I made a special effort to see more foreign and independent films from 2013, and and there were a lot of opportunities to do so. Streaming options have improved remarkably over the past year, giving me access to many more titles in a more timely manner. There were more films that I didn't hear about until they were already available through Amazon or Itunes, and I took advantage of a few simultaneous releases that put a movie in theaters and on VOD at the same time. Though it took me until early October to see the last few titles on my list, there was nothing that I felt was missed or was resigned to saving for the "Plus One" spot for next year. I also saw more films in the theater during awards season, which impacted some of my choices - several of my picks play much better in a theater than they do on a smaller screen at home.
My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2013, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. This year, in order to get a title on the list, I cheated a bit. More on that later. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list. And here we go.
Before Midnight - I expect that Richard Linklater fans will forget about the amount of trepidation there was towards the third entry in the "Before" series. "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" were such strong films, was Linklater tempting fate by making another sequel? Could he recapture the magic of the earlier films? "Before Midnight" not only matches up to the prior installments, but feels like something that Linklater was building up to all along. It's a complex, candid look at a mature relationship after the romance has cooled, and stays perfectly true to its very imperfect characters.
Upstream Color - Science-fiction films often gets too wrapped up in complicated technobabble and exposition, so it's nice to find one that refuses to explain anything at all. Instead, we're tossed into the deep end of a fascinating narrative about the life cycle of a mysterious organism, told through the main characters' subjective sensory experiences, and left to work out the details on our own. With the imagery and sound design used to convey many vital pieces of information, "Upstream Color" is one of the best examples of truly cinematic storytelling I've seen in a long time.
Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley's documentary about a long-held family secret unfolds into a unique examination of the filmmaker's personal history ad identity. Turning the camera on herself was brave enough, but then Polley proceeds to ask all the questions that we're supposed to ask when viewing documentaries - about the effect on the participants, the biases of the filmmakers, the relevance of the subject matter - and incorporates them seamlessly into the film itself. 2013 was a particularly strong year for documentaries, and "Stories We Tell" was one of the stand-outs.
Leviathan - Life aboard a commercial fishing vessel is not unfamiliar, thanks to shows like "The Deadliest Catch," but "Leviathan" offers a more immediate, immersive experience, creating a collage of sounds and visuals that is utterly transporting. The filmmakers put cameras on the deck of the ship, in the water, and skimming along the waves, to give us multiple views of the microcosm of the fishing operation. With no narrative, no characters, and only an epigraph to suggest possible themes, "Leviathan" might be confused for an experimental film instead of a documentary feature.
Her - The most ephemeral of romances, that takes place between one lonely human man and an artificial intelligence. The sentient A.I., named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johanssen, has no physical form and is only heard as a voice in her lover's ear. And yet, she is as real as he is, with her own wants and needs. The premise sounds dubious, but the pair share a warm, intimate, onscreen relationship that director Spike Jonze is entirely serious and sincere in portraying. It's gratifying to find that one of the year's best science-fiction films is also one of the most soulful.
The Act of Killing (Director's Cut) - And here's the entry where I cheated. Yes, the original version of "The Act of Killing" first screened at the end of 2012. However, the version that has won so much acclaim is technically the Director's Cut that premiered later, so it's eligible for my list. "Killing" is one of the most daring films I've ever seen, not only because it confronts the perpetrators of an abominable genocide, but reveals them to be largely ordinary, relatable human beings. The act of filmmaking itself becomes a subject of the film, blurring the lines between the documentarian and his subjects.
12 Years a Slave - Films about slavery as it existed in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries have been few and far between, but it's still surprising that it has taken this long for one to have been made by a prominent black director. But what sets this film apart from the others isn't the heroic black protagonist, or the intensity of the graphic content, or even Steve McQueen's art house bona fides. Rather, it's the unblinking focus on the horrors of the slave system that so many others have glossed over or ignored. "12 Years a Slave" may be an uncomfortable watch, but it's a necessary one.
The Selfish Giant - Clio Barnard's coming of age tale of two boys living in a poor community in Northern England, inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story. I couldn't stop thinking about this one long after I saw it, particularly the character of Arbor, a vicious youngster obsessed with money, whose humanity is slowly revealed to the audience. The film is a portrait of misery, but has one of the most uplifting endings of the year. Barnard is one of several promising British female directors who have been making waves lately, and it's hard to fathom that this is only her second feature film.
Nebraska - The ever reliable Alexander Payne's latest takes us to the economically depressed, culturally moribund American Midwest. An old man named Woody Grant, perfectly realized by Bruce Dern, returns to the Nebraska town where he spent his youth to collect on old dreams and confront the lingering ghosts of his past. His loving wife and sons are sure he's gone senile, but come along for the ride. And so begins the most melancholy of comedies, a slow-paced, good-natured visit with those older, ornery relatives everyone has, who can still manage to land some wicked jabs.
Museum Hours - I have never visited the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, but "Museum Hours" provides a lovely approximation of the experience. Watching the film feels like an idealized museum visit, with knowledgeable, thoughtful companions on hand to supply information about the various pieces being observed. And as it slowly transitions into a human drama, the film loses none of its gentle charm or inviting atmosphere. This is one of those quiet films that some will find interminable and boring, but others will find endlessly absorbing and refreshing.
The Broken Circle Breakdown - From Belgium comes the painful love story of two musicians whose relationship is put in jeopardy by a terrible tragedy. With deft direction, a pair of excellent performances from the leads, and a soundtrack of American bluegrass music, "Broken Circle" is one of the most intense and riveting dramas in recent memory. Though a sizable hit in its home country, "Broken Circle" didn't gain traction internationally until it nabbed a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod last year.
And the Honorable Mentions
All is Lost
The Spectacular Now
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Place Beyond the Pines
A Touch of Sin
Pain and Gain