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The top 10 movies of 2013, according to me

Sometime in December, professional critics produce their year-end Top 10 lists of movies the rest of us haven't seen yet. In January or February, once I've watched most of the contenders (by whatever means necessary - of course, I don't live in Los Angeles or New York City), I regularly undertake the same exercise... not because anyone particularly cares about my opinion, but in order to reassure myself that a year of moviegoing has yielded at least a few significant rewards.
My list is usually a little less edgy than I think of myself as being - I'd really like to have a Top Ten like, say, the critic Glenn Kenny's, which contains four foreign-language films, three of which have fewer than 2,000 votes on IMDb - but I think mine is maybe just barely cool enough to alienate the average viewer. I haven't seen everything yet, but then again, that'll always be true, so I might as well go for it now:
1. "Blue is the Warmest Color"
This relentlessly intimate lesbian love story, whose realism is infused with poetry, is refreshingly free of political agenda - it's not a "pro-gay" parable but simply the heady and heartbreaking coming-of-age of a French girl who happens, maybe, to be gay. Its teenage star Adele Exarchopoulos appears in nearly every shot, usually in close-up, allowing an experience so immersive that the film's three-hour running time could easily have been longer; you can almost live inside it.
2. "Inside Llewyn Davis"
The Coen brothers are the cruel deities of film - creating an imaginary universe with painstaking precision and care, and then torturing its inhabitants for pleasure. This can be fun to watch or, sometimes, not, but "Inside Llewyn Davis" - a grim, lovely, hilarious depiction of the mythic 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, with Oscar Isaac as a hapless singer - shows the validity of their aesthetic: what matters is not whether they explicitly sympathize with their protagonist but whether we do. The universe doesn't care; we must decide to, or not.
3. "Spring Breakers"
The pleasure of Harmony Korine's insane coed fantasy - about a group of amoral girls taking a wild vacation in Florida - comes not only from its outrageousness (embodied best of all by James Franco's gleeful performance as a jewel-bedecked rapper) but, equally, from its ambiguity, the way it glides between exploitation and art, condemnation and empathy, reality and imagination, comedy and tragedy - remaining shabby and lurid all the time, like Florida (and perhaps college) itself.
4. "Before Midnight"
Richard Linklater's Jesse-and-Celine trilogy - an extended love story about an American man and a French woman - is, in its progression of quality, one of the most remarkable series in all of film. The first, a trifling, verbose Eurail fantasy for affluent college kids, I didn't even like; the second I sort of had to respect; the third is stunning, and stunningly painful. The couple is older now, married, arguing; their fights are utterly real and utterly soul-crushing. This is what it's like to fight with someone you love. Yet Linklater refuses merely to reveal the "grim realities" of male-female relationships; after an hour or so of pure hell, the hope he offers here feels miraculous. Thank God for this movie's happy ending (of sorts).
5. "Pain & Gain"
Michael Bay's semi-low-budget self-satire - which exposes the consequences of the witless, superficial, testosterone-pumped mindset in which his entire career has taken place - is still a Michael Bay movie: fast-paced, amoral, over-the-top, shamelessly entertaining. An action-comedy about consumerist decadence, it lets you feel bad about enjoying it.
6. "Mud"
"Mud" is pure pleasure - a tender, good-humored folk-tale melodrama about a benevolent fugitive hiding on an island on the Mississippi and the two boys who befriend him, it evokes an almost unceasing sense of magic and breathes new life into the timeworn tropes of Southern lit.
7. "Drinking Buddies"
From the beginning, the "mumblecore" movement sought to create independent films that would reflect the (somewhat mundane) lives of the people who actually consume independent films. These are, I believe, the same white, college-educated urbanites who also consume craft beer. The characters (now played by Hollywood A-listers) no longer mumble so much, but Joe Swanberg has finally brought the two together in this sweet, observant relationship comedy set in a Chicago microbrewery.
8. "The Place Beyond the Pines"
It's easy to see the contrivances in the plot of Derek Cianfrance's vivid, ambitious triptych about the killing of a motorcycle stuntman and its long-lasting consequences; they're almost the point. Harkening back not only to classic Hollywood melodrama but to Greek tragedy, the film obeys the logic of its own universe; the characters are driven not by reason but by the deeper forces of fate.
9. "Frances Ha"
Noah Baumbach's happiest, most energetic and youthful film since "Kicking and Screaming," it's also the funniest movie I saw in 2013. It loves its flighty, irresponsible heroine - a struggling dancer in New York City - enough to redeem the "quirky girl" archetype from which she emerged; Baumbach feels her (mild) pain and laughs with her, not at her.
10. "The Kings of Summer"
Somewhere between the early work of David Gordon Green and a Disney Channel Original Movie lies "The Kings of Summer," an alternately sitcomish and lyrical story of three boys who run away from home to live in the forest like the Lost Boys. That I chose this film - a more vulgar and yet less crude version of 1994's "Camp Nowhere," a childhood favorite of mine - to round out my list and not an artistically superior coming-of-age story like "The Spectacular Now" shows only, perhaps, that I prefer adolescent daydreams to adolescent realities.
Honorable mentions
"Gravity," "Museum Hours," "Man of Steel," "American Hustle."

Tagged: movies