[EDIT: Since publishing this list, I've shuffled the order of my top three films. It occurred to me upon greater reflection that I not only enjoyed Frances Ha more than any other film of the year, it's probably also the year's best made film. That said, it, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Nebraska are all such great films--and in such different ways--that (re)ordering them seems somewhat arbitrary and meaningless.]
2013 was a year of many very good films and almost no masterpieces. I liked but couldn’t love either of the year’s two most highly regarded releases, Steve McQueen’s sober historical drama 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s balletic space odyssey Gravity, despite having responded very strongly to McQueen and Cuaron’s earlier work; both films seemed to sag under the weight of their own prestige, and while I responded to them in the moment they have since faded from my memory. The better films this year were lighter, fleeter, and funnier (nos. 1 through 4 of my top ten are all comedies to varying degrees). It was also a joy to see gifted but scattershot filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh deliver some of the best work of their respective careers—and to see a return to form from Alexander Payne, whose Nebraska is probably his best film since Election. For what it’s worth, here’s what stuck with me:
1. Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach
2. Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
3. Nebraska, dir. Alexander Payne
4. The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese
5. Room 237, dir. Rodney Ascher
6. Behind the Candelabra, dir. Steven Soderbergh
7. Like Someone In Love, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
8. Before Midnight, dir. Richard Linklater
9. The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
10. Blancanieves, dir. Pablo Berger [added 5/15]
Nebraska strikes me as probably the year's best directed film and Frances Ha the most sharply written. Five others I also greatly enjoyed: Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (pictured, top); Spike Jonze’s Her; David O. Russell’s American Hustle; and Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley.
Performances this year were strong across the board. My favorites include Greta Gerwig’s blithe and winsome turn as the title character in Frances Ha; newcomer Oscar Isaac, who carries nearly every scene in Inside Llewyn Davis (and proves himself to be a killer musician to boot); June Squibb, hilariously deadpan in Nebraska; Jennifer Lawrence, hamming it up beautifully as Christian Bale’s piece-of-work wife in American Hustle; Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, bordering on sheer lunacy; Jonah Hill, who practically oozes slime in the same film; Cate Blanchett, raw and brittle in Blue Jasmine; and Michael Fassbender, whose plantation owner Epps in 12 Years a Slave is one of the year’s scariest villains.
Finally, I invite you to take a listen to the year’s best original score, written by Shane Carruth for his sci-fi thriller Upstream Color. Happy 2014!