Hollywood, indies, documentaries turn in impressive performances in 2013There’s a lot to say about the best films of 2013, so a brief introduction is in order. The strength of documentaries remains astonishing, and this was the best year for American cinema — from Hollywood (although summer blockbusters were generally dismal, at least judging from the sampling I saw) to micro-budgeted indies — since 1999. In a weaker year, my runners-up list would make a satisfying top 10.
1. “Leviathan” (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
A night on a fishing boat becomes a means of opening the doors of perception, a la head-trip cinema of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The directors have refused all political and ecological intent, and their documentary seems to deflect interpretation. Yet I think Greenpeace would approve of its apocalyptic tone, which suggests this bounty might be the sea’s final one.
2. “Spring Breakers” (Harmony Korine)
Although made before Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, this is the definitive film of that moment. It sums up a culture where teenage girls and young women are encouraged to both objectify themselves and embrace a post-feminist concept of empowerment. It explores American pop culture from the inside without passing judgment, and I’m sure Korine would be the first to admit to the lechery in his gaze. The filmmaker finds beauty and danger in “spring break... forever,” where most would only find a group of girls in bikinis and drunk guys spilling beer on them.
Hollywood, indies, documentaries turn in impressive performances in 2013
3. “The Act of Killing” (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous)
This documentary, in which American Joshua Oppenheimer (working with a native co-director who couldn’t use his name) asks Indonesian war criminals to reenact their murders and tortures on film, could have been a tasteless misfire. Instead, the results indict the whole concept of escapist entertainment as potentially murderous. All resemblance between Indonesia and America, particularly under the Bush administration, is intentional.
4. “Gravity” (Alfonso Cuarón)
A budget of more than $200 million dollars usually buys disposable movie stars and bloated special effects. In the case of “Gravity,” it bought an excellent performance by Sandra Bullock and, for once, a truly inventive and disorienting 3D CGI . The film is closer to the psychedelic realms of “Leviathan” or Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void” than to any recent blockbuster. It’s a shame that the script is relatively weak, but at least being lost in space means that the characters don’t talk too much. I’d love to see Cuarón take what he’s learned from making mega-budget extravaganzas, return to Mexico, and try making a film on the scale of “Y Tu Mamá También” again.
5. “Before Midnight” (Richard Linklater)
“Before Midnight” is that rarity: a truly adult film. I don’t mean that it’s particularly sexually explicit, but it examines the costs and compromises of life after 35 with an honesty rare in an industry chasing after teenagers’ dollars.
6. “Upstream Color” (Shane Carruth)
On a single viewing, the narrative of “Upstream Color” is almost incomprehensible, but it comes across as the film Terrence Malick was trying to make with “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” and failed at. At its most coherent, it hints at connections between human and animal consciousness. But this is about as experimental as narrative cinema gets before it heads into the avant-garde, and it’s rewarding and pleasurable even if it remains baffling.
7. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Joel and Ethan Coen)
I’m generally not a big Coen brothers fan, but for once their customary misanthropy is earned. The tale of a folksinger in 1961 New York who manages to ruin his career and alienate all his friends, it also examines how a momentarily hip scene can be swept away by the official culture — even the official counterculture, like that represented by Bob Dylan — of its time. Additionally, its vision of Greenwich Village in winter is indelible.
8. “A Touch of Sin” (Jia Zhang-ke)
Chinese director Jia’s films have long given a voice to the people left behind by the country’s economic boom. With “A Touch of Sin,” he’s started screaming; this is the angriest film I’ve ever seen about contemporary China. In his portrait of violence as a potentially cathartic response to oppressive circumstances, Jia finds unlikely kinship with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
9. “The Unspeakable Act’ (Dan Sallitt)
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” won great acclaim for taking the French coming-of-age film, blowing it up to epic scale, and adding a 10-minute sex scene. Although it’s an American film, “The Unspeakable Act” is a truer heir to the French New Wave. Exploring the world of a teenage girl struggling with incestuous desire for her brother, it avoids sensationalism and easy explanations for her behavior.
10. “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear” (Tinatin Gurchiani)
Georgian director Tinatin Gurchiani placed ads seeking young people to audition for an apocryphal narrative film. She filmed the results, which are quite revealing in and of themselves, and then went on to shoot the lives of some of her subjects in more depth. “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear” avoids the usual clichés of Eastern European miserabilism, while still conveying an overall sense of malaise and tackling problems like alcoholism.
Best unreleased films: “Gebo and His Shadow” (Manoel de Oliveira), “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” (Hong Sang-soo), “Sleepless Night” (Jang Kun-jae), and “What Now? Remind Me” (Joaquim Pinto).
Runners-up: “American Hustle” (David O. Russell), “Bastards” (Claire Denis), “The Last Time I Saw Macao” (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata), “Let the Fire Burn” (Jason Osder), “Old Dog” (Pema Tseden), “Pacific Rim” (Guillermo del Toro), “Something in the Air” (Olivier Assayas), “The Square” (Jehane Noujaim), “Valentine Road” (Marta Cunningham), and “Viola” (Matias Piñeiro).