The Grierson & Leitch Best Films of 2013: Nos. 5-1S

It's the final week of 2013, so we're wrapping the year up the way movie people are supposed to wrap the year up: Lists! Friday, we each gave our five worst films of 2013. Yesterday, we each counted down our No. 6-10 best movies of the year. Today, we finish off with our top fives.

Just to remind: As we established yesterday, as you read our top 10s know that neither one of us will be reading each other's. This is the first—well, the second, counting yesterday's—blog post that requires spoilers for the people who wrote it.

Here goes.

Leitch

5. Her, directed by Spike Jonze
What a relief, to have a movie that's essentially about people falling in love with their computers be so cheerful, good-hearted and optimistic about the whole experience. This is a grandly ambitious movie—it's basically trying to answer the question "What is love?"—but it is constructed from small moments with big emotions. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in his best performance) is clearly falling in love with his OS Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), and while his ex-wife (and perhaps you) thinks it's just an example of him retreating from real life, who's to say what's "real life" about love in the first place? The movie also looks fantastic, and it's nice to have a vision of the future, for once, that's almost cheery. Our world is changing faster than we can keep up with. The question is whether we should change with it, or whether we even can. (Original review here.)

4. Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley
Actress Sarah Polley starts with one question, one that has nagged at her for her entire life and one her family has attempted to keep hidden from her: Who is her real father? Her investigation leads her places she never could imagine, and while the mystery of the Polley family is fascinating, it's not the point of this riveting documentary. It's more about the way we construct narratives of our lives only later, once most of the action, and we're constantly rewriting our own stories to make them makes sense to the world, to ourselves. This is a wonderful film about memory, about forgiveness, about hope, about life.

3. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass
Greengrass has always been an expert at capturing (or at least imitating) real life drama, but here, he goes a step further by telling the story of two men who, while currently combatants, are really just the same helpless pawns in the same massive machine. This is a story about a man who is kidnapped by another man—and it never fails in that basic telling—but it's also about how larger economic forces, and major corporate actors who work only in their own interest, force people into situations that are entirely out of their control. It's riveting action, but it's much more than that. And it wraps up with an emotional wallop that'll take you completely off guard. (Original review here.)

2. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
I don't think I've ever had a more difficult time choosing among the best two films. (Maybe 2008, among three films.) Like their previous film A Serious Man, the Coen brothers are doing a dissertation on suffering, but as much as I loved that film (it was my favorite movie of 2009), this one is better. It's alternately hilarious, scary, mean and deeply sympathetic to its main character, the eponymous folk singer (played perfectly by Oscar Isaac) who is good... but just not quite good enough. Of all the things Inside Llewyn Davis is about—some of which reveal themselves more with each viewing—to me, at its heart, it's a story about grief. Everything that happens to Llewyn, every mean-spirited thing he does, every failure visited upon him... it's all a result of being a man adrift without his partner, a man soldiering on to his doom, knowing he's doomed, plunging forward regardless. But you might feel something else. Inside Llewyn Davis is a breathtaking movie that seems to reveal new levels the more you think about it, the more often you see it. I wonder if, ultimately, we'll consider it the definitive Coen brothers film.

1. 12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen.
12 Years A Slave is devastating in every possible way, and it's such a straightforward, powerful gut-punch that the fact that no film on the subject has contained even close to its impact is a furious indictment in itself. The film hews impressively close to the facts of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir, but never feels anything but urgent to the world today; the movie, without ever overplaying its hand, shows how the evils of that time are far from eradicated today. For all Steve McQueen's unsparing direction—and the man is making an industry out of human suffering—I'm not sure John Ridley's script has received enough recognition: It hits every note precisely right. I left the theater shaking, with rage, with fear, with sorrow. I'll never forget it. (Original review here.)

GRIERSON

5. Leviathan, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel.

A startling slap in the face to contemporary documentary conventions, Leviathan doesn't care about talking-head interviews, cutesy onscreen graphics, tidy narratives or feel-good messages. Instead, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel want us to feel viscerally what it's like to work on a fishing boat in the stormy waters off New England. Utilizing shaky handheld cameras than can induce seasickness if you're not careful, the filmmakers transform this harsh environment into a nightmarish, otherworldly alternate reality that's as primal and punishing as anything you've ever seen in a nonfiction film. I've heard Leviathan be described as if it were a death-metal album—unrelenting and imposing—and it's a fair comparison. But the movie's transporting, atmospheric vision of a pitiless, untamed world is consistently astonishing. In a year that gave us survival stories like Gravity and All Is Lost, Leviathan is the movie that wrung me out the most.

4. Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater.

Sequels rarely top the originals, and that goes double for the third installment in a franchise. And yet Before Midnight is the best yet of this series directed by Richard Linklater and starring (and co-written by) Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) are now a couple coping with children, commitment and nagging discontentment, and while this third film is the darkest and most despondent, it's also the funniest in the trilogy. (That's not surprising: If you want to survive as a couple, you're going to have to develop a strange sense of humor about the whole thing.) Meant to seem like off-the-cuff improvisation but actually tightly rehearsed and scripted, Before Midnight's performances carry such weight because of the quality of the actors but also because of the years we've spent with these characters, aging—and hopefully growing—right along with them.

3. Let the Fire Burn, directed by Jason Osder.

In 2013, films like 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station highlighted how racial tension has riven this country for centuries. I'd like to add to that list Let the Fire Burn, a little-seen but devastating documentary about a violent 1985 altercation between Philadelphia police and the African-American organization MOVE that resulted in 11 deaths. Director Jason Osder incorporates nothing but found footage—live local news reports from the day of the skirmish, subsequent televised public hearings investigating what happened—which creates an extraordinary you-are-there immediacy for the nearly-30-year-old events. Let the Fire Burn isn't concerned with pointing fingers—there's plenty of blame to go around in this tragedy—and instead focuses on the ways in which cultural differences and accumulated mistrust can destroy communities. Even if you're familiar with this terrible incident, the issues at play in Let the Fire Burn couldn't be more relevant—despairingly so.

2. Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.

Lesbian love story, explicit NC-17 sex drama, controversy lightning rod: Maybe at some point down the line we'll be able to appreciate Blue Is the Warmest Color for what's actually there on the screen rather than for all the noise surrounding it. Heaven knows its creators didn't make that easier by feuding publically with one another, but no matter how difficult the shoot was, director and co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche (adapting Julie Maroh's graphic novel) and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux came together to deliver an exceptional story about one young woman's (Exarchopoulos) painful transition into adulthood, aided by her first serious love (Seydoux). For all the inflammatory press it generated, Blue is actually quite a gentle, unassuming, melancholy movie about losing one's innocence and discovering that life is far too complicated to offer anything resembling a happy ending. Blue's wise, sad lessons are waiting to be discovered once we get past the din. (Original review here.)

1. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel & Ethen Coen.

If you prefer the Coen brothers irreverent and funny, Raising Arizona might be your speed. If you're partial to their screwball regionalism, Fargo probably speaks to you. But if you're like me and have come to adore their tart, smart, unsentimental portraits of everyday individuals trying to keep their head above water, Inside Llewyn Davis may very well be close to the top of your favorite of the Coens' films. In a wonderfully rueful and measured performance, Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a down-on-his-luck 1960s folk singer who embarks on a bizarre odyssey of self-discovery where failure is always an option and the punch lines are often laced with a sour sting. The occasional exuberance of a perfectly executed song, like the already-classic "Please Mr. Kennedy," barely distracts from what is, ultimately, a very, very bittersweet story about the ways in which we all struggle to achieve dreams we don't necessarily deserve, all the while worrying about the thousands of small choices along the way that got us to this disappointing crossroads. That two of our most talented, beloved filmmakers decided to do a movie about the maddening mysteries of chance and fate suggests that even they must wonder how little control they have over their own well-earned success. That their movie is this compassionate and playfully profound demonstrates the depth of their humanity and artistry. (Original review here.)

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.