2013 Film: An Embarrassment of Riches

I thought I could glide into 2014 without discussing my Indiewire year-end critics poll but if even Michael Corleone couldn’t step out, I sure was some kind of chippie to think I could. (Yep, I’m equating film criticism with Cosa Nostra.) Herein lie my top ten films of 2013—a tremendous year for cinema, and one whose finest projects directly descend from the best of 2004, the last time film was this good.  (Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Rois et Reine, Head-On, even The Incredibles).

10. Enough Said

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has always made full-frontal honesty both her charm and weapon but this exploration of middle-aged dating feels wonderfully truthful even for her. Credit is partly due to Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in one of his final performances) who work against type to achieve a sweet, slow melancholy rarely achieved on American screens. If the ending doesn’t entirely satisfy, that’s only in contrast to how well this ensemble otherwise pulls off a premise that could have been more Three’s Company than Billy Wilder in less able hands.

9. The Immigrant

This story of a 1920s brothel in NYC’s Lower East Side costars Oscar winners Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, boasts a rich, painterly cinematography, is directed by the terrific James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), and burrows deeper into the intersection of the American dream, sex, and financial survival than few before it. So why didn’t this film hit movie theaters? Possibly because US distributors didn’t trust audiences would buy nookie served up with this level of moral complexity. When it crosses your path, prove them wrong.

8. Short Term 12

Starring the uncanny Brie Larson as a 20something supervising a fostercare facility for at-risk teens, this is a hopeful film about seemingly hopeless lives. Its sometimes too-tidy plot is trumped by a powerful emotional truth: that even the worst traumas can be trumped by our ability to heal, possibly the most urgent biological impulse of all injured beings. Carefully drawn and edited, it introduces desperate stories that already seem permanently written, and then reminds us revisions are always possible.

7. Concussion

The snarky synopsis would be “a lesbian Belle D’Jour,” and this gorgeously shot indie about a bored housewife (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert) who works as a prostitute while her wife is off making the big bucks does directly echo Luis Buñuel’s 1967 Catherine Deneuve vehicle. But it is also a hypnotically singular (and sensuous) investigation of how traditional romantic mores may no longer suit anyone though they’ve become increasingly available to everyone.

6. Gravity

Now this is a movie! Director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También) makes use of the possibilities of 3D filmmaking like no one before—or likely after—without sacrificing any of his sweeping soulfulness in this (often literally) breathless account of a medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) struggling on her first space mission to return to Earth after her ship and shipmates are destroyed.

5. Nebraska

Director Alexander Payne’s latest–about an aging drunk on a fool’s errand enabled by his adult son–is his most elegantly rueful since 2003’s Sideways, which also examined male intimacy in the shadow of failure. With admirably dry-eyed performances from Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte set against a lonesome black-and-white sky, this is the starkly comic film about the Midwest the Coen Brothers only wish they could make.

4. 12 Years a Slave

To say I loved this film would be specious, for Steve McQueen’s cinematic adaptation of the real-life memoir of a free black man sold into a Southern slavery ring is one of the most harrowing experiences to be found in recent cinema. It is also one of the most compelling and (art)fully realized explorations of a chapter of American history that is rarely discussed even as it informs a lion’s share of our present. Some have decried this film as “torture porn” but I view it as another example of how McQueen (a groundbreaking visual artist before he became a director) pulls no punches in illustrating that our greatest pleasures–in this case, the natural and human-made beauties of the American South–entwine with our sorriest stories. To be seen, discussed, and seen again.

3. American Hustle

Hands-down, David O. Russell is my favorite working American director, and his take on the 1980 Abscam affair doesn’t disappoint. In it, a Bronx swindler (Christian Bale) helps snag corrupt politicians while juggling his mistress (Amy Adams), his wife (Jennifer Lawrence, transcending what could’ve been stunt casting), and an ambition-addled federal agent (Bradley Cooper in curlers, I kid you not). Really, everything lives inside this movie–from French farce to the best of Scorsese to huge hair and even huger statements about authenticity and accountability–and it’s all tossed into the air like a pizza pie that never flops. Such fun.

2. Twenty Feet From Stardom

Morgan Neville’s documentary about backup singers channels its subjects’ greatest strengths—big wind, an uncanny ear, a fastidious work ethic, and an indomitable spirit—as it pulls back the curtain on a rarely considered world, which is the very best service a documentary can provide. What’s more, by suggesting how these ladies’ stories connect to our own, it provides the best service any movie can offer: it helps us accept our disappointments. One of my favorite docs of all time.

1. Her

Yeah, yeah. It’s about a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (Scarlett Johansson in what’s oddly her sexiest performance to date). But, really, the first feature Spike Jonze both wrote and directed is the kind of cinematic achievement that comes along once in a decade if we’re lucky. Set in what’s described as “the slight future,” it pokes at the unnecessary dichotomy of science and spirit, the rapture and terror of true intimacy, the limited utility of our physical bodies amid an ever-evolving technology, the finite and infinite forms of all relationships (even to ourselves), and the possibility that intelligent consciousness and love are in no way confined to the scope of a human life. Big questions—some of the biggest of our time—delivered oh-so-gently with the greatest of style and heart.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy