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At the indie end of the scale, five new films tried to show us something we'd never seen before. Frances Ha, the very finest film of 2013, boasts the best actress (Greta Gerwig), one of the best directors (Noah Baumbach), one of the best screenplays (a joint effort of Baumbach and Gerwig), plus that indelible feeling that something fresh and wonderful has just arrived on little cat feet. Kill Your Darlings continues the fascination with 20th-century cultural avatars in the romanticized, convulsive story of poet Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe, the former Harry Potter), glimpsed as a 1940s college student transforming himself. Director John Krokidas is a major talent.
We head deeper into the jungle of human endeavor with Sebastián Silva's Crystal Fairy and Park Chan-wook's Stoker. The former, aka Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012, may indeed be the ultimate comic hippie road trip. It certainly puts actress Gaby Hoffmann (daughter of former Andy Warhol superstar Viva) on the map as the only actress you'll ever need when the time comes to have a stoned, naked American woman go on a scavenger hunt on a Chilean beach. Santiago filmmaker Silva (The Maid, Old Cats) is a major talent. Meanwhile, South Korean cult figure Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) makes an impressive Hollywood debut directing a bizarre family shocker, written by Wentworth Miller and outfitted with a high-wattage duo of Australia's finest, Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, doing what they do best. The subtexts in Stoker are inexhaustible.
Spring Breakers, manger dog of the Top Ten, didn't overly impress us when we went to the press screening back in March. That time of year is typically the burying ground for films distributors don't know what to do with, and writer-director Harmony Korine's (Mister Lonely, Gummo, Kids) over-amped chronicle of college-girl debauchery in a Florida beach town seemed a sure candidate for oblivion. We found it slow for all its noisy hyperactivity, with too many gratuitous lyrical interludes of the four squealing main characters cavorting in their underwear. Or were those their swimsuits?
But the broad implications of Korine's story stayed in our mind. That was partly because of James Franco's performance as Alien, the cornrowed rapper/drug dealer who takes the relatively sweet — for armed robbers, that is — coeds down the rabbit hole of commerce. It's been a hellacious year for Franco: Homefront, This Is the End, Oz the Great and Powerful, Lovelace, and a clutch of privately produced features and shorts known only to god and IMDb.com — including Interior. Leather Bar., a riff on Cruising. He also wrote a short story collection called Palo Alto, and assumed the role of Mr. Gucci. Then to remember him with a gleaming grill in his mouth, showing off his collection of assault weapons to impress four kids from flyover land, something clicked. Franco, with help from Korine's violent montage and music by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, makes all the difference. All the conjecture about Franco and Korine spinning a critique of mercantile America — the land of bagheads, pimps, hos, and tomorrow's combat casualties — begins to make perfect sense, especially after a second viewing. Spring Breakers is not for everyone, but the truth never really is.
If there's one common denominator among the best movies of 2013, it's that undervalued commodity, character. Here are some narrative fiction films (in no particular order) that in another, less bountiful year might have cracked the Top Ten. All of them are crawling with personality: Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love; J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost; Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines; Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful; Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing; Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects; Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners; Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring; Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club; Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station; Brian Helgeland's 42; and David O. Russell's American Hustle.
Also: James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now; Richard Linklater's Before Midnight; Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy; Brian Percival's The Book Thief; Ron Howard's Rush; Johnnie To's Drug War; Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster (the longer Chinese version); Asghar Farhadi's The Past; and Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color. Plus one for the late-show crowd: Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, with Kristin Scott Thomas as an expat criminal boss in Bangkok. And a couple of Guilty Pleasures: Rawson Marshall Thurber's drug-smuggling comedy We're the Millers and Shawn Levy's Google promo The Internship, featuring America's favorite lunkheads, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.
Documentaries weren't quite their usual compelling selves this year for some reason, possibly having to do with "outrage doc" overkill. But these domestic and international docs shone through the mist: Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog's Happy People: A Year in the Taiga; Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom; Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali; Jehane Noujaim's The Square; Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett's A Band Called Death; Greg "Freddie" Camalier's Muscle Shoals; Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp; Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley; Jacob Kornbluth's Inequality for All; Joshua Oppenheimer & Anonymous' The Act of Killing; Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish; Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie; and Teller's Tim's Vermeer.