In such volatile cinematic times, it can be difficult to hone a definitive best-of list, and this was a year of great movies—and terrible ones, too, but that list is perhaps more self-explanatory. (Anyone see The Internship?) Below are ten of 2013’s most striking films, alongside four others that were worth the price of popcorn and worth staying awake for.
1. 12 Years a Slave. Rare is the movie worthy of all its accolades; 12 Years a Slave is that movie. Director Steve McQueen has made a work of unflinching immediacy and humanity, anchored by starmaking performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, and making every frame as lush as its subject matter is grim. It’s wrenching, beautiful and absolutely one of the best films of the year.
2. Upstream Color. An Impressionist puzzle box, Upstream Color (written, directed, scored by and co-starring Shane Carruth) is a wildly imaginative, occasionally unfathomable film that portrays recovery from trauma and the world’s many interlaced unknowns through a piecemeal, halting love story featuring supernatural pigs. Those looking for clues that neatly add up will be disappointed; this is a world of wondrous chaos, where it’s sometimes more important to have mysteries than answers.
3. The Past. A man arriving to sign divorce papers, a woman hoping to remarry and three children adrift: It’s close quarters ripe for repressed fights, half-apologies and the agitation of secrets among deeply flawed characters desperate to find peace in the present. As with 2011’s A Separation, director Asghar Farhadi excels at naturalism—though there’s something of a mystery here—and The Past is most alive in its quiet moments. It’s a gripping, suitably messy gem.
4. Stoker. Bursting with all the atmospheric, symbolic detail Park Chan-wook can muster, this noir fable (loosely based on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) is a wry take on domestic horror as restless India loses her father and meets Uncle Charlie, whose presence awakens her curiosity about family ties and her own dark potential. Mia Wasikowska delivers a welcome edge to her ingenue, and Matthew Goode finally gets to be the creep he was born to be.
5. Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis (tie). Hollywood often seems compelled to provide overtly sympathetic leads. Enter Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis, both about deeply recognizable people who can still be hard to watch. Frances registers a notch lighter, its modern-dance heroine aimlessly paddling into adulthood. Inside Llewyn Davis lives in the shadow of Davis’ potential, yearning to care for a hero who can’t bring himself to care about much of anything but (perhaps) music. As companion pieces, they part ways on the idea of achievable happiness, but carry common threads: Art as transformative but probably impossible, and the world as inherently (and hilariously) beyond understanding.
6. Byzantium. After Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan waited 20 years for another bloodsucking flick; as before, his main concern is family driven to the brink. Clara scrapes a living with animistic determination, while dreamy daughter Eleanor longs to share the secrets of their itinerant, bloody existence. Supporting fantastic leads with critique of male power echelons and occasionally patchy B-movie abandon, Byzantium is far more than the sum of its parts.
7. Blackfish. Teeming with dread and half-seen things, Blackfish is a documentary that feels like a horror movie. Following Tilikum, a killer whale responsible for the deaths of three trainers at Sea World, the film lays bare the brutality behind their captivity for show, from illegal whaling to despicable living conditions. It’s so chilling a case that, in its wake, Sea World’s attendance has plummeted.
8. Gravity. The most visually breathtaking space effects this year focused only a few miles over Earth orbit, as Sandra Bullock ably led this one-woman thriller about stranded astronaut in which the enemy is ... everything. The script lobbed its share of 101 clunkers (particularly from supporting act George Clooney), but that pales in comparison to its unrelenting pace and Alfonso Cuarón’s fantastic sense of unspooling panic against a backdrop of interstellar calm. Bullock’s breathing alone will raise your blood pressure.
9. The Act of Killing. It took nearly six years for Joshua Oppenheimer to gather footage for this documentary, in which death-squad leaders from the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 are asked to recreate their experiences on film. In several cases, their initial forcibly-blasé facades begin to crumble as they work on surreal Western, musical and noir takes on their killings, and questions of personal responsibility begin to haunt them. The eventual films-on-film are revealing, the process staggering and the impact undeniable.
10. Beyond the Hills. Loosely based on a true story of a botched exorcism in Romania, Cristian Mungiu directs a spare, mythic story of inevitable doom. Cosmina Stratan as devoted Voichita and Cristina Flutur as volatile Alina have a palpable bond we know can’t hold—and Mungiu’s visual world-building, in which the wilderness (captured in evocative glimpses) stands in telling opposition to the rigid convent life that closes in around Alina—promise an unforgettable third act when the film’s nearly-unbearable tension snaps at last.
Four other films worth noting:
• Room 237, in which Kubrickians discuss alternate reads on his 1980 classic The Shining, a portrait of respectfully obsessive detail and interpretation of art.
• Pacific Rim, whose nonsense robot/monster fights fronted a sold B-movie teamwork yarn with Mako Mori and Stacker Pentecost in the invisible Jaeger, Stealth Protagonist.
• Leviathan, an immersive fishing documentary not for the weak of stomach.
• Europa Report, a pared-down sci-fi thriller that made being eaten by a sea monster on a Jovian moon seem inspirational.