The 20 Best Films of 2013 

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Once or twice a decade, there’s an exceptionally good year for film. The last was 2007, when No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood battled for attention with Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James…, Southland Tales, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Syndromes and a Century, Sunshine, Offside, The Darjeeling Limited, Ratatouille, I’m Not There, The Simpsons Movie and a whole mess of other great ones. Six years later, we’ve had another exceptionally strong year—I mean, Woody Allen’s best in a long time tied for 23rd on our annual critics poll; Joss Whedon’s charming Much Ado About Nothing didn’t even scratch the Top 40; and a movie as weird and bewitching as Upstream Color barely received a single vote.

That’s because there was so much more great cinema to celebrate, and not just the usual suspects you’ll see on every other outlet’s year-end lists: from an unusual documentary experiment in GoPros and sound design at sea to Frederick Wiseman’s latest institutional study, the results of our poll reinforce my pride in this film section I edit—in our writers’ smart prose and good taste, both of which you’ll see in the following pages. As for the latter, to illustrate: 12 Years a Slave tied for 49th with five other films—garnering fewer points than Pain & Gain!
Henry Stewart


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Photo via gravitymovie.warnerbros.com


****** 20 ******
At Berkeley
Frederick Wiseman

It seems remarkable that Wiseman, rightfully heralded as this country’s preeminent chronicler of social institutions, had not until now tackled the American university. In this, his 40th feature documentary, Wiseman gives us an epic portrait of a beloved public institution at a moment of economic crisis. He offers an expansive meditation on the existential realities of higher learning today, and explores the friction between ideals and authority, as well as the responsibilities accompanying privilege in a country riddled with economic disparity.
Paul Dallas


****** 19 ******
Gravity
Alfonso Cuaron

Cuaron’s nailbiter-in-space succeeds not despite the ostensible simplicity of its screenplay but because of it—the way that simplicity interacts with its effortless-looking technical virtuosity. This is what survival looks like: elemental on the outside, insanely complicated just below the surface.
Jesse Hassenger


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Photo via rottentomatoes.com


****** 18 ******
Nebraska
Alexander Payne

The easy premise occasions hilarious-devastating highs, rich with resignedly illogical filial duties; time- and booze-befogged loves and lashes; petty unpaid debts; and a wife’s affection disguised as constant abuse. Nebraskan Payne’s nastiness is just one of the black-and-white film’s many emotional pigments. He can retire from road movies, as this would be hard to top.
Justin Stewart


****** 17 ******
The Square
Jehane Noujaim

Noujaim’s essential documentary profiles the Egyptian Revolution as a constant forge, less the result of nationalist people-power than a Gordian knot tied by military, secularist and Muslim Brotherhood blocs in the last two years. Noujaim and her crew obviously took nothing at face value, and their struggle as filmmakers makes for riveting viewing: across three wildly different men, the country is seen shapeshifting day-in-day-out from dictatorship to Islamist democracy and back again. With the ascension of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s US-backed military regime, the air is thick with recrimination, a paranoid atmosphere where friends can become enemies practically overnight; Noujaim’s camera captures it all. 
Steve Macfarlane


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****** 16 ******
The Grandmaster
Wong Kar-Wai

The 130-minute cut of The Grandmaster is every bit a poem of longing and sadness as Wong’s earlier works—but with fight scenes! And within those scenes, his focus emerges with alarming clarity, the camera panning or cutting to follow each punch, kick, drop, or leap. Wong’s is a ferocious rearrangement of styles, quaking with life before drooping ever-further into hazy melancholia as this film reveals its true design: this is no Ip Man biopic, rather a shimmering elegy for the golden era of stateside kung fu, never to return.
Steve Macfarlane


****** 15 ******
Night Across the Street
Raúl Ruiz

In Ruiz’s 1984 TV miniseries Manoel on the Island of Marvels, a boy watches silhouettes shadowbox on his bedroom wall; in this, Ruiz’s last film completed before his death, a boy and his friend shadowbox on their way to the local movie theater. Cinema was the art of shadowboxing for Ruiz, and he indulged in it with Night, a parade of images dancing around the figure of a man on his way to forced retirement.
Aaron Cutler


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****** 14 ******
Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami

In which Kiarostami’s studies of women’s rights (and lack thereof) are relocated from Iran to a differently patriarchal Japan. One of his densest films, the usual long car rides are turned inside-out in a new setting: a professor character falls asleep during one ride, while automotive failure leads directly to the climax. As in Taste Of Cherry or The Wedding Suit, seemingly straightforward everyday interchanges gear up into excruciating suspense with no adjustment period. 
Vadim Rizov

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****** 12 (Tie) ******
Drug War
Johnnie To

The director’s first action movie on the Chinese mainland is a well-oiled machine of mutually assured destruction. Cops and criminals are envisioned as robotic cogs in a surveillance apparatus that saps their energy, leaving them as emotionless husks of professionalism. The only way to assert individuality? Drop down dead.
R. Emmet Sweeney


****** 12 (Tie) ******
Museum Hours
Jem Cohen

In a year whose movies seemed to be all about speed, violence and staring into the void (but what else is new?), Cohen’s first proper narrative- feature instead opted to double down on placid observation, delicately sketched melancholy and naturally lighted loveliness. It was this summer’s great air-conditioning movie, an entrancingly patient examination of how relations between human beings are even possible in the first place. 
Dan Sullivan

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****** 11 ******
To The Wonder
Terence Malick

For some, Malick’s elliptical portrait of a sputtering marriage was a descent into starry-eyed self-parody. For others, it was a revelation. Malick’s most explicitly Christian film, it’s a rapturous meditation on marital reciprocity, class imbalance, the body in motion, and the pros and cons of accepting divine grace. 
Max Nelson


****** 10 ******
Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine

Something like a late-90s rap video as codirected by Guy Debord and Hieronymous Bosch, Korine’s sprawling, sense-deranging fifth feature is the rare parable that meaningfully covers all the bases: class, race, love, god, Gucci Mane, etc. The two finest performances of 2013 were James Franco as the corn-rowed, grill-wearing Alien and… James Franco as the Kanye stand-in in his and Seth Rogen’s parody of the “Bound 2” music video. 
Dan Sullivan

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****** 9 ******
Her
Spike Jonze

All that work directing Charlie Kaufman screenplays and coming up with high-concept music videos has paid off. What could have been a rimshot comedy about a man falling in love with his iPhone is, instead, a complex and involving romance about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and an operating system (Scarlett Johansson) developing a very real and imperfect relationship.
Jesse Hassenger


****** 8 ******
A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke

Whereas most films by the great Jia unfurl tales of everyday people cast adrift by the massive upheavals in China’s economy and social structure with a languor that almost masks their ferocity, this one burns like a comet. Maybe he just couldn’t be this direct until China’s microblogs started telling stories like the shocking ones he reimagines here, all of which were reported widely enough before he started filming to protect him from censorship. 
Elise Nakhnikian

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****** 7 ******
Bastards
Claire Denis

The targets of its soul-sick anger aren’t precisely indexed—vague systems of power seem responsible for the horror—but Denis’s triumph of noir atmosphere ensures the unease is infectious. Vincent Lindon’s unsmiling visage, Agnès Godard’s dim-corridor visuals and Tindersticks’ grim score almost prepare you for the worst, which comes.
Justin Stewart


****** 6 ******
Before Midnight
Richard Linklater

Celine and Jesse continue their conversation in the best entry in the Before series, which had already been the definitive love story of a generation. Director Linklater, with stars and cowriters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, offers a layered and heart-wrenching depiction of a relationship that’s fraying but not yet completely frayed. It adds retrospective depth to the previous installments and culminates in the year’s best, most romantic ending.
Ryan Vlastelica

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****** 5 ******
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer

Forget Idi Amin Dada: this behind-the-scenes look at government-sanctioned Indonesian gangsters (who killed thousands of “Communists” in the 60s) as they re-create their executions on film and confront their crimes is horrifying, hilarious, astonishing and devastating. It’s a masterpiece about the intersection of cinema, pop culture, politics, nationalism and mass murder—basically, the 20th century. 
Henry Stewart


****** 4 ******
Computer Chess
Andrew Bujalski

No film better described how we live now than this lo-fi, epic anti-indie. It’s a group biopic of sorts—of the brains who would create and code the present. Malevolent fluffy kitties signal the future, where cat pics substitute for social interaction. 
Miriam Bale

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****** 3 ******
Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach

Baumbach and Greta Gerwig collaborated sparklingly on this black-and-white film about someone realizing (or growing into the realization) that they’re treading water. Cowriting with Gerwig, Baumbach creates more finely drawn cultural portraiture, with quotably apt lines that capture entire milieux in semisatirical miniature.
Nicolas Rapold


****** 2 ******
Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen

This is a hauntingly muted rendition of the Coens’s 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 his 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 tale of artistic dejection, rejection, and self-sabotage suffused with the retiring light of winter. 
Benjamin Mercer

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****** 1 ******
Leviathan
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel

To describe this film as “a documentary about commercial fishing” hardly seems adequate, even with a vague qualifier like “avant-garde” ineffectually appended. This heaving, churning epic defies pat classification. In this case it’s only reasonable to invoke a critical cliche: you have to see it for yourself.
Calum Marsh


****** Voters ******
In The L’s 2013 Film Poll

Miriam Bale, Aaron Cutler, Paul Dallas, Jesse Hassenger, Steve Macfarlane, Calum Marsh, Benjamin Mercer, Elise Nakhnikian, Max Nelson, Nicolas Rapold, Vadim Rizov, Henry Stewart, Justin Stewart, Dan Sullivan, R. Emmet Sweeney, Ryan Vlastelica


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