Justin Chang’s Top 10 Films of 2013

In a year of scarcity and plenty, Richard Linklater's 'Before Midnight' came out on top early and stayed there.

Julie Delpy Before Midnight

If James Franco’s “Look at my shee-yit!” scene in “Spring Breakers” was one of 2013’s funniest movie moments, it was also perhaps the most emblematic of a year that, as many others have pointed out, was all but overrun by spectacles of consumerist excess — from “American Hustle” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” from Baz Luhrmann’s not-so-great “Great Gatsby” to Paolo Sorrentino’s genuinely great “Great Beauty.” This may not be exactly what Susan Sontag meant when she described the cinema as “a decadent art” some 18 years ago, but if the Jimmy Choo fits, wear it: Rarely has the camera’s natural affinity for beautiful, shiny objects been so lovingly indulged, whether the objects in question were the gleaming treasures in Smaug’s vault or the designer fashions in Paris Hilton’s closet.

SEE ALSO: Peter Debruge’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Still, for every movie that turned the bigscreen into the functional equivalent of a mall display window (albeit one with a few satirical cracks and fissures), there was another in which the have-nots spoke as powerfully, though not always as loudly, as the haves. The year’s other key theme, central to films as different as “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” was survival, and survival always carries with it the threat of scarcity. Think of Llewyn Davis, navigating a series of couches and fending off a New York winter without a proper coat, with only his guitar and his talent to keep him warm. Think of Captain Phillips — or better yet, think of Abduwali Muse and his friends and family back in Somalia, leading lives of desperation and poverty that give Paul Greengrass’ nautical nail-biter a truly moral undertow.

SEE ALSO: Scott Foundas’ Top 10 Films of 2013

Think of Robert Redford’s “Our Man,” adrift and bereft in “All Is Lost,” a despairing declaration of a title that could have been spoken by any number of movie characters this year. Like Kris, drugged and divested of her material possessions — and more crucially, her identity — in the year’s most inimitably original movie, “Upstream Color.” Or Jasmine French, whose journey from Park Avenue socialite to San Francisco bag lady made “Blue Jasmine” Woody Allen’s most incisive and sympathetic picture in years. Or even P.L. Travers, forced by her own slowing book sales to surrender Mary Poppins to Walt Disney — and, as “Saving Mr. Banks” makes clear, well acquainted with material and emotional deprivations even in her Australian childhood.

Travers and Disney were two of the many real-life personalities given a second life onscreen, among them the kung fu master Ip Man; the Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort; the supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren; and the lovable gallery of Abscam-era chumps and con artists cheerfully falsified for the purposes of “American Hustle.” And in a watershed year for depictions of real-life African-American experience onscreen, who could forget Oscar Grant III and Cecil Gaines (aka Eugene Allen), striving to improve their respective fortunes in “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”; or D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, whose own private pain pushes him to exact the most senseless kind of revenge in “Blue Caprice”; or Solomon Northup, kidnapped and dragged through the 19th-century horror show of “12 Years a Slave.” Whatever their flaws and merits, these films added up to an indelible reminder of how inextricably class and race are linked across the history of persecution in America, a history that bleeds well into the present.

In this season of counting one’s blessings, and with deep gratitude for a bountiful year of cinematic excellence, here are my 10 favorite films of 2013. (Look at my shee-yit!)

1. “Before Midnight.” Sometimes a movie you don’t think you want turns out to be the one you need the most. It was true of “Toy Story 3,” another late franchise addition that took a beloved set of characters to startling new depths of humor and emotion, and it’s true of Richard Linklater’s autumnal masterpiece — a mellow, sun-dappled comedy that shifts almost imperceptibly into searingly truthful Ingmar Bergman territory. Along with his marvelous co-conspirators Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Linklater, working at the deceptively laid-back peak of his powers, has lovingly extended and deepened one of the great romances in modern cinema. I’d urge these three not to mess with perfection by attempting another one 10 years from now (“Before Retirement”?), but clearly they know exactly what they’re doing.

2. “Gravity.” In my deepest cinephile dreams there is another version — a slow, three-hour exercise in sensory and narrative deprivation, truer to the spirits of Kubrick and Tarkovsky toward which this 91-minute white-knuckle space odyssey occasionally beckons. That’s not a knock, just an acknowledgment that Alfonso Cuaron’s game-changing visual wonder seems to have opened a portal into a new dimension of cinematic possibility, one where its own thrilling present incarnation feels like just the beginning. As it is, let us be grateful for what Cuaron has given us, a state-of-the-art showpiece with a humanist soul: Hurtling through the cosmos alongside Sandra Bullock (giving a career-best performance), you never feel entirely beyond the grace of God or this filmmaker’s embrace.

3. “Stories We Tell.” Few cinematic journeys this year proved more rewarding or continually surprising than Sarah Polley’s third and finest feature, a playful and beguiling inquiry into her own knotty family history. With startling intimacy and a complete absence of self-regard, the preternaturally gifted filmmaker unravels a personal detective story of such ingenious formal complexity that its emotional wallop catches you off-guard.

4. “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” No less than “Before Midnight,” this captivating coming-of-age story is the product of a seamless artistic collaboration between a director and his two stars, as evidenced by the Cannes jury’s decision to award the Palme d’Or jointly to Abdellatif Kechiche, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. The subsequent reports of animosity between Kechiche and his actresses were a mere tabloid-fodder distraction from the glory of what’s onscreen: two of the year’s most deeply felt performances, guided by a sensibility that — in its insistence on food, art, talk and sex as crucial components of human intimacy — overflows with tenderness and generosity from first frame to last.

5. “The World’s End.” Of all the year’s numerous post-apocalyptic visions, from “This Is the End” to “After Earth,” none achieved a more thoughtful, more side-splitting synthesis of boozy humanity and B-movie kicks than the latest genre-savvy outing from those genius British satirists, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. This epic pub crawl crossed with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” feels like nothing less than a rebel yell on behalf of our proud, foolish and inglorious species; rarely has the universal human right to mediocrity been defended with such brilliance.

6. “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Joel and Ethan Coen’s acridly affectionate tour of the 1960s New York folk scene begins with a smoky nightclub rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and there’s something about the way the camera holds on that number, wringing every last strain of melancholy from Oscar Isaac’s soulful performance, that brings a glimmer of redemption — even true belief — to what might otherwise have devolved into one of the Coens’ cruel picaresques. Instead the tale oscillates, beautifully, between the uncompromising poles of Llewyn Davis’ character: He’s a loser, yes, but he’s also a real artist, and if that makes little difference to him in the end, it makes all the difference to us.

7. “The Grandmaster.” Even in its compromised state, Wong Kar Wai’s rapturously beautiful action movie ranks among the year’s singular visual experiences — if nothing else, a pretext for the sublimated desires and delirious slo-mo ballets that have become this Hong Kong master’s trademark. But Wong, plunging headlong into the intricate and mysterious shadow-world of China’s martial-arts masters, emerged with something deeper, not a straightforward biography of Ip Man so much as an abstract anatomy of the very spirit of kung fu. As a fighter ahead of her time, Zhang Ziyi gives one of the year’s most devastating and demanding performances.

8. “American Hustle.” May David O. Russell never stop flirting with disaster, so long as he keeps making movies as big-hearted and brashly entertaining as this one. Treating the 1970s Abscam scandal as a sequin-bedecked game of charades, Russell, now the most gifted farceur at work in American movies, taps into themes of duplicity and paranoia that are no less relevant to our era of nonstop self-promotion and image maintenance. As the glittering crown jewel of a top-flight cast, Jennifer Lawrence makes a comic spitfire for the ages.

9. “Her.” For this longtime Angeleno, Spike Jonze’s achingly lovely depiction of a fully urbanized Los Angeles, complete with subway to the sea, was perhaps the year’s most singularly inviting vision. It was also the other great 2013 studio release (besides “Gravity”) that glancingly evoked “2001,” orchestrating a fleeting meeting of the minds — one human, one artificial — in anticipation of the glorious next phase of evolution. That story remains untold, offscreen: In acknowledging that we cannot begin to imagine Samantha’s journey, much less go along for the ride, Jonze reminds us, as consolingly as a rooftop sunrise, that we’re only human, and it’s enough.

10. “The Conjuring.” Minute by terrifying minute, James Wan’s horror opus was, for me (and I daresay the colleague trembling in the next seat), the year’s most purely enjoyable exercise in shivers. Distinguished by its moldering ’70s production design and terrific scream-queen performances from Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, this sly compendium of haunted-house thriller tropes offered a virtuoso demonstration of film craft, at once winkingly mischievous and completely sincere as it played the audience like Hitchcock’s proverbial piano.

The next 10 (in alphabetical order): “12 Years a Slave,” “All Is Lost,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Captain Phillips,” “Fill the Void,” “The Great Beauty,” “Room 237,” “Saving Mr. Banks” (minus the flashbacks), “To the Wonder,” “Upstream Color”