From lesbian love to starving artists, the best films of 2013

7 min

2013 provided an unusually deep roster of excellent movies, including a shattering lesbian romance, a portrait of a 1960s folk singer, a drama about slavery, and a visual poem about love and faith. FRANCE 24’s film critic offers his picks.


This year, we were spoiled.

Terrific movies started hitting theatres* early on, and kept coming -- one after the other, and sometimes in daunting clusters -- for the next 11 months.

For those who regularly decry the state of cinema, or compare it unfavourably to television, it’s worth repeating: 2013 offered an embarrassment of riches on the big screen – so many that I’ve included not just a breakdown of my 10 favourites, but also a list of another sixteen titles I wish I could find room for in the top tier.

If some of the strongest living directors (Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne and David O. Russell) filed films that were good rather than great, there were major new works from established auteurs such as Abdellatif Kechiche, the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick, Jia Zhangke, Woody Allen and Frederick Wiseman. Meanwhile, less tested talents like Steve McQueen and Xavier Dolan proved, dazzlingly, what they were capable of, and two of America’s finest “indie” filmmakers, Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener, spun invigorating variations on old obsessions.

Many of the movies I loved in 2013 were grand in scale and almost brazen in their ambition, tackling thorny subjects, wrestling with big ideas or spanning years (and often lengthy running times). Others pushed buttons and boundaries, both stylistic and thematic. Some were just fun.

There were triumphs in all genres and registers, from existential comedy (“Inside Llewyn Davis”, “The Great Beauty”) to naturalistic drama (“Fruitvale Station”, “Our Children”, “I Used To Be Darker”), historical epic (“12 Years a Slave”) to character study (“Blue Jasmine”, “Frances Ha”, “Afternoon Delight”), documentary (“At Berkeley”, “Stories We Tell”) to neo-noir (“Bastards”), politically charged rumination (“A Touch of Sin”) to road movie (“Crystal Fairy”) to survival tale (“All is Lost”). There were also films that were blissfully unclassifiable (“Spring Breakers”, “Computer Chess”).

Above all, it was a superlative year for love stories. “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, “To the Wonder”, “Laurence Anyways”, “Enough Said”, “Before Midnight”, “Cutie and the Boxer”, “Drinking Buddies”, “The Spectacular Now” and “Her”, though wildly different in form and narrative approach, shared an uncommon feel for, and curiosity about, the joys, cruelties and complexities of romantic entanglement.

Here are my picks for the year’s best movies.

1. “Blue is the Warmest Colour” (Abdellatif Kechiche)

When the dust settles, Kechiche’s deep, devastating exploration of first love, heartbreak, and socioeconomic differences in today’s France will stand as a classic. And the director -- his relentless, but compassionate camera pulling us right into Adèle’s material and spiritual worlds – and astonishingly committed and intuitive leading ladies, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, will be proud of what they created: the most emotionally immersive film in years, possessed of the texture, sweep and staying power of a great novel.

2. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Joel and Ethan Coen)

The other masterwork of 2013 is a mournful, mordant portrait of an artist who might have been, a talented singer (the wonderful Oscar Isaac) struggling to launch his solo career in 1960s Greenwich Village just before Bob Dylan swept through and stole the show. It’s also the Coen brothers’ best film yet, blending their trademark irony with layers of warmth, mystery and regret, echoed in the glorious folk tunes. The movie is as spry and visually ravishing as anything they’ve done, but it has an ache that feels new.

3. “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen)

The director’s previous two films (“Hunger” and “Shame”) were sterile exercises in aestheticised suffering. But this one -- the soul-shaking true story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery – connects powerfully, the tableau-like beauty of its images rendering the horror of what’s going on within them that much more vivid and upsetting. McQueen and his superb ensemble (minus a distracting Brad Pitt) bring us right into the moment-to-moment nightmare of a slave’s life, and brilliantly illustrate a system that poisoned everyone involved.

4. “To the Wonder” (Terrence Malick)

The most unjustly maligned film of the year found Malick delving into the crises of intimacy and faith plaguing the relationship between a free-spirited European and her stoic Oklahoman husband. Abstract, elliptical and unabashed in its lyricism (Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams among the buffalo was the single most rapturous shot of the year), the movie is an example of a director single-mindedly pursuing his formal and personal obsessions. It’s also a startlingly lucid examination of the lonely spaces that can open up between people in a couple.

5. “Laurence Anyways” (Xavier Dolan)

In this under-seen stunner, 24-year-old Québecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan uses his baroque style (slow-mo, bursts of music, candy-coloured visual patterns) to convey the volcanic inner states of a male cross-dresser and his long-suffering girlfriend (Suzanne Clément, in one of the year’s best performances). Not everything works, but the film is excitingly bold, overripe with pain and passion, and unafraid to dig into tricky questions of gender, identity, society and love.

6. “A Touch of Sin” (Jia Zhangke)

A scorching four-segment examination of violence, corruption and capitalism in current-day China, Jia Zhangke’s film portrays a vast, rugged country of snakes, sandstorms, sex workers, impoverished villages and exploited citizens pushed to acts of destruction. The director plays with various genres (western, crime film, martial arts flick, and romantic melodrama), conjuring images of terror and sensuality that sear themselves into your memory.

7. “Blue Jasmine” (Woody Allen)

It may not be one of his all-time greats, but Allen’s latest has a satisfying dramatic heft and a haunting timeliness. The impressive, tightrope-like feat managed by the director and his mesmerising diva of a leading lady, Cate Blanchett, is their ability to elicit continually evolving, and sometimes simultaneous, responses to the film’s financially ruined socialite: disgust, schadenfreude, amusement, affection, and, finally -- as she teeters on the brink of madness -- compassion.

8. “Frances Ha” (Noah Baumbach)

Yes, OK, hipsters are annoying. But in his glowing comedy, Baumbach observes the passive-aggressive social behaviours and private yearnings of over-educated, under-employed young Brooklynites with an infectious fondness. The black-and-white cinematography, ambling structure and music owe much to the French New Wave. Yet as a portrait of a twenty-something who stumbles, and then picks herself up, on her belated journey toward adulthood, the film has a charm and rhythm all its own.

9. “Enough Said” (Nicole Holofcener)

The best romantic comedy of the year, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a gently magnetic James Gandolfini as middle-aged divorcees who tiptoe into a relationship, gets off to an inauspicious start before blossoming into something unexpectedly sharp and soulful. Holofcener transcends the predictable misunderstandings and coincidences of the plot with the precision of her dialogue and the richness of her insights into loneliness and letting go – of children, exes, illusions, pride and anxieties about ourselves and others.

10. “At Berkeley” (Frederick Wiseman)

The four-hour running time is intimidating, but Wiseman’s documentary provides a fascinating look at the triumphs, troubles and contradictions at the heart of America’s best public university. Without voiceover or talking heads, the director offers fly-on-the-wall access to various facets of campus life -- from Thoreau seminars to lectures on cancer, dance recitals to football games, meetings presided over by the chancellor to workers laying cement – culminating in a student protest that’s the most gripping climax in any film this year.

And the next sixteen, in alphabetical order:

“Afternoon Delight”

“All is Lost”


“Before Midnight”

“Computer Chess”

“Crystal Fairy”

“Cutie and the Boxer”

“Drinking Buddies”

“Fruitvale Station”

“The Great Beauty”


“I Used To Be Darker”

“Our Children”

“The Spectacular Now”

“Spring Breakers”

“Stories We Tell”

* This list is compiled from films that were released in the US in 2013.

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