Finding consensus among nine writers can be a struggle, but when a year is as strong as 2013, the abundance of riches makes it especially hard to figure out which great films to line up behind—and which great films are relegated to “any other year” status. For The Dissolve’s inaugural year-end best-of list, only one film appeared on all Top 15 ballots: Spike Jonze’s Her, a forward-thinking science-fiction/romance that takes place in the near future, but captured the tenor of the times like no other film this year. From there, the list opens up to a full spectrum of cinematic visions, from the IMAX spectacle of Gravity to the piercing intimacy of films like Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, or The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s worthy follow-up to A Separation. And the 20 films below are just the beginning: Many others connected with one—or a few—of us, but couldn’t quite wrangle up the votes. For those, stay tuned for Monday, when we reveal our individual ballots and the orphans and also-rans that are worth tracking down.
Though director Spike Jonze collaborated with Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the latter didn’t have a hand in Jonze’s assured, moving fourth feature, but his spirit—fiendishly inventive, casually postmodern, self-lacerating, fearless, funny, and ultimately deeply sad—pervades the film. With Her, Jonze beautifully realizes a future Los Angeles where a lovesick man (Joaquin Phoenix) in the midst of a devastating divorce is so desperate for intimacy that he falls hopelessly in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Jonze’s screenplay acknowledges the innate absurdity of the film’s premise while spinning it into an elegant, heartbreaking depiction of human loneliness and the innate need for connection. For the setting, Jonze plugged into the current era’s technological mania to say something timeless and profound about love, loss, and evolving desire.
|2||12 Years A Slave|
Hunger and Shame, the first two films by director Steve McQueen, are about men kept prisoner literally or figuratively, and fighting hard for deliverance from bondage, whether from the depths of a Northern Irish prison strike or from the emotional paralysis of sex addiction. So McQueen was the ideal choice to direct 12 Years A Slave, the greatest film ever made about the evils of slavery, and the most brutally uncompromising. A year after Django Unchained brazenly pushed the topic into the realm of exploitation, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, working from Solomon Northup’s memoir, are even more unsparing in depicting its brutality and violence—and without the genre quotation marks. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a superb cast (particular standouts include Lupita Nyong’o as a fellow slave who’s earned her master’s favor, and McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender as a vicious slaveowner) as a free black man from New York who’s kidnapped in D.C. and passed around various plantations in the South. Though McQueen’s cool touch keeps any sentimentality from seeping out, his struggle to survive while holding onto his dignity and hope is emotionally overwhelming all the same.
|3||Inside Llewyn Davis|
Llewyn Davis plays folk songs, but he lives the blues. Still recovering from a personal and professional tragedy, he’s homeless in the dead of a cold New York winter without a heavy coat or the money to buy a new one. Scraping by on a series of gigs in Greenwich Village and desperately missing his former bandmate, Llewyn is as lost as the cat he accidentally lets out of a friend’s apartment. The tabby’s name is Ulysses, a nod to Inside Llewyn Davis’ status as another musically inclined Coen brothers riff on The Odyssey, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both films share music producer T-Bone Burnett and gorgeous soundtracks, but Llewyn is sadder and truer, anchored by a lead performance from Oscar Isaac that ranks among the finest in the Coens’ filmography. The movie’s sneakily sophisticated structure loops back on itself like one of Llewyn’s finger-picked tunes, culminating in a quietly devastating scene about missed opportunities and sticky ruts. But while Llewyn keeps making the same mistakes over and over, the Coens refuse to repeat themselves. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they’ve produced yet another original masterpiece.
In the grand scheme of things, the career and relationship crises of an educated woman in her late 20s aren’t as important as poverty, war, bigotry, and such. But Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s finely shaded, frequently hilarious character sketch Frances Ha succeeds because it recognizes this, and doesn’t try to blow its heroine’s troubles out of proportion. As unemployed New York dancer Frances, Gerwig (who co-wrote the film with Baumbach) lovingly captures the pretensions and insecurities of a person who’s been watching her peers grow up and take responsibility for their lives while she’s still couch-surfing and creating unnecessary drama for herself. Baumbach shot all around New York City, as well as in upstate New York, suburban California, and Paris, using a rough visual style that works well with the rich black-and-white images, evoking the French New Wave and vintage Woody Allen. But the real star of this show is Gerwig, who turns a self-absorbed, oblivious character into an old-school bumbling comedian: more Harold Lloyd than Lena Dunham.
Fans of Shane Carruth’s Primer could have spent untold hours diagramming the intricacies of the movie’s multiple timelines, but the director’s long-awaited follow-up is a mystery best left unsolved. It’s possible to suss out the mechanics of the psychic bond between Amy Semeitz’s brainwashed scam victim and the pigs tended by a mysterious figure on a remote ranch, but Upstream Color is less about what we know than about how we know it, and how people find themselves, and each other, through the haze of uncertainty. Carruth, who wrote, directed, acted, shot, scored, and edited (the last with crucial assistance from David Lowery), has created a unified work of art whose every element pulses to the same heartbeat.
|6||The Act Of Killing|
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about former Indonesian death-squad members is unforgettable in part because of its surreal imagery: Given the opportunity to colorfully re-enact their mass murders on film, his septuagenerian subjects cheerfully comply because they’re obsessed with movies, memories, and their own legends. But while the film takes an impressively creative yet informative approach to history, the real fascination comes from Oppenheimer’s talks with the killers, who casually detail their murders and explain their lack of guilt. Given that many of them still hold influential positions or public office in the country, The Act Of Killing grapples with issues as large as the use and abuse of power on a national level, and as small as one man’s personal justification for the atrocities he committed for personal gain. It’s mesmerizing journalism, but also strange and daring filmmaking, in which a fish-shaped building and a chorus of dancing girls figure prominently.
|7||Short Term 12|
Short Term 12 is full of the kind of big scenes and explosive climaxes that, in the wrong hands, could have led to another Sundance sincerity-fest full of mumbly earnestness and screaming-to-the-rafters melodrama. But writer-director Destin Cretton, adapting his own short film, finds a raw yet delicate tone that perfectly captures the rhythms of a group home: the long stretches during which a makeshift family tries to make the best of an innately bad situation, giving way to intense bursts of frenzied activity that threaten the perpetually wobbly status quo. Cretton understands that group-home life, for kids and workers alike, is a lot like being at war: a lot of anxious waiting around for brief flashes of action. Short Term 12 is powerful in its big moments, like a jaw-dropping sequence where all the ugliness, abuse, and rage in one teen’s life comes out in an a cappella rap. But those live-wire moments wouldn’t wield such intense power if the film didn’t have such a keen grasp on all the in-between moments of its subjects’ lives, or if Brie Larson didn’t hold the film together with a magnificent lead performance as a caseworker who’s able to relate to her troubled charges because she used to be one of them—and in many ways, still is.
|8||All Is Lost|
In J.C. Chandor’s minimalist thriller, an unnamed yachtsman in the Indian Ocean strikes an errant shipping container, which breaches his hull. Then he does everything he can to survive. That’s it. That’s the movie. Two years after mastering the patter of floundering financial wizards in his debut feature, Margin Call, Chandor cuts out the talk entirely, with only some early voiceover and a stray exclamation cutting through the sounds of a wounded ship taking on water. Casting a living legend like Robert Redford is Chandor’s first masterstroke, because the taciturn actor has never needed to vocalize much anyway: His eyes say it all. All Is Lost immerses viewers in a gripping long-term battle of man vs. nature, where the former’s experience and determination is pitted against the latter’s indefatigable mercilessness. It’s a survival tale stripped to its essence.
The year’s greatest technical filmmaking achievement, and a handy defense for the use of 3-D in the right circumstances, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity connected with audiences (to the tune of more than $640 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film on this list by a wide margin) by virtue of its intense attention to the human element pinging around inside its endless expanse of pixels. That focus on Sandra Bullock’s marooned astronaut Ryan Stone—and to a much lesser extent, George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski—connects viewers, safe and grounded in theater seats, to the terror of being alone and defenseless in a place where, to borrow a phrase, no one can hear you scream. In the film’s breathtaking, vertigo-inducing early moments, Cuarón switches between shots that highlight Ryan’s smallness and powerlessness within the vast vacuum of space, and shots that get inside the disorienting bubble of her space helmet. Later, he squeezes into the claustrophobic confines of the various hobbled spacecraft that represent her last, exceedingly long shot at survival. It’s as visceral and personal as a film of this scope gets, and even with the occasional bit of clunky dialogue or forced exposition—which are arguably validated in such heightened circumstances—it remains engaging, terrifying, and dazzling from beginning to end.
After three films (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax), inadvertent mumblecore founder Andrew Bujalski seemed to have settled into a distinct groove, so the unveiling of his fourth effort, Computer Chess, came as a wonderfully disorienting surprise. Set around 1980 and shot almost entirely on an ancient Sony video camera Bujalski bought on eBay, the film depicts a weekend at a seedy hotel that’s hosting both a computer-chess seminar/tournament and a New Age encounter group. Initially, it seems like just a goofy period comedy, mining humor from the primitive technology and dorky personalities of the AI programmers (including Dazed And Confused’s Wiley Wiggins and film critic Gerald Peary). As it progresses, though, it just keeps getting weirder and weirder, heading for a nervous breakdown that echoes the era’s tentative merging of analog and digital, as exemplified by those chess programs (one of which only wants to play against humans). Any good movie about the past will really, sneakily be about the present, but it takes real vision to pull off that trick while imbuing both with an air of genuine, confounding mystery. Whatever box Bujalski might once have been trapped in, he’s escaped it with a vengeance.
|11||The World's End|
Director Edgar Wright has established a remarkable success rate over his relatively short filmography, due in large part to the three films of his so-called “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.” The loosely—very loosely—connected trio of films culminates with The World’s End, which engineers the sort of genre homage Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg used in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, but tackles much larger themes. That’s in keeping with the allegorical spirit of the science-fiction genre on which World’s End riffs, as well as the strong vein of subtext that runs throughout the trilogy. But The World’s End is even richer than its predecessors in the way it tells its cautionary tales of destructive nostalgia and conformity (or “Starbucking,” to use the film’s terminology), while exploring, with characteristic poignancy and humor, the type of male friendships Wright and Pegg have gravitated toward. Pegg’s wonderful performance as the hard-drinking, glory-days-obsessed Gary King is the emotional backbone that supports Wright’s pop-culture-enamored, visually inventive approach, making for a film that’s funny, and thrilling in the moment, but weighty and enduring in the long run.
|12||Stories We Tell|
It’s hard to believe Sarah Polley is still in her early 30s, given the assured, mature films she’s been directing: the features Away From Her and Take This Waltz, and now the documentary Stories We Tell, which starts off as an investigation into the family legends surrounding her long-dead mother, and becomes something else entirely. Polley walks a strange tightrope with Stories We Tell, largely keeping herself offscreen, even as the film becomes more and more about her. But what could have been an act of navel-gazing ego instead becomes a journey of personal discovery, captured on film. It’s startling and absorbing, and handled with confident aplomb. Polley lets viewers go on that journey with her, discovering things as she did, and watching her family members react to her with the love and gentle tolerance of adults dealing with a particularly precocious yet nosy child. But the film essentially captures the filmmaker in the act of growing up—discovering that her parents were people, not just stage icons or personal ideals.
There weren’t many funnier scenes this year than the one where June Squibb’s Kate Grant catalogs and taunts long-dead admirers in a small-town graveyard in Nebraska, and few sequences that so neatly captured the spirit of the film around them. For his sixth feature, Alexander Payne offered a film about staring back at the unsettled past and denying its hold. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a senior citizen who seems to have edged past the point of senility, as evidenced by his insistence on traveling to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize he thinks he’s won. It’s an act of delusion, but also an attempt to claim his remaining time for his own. Over the course of the film, he’s forced to reconnect with relations both close (particularly his son, played by Will Forte) and distant as the family revisits Woody’s old hometown, where they have a chance to take the full measure of a man they know won’t be with them much longer, one way or another. Payne uses stark black and white photography, and Nebraska’s characters spare each other nothing—both of which make the film’s surprising warmth that much more meaningful.
|14||The Wind Rises|
Is it possible for a movie to be upliftingly sad? That’s the best way to describe Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, an animated semi-biopic of aeronautics engineer Jiro Horikoski that uses a fictional love affair between Horikoshi and a tuberculosis-stricken painter as a way to demonstrate how life is about regrettable compromise and dogged endurance. Some people have taken Miyazaki to task for being too glib about the end result of Horikoshi’s airplane designs, which were used to wreak horrific destruction during World War II. But Miyazaki acknowledges that legacy in the context of a larger consideration of how artists are forced by circumstance to make impossible choices. And as he has throughout his entire career, Miyazaki shows in The Wind Rises how animation can suit any kind of story. Using pen and ink, the Studio Ghibli animators are able to conjure up a long-gone early-20th-century Japan, a devastating earthquake, fantastical dreams, and many, many magnificent flying machines.
|15||The Wolf Of Wall Street|
Based on a real-life tale of financial-sector excess, The Wolf Of Wall Street seemed custom-made for Martin Scorsese, a chance to do a white-collar Goodfellas set against the backdrop of the late 1980s and 1990s. Scorsese brings the expected stylishness while mining a rich vein of black humor that paints Wall Street almost exclusively as the domain of coked-up con men, and repeatedly lets star Leonardo DiCaprio play alpha dog to an office of unruly pack animals. Working from Terrence Winter’s script, Scorsese offers one juicy moment of sex, drugs, and financial impropriety after another, all of it ably assisted by a funny supporting cast led by Jonah Hill, who plays a character determined to match, and exceed, his boss’ debauchery. Stretched across three muscular hours, it’s ridiculously over-the-top as it moves from scheming to orgiastic indulgence back to scheming—all while remaining alarmingly believable.
Paul Greengrass brought his flair for unsettling action to a taken-from-real-life story of an American Merchant Marine captain taken captive by Somali pirates. Unsurprisingly, it’s a nerve-wracking film with a brilliant lead performance from Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips. But it’s also a snapshot of a world where desperate men feel compelled to take extreme measures. The film never forgives or justifies the pirates, but it gives them their say, particularly in scenes in which their leader (Barkhad Abdi) and Phillips face each other, captain to captain, as two men with a opposing missions to see through.
Like long-missed friends suddenly stopping in for a drink, Celine (Julie Deply) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) returned in a film that was publicized only after it was completed. Richard Linklater and his writer-stars settled easily into their old rhythms: Before Midnight is simultaneously the series’ most comfortable film and its most challenging, shifting from the familiar subjects of infatuation and unrequited love to the thornier, less dramatically tidy terrain of love realized. Rather than capturing a singular event, it’s a record of one day among many, albeit one where the mutually agreed-upon demilitarized zones that keep a marriage intact suddenly become disputed territory. There are many movies about falling in love, but few so perceptive about what it takes to stay in love.
|18||Blue Is The Warmest Color|
Starting with a Palme D’Or-winning opening in Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s film generated headlines all year long: on its graphic seven-minute lesbian sex scene, on reports of labor abuses over a five-month-plus shoot, on the public battle between Kechiche and his two leads (Léa Seydoux in particular), and on IFC Center’s decision not to enforce the NC-17 rating. An argument could be made that the various uproars damaged the film’s reputation, but the counter is that this intimate epic, three hours long and splashed across a widescreen canvas, was simply destined to be a lightning rod. At a time when international fare is often shuffled quietly to streaming services, Kechiche gave audiences a true arthouse event, covering the full scope of a young woman’s dramatic coming-of-age with lusty audacity and vision. Just as Adèle Exarchopoulos’ teenage protagonist opens up to love, sex, and all the anguish that goes along with them, Blue Is The Warmest Color is no shrinking wallflower. It demands a response—and most assuredly got it.
No filmmaker in the world right now has a stronger claim to the title of cinema’s Ibsen or Chekhov than Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. While The Past isn’t the decade-defining masterpiece that 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation was, it similarly expands an intimate family matter into an all-encompassing moral crucible—not in Iran, this time, but on the outskirts of Paris, where a single mother (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo), her still-technically married boyfriend (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet), and her long-estranged husband (Ali Mosaffa) navigate a series of increasingly fraught emotional negotiations. Farhadi’s gift is his ability to gradually reveal the endless tangle of self-interested complications lurking beneath an apparently simple situation, and he’s unmatched in his understanding of how children can inadvertently get caught in the crossfire, while also acknowledging that older kids, subject to impulses they can barely process, can wreak havoc of their own. Above all, The Past suggests that escaping personal history and starting afresh is a pipe dream, as a faint scent of what’s been left behind will always linger.
|20||In The House|
In François Ozon’s self-reflexive thriller, a bored high-school literature teacher named Germain (Fabrice Luchini) takes an extracurricular interest in his one talented student. Meanwhile, that troubled teenager, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), interjects himself into the seemingly idyllic lives of a well-off classmate and his parents, only to discover surprising secrets beneath their veneer of perfection. But is Claude expressing his fantasies, or transcribing reality, and perhaps even altering it? Germain doesn’t seem to care, which raises tantalizing questions about a writer’s moral obligation to his subjects (and a teacher’s moral obligations to his pupils), until Claude’s words begin to have disastrous real-world consequences. Like the secretive writer at its center, In The House is ingeniously manipulative, a philosophical potboiler that simultaneously indulges and critiques its audience’s every voyeuristic tendency.