Favorite Films of 2013

Stories We Tell

Much has already been written about 2013 being a great year for movies, and most critics have already released their “top 10” lists for the year. I am always late, as it usually takes me a while to catch up with some films I may have missed earlier in the year. And there are still always many that I will probably never see. That being said, I’d like to present what I consider my twenty favorite films of 2013:

Part I: Documentaries

The Act of Killing

  1. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
  2. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
  3. Tim’s Vermeer (dir. Teller)
  4. Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor; Véréna Paravel)

I saw a lot of great documentaries this past year. These four left the most searing impact on me. I have already written on Tim’s Vermeer and Leviathan, but let me take a moment to discuss briefly the other two. 

Stories We Tell is an examination of the psychological role that narrative plays in shaping one’s life to make it meaningful and, by extension, bearable. Director Sarah Polley sets out to uncover individual accounts of a family secret. She interviews her family and family friends, and her father serves as narrator. By making the film about something personal in her own life, Polley actually manages to express better the universality of her theme. Perhaps more gracefully than any film prior to it, Polley captures the essence of remembering as a creative act, memory as a construct. (For a more detailed analysis, please read “Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography” by Leah Anderst.)

Stories We Tell could also have been a good title for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film looks at members of an Indonesian death squad who participated in the country’s genocidal efforts in the 1960s. But these apparent crimes against humanity were never punished. No, rather, they were celebrated and woven into the fabric of the country’s history, which in this case, was certainly written by the winners. Is this proof of moral relativity? Yes and no. When the filmmakers ask the celebrity killers to reenact their past deeds in the style of American genre films, they are forced to reexamine the act of killing in a new light. And some of them no longer have the stomach for it.

Part II: Visions of Excess

The Great Beauty

  1. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
  2. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

The Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Beauty both present lives of excess, but they do so in radically different ways and toward radically different ends. 

In The Wolf of Wall Street, we see Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rise to power as a leading stockbroker, a position he attains through dishonest and illegal means. Martin Scorsese establishes a tone of comic mayhem, and the film becomes a high-energy, drug-fueled orgy. Conversely, in The Great Beauty, we see Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in his twilight years, still living the high life after publishing a successful novel decades earlier, but now also looking back and reflecting on the might-have-beens. Paolo Sorrentino builds a more melancholic and meditative tone within his film.

Both films highlight the allure of a hedonistic lifestyle, but neither outright condemns it, and each, in its own way, celebrates it. However, only in The Wolf of Wall Street are you likely to find the protagonist morally repugnant. Belfort is dishonest and driven by his appetites; his actions ultimately lead to a scenario where he endangers the life of his child. Gambardella, on the other hand, is very honest, very much in control. It’s impossible not to like him; it’s an absolute pleasure to be in his company. He may feel unfulfilled with aspects of his life, but this garners our sympathy for him, not our contempt for his mode of living.

In contrasting these two films, it’s easy to see that there can be great enjoyment, great beauty, in hedonism. It’s for the moral character of the one practicing it that we must reserve our judgment.

Part III: The Rest

Sightseers

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen; Ethan Coen)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
  3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
  4. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
  5. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
  6. Rush (dir. Ron Howard)
  7. Frozen (dir. Chris Buck; Jennifer Lee)
  8. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
  9. Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
  11. Beyond the Hills (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
  12. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
  13. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
  14. Sightseers (dir. Ben Wheatley)

I really love all of the films on this list, these fourteen not necessarily more or less than the six that preceded them. Some I fully expected to be brilliant (e.g., Inside Llewyn Davis); others surprised me with how much I enjoyed them (e.g., Rush). The final spot was very difficult for me to fill. There are plenty of other great films I would have liked to include (I won’t name them, but there are good examples from multiple genres). I ultimately went with Sightseers because I very much enjoyed its nutty and offbeat nature; it was fun to watch it in a packed theater.

Anyway, as always, I’m curious how my list differs from yours. Feel free to discuss your own favorites in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Films of 2013

  1. Ah… I’m embarrassed for having seen so few of these. I vow to be better next year. That said, I didn’t realize you so loved “Spring Breakers”! I’m also delighted to see “Frances Ha” so high on your list (…ha, despite your very Ebert-like admissions as to the meaninglessness of their relative ranks). I shall bookmark this!

    –Michael

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say that this ranking is meaningless. (After all, I specifically chose to rank the films and not list them alphabetically as I have done in the past.) However, the ranking is more of a snapshot of this moment in time than of something set in stone. In a week, a month, or a year, I might be tempted to move things around, or let a film like HER sneak in and bump SIGHTSEERS. That said, FRANCES HA always felt like a “top 10” film to me. I’m glad you also enjoyed it!

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