Note: Calum's list is reflected in Film.com's collective list of the year's 10 best films, but he submitted such a thoroughly annotated response that it deserved a post of its own. This is that post.
2013 was an excellent year for cinema — so much so that the traditional list of ten films seemed too restrictive to do the abundance justice. Thus you will find below a list of the fifteen films I admired most this year, along with blurbs culled from my own writing on them. You’ll find, too, selected links to reviews, features, and interviews I’ve put together on these films throughout the year, which I hope will go some way to illuminating my taste and justifying my selections.
Honorable Mentions: "White Reindeer", "Bastards", "Side Effects", "Laurence Anyways", "The Grandmaster", "The Last Time I Saw Macao", "Post Tenebras Lux", "The Unspeakable Act", "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet", "Upstream Color".
15. “Computer Chess” (Andrew Bujalski)
Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” seems, for its first thirty minutes at least, as if it had been recently unearthed from deep within the vaults of an untouched college archive, as the snapshot it provides of an early-80s technology conference feels so authentic that it practically qualifies as anthropological. As the weekend-long computer chess tournament heads toward its dead-heat climax, the surreal begins to seep in around the edges of the frame, gradually shifting the focus of our intrigue: programs seem to gain consciousness, characters find themselves trapped in endless Brakhagian feedback loops, and cats emerge unexplained from the ether. It’s quite a trip.
14. “The Counselor” (Ridley Scott)
It arrives in theaters under the aegis of Sir Ridley Scott, but the real author of The Counselor is its writer, Cormac McCarthy. His first screenplay for the silver screen, The Counselor is perhaps unsurprisingly among the most conspicuously literary films in recent memory, and much of its appeal derives from this quality. Though it seems to have alienated most who watched it — it currently holds a dismal 35% on Rotten Tomatoes — those familiar with the idiosyncrasies of McCarthy’s prose will quickly sink into its familiar rhythms, which take us through arch, almost surreally archaic dialogue (“A plague of pustulant boils upon all their scurvid asses”) and the kind of nihilistic worldview that renders every glimmer of hope a pipe dream. Staggering stuff, in other words, and I expect time will vindicate its peculiarity as simply misunderstood.
13. “Viola” (Matias Pinero)
Viola's hour-long running time contains little in the way of plot or action, and its only major event concerns the duplicitous efforts of a young woman to seduce her colleague in order to prove a point about romance and attraction, confined to a single sequence. And yet the world the film describes is so vividly realized that it seems to spill over the edges of the frame, as if the lives of its characters will continue after the credits roll. Piñeiro's Buenos Aires is a kind of bohemian paradise, a thriving community of artists, actors, and musicians living a life of perpetual art and leisure; his portrait of the city is as fond as it is fantastic.
12. “ A Touch of Sin” (Jia Zhangke)
When critics describe “A Touch of Sin” as a departure for Jia, as they did often after its world premiere at the Cannes film festival last May, what they mean is that, for the first time, Jia has abandoned the singular and ever-evolving filmmaking mode for which he remains best known to adopt an approach that is far more recognizable. In other words, “A Touch of Sin” is a genre film. It has its roots in the wuxia, as Jia has said in interviews, but to Western eyes it is also quite simply an action epic, a blockbuster spectacle of stylized gunplay and the violence of revenge. To that end praise comes easily: “A Touch of Sin” is by far the best action film of the year.
11. “Like Someone in Love” (Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love,” in particular, qualifies as Iranian on precisely these grounds; it’s Japanese setting, far from distancing the story from Iran, actively speaks to the Iranian situation, drawing on the nation’s history, values, and sensibility. This, ultimately, is what makes the national cinema conversation worth having: it helps us to understand a film in a richer, more informed context.
10. “At Berkeley” (Frederick Wiseman)
I haven’t had the chance to write anything about “At Berkeley” yet, but suffice it say that Wiseman’s patience and intelligence have yielded perhaps the richest portrait of higher education ever.
09. “Drug War” (Johnnie To)
Johnnie To has long since established himself as Hong Kong’s preeminent purveyor of stylized crime pictures, but it took a move to mainland China for his singular action sensibility to take hold in the West. With Drug War, To shifted milieus and recalibrated his style to appease fickle censors. But on the whole, the film seems a kind of doubling down on what he does best: His dense, meticulous plotting and absolute command of visual space make for a tense policier that puts American action movies to shame. To remains intensely withholding when it comes to both narrative and spectacle, doling out the minimum of both until our desire for more becomes unbearable. Then catharsis arrives, in a last-act set piece that emerges as one of the best stand-alone sequences of the year. It’s a lesson Hollywood could stand to learn.
08. “Spring Breakers” (Harmony Korine)
Here is a film, to borrow a phrase from Don Delillo, about "the neon epic of Saturday night," a DayGlo beach-borne fantasy of bright lights smeared and shining; it exists in this strange and beautiful place upon which Malick, Mann, and MTV incongruously converge. This is art-house maximalism with a tenor like poetry, an incisive and critical drama unafraid to relish and indulge in the subject it intends to deconstruct. You could call it "high-trash" cinema; it collects the cast-aside bric-a-brac of an ostensibly bankrupt culture—Harmony Korine operates here like some rigorously anthropological Katamari, rolling up anything and everything in his path—and transforms it into something earnestly, maybe even transcendently, gorgeous.
07. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Joel & Ethan Coen)
I haven’t written a word on “Inside Llewyn Davis” yet, sadly, but I hope to soon. For now I’ll just say that it ranks among the most affecting of the Coens’ films, and that the number of arguments its ambiguity has entrained in the critical community of late only confirms how effortlessly dense the whole thing is.
06. “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen)
When 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, you could sense a crowd divided by the intensity of what they'd seen. On the one hand, there were walk-outs — not because the film was worth bailing on, but because its depiction of the violence and degradation of slavery is so brutal and abrasive that it can be hard to stomach watching it at all. On the other hand, there was applause and tears and a long-lasting standing ovation. People were devasated and moved by the picture, by its commitment to telling a necessary story and by the virtuosity of the filmmaking that contained it. 12 Years is the rare film to push an audience away because it does what it intends to too well. It shoves the horrors of American history in our faces so well that the only natural response is pain.
05. “The World’s End” (Edgar Wright)
The World’s End represents the third and final chapter in what has been informally dubbed “the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy,” a loose-knit and mock-serious series that also includes rom-com zombie flick Shaun of the Dead and the rural England Michael Bay parody Hot Fuzz. Their director and cowriter, Edgar Wright, has built his reputation on his rapid-fire screwball dialogue and penchant for pop culture references, but his real speciality runs deeper: no comic filmmaker working today invests so much emotional and psychological energy into his work, fleshing out an array of densely layered one-liners and ultra-subtle sight gags with an unexpected dramatic depth. Each of his films are, to varying degrees, deeply personal movies about real-life issues, from the soul-sapping effects of complacency to the Sisyphean struggle of growing up—they just also happen to feature zombies and robots and evil ex-boyfriends.
04. “Museum Hours” (Jem Cohen)
It's tempting, after watching the exceptional new film Museum Hours, to describe director Jem Cohen's visual style as chiefly "observational." The film, a kind of hybrid between understated drama and essayistic tourism, approaches its subjects with uncommon patience and curiosity, lingering over objects and faces as if to savor their aesthetic qualities, eager to convey truths without authorial imposition. As Cohen's camera makes its rounds through the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (the interiors shot digitally, the outside on 16mm) it seems remarkably attuned to everyday details, soaking in local flavor and, in essence, defamiliarizing a world we might think we know.
03. “Leviathan” (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Some systems, for all their ruthless efficiency and invisible control, seem guided only by chaos, like an anthill teeming with activity, its scurrying agents adhering to patterns we can't perceive.Leviathan, an experimental documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, concerns a system whose very functionality seems incomprehensible: a commercial fishing operation so wholly in thrall to the churning agitations of its environment that nature itself not only has the power, but the will to topple it. Fish aren't so much heaved from the sea as they are wrenched from it, jerked with the force of market pressure, the fishermen at work a hulking mass of bodies made as much a fixture of the system as the machinery roaring around them. The ship looks vaguely alien, like an earthbound Nostromo adrift in the deep space of the North Atlantic, the New Bedford coast a veritable new world.
02. “Her” (Spike Jonze)
The genius of Her is that it doesn't ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about "the modern condition," but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love.
01. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese)
This is a film of extraordinary jejunity; its manner is raucous, sprightly, unhinged. It barrels through its 179-minute running time, spending scarcely a moment in repose, sprinting there and back without any need for breath or pause. The story is almost classically tragic — based on former millionaire Jordan Belfort’s memoirs of the same name, it’s yet another film about the corruption of the American Dream, playing out as if it were the Scarface of stockbroking — and yet the tone has been rendered unrelentingly comic, almost fantastic, making this an epic of the lightest touch. Martin Scorsese is 71 years old. Based on The Wolf of Wall Street, he might as well be 25. The late period has never seemed quite so young.