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15 Best Films of 2013
It's been an incredible year for cinema, here's what Tom considered to be the cream of the crop.

Here they are, the main event. As you could see from last week's runners-up column, this has been a spectacular year for motion pictures. All fifteen of these titles are nearly interchangeable at this point, all of them worthy of being considered the best work of 2013. That said, even having had enough ammo to run a year-end best of that ran thirty titles deep, there was still plenty I wasn't able to see in time. So The Wind Rises, The Wolf of Wall Street, Beyond the Hills, Blue is the Warmest Color, Spring Breakers, The Conjuring, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, The Past and countless others aren't on this list not for lack of quality, but of time.

15.  Nebraska
It yet again speaks as a testament to the deluge of quality titles released this calendar year that Alexander Payne could release his most consistent work since 1999's Election and only have it just barely make the cut. Some of his previous work has skewed towards grotesquerie when dealing with 'simple folk', but Nebraska approaches the majority of its characters (even the most broadly sketched) with generous reservoirs of sympathy.  Bruce Dern gives an amazing, trans-formative performance in the lead but it's June Squibb as his put-upon wife who proves to be the film's secret weapon. Just a lovely film top to bottom, that blossoms slowly over its run time like a beautiful, delicate flower.

14.            Mud
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is carving quite the niche out for himself on the independent film scene with his immaculately performed and effortlessly tense slices of Americana. Having already given us a Shakespearean tale of rural familial bonds with Shotgun Stories and an incisive character study of a man who may or may not be imagining an oncoming cataclysm in Take Shelter, he moves here to the coming-of-age tale with Mud. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of mesmerizing work with a host of amazing directors, but Tye Sheridan and Jacob Loflin's work as Ellis and Neckbone, the two young men who discover McConaughey's titular drifter evading bounty hunters on a small island while biding his time before being reunited with his true love, are what really make the picture hum. More optimistic and open-hearted than his previous work, Nichols shows new dimensions to his filmmaking here that make it all the more exciting to follow his fast-developing oeuvre.

13.            12 Years A Slave
Ignore all the talk of the film either being too emotionally restrained or too visually striking to properly capture the subject of slavery, Steve McQueen's monumental achievement is one of the most carefully designed works of art to be released this year. The intensely beautiful, bucolic imagery only heightens the emotional dissonance by being set against heinous acts of brutality. Nowhere is this more explicit than the amazing sequence in which Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup struggles to maintain his tip-toe balance on an unceasingly changing terrain while hanging from a noose, as life on the plantation continues unabated around him on a beautiful picturesque day. The emotional wallop that McQueen and his pitch-perfect cast is able to pack comes not from performative histrionics or naked pleas for your sympathy, but in the realization that an image of a covert letter burning down to its final embers in the dark of night contains beauty and despair in multitudes that words simply cannot express.

12.            Stoker
It proved to be a strong year for South Korean imports to the US filmmaking scene, with both Kim Jee -Woon's The Last Stand and Chan-Wook Park's Stoker proving their respective directors infinitely capable of translating their talents for audiences overseas. Park in particular should be lauded for bringing his special brand of perverse Hitchcockian thrillers stateside without diluting the content one iota. This, like Mud, is a coming-of-age tale, but its endgame is far less hopeful than that of Nichols' film.  Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode are deliciously good as India Stoker and her mysterious Uncle Charlie, with Wasikowska ably capturing India Stoker's emotional and sexual awakening despite the red flags thrown up by her increasingly sinister blood kin. Park created a visually dynamic riff on Hitchockian tropes without devolving into hollow homage, instead forging its own way as a singular work of macabre brilliance.

11. Gravity
Let's not wait nearly so long for Alfonso Cuaron to bring us his next visionary masterpiece, okay? The seven year gap between Gravity and Children of Men was agonizing, and Cuaron's ability to evolve the very language by which cinema speaks as his career develops is astonishing. Managing effortlessly to place the audience right alongside George Clooney's Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone as they desperately struggle to survive a constantly evolving nightmare scenario and find their way back to Earth. Cuaron stages one unforgettable set piece after the other throughout, without sacrificing the emotional connection between audience and character that so many summer blockbusters carelessly sever in the service of hollow spectacle. Telling a classical Hollywood story of one deeply grieving woman's journey towards choosing life without diluting the film's intensity one iota shows that there may be no limit to what Cuaron is capable of as a director.  Now let's make sure we get another one by 2015, okay?

10.            Stories We Tell
You may remember that I referred to The Act of Killing in my runners-up column as the most important documentary of the year. That's because I was saving the designation of 'best' for Sarah Polley's incredible portrait of the complex and knotty story behind her very existence. Both emotionally and formally daring, Polley lays her family's dirty laundry bare for the whole word to see. The film evolves in directions you couldn't possibly expect, and it's safe to say that Polley's filmmaking acumen continues to develop just as uniquely. She made a series of daring choices here (beginning with choosing to tell this story in the first place), and they all pay off. As emotionally draining of a documentary as you'll ever see, Stories We Tell is a wonderful tribute to family and proof that no matter what Polley makes next, it will be appointment viewing.

9.               The Spectacular Now
In a particularly strong year for coming-of-age pictures (you've already seen many on my list, and films such as The Way Way Back and The Kings of Summer were also rock-solid entries into the genre), The  Spectacular Now was easily the strongest. The chemistry between leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley is the kind you don't come across often, an effortless connection that makes the jobs of the writer and director that much easier.  That James Ponsoldt (Smashed) was every bit up to the task of matching the authenticity of his leads with subdued, brilliant direction is what jettisoned this film into my top ten of 2013. Teller embodies Sutter, with his omnipresent spiked Big Gulp, to an astonishing degree and the film never looks at Woodley's Aimee as a prop towards Sutter's self-actualization, giving her a rich and well-defined interior life outside of the romantic coupling at the film's center. Great supporting performances from Kyle Chandler (Sutter's deadbeat father and fast-approaching future if he doesn't make life changes), Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bob Odenkirk (who each share a scene with Teller towards the film's conclusion that are uniquely heart-rending) help bolster the bonafides of this heartfelt work.

8.               Cheap Thrills

I hope and pray that Cheap Thrills will make its way to Milwaukee as part of its platform release through Drafthouse Films this upcoming March.  E.L. Katz has crafted a wickedly funny thriller that demands to be seen with a large audience, a wonderful pitch black offering that I'm loathe to spoil for you in any way, shape or form. Ethan Embry and Pat Healy play two long-lost high school friends reunited on one of the lowest nights of Healy's life. It's there that they run across a strange married coupled played by Sara Paxton and David Koechner whose massive reserves of cash and amoral sense of fun lead all four on a night-long journey into the heart of darkness. The whole thing feels like an intensely cinematic adaptation of a stage play, with a sense of escalation unmatched by any film this entire year.  Although it only played on the festival circuit this year, this film deserves to be a massive hit for Drafthouse Films and is one I will definitely be trumpeting the closer and closer we get to a wider release date.

7.               Inside Llewyn Davis
A Coen Brothers release is pretty much guaranteed of a year-end list position so long as they continue making them (and so long as they continue not to be The Ladykillers), and of all the films on this list, Llewyn Davis is the one most capable of moving further and further up in my estimation over time. The most deviously structured concoction the Coens have ever brought forth, by virtue of which the film operates like a grief-fueled Ouroboros, this melancholy chronicling of a folk musician's professional and personal tragedies shows Joel and Ethan to be ever in control of the language of filmmaking. They continue to craft characters effortlessly, with the feeling that we'd be given an equally enthralling film if we chose to follow any of its numerous colorful side characters on their particular journey. But it's Oscar Isaac's soulful lead performance as a character who may or may not be an incorrigible asshole that anchors the picture. Llewyn's self-defeating behavior hit closer to home than I'd probably care to admit, and the film's washed-out cinematography and carefully curated soundtrack only amplify Llewyn's struggles.  This is a profound, acerbic work that will stick to your ribs long after the end credits have rolled.

6.               Upstream Color
Shane Carruth nearly got chewed up in the gears of Hollywood's mid-level budget machinery in the years between this astonishing work and the release of his Sundance sensation Primer, but luckily he escaped with his vision intact and looks primed (see what I did there) to make intensely personal movies for the rest of his career without the fingerprints of test screenings and creative compromises marring his output. His wildly tactile second feature isn't as narratively knotty as many reviews would lead you to believe – events unfurl in a reasonably logical progression, it's more the matter of what these events mean to you that should be the cause of much deliberation.  Matters of identity and control are at the forefront of this story, following two people who have a shared experience of losing themselves entirely and are in the process of trying to rebuild a foundation on which to continue living.  Amy Seimetz and Carruth are magnetic as the leads, and if you're at all on the same wavelength as the film is operating on here, this will prove to be a profound experience. And even if you're not, the craft on display (from sound design to shot selection to score) will be enough to carry you through.

5.               Short Term 12
Destin Cretton's sophomore feature length effort is a miracle – a testament to the tiny ways we save one another on a daily basis, and how the work of how forgiving one's self and coming to terms with the endless parade of indignities both large and small we accrue over our lifetimes is a project never-ending.  Brie Larson inhabits the role of Grace (the manager of this short term foster care facility) wholly and her performance is nothing short of revelatory. John Gallagher Jr.'s work as her co-counselor and fiancee is equally triumphant, allowing for moments of levity and beauty in a story that never succumbs to melancholia. In lesser hands, this story would've proven too saccharine or too melodramatic, but Cretton strikes the perfect tone that allows for the agony and the ecstasy involved in this line of work (all of the performances from the kids are uniformly remarkable, by the way) where every tiny kindness explodes in one's heart with the ferocity of a landmine.

4.               Her
I'll refrain from saying too much, as this film will be coming to the Milwaukee area soon enough, but Spike Jonze's latest feature is the next in a long line of career masterpieces and one in a long line of intellectually challenging and deeply moving sci-fi pictures to come out this year.  Joaquin Phoenix drops the mic with his performance here,  between this and last year's work in The Master I feel comfortable saying he's doing the best work of any performer currently working today.  That Scarlett Johannsson is able to match his performance without ever being seen (she is the voice of Phoenix's artificially intelligent OS installed on his phone that he falls in love and eventually develops a relationship with), and also having given this performance after filming was complete (she replaced Samantha Morton, who played off of Phoenix's performance on set) is nothing short of astonishing.  This is a beautiful reflection on where we are as a society today, moving beyond facile observations about how our personal connections are being replaced by virtual ones and digging in deeply to a heartfelt story about how love takes root in our mind and the heartbreaking ways in which people can outgrow each other.

3.               Before Midnight
There would've been no shame in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke all choosing to leave well enough alone and end their artistic collaboration on the ambiguously hopeful note struck by Before Sunset.  That they didn't do so has gifted us with an enormously moving portrait of an evolving relationship that ups the dramatic stakes of the two previous entries without sacrificing the love we've developed for both Jesse and Celine. That a film could remain hopelessly romantic while also showcasing the most emotionally bruising spousal throw-down this side of Contempt shows just how in control this creative trio is. Anyone whose been in a long-term relationship will find elements to sympathize with here, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay this masterwork is that I have no compunctions about waiting for another decade to be gifted another beautiful, knowing episode in the lives of these wonderful characters.

2.               Frances Ha
An effervescent work of genius that perfectly unites Noah Baumbach's black-and-white New Wave/Woody Allen aesthetics with Greta Gerwig's marvelous lead performance as an un-moored millennial struggling to make sense of life and love in New York City. Gerwig has never been better (and considering she's never been anything less than great, that really means something), and Baumbach ably captures the neuroses of a young woman despairing at the idea that all of her peers are growing away from her over time. There's two trips that Frances makes over the course of this movie, both of which operate as beautiful short films on their own, but when taken in the context of this wryly observational character study, it elevates the material beyond one's wildest expectations.

1.               The World's End
Comedy is hard.  While the academy is loathe to admit it, and year-end recaps rarely celebrate them, we need to start from that basic premise. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost have been able to not only make three brilliant comedies (and one brilliant TV show) over the course of their decade-long collaboration, they've also been able to balance the comedic aspects of their work with genuine observations about life and a dynamic visual style unmatched by any modern filmmakers. The World's End is the grand finale of their self-described “Cornetto Trilogy”, a series of films whose unifying factors run far deeper than the tasty ice cream shared across all three, and is easily the most meaningful work they've developed in collaboration before. It's a uniquely complex work, both showcasing a sobering portrait of one man's alcoholism while at the same time giving birth to the most persuasive portrait of drunken revelry between friends that I've seen on the big screen in quite some time.  Simon Pegg's Gary King (career-best work, by the way) may be trying to recreate a past that never existed, but the film comes down resoundingly on the side of such messy, stupid,  and self-destructive humanity (as made clear during the brilliant finale). It's a work of hilarity, maturity and meaning that balances genre concerns (the drunken fight choreography here is a marvel!)  alongside belly laughs and meaningful observations as to the nature of friendship as life inexorably moves on. It's a balance no one else could pull off in a movie, and its why I've chosen The World's End as the year's best.

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