Iron Man 3 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire dominated 2013’s box office. But it was Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning journey to low-Earth orbit that managed to break through, along with a certain frigid animated musical that easily could have made our list. (It almost singlehandedly helped restore Disney Animation’s luster after being trounced by Pixar, which is a worthy consolation prize.) The top Oscar went to Steve McQueen’s breathtaking look at slavery, including an astonishing debut by a young actress who continues to fire up audiences late into the decade.
Richard Linklater returned to familiar territory and found a triumphant cap to a trilogy, while iconoclastic Brit Ben Wheatley gave us a vision of a mucky moor like no other. A certain New York clarinetist directed Cate Blanchett in a striking and effective tour de force, while James Ward Byrkit crafted what’s surely one of our more obscure picks. The #Bonghive got their train story, a remarkable film matched genre cinema with the dark past of Canada, and a master looked at the world of finance, and Jonathan Glazer took audiences for a dark ride. Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy had TIFF audiences talking with a three-hour she said/he said love story that broke their hearts twice before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it, butchered it into a two-hour linear narrative, and broke their hearts again. Finally, those brothers Coen made what’s possibly the greatest film on any of these best-of-the-decade-lists, a masterwork of music with a constellation of cats.
12 Years A Slave
This decade has featured its fair share of depictions of black bodies being brutalized. 12 Years a Slave is a biopic that offers one of the most powerful examples of this. However, it is not the unflinching violence that resonates, but rather the humanity and resilience that makes this film stand out. Masterfully directed by Steve McQueen, the film is a haunting depiction of America’s darkest chapter. Unlike most films about slavery, it is not told from the perspective of a white saviour, or a slave who spends most of the film as a sidekick to the white saviour before finding his own swagger. Instead McQueen uses Solomon Northup, a free man who thought his talent and status meant he was more than just another black face, to be our guide through the horrors of the era.
Through Solomon’s plight of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, McQueen skillfully touches on a wide swath of experiences and hierarchical structures slaves endured. Each step of the way, as he does in his equally excellent and deserving Widows, McQueen shows us America’s reluctance to address the impact that slavery has fostered a legacy of injustice. 12 Years a Slave is an unforgettable reminder that in America one’s achievements in life will always be secondary to one’s skin colour. (CS)
A Field in England
Director Ben Wheatley is a genre dabbler. One year he delivers the sneakiest folk horror film of the decade (Kill List) and the next he releases a comedy so dark that light waves cannot escape its gravitation (Sightseers). Throughout the 2010s he bobbed and weaved his way through the odd corners of cinema, and A Field in England is the most impressive film in this suite. The film follows a group of deserters from the 17th century English civil war. These men flee into the titular field to search for alleged hidden treasure. As they dig and bicker it is apparent that their journey is not merely one through a field or down through dirt. Alchemy and darkness washes over the men as they sink into madness and corruption. This film contains one of the most disturbing images of a mind lost, though it never truly veers into strict horror. Shot in sharp black and white and punctuated by diorama tableaus of the men frozen in time and space, A Field in England shows not only Wheatley’s unconventional approach to narrative film, but also how spectacular he can be when letting his freak flag fly. (DC)
Two lovers who connect at one moment in time aren’t the same people five or ten years down the road. Each partner inevitably grows and changes, and the challenge afterward is to adapt. Meeting cute is the predominant focus of nearly all romantic comedies, but what gets lost in those films is the reality that relationships take a lot of work to maintain. Happily ever after includes a lot of bumps along the road, including some that couples can’t come back from. It was hard to foresee a third entry into the story that began with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but this world would be a sadder place without one more evening with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). (CB)
Woody Allen sure began this decade much stronger than he ended it. The Woodman could have easily taken two spots on this list if we included his Oscar-winning late-career masterpiece Midnight in Paris (2011). But his 2013 dramedy Blue Jasmine is a fitting selection as well. It’s probably the final great film in one of the most significant, prolific, and, yes, problematic careers in American cinema.
Blue Jasmine deserves to keep Allen as a filmmaker of record because it highlights two traits that helped his career span five decades. Few, if any male filmmakers write such outstanding female characters as Allen does. His Jasmine French, played by Cate Blanchett in a performance that deservedly steamrolled awards season, is one of his best creations. A flat-out loon and a product of her own willful blindness to a life built upon the misery of others, Jasmine’s a multifaceted creation one sees too rarely. She is a Blanche DuBois for financial crisis-era America as Allen transported Tennessee Williams’ iconic character to the contemporary landscape. Blue Jasmine, like A Streetcar Named Desire, is a volatile dramatization of America in a state of change. (PM)
Arguably one of the least well-known properties on the list is also one of its secret gems. Writer/director James Ward Byrkit crafted a low-key science-fiction mind-fuck that encapsulates the inherent possibilities of making an indie film on a shoestring budget: if you have a great hook, a game cast, and an extremely tightly plotted film, money doesn’t have to be a barrier.
The premise of Coherence is decidedly straightforward: a group of friends gather for a dinner party. Mid-way through the meal, a comet passes overhead and from there, things begin to go a little weird. Then a lot weird.
The less audiences know about the plot, the better (part of the joy of watching the film is uncovering the odd, murky, confusing places that Ward Byrkit is willing to go). What’s impressive about the film is how it slowly, but surely complicates a conventional event – a gathering of friends – into something otherworldly, hallucinatory and alien. Consider Coherence a less complicated, more enjoyably twisty 2010s version of Primer. (JL)
It begins with one of the more astonishing shots in cinematic history, yet from there Gravity shifts (mostly) from spectacle to introspection, detailing a survival tale that’s as thrilling as it is profound. A two-hander with a pair of superstars, Oscar-winning director Cuarón guides Sandra Bullock and George Clooney through a journey that uses the ultimate tools of spectacle cinema to tell a story intimate and intensely human. Gravity is the epitome of a “film best seen on the biggest screen possible” argument. (And, sorry haters, 3D is a must, as the immersion is simply sublime.) This amazing accomplishment remains breathtaking years later, an absolute triumph of craft and emotional impact. (JG)
Inside Llewyn Davis
I was asked recently about my favourite time travel movies and I suggested that this megawork by the Coen brothers should be on that list. It’s the portrait of the artist as a young folkie, wandering the world seeking authenticity and the Gorfein’s cat in equal measure, plying his trade while the world sneers with a particular brand of indifference. The film is so deep, so elegant, so musically pitch perfect that it can be returned to again and again, each time eliciting a reaction that speaks to wherever you are in your own emotional life. Oscar Isaac is a triumph, but the entire cast brings its A-game. If it only had the bass player bobbing his head during the “Please Mr. Kennedy” number, it would be enough to make this list. Take in the rest of film’s deep respect for the music of the era mixed with playful teasing of historical fact and you have a film that could easily top this or any other celebration of cinema. (JG)
Rhymes for Young Ghouls
If one can believe for a moment in cinematic fate then it’s clear that Jeff Barnaby, a lover of genre cinema yet a potently political screenwriter fighting to tell the stories from his community, was born to make this film. Similarly, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs was a talent captured at a perfect time. Her deep, fierce, and moving portrayal of Aila remains one of the great debuts of the last ten years. Taking the usual tropes of a revenge thriller, Barnaby draws upon the historical blight of the residential school system, twisting conventional story beats resulting in nothing short than making all cultures (colonizers or Indigenous alike) confront this sordid past we share. We’re quick to point blame in Canada at others, and this film shoves our face in our own shortcomings while never losing sight of finding a way to convey this horror for general audiences. The film’s powerful presentation is inviting as much as it’s biting, leaving room if not for outright reconciliation than at least for mutual recognition, rewriting the past through the present and taking on themes that both shock and cause grief. There’s an immense balancing act throughout between the needs of the story as entertainment and as a message as importance as this one. The gift of the film is that it manages to walk this line beautifully, resulting in a film as unforgettable as it is impactful. (JG)
Snowpiercer is many things, but subtle is not one of them. It is a heavy-handed tale of a dystopian world upon a train in perpetual motion, though the inhabitants never move. Social classes are sorted by train car, and there is no chance to move from one to the other. Bong Joon-ho’s tale of social mobility (or lack thereof) and justice wears its metaphor on its sleeve and rubs your nose into the grime of latter day capitalism. It is thematically loud, but this cacophonous volume is proportional to the importance of the message. Not all political agendas need to be quiet in order to be successful.
In addition to pushing the needed message across through the mechanics of the plot and setting, nearly every other aspect of Snowpiercer is a brilliant choice in an unconventional tale. The detailed art direction communicates more than the words spoken, which is how it should be. Casting Tilda Swinton as the strict and sniveling lord over the rear-car-masses was a stroke of genius. And showing us that small glimmers of hope in a hopeless world can feel both uplifting and hollow is a nearly impossible task to balance, but Snowpiercer does just that. (DC)
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is the complete package! At times it feels like a throwback comedy, but there are also elements of heist, gangster, and even disaster movies at play. However, the performances anchor it all. Martin Scorsese provides Leonardo DiCaprio scenes that showcase his physical humor, zippy control for dialogue, and ability to create a character so grand he feels like a Bond villain. Jonah Hill is as funny as ever while feeling right at home with traditionally dramatic actors. The film also marks Margot Robbie’s breakthrough performance. She already feels like a star by the time she has her first date with Leo’s Jordan. All the elements come together and make the three-hour-party a zany, fast-paced ride. (DG)
Under the Skin
What helps Under the Skin transcend curio to an effective piece of cerebral horror is the flawless technical composition of the sound and visuals. Jonathan Glazer takes worlds with which we are quite familiar and turns them into dark and dangerous places. Malls and nightclub raves take on a surreal light where the promise of violence flickers in the strobe lights and rhythmic dance movements surrounding “the visitor” (Scarlett Johansson). There is a lot of deeply upsetting imagery that stays with viewers heading out of the theatre, aided by the alien score by Mica Levi. Levi’s music sets the audience on edge throughout the runtime by stretching notes beyond the recognizable. Except for Johansson and Glazer, Levi has perhaps the greatest effect on the film. With each new victim, Glazer reveals a little more of the process while still holding the audience at arm’s length. There is a deliberate refusal to reveal too much of what happens to the visitor’s victims, or the motivations behind her actions. The lack of answers may be frustrating, but the dread that intensifies throughout the film proves much more satisfying. (CB)