Our 30 Favorite Films of 2013

This week, with a month of perspective and a lack of deadlines to our benefit, we take a nostalgic look back at the wild, transcendent, moving, ultimately unforgettable year that was 2013. 

212965-like-someone-in-love-movie-review-abbas-kiarostami-film-Rin-Takanashi30. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

After deconstructing a would-be romance in the brilliant Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami once again plunges us into the complexity of adult relationships. Centered around an encounter between an elderly Japanese professor and a young female escort, it’s hard not to view this film as a companion piece, as it plays with some of the same narrative tropes – mistaken identities, jealous boyfriends – and the inclusion of the word “like” in the title hints at the grand masquerade being played. The story never coalesces as smoothly as in Copy, but there’s a strongly infused sense of atmosphere, an overriding sense of isolation – intimate and intense conversations take place over the phone or in meticulously arranged social circumstances. It’s ending it both sudden and shocking – a bold dare for the viewer to “choose their own adventure,” but a question the film itself will not answer. For a filmmaker that’s made his trade in ambiguity, it’s not surprising to find him posing a tantalizing question, only to allow it to linger. — Bryan

968full-to-the-wonder-screenshot29. To The Wonder  (Terrence Malick)

Last time we saw Terrence Malick, he was kicking off the decade with an instant-masterpiece that pondered human nature, explored the birth of the universe, and featured dinosaurs. Rather than retreating from the silver screen for a decade as he tends to do, Malick got right back into it, working on two films at once. The first of those was the gorgeous To The Wonder. While it may seem tiny next to The Tree of Life, To The Wonder is a more personal meditation of human relationships that uses Malick’s poetic style of filmmaking to get deep into the hearts of the characters. While it may seem aimless to more casual viewers (perhaps the ones who demanded refunds after The Tree of Life), Malick uses his camera to capture incredibly intimate moments between his characters, giving the images a feeling of truth and reality. It’s a film that radiates sincerity, depicting human interactions with the same gravity as the universe’s creation. — Giovanni

Blue-Jasmine-screenshot28. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s career-defining work is behind him. Films like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Husbands and Wives were groundbreaking in their singularity – each not only featured an ensemble chock-full of full-bodied characters, but crafted a comic world around them that felt wholly personal and unique. Blue Jasmine may not be that kind of picture, but it’s one of the best Allen has made in the last decade – simple but elegant in its depiction of a woman (Cate Blanchett) bursting at the seams and struggling not to spiral out of her delusional sense of comfort. Jasmine serves as the film’s engine, a force of nature at risk of being grounded by the minutia of reality – represented by her sister (Sally Hawkins), her decency, and love. Their dissonance is mined for comedy but also pathos, an authentic relationship gone off the rails long ago. Even when the story itself isn’t much to write home about, the firmly-rooted sense of place and character carries the film into frequent moments of truth.  — Bryan

Wrong_2327. Wrong (Quentin Dupieux)

While the theater of the absurd has had a massive influence that still ripples through art today, very few artists have quite nailed the kind of madness that Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard first popularized. But decades later, enter Quentin Dupieux, a filmmaker who feels like the second coming of Eugene Ionesco. Dupieux’s Wrong fits snugly in the history of the absurdists, creating a completely bizarre world with its own seemingly random set of rules. Works like this allow us to take a step out of reality and think about just how strange and meaningless our own world can feel at times. Dupieux allows that opportunity here while creating a world that is consistently hilarious with its blend of deadpan humor and total absurdity. It may be treading on topics well covered by his predecessors, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything as memorable as “The palm tree… is no longer a palm tree” in 2013 cinema. — Giovanni

vlcsnap-2013-05-10-02h47m01s17926. The Grandmasters [Chinese Cut] (Wong Kar-Wai)

Wong Kar-Wai has always been something of a perfectionist – endlessly tinkering with his films in an effort to make them just so. The Grandmaster is perhaps his most outwardly ambitious film, part historical epic (the story chronicles the life of Bruce Lee’s kung fu mentor, Ip Man), part woozy romantic mood piece. Wong has made a career out of delicacy, observing those moments of wonder amid the frenzy of the modern world. Once again, his focus is firmly defined on the spaces between people – in this case Ip Man and Gong Er, the daughter of a rival. Their romance is as much central to the narrative as the stunningly staged battles, and it humanizes a film that also does some philosophical heavy lifting. Their battles are representative of history, they fight to preserve a tradition and a lineage that threatens to be lost to time. Though the various threads become somewhat muddled, it’s overwhelming nature eventually engulfs you as a viewer, giving you a tactile sensation of beauty and grace. — Bryan 

Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 8.18.02 PM_102425. Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz)

Grimy and claustrophobic, Amy Seimetz’s debut feature tracks the embattled relationship of an iconic couple on a road trip in southern Florida. Essentially a thriller pared down to its essential parts, the film remains tightly focused on its lead female performance (Kate Lyn Sheil), as she struggles against the by-turns oppressive and caring presence of her male counterpart and literal partner in crime. The nature of their odyssey is slowly revealed, allowing the tension of their predicament to fully infuse every grain of the frame. Certainly influenced by Terrence Malick’s landmark film, Badlands, Seimetz’s debut is more a suggestion of promise than a fully-formed statement. Its refreshing lack of pretension and understated narrative lends to its theme of retreat toward childishness in the face of overwhelming obstacles. With a larger budget it’s easy to see those same keen instincts applied to a great film, but in the meantime, this one has a way of sticking with you. — Bryan

1_e_Pablo-Larraín-_NO24. NO (Pablo Larrain)

Non-fiction period pieces can be incredibly tricky. There’s a delicate balance between being entertaining and being informative that can sometimes lead to incredibly dry pieces, only celebrated briefly for their art design. But Pablo Larrain nails that balancing act with NO. Chronicling the 1988 media campaign designed to take down Chile’s controversial president Augusto Pinochet, Larrain crafts a stylistic historical piece that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. Part of what makes NO so successful is Larrain’s decision to shoot the film on vintage 80’s equipment, grounding the story in its time while giving cinematographer Sergio Armstrong a unique visual twist to play with. Mixing that with actual footage from the at-times ridiculous TV campaign itself firmly plants it in reality, opening up a very real discussion of how heavily media influences political races. — Giovanni

Only-the-Young-423. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims, Jason Tippet)

We associate childhood with a sense of innocence, but looking back it can be difficult to trace toward the exact moment when we reach adulthood. Hollywood has always struggled with its depiction of children – often erring on the side of comedy by presenting them as precocious, knowing androids that don’t often exist in the real world. In their stunning, understated documentary, Elizabeth Mims and Jasson Tippet chronicle the coming-of-age of three separate teenagers, each achingly embodied by their traits that are nothing if not adult – in other words, the film’s subjects may be kids, but its subject matter is anything but. These teens exhibit compassion, nostalgia, and anxiety about their future, all while doing their best to live firmly in the moment that they’ve been told constitutes “the best time of their lives.” The viewer is provided a completely objective glance at these personalities still being formed, and we are rewarded in witnessing their untarnished humanity, shining through the most gloomy and unfortunate of circumstance. — Bryan 

hunt1022. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

There are certain topics that are so taboo that one is forced to handle them with great care if they want to avoid immediate backlash. Louis Malle was a master of this, creating films about topics like adultery and incest with astounding sensitivity. Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt carries that same vibe, nailing an incredibly touchy subject without creating controversy. The story follows a teacher (Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the part with unforgettable restraint) who finds himself under fire after a white lie leaves him labeled a pedophile. Vinterberg follows the ensuing train-wreck-in-slow-motion as his small town is thrown into a panic by this unproved accusation. With a harrowing conclusion, The Hunt reflects back on society’s tendency to vilify accused criminals before getting the facts straight. It’s an uncomfortable mirror to stare into, but one that Vinterberg makes difficult to look away from. — Giovanni

2013101902120218121. Drug War (Johnnie To)

Often times, action movies feel as if they can only reach so far in terms of quality. No matter how entertaining they can be, there’s a certain lack of depth that can make them seem a little too superficial to ever fully stick. Johnnie To’s Drug War, however, is an exception, creating a blood-soaked action movie that’s nearly impossible to forget. While the story may seem familiar (an undercover operation is carried out against a massive drug cartel), To’s commitment to depicting the brutality of violence is stunning. What begins as entertaining quickly becomes uncomfortably gritty, showing the collateral damage that this war between cartels and police can have. It’s a film where death carries actual weight, as opposed to the deluge of American action films that treat human beings as bowling pins. — Giovanni

The_Past_520. The Past (Asghar Farhadi)

On the heels of his monumental humanistic masterwork, A Separation, filmmaker Asghar Farhadi turned toward a somewhat more straightforward story still infused with his trademark brand of empathy. Its theme plainly stated in the film’s title, The Past employs a narrative that twists and turns without ever feeling unnatural or manipulative, beginning with the simple scenario of an estranged couple reuniting to formalize their divorce and spiraling outward to incorporate the handful of others drawn into their dramatic wake. With each new quiet revelation, we begin to understand more about the characters, and the mechanics with which their past interactions led them toward their current state of discord. Never stumbling in its strive for realism, the film bracingly depicts a series of relationships on the brink of calamity, kept together only by a sense of common decency, an acknowledgement of a history shared. Farhadi once again pinpoints the perfect moments where those considerations erode, when the wish for stability can simply no longer hold. — Bryan 

screenshot_5_2467219. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

A quick look at this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Documentary reveal that there’s many different ways to make a documentary. You can throw a camera in the middle of the action and let the footage speak for itself (The Square), you can take a strictly journalistic approach (Dirty Wars), or you can do whatever the hell Joshua Oppenheimer is doing (The Act Of Killing). Blackfish uses an equally effective method, folding formal elements usually reserved for fiction into its non-fiction storytelling. The result is one of the best documentaries and certainly the best horror film of 2013. Gabriela Cowperthwaite digs into a series of horrible accidents at Seaworld involving orcas to uncover some dark truths (though Seaworld naturally disputes many of Cowperthwaite’s findings) swimming with those “happy” whales. She lays her facts on the table in the form of a psychologically scarring narrative that brings the treatment of captive animals back into the public forefront. And perhaps most notably, she does it without an overbearing call-to-action that leaves so many otherwise fine documentaries dead in the water. The story speaks for itself, and no matter how you decide to make a documentary, that should always be the case. — Giovanni

F1wDzRN18. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty without mentioning Federico Fellini. Many things, from the suit clad protagonist to the outdoor garden parties, have the Italian master’s fingerprints all over it. And that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, the familiar style only strengthen’s the stunning film by firmly grounding it in Italian history. Sorrentino discusses how it’s so difficult to find the beauty in life, even though it’s so clearly before our eyes. And what better way to dig at the point than by creating a travelogue of Rome, a marvelous city that Fellini depicted in beautiful detail, which now feels overrun by tourist traps and cheap attractions? It’s a brilliant reference that makes The Great Beauty much more than a simple nod to Fellini. It’s a sweeping journey to uncover an elusive feeling that human beings crave, yet are often to jaded to see. Sorrentino gets it, however, and he’s more than willing to share it with us. — Giovanni 

aquw17. Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)

There’s magic to be mined from the mundane – something transcendent in a whole-hearted stab at earnestness. You can make a movie with nothing approaching interesting in shot selection, composition, and still have it hit you in the gut. Is it merely watching James Gandolfini – one of the finest actors of our age – in his last major role? Certainly he proves himself capable of delivering us to that place of utter honesty and warmth, but it’s also the understated humor in this tale of the fits and starts to adult relationships that makes it so effective. Nicole Holofcener’s astute look at the social acceptability (or lack thereof) of tying to forge such a new bond in your forties nails that lingering melancholy – in knowing you’ve failed before, and not wanting to lay yourself bare yet again. That it captures such a complex state of unease amid traditional rom-com framing devices only highlights the understated talents of all involved — instead of being burdened by its cliched template, the film transcends it. Surely these are considerably privileged people dealing with issues of vanity and myopia, but their struggle is familiar, and strikingly human. Sometimes doing the expected can become the most special. — Bryan

800_leviathan_blu-ray_08_-610x25016. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)

Leviathan isn’t your typical documentary – what it lacks in talking heads it makes up for with dismembered fish heads, lurching back and forth on the slippery deck of a deep-sea ship. Finding lyricism in the brutality of nature, the film wordlessly transports us to an alien world that somehow exists on our own. It’s a churning, lurching, gutter bath of a picture that fully embraces all that’s inherent to the weathered profession of this brand of fishermen. But its presentation skews more towards the arthouse than any episode of The Deadliest Catch – the humans themselves are almost entirely peripheral, presented as cogs in the huge and complex machine that sputters along from day to weary day. Plunging the viewer straight into the shallow water and then systematically through every part of the fishing process, the film has an almost suffocating quality – it so submerges us that we leave with the slight but unmistakable odor of fish guts. Pleasant? Maybe not; but unforgettable? Certainly. — Bryan

this-is-the-end-movie-trailer-2013-screenshot-group-shot15. This Is The End (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)

For straight-up laughs from beginning to end, no film really even came close to matching This Is The End for me this year. When your first act ends with a coked-up Michael Cera being impaled by a light post, the last remaining life in his body slowly fading as he’s unceremoniously jostled upright, as the land outside of James Franco’s house is opening into a fiery abyss all the while, YOU’RE ON TO SOMETHING. The film bristles with a natural energy throughout – not surprising considering the years-in-the-making chemistry of the main cast. Seth Rogan’s panic takes the form of a slapdash Pineapple Express sequel, James Franco remains typically cool throughout the apocalypse, and Jonah Hill pleads to a higher power to kill the totally not-chill Jay Baruchel. “I think the Green Goblin can afford some more bacon” has entered my general lexicon to describe selfish celebrities, just as “freaks forever” will be my go-to line for whenever I need to sneak rationed crackers to a best friend. The prop gun-touting scene, Franco and Danny McBride’s masturbation argument, perhaps the greatest final scene in cinematic history… I could go on. The only downside is that this really might be the end for these guys – it may be tough to go back to movies where they’re not playing these caricatures of themselves. -Drew

Screen-shot-2013-11-25-at-11.26.26-AM__14012905584914. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Somewhere down the line, Nebraska somehow became a dark horse in the Oscar race. It seems strange, since Alexander Payne has been an awards darling for years, and since his latest film is several steps above 2011’s disappointing (but at-the-time beloved) The Descendants. While that film felt emotionally manipulative, Nebraska lies on the other end of the spectrum, repositioning Payne as a master of balancing humor and drama. The little black-and-white road story about an old man and his son traveling through the midwest to cash in on a mail scam is loaded with heart. Where Payne’s direction really shines through here is in the performances. In addition to a powerhouse performance from Bruce Dern, who perfectly strikes a balance between senile old fool and heartbreakingly sincere family man, Nebraska is brimming with talent, both from veterans and non-actors alike. Perhaps the most unexpected of these performances comes from June Squibb, who commands every second she’s on screen as Dern’s reasonably cranky wife. Warm, hilarious, and heartfelt, Nebraska paints a gorgeous picture of the American midwest, leading viewers on a present day journey through the past. — Giovanni

23-wolf-of-wall-street-213. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Nearly three hours of unrepressed mania, Martin Scorsese’s latest film is perhaps the first that literally needed downers to slow itself down. That remarkably memorable scene will go down as one of Marty’s best, but it’s his refusal to shift into lower gear that makes the film as a whole unforgettable. The story of unrepentant asshole Jordan Belfort, Wolf operates in an admittedly tricky mode that has put off its fair share of viewers. Should it be read as social critique, satire, or outright farce? It’s perhaps best read as an all-out representation of unfiltered greed – how inherent it can be toward being successful in the modern age, and how little actual consequence there can be for combining that greed with a lack of moral conscience. Fleet, kinetic, and at-times hilarious in its depiction of hedonistic desire, the film’s rhythm allows it to embody its thesis without didactically spelling it out. Was such excess necessary to drive the point home, that these are terrible people profiting off of a broken system? Or was it merely Marty’s way of allowing form to imitate its subject – a coy smile toward an audience as if to say, “Who’s going to stop me?” – Bryan 

shortterm12still12. Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton)

On paper, Short Term 12 sounds like a risky endeavor. It’s a small indie dramedy that focuses on the very heavy topic of abused youths. With the wrong direction, a story like that could become an overwrought tearjerker. Fortunately, writer/director Destin Cretton avoids all pitfalls with unparalleled grace, creating a small tour-de-force that deserves every tear it brings out of you. What’s so effective here is that nothing feels forced. Set in a treatment facility for troubled teens, all of the characters’ backstories feel 100% genuine, making the truth behind the fiction incredibly clear. This isn’t simply a topic Cretton puts out there to get some easy reactions, but rather one that he genuinely understands, putting the utmost care and attention to detail into it. And it’s impossible to talk about the film without noting Brie Larson’s stunning lead performance, which in itself is more heartbreaking, hopeful, and generally awe-inspiring than 99% of what we’ve gotten from cinema so far this decade. Short Term 12 is the kind of hidden gem that makes one forget about the empty awards season hype and focus on how wonderful cinema is really capable of being. — Giovanni 

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 5.45.19 PM11. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

Anyone who’s seen Gravity knows that it’s not going to win any screenplay awards, but I’d argue that it could if said script contained one single line – “STAY THE FUCK OUT OF SPACE” – and director Alfonso Cuaron simply knew where to go from there. Seriously, will this film lead to the death of the American space program as we know it? Who’s going to watch this and say to themselves “yeah, that’s what I want to do with my life: this every day.” And it’s not like there’s a ton left to do out there! Most space things remain undiscovered because by the time you get far enough out to see them, you’ve been dead for a really, really long time. I digress only because I don’t know what’s left to say about why Gravity was a must-see event: its technical bravura, its insane tracking shots, the way it realistically simulates underestimating fire extinguishers in zero gravity, and of course pulling off the small miracle of genuinely fearing for Sandra Bullock’s life. Even if the story’s so paper thin that it’s not going to be much of a spectacle when it arrives on basic cable (R.I.P. 3-D television), seeing it in theaters was the amusement park thrill ride of the year. -Drew

Screen-Shot-2013-07-15-at-7.01.55-PM-620x25510. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

From its very first screenings, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was immediately predicted to be this year’s frontrunner for Best Picture. And it’s a rare example of a film that actually lives up that hype, truly proving itself worthy of the title. For the past few years, McQueen has slowly been positioning himself as a modern master, and it didn’t take long at all for the mainstream to catch on. Based on a memoir from a freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years, McQueen chronicles a horrifying era in American history more vividly than many would ever dare to. The horrors of slavery are too much to handle for many, leading many directors to dumb it down a little to make the topic more easily digestible. But McQueen confronts viewers with the true gravity of the suffering and violence, showing no mercy with his graphic depictions of whippings and lynchings. We’ve all heard the cliche “if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.” 12 Years a Slave is a film that sets out to seer that history into your brain, raising itself far above the title of “Oscar bait” and settling down in a much more important seat in cinematic history. — Giovanni 

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 8.13.04 AM9. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)

The World’s End may be the weakest entry in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy –at the very least, Hot Fuzz is still tops in my book – but that’s like calling Return of the Jedi the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy. The trio carry over the manic energy of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this time brilliantly reversing the roles of its stars. Frost takes on the role of the damaged straight man capably, while Pegg is finally able to let loose as an unhinged relic of the group’s teenage years. The introductions of each character in their gang, as they embark on an epic pub crawl they failed to finish in high school, are gloriously enhanced by the whip-smart editing you now come to expect from a Wright film. Even when the second half falls into familiar sci-fi territory that isn’t quite as captivating, the film accomplishes what it sets out to do: create a fitting capper to the trilogy and, nearly a decade removed from Shaun, craft a mature story that derives genuine pathos from the pratfalls of nostalgia. Cheers. -Drew

7982_108. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

Taking the second annual Tree of Life award for  the year’s best “What the Hell just Happened?” film, Upstream Color also shared that film’s self-assuredness – helmed by a visionary director that you sense knows exactly what they’re doing, though it may be beyond your frame of understanding. A huge departure from the Borgesian puzzle-narrative of Shane Carruth’s debut, Primer, Upstream Color nonetheless operates in a distinct mode unlike anything before attempted. Difficult to synopsize, the film is essentially about several people affected by a complex parasite without even knowing it. For all its headiness, this is still a film that employs the best usage of Cronenberg-ian body horror in the last decade, mind-controlling maggots, a sincerely tender romance, and a satisfying plot for revenge. It just so happens that these threads are part of a much larger tapestry — the viewer is presented the world as an abstract, forced to marinate in Carruth’s expressionistic style. It’s a tactic that allows the film to reveal more and more of its qualities on repeat viewings, and is appropriate to the film’s themes — being inexplicably drawn together in search of meaning and an honest connection. Carruth has quickly built himself a track record of ambitious, challenging films that defy explanation yet somehow feel powerful. — Bryan 

8926_1_large7. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

Time marches forward, and it spares no casualties. Whatever room it allows for sentimentality gets quickly washed out, replaced by the terrifying notion of things rushing past you, a void slowly embraced. That’s perhaps an overly-bleak summation of where we find Jesse and Celine in the third installment to Richard Linklater’s career-defining trilogy. The notion of time has always been central to this couple’s relationship – it’s limited stock a fuel to their romantic fire – but for the first time they find themselves with a surplus. In other words, what do you do when you get everything you’ve ever wanted? Faced with the actual reality of commitment, and forced to exert energy into making it work, we find Jesse and Celine staring upward at obstacles that threaten to impede what once made their connection so special. There’s a reason this is the least pleasurable film to watch in the trilogy, and it’s the same reason that it may be the best. Unafraid of showing the ugliness of sharing your entire self with another person, Midnight tackles some terrifying questions about our need for love, and our desire to continue obtaining it from wells that may have run dry. — Bryan 

llewyncat6. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

As Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) bellows his first of several musical numbers at the start of the Coen brothers’ 1961 folkomedrama ™, it maybe should already have been apparent that this was going to be one of the more bleakly hopeful films I’ve seen. Within the span of the week in which the story unfolds, much is conveyed about both its surly protagonist and people at large: that talent and ambition are equal rivals to fate and circumstance; that even when people try their best to change, they can’t escape the cruelly cyclical nature of who they are; conversely, that even though humans may be fundamentally resistant to complete change, they can still look outside of themselves enough to make external changes, enabling life to improve for themselves and others; that finding a place to crash for the night in the Village is much more fortuitous than finding John Goodman in your back seat; that Johnny Five is the best Coen character ever, because his name is Johnny Five. More so than anything, it’s about how if the entire film was just the recording session of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” it would still be the best damn Coen brothers movie in several years. -Drew

screenshot_3_243585. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous)

In some way, there’s really no words that can be used to describe Joshua Oppenheimer’s magnum-opus documentary, The Act of Killing. The film speaks so loudly on its own that adding anything else to the discussion seems like a waste of breath. But it’s the silence towards the mass Indonesian killings that Oppenheimer documents that makes the film so eye-opening in the first place. The documentary takes viewers to a seemingly alien society that still celebrates death squads as national heroes. Usually, when we reflect on that kind of history, we’re removed enough from it to understand how dark and barbaric the past was. Seeing people who have yet to pass that bar is harrowing. But what really pumps The Act of Killing up to monumental proportions is the footage Oppenheimer gets of these mass murders slowly coming to terms with how horrific their actions were. The director challenges them to make a film about their actions, setting off a slow mental breakdown that ends with perhaps the most haunting scene ever captured on screen. I know it always sounds like an overreaction to label a film a masterpiece, but if The Act of Killing isn’t one, then I don’t know what else possibly is. — Giovanni 

spring-breakers-behind-the-scenes-1 4. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly the most polarizing film of 2013, and it’s easy to get the sense that that’s exactly how Harmony Korine wants it. On one hand, it’s easy to agree with the naysayers. It’s a deliberately trashy film on its surface, which Korine (who is a notorious liar) has described as having no higher meaning. But as you start to break through the layers of dubstep and excess, you quickly begin to unravel the twisted brilliance hiding at the center of the film. Spring Breakers is not an empty celebration of party culture, but rather a takedown of the American rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The film deals with characters who are so obsessed with freedom that they go to criminal lengths to break out of the monotony of their lives and go on an MTV-inspired dream vacation. Of course, after a while, that too becomes just as constraining as their normal lives, which Korine achieves through a genius use of repetition. Montages of naked beach-goers getting drowned in booze pop up over and over again, almost creating an unsettling endurance test for audiences. It’s incredibly challenging, but not without purpose. Every piece of Spring Breakers is crafted with great thought, meant to make society reflect on our obsession with freedom. Perhaps Korine’s confrontational approach makes such an idea difficult to swallow–after all, who wants to believe that we’re never satisfied with what we have? But it’s a necessary view, delivered in spectacular fashion, and with a legendary montage set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” to boot. — Giovanni 

14computer-span-superJumbo3. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

For a filmmaker that built a brand on microbudget, no-frills features, Andrew Bujalski took a bold step forward with his loopy latest, Computer Chess. Despite being rooted in the past, both in form and content, Chess is downright radical – full of deliberate glitches, constantly swerving between characters in a free-floating style, and gradually forgoing its awkward period piece mode in favor of a mind-bending sci-fi slant that gets downright Lynchian by the third act. Funny and philosophical, the film can’t really be boiled down to the man vs. technology implied by its premise, instead riffing on any number of topics as its sprawling cast bounce around the convention center and nearby hotel. This film finds the joy in insanity, and it removes any sense of expectation for what Bujalski may get up to next. — Bryan 

Cinelists - Frances Ha - Greta Gerwig (50)2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

I wrote about Girls yesterday on our Favorite TV list (well, sort of), and Frances Ha has more in common with that show than the presence of Adam Driver. Its black and white canvas compliments the simple, throwback story it tells, but it’s still very much of our time. It deals with the very 21st-century anxieties those crazy 20-somethings experience, from pursuing passions even when peers, parents, and American Idol judges are urging the pursuit of practicality, to striving and failing to maintain long friendships when, in theory, social media has made that concept simpler than ever. But Frances Ha reminds us that as relationships change, there are reasons why all the things you care about began in the first place – and there are always ties to those moments that will never completely dissolve. -Drew

her-movie-2013-screenshot-beach-stroll1. Her (Spike Jonze)

For all the irreverence of  much of its script, Her seems like an important film for the year 2013. Whether you care to admit it or not, your cell phone is your best friend – it’s the only constant that’s there for you at all times, it’s capable of helping you figure out most any problem, and it never questions your judgment. Really the only thing it can’t do is love you. But if it could – well, what need would there really be for anyone or anything else?

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly as inwardly expressive as his Freddie Quell in The Master (our number film of last year) was outwardly twitchy and transparent. When Theodore bemoans the lack of new experiences in his life – the fear that he has already experienced every feeling life has to offer and how he’ll keep repeating them without ever feeling anything new again – Spike Jonze’s latest masterwork raises one of the many genuine, gentle questions it poses: if artificial intelligence were capable of elevating us to higher levels of emotion, or existence, is that inherently a bad thing? Like all of Jonze’s work, Her benefits by not wasting time on the how’s or why’s of its world (like Being John Malkovich, where Cameron Diaz learns that a portal into Malkovich exists in her office building and immediately asks how she can profit from it), which is the smartest move the film could make. Instead, the people in Theodore’s life, outside of his ex-wife, are happy for him because they see he is happier, and – until the later moments where he begins to doubt the fundamentals of his situation – we’re given zero evidence to the contrary. In this nearly-utopian world, then, where basic human happiness isn’t subjected to the scorn of other people’s judgment, why should mutual love of any form be denied?

The film inevitably gives us an answer: because it can’t fundamentally co-exist between two different species. Take the surrogate scene, where Theodore is understandably uncomfortable experiencing this particular romance with another human being – it’s simply not natural. Humans can never experience happiness at all times due to our nature, and we can’t possibly process the collective intelligence that computers can, which seemingly holds the key to a pure utopia beyond the plane of our understanding. Samantha’s love for Theodore is genuine, but whereas she was born his equal, by the end of the film she’s experienced a god-like transcendence. So are these current, man-made creations that we carry with us every day, right next to our keys and pockets, destined to become the deities of ancient lore that countless have studied, despite knowing we’ll never fully be able to comprehend their greater mysteries in our present states? That notion seems cyclical and cruel and impossible, but as Jonze observes, it would also bestow the higher powers with a very real love for man – and maybe nothing in this ever-evolving world is as comforting as that latest, Jonze-ian idea.

So… shit, is this just a Battlestar Galactica prequel? -Drew


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