1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time. Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.
2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.
3. 12 Years A Slave- Quite simply, this is the most powerful movie about American slavery we’ve ever seen. Steve McQueen uses Hitchcock’s favorite narrative device, “The innocent man wrongly accused,” to stare directly into a national horror with brutal straightforwardness. Solomon Northup, whose life inspired the film, wakes up in chains after a night out with a pair of white men. He is viciously beaten, sold from owner to owner until eventually, he ends up in the stickiest, most vile place imaginable: the plantation of Edwin Epps. Here he meets Patsey, a young slave who catches her owner’s lustful eye and pays dearly for it in ways unimaginable. McQueen presents the torture and psychological torments of this national travesty with a steady, unflinching gaze, avoiding the catharsis of a Tarantino revenge fantasy and creating instead a more honest, important movie.
4. Like Someone In Love- The discourse surrounding Like Someone In Love tended to focus on the simplicity of the story compared to the ambiguous and complex nature of Kiarostami’s previous film, Certified Copy. While it is hard to deny that his latest is less heady than its predecessor, Like Somone in Love has a lot of ideas bubbling beneath its glossy surfaces about identity, loneliness and communication (or lack thereof). There is also an ever-looming threat of violence; each character shielded by surfaces that seem ready to implode at any given second. Follow the director closely through the lives of these characters, and the jump-scare that closes the film becomes less an act of random violence and more of a sadly inevitable end.
5. Frances Ha- Easily Noah Baumbach’s most upbeat film, though with a back catalog fueled by depression and familial misery, that really isn’t surprising. Frances Ha is a black and white New Wave homage fused, in part, with mumblecore. Baumbach finds an invaluable collaborator with Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script and infuses the title character with a contagious vitality. Crucially, it doesn’t overplay the concerns of Frances as world-ending, examining a struggling New York creative in the context of her privileged circle of friends.
6. The Bling Ring- Using a Vanity Fair article about teens looting celebrity homes as her jumping off point in The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola subverts the identity crisis at the core of many of her other films. These are not outcasts stuck on the inside, like Marie Antoinette or Bob and Charlotte in Lost In Translation. These are people who want desperately to be a part of that vacuousness, who steal brand name items from Paris Hilton so they can upload pictures of it to Facebook. She captures the emptiness of lives lived online and the offline consequences in poignant, energetic ways.
7. Upstream Color- While Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer, arguably served to puzzle and confound, Upstream Color probes man’s connection with the wide open world. It asks large questions through markedly abstract plot points (worms that control the mind, a character forced to memorize passages from Walden, a relationship formed through pigs), but it never becomes remotely taxing. It posits the idea that we are all, literally, connected to the wide open; an idea that could border on soapy New Age sentiment but comes out beautifully and emotionally rendered.
8. Computer Chess- The Bling Ring may very well be the “After” to this movie’s “Before.” Reducing Computer Chess to just a parable about tech-obsessed times reduces the weird, lovely spontaneity of it, though. Andrew Bujalski breaks completely away from straightforward mumblecore with a heady, hilarious chronicle of a man vs. machine chess tournament in the 1980s. Shot using a Sony tube camera, he and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky make the film feel like the bizarre discarded footage of a forgotten documentary.
9. A Touch of Sin- Jia Zhangke’s unrepentant mash-up of modern China is one of the most miraculous releases of the year simply by existing. It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is tightly monitored by the government. Although it was met with acclaim on the festival circuit in everywhere from Cannes to New York, it likely won’t even be released in its director’s homeland. The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.
10. Post Tenebras Lux- Carlos Reygadas has been building towards this film his entire career. His first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, were made by a young talent with a strong proclivity towards sex and violence and an almost spiritual worldview–his next outing, Silent Light, took that spirituality even further and left behind the more provocative elements. Post Tenebras Lux (which translates to “Light After Darkness”) is far and away his best film yet, and brings the luridness of his earlier work to co-mingle with the more religious and philosophical nature of Silent Light. The film world seemed to immediately dismiss Post Tenebras Lux as an ambitious failure, but I offer a different assessment: this is a radical exercise, but also one that stands as easily the most inviting film Reygadas has made. It is a work of insurmountable beauty and mystery, and one that beckons the viewer inside its impossible world.
11. Leviathan- The year’s scariest big screen experience was a documentary set aboard a fishing vessel in the North Atlantic. Leviathan, made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, affiliates of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, already feels like a landmark of nonfiction filmmaking. Attaching dozens of tiny Go-Pro cameras around the ship, our point of view frenetically shifts as the camera is tossed into the pitch blackness of the ocean and then yanked back up again onto the deck alongside flopping, dying fish. Wisely avoiding any human commentary or context, the film is a disturbing, visceral and mesmerizing experience in accidental imagery, picking up the abrasive sounds of grinding labor at sea and images awash in murky reds and oily blacks.
12. Before Midnight– In the third installment of this nearly two-decade-long project, Richard Linklater’s Before series has turned a romantic examination of blossoming love into a violent tango. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) got together at the end of 2004’s Before Sunset, and they now have twins and live in Paris, though on this day they’re at the end of a Greek vacation. Jesse’s ex-wife hates him and he feels guilty about not spending enough time with his son, but he went for it and he’s happy. What makes this installment the darkest in the (so far) trilogy, though, is that it focuses on Celine’s problems more than Jesse’s .By the end, her plight evolves into a full-blown feminist battle cry, as she chastises Jesse for being the arrogant writer while she is left with no time to herself. Of course there is plenty of blame for each of them, but it’s hard to even call it blame when, ultimately, this is more of an intense quarrel than a modern rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
13. Stories We Tell- Sarah Polley’s latest is both deeply personal filmmaking about her mother Diane’s mysterious life and a relentless interrogation of the documentary form. Along with Leviathan and The Act of Killing (below), it establishes 2013 as a groundbreaking year for experimental documentaries. The central question at that mystery’s heart is: What does it mean to know a person if another acquaintance knew them as someone else entirely? Mixing home movie footage with footage she filmed to look like one, she matches the intricacy of her mother’s trickery blow for blow with the different ways she presents the story. It is less a profile of Diane Polley then a chronicling of the filmmaker’s attempt to know her more.
14. The Act of Killing- This is a documentary about the aftermath of fascist victory. More than 20 of the names on the end credits are “Anonymous,” because the Indonesian death squad members from the ’60s still hold great sway in the country. So much sway, it turns out, that director Joshua Oppenheimer didn’t really have to persuade them much to recreate the murders they committed in a variety of movie genres, from Western to gangster to musical. The end result is a surreal, deeply disturbing film. It shows the artful imagining and its clash with the actual, and is a behind-the scenes glimpse into the making of propaganda.
15. Bastards- Bastards offers an unrelenting atmosphere of enveloping violence. Claire Denis, now on her 12th film, spins her noirish tale of incest, abuse, corruption and vengeance into an elliptical and sprawling nightmare, using fragmented editing as a way of slowly revealing character motivations and allowing the film to hold back its harrowing power until all of the details come gradually, and painfully, into focus. Despite its bitter outlook and perturbing subject matter, the director’s entrance into the realm of digital filmmaking is handsome and enigmatic, replete with expressive close-ups and cloaked in stark shadows and imagery.
16. Blue Is the Warmest Color- There is a scene in Blue is the Warmest Color more powerful and endearing than the 10-minute sexcapade that’s dominating discussion of the film. Adele, a young girl coming into her sexuality, wanders into a lesbian bar in search of a blue-haired enigma who captured her imagination. Director Abdellatif Kechiche keeps the camera, like he usually does, at scrutinizingly close proximity to her face. It’s a scene of total isolation that creates a startling specificity about her. Yes, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a three-hour odyssey of writhing limbs and young love, but it is also a story about a young woman trying, and failing, to find community.
17. The World’s End- Edgar Wright’s latest is a movie of frank honesty and maturity. The World’s End offers just as many laughs as the first two efforts in the “Cornetto Trilogy,” but there is also a pervasive and unexpected sadness in the filmmaking and performances. This rings especially true of Simon Pegg’s Gary King, a hometown hero that is painfully stuck in the past and can’t seem to move on. He decides to round up his group of friends for another go-around at a failed pub crawl they attempted as teenagers. As the guys move through their old town of Newton Haven, Wright uses science fiction genre elements and set-pieces to aid in the mounting chaos in the relationships. Once it hits its epiphanic final images, the film reveals itself as something much wiser than a mere blockbuster about aliens.
18. Rush- There is no way in hell I ever thought I’d enjoy a Ron Howard movie this much. Rush is by far his most exhilarating work to date, the first time he’s created an almost purely cinematic experience and risen above what’s in the script. The movie chronicles the bitter feud between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two Formula One drivers from the ’70s. However, it is less about the men and their cars and more about that lifestyle and its all-encompassing impact on their very different lives.
19. Blue Jasmine- Thanks in no small part to a towering performance by Cate Blanchett, this is one of the grimmest and most sustained Woody Allen movies in recent memory. As the chronically depressed title character, Blanchett creates a Mrs. Madoff knockoff stripped of her one percent comforts and forced to confront her mental illness while staying with her sister (a terrific Sally Hawkins). Call it Woody Allen’s Melancholia, or A Streetcar Named Depression.
20. Drug War- Johnnie To’s Drug War is an action movie critique of China’s lethally absurd drug policy. The “hero,” Timmy Choi (a great Louis Koo), is a drug cartel who is coerced into working with the police to help bring down bigger fish. This is one of the most intense and entertaining movies of the year, with organic, often breathtaking action sequences that shame most Hollywood releases on a fraction of the budget.
5 runner-ups: The Dirties, Matt Johnson’s look at two friends filming a revenge movie about getting even with bullies that turns horrific when it becomes clear one of them isn’t pretending. Stephen Frears’ Philomena, part road comedy, part beautifully subdued message drama, this film explores a woman’s haunted journey to learn about a son born out of wedlock that was ripped from her by the Catholic Church. Passion, the latest provocation from Brian De Palma, is a disturbing corporate revenge drama with scenes as beautiful as anything he’s ever done. Dan Sallitt’s delicate talky The Unspeakable Act avoids exploitation and condescension in its examination of a 17-year-old that is in love with her brother. Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s beautiful black and white comedy, chronicles the Grant family and its aging patriarch Woody, who is walking from Montana to Nebraska to collect a bogus million dollar jackpot.
DISCLAIMER: While Sam and I were able to see a hell of a lot of movies this year, big releases like Her and Inside Llewyn Davis have yet to open near us and unfortunately won’t be included on this list.