It may be a little early to tell - since time is the only critic who really matters - but I'm reasonably confident that, looking back on it now, 2013 was the best year for cinema in over a decade. Not since 1999 have so many striking, progressive, imaginative, meaningful and just plain entertaining movies been released within a single calendar year. Comparatively speaking, last year was kind of crap. Any of the films of my picks for the best films of 2013 would have been a serious contender for the top ten last year, and any of the films in my top five this year would have bested my pick for 2012's best film, Zero Dark Thirty. Still a damned good movie, Zero Dark Thirty, but the sheer volume of excellent filmmaking in 2013 overwhelms any year in recent memory.
As such - and partly because my top ten best films of 2013 were published early on IndieWire - I have decided to balloon my list up to 20 noteworthy motion pictures this year. Even then a few very strong films like The Conjuring, Frances Ha, Frozen, Go for Sisters, Kiss of the Damned and Warm Bodies couldn't quite make the cut. And as always I feel it's my duty to report that I still haven't seen a handful of acclaimed movies this year that might very well change my opinions when I finally get around to them in the coming weeks, films like The Act of Killing, All is Lost, Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12.
I would like to say before we begin looking at my picks for the best films of 2013 that although there are some special effects-driven blockbusters on my list, a few science-fiction movies and straight-up comedies, this year really has been a landmark for emotionally honest motion pictures about modern relationships, spurring what I hope will be a wave of new films that ignore the hackneyed fluff of romantic comedies and melodramas and approach something real, human and - for a change - relatable. Over half the films on my picks for The 20 Best Films of 2013 center themselves on a romance or profound intimate connection between two or more people, and explore that aspect of humanity in a way that feels natural, meaningful, and that spoke very directly to my own experience as a human being repeatedly seeking connections with my family, friends and loved ones.
We've come a long way as an artistic medium when so many movies can shake off the decades of phoniness that turned even the best films about romance, friendship and family into shiny testaments to falsehood, and I applaud every filmmaker on the following list who achieved greatness by striving for more.
Without further ado, here they are, my picks for The 20 Best Films of 2013.
Danny Boyle made a triumphant return to pop thrillers with a heist film about who stole the painting, who hypnotized whom and how naked Rosario Dawson is willing to get for the right director. (Answer? Yowza.) Energetic, thrilling and twistier than a razor-sharp corkscrew on 'shrooms.
It's easy to laugh at Alexander Payne's intimate ode to poor communication skills, dysfunctional families and twilight discontent. The characters are damned funny, after all. But Nebraska's sadness seeps through by the end, turning what could have been a lighthearted road trip tale into a bittersweet saga of how little we know about the most important people in our lives.
18. Iron Man Three
Shane Black's revved-up blockbuster let the exceptional cast shine and challenged its superhero in a way few films have ever bothered, proving once and for all that the people behind the masks are the most interesting part of the genre. Bonus points are awarded for the best use of Sir Ben Kingsley's acting talents in years.
17. The Wind Rises
If The Wind Rises is truly Hayao Miyazaki's swan song, he couldn't have encapsulated his career better. A lovely animated ode to aviation, artists and the sometimes unfortunate consequences of their dreams, about Jiro Horikoshi, the brilliant engineer who designed Japan's Zero Fighters during World War II, even though they were used to kill. Miyazaki asks the boldest question of the year: "What would you choose: a world with pyramids, or one without?"
16. Drinking Buddies
An exceptionally intimate film about a moment of transition, and the dangers of acting on or ignoring it. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play thoroughly convincing best friends whose relationship is thrown into disarray when one of them becomes unexpectedly single, forcing the other to decide whether it's time to take things to the next level and dump their own fiance in the process. Romantic, sad, funny and remarkably universal.
15. Before Midnight
The reverse of Drinking Buddies, and Richard Linklater’s third examination of a decades-long love affair between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), is one of the most mature dramatic depictions of a relationship years after the passion fades on record. Utterly natural, exquisitely acting and absolutely daring in its depiction of the complex and ever-changing nature of long-term romance.
14. The Past
Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning A Separation is a hardboiled detective story hiding beneath the veil of a serious character study. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Ali Mosaffa returns to his old family to finally sign his divorce papers, discovering that over the years a dense web of mysteries has developed, leading to unexpected, emotional and suspenseful revelations that could be found in any home. And oh, that final shot…
Ron Howard’s best film since Apollo 13 is that rare sports drama that places the spirit of competition ahead of who actually wins the damned game. Chris Hemsworth and a particularly incredible Daniel Brühl play legendary Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, whose contempt for each other gradually grows into respect, appreciation and a strange kind of friendship. Sports movies don’t get much more mature than Rush.
12. The World's End
The final film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Three Flavours: Cornetto” trilogy revitalizes their formula – transforming crass movie genres into character-driven dramedies – by making Pegg the abrasive comic relief character, Nick Frost the straight-edged voice of reason, and the conventions of science-fiction storytelling less important than the film’s potent message: that you can’t go home again, because home really has been invaded by alien robots. It only sounds silly. In fact, it’s one of the most meaningful satires around.
11. Monsters University
Pixar’s prequel to Monsters Inc. could have coasted on imaginative situations, bizarre characters and a thigh-slapping sense of humor. But by giving Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) a dream that we know, since we’ve seen the first film, that he will never achieve, Monsters University manages to deliver the most mature message of any kids movie in recent memory: how to handle life’s most crushing failures with maturity, grace and positivity.
10. The Spectacular Now
James Ponsoldt’s uncommonly sophisticated coming-of-age drama stars Miles Teller, in one of the year’s best performances, as a charismatic but alcoholic teenager whose dedication to living for others, and in the now, reveals itself to be a surprisingly self-destructive impulse. Shailene Woodley shines as the young lady who may or may not be gradually corrupted by the “hero’s” influence, but most miraculous part of all is the film’s lack of condescension: The Spectacular Now treats its teen heroes with a level of respect that most films don’t even afford to adults.
9. White House Down
Absolute popcorn? Absolutely, but Roland Emmerich’s vastly underrated “Die Hard in the White House” riff was the perfect delivery system for the director’s classy cinematic style, his unusually impressive ensemble cast, and his hopelessly naïve left wing propaganda. White House Down brims with optimism, not just for global politics (world peace gets thrown in at the end as an afterthought), but for how joyously silly action movies can be if audiences ever finally get over the whole “grim ‘n’ gritty” zeitgeist.
8. Ender's Game
The controversy over Orson Scott Card’s real-life beliefs aside (albeit warranted), you’d never know from watching Ender’s Game that the original writer promotes intolerance. Gavin Hood’s masterful, classy adaptation is an ode to understanding delivered inside a slick sci-fi thrillride, with valuable, complex messages about the dangers of fascism, indoctrinating children into dangerous social constructs, and hell, even drones. Few anti-war films have so effectively captured the delicate balance between the glory of battle and the tragedy of victory.
Spike Jonze wrote and directed Her, a film about a hapless lonely-heart (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system (a note-perfect Scarlett Johansson, who never appears on-screen). Questions arise about the nature of human connection, the role our bodies play in intimate relationships, and whether we can ever really be happy with another single person. The answers are present, but what really matters is that Her emerges from its unusual conceit as one of the most intimate films ever made about modern love.
6. To the Wonder
Terrence Malick, on the other hand, conveyed with elegant style and his characteristic free form pontification this story about timeless love, revealing in To the Wonder that his unique brand of visual poetry can be applied to just about any philosophical concept and evoke some form of universal truth. The tale of a love affair through all the moments between the drama turned out to be a powerful exploration of a romantic experience that should be recognizable to all. It’s as if he got inside your subconscious and understood exactly what he found.
5. Spring Breakers
2013’s best ode to absolute decadence (runner up: The Wolf of Wall Street) tells the story of a group of young girls who rob a restaurant to pay for their spring break vacation, and once they get there they never leave. Because spring break is a state of mind, a bacchanal of orgiastic excess that some – like James Franco’s character “Alien,” easily the breakout iconic character of the year – never give up. And it’s sad, and it’s alluring, and it’s gross, and it’s a riot.
4. Blue Jasmine
Anchored by the best performance of the year, and of Cate Blanchett’s already impressive career, Woody Allen’s interpretation of a post-economic crash Streetcar Named Desire holds a comical lens up to self-denial, and allows practically every character to reveal what they see. Blanchett is operating on a higher plane here – it’s genuinely a performance for the ages – but it’s just one important part of a smart, thoughtful tragedy of bourgeois blindness and working class dreams.
3. Blue is the Warmest Color
Abedellatif Kechiche’s three-hour lesbian coming-of-age drama is exactly what it says on the tin, but so much more. The length of the tale and Kechiche’s deceptively simple camerawork and pacing force the audience to accustom themselves to living someone else’s life along with them, rediscovering young love the depressingly inevitable mistakes we all make in one form or another. Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux are electric together, genuine and perfect. Their penultimate scene together is the greatest acting showcase in years.
2. Upstream Color
A truly bizarre concept yields perversely recognizable results in Upstream Color, a new puzzle box from Primer director Shane Carruth about the way tragedy – and oddly enough, intestinal worms – brings people closer together, even while it risks tearing them apart. Carruth constructs his film like a labyrinth with hallways connected by the tiniest and seemingly most random of connections, but it all fits together, and it all turns into the most original, striking motion picture of 2013.
Sitting atop an enormous heap of impressive cinematic achievements in 2013 is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a story of epic scale and intimate meaning. Sandra Bullock’s isolation in orbit makes her the loneliest hero imaginable, trapped against an inescapable panoramic of the whole of human existence. Cuaron piles on the thrills in one breathtaking set piece after another, but it all boils down to a simple yet overpowering message about preserving for your own sake, even when fate transpires to rob you of possibilities, companionship and hope. It’s the most inspiring, beautiful, exciting and entertaining motion picture of the year. It may even be cinema in its purest form.