Dec. 31 2013 04:09 PM

The best films of 2013 were all daring in unique ways

Rin Takanashi in Like Someone in Love

Long live the daring and dangerous films of 2013! Despite claims to the contrary, a whole lot of movies mattered this year. The most audacious of the bunch challenged audience expectations and traditional narrative forms in complex ways. 

The screen stories that interested me most this year were those that lived on the edge. Why else would it be worthwhile to—to steal a quote from Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece Like Someone in Love—"spend all my time looking through the window." 

As with most critics, I've been tasked with looking back at the last 12 months of film with some kind of clarity, as if that were coherently possible. Please consider this less a grand summation than a personal reflection on the pivotal works that dared to tackle difficult themes and emotions without the benefit of a safety net. Each played San Diego theaters for various lengths of time, some for merely a week:

1. Like Someone in Love: Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami's Tokyo-set drama centers on the reflections and refractions of repression inside a culture dominated by formality. Long dialogue sequences weave together like poetic verse, unveiling the subtext in an emotional web that envelops the lives of a young escort (Rin Takanashi), an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) and a volatile young mechanic (Ryô Kase). Its luminous style suggests an unbridled elegance, but a knot of unspoken tension quickly tightens before suddenly being released in a violent crescendo of rage.

2. Museum Hours: A lovely and mysterious movie about camaraderie, art and ideas. With the utmost attention to detail, Jem Cohen directs the story of a Viennese museum guard (Bobby Sommer) who befriends a Canadian woman (Mary Margaret O'Hara) visiting a sick relative. The long, serpentine hallways of the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum become a nerve center for two lively people engaging the world in all its sublime and grotesque glory.

3. Drug War: Johnnie To is one of the most exciting directors in the world, and his no-holds-barred action film about an elite vice squad tasked with taking down an untouchable organized-crime ring proves exactly why. Buried under all the shoot-outs, methodical procedures and elaborate double-crosses is a thematic grenade lobbed directly at modern-day Chinese institutions that favor contradiction and corruption over humanity. 

4. Before Midnight: The final section of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's "Celine / Jessie" trilogy is a fitting close to one of the great collaborations in film history. It works perfectly as a sharp and nuanced exploration of a couple on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one that's punctuated further by the past weight of its previous two entries. That remnants of romance and lust remain makes the final fight sequence even more potentially devastating.  

5. To the Wonder: Looked down on by Terrence Malick devotées and haters alike, this swooning haloed melodrama is unabashedly non-narrative and lyrical. A love affair between an Oklahoma environmental scientist (Ben Affleck) and a French single mother (Olga Kurylenko) is the catalyst for a swooning saga that never stops spinning ideas and bodies into a tornado of emotion. 

6. The Wolf of Wall Street: As nasty as movies come. Martin Scorsese's brilliant shakedown of capitalism gone wild compares Jordan Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio) heinous actions to that of a homegrown terrorist. His wake of destruction comes not from greed but from the desire to compromise everything and everyone with unabashed glee. 

7. Inside Llewyn Davis: Lonely are the brave—and the resentful. Oscar Isaac's lethargic folk singer spends much of Joel and Ethan Coen's breezy 1960s tale mixing up the two emotions. Heís a man of constant sorrow, an artist coming to grips with his own diminishing returns. Incredibly written and shot, the film is a spry yet painful exploration of a man dealing with a single harsh reality: The world will keep spinning without his genius. 

8. The Lone Ranger: I've been defending Gore Verbinskiís brilliant mega-western ever since it was released in July, and I might have to do so for the rest of my life, considering how potently it pisses people off. Not only is it a gorgeous example of Hollywood filmmaking; it's also a frank and often dark deconstruction of American mythmaking. For proof, look no further than Johnny Depp's Tonto, who recounts the story of the titular cowboy (Armie Hammer) to a young child while posing in a diorama of lifeless Old West artifacts. Talk about a brazen revisionist statement. 

9. Spring Breakers: Harmony Korine's glow-stick nightmare suggests that in our current acid-wash 21st-century world, some of us have lost the ability to register rock bottom. Those who refuse accountability spiral deeper into the neon abyss, documenting their own demise by way of pop culture, ego and delusion. If the film has one pronounced credo, it's that we are what we lust after, and we are lusting after self-destruction.

10. Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón's death-defying leap from space, a pure cinematic adrenaline rush, gave me the most joy of any film at the multiplex this year. Some have argued it's all style and no substance, but I can't help but feel those objections miss the film's real achievement: the seamless meshing of Dr. Ryan Stone's (Sandra Bullock) physical journey with a spiritual and emotional reckoning where past trauma is revealed in its purest form. 

For good measure, 10 superb honorable mentions: Woody Allen's heartbreaking Blue Jasmine, Sarah Polley's moving Stories We Tell, Abdellatif Kechiche's yearning Blue is the Warmest Color, J.C. Chandor's grand All is Lost, Brian DePalma's kinky Passion, Joshua Oppenheimer's horrific The Act of Killing, Steven Soderbergh's crafty Side Effects, Steve McQueen's harrowing 12 Years a Slave, Walter Hill's fierce Bullet to the Head and Rob Zombie's mind-melting The Lords of Salem.

Finally, five great theatrically released films that failed to reach San Diego: At Berkeley, Leviathan, Bastards, The Unspeakable Act and In the Fog. Seek them out at all costs.

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