10. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke has been a longtime critical favorite whose films have never really broken through in North America – and unfortunately while A Touch of Sin is his most accessible film to date, that didn’t really change with this film. Jia’s films have most often concerned China’s changing economic landscape, emerging capitalism and their place in a world of globalization. A Touch of Sin addresses these concerns as well – but with a much different style than most of his others. The film tells a quartet of dark, violent stories – stories where one person is pushed to the brink, and then goes off it in an explosion of violence. All four stories are based on true incidents in China – and extend through the entire country. The first is about a man in a small mining town who is upset the corporation who bought the mine from the town has not lived up to their end of the deal – and eventually takes action. The second is about a man who barely knows his own wife and son, who returns home briefly to attend his mother’s birthday – who heads back out onto the road to commit more violent crimes. The third is about a woman trapped in a demeaning job and a demeaning affair with a married man who snaps when pushed too far. The fourth is about a young man who hops from one meaningless job to another until he cannot take it anymore. The film uses genre stylistics (specifically wuxia films – the title being a play on the famous film A Touch of Zen). All four are stories are tragic violent and disturbing – and taken together add up to a dark picture of China, whose modernization has come with at a cost. I’m not sure this is Jia’s best film – Platform (2000) and Still Life (2006) may still lay claim to that title – but its close. Hopefully more people will discover this film – and this director, who is one of the best working anywhere in the world right now.
9. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)Gravity is probably the greatest technical achievement in cinema of 2013. Alfonso Cuaron’s film is an example of how to use special effects and 3-D in support of its story, and not just in place of it. From the opening frames of Gravity, with the incredible, swooping camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki, to its final moments, Gravity grabs you by the throat, and thrusts you into a dizzying cinematic journey alongside its main character – Sandra Bullock, doing the best work of her career. The story is simple – Bullock is lost, alone floating in space, and has to find a way to safety against nearly impossible odds. Bullock grounds the movie with her intense, emotional performance – which allows the brilliant work by Cuaron and his crew to take over. There is not a frame of this film that isn’t something to behold – both visually and aurally. Too often this year, I saw movies with a lot of special effects that had little to not impact on me – at times they looked good, but after a while there was only so many times I could watch entire cities being destroyed or epic battles of good vs. evil. At times I thought I was just growing old, and had no interest in cinematic spectacle anymore. Gravity proved to me I was wrong – I just want a little bit more from movies – and that is what Alfonso Cuaron and Gravity deliver.
8. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)Until Before Midnight, I was a little bit out of sync with most critics regarding the Linklater-Hawke-Delphy trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset – I just didn’t quite think they were the masterpieces that many critics did. But with Before Midnight, the trio has not only made the greatest single film in the trilogy, they have retroactively made both previous films better as well. Those films were essentially both romantic fantasies – the first film that meeting on a train in Europe between two young lovers whose love story was perfect, because it didn’t extend beyond one night. In Before Sunset, it will still perfect – as the characters got to live out the fabled “one that got away” reconnection. Both films were fine love stories – but they didn’t have to deal with the messiness of everyday life. That is what Before Midnight shows. These two characters have now been together for nine years – they are raising kids together, and see each other day in and day out – they no longer have a fantasy love story to think about. That makes things messier and more complex. They are still in love with each other, still attracted to each other, and are still connected to each other – but everything is deeper now. The argument that takes up the back end of the film is among the most true to life married people arguments I have ever seen on film – I hope most people didn’t take their spouses to see it – I fear arguments would have ensued. In making this film now the trio of Linklater, Hawke and Delphy have made Jesse and Celine’s relationship real – it’s not always easy or pretty, but it’s true.
7. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)Spring Breakers may well be the movie that best encapsulates the sorry state of affairs in American culture in 2013 – if I could put one film in a time capsule to capture this moment in time, Spring Breakers would be it. On the surface, it seems like an exploitation movie – four beautiful young women – three of whom are played by stars that got their start with Disney – head to St. Petersburg, Florida for a weeklong hedonistic party of drugs, alcohol and sex, only to meet a repellant drug dealer who wants to exploit them. Yet the film is deeper than that. Harmony Korine has long been a director who wants to provoke a response from his audience – and he’s never been more successful than this time – where he seemingly gives you everything you would want in a sexy, violent romp – and yet there is very little that is actually sexy or fun about Spring Breakers. Some will say it exploits its young stars – but I think they’re more than in on it – they have already been sexualized by American culture, at least here they have a say in it. Plus, it turns out the girls – or at least two of them – are worse than anyone they’ll meet who wants to exploit them. Spring Breakers is visually stunning, extremely well-acted and a film that provokes and disturbs the audience in every which way. Some will hate it – that’s understandable – but it is a brilliant examination of our shallow, empty culture. “Just pretend like it’s a video game, pretend like it’s a motherfucking movie” – is a line spoken early, and pretty much encapsulates the movie as a whole. Everyone in the movie pretends like they’re in a motherfucking movie.
6. Her (Spike Jonze)Spike Jonze’s Her is the best love story of the year, and the most unlikely. It takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, where Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore makes a living writing “personal, handwritten” letters for other people. Still reeling from his divorce, Theodore, a natural introvert, has troubling connecting with anyone around him. That is until he buys a new operating system with artificial intelligence– and the voice of Scarlett Johansson – and the two fall in love. The more I think about Her the deeper it gets – the more it seems to understand why we fall in love, and how. Phoenix is wonderful as Theodore – as lovable a lonely guy as his Freddie Quell in last year’s The Master was a repellent, lonely guy. Johnasson’s performance is purely vocal – and yet she makes you believe that Samantha really is a living, thinking, feeling entity – and that yes, these two really could fall in love. In the last act, Jonze takes some unexpected twists – he flipped the script on what I thought he was going to do. Up until this movie, the jury was still out on Jonze. Was he really a great director, or had he lucked out in getting two brilliant screenplays by Charlie Kaufman for his first two films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation)? Wonder no more. Her is as brainy and complex as his first two films, and more emotionally well rounded. It may well be the best film Jonze has made yet.
5. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)As a country, I’m not sure America has ever truly come to terms with the slavery in its past. This could explain why there have been so few films made in America about slavery. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave may just be the best film ever about the subject – but it’s not the “definitive” slavery film – nor should it attempt to be. What the film is however, is one man’s story about his time as a slave. Solomon Northup was born a free man – and spent decades of his life that way – marrying, and starting a family – before he is duped, kidnapped and shipped down South and sold in slavery. He spends 12 years being beaten, humiliated and abused – all the while trying to figure out a way to regain the freedom that is rightfully his. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a brilliant ensemble cast – including Michael Fassbender’s cruel slave owner, Sarah Paulson as his cold, abusive wife, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as the “favored” slave Patesy – who takes more abuse because she is so favored – and great, small performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and a host of others. McQueen’s film is as visually stunning as his two previous films – Hunger and Shame – containing a few of the most memorable shots of the year (Northup hanging from a tree for hours on end, or the whipping scene late in the film). I feel that 12 Years a Slave – along with two films from last year, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, two very different films that also dealt with slavery – are a necessary first step. 12 Years a Slave should not be the end of America’s examination of the racism of their past – and present – but part of an ongoing conversation about issues that still run deep in American society.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is the master director’s toughest film in nearly two decades – and the first in that time to garner any real controversy. Scorsese’s film is about the egotistical, misogynistic, homophobic and greedy assholes that run Wall Street – basically doing whatever they can to get their hands on other people’s money, and living a life of enormous excess with it. The movie shows the debauched lifestyle of these people in all its “glory” – leading some to believe the film is a celebration of these people, rather than an indictment (I have no idea how they can say that if they’ve actually watched the film, but I digress). Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fearless performance – near three hours of drug fueled hedonism, without a trace of vanity to it. Scorsese’s film is longer, and perhaps not as quickly paced as most of his efforts – he’s making a pitch black comedy of excess, and he needs that extra time to turn scenes that could be funny into downright disturbing ones – and along with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, he finds the perfect pace for the film. We saw a lot of films about the American dream gone bad this year – and a lot of films about Wall Street’s excesses in the past few – but none of them are as good as this one. This is Scorsese working without a net – and the 71 year old filmmaker proves he’s got more energy left than just about any director out there.
3. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a father-son road picture which is basically about life not quite living up to the expectations you have. Bruce Dern gives perhaps the finest performance of his long career as Woody Grant – an alcoholic well into his 70s and perhaps a little senile, who believes that he has won $1 million for a Publishers Clearing House type company – and is very insistent on travelling from Montana to his home state of Nebraska to claim his prize. Will Forte plays his son David, who begrudgingly decides to indulge his father’s fantasy. Some delays come up and the pair are stuck in Woody’s hometown for the weekend – a place neither father or son have been in years. The film is shot in stark black and white, which shows the dull greyness of the lives being lived there. Yet, Payne, a native Nebraskan, is not looking down on these people, but is looking at them home they really are, with equal doses of humor and heartbreak. While many of the characters begin the movie as caricatures, through the course of the movie they become real people – with complex emotional lives. The film is funny and touching in equal doses – a portrait of small town life that doesn’t romanticize it, nor mock it. It’s one of Payne’s best.
2. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)Shane Carruth’s sophomore film improved leaps and bounds over his already impressive debut film, Primer (2004). I don’t know why it took him 9 years to make a follow-up – but it was well worth the wait. There was no more ambitious film this year – no film more dreamlike or one that messed with the audience’s head as much as this one did. Yet as complex as the film is in terms of its structure, its storytelling, its visuals and its sound design, the film never loses track of its characters. Amy Seimetz delivered one of the best performances of the year as a woman who is drugged and robbed – and left a shell of her former self. She spends the movie trying to piece together her shattered life. I said in my review the film felt like what would happen if Terrence Malick directed a David Cronenberg screenplay – which is true enough – but what it really marks is Carruth becoming one of the most exciting directors working in America today. This film is a marvel, an endlessly rewatchable film where you learn more and more each time through. There is so much going on, it almost feels like a different film each time you watch it. Carruth did pretty much everything on this film – it’s a truly independent movie – a personal vision from a director who I hope is just getting warmed up. Let’s hope we see a new Carruth film before 2022.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)In some ways, because The Coen Brothers have been such a consistent force in American movies for nearly 30 years now, it is not surprising when they make a great film. It’s more surprising when they make one of their few misfires. I know that some will complain than Inside Llewyn Davis is another Coen brothers movie where they delight in torturing their lead character for his moral failings. And make no mistake – Llewyn Davis, as played by Oscar Isaac in what may well be the best performance ever in a Coen movie, has many failings. He is more than a little bit of an asshole. He has failed to become the star he thinks he deserves to be – and much of his failings can be traced to his own behavior. Yet, the Coens surprised me a great deal in Inside Llewyn Davis. Llewyn Davis is a different kind of Coen brothers character, even if he does fit comfortably in with the Barton Fink’s, Larry Gopnik’s, Llewelyn Moss’ or even Jerry Lundegard’s in their filmography. I’ve never believed that the Coens’ mock their characters like some do, but I do not think they have ever made a film as deeply felt as Inside Llewyn Davis. Yes, he is an asshole – but he’s an asshole that I could not help but feel an overwhelming sympathy for – so much so that when he finally performs Fare Thee Well – his last song in the movie – I found myself in tears during a Coen movie for the first time ever. It’s not just that song – it’s almost everything in the last act – from his performance in Chicago, and F. Murray Abraham’s harsh assessment of it, to his decision to drive by Akron, to his meeting and performance for his father, that doesn’t draw the reaction he hoped for, to his final scene with Carey Mulligan – which leads to his meltdown at the Gaslight – before we finally circle back to the beginning and hear him play his and old partner’s signature song. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful moment that left me surprisingly shaken. That the film is impeccably written, directed, shot, designed and acted by everyone pretty much goes without saying – but I will say it, because I don’t think there is a flaw in any of those elements. This is one of the Coens’ best films ever – and even in a year as strong 2013, an easy choice for the year’s best.