The Best Movies of 2013

Before Midnight
Is Before Midnight the most realistic depiction of a relationship ever filmed? It’s possible, I think. It makes for uncomfortable watching, viewing a relationship self-destruct in real time, but it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve seen this year. Happy endings don’t exist in real life, so why should they exist on film? At least, that what it seems director Richard Linklater is saying in this third film about the romance between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters Jesse and Celine. Essential viewing for everyone, especially those contemplating a lifetime commitment. (Cari Wade Gervin)

Blue Is the Warmest Color
Blue Is the Warmest Color will likely always be best known for those scenes, but it will also stand as one of the great cinematic love stories. Rarely has a film been as moving, or as effective at depicting how life-changing a first passionate love affair can be, or how debilitated its termination can render a person. The Palme d’Or awarded at Cannes to director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actresses made perfect sense; the film’s hard-won intimacy and emotional highs and lows work so well because of the interplay between Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux’s performances and Kerchiche’s repeated use of close-ups and long takes. (Eric Dawson)

Captain Phillips
Though Paul Greengrass’ two Bourne movies sent scads of lesser filmmakers shaking their cameras to paint-mixer extremes, Captain Phillips assures his vérité style still carries unmatched power in staging true stories. But the visual grit is only part of what makes it moving, thrilling, and real; potential copycats would do well to consider the empathy with which it draws its villains, or how portraying the U.S. military as a team of professionals commands the due awe and respect so much more effectively than rote heroizing. (It also helps when a nonprofessional actor and the professional actor help each other give two of the year’s best performances.) (Nick Huinker)

The Conjuring
If there was any doubt after 2010’s Insidious, The Conjuring proves that Australian director James Wan is a masterful architect of perfectly staged cinematic scares. It’s easily Wan’s best film to date; while Insidious flew off the rails a bit in its final act, this supposedly true tale of vengeful ghosts and demonic possession in a remote Rhode Island farmhouse is unrelentingly creepy from its first frames to its last. All of Wan’s films have at least a few brilliantly executed sequences, but The Conjuring proves he can go the distance. (April Snellings)

Frances Ha
The black-and-white cinematography and opening montage of carefree middle-class urban white-girl fun in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha promise a rousing round of Precious Privilege Theater. And then you get to know Frances (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote), suddenly estranged from her BFF (Mickey Sumner) and at a loss as to what sort of person she should be on her own. Not only do you come to feel you know Frances (you notice her clumping, mannish walk), you come to feel you know people who know her (and make fun of her walk), resulting in as hapless, sweet, and fully rounded a character as you’ll meet in any fictional medium this year. (Lee Gardner)

Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón’s astronauts-in-peril epic reminded us that it’s still possible to be astonished at the movies. Stunning special effects, remarkable sound design, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s untethered camera work, combined with a surprisingly affecting performance by Sandra Bullock, made for a visceral, moving, and deeply humanistic film about the horror of isolation and the restorative power of connecting to the world around us. Gravity makes the best case so far for the potential of 3D as an integral storytelling tool and not just a superfluous cash-grab. (A.S.)

The Heat
I’m unapologetically in love with The Heat. On paper, director Paul Feig’s follow-up to Bridesmaids sounded like a train wreck: the concept of pairing up Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy for a hard-R throwback to ’80s action-comedies just isn’t that appealing, especially on the heels of the completely awful Identity Thief. In practice, though, The Heat is kind of brilliant. Bullock and McCarthy are fantastic together, their characters are ridiculously likable, and the film is completely bonkers in its disregard for good taste (and, okay, narrative logic). It’s also a surprisingly clever indictment of the double-standards women face in male-dominated fields, and proof that a gory impromptu tracheotomy can make any movie better. (A.S.)

Leviathan
Documenting fishermen working on a ship off the coast of New Bedford (not coincidentally the port featured in Moby-Dick), with Leviathan anthropologists/filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have created a new kind of cinéma vérité. Shot with tiny GoPro cameras strapped to the filmmakers and fishermen, or tossed overboard to capture scenes just below and on the surface of the ocean, the film powerfully conveys the violence of both the natural world and the fishing trade. Made up mostly of long takes of images that weren’t framed by a human eye, Leviathan serves as a reminder of how limited the standard viewpoint of film—and, by extension, homo sapiens—actually is. (E.D.)

No talking heads, no voiceover, no title cards, no narrative—just the darkness, spray, and cold-blooded carnage of a fishing boat pitching on the North Atlantic in all its gothic, hypnotic detail. While the fisherman eventually come into focus, silent toilers bent over hard work, the dank, clanking trawler and the murky ocean it dares are the true stars, visually reinvented via the groundbreaking use of a brace of hardy GoPro video cameras. This is cinema as immersion, documentary as hallucination. (L.G.)

Museum Hours
Watching Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a bit like visiting a museum. You look at some art (lots of Bruegel). You look at the people. Maybe you strike up a conversation with a friendly guard (Bobby Sommer). You look at some more art, sometimes for a long time. You repeatedly bump into a lost-looking tourist (reclusive Canadian singer/songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara) and wonder what her story might be. You think about what you’ve seen, the paintings and the people pausing in front of them. And you leave feeling thoughtful, stimulated, and ultimately uplifted. (L.G.)

Pacific Rim
Honestly, just seeing giant robots and giant monsters punch each other relentlessly for two and a half hours would have been enough. But director Guillermo del Toro surpassed expectations for his long-awaited kaiju-vs.-mecha grudge match by directing the absolute hell out of every frame of Pacific Rim. The result is the kind of artful eye candy that rarely makes it to the screen, even in this age of computer-generated spectacle. Pacific Rim also gets a big boost from del Toro’s understanding that all that destruction isn’t very interesting if we don’t care about the people at ground zero. (A.S.)

Spring Breakers
Looks like teensploitation, plays like heartless Malick with a dubstep soundtrack. Much has been made of Disney starlets Vanessa Hudgins and Selena Gomez losing their grownup-movie cherries in Harmony Korine’s dayglo provocation, but far more scandalous is its exposure of the spiritual empty lots, dumpsters, liquor stores, and dealers out behind the glitzy mall of Disney Channel-era youth culture. And of all the directors James Franco worked with this year, only Korine found something interesting for him to do. (L.G.)

Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s beguiling follow-up to 2004’s micro-budget masterpiece Primer occupies the same sci-fi space, two steps outside of our reality and one step beyond our comprehension. But where that film’s cerebral time-travel game begged deep analysis and multiple viewings just to piece together the sequence of events, Upstream Color’s mysteries float on the margins of an emotional narrative about two people who connect deeply under the very strangest of circumstances. It’s serenely coy and disorienting, but the story’s all there, and it’s almost beside the point. A gorgeous, meaningful, and significant film. (N.H.)

What connects a scam artist, a young woman, a brooding dude with a secret, and a field recordist/pig farmer? On one level, a parasitic organism. On another level, connection itself. That neat bit of meta allows Shane Caruth’s gorgeously filmed hand-rolled enigma to pull you into its beguiling mysteries and encourages you to parse them, one by one. Part speci-fic mindblower, part love story, Upstream Color’s underlying vision of our fates as linked to the earth, and ultimately to each other, both beatifies and disturbs.L.G.)

The World’s End
The conclusion of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy revisited significant themes from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with less knee-slapping but remarkable depth, surveying maturity and conformity from all angles while maintaining its disguise as a charming invasion flick. Wright started out as a brilliant filmmaker and has only gotten better, but World’s End’s ensemble of Brit-cinema ringers deserve as much credit, particularly trilogy MVP Nick Frost, who provides the film with both its emotional center and ass-kicking-est bar brawling. (N.H.)

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