Top 15 Films of 2013

Or rather my Top 15 2013 Films I Saw in 2013. In terms of general movie-watching, I saw about half my usual number of films this year. Somehow, I still ended up seeing 15 films from this year that I’d recommend. You’ll see a distinct lack of big Hollywood films. I continue to find them less and less worthy of my time with each passing year. Most of the titles I choose instead are off the beaten track, many didn’t even show on more than a handful of screens in the US, but I think all of them are worth seeing.  

There are still plenty of 2013 titles I need to see. Titles on my radar that I haven’t seen and think could make the list include: The Grandmaster, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Touch of Sin, Wadjda, The Past and Stoker. Also, I’m going by limited release date for these films, which means that some of these are 2012 films (and one a 2011 film), but they weren’t available to me until 2013.

1. To the Wonder

Terrence Malick finally throws off the shackles of narrative and makes something that feels bold and experimental. The core romance is told in broad, sweeping strokes that make it less of a love story and more the love story. Malick instead focuses on the implications of the romance and what it says about who we are, what we want and why we’re here. In my mind, it’s his most thematically complete film and the final sequence is one of the most moving scene in his entire body of work.

2. Like Someone in Love

I tend to approach any Abbas Kiarostami from an academic angle. I wrote a thesis on his films, after all. But this film hit me at a gut level as well. Besides his damning look at gender inequality in the “progressive” part of the world, he penned the best line of 2013: “When you know you may be lied to, it’s best not to ask questions. That’s what we learn from experience.”

3. Upstream Color

Almost every moment of this film is beautiful and mysterious. The film doesn’t explain much and leaves a lot to be inferred. I’m not sure I understand every last moment in the film but that gives me a reason to come back. It’s a profound look at identity and relationships and there are some truly chilling images and lines in this film once you piece together what is happening.

4. Museum Hours

A kindred spirit to Certified Copy. This film ends up being less about the core relationship and more about the peripheral world around them. There’s a sequence about halfway through the film that gives us the perspective we need to get what the film is trying to achieve. There are also a lot of still shots that try to capture the feelings of paintings. It’s less of a reflection on art and more art enacting art.

5. Something in the Air

Art! Revolution! Love! Much like Summer Hours, Something in the Air asks us to consider the role of art in life, although this time it’s less in terms of space and functionality and more how it promotes ideas. Part of my love for the film comes from some dense academic theoretical background, but it’s also a magnificent portrait of how art, revolution and life interact.

6. From Up on Poppy Hill

Many of Studio Ghibli films look back to youth and childhood, but this film is a rare twist in that it has two youth digging back into their own histories. This starting-point makes From Up on Poppy Hill feel both youthful and wise at the same time. There’s the joy of young life, but mingled in with the reminder that our heritage and past does matter, especially in a world progressing forward at a frightening speed.

7. This is Martin Bonner

Two men from unlikely backgrounds journey through trying to find a new life. Most of what makes This is Martin Bonner exemplary is how it refuses to take the easy road, to tell us a story that amuses us. Instead, it’s filled with hard truths about how alienating, cold and harsh life can be. It’s still hopeful and beautiful, but doesn’t beat us over the head with the kind of sentimentality that usually pervades the midlife-crisis film.

8. Wolf Children

Once you get past the silliness/creepiness of the main conceit, the film gets a lot of thematic mileage out of werewolves. This includes a metaphor for teenage angst, the duality of humanity and our connection to nature. Also, it’s gorgeous and look at how cute the little wolf kids are! It’s like having a dog and a baby in the same unit! Actually, that’s horrifying, much like real children.

9. Frances Ha

Oh no, it’s a film about the problems of young white people! We all know how much I love those. In this case, the film finds the perfect balance between deflating itself with comedy while still giving legitimate dramatic credence to the troubles many people of my generation face. More than that, it finds a way to move beyond the disillusionment and proposes a different way to live.

10. Before Midnight

The Before series remain some of the frankest and most down to earth look at human relationships. As the series evolves, I think everyone has gotten a better sense of who these characters are as this feels like the film that best portrays the tension that exists between the two characters. I think this is the finest installment in the series. Here’s hoping we get another one in ten years.

11. Mud

Jeff Nichols continues to make magnificent depictions of life in The South. It’s a story that feels fantastical and larger than life without coming across as a fairy tale. And yet, the titular character is caught up in his own fairy tale. The film is able to capture the strange duality of the depravity of The South as well as its tendency to romanticize certain ideas.

12. 12 Years a Slave

A lot of the film’s mastery comes from its ethnographic sensibilities. Experiencing Solomon’s years of slavery is an emotionally draining experience. Director Steve McQueen also doesn’t try to create some sort of inspirational or uplifting message amid the horror. What seeps instead is a complete and utter surrender. It’s certainly a piece of history, but it also feels like McQueen is using slavery as a deeper metaphor.

13. Drug War

In a year of long, plodding Hollywood blockbusters, a journey to the other side of the world brings us a film with the exact opposite sensibilities. The economy of storytelling goes a long way to making Drug War a tight, lean police procedural. It requires more attentiveness than the average action film; blink and you might miss something big. It’s more interested in building to a couple of epic final action set pieces instead of having one every 15 minutes.

14. Much Ado About Nothing

When your source material is as good as Shakespeare, you’ve already got a lot going for you. But Joss Whedon brings together a stellar cast of familiar faces from his shows as well as uses some film techniques to enhance the material. How Amy Acker isn’t a big star at this point is beyond me. She gives one of the best performances in one of the tiniest films of the year.

15. Stories We Tell

The most vulnerable piece of film-making I saw this year. Sarah Polly’s commitment to telling the story of herself and to do so while remaining in the backdrop requires a rare kind of bravery. All art is personal, but this feels almost too intimate to watch at times. Polly creates some much-needed distance by using her own story as a way to examine how we tell stories.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing