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.
2012 in film was a year defined by ambiguity and ambivalence. I don’t mean that to sound disparaging – on the contrary, some of the most engaging films of the year are defined by their elusiveness, their unwillingness to define the statements they are trying to make. Thusly many of the year’s biggest films have been met with considerable divisiveness amongst critics, and have left me perplexed. Whereas last year there were four or five films that blew off my head, more often than not this year I’ve left the cinema scratching it. It’ll take me a couple more viewings of Holy Motors and The Master and The Turin Horse before I can really feel that I can say definitively if they are the masterpieces that so many people see in them, but that’s a good thing – film should challenge and defy expectations, it should encourage dialogue and discussion.
It has also been one of the finest years for documentaries I can remember, taking on subjects as diverse as the economic crisis, Iran’s censorship laws, Chile’s painful history, and filmmaking itself, whilst still finding time to tell gripping real-life yarns like that of The Imposter with flair. It was a great year for genre film too, with The Cabin in the Woods, Premium Rush, The Raid, Sleepless Night and especially Dredd 3D all deserving honorable mentions. And while I thus far missed many of the films that have made other people’s lists – I am particularly sad about having missed Tabu, Barbara, Laurence Anyways, Sightseers and The Hunt – the films that do make it are all of them bold and daring efforts, many of them from first-time directors. Film may be dying, but cinema isn’t.
A lot of people don’t see the point of best-of lists. I’ve had many a conversation with people where they argue that lists like Sight and Sound’s best-ever films poll tend toward mediocrity, that the same films will always rise to the top, and more interesting, but underseen and underappreciated, films will never get a look in. The argument is quite valid – the problem with these kind of polls, especially when they’re as large as Sight and Sound’s, is that though each individual ballot may be an interesting, challenging selection, the mean of the lot is always going to be a little blah. Film is a unique medium in that it’s both relatively new and vastly overpopulated, and great films are often overlooked for films with broader appeal.
Still, though, I can’t help poring over lists. The Sight and Sound one may be the largest and most definitive, but I also love Slant’s alternative “100 Essential Films” list, best-of-the-decade lists large and small, and every December I get a little crazy contrasting and comparing critics’ year-end lists. It’s not that I think that there’s some kind of objective, quantifiable “best film”, but seeing people jostle toward defining a canon is really interesting to me, however unnecessary it may be. It’s like seeing the dialogue of film laid out on the page, with all its history and its ebbs and flows, and while the Sight and Sound poll’s final top 100 only tracks the medium’s sharpest peaks, when you dig down into each individual ballot you can see something that resembles the full spectrum.
And with that in mind, I’ve endeavored to create my own top ten. It’s hard for me, because I feel like there’s so much I have yet to see that I can’t honestly say that I feel like enough of an authority on the subject, but I can but try. And while these films are in no particular order, I can tell you that the first two choices here are constantly wrestle for my personal favourite film, at least for now.