At the end of 2013, an old friend said 2013 was a year that reflected our cultural crossroads. It was exactly a year after President Obama won re-election that the country appeared to be more inclusive, and human progress appeared to be more and more explicit. However, there was always a warning that something sinister was brewing in our culture, as America’s problems of rampant individualism, greed, cronyism, oppression, and racial injustice were still apparent, as many storytellers warned us about. It was also a year where Spike Jonze warned us in his fourth feature Her about how human connection is leading us with our dependence on technology, which has left us even lonelier and disconnected in this post-Covid world. Reflecting back, a lot of the great movies of 2013 warned audiences not to let their guard down. It was a year of many essential films, many of which have maintained their shelf life, while a few polarizing films at the time have found reappraisals over the years. I guess the same can be said about any year. But the best films of 2013 are the ones that hit a nerve. Some of the films were so passionate about their subjects. After constant ranges and repeat viewings, not too much has changed since my original list. Other than Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which certainly gets better as time goes on, Scorsese brilliantly tapped into America’s ongoing problems of the banking system, greed, and self-destruction. The films below are the ones that have deeply impacted me. These are ones that I thought about then, that I still think about today, and ones that I’m sure many of us will continue revisiting over the years. These films below reflect our times then and still do now.
1. Blue is the Warmest Color (d. Abdellatif Kechiche)
A film that still can’t get past endless scrutiny from Abdellatif Kechiche’s questionable working methods, which led to the subsequent disowning of the film by its two leads, along with objections by Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel that the movie is based on, has left a dark cloud over the film. Many criticisms involve the film’s eroticism feeling superficial and staged—that it suffered from the “male gaze”. Regardless of some of the reputations over the years, “Blue is the Warmest Color” has maintained its staying power. In some ways, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris or even Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo are arguably unethical movies that are nevertheless undeniably masterfully crafted, scripted, and acted. Regardless of its reputation, Kechiche has made a film of wrenching power and of such piercing human emotion and empathy that he maintains its aura of greatness from beginning to end. There is still a built-in femininity in the film, thanks to the towering performances by its two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. The film, which is a love story with shades of a coming-of-age story and a portrait of sexual awakening, is about a French young woman (Exarchopoulos) who discovers her sexuality after she has a deep human and sexual connection with an older art student (Seydoux) after she encounters him in a bar. Both women form a serious relationship and deep love over the years, which leads to heartbreak, separation, and reconnection. Kechiche has delivered another breathtaking passage of time film done with visual grandeur and passionate scope. It’s a sensual study of first love and the emotional impacts when it all fades away. While the film did many things wrong during production, it ended up doing many things right in terms of the final product.
2. 12 Years a Slave (d. Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s first foray into true mainstream fare is a relatively challenging watch. Brutal in its depiction of the Southern slave trade, and with astounding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave A powerfully moving portrait about coercion and eventually freedom, the film is about Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man who resides in the abolitionist state of New York with his wife and young children, who is kidnapped by charlatans passing themselves off as businessmen. He ends up being sold off to a brutal owner (Fassbender), while maintaining courage, dignity, and survival. Northup ends up finding hope in an abolitionist sympathizer from Canada (Brad Pitt), who can hold the keys to his liberation from the plantation. While more commercial in execution, McQueen still continued on with his physicality and the artistic sensibilities that led to one of the most powerfully moving films of the decade and along with a much-deserved Best Picture Academy Award win.
3. Her (d. Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman made one of the most compelling directing and screenwriting duos of our era, but eventually Kaufman went onto directing his own projects with Synecdoche, New York, and many thought that it would be interesting to see where Spike Jonze would go. Next, Jonze proved he can be every bit as idiosyncratic, sophisticated, and offbeat, yet even more tender and humane than Kaufman with his exploration of modern loneliness. The film, which is about a lonely poet named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes love letters for other couples that they pass on their own on a website app, ends up developing feelings for an operation system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Theordore and Samantha open up about a lot of things that are intimate and personal, and there is a connection that feels unmatched for Theo out in the real world. Eventually, Theordore discovers he wants something deeper and more real, which complicates and deepens the relationship with his O.S. What could have come off as creepy or annoying ends up becoming a perfect film that delicately explores the disconnected intersection that we have created for each other with our cell phones, dating apps, and social media, which remains even more relevant 10 years later. Eventually, Her becomes more about a man falling in love with his computer, and it becomes a sincere study of one man’s yearning for a connection and the significance of real human connection.
4. Gravity (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
While the film is scorned by many for its “lack of story” and for its “plausibility”, one can’t deny just how astonishing and technically savvy Gravity is. To this date, the film remains one of the most immersive space adventures to ever hit the big screen. With one dazzling set-piece after the next, Cuarón does offer some philosophical and rather empowering ideas up its sleeve as the film uses beautiful metaphors of umbilical cords and a pivotal moment of Sandra Bullock’s Ryan character curling up in the fetal position after enduring misfortune, both in space and on Earth. Yet Ryan continues to survive and sort things out, and she keeps going strong. Sandra Bullock also deserves greater credit for her performance here, delivering what remains mostly a one-woman show, and she delivers it with such natural and raw emotion. It’s also a first-rate physical performance in which her anxieties, panics, and strength are captured with sheer intensity and credibility. With its brilliant craftmanship, brilliant set pieces, and astonishing use of unbroken long takes, Gravity is by far one of the most greatly directed films of the decade and truly pushed to new realms of what cinema is capable of.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, an original fictional tale about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village circa 1961, is a very heartbreaking, melancholic, and significant film that’s very much a companion piece to the 1991 Coens’ masterpiece Barton Fink. Like Barton Fink, this film is critical of show business. Where “Barton Fink” satirized how commercialism overpowers the art in the film industry, the Coens reinvent these same themes, but this time about the heartless music industry. The film’s protagonist is folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who’s at a creative crossroads in his career. With the loss of his recent collaborator, he struggles to go solo. He finds himself having to go back to their old songs and finding himself in financial struggles as he moves from couch to couch. He ends up going on a journey from New York to a Chicago music club, where he awaits the approval of a music producer who can get him the acts and big break that he desperately needs. Like most of the Coen Brothers’ films, Inside Llewyn Davis is produced outside the U.S., and the result is a deeply ambiguous and complex story that speaks a lot of emotional truths about the music industry and ultimately the hardships of being a struggling artist.
6. The Great Beauty (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
Brilliant from start to finish, Paolo Sorrentino’s majestic The Great Beauty is one of the highlights of the 2010s. It took home the Best Foreign Language Oscar and received a Criterion Collection signature of approval. This is a modern La Dolce Vita, a film with large scope and grandeur about triviality and a portrait of a place and a time that captures the attitudes of modern Rome’s fashionable party scene. The film’s narrative is certainly a tailspin of Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece about an aging writer who once wrote a great novel and now writes about the nightlife of Rome, but once he turns 65, he begins to have an existential epiphany and notices greater beauty than just superficial things. Both artful and extravagant, The Great Beauty is one of the most visually arresting films of the decade, a radiant film that is truly cinematic as it awes you with seductive imagery, intoxicating set pieces, and astonishing visual energy.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street (d. Martin Scorsese)
In his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has helmed an impressive feat with The Wolf of Wall Street about white collar crime that feels very much like a gangster film—minus the guns, murders, and hitmen—yet the crimes are every bit as cunning. DiCaprio delivered the greatest performance of his career as Jordan Belfort, a former Wall Street trader who opened up his own firm that specializes in “penny stocks” that exploited many gullible people into buying small shares that he convinced them were potentially huge companies that were eventually just worthless. His firm takes off, and he goes back to Wall Street, where the cash flow is very sudden. Scorsese has examined the corruption of the American Dream and how prosperity leads Jordan into self-destructive addictions and habits that involve alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes. The movie’s most impressive feat is the energy and techniques Scorsese brings back. The rocking soundtrack, the third wall-breaking voice-over narration that gives brilliant insights and details of what’s going on, along with impressive camera movements, delivered the Scorsese goods that many hadn’t gotten since Casino. The film is also fueled by excitement and great pacing, so that the 3-hour running time feels like a breeze. This is certainly the Scorsese film for the Gen-Z generation.
8. Before Midnight (d. Richard Linklater)
Before Midnight is the third chapter in Richard Linklater’s remarkable film series, a follow-up to the equally glorious Before Sunrise, which was released in 1995, and Before Sunset, which was released in 2004. Linklater released these films in nine-year intervals, which nowadays represents a whole cultural period in terms of overgrowing technical advances. In the third film that is now a trilogy, Linklater returns to his memorable, longtime romantic partners Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who are now married, have two twin daughters, and are at a crossroads with their careers. They contemplate their next movies, reminisce about their choices, and hold debates about what their lives would have been like if they didn’t reconnect. Out of the three films, Before Midnight holds the most character depth as it gets the emotional truths about aging, maturing, and marriage, and it’s a very idyllic film with some of the finest exchanges and characterizations Linklater has written yet.
9. Beyond the Hills (d. Cristian Mungui)
Romania’s Cristian Mungiu’s (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) return after his breakthrough “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is a wrenching and intense drama about love, faith, and tormented sexuality. The saga, which is about two young women who were raised together in an orphanage, ends up reconnecting years later. One has become a practicing nun at a Romanian convent, and the other moves there from Germany to get back on her feet, where she finds mass judgment from the fellow nuns and local priest. With wrenching drama, Mungui once again delivers a dramatically satisfying and rich story about the current milieu of Romania that can be quite emotionally charged and demanding. Nonetheless, the journey is worth the visit, and it’s a very powerful and shattering film about dogmatic extremism.
10. Bastards (d. Clarie Denis)
So often, many acclaimed and renowned filmmakers attempt to craft a film noir, and Claire Denis attempted a film noir with her 2013 film Bastards, and the results were unsettling. This is a deeply disturbing film about an unemployed dockworker (Vincent Lindon) who returns to Paris to seek answers on why his niece was sexually assaulted and left hospitalized. His investigation leads him to a wealthy businessman (Michel Subor) who is potentially behind her assault, in which he plots revenge on him while falling for his wife (Chiara Mastroianni). Both fascinating and shocking, it will certainly leave you engrossed, lost, and haunted all at the same time. Claire Denis defined the 2010s as she crafted one masterfully directed film after another. It was no surprise she delivered another essential masterwork with this one that once again consisted of dreamlike visuals and atmosphere as she transcended the noir genre into something more elliptical.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s unsettling documentary takes the opposite approach of most documentaries about human rights, as he allows the oppressors to talk and share their points of view. Not only does Oppenheimer allow them to talk, but he also explores their perspectives on what led to the persecution of their political enemies during the rise of Communism in the 1970s. By focusing on the militant group that was responsible for the execution of over 2,000 innocent political dissenters, Oppenheimer explores how their sudden explosions of violence were actually influenced by their love of Western culture, movies, and other forms of sensationalism. Oppenheimer’s documentary becomes a deeply terrifying exploration of trauma, persecution, and denial.
Blue Jasmine (d. Woody Allen)
A quaint melodrama in the vein of A Streetcar Named Desire Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine veered away from intellectuals and writers and crafted a film about working-class struggles and how one can lose all their wealth and privileges in an instant. With that, this is easily Allen’s most refreshing and notable film of the 2010s. It has all the existential despair merged with humor that’s associated with being a Woody Allen film. What could have felt uneven instead is balanced well with Allen’s mix of wit, tragedy, and melodrama. Cate Blanchett is truly magnetic here, and she is truly deserving of her Best Female Lead Actor Oscar win.
Frances Ha (d. Noah Baumbach) (2013)
Beautifully shot, sharply written, and witty, Noah Baumbach’s seventh feature and second collaboration with his partner Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha, is one of the most irresistible and delightful films of the decade. From the hilarious opening montage of two women running the streets of Lower Manhattan to the dramatic irony and poignant resolution, this film is a true indie gem. It’s also a complete ode to the French Nu Wave style of filmmaking and aesthetics that was pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in the early 1960s. The film has superb dialogue passages, elliptical montages, and stunning black-and-white photography. The film is an utterly joyful experience, thanks not only to Baumbach’s skillful co-writing and direction but also to Greta Gerwig’s writing and the charm she brings to the screen.
Fruitvale Station (d. Ryan Coogler)
Ryan Coogler made his explosive feature-directing debut with the factual-based drama Fruitvale Station, and Coogler went into bigger things with Creed and the blockbuster sensation Black Panther, yet it was Fruitvale Station that showcased his greatest depth. Coogler recreates a wrenching event of racial tension and senseless police brutality. Based on the events of 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Grant), who just got out of jail from San Quentin, he ends up reconnecting with his family, attempting to find a new job, and getting his life straight. On New Year’s Eve, flashbacks reveal what led to an altercation with the Oakland Police that ended in a tragic event that is based on true events. Upon the release of Fruitvale Station, we had a large array of films exploring police brutality, racial tensions, and other issues of social justice, but Fruitvale Station is easily one of the most essential films that touches on these subjects. It’s an emotionally charged piece of art and an undeniably powerful and moving film that will leave you shattered and heartbroken.
Like Someone in Love (d. Abbas Kiarostami)
The late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s second-to-last film titled Like Someone in Love was once again made outside his homeland and in Japan, and he crafted a zany screwball comedy with many dramatic overtones. Enmeshed in his meditative style and unpredictable storytelling. With superb camerawork by Japanese cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima (Sonatine, Battle Royal), ethereal visuals, and engaging character exchanges, Like Someone in Love creates a sad human story on human longing, loneliness, and possessiveness into a series of events that unfolds so unexpectedly. Telling its narrative about a retired literature professor who hires a young prostitute just for company, who ends up disguising himself as her grandfather after he meets her controlling boyfriend. Kiarostami film is quite a charm, one that ends abruptly, but he has always had life, which is a continuation type of meaning to his films. Revisiting this again made me realize just how much I miss Kiarostami’s artistry and just how he changed the way stories were told in cinema.
Spring Breakers (d. Harmony Korine)
Writer-director Harmony Korine is best known for bleak, idiosyncratic films that push the boundaries of shock cinema and exploitation. Spring Breakers is a hypnotic, dreamlike nightmare that holds a lot of truths about corrupted youth and the demoralization of the Generation Z party culture. One of the many qualities of the film is how Korine captures the feverish, surreal style and frames it like a dreamlike fantasy that slowly turns into a nightmarish realm. Korine explores the corruption of youth and the perversion of the American dream. Korine’s Spring Breakers is a remarkably made and expressionistic film that brings in savage and oblique social commentary on the decadence and hedonism that continue to trap the youth culture.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
All is Lost (d. J.C. Chandor)
American Hustle (d. David O. Russell)
The Bling Ring (d. Sofia Coppola)
Blue Caprice (d. Alexandre Moors)
Museum Hours (d. Jem Cohen)
Nebraska (d. Alexander Payne)
The Spectacular Now (d. James Ponsoldt)
Stories We Tell (d. Sarah Polley)
A Touch of Sin (d. Jia Zhang-ke)
The Wind Rises (d. Hayao Miyazaki
Other notable titles (In Alphabetical order): 20 Feet From Stardom, About Time, Ain’t Them Body Saints, Bad Grandpa, Blancanives, Captain Phillips, Computer Chess, Dallas Buyers Club, Dirty Wars, Drug War, Enough Said, Frozen, Gloria, The Grandmaster, The Hunt, Mud, Kill Your Darlings, Pain and Gain, Philomenia, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Room 237, The Selfish Giant, Short Term 12, Side Effects, Something in the Air, The Spectacular Now, The Square, Star Trek: Into Darkness, This is Martin Bonner, The Way Way Back,