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The 50 Best Movies of 2013

December 31, 2013  |  11:31am
The 50 Best Movies of 2013

Any film year that boasts perhaps the best career efforts from directorial giants like Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze and the Coen Brothers is bound to be a good one. Possible “best of career so far” turns from from rising stars like Steve McQueen, Jeff Nichols, Shane Carruth and Noah Baumbach only strengthen the case. And when you throw in wildly polarizing films from masters like Alfonso Cuaron, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, and season it with a healthy dose of directorial debuts (including four of our top 20 films), you have an intriguing year indeed. Here are our 50 favorites.

50. The Wind Rises
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
With The Wind Rises, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) takes on more adult and worldly themes and steps into controversy as well. The crisp, scrumptious film tells a trippy yarn about endearing love and passion set against Japan’s rise as a war-machine aligned with Nazi Germany. Based on Miyazaki’s similarly titled manga (itself loosely based on a short story by Tatsuo Hori) Wind chronicles the life-long love of aeronautics and planes of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno), a real-life Japanese engineer during the Second World War era. In his dreams Jiro consults with the bigger-than-life Italian aviation mogul, Giovanni Battista Caproni (Nomura Mansai), but in his waking moments, consorts with Germans, and as a result often has nightmares about the destruction his inventions could bring. The heart of the film however, lies in Jiro’s unwavering love for Naoko (Miori Takimoto) who he meets during the great earthquake of 1923 and later wishes to marry as she falls ill with tuberculosis. The controversy stems from the film’s ostensible acquiescence to Japan’s long policy of denial (of infractions and atrocities during war and occupation). Ironic too that something so real, yet imbued with Miyazaki’s magically surreal imagery, would be the director’s last—or so that is what he has stated. An English dubbing is in the works for Touchstone’s stateside release with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt voicing the wartime lovers.—Tom Meek

49. Cold Turkey
Director: Will Slocombe
Ensemble dramedies that explore family dysfunction are nothing new. But Cold Turkey nails the drama and the comedy equally well, which is decidedly rarer. Plus it has a great cast—favorites like Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Sonya Walger (Lost) and Victoria Tennant (L.A. Story) are all excellent, as are indie stalwart Ross Partridge (The Off Hours) and newcomer (to me at least) Wilson Bethel. But the real joy of the film is watching the two outstanding lead performances. The directing great Peter Bogdanovich reminds us that he’s also a damn fine actor, with a wonderfully meandering, baffled performance as the patriarch of the family. And Alicia Witt may have turned in the best performance of her outstanding career here—she’s a wonder to behold as the high-spirited daughter Nina, who sweeps in like a hurricane to stir up every bit of the familial tension.—Michael Dunaway

48. This is the End
Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Too often, Hollywood comedies aimed at a male audience skew more towards the single-digit side of the age scale. Yet there’s a pretty potent distinction between puerile and “late-juvenile” humor. The former—all fart, poop and pratfall—is the stuff that the eye rolls of girlfriends and wives is made of (not to mention a good portion of Adam Sandler and Kevin James’ careers). But the latter, done right, is an equal opportunity amuser. (Oh, eyes may still roll, but they do so while laughing.) In This Is the End, Seth Rogen, James Franco and their band of the mostly usual suspects proves just how potent this rarer variant of comedy can be—and how much it, in turn, can benefit from the application of a little eschatological urgency.—Michael Burgin (review here)

47. Eden
Director: Megan Griffiths
Director Megan Griffiths presents the powerful true story of Chong Kim in her latest effort, Eden (alternatively titled The Abduction of Eden). The horrifying and unforgettable tale of a teenage girl kidnapped and forced into prostitution during the early ‘90s is presented as a drama, but also plays as a psychological thriller of sorts. Jamie Chung delivers a strong performance as Eden, an innocent victim at the beginning of the film, and a necessarily ruthless (and brilliant) survivor by the end. With a solid supporting cast (including Beau Bridges and Matt O’Leary) and a plot as compelling as the 2006 crime story Alpha Dog, Griffiths gives this haunting tale of human trafficking—right here in America—the cinematic treatment it deserves.—Shannon Houston

46. Shadow Dancer
Director: James Marsh
A woman’s betrayal of her family serves as the linchpin of the taut political drama Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). It’s set during “the Troubles” of the 20th century between Britain and Northern Ireland, when the era’s bloody violence often pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore families apart. Screenwriter Tom Bradby began the novel on which the film is based while he was a television correspondent in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. His perspective as a journalist balances the storytelling from both sides of the conflict, never forcing the audience pick a political ideology.—Christine Ziemba (review here)

45. The Gatekeepers
Director: Dror Moreh
Amazingly, Moreh conducted interviews with every single head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The access boggles the mind, and some of the stories are riveting. If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s one of bias—the film dwells on Israeli atrocities while mitigating its criticisms of Palestinian terrorism. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain. And it’s a technical tour de force—Moreh does things with still photos that I’ve never seen done in a film before.—Josh Jackson (review here)

44. The Past
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Farhadi’s new film, his sixth as a director, is The Past. Like his previous offering, the Oscar-winning A Separation, it concerns romantic relationships, family and the maddening inability to get a handle on the people around you. And once again, he is incredibly fair and generous to all his characters. Maybe a bit to a fault. Amongst a strong cast, the real revelation is Berenice Bejo. Probably best known as the charming love interest in The Artist, she does a wonderful job initially of concealing the depth of Marie’s torment and demons. Though a beautiful woman, Marie has real steeliness as well, and one only slowly comes to understand what in her life has made her acquire such toughness and a talent for self-preservation. Tahar Rahim, excellent in A Prophet, again plays a rough-around-the-edges man whose soulful eyes don’t entirely distract from a feeling that he can’t be fully trusted. And Ali Mosaffa may have the most difficult role of all as Ahmad, someone who has been thrust back into a hothouse where he must play the mediator between several different warring parties, to say nothing of coping with his own complicated feelings about seeing Marie and her children again after so long.—Tim Grierson (review here)

43. The Angels’ Share
Director: Ken Loach
Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share revisits the themes the prolific director first explored in 1969’s Kes and later in 2002’s Sweet Sixteen. With the number of unemployed young people reaching more than a million in Britain, here is a heist comedy set in the harsh reality of contemporary Glasgow, where youth who get off to a rough start see no way out and harbor no hope for the future. In an indirect indictment of a society that fails them, a small crew of petty criminals gets a fresh start by gaming the system rather than playing by the rules. This is a lot of territory to cover—introducing Robbie and his pals, initiating them into the world of whiskey, hatching and carrying out the scheme—and Loach does so leisurely. The central plot, as it were, isn’t even broached until almost an hour in. But as an examination of social situation—one that we can’t ignore now that we’ve grown to know and love the characters mired in it—The Angels’ Share is a stellar bit of activist cinema with a light touch.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

42. The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Some tragedies are so horrific that it’s hard to reconcile one’s belief in the basic decency of human beings with the atrocities that some of them have perpetrated. Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though: They’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.—Tim Grierson (review here)

41. Welcome to Pine Hill
Director: Keith Miller
Writer-director Keith Miller’s pseudo-documentary Welcome to Pine Hill mixes true, fictitious and embellished events as it follows its protagonist Abu (Shannon Harper) in the days following a bleak medical diagnosis. The reformed drug dealer, who now walks the straight and narrow, works as a claims adjuster by day and a bouncer by night. While remnants from his past life are still all around, Abu focuses on paying his debts, making peace with his fate and leaving behind the noise of New York City for the countryside of Pine Hill. An extension of Miller’s early short film “Prince/William” (which is needlessly tacked on at the beginning of the film), the highlight of the feature is the engaging performance of Harper, a non-actor in his first appearance in front of the camera. We hope that Welcome to Pine Hill isn’t his last.—Christine Ziemba

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