The 50 Best Movies of 2013

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10. Muscle Shoals

Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. It’s thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not.—Michael Dunaway (review here)

9. Frances Ha

Director: Noah Baumbach
Frances Ha is endearing, kind and, in many ways, Noah Baumbach’s best movie to date. One could trace his films, from his debut (Kicking and Screaming) to his most recent (Greenberg) and see a slow but steady focus on the individual, as well as his abandonment of an ironic, sometimes caustic stance against the very characters he writes. It is as if Baumbach could only write a certain type of person—the privileged, socially crippled intellectual with either too much self-awareness or none at all—and for a while it seemed like even the writer himself couldn’t stand to be in the same room with such characters. This anger has faded, and what has emerged over his last few films, and culminated in Frances Ha, is an embrace of not only the flaws of his characters, but also his flaws as a filmmaker. He has settled down and created a film imbued with love, fun and melancholy. It feels simple and open and is a joy to watch.—Joe Peeler (review here)

8. Leviathan

Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
“The film is a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to.” That’s how co-director Véréna Paravel describes her documentary Leviathan, an utterly ravishing and pummeling impressionistic account of life on a high-seas fishing boat. Instead of storylines or talking-head interviews, Paravel and her partner Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s film simply plunges us into the terror and isolation of a brutal, dangerous job, its cameras diving into the ocean or following along as a fish gets caught in the net on its way to being gutted. You don’t learn many facts about commercial fishing from Leviathan, but you leave the movie convinced you understand it on a primal, cathartic level, which is how art sometimes works best.—Tim Grierson

7. Mud

Director: Jeff Nichols
Two years ago, Jeff Nichols turned heads at Sundance with his second film Take Shelter,as did his fast-rising stars Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. He was back this year, this time in the Spotlight section, with Mud, a coming-of-age thriller about two young boys who encounter a man on the run in rural Arkansas. It’s a sweet tale that displays plenty of faith in humanity without ever veering into sappiness and always keeping you on the edge of your seat—just the kind of thing you hope to find at a festival like Sundance. And Nichols once again coaxes amazing performances from his cast.—Josh Jackson (review here)

6. 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s exquisitely filmed, harrowing chronicle recounts the dozen years that Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spent as chattel in the Deep South with an unflinching eye that forces viewers to confront the horrors of slavery. 12 Years a Slave is frequently masterful—in its fluid, novelistic chronology; in its transcendent aesthetics; in its insistence on making you not only look, but see, until you’re left breathless. It’s slightly deflating then, that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. After all that’s come before, the ending, for all its well-earned emotion, goes exactly as one would expect, with none of the distress underlying the rest of the film—and thus none of the visceral reaction either.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

5. Upstream Color

Director: Shane Carruth
If Shane Carruth’s time-traveling debut Primer was about outthinking what you might do in the future, his second movie, Upstream Color, is about deciphering why you feel the way you do right now. This is not by any means an easy question to answer, and Carruth measures the distance from our actions to our understanding with all the confusion and swirls of emotion that accompany our worst decisions. He does so in a way that taps into some of the best elements of the current American moviescape—the editing is crisp and pushes the story along at a clip, the performances are naturalistic with an ear toward the cinematic, and the story takes genre conventions and turns them into idiosyncrasies. The result is an intense and almost uncomfortably personal film that doesn’t always make perfect sense, but which has such a grasp on both silent and modern cinema that it’s guaranteed to be considered by some the best movie of the year.—Joe Peeler (review here)

4. Blue Is the Warmest Color

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Three-hour movies usually are the terrain of Westerns, period epics or sweeping, tragic romances. They don’t tend to be intimate character pieces, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2) more than justifies its length. A beautiful, wise, erotic, devastating love story, this tale of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end utilizes its running time to give us a full sense of two individuals growing together and apart over the course of years. It hurts like real life, yet leaves you enraptured by its power.—Tim Grierson (review here)

3. Her

Director: Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialog delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package.—Scott Wold

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Inside Llewyn Davis is not the first time that the Coen brothers have portrayed a period of distinctly American music, but beyond that the film holds little in common with the elephant in the room, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. While music plays a crucial role in their latest work—in fact entire scenes are devoted to the performance of songs—for the Coens the point seems to be less about the music per se and more about documenting a particular moment in American history and specifically American themes. Whether it’s small-town murder, drug violence along the southern border, CIA paranoia, and now early ’60s folk music, the Coens have been masters of casting, plot and atmosphere. Inside Llewyn Davis continues their winning streak.—Jonah Flicker (review here)

1. Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater
Before Midnight concludes one of cinema’s great trilogies—assuming it stays a trilogy. Nine years from now, director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke could well revisit their characters from 1995’s Before Sunrise. But as it stands, they have built a beautiful study of life and love, each chapter of which stands on its own while adding emotional resonance to the other two.

2004’s Before Sunset saw Jesse and Celine re-connect in Paris for the first time since their magical night in Vienna, searching again for that rare, deep connection between two humans. Before Midnight spends another day with the characters, this time in Greece, but things are a little different. While they are still extremely connected to one another, additional people also command their attention and somewhat limit their personal time together.

Which doesn’t mean the two leads don’t converse. The series’ trademark intense, thoughtful and personal conversations remain. An early scene holds on one perfectly acted two-shot in a car for 13 minutes. The discussions are often as hilarious as they are engaging. Hangups, regrets and doubts have have become a greater part of Jesse and Celine’s lives, and the film reflects that. But it also reminds us what made the couple such a lovable pair that they could hold our interest for 20 years.—Jeremy Mathews (review here)