Aren's Top 15 Films of 2013

The past year was a great year for film. In particular, it was a great year for American film. I don’t often try to tack a theme on at year’s end, but I couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of the American Dream in 2013’s cinema. From the satire trio of The Bling Ring, Pain & Gain, and Spring Breakers which featured sociopathic protagonists against a background of American indulgence in efforts to unravel notions of achieving greatness in America, to The Wolf of Wall Street’s bacchanal of financial debauchery, the American Dream was front and centre in cinema, with big, bold letters. Even films that weren’t overt satires were obsessed with the notion of America. The Great Gatsby brought the Great American Novel to the big screen with all the chutzpah and bravado of blockbuster filmmaking. 12 Years a Slave looked at the original sin of America, slavery, in all its brutality, and in a contemporary context, Fruitvale Station looked at the ramifications of that sin which are still felt today.

Narco Cultura led us behind the scenes of the War on Drugs and showed us the ravaging effects on America’s neighbours. Captain Phillips, like last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, was a superficially patriotic film that showcased the impersonal efficiency of America’s capacity to subdue opponents. Even Prisoners looked at American notions of justice, intertwining religion and torture in its examination of desperate individuals.

But even with how exceptional American film was in 2013, an American movie didn’t make number one. Before I list my top films, I need to list some honourable mentions that barely missed the cut: From Up on Poppy Hill (dir. Goro Miyazaki), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson), The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg), Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro), The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi), The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance), and The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright). These were all fascinating movies, some pure entertainment, others engrossing meditations on humanity, a few deceptively seeming to be one while actually being the other. In other years, these films may have made my top films of the year, but not in 2013.

The following are my Top 15 Films of 2013. Since the year was so good and since I saw so many movies, I didn’t want to limit myself to 10 films. It was tough to even whittle the number down to 15.

1. The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is a culmination of his career. On the surface it’s a biopic of zero fighter designer Jiro Horikoshi, but it’s really about Miyazaki himself, about the compromises and struggles and years of dedication and hard work that go into making a meaningful piece of art. It shows that artistry takes time and sacrifice and that you will suffer because of it and the result will never be as beautiful as the image from your dreams. I can think of no greater argument for the beauty of animation and the importance of artistry in a broken world than this film.

2. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

British filmmaker Steve McQueen makes us stare at the horrors of slavery, unadorned and unfiltered. And yet, even the profound discomfort the viewer endures by watching this movie is but a shadow of the reality of slavery. McQueen dismantles the notions of a righteous American past, complete with the ethical slave owner and the proud aristocracy of the South, burning down a cinematic legacy that has thrived through films like Gone with the Wind and persists to the modern day. If only a few films are essential, this movie joins those hallowed ranks.

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

American master Martin Scorsese takes a sledgehammer to the American financial system with this biting, hilarious satire. His film is the funniest, foulest three hours you’ll ever spend at the movies, but it also shows our lust for money as the disgusting addiction that it is. As the final moments of the film show, our culture is still hooked on this super drug and willing to give our dignity and resources to the Jordan Belforts of the world for the allure of making more money than we need.

4. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Films don’t need to be big to be great. Jeff Nichols’ Mud proves this, improving upon his promising first two efforts, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, and establishing himself as one of America’s great talents. Here is old-fashioned filmmaking done well: engaging characters in a story well told with finesse and beauty. It’s a delicate commentary on the breaking of sheltered worldviews (i.e. coming of age) and a good old-fashioned yarn.

5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

In the words of Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar, the Before series is a cinematic gift. In this third installment, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke show us the struggles to make love work, while also acknowledging the worth and romance of two people committing to each other for life.

6. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

Shane Carruth is a maestro, but he also might be insane. Upstream Color, his science-fiction romance which he wrote, directed, scored, edited, produced, and starred in is the most impressive low-budget film in years. Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, it gets at the root of how we make sense of the world and our limited insight within it.

7. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer destroys the form of the documentary in an attempt to get at the ecstatic truth of evil’s face in the world. By allowing the death squad leaders of Indonesia’s 1960s genocide to tell the tale of the murders they committed, Oppenheimer shows how even evil men have consciences and that however inhumane and brutal a monster is, that monster is still very human.

8. Narco Cultura (dir. Shaul Schwarz)

Juxtaposing a crime scene investigator in Juarez, Mexico and the lead singer of a narcocorrido band in the southern U.S., Shaul Schwarz shows how America’s War on Drugs has devastated its neighbour to the south while simultaneously creating a culture that glorifies its criminals.

9. Drug War (dir. Johnnie To)

The best, most masculine, stylish, thoughtful, and thrilling action film in years. The gun fights here shame American films of the same genre.

10. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Big, gaudy, and extravagant, just like the parties Gatsby himself hosts. Baz Luhrmann focuses on the romance and optimism of the novel that speaks to his sensibilities and creates the best adaptation of this Great American Novel, as well as the year’s best blockbuster.

11. Fruitvale Station (dir. Ryan Coogler)

A remarkable debut. While the filmmaking is not impeccable, the film is immensely optimistic and the storytelling is confident in its march towards the doomed night where Oscar Grant unjustly lost his life. The final scenes are a punch to the gut and more moving than anything else in cinema last year.

12. All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

Minimalist filmmaking that is supremely effective. A story of a man struggling to survive alone on the open seas, All Is Lost is the purest survival film ever made, as well as an allegory for how all people must confront the conditions of their life and struggle against mortality—as all great survival films are.

13. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Nobody does shaky cam like Paul Greengrass. This is docudrama filmmaking with remarkable skill and insight. Its subject is razor focused and the tension is nearly unbearable. Great acting supported by impeccable craftsmanship that sheds light on America’s influence on the weakest nations of the world.

14. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Morally murky and plotted like a labyrinth, Prisoners takes B-movie tropes and turns them into prestige drama. Hugh Jackman rages and terrifies as the desperate father trying to find his daughter, but Jake Gyllenhaal steals the film as the weirdo loner, Detective Loki, whose ethics and systematic doggedness lend the film its heroism.

15. William and the Windmill (dir. Ben Nabors)

William and the Windmill tells a universal story on an individual, intimate scale. Looking at a remarkable young man from central Africa who amazed the world with his ingenuity, it explores the tension between the developed and developing world better than any film I can think of.