Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir’s top ten reflects what an interesting and diverse slate of films released in 2013:
1. “Stories We Tell” Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has sneakily become one of the best young filmmakers in North America, and this subtle, heartbreaking documentary proves it. Masquerading as a straightforward family memoir about Polley’s long-dead mother, “Stories We Tell” gradually becomes something else, an inquiry into the nature of memory and reality, a love letter to Polley’s English-born dad (who narrates the film), a puzzle box with unanswerable questions about how we become who we are at its center.
2. “12 Years a Slave” Unsettling and formally rigorous, Steve McQueen’s fact-based tale of a free black man sold into slavery in the 1850s puts America’s darkest secrets on screen for the first time. Yes, it’s sometimes a difficult film to watch, and lacks the blood-drenched fantasy retribution of Quentin Tarantino’s ludicrous “Django Unchained.” But the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest of the stellar cast are so strong, the created 19th-century world so compelling and the filmmaking so confident and complicated that the experience is completely worth it.
3. “Inside Llewyn Davis” Simultaneously one of the Coen brothers’ most mysterious films and one of their most accessible. Little-known Oscar Isaac zooms toward stardom as the eponymous Llewyn, a talented folk-singer in 1961 Greenwich Village who’s on the verge of making it — or screwing everything up. Justin Timberlake sings “Please Mr. Kennedy,” Carey Mulligan curses a blue streak and John Goodman is at his ogre-like best when this immensely evocative, shaggy-cat saga goes on an allegorical road trip.
4. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are a doomed pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde lovers in 1970s Texas in this mesmerizing, mythological crime saga from fast-rising director David Lowery. Magnificently shot by Bradford Young and unforgettably scored by Daniel Hart, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has the fatalism of a classic country song and the spiritual undertow of Tolstoy or Tarkovsky. (And yes, it was influenced by Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” You got some problem with that?)
5. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” Debate over French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s magnificent 21st-century love story got derailed first by everyone’s obsession with the film’s intensely graphic nine-minute lesbian sex scene, and then by actress Léa Seydoux’s feud with Kechiche over his reputed tyrannical style. First-time actress Adèle Exarchopoulos (the movie’s big discovery) got caught in the middle of all this; about the only thing all three agree on is that they made a sensational film, one that’s not about sex but about love and loss and possibility and European life in a new millennium.
6. “The Great Beauty” Director Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo, the team behind the eye-popping “Il Divo,” are back with another hallucinatory odyssey into the soul of modern Italy. Servillo plays a debauched Roman journalist named Jep Gambardella, a ladykilling aesthete who celebrates his 65th birthday amid the glorious, cynical wreckage of the Eternal City in the postmodern age. An unforgettable visual and auditory experience; just let go of your desire to understand it all.
7. “The Square” Arab-American documentarian Jehane Noujaim spent most of two years documenting the protests and counter-protests of Tahrir Square, meeting secular feminists, mainstream liberals and Islamic fundamentalists. The resulting film puts us on the ground in Cairo’s historic center, amid a rolling climate of social turmoil that may determine the future of the Middle East and the world. One of the truly urgent viewing experiences of the year.
8. “The Invisible Woman” Sure, Ralph Fiennes is one of the most acclaimed British stage and screen actors of our time — he’s played Voldemort! He’s played Hamlet! — but his directorial efforts have failed to make an impression on either critics or the public. Well, that’s crazy and I’m here to undo it. Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” was one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of recent years, and “The Invisible Woman,” with Fiennes as Charles Dickens, opposite the magnificent Felicity Jones as Nelly, the author’s much younger mistress, is a perfectly executed work of historical revisionism, hard-edged, heartbreaking and utterly convincing. (It opened Christmas Day in limited release, with wider national release to follow in 2014.)
9. “Her” You never see Scarlett Johansson on screen in “Her,” but it’s no mystery that Theo, the tormented and introverted geek played so marvelously by Joaquin Phoenix, falls for her so hard. Johansson’s Samantha is sexy, open-hearted, sympathetic, witty and loving. Oh, she’s also the operating system on Theo’s computer, in Spike Jonze’s alternately wistful and whimsical near-future rom-com, a lovely and slightly troubling vision of utopia as designed by Marshall McLuhan and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street” Martin Scorsese is back — not that he ever went anywhere — and Leonardo DiCaprio gives his greatest screen performance in this Gatsby-update parable based on the true story of penny-stock zillionaire Jordan Belfort, a robber baron of the Clinton years. This deliriously and deliciously vulgar tale of the American dream realized is loaded with cocaine, hookers and wretched excess of all kinds, with cinematic verve to match, all of it unleavened by any moralistic messages about crime and punishment.