Anders' Top 15 Films of 2013

While I didn't watch as many films as Aren did this past year, 2013 was a particularly good year of filmgoing for me. While no single theme emerges from my list, I note that all of these films offered me memorable film-watching experiences. As cinema becomes more and more embedded into our daily lives, and even as traditional theatrical exhibition becomes the exception rather than the norm, each of these films were ones that I was fortunate enough to see in a theatrical setting, whether the multiplex, my local art house, or a festival setting. As video-on-demand and other methods of distribution become more and more common, I imagine it will become even more rare for me to see this many films in the theatre. Of the films that I found notable from the year, some were science-fiction fantasy. Pacific Rim unleashed the imagination of a 10 year-old loose among the iconography of Japanese pop-culture. Man of Steel re-imagined the Superman myth as both a sprawling space opera and journey of self-discovery. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire caught my attention for its engaging dystopian world and how it might spur the imaginations of young adults who identify with Katniss Everdeen.

Other films were character studies, examining broken and very real human beings. Before Midnight continued Richard Linklater's tale of romantic banter beyond the honeymoon phase. In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig gave us a character worth rooting for, despite her flaws. The Past showed that Asghar Farhadi's 2011 film, A Separation, was no fluke, once again demonstrating his ability to render moving portraits of family trials.

If there is one trend that is shared by some of the films on my list, it is the portrayal of the effect of sin and evil in the world. The Wolf of Wall Street had me laughing at the foolishness and selfishness of Jordan Belfort and his cronies. The Counselor suggested that no one escapes intact from a brush with evil. 12 Years a Slave bravely stared down the sin of slavery. But far from being isolated to America, A Touch of Sin showed the effects of greed and violence on contemporary China.

Also, this year saw directors take brave risks and push forward film technology in their storytelling. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug's use of High Frame Rate 3D was stunning, as were Gravity's 3D and digitally composed long-takes and camera movements.

There were obviously films I missed (I look forward to catching the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis when it opens locally this weekend), but also films I saw that are yet to have a non-festival release, and which I look forward to revisiting in 2014: Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda), Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer), and Can a Song Save Your Life? (dir. John Carney).

The following were my Top 15 films of 2013, balancing my sense of their importance and how meaningful they were to me.

1. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

No film moved me more than Steve McQueen's adaptation of Solomon Northup's story. Unflinching and incomparable in its willingness to stare down the realities of slavery in 19th century America, McQueen's film is formally unparalleled and wonderfully acted. It left me devastated for days.

2. The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

If The Wind Rises does prove to be Miyazaki-san's final film, it will be an appropriate and beautiful send-off. Nuanced and content to follow its own beat, the film shows the potential for animation to explore any topic. Further, it stands out for its rare willingness to celebrate sacrifice and hard-work without being triumphant. Another masterpiece from Miyazaki.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

It was very difficult to rank these top 3 films, as each does such different things so well. Scorsese's new film is a riot, the funniest film in years, and devastating in its portrait of the pursuit of wealth as the rotten American dream. Leonardo DiCaprio gives what might be his best performance, as the unhinged Jordan Belfort. It's rare for a film with a near 3-hour run time to be this sharp, with scarcely a down moment to be had.

4. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

Shane Carruth finally followed up his debut film, Primer, with this stunning piece of personal filmmaking. Rarely do aesthetic form and narrative construction work so perfectly as in this portrait of how we construct identities and seek connection in the world.

5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Linklater's collaboration with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in telling the story of Céline and Jesse over three films, each set nine years after the previous one, is surely one of the boldest experiments in recent cinema. And it pays off wonderfully. In following up the romance of the earlier films, this one feels darker and more cutting than the previous films. Few films feel as much like time spent with people we know, for good and bad.

6. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

The sheer joy of the world creation on display here puts all the rest of this past summer's blockbusters to shame. Del Toro molds this tale of monsters vs. giant robots out of all the bits of popular culture he loves. If imagination is the limit with the contemporary toolbox of Hollywood SFX, few films demonstrate it as well as this one.

7. From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara) (dir. Goro Miyazaki)

The Miyazaki father and son appear on this list, with Goro Miyazaki directing this film from a screenplay by his father, Hayao. Touching and joyful, this coming of age tale shows that the future of Studio Ghibli is still bright, yet drawing on the strength of the past.

8. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)

I haven't really loved any of Noah Baumbach's previous films, so I'm inclined to credit Greta Gerwig—giving my favourite female performance of the year as Frances—for making this one of the year's biggest surprises for me. Funny, real, and touching, this film captures the challenges of friendship and finances for today's generation.

9. The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright's conclusion to the "Cornetto" trilogy was one of the summer's highlights for me. Funny and moving, Simon Pegg gives perhaps his best performance as Gary King. Wright shows himself to be one of the most versatile directors today, able to meld humour, pathos, excellent action sequences, and genre thrills all together with a fantastic cast of British actors.

10. The Past (Le passé) (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi's new film hasn't gotten as much acclaim as his previous one, but it is another wonderfully crafted and acted family melodrama, exploring the effects of the choices we have made on the people around us. 

11. The Counselor (dir. Ridley Scott)

Perhaps the most divisive film on my list, Ridley Scott's collaboration with writer Cormac McCarthy was from my perspective a fascinating one. Filled with characters delivering philosophical monologues and gruesome violence, it's not to everyone's taste. But few films stay their thematic course as perfectly.

12. A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) (dir. Jia Zhang-ke)

Director Jia Zhang-ke's film connects four stories of violence and greed in contemporary China, and while he draws on Chinese genres such as wuxia, he also plucked the stories from the real-world as shared on China's social media site, Weibo. The result is a portrait of a country in transition, and the violence that change can bring with it.

13. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel manages to convey the energy and vitality of 1920s New York and West Egg. But most importantly, Leonardo DiCaprio may have been born to play Gatsby, making the film a must see.

14. The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi) (dir. Wong Kar-wai)

Wong Kar-wai's biopic of the legendary martial artist Ip Man manages to set itself out from other stories about the master through its amazing cinematography, wonderful performances from Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, and a typical Wong focus on the nostalgia and thwarted romance of it all.

15. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Some may scoff at the film's bare bones story and series of escalating dangers that Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone must face on her way back to earth, but Gravity is a real landmark in filmmaking craft, utilizing never before seen technical work in ways that enhance the content rather than merely support it.