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The best films of 2013

Most movies are about relationships—between law and order, between desire and duty, between the past and the present. But in 2013, many of the great and memorable films—the ones that moved or shocked or stuck with us—were about relationships in the most traditional sense of the word: This was the year of Jesse and Céline, of Adèle and Emma, and of Joaquin Phoenix and his computer. There were mysterious romances, like the pig-related courtship of Upstream Color, and platonic love stories, like Frances Ha and Prince Avalanche. For cinephiles, love wasn’t just in the movies, but also in the air: There was so much to adore—so many fine, unconventional films, a large number of them American—that a list of 20 almost doesn’t do the year justice. Regardless, that’s what we’ve assembled below, joining heads to count down the best of what 2013 had to offer. (Each of the seven contributors submitted a ranked list of 15 favorites; a number-one choice earned 15 points, a number-two choice earned 14 points, and so forth.) Don’t see a personal favorite? Tell us about it in the comments. Those curious to see how the voting went down can also check out the individual ballots, from which this highly subjective ranking was formed. And don’t forget to vote for your favorite film of the year in our readers’ poll.

20. First Cousin Once Removed

Qualifying for year-end consideration on a technicality—it premiered on HBO, but was quietly released in one New York theater for a week so as to be Oscar-eligible (it has since made the Oscar shortlist)—Alan Berliner’s remarkable documentary deserves a much wider audience. On paper, it sounds insufferably maudlin: It’s a portrait of a well-known academic and poet, Edwin Honig (Berliner’s cousin, per the title) over a period of five years as he slides into dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s. Not content merely to document a sad regression, Berliner edits the footage poetically, echoing his subject’s work, and the result is thrillingly unconventional. Multiple stages of Honig’s dementia are scrambled into an impressionistic mosaic, with Honig sometimes beginning a sentence at one time and then finishing it several years later (because he’s prone to repeat himself). Onscreen text coupled with typewriter sound effects provide exposition that simultaneously serves as counterpoint to what’s happening visually at that moment. Archival footage is explicitly metaphorical and mostly unrelated to Honig’s personal history. And throughout it all, Honig remains startlingly lucid, even as he loses his memory to such an extent that he can no longer retrieve many of the words he wants to use. Bold, unorthodox, and deeply moving, First Cousin Once Removed is what a doc made by a real artist looks like. [MD]

19. The Counselor

According to most critics (and to audiences, whose Cinemascore grade was D for Dismal), The Counselor was a laughably pretentious failure, incomprehensible and borderline unwatchable—an embarrassment for all concerned. But while it’s not for every taste, or even for most tastes, The Counselor qualifies as one of the most radical experiments in recent Hollywood history, driven by a writer, Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), with zero interest in placating or spoon-feeding viewers. His original screenplay, sturdily directed by Ridley Scott, admittedly has no conventional narrative: It’s a methodical depiction of what happens to an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender), his fiancée (Penélope Cruz), and various associates (Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem) when he stupidly gets involved in a multi-million-dollar drug deal without comprehension of the possible consequences or of the many unforeseeable things that might go wrong. Yes, the dialogue is baroque and philosophical—but dazzlingly, often hilariously so. (“A plague of pustulant boils upon all their scurvid asses.” “Is that your normal toast?” “Increasingly.”) No, there isn’t really a “point,” apart from an unforgiving condemnation of hubris—but the same could be said of Jurassic Park, which also explores the hell that breaks loose when a few smart yet foolish people try to control the uncontrollable. For the viewer less excited by CGI dinosaurs than by the question of why a man might stop by a motorcycle showroom to measure the height of a particular model, The Counselor makes for a singularly mesmerizing variety of disaster movie, shot through with gallows humor and gleefully acted by a terrific ensemble (though Cameron Diaz struggles with being predatory). Some viewers may not like it—relatively few have, though the cult is growing—but it can’t be shrugged off. [MD]

18. A Touch Of Sin

Chinese director Jia Zhangke has an unmatched eye for socio-economic detail; in many ways, his immersive sense of reality has overshadowed his considerable gifts as a storyteller. Those gifts, however, are foregrounded in A Touch Of Sin, which won Jia a very deserved Best Screenplay prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four stories about desperate outsiders. Only tangentially related, the segments present, in order: an ex-miner who is pissed off at local corruption; a professional killer visiting his family; a woman who is having an affair with a well-off man while working at a seedy bathhouse; and, finally, a young man falling in love with a prostitute. Each story has the compact intensity of a great noir yarn. Together, they form a bleak view of modern life, compromised by economic need and shaped by cycles of violence. That’s not to say, though, that A Touch Of Sin is relentlessly grim. Jia’s comic sensibility and affection for his characters are evident throughout, especially in the final segment. Set in a deluxe bordello (complete with a Communist-train-themed room, for clients with Great Leader fetishes), it manages to combine absurdist humor with a genuine sense of heartbreak. [IV]

17. Beyond The Hills

Faced with the Herculean task of crafting a worthy follow-up to his Palme D’Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu turned his attention to another story in which two women find their friendship tested by the boundaries of a prescribed order. Mungiu’s inspiration was a real-life exorcism case, but Beyond The Hills may represent a movie first in that the exorcists are essentially the ones who are possessed. The film begins with a reunion, when Alina (Cristina Flutur) pays a visit to former schoolmate Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who’s now living within a highly ritualized Orthodox convent. Mungiu sharply delineates the dangers of insularity and the slippery-slope psychology of fanaticism, but what’s most striking about Beyond The Hills is how rigorously it’s been conceived. The sense of immersion is such that long stretches play as though they were set in the Middle Ages. The film’s slow-burn suspense pivots on Stratan’s performance as the faithful insider, attempting to initiate her friend; speaking in murmurs and monotone, the actress is often called on to suggest interior life with a single glance, peering from the background of Mungiu’s immaculately composed long takes. [BK]

16. Inside Llewyn Davis

Joel and Ethan Coen travel back to 1961 New York to find yet another sad sack who just can’t catch a break with Inside Llewyn Davis, a bleakly comic portrait of an artist not fortunate (or good) enough to make it in the burgeoning folk-rock scene. That unlucky soul is Oscar Isaac’s titular crooner, who finds himself on the skids professionally following the death of his partner, and at a loss for friendship or companionship, save for a housecat who becomes his unwelcome traveling partner during the film’s first half. An opening solo performance immediately establishes that Llewyn is talented, while also setting a beautifully downbeat tone—one the Coens amplify through encounters with a strange jazz musician (John Goodman), a famed Chicago music executive (F. Murray Abraham), and other colorful characters. Infused with both the hope and despair of the era’s folk music, and buoyed by a soulfully pitiful lead turn by the magnificent Isaac, it’s a tender, fatalistic portrait of creative struggle. [NS]

15. The World’s End

The World’s End is chock full of the kind of energetic filmmaking—whip-pans, visual rhymes, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references—that viewers have come to expect from director Edgar Wright. Like the previous two installments in Wright’s cult Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), it’s an extended genre homage in the shape of an action-comedy, with a friendship between series leads Simon Pegg (also the co-writer of all three films) and Nick Frost at its center. What sets the film apart from the others, however, is its emotional depth. In the finest performance of his career, Pegg stars as Gary King, a perennial fuck-up eager to relive his early-’90s glory days. King talks four friends from his school days (Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan) into joining him on a trip to their hometown to complete a 12-stop (or is that 12-step?) pub crawl, only to discover that the community has been taken over by alien robots. Impressively, the genre switcheroo doesn’t negate the realistic, character-based comedy of the film’s early stretch. The body-snatcher premise makes for an effective, multi-faceted metaphor—for living in the past, for the loss of a certain small-town way of life, and for how once-familiar places can seem strange to a returning adult—which is deepened by Pegg and Frost’s performances. Despite all the in-jokes and special effects, The World’s End is, first and foremost, a film about addiction—a fantasy about dealing with reality. [IV]

14. The Past

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past functions as something of a companion piece to his Oscar-winning A Separation, in that it shares a rigorous interest in the complexities of familial life. This dramatic triumph involves the turmoil that engulfs an Iranian family living in France when the mother, interested in marrying a new man, has her estranged husband return home after four years to sign divorce papers—a move that upsets the mother’s eldest daughter (from a prior marriage), and is complicated by the fact that the new man’s first wife is in a coma caused by a failed suicide attempt. Farhadi’s superbly understated, histrionics-free script allows subsequent revelations about that suicide to emerge slowly and naturally from the circumstances at hand, with eventual revelations further entangling his characters in a web of bitterness, remorse, and despair. Portraying the past as a source of both suffering and joy, the film recognizes that tragedy is sometimes born not from malicious evil, but from the rash behavior of the aggrieved, and the spiral of unintended consequences that those actions beget. [NS]

13. At Berkeley

Frederick Wiseman’s great subject has always been the American institution, but focusing on the condition of public higher education—at a time of progressive disinvestment from the state—raises the metaphorical stakes. Portraying the University Of California campus as an aspiring, impossible utopia, At Berkeley takes as its subject nothing less than society-building itself. It’s a movie about class, race, the value of knowledge, the importance of having a sense of history, and the means by which it’s possible to glance toward the future. For all the material Wiseman crams into four hours, it’s telling what he chooses to exclude. (There are no scenes of dorm life, for instance.) Lengthy vérité episodes accumulate into a decidedly bigger picture: In classrooms, lecture halls, board meetings, and labs, university life is seen as an ongoing negotiation between the individual and the community, between idealism and pragmatism, and between young and old. The latter theme weighs heavily on the final hour, as a staff full of aging radicals confronts a wide-ranging but not cohesive student protest. There are no easy solutions in At Berkeley, but there’s little in it that’s not absorbing, knotty, and provocative. [BK]

12. The Wolf Of Wall Street

No, it won’t eclipse Goodfellas. Yes, especially on a character level, it’s a much richer sorta-sequel than Casino. And for sheer, sustained excess, it’s difficult to think of a precedent in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre for The Wolf Of Wall Street, which applies his gangster-movie tropes to the finance world, a milieu that by the end seems to have fewer rules. Unlike Henry Hill, who’s initiated into his mobster ways from boyhood, the film’s Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) begins his career as an earnest broker, eager to help his clients. But after a meeting with a chest-thumping elder (Matthew McConaughey), it’s as if something clicks: “Oh, you mean this job allows me to sleep with all the women I want and do all the drugs my system can handle all the time? I choose that.” From then on, there’s barely a moment in which he’s anything other than totally amoral, caught in a vivid death spiral of pill-popping, mindless sexual exploration, and wealth accumulation—and there’s a depressing suggestion that the people who least temper their animal instincts stand to make the most money. From Scorsese the Catholic, Wolf scans as an exploration of sin its purest form. For Scorsese the formalist (and editor Thelma Schoonmaker), it’s a triumph, with sequence after sequence—including the soon-to-be-classic “Quaalude crawl”—that makes it hard not to stand up and shout, “Cinema!” [BK]

11. Blue Is The Warmest Color

To address the biggest controversy first: Did director Abdellatif Kechiche push his lead actresses too far? He may have, but so did Griffith when he made Way Down East, and so did Dreyer when he made The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. The cinema is filled with great performances that never would’ve happened if the directors hadn’t compelled the actors to give more and more of themselves. As to whether Kechiche exploited his actresses, it’s hard to see how anyone could watch Blue Is The Warmest Color and think that. There’s nothing prurient about the handful of sex scenes, which manage to be graphic without ogling; the focus, always, is on the emotional intensity of the connections. And while the film may not function as a primer on lesbian sex, at least according to some, it’s a great primer on first love—the all-consuming passion of it, followed by the sad, slow realization that passion doesn’t last. The final hour, in which the amazing Adèle Exarchopoulos has to cope with loss, is just heartbreaking. Scene after scene passes, and yet no solace comes. Unlike most movies about first love, Blue Is The Warmest Color doesn’t insist that “it gets better.” Instead, it acknowledges a sadder truth: that love, when lost, leaves a mark that never goes away. [SM]

10. No

It’s rare, like Bigfoot-sighting rare, to find a movie as politically smart and as flat-out funny as Pablo Larraín’s fourth feature—and additionally surprising because the director’s Tony Manero and Post Mortem weren’t exactly brimming with humor. As an adman tasked with rallying public support for an anti-Pinochet plebiscite, Gael García Bernal finds himself selling anti-totalitarianism as if it’s a soft drink—rehashing the dictatorship’s atrocities just bums people out, so why not go positive? The movie’s prehistoric video is more grotty and unsightly than Computer Chess’, as if it’s been exhumed from an archive where it would have been left to demagnetize. Though Larraín took some criticism for rewiring Chile’s past, No is an acute and frightening history of the present. [SA]

9. Room 237

Rodney Ascher’s portrait of obsessives convinced that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining holds secret meanings only they can interpret begins as a film-studies seminar and morphs into a group therapy session. Their theories, which hinge on obscure symbols and continuity errors, are forest-for-the-trees delusions, but they’re also funhouse reflections of anyone who’s ever argued what a film is “really about”— which is to say anyone who’s ever written or thought about film. For those who’ve stared into the gap separating analysis from speculation, Room 237 as much a horror movie as The Shining. [SA]

8. Her

In a near future not so different from our plugged-in present, a sad-sack writer falls for his operating system, cooing sweet nothings into the speaker of his smart phone. What might have been an easy joke, or maybe a cynical lecture about gadget addiction, becomes something more intimate, perhaps even personal—a melancholy comic fable about coming together, growing apart, and coping with loneliness in an era when you’re never really alone. Spike Jonze, the soulful eccentric who made Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are, treats the romance between man and machine with a disarming sincerity. Part of that is the immaculate casting: Joaquin Phoenix, softening his volatile energy, seems to secrete heartache from his pores. And he’s perfectly matched by Scarlett Johansson, creating a fully fleshed character—the most neurotically alive A.I. since A.I.—with nothing but her disembodied voice. Set in a shimmering, utopian facsimile of Los Angeles, Her presents a cosmetically, technologically plausible tomorrow. But, as with the greatest science fiction, its real beauty lies in what it says about today—about trying to live, and find happiness, in the here and now. [AD]

7. Upstream Color

Apart from scattered details about a failed project called A Topiary, little is known about how Shane Carruth spent the nine years following his cult-spawning Primer. But whatever he was up to transformed him from an interesting filmmaker into a great one. Upstream Color’s enigmatic narrative is vaguely analogous to Primer’s nested loops, but its sensual imagery is something new and overwhelming, tapping into levels of emotion Primer barely scratched. Built around Amy Seimetz’s tour de force performance and a charismatic leading-man turn from Carruth himself, the movie morphs into a kind of metaphysical love story about how, and if, people ever really know each other—or themselves. [SA]

6. The Act Of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing is a documentary of the most strange and surreal sort. A non-fiction investigation into the past crimes and present-day circumstances of the men who helped carry out the 1965-1966 genocide of alleged communists in Indonesia, Oppenheimer’s movie branches out into bizarre and terrifying places. Its subjects, specifically Anwar Congo and his cross-dressing mate Herman Koto, not only describe their killings—their pride and defiant arrogance on the subject is chilling—but also re-enact them for the camera, in the style of their favorite gangster and crime movies. Given the Indonesian government’s continued veneration for men like Congo and Koto, the film plays like a portrait of endemic national evil, as well as an exploration of the ways in which the cinema both reflects and informs real-world violence. The Act Of Killing offers a window into the sadistic worldview of its subjects, sometimes through outlandish scripted segments—none more mindboggling than a prolonged fantasy bit in which the killers dance their way out of a giant seaside fish statue before receiving medals from their victims and ascending to heaven. Oppenheimer’s mesmerizing work is a damning meta-doc indictment that ultimately includes itself as one of the targets. [NS]

5. Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski’s first three films—Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2009)—established him as the freshest (and most mature) voice to come out the so-called “mumblecore” scene. They were keenly observed social comedies, distinguished by naturalistic dialogue, deliberately anti-climactic scene structures, and grainy, handheld 16mm camerawork. Nothing about them, however, could prepare viewers for Bujalski’s fourth feature, Computer Chess—one of the headiest, most original, and downright weirdest independent films of the last decade. Set in the early 1980s and shot almost entirely on black-and-white tube-based video cameras, the film boasts a deceptively sophisticated structure. It begins as a mockumentary, turns into a comedy, and ends as an avant-garde science-fiction film. The passive-aggressive relationships and awkwardness of Bujalski’s earlier movies are present and accounted for, but they’ve been transplanted into a paranoid context that’s one part The Shining, one part Thomas Pynchon. Computer nerds (many of them played by real-life computer programmers) collide with a cult-like group of swingers at a hotel, while various suspicious characters—who may or may not be working for the U.S. government—watch from sidelines. Narcissism is pitted against “connectedness,” primal urges against technology. The result feels an awful lot like a creation myth—the past imagining our present, and responding with fear and anxiety. [IV]

4. Leviathan

Here’s something that can’t be said very often: The most visually ravishing movie of the year—the one that seemed to explode the possibilities of what a camera can show or do—was a nature documentary. “Experimental” in its complete lack of talking heads, narrative, and narration, Leviathan dunks viewers into the choppy, murky waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where a fishing boat braves the waves to bring in the daily catch. Rather than focus on the men doing this difficult job—they’re seen only in passing, and granted no “dialogue”—directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel plunge their durable, waterproof cameras into the drink and among the writhing, aquatic occupants of the ship’s killing deck. At times, the imagery gains a hellish abstraction; elsewhere, it seems to confound any understanding of cinematography’s limitations, emerging as the I Am Cuba of immersive nonfiction. In a way, the filmmakers are using reality itself as a tool for visual expression, essentially “painting” with the colors and textures of the natural world. Their canvas, meanwhile, is so unrecognizable that it could be the midnight-black sea of an alien planet. It gives terrifying new meaning to the word “fish-eye lens.” [AD]

3. Frances Ha

There’s a moment midway through Frances Ha when the title character, unforgettably embodied by Greta Gerwig, runs into a former roommate and his date, whom Frances has never met. Speaking directly to the date, Frances launches into an explanatory litany, making specific references to people and places, until the other woman can do nothing except say, as a friendly reminder, “I don’t know you.” Such casual solipsism gives this freewheeling New York comedy an acerbic aftertaste (Gerwig says she was inspired by David Thewlis’ performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked, though Frances shares none of his venom or brutality), even as it manages to engineer a relatively happy ending for its “undateable” heroine. Working with a screenplay he and Gerwig crafted together, director Noah Baumbach tells Frances’ story in short, jagged bursts of loopy intensity, following her as she drifts from apartment to apartment after her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), suddenly moves out of their shared idyll. It’s an impressionistic mood piece, shot in black and white and heavily influenced by the rhythms of the French New Wave, but it also showcases a winning combination of Baumbach’s cutting sarcasm and Gerwig’s dorky optimism. And it ends with one of the year’s very best punchlines, one that belatedly explains the film’s title with a lovely symbolic flourish. [MD]

2. 12 Years A Slave

The first film by British director Steve McQueen, Hunger, was difficult to pin down: Was it art, or merely the imitation of it? His next film, Shame, wasn’t difficult to pin down at all: It was phony as hell—a simplistic lecture on the dangers of loveless sex coated in high-art gloss. But with his latest, all doubts as to the director’s talents are swept away. 12 Years A Slave is that rarest of rare things: a large-scale mainstream movie on a deadly serious subject—in this case, the horrors of the American slave trade—that never once slips into gross sentimentality or lazy demonizing. There’s certainly a lot of demonic behavior on display—particularly on the part of a sociopathic plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and his hateful wife (Sarah Paulson)—but the white characters are always layered, multi-faceted. They’re not merely embodiments of evil; they behave terribly, but their behaviors are allowed to have complex roots. Similarly, the black characters have been extended the courtesy (for once) of being more than just stock victims. (There’s no “give us free” here.) From Alfre Woodard’s alarmingly comfortable plantation mistress to Lupita Nyong’o’s pragmatic, long-suffering “chosen girl,” they all have different strategies for survival and, in turn, different breaking points. In the middle of it all, of course, is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, a free, educated black man who finds out—in the harshest way possible—that he doesn’t quite belong amongst either group. That may be the ultimate source of the film’s greatness: Because Northup fits no easy category, he remains, first and foremost, a human being, one even the most blinkered viewer can identify with. [SM]

1. Before Midnight

The story of Jesse and Céline could have ended nine years ago, with a song, a dance, and the enticing threat of a missed flight. Certainly, there would be worse ways to leave these loquacious lovers—who met on a train in 1995’s Before Sunrise and then found each other again in 2004’s Before Sunset—than frozen forever in the blissful moment. Instead, and quite daringly, director Richard Linklater and his stars/collaborators, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have looked beyond that perfect ellipsis of an ending, to a rockier future than the characters could have imagined. Before Midnight, the smartest and prickliest of the trilogy, reveals the full scope of its creators’ ambitions: It’s clear now, if it weren’t before, that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have been painting a grand mosaic—not simply an episodic love story, but the decade-by-decade life of a relationship. Pitting Jesse and Céline against not just each other but also the hurdles of middle age, parenthood, and long-term companionship, Midnight loses much of the sweet, simple charm of its walk-and-talk predecessors. But it also deepens those films in retrospect, making them a part of something bigger and more meaningful. For all the vitriol exchanged between them—see: the year’s best scene—Jesse and Céline are still very much in love, their passion complicated but not extinguished with age. What could be more profoundly romantic than that? [AD]

Illustration by Dana Wulfekotte