2013 was a great year for open, generous filmmaking that explored ordinary humanity with an eye that was critical but unjudgemental, treating its subjects and characters with a care and tenderness that does not preclude putting them through the ringer. Aside from these that follow, honorable mentions must go to Harmony Korine’s State of the Nation address Spring Breakers, the wildly entertaining You’re Next and Much Ado About Nothing, and the sweet-but-not-sickly childhood tale I Wish.
10. Gloria (dir. Sebastián Lelio)
Gloria is great because its eponymous heroine never once on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Whilst she may be going through something of a mid-life crisis, it is the men in her life that are the crazy, desperate, emotionally stunted ones. She might not have everything quite worked out, but just wants to have fun, and it’s the refreshingly frank attitude the film has to the fact that women above a certain age have sex lives – or lives full stop – that makes it such a joy. Paulina García’s performance is fantastic, and director Sebastián Lelio’s deep affection for the character he and García have created lends this film unexpected depth.
9. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cúaron)
Whilst it’s more overtly Hollywood tendencies towards dramatic hyperbole might prevent Gravity from climbing higher on the list, that doesn’t stop it being a tour-de-force of action cinema shot through with a deep sense of existential dread. It doesn’t ease up on the throttle for it’s full 90 minutes, and yet it still finds the time for tenderness and humanity, juxtaposing our insignificance in the face of the abyss with a wonder that something so small and meaningless as a human life could be worth fighting for.
8. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
So many people missed the point of Stories We Tell. Not a Friedmans-esque search for an objective, definite truth, it was rather about how regardless of how many people one shares a story with, they will never have anything but their own, subjective view of it. Moving not due to the tragedy of the story but to the boldness of the sincerity with which it is told, Sarah Polley’s film is far and away her best yet and a landmark in truthful, honest filmmaking.
7. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
It turns out a stick man can make you cry. What begins as a formally interesting and very funny film about a stick figure losing his mind slowly blossoms into a profound and devastating portrait of a man losing his grip on a beautiful world. For some the ending may be too easy a deus ex machina but to me it’s exactly right, not a cop out but a rescue so far-fetched and hyperbolic that it takes on a sadness of its very own.
6. Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen)
However casual the conversations Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Johann and Anna have throughout may be, Jem Cohen’s delicate, meticulous compositions are anything but. The most beautiful film of the year, every frame of Museum Hours resembles a classical painting of the kind that its two characters discuss at length. Never pretentious or boring even when it pauses for a ten-minute discussion of Brueghel, what takes my breath away about Museum Hours is how much of it is simply allowed to exist, conversations about nothing put right alongside conversations about and life and death, each moment imbued with a remarkable purity and naturalness in spite of the supreme control Cohen has over his art.
5. Leviathan (dirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)
Dizzying, visceral, immersive, and quite literally stomach-churning, it seems almost unbelievable to me was made by actual people, not just because of its myriad impossible-seeming shots but because of much of the film feels like its been drawn from the ether, its trawler a great sea monster cutting and tearing through an ancient sea, the men on it nothing more than muscle and sinew. The final utterly dazzling sequence that has the camera ducking under the water one moment and flying through the air with a flock of gulls the next whilst until you stop worry about how they did it and just give in to the ride. The effect of Leviathan is similar to that of a great metal album – it’s a gutpunch that touches upon transcendence.
4. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Okay, so the dinner party scene is more than a little contrived, but elsewhere Before Midnight brings cinema’s longest-standing romance to a satisfying and moving conclusion (unless, of course, they make another in ten years time). It wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t known them so well by now, but Jesse and Celeste fight is the kind of fight we’ve all been through, with its ebbs and flows, its petty jabs and deep cuts, and it hurts because we’ve been invested in their relationship for almost twenty years. If Sunrise was about the all-consuming passion of young love and Sunset is about how time and contemplation changes that love into something more concrete and real, then Midnight is about how love shifts and changes two people, and how it becomes about knowing a person, inside and out.
3. Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
After making three of the strongest, most observationally acute films of the loosely-defined “mumblecore” genre, I don’t think anyone expected such a weird and wonderful curveball as Computer Chess from Andrew Bujalski. I wrote about it in detail here, but it remains to be said that through all the strange goings on, Bujalski is still concerned with what defined his previous films – a naturalistic-yet-rigorous approach to character that means he never loses control of his film, even during its most gleefully odd digressions.
2. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
I wrote about The Act of Killing way back in March and hundreds of others have written about it since, and most have rightly focussed on the film’s explorations of human rights and how it exposes the myth of an concrete ideas of good and evil in the context of one of the 20th century’s most underexposed genocides. What many don’t notice is the formal daring with which it explores its themes, devoting much of its screen time as it does to the film these mass-murderers are making – a film that, despite its horrifying subject matter, one must concede is a curiously beautiful work of outsider art. Joshua Oppenheimer isn’t afraid to make his audience uncomfortable, but he does so not through confrontation but by simply stating that even though his subjects are monsters, they are also men.
1. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
The Act of Killing was certainly the best film of the year in terms of confronting Big Issues in new, innovative and cinematic ways, so it seems almost insulting to put such an inconsequential film above it on my list. But Frances Ha, for all its slightness, has a power of its very own: I spent its full eighty minute runtime positively fizzing with joy. Indebted to the French New Wave and clearly taking cues Woody Allen’s early movies (especially Annie Hall, who’s title character Frances resembles whilst having a wild energy that is all her own) every scene dances, each moment sings, and Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created one of cinema’s great characters.
This is Gerwig’s film, and without her all-over-the-place, flighty, intensely physical performance it may have been a complete failure. But Gerwig makes us like Frances even when she is at her most infuriatingly selfish and oblivious to those around her. For those of of us who graduated right around the time the recession hit, we recognise her as an extreme version of one of us – we had been told entering the adult world would be easy, it turned out to be incredibly hard. It’s that recognisibility that makes the film’s dialogue really sparkle, and some one-liners are utterly abacktaking in how accurately they nail the language and syntax of how these people really talk (“Don’t treat me like a three-hour-brunch friend”; “He’s the kind of guy who buys a black leather sofa and is like, ‘I love it’”). It’s clear that Gerwig in particular knows this world inside and out, and though some would argue that young white middle class New Yorkers aren’t the most important subsection of society to be making films about, it’s hard to find fault with a film that explores its milieu with such grace and charm. Frances hasn’t got it all figured out yet, and she doesn’t know where to direct her sense of entitlement, but she’s essentially a good person, and that shines through.
Frances Ha is at it’s core a love story between two girls who are struggling to maintain their deep friendship through the transition to adulthood, and it is here that the film breaks free from its influences and becomes something new. As Allen and Truffaut told stories of their generations, the insular bubbles through which they viewed the larger world, Baumbach is telling a story about this one, with all its confusion and indecision, its too-many-options and not-enough-opportunity, its garbage dump of references but distinct lack of experience. Frances Halladay is a heroine, and this movie is our movie.
(Films I missed that could have conceivably made this list: Short Term 12, Neighbouring Sounds, Beyond the Hills, No, The Selfish Giant, Like Father Like Son, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Like Someone in Love)