Top 10 Films of 2013

Honorable mentions
#20  Young & Beautiful (Ozon)
#19  Dark Skies (Stewart)
#18  Prince Avalanche (Green) - Listen to the "'Prince Avalanche' & TIFF 2013 preview" episode of Almost Arthouse.
#17  Saving Mr. Banks (Hancock)
#16  All the Light in the Sky (Swanberg)
#15  The Counselor (Scott)
#14  Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie)
#13  Paradise: Hope (Seidl)
#12  Pacific Rim (Del Toro)
#11  Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh)

#10  Only God Forgives  Refn
As any Sylvester Stallone fan would also testify, I've seen plenty of epitomizing displays of badassery in film. I never once considered going in to Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" follow-up that supporting actor Vithaya Pansringarm would usurp my entire concept of badassery in one, yes, unforgiving - and karaoke-filled - slash.
"Only God Forgives" is a bizarre rabbit hole of precise philosophies of vengeance, hyperbolized Oedipal themes and bloodthirsty angst. It may not be Refn's greatest achievement, especially considering "Valhalla Rising" and the aforementioned "Drive", but yet again the director has reframed cinematic violence in freshly assured fashion like no other.

#9  MANAKAMANA  Stephanie Spray; Pacho Velez
A 16mm camera – its unmistakable, hypnotic hums and ticks audible through the unfiltered sound bed – remains stationary on one cable car, opposite travelers heading to and from the temple. Between rides of approximately 10 minutes a piece depending on the time of day, weather conditions, etc., we are shrouded in the stark shadow of the boarding stations, awaiting the emergence of the next passenger in to the sun’s light. At once, we are taken with gorgeous vistas over Gorkha, but there is more than meets the eye to this ultimate people-watching affair. Not dissimilar to the alternately serene and startling atmosphere, perhaps most striking is the juxtaposition of a much older society accepting newer technology in to the common fold of their ways.

Read the full review as part of Sound on Sight's TIFF 2013 coverage.
Listen to the "TIFF 2013 Recap & 'Prisoners'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#8  The Broken Circle Breakdown  Felix Van Groeningin
When recommending "The Broken Circle Breakdown" to a friend, that friend observed, "It sounds a lot like 'Blue Valentine'". He couldn't have been more on-point - this devastatingly gorgeous Belgian melodrama charting how two people, no matter how connected, can be torn apart by uncontrollable circumstances is absolutely a Bluegrass Valentine.
One of several films on this list intrinsically tied to song - and one of two built with musical performances linked to Americana - "Breakdown" embraces the beautiful handshake film and music share, and persists beyond the screen with a soundtrack immensely difficult to get out of your head (as if one would want to).

#7  Frozen  Chris Buck; Jennifer Lee
Okay, so Disney's "Frozen" (which really should have been called "The Snow Queen" even if it doesn't follow the Hans Christian Andersen story in the least) is a very uneven movie. The silly troll scenes are useless, Olaf's supporting character arc just kind of disappears after being introduced in a dull song, and the second act drags considerably. That said, I simply cannot neglect the immense power "Frozen" brings to the table. Many say the film heralds a return to form for Disney, but I'd rather consider it a galvanization of a new direction.
The lesser yet more consistent "Tangled" (which, yes, probably should have been called "Rapunzel") features a more complex and proactive female protagonist (whereas most in the past have simply been pretty plot points waiting to be fallen in love with, roll credits), the inspiring and deeply layered "Brave" (admittedly Pixar but still under the same umbrella) is a complete upheaval of the Disney princess stereotype, and the jaunty "Wreck-It Ralph" introduces ambiguity between black & white heroism and villainy. Now "Frozen" brings us Queen Elsa, a unique character sympathetically toeing the line between good and evil, who empowers herself upon exile in the exhilarating and anthemic "Let It Go" number. That's not to forget Elsa's sister, whose twist ending refreshingly bucks two unfortunate Disney princess tropes in one swift motion.
I'm not sure I can go as far as to say it is already my very favorite of the company's "Masterpiece" canon (a difficult list to top what with nostalgia being a thing and all), but it has assuredly introduced me to my new favorite Disney character and my new favorite Disney scene, which is saying a lot.
At the very least, I am thrilled the deservedly most notorious  family entertainment company in the world is making a conscious effort to provide role models for people like my four-year-old daughter.

#6  The Lone Ranger  Gore Verbinski
I don't always feel like the only person who truly appreciates Gore Verbinski's bigger budget work, but when I do, I'm watching "The Lone Ranger".
Oh, wow, forgive me, I guess I just had to get that Dos Equis meme out of my system. And the statement is certainly not to forget the one-two punch that is "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End". I do also recognize there are other fans of "The Lone Ranger" - even a spare few who seem to feel about it as strongly as I do - but this film really took a bashing from audiences and critics alike and for one time more in my life I really do not comprehend why.
Verbinski operates in blockbuster filmmaking as if it were an art form all its own. His orchestration is symphonic and cyclical, his storytelling simultaneously powerful and subtle and his major set pieces leaving every penny of his budget apparent on screen, the man excels in presenting the duality of the "film industry" through visual poetry that reaches to the soul and high-concept adventure that feeds the eyes and ears 'til they're fully satiated.
"The Lone Ranger" is a film deeply reverent of the ghosts of America's natural heritage. It is a film about building rather than destroying. It is a film honoring its source while proving that such things are not necessarily hokey and outdated.
"The Lone Ranger" stimulates on nearly all levels and, for one very special chase sequence, makes me feel like a boy again.

#5  Nebraska  Alexander Payne
After the watered-down "The Descendants" I was worried about Alexander Payne. The definitively American auteur could not have turned me around more certainly than he has with his best feature to date.
"Nebraska" is undoubtedly the work of the Payne we know and love, with similar archetypes and structure, but the ideas explored here reach deeper than I feel "Sideways" and even "About Schmidt" do (which is not to discredit those excellent and affecting films). Road movies almost always appeal to me, however it is the notion of not having anything left to hold on to, and the idea of coming to terms with what could have been in life before passing the torch, that renders this one rock solid (even if June Squibb's reprisal of the verbally abusive wife is sadly one-dimensional).

#4  Prisoners  Denis Villeneuve
For nearly 10 years, Prisoners passed through many a director and star (including Antoine Fuqua, Bryan Singer, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christian Bale) before arriving in theaters, and it would be a challenge to imagine a team realizing the project with more tact than Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal have. Through Deakins’ carefully calculated cinematography, Villeneuve weaves without restraint an engrossing tale of many-cornered violation. The director wastes little time placing us in the initially guiltless shoes of one both victim and aggressor with all but complete conviction, effervescing conflicting unease in the protagonism. This is without question Jackman’s movie, yet in memory, the performance standing out among the thoroughly excellent ensemble is Gyllenhaal’s as Detective Loki, an exceptionally simplistic character on paper whom the actor has rendered fascinating through subtleties and ticks. The compelling layers put forth in Prisoners demand attention and revisitation.

Excerpt from Sound on Sight's The 30 Best Films of 2013.
Listen to the "TIFF 2013 Recap & 'Prisoners'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#3  Out of the Furnace  Scott Cooper
Where my 2012 was marked by films naturally embracing the increasing presence of technology in our lives (a noticeable trend that has not and will not cease), this year seems to identify more with what truly makes us human away from the luxuries of contemporary society (and I don't mean Will Smith defeating an army of robots with the power of the human spirit, although that is a fun one).
The expert character study "Crazy Heart" was enough to make me perk up upon hearing of another Cooper-directed feature, but I proceeded with caution, never thinking "Out of the Furnace" would latch on the way it has. Christian Bale as Russell Baze - fantastic, even if in a role the master thespian could perform in his sleep - leads an ensemble any casting director would envy as an emblematically unblinking man's man. I mean, this guy is the Jean Claude Van Damme of suicidally grueling for meager pay at the same job that killed his father, he gets screwed by circumstance at every turn and he still stoically sees the blessings in his given life and tries to right whatever wrongs he can. He is the man we men wish we could be while simultaneously being grateful for the fortune of not actually becoming him.
Though I'd be inclined the think of it in grander fashion (IE neglected middle America in general), the "Furnace" of the title, which we strive to get "out of", could be literally perceived as the mill Russell labors in to pay for his own means, those of his girlfriend whom he wants to begin a family with, and the dangerous gambling bets of his brother. This younger brother represents the rebel spirit, not satisfied with the "good enough" Russell has embraced for the sake of his own peace and satisfaction. Trouble is inevitably stirred up, and the film becomes a beautifully filmed journey to return to some semblance of peace.

Listen to the "'Out of the Furnace'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#2  Before Midnight  Richard Linklater
It barely feels fair to rank this or its predecessors in the same lists as other, unassociated films. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy's "Before" series feels transcendent of year-to-year film, automatically placing any of its entries ahead of most other ranking considerations and heading for the "of all time" category.
Perhaps the most impressive feat accomplished in "Midnight" is that the creative trio has again not settled for merely reuniting Celine and Jesse to have them walk around a different city and talk for ninety minutes (not that this would be a disappointment by any means). The pair are now in their early 40s and in a very different place in their lives then they were in 2004, or in 1995, and the introduction of this new situation - if successfully kept secret to the viewer, which proved difficult but doable - is as emotionally overwhelming as anything I have experienced in cinema.
Innovative raconteur Linklater has gone on record to state that he hopes Celine and Jesse will grace our screens again in 2022, but at this point there are no ideas as to what will make that film unique in the series. This is encouraging, quite simply because Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have yet to live these next nine years of their lives to naturally generate the content of their beloved characters.

Listen to the "'Before Midnight' & The Best and Worst of 2013 So Far" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#1  Inside Llewyn Davis  Ethan Coen; Joel Coen
Ranking films by year of release is convenient, and interesting as a time capsule, though no film can be wholly confined to the date it was released. No title on this list demonstrates that principle better than this one as, like with a folk song or a myth (both equally appropriate here), "Inside Llewyn Davis" is timeless - a Bob Dylan album come to life, simultaneously rejoicing and mournful.
The Coens excel when working with one lost protagonist puzzling through a practically foreign world of supporting characters who have life figured out for themselves, or are at least contented with their place in the figuring, and Llewyn signifies an absolute perfection of that concept. This is not to suggest that the brothers have settled for an improved formula. Speaking generally, as much as the subject matter is aided by its specific time period of one week in the year 1961, the Coens' daring with subtle suggestion, strong symbolism, referenced influences and a provoking cyclical frame render the film a true, layered masterpiece of endless watchability. Of course, the music is freaking fantastic, too.
I thought I had been setting myself up for disappointment with hopes entirely too high for even a Coens film, but it turns out those hopes may have been in just the right place for what is an experience with nary a lovely second not worth scrutinizing for all the thought put in to it and meaning behind it.

Full 2013 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).
Listen to the new Almost Arthouse episode "2013 Top Tens".