Film is an amazing medium that combines a huge variety of artistic pursuits, and 2013 was a year that saw a great diversity of quality films. The goal of this list is to highlight the best and most socially important films, some of which were widely seen, and others that deserve a much wider audience than they received. Each in its own way, they speak to what it means to be human and they have important things to say about the world we live in and the societies we’ve created. I definitely encourage everyone to seek out these special films, and to embrace the genuine art that finds a way to succeed under conditions that often discourage creativity.
Enjoy this list, and please feel free to comment with your own favorite films and top 10 lists.
1. 12 Years a Slave
One of the most powerful films in decades, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Steve McQueen directs this beautiful film that thrusts the audience directly into America’s ugly history. As Northup awakens to the terrible shock of having his freedom suddenly wrenched away, the audience is forced to confront the brutal horror of an institution upon which a nation was built right along with the central character. People may think they understand what slavery looked and felt like, but depicting the entire process from the beginning, showing the dehumanizing impact on a man who was once free, forces the audience to acknowledge slavery with new eyes.
12 Years a Slave is a film that comfortably explores duality. It is both subtle and direct, nuanced and bold. It’s a powerful examination of the human condition, illuminating both the best and the worst in mankind; the will to persevere against all odds, and the forces of oppression bent on achieving total domination over others. A devastating contrast, for example, is made between a “good” slave owner and a “bad” slave owner, and of course, both scenarios are equally awful experiences for Northup, damning slavery from every angle, and refusing to give apologists an inch. Its ending, just like the rest of the film, brilliantly inspires conflicting emotions; the joy of freedom paired with the bitter pain of ongoing institutionalized racism.
Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a commanding and heartbreaking performance as Northup, who struggles throughout the film to maintain his human dignity and hold onto hope in the face of incalculable hardship. Hans Zimmer provides a haunting musical score that perfectly accentuates the emotion of the film, especially the sinister tones that accompany Northup’s trafficking into the South, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is breathtaking, contrasting the beauty of the natural world with the ugliness of slavery.
Steve McQueen has crafted a near perfect film, a masterpiece that cries out to be seen, because by illuminating the past we can better understand the root causes of the ongoing horrors of the present. 12 Years a Slave is the best and most important film of the decade.
Prisoners is a mesmerizing crime story about two families whose daughters are kidnapped in broad daylight on Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania and the desperate search to find them. The film is a slow, agonizing burn, gradually building tension as the investigation stretches on over the course of several days, testing the moral strength of both sets of parents, and the skill of the lead detective on the case.
Hugh Jackman’s intense performance as Keller, a desperate father who takes the law into his own hands, is one of the best of his career, and Jake Gyllenhaal also crackles as an edgy, arrogant detective who has to meticulously comb through the clues and evidence while also keeping an eye on the suspicious activity of the missing girls’ families.
Prisoners takes a story that could have easily been dumbed down to the level of a “Law and Order” episode and elevates it to high art. Not only is the film exquisitely made on a technical level, due in large part to Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, it also incorporates heavy moral, philosophical, and religious themes on top of the narrative’s mystery.
The title of the film refers not only to the kidnapped girls, but also to the person Keller believes holds the key to his daughter’s location, as well as those who are trapped under the spell of religious fanaticism. The film, featuring strong supporting roles by Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo, is a searing and emotional exploration of the limits and hypocrisy of religious morality.
3. Before Midnight
The third film in Richard Linklater’s fantastic ‘Before‘ series might be the best yet, which is extremely high praise. Midnight arrived right on cue, nine years after Before Sunset (2004), which came nine years after the original, Before Sunrise (1995). The latest installment in this cinematic dissertation on love follows the star-crossed relationship of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-write the films along with Linklater. They know their roles inside out and they embody their characters so deeply that they don’t appear to be acting at all, allowing Linklater to shoot very long, naturalistic takes. This technique pulls the audience into the film as if it were an extension of real life, making the exploration of contemporary love all the more compelling.
In Midnight, we step into Jesse and Celine’s lives while they’re on vacation in Greece after they’ve been a couple for several years. The film sets up a scenario where there are couples from several different generations gathered together, and they have the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of romantic love at various stages of life. Jesse and Celine fall somewhere in the middle, and this moment allows them to evaluate their relationship and examine what they’ve each sacrificed to be together. While Before Sunrise is about the thrill of new possibilities, and Before Sunset is about the regret of missed opportunities, Before Midnight is about the consequences of actually getting what you want. It strips away the fantasy and idealism of the first two films and dives right into the everyday reality and struggle of sustaining a long-term relationship.
Given the empty, formulaic romantic comedies that Hollywood has churned out for decades, Linklater’s Before series is a breath of fresh air. All three films are both humorous and serious, and they provide a huge number of topics and themes to ponder long after the credits role. Hopefully Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit this brilliant romantic series in 2022. Before Twilight, perhaps?
4. Big Sur
Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film picks up the story of the legendary author’s life as he struggles with the success of his classic On the Road. After helping to define the Beat Generation, Kerouac feels a great burden on his shoulders. People expect him to be Sal Paradise, his alter ego from Road in his mid twenties, but the real Jack Kerouac is approaching middle age, and the world is changing around him. The film follows Kerouac as he seeks refuge and solitude in the Big Sur region on the central coast of California.
Michael Polish’s film is exceptionally beautiful, and not just because of the natural scenery on location. His camera captures the magnificence of the surroundings- the forest, the sky, the waves on the beach, and the dramatic rock formations jutting upward from the ocean- in a way that appears effortless, but is the result of a perfect union of subject and artist. Polish conjures a true character from the environment surrounding the cabin that Kerouac inhabits as he undergoes an existential crisis. A last gasp, of sorts, as his restless soul continues to struggle for meaning in life.
Big Sur integrates Kerouac’s words into the film through a beautiful use of voice-over, which, in combination with the breathtaking scenic elements, is almost Terrence Malick-esque. The film also has a fantastic musical score by composer Kubilay Uner and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. All the performances in the film are very high caliber. Jean-Marc Barr plays the aging Kerouac with great depth. It’s not easy to carry a film as an actor, but Barr does so with a nuanced performance that owns the screen without overshadowing the supporting actors. Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady, who even as he approaches middle age, shows shades of what made him such a charismatic and inspirational figure in Kerouac’s life. Rhada Mitchell plays Cassady’s wife, and a strikingly beautiful Kate Bosworth plays his mistress. Big Sur is a magnificent film; a genuine work of art in all aspects of the medium.
In a Hollywood that pumps out sequels and comic book films at an alarming rate, Gravity was perhaps the most refreshing big-budget film of the year. It centers around astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who after an accident in outer space must survive a series of obstacles in the harshest of environments. Alfonso Cuaron’s exciting film follows Stone on a metaphorical life cycle from fetal state to birth as she struggles to rediscover her will to live while up against seemingly impossible odds, and by the end she must either “evolve” or die.
Gravity is a technical and artistic marvel, blending life-like digital effects with human performances in perfect harmony. Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the greatest cinematographer working today, composed several long shots that develop character while moving the narrative forward, maintaining a sense of motion and a heightened state of suspense throughout much of the film. In perhaps the best use of 3D technology yet, the screen seems to melt away, enveloping the audience in the action.
Though the film suffers from some weak dialogue that feels a bit forced and at times unnecessary, Gravity is one of those rare gems that thrills through the sheer force of its unique concept while simultaneously allowing the audience to connect to the human drama.
6. Fruitvale Station
Oscar Grant, a 22 year old black man, was murdered on New Years day in 2009 by a white police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in San Francisco. Fruitvale Station follows Oscar on the last day of his life, painting a vivid portrait of a man, flaws and all, attempting to change the direction of his life during difficult circumstances, before it was unjustly cut short.
The film cuts through stereotypes, allowing the audience to get to know Oscar both as a fully developed character, and as a human being, which amplifies the tragedy of his death. During the course of a single day we meet Oscar’s girlfriend, daughter, mother, grandmother, and several friends, as well as a couple new acquaintances. We witness the struggle of his everyday life. He just lost his job but doesn’t want to fall back into a life as a drug dealer. Unsure of how he will make ends meet in the future he decides to have a fun night out with friends to celebrate the new year. His spontaneity, his kindness and compassion, his positive outlook, and his desire to do the right thing are all illustrated through several episodes that all lead up to his murder at the hands of the police who don’t see him as a nuanced human being. To them, he’s entirely defined by his race, and all his human complexity is ignored.
Fruitvale Station is the first feature film by director Ryan Coogler, a Bay Area native who felt compelled to make a film about an event that rocked his community in the hope of showing people the humanity of a person who became a symbol to rally around. And in his first leading role, Michael B. Jordan brings Oscar’s story to life in haunting fashion. Octavia Spencer, fresh from her Academy Award winning role in The Help provides a powerful cornerstone for the film. Fruitvale Station is an important film. By telling this story, hopefully people will understand that it’s important to see each other as human beings, to not be so quick to leap to conclusions, and also to understand the real role that police play in this oppressive society.
7. The Great Gatsby
Others have tried to adapt Fitzgerald’s classic novel to the big screen and achieved nothing but lifeless tedium, which makes Baz Luhrmann’s successful attempt at The Great Gatsby all the more impressive. Luhrmann is definitely a true artist, and his film is alive, colorful, and exciting. While other film makers have struggled with a way to translate the internal monologue of the novel to the screen, Luhrmann solves that problem in the boldest ways possible. He puts Fitzgerald’s words directly on the screen and places the narration front and center, which allows the prose to drive the narrative, just as it does in the novel, while utilizing a visceral and inventive visual style to establish the setting.
The Great Gatsby is a film that simply must be surrendered to. It has flaws, some of which are inherited from the source material, but the film is a force of nature. While perhaps not exactly the anti-Wolf of Wall Street, Gatsby is a loud, bold look into American style capitalism that succeeds while Leonardo DiCaprio’s other major film on the same subject fails. Though Gatsby does maintain a certain level of admiration for the pursuit of wealth, it does so with great disdain for the outlook of the elite, personified by Tom Buchanan’s paranoid racism, greed, and misogyny, as well as Jay Gatsby’s own corruption, and the story clearly articulates the consequences of giving material wealth greater value than human life.
Luhrmann’s style has always been divisive because of his willingness to take artistic risks, but here it pays off in extremely entertaining fashion, as long as you give yourself over to the unconventional experience and enjoy the ride.
8. Don Jon
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, in which he also stars, is a surprisingly layered and intelligent film about relationships in the age of internet pornography. The title character, Jon, is obsessed with porn and masturbates compulsively and almost ritualistically. He lives a highly structured and routine oriented lifestyle, keeping to his weekly schedule of working, cleaning his apartment, going to church with his family, working out at the gym, and going to the club with his friends to pick up women. There’s nothing out of place and nothing to disrupt his pattern until he encounters Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at the club.
Jon and his friends always stand in the center of the club to look for women to potentially take home, sizing them up from a distance, instantly rating them on a scale of 1 to 10. Barbara is “the most beautiful thing” Jon has ever seen, and he becomes determined to make her his ultimate sexual conquest. This is the point where Don Jon could have easily descended into formulaic drivel typical of romantic comedies, but it masterfully avoids going down that road and instead takes on a wonderful complexity.
Don Jon becomes a major statement against a culture that celebrates pornography as a form of women’s liberation. Having developed totally unrealistic expectations from his pornography obsession, Jon is unsatisfied by the real women he objectifies, and he must be jolted out of his old habits. Barbara starts him on the right path, but the brilliance of the film is that it isn’t black and white and it criticizes her controlling perspective, too, ultimately arriving at a highly enlightened view of romantic relationships.
Gordon-Levitt’s film is what great art is all about. It’s entertaining in a way that’s very accessible, but it packs an extremely relevant and important message. It suggests that we might all be better off by breaking with some debilitating habits that we’re convinced are normal, altering our rigid routines that isolate us from the world, and learning to truly connect with other people as equals.
9. Dallas Buyers Club
Set in the mid-1980s, Dallas Buyers Club is about Ron Woodroof, a hard living racist and homophobic man who is diagnosed with AIDS and told he only has one month to live. After overcoming the denial that he has a “faggot” disease, he seeks help through a drug trial for the experimental treatment AZT. However, he soon realizes that the drugs he’s been given are doing more harm than good, and, unwilling to give up, he searches for ways to circumvent the medical establishment. Along the way he has to become allies with people he previously despised in order to combat the powerful forces of the for-profit medical establishment and the government.
Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey who lost a significant percentage of his body weight for this incredible, career defining role. He’s supported by by Jared Leto, who turns in an iconic performances as Rayon, a transsexual Woodroof meets in the hospital who forces him to put his bigotry aside for mutual benefit.
Dallas Buyers Club is no technical marvel. It’s a sparse film that used almost no artificial lighting and put little effort into visual style. It also suffers from several noticeable background props out of place in the 80s. But these problems become virtually insignificant next to the overpowering substance of the narrative. What makes this film great is the way it exposes the collusion between the government, pharmaceutical companies, and health care practitioners to make a profit at the expense of patient’s health, and the lengths ordinary people must go in order to get the care they need.
Germany is losing World War II, and as the Allied forces push into the country, the rank and file Nazis scramble to avoid justice. Hannelore (Lore for short) is the eldest daughter of a Nazi officer. After being abandoned by her parents she is forced to care for her siblings as they flee to the countryside.
Having been poisoned by Nazi ideology throughout her life, Lore harbors a deep hatred of Jewish people while blind to the true horror of Hitler’s genocide. So, when she and her young family encounter a Jewish refugee on their journey she has to confront the beliefs her parents and Nazi society instilled in her head on.
Lore is a fresh look at an era that has been documented extensively in film, showing the collapse of Nazi Germany from the perspective of children and adolescents. It’s a coming of age story set in the upheaval of a crumbling society; a loss of innocence as the central character comes to understand the true horror of the Holocaust, and that everything she thought she knew is a lie.
Lore is a beautiful film that flows through its narrative arc with a dream-like quality, as if being recalled from a deeply repressed memory. Indeed, the film drew inspiration from director Cate Shortland’s husband’s family history. Saskia Rosendah leaps off the screen as Lore in her first major role, and Kai Malina turned in a haunting performance as Thomas in which he refused to say most of his scripted dialogue, allowing the pain behind his eyes to speak louder than words. And the film’s ending is a powerful break from the poisonous ideology of Fascism as Lore rejects the temptation to turn a blind eye to genocide.
10 More 2013 Films I Highly Recommend
The Broken Circle Breakdown
As I Lay Dying
August: Osage County
The Place Beyond the Pines
Something in the Air
The Worst Films I Saw in 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street
Man of Steel
Inside Llewyn Davis