Staff List: The 30 Best Films of 2013

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As with any year, some people have begun arguing that 2013 was a bad year for film, because of the expected glut of effects-heavy blockbusters that litter the multiplexes each summer, or because there was a lack of auteur-driven storytelling for the majority of the year. Though it is indeed frustrating that studios hold their more prestigious films until the last month or two of this or any year, 2013 was an excellent year for film. You shouldn’t have to look first to Sound on Sight’s list of the 30 best films of 2013 for proof, but you should add it to the pile, no doubt. We asked our film writers to provide their personal lists of the 15 best films of the year; everyone’s number-one pick got 15 points allocated, everyone’s number-two pick got 14 points, and so on. (As you’ll see, the point values for each of the 30 films is included here.) Over 40 contributors sent in their lists; there were over 160 films that got points. So if that’s not proof enough, consider the following list and capsules as a reminder that 2013 was yet another banner year for cinema.

Worth noting: Since our staff is spread out across the globe, sometimes a film will appear on our list two years in a row due to having different release dates, and film festival screenings world wide. This year, that honour goes to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Anyone looking for Lawrence Anyways, Berberian Sound Studio and The Hunt (to name a few), can refer to our list from last year.

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Special Mention:

La Jalousie (51 points)
Directed by Phillipe Garrel
Written by Phillipe Garrel and Marc Cholodenko
2013, France

Collaborating once again with his son Louis Garrel, Phillipe Garrel brings to the screen La Jalousie, one of the year’s most inspired films. Deceptively simple, the film challenges the idealization of love and explores the destructive power of jealousy through its tale of a struggling actor (Louis Garrel) who breaks up with the mother of his young daughter, Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), to start a relationship with another aspiring actress, Claudia (Anna Mouglali). Garrel transforms physical spaces through his mise-en-scene and with camera, reality itself being re-arranged and re-thought through the moods of its characters. Through the perception of love, an apartment becomes a paradise and under the threat of jealousy it suddenly becomes a prison. As these feelings become heightened, in particular through Claudia, the camera becomes distant and obscured. Walls suddenly become obstacles, space becomes fragmented, and time plods on. Eventually every kiss seems to represent a hidden secret and a great lie, and the weight of betrayal becomes utterly crippling. The power of jealousy is that it is often an emotion rooted in abstraction, whether or not suspicion is founded, it is more often than not insinuated through micro-gestures and our own deflated sense of worth. The film rages with the extreme emotions of its characters and is not afraid to occasionally dip into the absurd to best express the sense of isolation and feelings of abandonment that can come with betrayals in love. Shot in grainy black and white, La Jalousie is a film about that explores the struggles of love and poses integral questions about the integrity of the self as it relates to our interpersonal relationships. La Jalousie is the only film not yet released that received enough votes from our writers to make the cut, so we decided to include it as a special mention.

– Justine Smith

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30. Computer Chess (49 points)
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
USA, 2013

Standing out in a year where American indies were mostly content to play it safe by sticking to established aesthetics, plot devices, and character backgrounds, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a bold, brazen exercise in style that also manages to sneak heady ideas and contemporary import into a premise seemingly guaranteed to deliver only marginal quirk and cheap laughs. Shot on video and presented almost entirely in black and white, the film is ostensibly a mockumentary about the inner workings of an early-1980s chess tournament in which computer programs are pitted against each other, but Bujalski is interested in a lot more than mockery (though there’s a little of that, too) and is more than willing to break format wherever and whenever necessary, shaking loose any constricting notions of style. As paranoia begins to creep in – the Pentagon is invoked, and notions of militarization and global destruction are floated – it becomes increasingly unclear if the stakes have actually been raised, or if we’re just becoming increasingly immersed in a world guided by too-fertile imaginations. Enigmatic and dense with possibility, Computer Chess creeps up on you in delightfully unexpected ways.

— Simon Howell

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29. Museum Hours (51 points)
Written and directed by Jem Cohen
Austria and USA, 2013

Acclaimed filmmaker Jem Cohen’s sublime new feature, Museum Hours, is a tale of two adrift strangers (a helpful museum guard and a middle-class Canadian woman) who find refuge and friendship in Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. Shot on high-definition digital video and super-16-millimetre film, the film patiently lingers over great paintings by Rembrandt, Bruegel and other European masters, inviting us to decipher what they might have to say. Watching the film has been compared to looking at a painting for two and a half hours (the movie runs long), but Cohen instructs us to pay attention to the world in the most fascinating ways. A New York filmmaker and video artist, Cohen’s visual style is chiefly observational – he crafts a film that is part drama, part travelogue, and part art essay. It doesn’t take long before we realize that Cohen is showing us a new way to look at cinema and the world around us.

– Kyle Reese

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28. Mud (57 points)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
USA, 2013

It’s no secret that Matthew McConaughey is in the midst of an extraordinary stage in his career. Since 2011, over the course of six films, he has turned in one stellar performance after another, constantly surprising and continually impressive. As much as his talent is on the screen, part of this resurgence is undeniably due to the material. This is certainly the case with Mud. While McConaughey gives what may be his strongest overall showing to date, why Mud stands out, and why it’s one of the best films of the year, is that it excels beyond just his accomplishments. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who is now three-exceptional-films-for-three, Mud is a brilliant convergence of filmic conventions. It’s a devoted love story, with McConaughey’s eponymous character obsessively and blindly seeking to reunite with his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). It’s a coming-of-age tale for Neckbone and Ellis (Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan), the latter experiencing the pain and confusion of unrequited young love while simultaneously caught in familial strife, further skewing his view of relationships. And it’s a thriller, with Mud on the lam, sought by police and a ragtag posse bent on revenge. Further tension surfaces from ambiguous character development, with many of these people having no immediately comprehensive back-story or obvious motivation. Leveling the drama are moments of amusement: Michael Shannon in a somehow sexually useful scuba suit, the integral but bizarre boat in a tree, Neckbone’s no-nonsense crassness. The bonds formed by the characters, Nichols’ deft handing of the varying tones and divergent narratives, and the authenticity of performances and setting all ring true, and all make Mud a captivating fusion of filmmaking perfection.

— Jeremy Carr

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27. Blue Jasmine (58 points)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
USA, 2013

The very notion of calling one of Woody Allen’s efforts of the new millennium a return to form has become something of a cliché at this stage, with Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona being the most recent titles to bare the moniker in critical conversation. Blue Jasmine earns the title not just for being Allen’s best crafted, most well-rounded, and entertaining feature of late, but also for being his most substantial in terms of content since Husbands and Wives.

The work is informed by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in both narrative elements and Cate Blanchett’s theatrical turn in the lead role, though the heroine of Allen’s tragicomedy is not so prone to the same flights of romantic fancy as Blanche DuBois, nor any similar delusional view of her past. Her ugly fall is one always fuelled by an ever-conscious recognition of where it all went wrong, even if she does lie to herself somewhat in her growing breakdown. Though lacking in certain refinements, Blue Jasmine is a particularly resonant work overall, overcoming potential caricature status with some of its major players by providing sympathetic weight to their struggles and wants, not just those of the title character, in this exploration of regret and the heavy burden of lost lives and futures.

— Josh Slater-Williams

On the surface, The Wolf of Wall Street could be a bawdy, extremely raunchy celebration of American excess, the pinnacle of bad behavior. Barely below that surface, however, is a commentary on the limits of that very excess, and how necessary it is for our society to have some form of checks and balances. Because the film is from Belfort’s point of view, presuming it endorses his attitude isn’t entirely outlandish. (And the way the narration, which sometimes bleeds into DiCaprio as Belfort breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience, is structured may present the notion that The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie, is a blank slate upon which Belfort will write, revise, and present his story to his satisfaction.) But it would be wrong to presume that Martin Scorsese has trod this exact ground before, in films such as Goodfellas and Casino and Gangs of New York.  No doubt, Scorsese is fascinated to the point of obsession with the nature of crime, the desire so many people have to break the law for their own good. Jordan Belfort is one of the most odious criminals he’s depicted in his many decades as a filmmaker, to the point that, in a number of lengthier diatribe-like monologues to his brokers, Belfort is presented as not an antihero, but a full-fledged villain. That may be Scorsese’s best trick in the film: fooling its subject to sign away his life’s rights only to be subtly damned on the silver screen. The Wolf of Wall Street is a grand, triumphant depiction of the entitled, near-insane proclivities of the super-rich and those who wish to be among the super-rich. But at all times, it’s exhorting us, the non-super-rich, to get mad once more at the financial institutions built to bilk us out of our cash, to be furious with the people who look at the middle class and the sober and find them wanting. It’s been a long time since a Martin Scorsese film felt so angry; anger never felt or looked so damn good.  – Josh Spiegel

26. Only God Forgives (60 points)
Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Denmark and Thailand, 2013

It would have been easy for filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling to create a similar tale to Drive for their second outing together. It would have also been easy for them to create another narrative where a Westerner comes in as the saviour in a foreign land. Not only do the duo manage to avoid both those pitfalls, but what they create in Only God Forgives is a fascinating study of justice and consequences, and how people react to the latter. Like most of his performances, Gosling is a treat to watch here, as despite a largely wordless role, much like his last collaboration with Winding Refn, he infuses his character with a distinct personality that ensures he’s distinct from the lead in Drive; where one chose not to speak out of a measured effort, another stays quiet because he is rarely in control, and a chump who often ends up on the wrong end of the fights he engages in, physical or otherwise. But his is not the only strong performance, as both Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm deliver equally compelling turns. The combination of these factors, along with gorgeous cinematography and several possible ways to interpret the events that unfold onscreen, make this one of the highlights of the 2013 cinematic season.

— Deepayan Sengupta

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25. L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Written by Alain Guiraudie
France, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t the only prize-winning, controversial gay film at this years Cannes Film Festival – Stranger by the Lake’s fleeting images of unstimulated sex between two men also shared the spotlight and similar scornful criticism. But the man-on-man action (served mostly as comic relief), is but just a mere distraction in what is one of the best thrillers in recent memory. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie takes us to a popular cruising spot for gay men located by a lovely lake in the French countryside. What starts off as a story about the cruising scene at a nude beach slowly morphs into a meticulously crafted, exciting, erotic, neo-noir thriller that just so happens the be this critic’s pick for best film of 2013. No film came close to evoking such nail biting tension this year; Guiraudie creates something of a masterpiece that works on multiple levels. Upon its release at Cannes, it won two important awards: The ‘Queer Palm’ award, and the Best Director Award in the Un Certain Regard section. With only a hand full of the Sound On Sight staff who’ve actually had a chance to watch it, Stranger by the Lake is sure to make an appearance on next year’s list as well.

– Ricky D

Drug War

24. Drug War (69 points)
Written by Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, and Yu Xi
Directed by Johnnie To
China and Hong Kong, 2013

Propulsive, relentlessly tense, and made with exemplary precision, Johnnie To’s procedural thriller Drug War is a streamlined work on a narrative level, eschewing more overblown trappings of the genres it bares roots from, both Hollywood and Hong Kong. Its opening stretches put to rest any standard, romanticised notions of brotherhood and honour, while the arguable protagonist – Timmy, a seemingly cooperating turncoat involved in extensive drug manufacturing – embodies that idea of business as business alone; he uses every opportunity possible, no matter how dangerous and harmful, as a means of self-preservation. The film would seem to suggest it is all for naught, as is the rigorous proficiency of the various police figures, for not only is chaotic confusion an apparent inevitability, it can be just as immediately destructive as the substances the state wants to stop the flow of. The ‘war’ in the film’s title is certainly apt, and the eventual battlefield is as senseless, abrupt, and brutal as all too many of those are.

— Josh Slater-Williams

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23. Stories We Tell (70 points)
Directed by Sarah Polley
Canada, 2013

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a fascinating and engaging attempt to reveal life’s everyday secrets. As Polley seeks to uncover the true identity of her biological father, she encounters an assortment of recollections, assumptions, and opinions, some conflicting, some in sync, all contributing to a seemingly elusive truth about her heritage. It’s like Last Year at Marienbad meets Maury Povich. Stories We Tell is formally ingenious in its presentation of key figures in this familial drama. Contemporary interviews with siblings and acquaintances are mixed with reenactments deceptively and effectively shot to mesh seamlessly with genuine home video footage of Polley’s family. Even in this visual depiction of the past, the truth remains ambiguous and illusory. Adding to the self-conscious unspooling of the investigation, Polley films her “father” as he narrates the documentary in the third person, even when talking about himself and his feelings and impressions. Where the films gains its most potent power though, is in its basic chronicle of events. Stories We Tell is about just that – the narratives that form our lives. In this personal tale of one family’s lineage, Polley examines the intricacies, certainties, and fallacies that ultimately shape our individual existence: how we got here, who was involved, and what really happened … if we can ever really know.

— Jeremy Carr

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22The Place Beyond the Pines (71 points–tie)
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
USA, 2013

Telling interconnected stories is never an easy feat, no matter the medium, and neither is making characters doing bad things feel sympathetic. With The Place Beyond The Pines, Derek Cianfrance manages to do both, seamlessly blending together three tales of three people connected by circumstance. However, the beauty of the film is that none of the three leads can be called the main character. Rather, it’s the fourth key character, the city of Schenectady, that’s the focal point throughout; the film’s ability to make that clear while not stating it outright is one of its many strengths. The film also succeeds in exploring the idea of how one’s lineage affects their actions, never preaching a particular philosophy, but letting the characters and their actions tell the tale, and drawing parallels that resonate in the process. These facets, along with a timeless feeling to the story being told, unpredictable story turns that have real ramifications, and standout performances from Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper elevate The Place Beyond the Pines into a must-see of 2013.

— Deepayan Sengupta

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21. Short Term 12 (71 points–tie)
Written and directed by Destin Cretton
USA, 2013

The indie film Short Term 12 is both a fine showcase for burgeoning female talent like Brie Larson—and please, Hollywood, don’t let young women like her or co-star Kaitlyn Dever go to waste as mostly personality-free love interests in whatever blockbuster cash cows are to be released in the years to come—and an important reminder of the challenges teenagers face when they’re forced to regain structure after years of being left adrift in the bureaucratically-minded U.S. educational system. Some of the most emotional moments in this film are not those of characters revealing dark truths or crying to the heavens, but of the random acts of kindness these kids perform for each other, as if to validate their own humanity. When the Short Term 12 kids make birthday cards for one of their own, it’s poignant not just for the gesture, but as a reminder that a single act of decency can save a life.

— Josh Spiegel

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