1. Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers was unfortunately misunderstood by both its target demographics. As the critics quickly dismissed it as smut, teenagers proved their point and tuned in merely to watch Disney starlets snort blow and hump frat-guys. Both missed that Harmony Korine’s dub-stepping Girls Gone Wild episode is actually a work of impressionistic gutter-poetry and the most profound satire of modern American youth culture since the new millennium. In the movie, four college girls rob their way to Florida’s annual bacchanal before coming under the tutelage of a wannabe gangster rapper. But how can a demon in gold teeth and cornrows corrupt them when the media has done it already, poisoning their minds with a barrage of hedonistic fantasies and violent obsessions? Spring Breakers is a haunting Faustian tragedy about narcissistic American brats who sell their souls for a good party.
2. 12 Years A Slave
No movie this year had more immediate impact than 12 Years A Slave. Steve McQueen’s historical drama recounts the real-life ordeal of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and soled into slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen has never shied away from difficult subject matter and here combines a period piece with a nightmarish vision of bondage and brutality that leaves audiences staggering. As barbaric plantation owners, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson magnify the inhumanity of slavery to biblical proportions. In the role of an abused slave girl, Lupita N’Yongo is the story’s gentle and broken heart. Cast as Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor makes the protagonist less a helpless prisoner than an essential witness to history. 12 Years A Slave stood out in 2013 as a vital document and a rousing protest against any-and-all institutionalized evil.
It’s momentous enough that Wadjda is the first motion picture to emerge from Saudi Arabia. That it was written and directed by a woman (Haifaa al-Mansour) only adds significance. But historic context doesn’t fully justify its inclusion here. Its greatness stems from the way its story compliments that context. It’s about a preteen girl in Riyadh who’s saving up to buy a bicycle, but bicycles are traditionally reserved for boys. Her mother and her strict headmistress both consider the innocent endeavor a small form of cultural dissidence. The girl’s defiance therefore provides a microcosmic analog for a world where women must shroud their faces in public and carpool with strangers since they’re forbidden to drive. Wadjda’s outwardly simple premise camouflages a brave critique of female oppression in Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal theocracy.
Lately, director Alexander Payne has established himself as American cinema’s foremost folk storyteller. Though none of his movies is quite as salt-of-the-earth as Nebraska, a dramedy about screwy geezer Woody Grant, who journeys across the Midwest to collect a million dollar prize that anyone knows is really a mailing subscription scam. Shot in sparse black and white, the cinematography captures the essence of decrepit small town America, where once-prosperous farmers have since grown lethargically rooted in the past. In one scene, Woody and his son David tour through Woody’s childhood home. Now a metaphor for the man himself, the house is ramshackle and abandoned, filled room-by-room with fractured memories. If Nebraska sounds depressing as hell, it’s really brimming with quirky humor, charming characters, and an endearing message about how we resent our parents, even as we spend our entire lives trying to really know them.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis carries the tune of a wistful musical and the offbeat rhythm of a broken record. Joel and Ethan Coen’s mournful ballad follows a hapless musician around Greenwich Village’s storied Sixties folk scene. Over the course of a week, Llewyn has a series of odd and repetitive misadventures that, under the sepulchral cloud of his singing partner’s recent suicide, start to feel like some psychotic time-loop. The movie is a meticulous recreation of a particular time and place, and a poignant drama about unresolved grief. However, it resonates most as an intimate portrait of a creative outsider—an existence the Coen brothers understand all too well. With soul-searching songs by T-Bone Burnett and a multi-talented performance by Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to the momentary pleasures and continual struggles of life as an artist.
Time will tell how prescient the movie Her actually is, but already it’s difficult to address Siri on an iPhone without thinking of Samantha, the seductive operating system and paramour to a nerdy greeting-card scribe in Spike Jonze’ science-fiction love-story. Though clearly about people’s growing reliance on technology, the movie goes even further than that, daring to re-imagine the concept of love as the advancements in sentient A.I. progress through the 21st century. Jonze asks whether a day will come when computers achieve such lucid cognizance that people prefer the company of machine to man. I believe Her’s most lasting accomplishment will be the character of Samantha (voiced to sultry perfection by Scarlett Johansson) who symbolizes the isolating vastness of a cyberspace we’ve only begun to explore.
7. Beyond The Hills
In 2013, director Cristian Mungiu followed-up his Palme d’or winner 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days with Beyond The Hills, a reality-inspired psychological drama about a secluded convent in the Romanian countryside where a young female visitor begins to exhibit the signs of incipient psychosis. To the priest and nuns, her behavior is the symptom of a supernatural possession, which motivates the commencement of some medieval exorcist ritual. It’s the wrong remedy for the right reasons, as we know that what the girl really needs is Xanax and a straitjacket. The mounting tension and portent of a horror film melds with cultural insight to make Beyond The Hills a trenchant observation on the uneasy collision of traditional and modern practices in parts of Eastern Europe.
8. Frances Ha
Forget the HBO series Girls, because the finest American work on bohemian post-grad ennui is Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s tale of a gleefully arrested would-be ballerina played with rhapsodic awkwardness by co-writer Greta Gerwig. Filmed in hipster-ish black and white, the film finds its heroine in an identity crisis after her best friend moves out of their apartment. At once lively and melancholy, the movie’s synthesis of tones can be summed up by two perfect scenes: when Frances dances down Manhattan streets to David Bowie’s Modern Love, and when she takes a spontaneous trip to Paris only to have a miserably lonely time. In a way, Frances becomes a stand-in for an entire generation of wandering dreamers. When asked by strangers what she does for a living, she has difficulty describing it. After all, she “doesn’t really do it”. Frances Ha knows anyone under twenty-five can relate.
9. Like Someone In Love
Iranian master Abbas Kiarastami continues globetrotting with the Japanese drama Like Someone In Love. It follows a retired university professor who hires a young escort merely for her company. The story arrives at a heart-pounding climax after the girl’s crazed fiancé threatens them, but most of the film transpires in automobiles (the director’s favorite location) as the characters aimlessly traverse Tokyo’s labyrinthine causeways. A heartbreaking study of broken connections, the film’s themes come into sharp relief during one shattering moment: the aforementioned call girl stands-up her visiting grandmother but asks that her cabbie drive by the spot where her forlorn relative waits alone. As she watches ruefully, the old woman’s anticipatory voicemails play eerily on her headphones.
10. All Is Lost
Robert Redford gives the finest performance of his career in All Is Lost. That assessment is doubly fascinating considering that 1) his character utters hardly a single word and 2) the legendary actor seems to be playing none other than Robert Redford, or any handsome seventy-year-old WASP. In the film, a lone yachter shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean. He then must utilize his wits and know-how to survive. JC Chandor’s minimalist adventure takes its allegorical cues from Hemingway (i.e. The Old Man And The Sea), but the director also adds a heady interpretive finale and a layer of consumerist indictment. The boat is punctured after colliding with a floating storage container carrying sneakers. Is Nature finally getting the best of him, or was Man ironically the architect of his own destruction?
Honorable Mentions: Fruitvale Station, The Past, The Selfish Giant, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Gravity