Best Films of 2013

2013 was such an incredibly strong year for film that whittling things down to a mere 25 was an arduous task, but ultimately a rewarding one. I was a bit disappointed that my list didn't feature any mainstream Hollywood movies (contrary to popular opinion, I'm not THAT much of an indie elitist), but it seems as if I went even further off the cinematic grid than year's past. Without further ado, here are my 25 favorite films of 2013!

Best Films of 2013
FILMS 25-11
25.
 

POPULAIRE

French writer/director Régis Roinsard's wonderful homage to the chaste Rock Hudson/Doris Day melodramas of the 1950's cruises through a pre-women's movement era with a rhythmic joy. In Deborah Francois, playing a shy secretary with incredible typing abilities, Roinsard has also found his Audrey Hepburn-like plucky heroine. A big bright, frothy celebration of American 50's cinema.


 

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL

Goro Miyazaki's tale of a budding romance between two high schoolers before the 1963 Yokohama Olympics is a lovingly crafted portrait of first love and broken families. Gorgeous hand-drawn visuals, slapstick-style humor, and serious-minded themes regarding past traditions are all interwoven into a rich tapestry so rare in this age of dumbed-down animated fare.

24.

23.
 

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR

Sensitively directed, languidly paced, and graced with the kind of performances that defy traditional movie acting, Abdel Kechiche's transporting film is a snapshot of emotional honesty between two lovers. Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux are both sublime, and for all the controversy surrounding their explicit sex scenes, what's most telling is the intense depiction of the inherent messiness, and by extension ordinariness, of young love.


 

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish re-team with star Ryan Gosling, after 2011's cult hit Drive, is a maddening revenge tale that works best as a neon-red nightmare. Artful slow motion, splashes of stark red and blue color, stark scenes of brutal violence, Cliff Martinez's hypnotic synth-driven score, and a broodingly intense turn from Vithaya Pansringarm as a sword-wielding cop all add up to a formal triumph of eliciting a sustained mood through sound and imagery.

22.

21.
 

LEVIATHAN

A visceral plunge into the depths of the Atlantic waters near Bedford, Mass, this experimental documentary from directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel is one of the most radical attempts at capturing what it must feel like to be trapped on commercial fishing boat. Hallucinatory, unsettling, and featuring some of the boldest uses of sound design in recent memory. Truly, an unforgettable experience.


 

WELCOME TO PINE HILL

Writer/director Keith Miller walks a tenuous line between documentary and fiction in this elliptical, haunting piece of work, which features a rather extraordinary performance from newcomer Shannon Harper playing a former drug dealer turned insurance claims adjuster. A powerful character study about a man, both ordinary and unique, searching for something outside his pre-destined fate.

20.

19.
 

TOAD ROAD

A fragmented horror film about the dangers of debauchery and drug-addled excess, Jason Banker's confrontational debut will likely polarize as many as it impresses, but there's a method to the film's madness in that it has a tone of sadness permeating it's edges. A strange, erie mixture of vaguely supernatural imagery and mushroom-ingesting inanity, and a fiercely nonlinear vision for adventurous moviegoers.


 

SPRING BREAKERS

Vapid youth culture is rendered with sardonic irony by cinematic provocateur Harmony Korine in this exhilarating, warped fever dream of a film. A bunch of former squeaky-clean pop stars head to the great American wasteland that is Florida for some illicit partying, are joined by James Franco's wannabe rapper/poet, and are ultimately beholden to Korine's feverish pop music video from hell visual aesthetic.

18.

17.
 

ANTIVIRAL

Brandon Cronenberg follows in his father's footsteps with this brilliant satire on celebrity obsession that creates an unnerving dystopian vision of the near future where ordinary citizens pay big money to be injected with viruses from famous celebrities. Caleb Landry Jones is mesmerizing in the central role, and as Cronenberg's atmospherically cold film moves further into the heart of darkness, it subverts expectations by becoming about something so rarely found in the sci-fi/horror genre; ideas.


 

THE DIRTIES

Matt Johnson's remarkable debut sidesteps the usual problems of the found footage genre by focusing on how two friends (played winningly by Johnson and Owen Williams) endure high school bullying by losing themselves in the fantasy world of cinema. By turns darkly hilarious and oddly moving, this is a picture that wrestles with the complicated nature of school violence in a smart and original way. A small film, but an important one.

16.

15.
 

KID-THING

An eccentric blend of magical realism and cautionary tale, the Zellner Brothers latest gives its depiction of isolated rural landscapes and absurdist stretches of silence a central character who may either be an unsupervised youth or a casual psychopath. 10-year-old Sydney Aguirre gives an astonishing performance made up mostly of gestures and off-handed dialogue, and as the film moves towards its unpredictable climax, it gets darker and more surprising. Unnerving, occasionally hilarious, and completely original.


 

HER

Spike Jonze's slyly brilliant near future love story between a lonely writer (played with wide-eyed joy by Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer's operating system (wonderfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is about our near religious obsession with technology without ever delineating it as necessarily evil. Mostly, though, Jonze's poignant tale locates that human longing for connection that exists in all of us, brought to life with touching complexity by Phoenix, who seems reborn as an actor over the last few years.

14.

13.
 

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE

Master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's latest recalls the works of Japanese legend Yasujiro Ozu in that it presents an initially simple story and then unravels the narrative to reveal insights into human nature. Essentially the tale of a college student (Rin Takanashi) working as a prostitute who gets wrapped up with an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) and a jealous fiance (Ryo Case), the genius of Kiarostami's aesthetic is the way he withholds information; framing scenes through mirrors, car windows, and in one bravura sequence, a long unbroken shot of a taxi circling a train station. Oblique, understated, brilliant.


 

STORIES WE TELL

Actor/director Sarah Polley has not only made a great documentary that plays with the format in unexpected ways, but also a marvelous commentary on the elusive nature of truth that is at the heart of storytelling. Charting her family's history with a raw tenderness, the film eventually takes on a collage of facts, fiction, half-truths, and accusatory rhetoric that's both deeply personal and universally resonant. Far from a vanity project, Polley's compassionate deconstruction of familial ties works on multiple levels.

12.

11.
 

SHORT TERM 12

Brie Larson's revelatory performance as a compassionate social worker is at the heart of Dustin Cretton's powerful film detailing a group of young people working at a facility for troubled youth. There's tragic childhood pasts, aborted suicides, dramatic flare ups, and tearful moments of self-selection, but the triumph of the direction here is that it never comes across cloying or heavy-handed. Based on his own experiences working at a similar facility, Cretton imbues everything with a lived-in believability, and Larson will tear your heart out.

25-11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1