20. Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve)Mainstream Hollywood thrillers do not get much better than Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners. The Canadian auteur made his Hollywood debut with this suspenseful film about two missing young girls – and the lengths one father (Hugh Jackman) will go to get them back. Jackman is terrific in the film – his finest work to date – as is Paul Dano as the slow man he thinks kidnapped them, Melissa Leo chewing the scenery as Dano’s Aunt and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of the other missing girl, who have a slightly different take on what to do. Best of all was Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the detective investigating it – Gyllenhaal’s cop is good at his job, but also kind of an asshole – and Gyllenhaal makes interesting choices throughout. The movie slowly, gradually turns the screws to the audience – this is a long movie at two and half hours, but it never feels too long. It is expertly crafted by Villeneuve, and although the film probably takes a twist or two too many in its final act, this is still the best mainstream thriller I saw this year. An excellent Hollywood debut for a great Canadian director.
19. Bastards (Claire Denis)Bastards is perhaps the darkest film of Claire Denis’ career – and given some of her output, that is saying something. In many ways, the film is classic noir – a rugged ship captain is drawn back into his dysfunctional family when his niece is sexually abused at the hands of a wealthy industrialist, and his brother in law kills himself. He moves into the same apartment building as the wealthy man’s younger mistress and son – and wheedles his wife into her life, and her pants – although what his ultimate endgame is not readily apparent. Denis uses her elliptical storytelling technique to great affect here, only gradually revealing information about what really happened, and who the characters really are. The title refers to – well, pretty much everyone in the film in one way or another. Bastards is a dark, violent, disturbing movie – right up to its Faulkner inspired ending, which is one of the most memorable images of the year. The film is too dark for most – it even divided Denis’ usually devout critical following – but I think it’s one of her best.
18. All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)What is remarkable about J.C. Chandor’s second film is not only how good it is, but how completely different it is from his first film. That film, Margin Call, was also excellent – but it featured a large ensemble cast talking in Mamet-esque dialogue on the eve of the 2008 Financial Meltdown. For his follow-up, he has made a film with a cast of one – the great Robert Redford – that is all but devoid of any dialogue at all. We simply watch “Our Man” – alone on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean – after its hit by a shipping container causing a slow, steady leak that will eventually sink his ship. He tries to patch it, and make it to a shipping lane which is his only chance of survival. Redford’s performance is perhaps the finest of his career – a purely physical one as he struggles against the inevitability of death (the film’s ultimate message). To some, this probably sounds dull (which is why it didn’t exactly set any box office records) – but it really is a harrowing film, anchored by a great lead performance, and impeccably crafted by Chandor. Margin Call marked him as a director to watch – All is Lost fulfills that promise in the most unexpected way.
17. The Counselor (Ridley Scott)I cannot think of another film this year where the critical reaction was so vitriolic that the backlash against that hatred demanded an almost immediate backlash. Walking into the theater, I had no idea what to expect from Ridley Scott’s latest film – from a screenplay by the great Cormac McCarthy. What I got was an anti-Hollywood thriller – a film that makes no attempt to give the audience what it wants or expects – and one that barely even concerns itself with the workings of its plot. This screenplay is pure McCarthy – full of long monologues about good and evil, elliptical storytelling and key scenes taking place off screen. If you went in expecting a normal thriller, than you certainly walked out disappointed. But if you can get onto the film’s ever strange wavelength, than what you get is a pitch black film about a bunch of rotten characters trapped in a cycle of death and violence that there is no hope from escaping. The large ensemble cast mainly nails McCarthy’s dialogue – and Scott does some of the best direction of his career. No, the film doesn’t give you want you want it to – but that doesn’t make it bad.
16. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)Baumbach’s latest film is a black and white love letter to his star and co-writer (and off-screen girlfriend) Greta Gerwig. She plays the title character – a woman in her late 20s living in New York, and still trying to make it as a professional dancer. Her best friend is involved with a dolt – and may even get married to him and move away – and this sends Frances reeling. While all of this may sound like hipster navel gazing (and to a certain extent, it is) – Gerwig is so lovable, charming, sympathetic and adorable in the lead role that she immediately won me over. Her dancing down the street to the sound of David Bowie is one of the most joyous cinematic moments of the year. The film is pure charm from start to finish – and one of the year’s most enjoyable films.
15. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s latest is a take on Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchatt’s Jasmine as it’s Blanche – the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type scam artist, brought low by her husband’s crimes and forced to slum it with her sister in San Francisco. The film flashes back and forth in time to show Jasmine’s willful ignorance in her husband’s scams, and her new life where she just cannot accept the reality of the situation she now finds herself in. This is a tour-de-force performance by Blanchatt, who doesn’t make Jasmine into a sympathetic character, but certainly does make her human. Complain if you want about how Allen’s take on poverty is a bit out of sync with reality – but he does a good job at sketching the supporting players, from Sally Hawkins’ sister, drawn once again into her sisters delusions, to Andrew Dice Clay as her ex-husband – a nice guy who got screwed – to Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’ lovable lunk of a boyfriend, and Louis C.K. as an asshole. Alec Baldwin is also quite good as Jasmine’s scam artist husband – the type of egomaniac who never believes his crimes will catch up to him. Allen is hit and miss as a director at this point in his career – and while Blue Jasmine may not be quite as good as Blanchatt’s performance, it’s still easily one of his best recent films.
14. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)While I have liked all of Edgar Wright’s films, I think The World’s End is a definite step forward for him – and clearly his best to date. He reteams with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost again, to complete his so called “Cornetto” trilogy – but while The World’s End is also a riff on a genre (this time science fiction – in particular Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of sci-fi) it’s not as beholden to the genre as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. What Wright and company have done is made one the best portraits of male friendship in recent years. Pegg delivers his best performance to date as an aging man child, a figure much romanticized in American comedies, but here seen as more than a little pathetic. Frost is almost as good as his friend who has finally had enough, and cut him out of his life – until he Pegg convinces him – and his two friends, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine – to finish the legendary pub crawl they failed in their youth. The World’s End is still one of the most enjoyable and hilarious of all 2013 comedies – and yet it goes deeper than most, and certainly deeper than Wright has done before. It’s a definite sign that Wright is maturing.
13. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)There are many ways in which Short Term 12 could have gone wrong – or at least been just another average indie festival film that is quickly forgotten. Yet, writer-director Destin Cretton hits all the right notes in the film – and lucked out by casting Brie Larson in the lead role, who delivers a knockout, star making performance. The film is about life inside a group home from troubled teens – with Larsen playing a young woman in charge of overseeing their day-to-day activities. She understands them so well, because she went through what they went through – and is still dealing with the after effects. The film feels natural from beginning to end – even its “big” moments do not feel like the invention of a screenwriter, but the type of thing that happens when you get a group of screwed up teens together in one place. The film marks Cretton as a director to watch – and Larson as a star on the rise.
12. Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)Even when the off-screen controversy around Blue is the Warmest Color fades – and it will – the film will still be controversial because of its extended, explicit lesbian sex scenes – which to some are erotic, and to some are just exploitive. I’m of two minds of the sex scenes – while I admit that I doubt real lesbian sex is like it’s portrayed in the movie, very little cinematic sex is ever like real sex and I also think that the undeniable passion in those scenes is necessary to show the all-consuming passion the two main characters feel towards each other – but yes, like every other scene in the movie, they are probably a little too long. Yet while everyone talked about the sex scenes in the film, I admired the film more for the non-sexual sequences – you know the ones that take up roughly two and half hours of the film’s three hour runtime. Blue is the Warmest Color is a marvelous coming of age film about one girl’s sexual awakening. As embodied in a magnificent performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos she is, and remains to the end, a confused young woman trying to find her place in the world. Kechiche asks a lot of Exarchopoulos, and she delivers on all fronts – as does Lea Seydoux as the slightly older, wiser more confident Emma. The two actresses are brilliant in every scene of the film, which makes up for the films admitted excesses.
11. Mud (Jeff Nichols)Jeff Nichols’ Mud is essentially a Southern fried fairy tale. The extremely gifted young actor Tye Sheridan gives a wonderful performance as a young boy reeling from his parents impending divorce, who along with his best friend comes across Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in a boat stuck in a tree on an island in the river near their house. Mud is charming and kind to the boys – he doesn’t talk down to them in anyway – and also seems like an extremely romantic figure to them – someone who is risking everything because of how in love he is. For the third time in a row – after Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter - Nichols has made a film set in the South that doesn’t mock its characters or revere them, but presents them more honestly than most. The film doesn’t quite live up to the high standard of Take Shelter – the film that made me say Nichols was the best director under 40 earlier this year (and I stand by that) – but it comes close with it’s marvelous writing, brilliant acting and pitch perfect evocation of its time and place.