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1. Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was the jury-certified International Sensation, but Romanian director Mungiu’s follow-up blows that film—and the rest of the year’s theatrical releases, for that matter—out of the water. In this wringer opus, two friends, each stubborn in her own way, reunite at a remote convent, only to find themselves on a collision course with the calcified institutions of church and state.
2. Porfirio, Alejandro Landes
A docufiction unlike any other, this Colombian film casts a paraplegic who once hijacked an airplane as himself, carefully reconstructing, in boxed-in static framings, the injustices that drove the man to board a local flight with a pair of grenades in his pants. Like Beyond the Hills, this movie combines official-indifference outrage with a head-on display of unvarnished humanity—although director Landes somehow manages to be winningly droll at the same time.
3. The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer
For this singular document, Oppenheimer followed around a band of genocidaires still outwardly celebrated in their country for cleansing it of Communists, goading them on to reenact their murderous pasts for the camera. This is a deeply troubling movie, but one that brings its audience face to face with a host of issues—from the darkest recesses of human nature to documentary ethics—and one that also does what any great documentary should do: show you something that you can’t quite believe you’re seeing.
4. Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
Speaking of showing you something that you can’t quite believe you’re seeing: this overwhelmingly impressionistic nonfiction film captures the churn of the ocean from aboard a commercial fishing vessel, the birds massing above the surf and the shoals of fish hauled up from the deep, shimmering in the deck’s floodlights. A portrait of a self-contained world of deafening noise and ceaseless toil, and a visceral experience to rival the 90-minute tailspin-in-the-void of Gravity.
5. Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh “retired” upon completing the best single stretch of his uneven career: Magic Mike, Side Effects, and Behind the Candelabra. The middle film, a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with some De Palma–rigged reveals, burrows deeper and deeper, gradually dilating its follow-the-money theme without betraying its seriousness. Above all things, this is a structural marvel—the year’s most rewarding rewatch.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen
This is a hauntingly muted rendition of the Coens’ entropic picaresque, in which a folk singer trudges through 60s Greenwich Village, stuck at a creative crossroads, managing to still his bitterness only when he picks up a guitar. Here, the brothers, well-known for cracking wise, strike a deep chord: Llewyn Davis is a fresh perspective on a fabled scene, and a stark tale of artistic dejection, rejection, and self-sabotage, suffused with the retiring light of winter.
7. The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai
Even in its Weinstein-bowdlerized version, this is a work of startling fluidity, a martial-arts biopic done up as a stately drama of veiled longing, blows landing on able bodies and fine objects, sending out ripples through space and time as they do. It’s also a truly startling return to form for Wong Kar-wai, who had spent the past decade laboring over the disjunctive 2046, turning in the oversweetened My Blueberry Nights, and finally returning to the editing room to retool 1994’s Ashes of Time—a wuxia that is, as it turns out, no Grandmaster.
8. To the Wonder, Terence Malick
With the possible exception of Spring Breakers, this was the narrative feature from 2013 that was least recognizable as such, a film that depicted the struggles of love and faith as a continual (and unresolved) pursuit through barely furnished rooms, big-box stores, and the blighted landscapes of the dispossessed. But not unlike The Grandmaster, Terrence Malick’s sixth (!) film is also a stirring hymn to movement—the grace of what the body can express, and the essential mystery of the feeling contained therein.
9. The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt
A film about adolescence that doesn’t cut any corners, Ponsoldt’s drama is something of a minor miracle—a grounded high-school romance with a profound appreciation for the hard work it can take to grow up. If anything, the movie can even seem a little too insistent in its “honesty” (Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley seem to be quite cavalier about sipping from topped-up plastic cups at all manner of school events).
10. Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach
A delightful catalogue of quarter-life foibles—who knew that director Noah Baumbach (collaborating here with cowriter/star Greta Gerwig) had it in him to make a comedy so unassumingly incisive? In a sense, Frances Ha brings this list full circle: it concerns a belated coming of age, a friendship troubled by slow tectonic shifts in life circumstance, and all the little ecstasies and agonies of moving about from place to place. At one point, the camera follows along unfettered as Frances twirls through the city’s crosswalks—on a good day, all the city can feel like your stage.