1. Spring Breakers
Nothing about Harmony Korine's film should work, and shame on him for using footage from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic without giving credit, but what looks at first like a Pedobear fantasia is actually the most relentlessly inventive film of the year — and the most divisive.
The dialog is clunky and the too-pretty astronauts' back-stories are extraneous, but that doesn't detract from Alfonso Cuarón's fluid filmmaking, which veers breathlessly from agoraphobia to claustrophobia and back, all in perfect harmony with Steven Price's beautiful score. “Don't Let Go” is the best soundtrack cue of 2013.
3. Rewind This!
Josh Johnson's documentary is an elegy for the one-dominant VHS format, a celebration of those keeping it alive in defiance of the march of progress, and an occasionally chilling rumination on the non-physical future of media. It's also just a lot of fun, full of tasty clips of classic trash.
4. Room 237
Roger Ebert once said, “It's not what a movie is about, but how it's about it.” Rodney Ascher's documentary treats its unseen narrators not with disdain, but with genuine interest in what they see in The Shining. (You probably feel as strongly about a movie without even realizing it.)
5. Only God Forgives
The only other movie on this list to cheese off as many viewers per capita as Spring Breakers, Nicolas Winding Refn's dreamily glacial revenge drama evokes David Lynch's masterpiece Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and doesn't skirt the line between “meditative” and “masturbatory” so much as ignore the line entirely.
6. Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley's documentary-of-sorts about her family history plays with the form in unexpected ways — home movies shot on Super 8 wouldn't lie, right? — and features one of the bigger twists of the year. It's not about your family, but it'll hit you just as hard.
Peter Landesman's procedural about the Kennedy assassination sticks to the facts as they were known at the time, re-creating history while conveying the emotional impact of an unimaginable tragedy. Notably, the film neither rebukes nor supports any particular assassination theory. (Or does it?)
8. This is the End
Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's self-referential comedy, in which Rogen, James Franco, and others play themselves as spoiled Hollywood types, actually has the nerve to establish an apocalyptic theology and see it through to the end. And all without a single fart joke.
9. The Secret Disco Revolution
Jamie Kastner's tongue-in-cheek yet insightful documentary makes a strong case for the political importance of disco in the 1970s, even if the leaders of the booty-shaking revolution weren't aware of it at the time (or now). Just because narrators are unreliable doesn't mean they aren't telling the truth.
10. Pacific Rim
Perhaps because it was the only one whose director seemed to genuinely love the material, Guillermo Del Toro's robots vs. monsters slugfest was the only big “blowin' things up real good” summer movie to remember that blowin' things up real good also needs to be fun.
1. Stories We Tell
A born performer, Sarah Polley makes a great show of unpacking her own complex family history, from the niceties to the falsities. It's another of those documentaries that deliberately blurs the line between reality and fiction — but in this case also has the decency to be moving and highly entertaining.
2. In A World…
Lake Bell's madcap romantic comedy concerns a female vocal coach smashing through the glass ceiling of manly movie-trailer voiceover work. Bell wrote, directed, and stars in this improbably great film, and it's her feature debut — by example a story of breaking the mold.
3. Frances Ha
It's thrilling when a filmmaker and a star just seem really good for each other. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig might not have managed this degree of charm and confidence individually; together they achieve an homage-happy urban coming-of-age movie that's full of goofball elegance instead of clichés.
In its low-key way, Jeff Nichols' film adds much to the ongoing Matthew McConaughey reputation-restoration project. Here, McConaughey's rural southern fugitive fits right in with Nichols' reserve and regional specificity. But it's young Tye Sheridan, as the uncertain local teenager who befriends him, who really shines.
5. Blue Is the Warmest Color
Is it possible that some of the backlash against this film has to do with envy? Such all-consuming passion, as so completely inhabited by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux here, is a rare privilege indeed. But the vicarious experience is available to any brave moviegoer, and highly recommended.
What a heart-swelling surprise it was to find Spike Jonze's arguably gimmicky futureworld romance — between a dude (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system (Scarlett Johansson) — so fully realized. Many of the year's other big movies made themselves cozy in retrospect and nostalgia. This one looked anxiously but unflinchingly forward.
7. Night Across the Street
The late Chilean director Raúl Ruiz's final film, in which an elderly office worker rather imaginatively reflects on his life, is dense with cultural references and aesthetic delights. That it's more inviting than impenetrable bespeaks the grace of Ruiz's cosmopolitan style: This somehow buoyantly elegiac work is among the highest examples of pure movie magic.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
Another finely controlled Coen brothers movie, beautifully shot and soundtracked. And another hapless hero, treated here with real empathy instead of the Coens' characteristic bratty condescension. The film works by showing its makers' love of '60s folk music without sentimentalizing, and without a pose of total authority.
9. Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon gathered some pals and shot this larkish shoestring Shakespeare comedy in less than two weeks — while on a break from making The Avengers. With less to lose than his iffy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show, Whedon's Much Ado blithely reminds us why the Bard holds up.
10. Before Midnight
Part three of Richard Linklater's long-game trilogy humanely revisits the romantic anthropology of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as lovers who had one indelible night together in their 20s, a charged reunion in their 30s, and now a wounding snag of family tension in their 40s. The chemistry, and commitment, is profound.