The 50 Best Movies of 2013

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20. This is Martin Bonner

Director: Chad Hartigan
One of the best things to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Chad Hartigan’s (Luke and Brie Are on a First Date) sophomore feature transcends its commonplace premise—two seemingly different outsiders (Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette, both outstanding) forge an unlikely and meaningful bond—with exceptional formal acuity and a mature seriousness about life itself. Where many of his contemporaries are more often than not writing about characters their own age, Hartigan, 31, deserves credit for crafting two credible, perceptive portraits of middle-aged men on the verge of fading into seclusion. The movie’s power comes from its thoughtful accumulation of behavioral detail: the way Eenhoorn paces, pauses and pivots as he speaks to his daughter on the phone; the tranquil joy he gets out of lighting a photo of an antique before uploading it to eBay; and, best of all, a graceful 360-degree pan across a Reno highway as Arquette, after spending a dozen years in prison, takes in the city for the very first time.—Danny King

19. The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese
It’s tempting to compare The Wolf of Wall Street with that other famous ode to financial district excess, Wall Street. But though the two films share one layer of message—behold the high-flying lifestyle loose morals and shaky ethics can bring you in the land of stocks!—Scorsese’s film is a meaner, more cynical and, worst of all, probably truer vision of the lifestyles of the rich, dissolute and famous. (Oliver Stone’s 1987 film seems quaintly naive by comparison.) The Wolf of Wall Street lacks even the pretense of a moral center—with the exception of some half-hearted, mopey warnings from his dad (Rob Reiner), Belfort has no real conscience. Even Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who pursues and catches him—an ideal opportunity to give a face to the people Belfort has scammed—seems little more than an inconvenient party pooper. Not content with the implicit message contained in the lightness of Belfort’s punishment, Scorsese even rubs it in a bit with a final look at Denham riding home on the subway.—Michael Burgin (review here)

18. Fruitvale Station

Director: Ryan Coogler
A prizewinner at Sundance and Cannes, Fruitvale Station is inspired by the last day of 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s life. Very early on New Year’s Day 2009, the Bay Area resident was returning with some buddies and his girlfriend to Oakland from San Francisco on the BART when an altercation on the train resulted in cops detaining Oscar and killing him. But Coogler’s feature debut only delves into those events at the very end—the bulk of the film is about the life Oscar was leading before his death. Aided by a strong supporting cast, Michael B. Jordan is quite good at making Oscar believably low-key and mundane. Coogler never lets the audience forget that Oscar had no idea his life was ending on that day, and Jordan gives the character an agreeable nonchalance, his worries only extending as far as finding a job and trying to put some distance between himself and his old ways. Intriguingly, Fruitvale Station argues that Oscar wasn’t really that special—he was just an average guy. And so the movie’s lack of grandness is quite appropriate: In its modest way, the film reminds us that nobody is really that special—but that we all still deserve better than what happened to Oscar.—Tim Grierson (review here)

17. At Berkeley

Director: Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, a filmmaker who has spent his career diligently and perceptively documenting institutions, whether they be mental hospitals (Titicut Follies) or French burlesque clubs (Crazy Horse). At Berkeley is one of his best, and one of his longest: a four-hour examination of the University of California at Berkeley that chronicles everything from administrative meetings to classroom lectures. With Wiseman’s trademark restraint—rather than interviewing his subjects, Wiseman simply stands back and observes them in their natural habitat—he asks us to consider the college experience as a microcosm for the world with its warring philosophies and agendas. And if Wiseman’s thesis is accurate, we live in a pretty remarkable world.—Tim Grierson

16. Sun Don’t Shine

Director: Amy Seimetz
Amy Seimetz’s direction, like her acting, doesn’t announce its greatness full-throated, yelling at the top of its lungs for the audience’s acknowledgement. And the style of her directorial debut, Sun Don’t Shine, won’t be to everyone’s liking—a sort of Malick-esque post-mumblecore mood piece. But patient viewers will be rewarded with some of the deepest rewards of the year. The pacing of the film, which seems needlessly pensive at first, begins to draw you deeper and deeper into the story. Every sun-soaked shot seems rich with meaning. And the striking performances she coaxes from her leads, Kate Sheil and Kentucker Audley, are subtle masterpieces. Seimetz has been an actress to watch for several years now. But in 2013 she gave notice that she’s also a director to be reckoned with, for years to come.—Michael Dunaway

15. Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

14. To the Wonder

Director: Terence Malick
It’s nearly impossible to consider To The Wonder outside of its relation to director Terence Malick’s 2011 towering The Tree of Life. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Wonder had one of two reactions—”It’s too much like Tree of Life, which I didn’t like,” or “It’s not enough like Tree of Life,” which I loved. Full disclosure—the first time I saw the film, I was in camp number two. It seemed like Tree lite to me, and although it was beautiful, I didn’t see the point. “To the Twirling,” a friend called it derisively, and although I felt guilty doing so, I laughed and kinda sorta agreed. But then Richard Brody wrote not one, but two penetrating analyses of the film in the New Yorker that began to turn me around. I watched the film a second time and was profoundly moved, tears streaming down my face. Although it doesn’t have the mythic sweep of The Tree of Life (and, outside 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Seventh Seal, what film does?), the questions it asks are no less epic. Yes, there’s twirling, and ponderous voiceover, and lots of long takes of nature. But if you don’t like those, you shouldn’t have come to this dance in the first place. I’m incredibly grateful to have To the Wonder back in my life.—Michael Dunaway

13. Let the Fire Burn

Director: Jason Osder
On May 13, 1985, a deadly altercation broke out in Philadelphia between police and a radical organization called MOVE, resulting in 11 deaths and the destruction of several city blocks. First-time filmmaker Jason Osder’s riveting documentary brilliantly re-creates that day entirely through live local broadcasts and a televised city hearing months later that investigated who was at fault. Let the Fire Burn is a found-footage landmark that presents a troubling commentary on race relations in America that remain distressingly unresolved. Perhaps even more impressively, though, Osder’s film doubles as a moving, engrossing courtroom thriller populated with unexpected heroes and fascinating, nuanced insights into how human beings behave in a crisis.—Tim Grierson (review here)

12. Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine
Watching James Franco in Spring Breakers, one has to ask: Is this a put-on? But the scarier question is, What if it’s not? The brilliance of his portrayal of Alien, a Scarface-aspiring dirt-bag, is that no matter how outlandishly over-the-top it goes—“Look at my shit!”—there remains a deeply unsettling edge to the performance that suggests a white-trash nightmare who could do real damage to those around him. We laugh at Franco as Alien, but the laughs get stuck in our throat: Just like the movie, his performance is a wickedly satiric look at our worst impressions of youth culture—until it gets so frighteningly real that we’re left dazed and amazed.—Tim Grierson (review here)

11. Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Gravity is a revelatory, stunning cinematic experience. That’s more than enough to make it a great film, and a groundbreaking one, and yet director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest work can’t help but feel a bit disappointing at the same time. So much expertise and vision have been brought to bear, but in some ways the movie’s greatness only makes its flaws more noticeable. Gravity gets so close to being the astounding achievement it wants to be that it’s heartbreaking to watch it fall just short.—Tim Grierson
(review here)