fairy tale (to my mind, his best film yet) would be to betray Her’s unique magic. This ever-so-slightly futuristic romance between a lonely working stiff (Joaquin Phoenix) and his new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) spirals as deeply into its lovers’ psyches as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a film it resembles in many ways—while also posing questions about technology, evolution, and the future of humanity that, like all the most important questions, have no definite answers.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.). See above: For all its flaws (OK, really just a couple minor niggles), this gorgeously mounted but firmly unnostalgic period piece is a movie to haunt your dreams, with a soundtrack that’s as functional as it is beautiful. The songs performed by the title character and his fellow aspiring folk singers are cannily deployed to reveal character, advance the story, and hint at layers of meaning left ambiguous in the opaque (but often hilarious) screenplay. The preternaturally talented Coens long ago achieved mastery of their craft, but for whatever reason, they haven’t made many movies that matter to me at a personal level. This one does.

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, U.S.). As I said in my review, this is King Lear on the Great Plains and possibly, looking back on it after two viewings, my single favorite movie of the year. Payne isn’t just one of our finest living directors, he’s one of our nimblest, able to move from comedy to tragedy in the space of a single shot. As a Nebraska-born septuagenarian making his way back to his home state to claim a bogus million-dollar sweepstakes prize, Bruce Dern gives a magisterial performance: fearless, funny, and bone-deep.

No (Pablo Larraín, Chile). Gael García Bernal plays an apolitical, none-too-bright ad exec under the Pinochet dictatorship who’s hired to create a TV campaign for the leftist opposition. No is a heady, hilarious, technically masterful collage that combines real footage from the 1988 plebiscite election with fictional scenes that are only made to look like they’re shot on cheap ’80s video. It’s also a sharp political satire that taps into both the sly wisdom of Robert Altman and the anarchic spirit of Hal Ashby.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada). Polley’s thrilling third movie works in a subgenre of documentary that I wish we saw more of: It’s sort of filmed autobiographical essay, with sneaky little touches of fiction here and there. This alarmingly gifted young director combines real Super-8 films from her childhood and interviews with her father and siblings with ingeniously faked home movies to reconstruct the twist-filled story of her now-deceased mother’s fateful (and long-undiscussed) infidelity to her father. Polley is introspective without being self-dramatizing and formally playful without being arch.

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia). Everything about Wadjda is a miracle: its very existence as the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia since the theocratic government shut down the film industry (and all public movie theaters) in the early ’80s. The fact it was directed (in part clandestinely) by a woman in a nation where women aren’t even permitted to drive. The fact it’s that director’s debut feature. And above all, the fact that Wadjda—a sweet but sharp-edged feminist parable about a little girl longing for a bike of her own, starring the wondrous 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed—is so thoroughly good. Because of its story, Wadjda has been compared to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, but the seriousness with which Al-Mansour takes the concerns of childhood at times evokes memories of François Truffaut.

* * *

And, because this really was a year of outrageous cinematic bounty, here are 10 more titles that were booted from the list with the utmost difficulty. It was especially hard throwing Robert Redford overboard.

All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, U.S.)
Blue Is the Warmest Color
(Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Concussion
(Stacie Passon, U.S.)
Much Ado About Nothing
(Joss Whedon, U.S.)
The World’s End
(Edgar Wright, U.K.)
Fill the Void
(Rama Burshtein, Israel)
Fruitvale Station
(Ryan Coogler, U.S.)
The Spectacular Now
(James Ponsoldt, U.S.)
A Touch of Sin
(Jia Zhangke, China)
The Wind Rises
, (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

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