Dislocation. When I consider the films that I loved the most in 2013, this is the word I think of. The theme of dislocation—uprootedness, geographical and emotional lostness, unstable notions of "home"'—was present in various forms in many films this year. Characters were lost in space (Gravity) and at sea (All is Lost); they slept on couches to get by (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis) and dwelled in all manor of temporary residences: group homes (Short Term 12), slave quarters (Short Term 12), tents in a burned-out forests (Prince Avalanche), and so on. Several films were about characters in foreign lands, whether Greece (Before Midnight), Vienna (Museum Hours), or Europeans in America (Philomena, To the Wonder). Other films were set in part or in whole on transportation vessels at sea: Captain Phillips, Kon-tiki, even the Huck Finn river drama Mud. Alexander Payne's Nebraska, meanwhile, was a classic road movie about how a place we've lived can feel both alien and familiar when we return.
I don't know why this theme kept showing up—perhaps we're all just nostalgic for a sense of rootedness and home in the midst of so much cultural and technological change. But I'm glad it did because it's a theme that lends itself well to powerful cinematic storytelling.
Below are my picks for the best ten films of the year, plus ten honorable mentions. What were your favorites this year?
10) Short Term 12: Destin Cretton's film about life inside a short-term foster care facility is a beautifully made, tender film about weary, broken, love-hungry kids trying to beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30 (including Brie Larson in a career-making role) and each has their own sort of baggage. The film suggests that what these kids need is a deep, unconditional, relentless love--which is to say a love that models Christ.
9) All is Lost: Who knew a film with only one actor (Robert Redford) and no dialogue could be so compelling? Yet J.C. Chandor's lost-at-sea adventure story is breathtaking from start to finish. We don't know much about Redford's character, but we sympathize with him. In its tableaus and archetypes the film becomes a symbol for all human struggle: between being and nothingness, man and nature and, yes, man and God.
8) 12 Years a Slave: One of the most indelible images of Steve McQueen's unflinching slavery epic is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch, contemplating the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body in the midst of the beauty of a genteel plantation and cathedrals of Spanish moss. It's a powerful film, radical in its straightforwardness and almost documentary gaze.
7) Frances Ha: Shot in black and white with an airy, guerilla feel, Noah Baumbach's NYC-set film is a clear homage to the French New Wave. Yet as throwback as it may feel, Frances Ha is also thoroughly modern, exploring (among other things) contemporary hipsterdom, the economic crisis and the relational disconnection of our hyper-connected age. Greta Gerwig delivers one of the year's best performances in a film that is funny, whipsmart and yet refreshingly uncynical. (my review)
6) Museum Hours: Ten years ago I meandered around Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, taking in the vast array of masterpieces from Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio, Bruegel and the like. This is more or less what Jem Cohen's Museum Hours (set in the Kunsthistorisches) is about: looking at life's aesthetic wonders, taking it all in, learning about ourselves and each other in the process. I don't think I've seen a film that has made art come alive as much as this film, save perhaps The Mill and the Cross (another Bruegel-centric film). Yet Museum Hours is about more than just fine art; it's about taking the "museum" posture of respectful, attentive observance outside and applying it to everything else.
5) Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers have already established themselves as among the most important American auteurs, and their latest is perhaps their most mature, subtle and somber film yet. Set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside is both a period piece and a universal reflection on the seemingly arbitrary disbursement of luck, a common Coen theme. What kind of God divvies out favor, and blesses his "elect," so inconsistently? Why do good guys so often get beat up and left in the cold, dark alleys of this world? Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the latest Coen character to be the unfortunate object of this existential lesson.
4) Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an awe-inspiring experience. With its never-seen-anything-like-this-before cinematography, its heart-pumping tension and its uncanny ability to convey the feeling of actually being in space, Gravity achieves something all too rare in cinema today: it utterly transports the audience. It draws us in so thoroughly (especially with the aid of 3D and IMAX screens) that for 90 minutes one truly does feel like they are floating and tumbling around in space. It’s dizzying, intense, wonderful, and new. But it's not all flash and dazzle. Gravity is a film with much on its mind. From where it sits above the world, humbled by the fragility of life and the grandeur of creation, how could it not? (my review)
3) To the Wonder: Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life"), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. As such, it's seen as elusive and difficult for many viewers. As Roger Ebert noted in his review (the last review he ever wrote), Wonder is a film that "would rather evoke than supply." Like Museum Hours, Wonder is a film about seeing: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, the personal and universal. It's a film about seeing ourselves rightly within the cosmos and loving others, and God, more than we love ourselves. "Show us how to seek you," prays the melancholic priest (Javier Bardem) at the film's conclusion. "We were made to see you." (my review)
2) Her: Like To the Wonder, Spike Jonze's masterful film is about the pain of relationships and yet the lessons they teach us about loving and seeing well, waking up to the incarnational glory all around us. The whole "man falls in love with an OS" plot is fascinating, and the not-so-unlikely future depicted in the film is provocative and instructive in all sorts of ways. But at its heart this is a film about being present in one's own life; being aware and compelled by the miracle of daily living. (my review)
1) Before Midnight: To me the best overall film of a year is not only a film of near-perfect quality but also one I know I'll return to decades from now. Before Midnight, small and largely overlooked as it has been, is for me that film. The third in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's exquisite "Before" series (see also 1995's Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset), Midnight is an existential pleasure. Set in a sumptuous, sun-bathed Greece, the film is deceptively simple--mostly a man and a woman talking and arguing, working through the complexities of their relationship. Yet it's more profound, more punch-you-in-the-gut tragic, than any film I've seen in years. Why? Partially it's because the writing and acting are so real. But it's also because the film captures better than most the beauty and pain of time going by, of our own temporary presence in this world. Like the late summer sun that drops ever so gradually below the horizon, “We appear, and we disappear. We are just passing through.” (my review)
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Mud, Nebraska, This is Martin Bonner, Prince Avalanche, Room 237, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell.