2013 in Review: The Top Ten Films of the Year

12 Years a Slave
It seemed like only yesterday that I was raving about what a good year it was for movies. 2013 might not have been as strong for cinema overall as 2012 was, but there was nevertheless plenty of good stuff to see at the movies this year. It was, however, a most unusual year for the movies. 2013 was like a trip back in time as a handful of films did away with colour and told stories in good old fashioned black and white: Frances Ha, Nebraska, Blancanieves, and Much Ado About Nothing are throwbacks to days of pioneer filmmaking, yet one could rightly argue that there as much innovation going on now as there was fifty years ago. On the other hand, Gravity shot moviegoers to the future of cinema by using the technical scope of the frame to its fullest dimension. The only other major studio film of 2013 that was worth raving about, The Wolf of Wall Street, gave perhaps the most contemporary pulse of the times by showing how a bold social commentary remains a more effective device than 3-D glasses. Welcome back to 2-D, Marty.

There was no Zero Dark Thirty, though, among the major mainstream films. No Skyfall exceeded the formula of franchise filmmaking, nor did any Argo reaffirm the greatness of classical Hollywood escapism. The studios largely missed with their big projects in 2013. It was, however, a great year for American independent cinema. The ten films on this list are mostly from the best and most innovative voices of the American indies, while many of them also tell distinctly American stories, but from a perspective largely absent from the mainstream.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
It was hard to whittle a list of best films down to ten. Shout outs go to unreleased films like The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (which actually made this list on a first draft due to fear of a Weinstein recut, but it didn’t feel right to put a film I saw as a “work in progress” on the list), The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, Under the Skin, and Unforgiven. It’s time to ring in the New Year!

The Top Ten Films of 2013:

(Dir. Steve McQueen)

12 Years a Slave eclipses the other films this year with unparalleled force. Steve McQueen and his team offer the boldest and most necessary portrait of American history that the screen has seen in some time. This dramatization of the tale of Solomon Northup is awesomely powerful thanks to the uniformly excellent performances of the ensemble cast, especially leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor, and McQueen’s filmmaking team. 12 Years a Slave shows the legacy of America’s fruition with a gut-wrenching aptitude to turn the camera on sights that have previously been left outside the frame. Take, for example, the film’s most powerful moment in which a singular long take shows Solomon dangling from a branch in the sun as the whites and his fellow slaves on the plantation continue with their daily chores. In this shot alone does 12 Years a Slave capture how the systems of oppression on which America was built were (and to some extent still are) accepted as commonplace and normal. The brutal whipping of Patsey, on the other hand, is a scene that cuts right to the bone. The visceral 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch, but Solomon’s tale implores us not to look the other way.

(Dir. Woody Allen)

Woody Allen, my personal favourite filmmaker, is still at the top of his game at the age of 78. It was only two years ago that Allen topped this list with Midnight in Paris and he almost did it again with Blue Jasmine. If Midnight in Paris is Allen’s best comedy since Hannah and Her Sisters, then Blue Jasmine is easily Allen’s best drama since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Blue Jasmine ranks as one of Allen’s best films for his characteristically astute appreciation for the art that has informed both his work and his perspective on society. Allen shares this grasp for culture with the audience in turn, as Blue Jasmine’s homage to A Streetcar Named Desire offers a tangible tale of the contemporary economic downturn even if a viewer remains ignorant of the real life characters that inspired it. One could also watch Blue Jasmine in complete ignorance of A Streetcar Named Desire and love it, but that would be to miss the full brilliance of Allen’s script and the performances from the film’s impeccable ensemble.

(Dir. Jason Reitman)

Jason Reitman offers his best film yet with Labor Day. The film is an affectionately advanced turn in his career, which was already going strong thanks to comedic hits like Up in the Air and Young Adult. There’s something new to Reitman’s effort behind the camera this time, though. It might be the warmth to the natural lighting in Eric Steelberg's cinematography that brings each frame of Labor Day to life, but a maturity of sorts rings throughout this note-perfect adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s beautiful novel. Labor Day’s unconventional romance—a suburban Stockholm syndrome tale—deftly balances a unique tone that finds warmth and brightness amidst Adele’s melancholy and the looming darkness of Frank. Actors Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Gattlin Griffin sell every scene of Labor Day and make it an unusually layered love story about romantic love and familial love alike. The peach pie scene that forms the film’s centrepiece might be the best work that Reitman has ever done.
(Labor Day opens in Ottawa January 31.)

(Dir. Morgan Neville)

Something about this film really struck a chord with me. The film gives talents like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill the chance to shine, and by doing so, unites their voices in a harmonious ode to the unsung heroes of the music business. The story of the back-up singers who never made it as far as they could have shines a spotlight on some of the unknown names in music, but Morgan Neville’s film unites the women’s stories in a powerful chorus about the desire to make a career by doing what you love. 20 Feet from Stardom is not only a fitting tribute to some of music’s best voices, but also to those who chase their dreams.

5. In the House (Dans la maison)

(Dir. François Ozon)

Hat’s off to François Ozon for this scathingly funny dark comedy. Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas give terrific performances as a married couple that escapes middle class malaise by indulging in the perverse thrill of storytelling as a student’s voyeuristic creative writing assignment becomes their bedtime reading. In the House deconstructs the way one perceives the lives of others with a critical eye in order to avoid the problems one has at home: it’s a lot more fun to spy on the neighbours and play make believe than it is to face reality. Ozon’s script and direction for In the House teases the audience with salacious anticipation as the student (Ernst Umhauer) unfolds his stories like a striptease to reveal the banality of suburban living. The final sequence offers an unmistakably Hitchcockian send-up for the way we tell stories about other people’s lives. It couldn’t be more appropriate since In the House offers the most delicious feast of people watching since Rear Window.

(Dir. Noah Baumbach)

Frances Ha is a little miracle of a film. Noah Baumbach, often the hand behind cynical black comedies like Margot at the Wedding, offers a sprightly smile-inducing little number about the love between friends, as the relationship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (an unsung Mickey Sumner) offers one of the best platonic love stories this generation of cinema has ever seen. This black and white tale could be the Manhattan for Generation Y as Baumbach and Gerwig provide an endearingly befuddled screw-up who bounces around Brooklyn with effortless joie de vivre. Greta Gerwig’s absolutely winning performance helps Frances Ha offer a spot-on portrait of all the twentysomethings of today with a useless arts degree and no outlet for all their well-trained creativity. Frances Ha had me smiling ear to ear each time I saw it.

(Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

Did the Coen Brothers make a film about folk music or did they make an ode to cat-cuddling film geeks everywhere? I love the guitar-strumming, cat-stroking goodness of Inside Llewyn Davis regardless of the Coens’ intent. It’s one of the best films they’ve ever made. It’s an entrancingly simple number that evolves into something brilliant with its enigmatic coda. The songs are bound to keep the film in one’s head for days, as Inside Llewyn Davis warms the soul with its seemingly immaculate recreation of the 1960s folk scene. The Coens find their most memorable character in years to guide the audience along this Homeric hymn of a journey—well, perhaps two characters—as Inside Llewyn Davis is enjoyed best as a ballad about a man with a cat.

(Dir. Felix Van Groeningen)

If Canada’s Gabrielle can’t take home the gold in the race for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, then Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown deserves to win. There’s something magical to the kaleidoscopic heartbreak of the film that crosscuts between love and loss as Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) fall in and out of love. The Broken Circle Breakdown shows the transformative power of music as director Felix Van Groeningen uses the beautiful bluegrass numbers of the film to double as vehicles for advancing the story. The film is utterly disarming in its ability to shift tone, emotion, and meaning with a single cue. Baetens’ performance of “Wayfaring Stranger” immediately comes to mind as an example for The Broken Circle Breakdown’s capacity to convey a lifetime of emotions in a single song.

(Dir. Martin Scorsese)

Only Scorsese could have pulled off a film so crazy. This gong show adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir gives Leonardo DiCaprio one of the best roles of his career as he leads Wolf in a new direction using the hedonistic folly of Belfort’s self-scribed success story. I wish The Wolf of Wall Street opened in October. It’s not a film that benefits from automatic reactions. Scorsese’s satire on the depravity of American capitalism is so spot-on that one could misinterpret is as endorsement, but to say that Wolf condones Jordan Belfort’s lecherous behaviour would be to say that one granted the film zero reflection. The Wolf of Wall Street actually goes a step further and implicates the audience in its conceit. The whole charade of Jordan’s success revolves around a question of supply and demand: as long as people are willing to feed the machine, the machine will run.
(Dir. John Wells)

August: Osage County boasts the best acting one could find at the movies this year. It probably features the most acting, too, as the powerhouse ensemble of Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, et al take a seat at the table at which Meryl Streep gives not only the best performance of the year, but also one of the best performances of her career. The verbose family dysfunction of August: Osage County is wickedly funny, yet director John Wells finds a note of optimism in this dark Southern story from Tracy Letts. August: Osage County finds necessary release and catharsis after all the yelling, plate smashing, and fish throwing that transpires in the confines of Violet Weston’s suffocating old house. It’s an oddly fitting film to see with family and a great chance to appreciate the love you have during the holiday season.
(August: Osage County opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne January 24.)

Honourable mentions (dramatic): All is Lost, American Hustle, Before Midnight, Blancanieves, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Enough Said, Ernest and Celestine, Gabrielle, Gravity, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Philomena, Prisoners, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Side Effects.
Honourable mentions (documentary): 15 Reasons to Live, Blood Brother, The Crash Reel, The Ghosts in Our Machine, Last Woman Standing, Muscle Shoals, Tales from the Organ Trade.

Also in the ‘Year in Review’

What are your favourite films of 2013?

Happy New Year! 

Thanks to all the readers, fellow writers, helpful publicists, theatre hands, festival runners, etc. that made 2013 such a great year at the movies!