The best films of 2013

Every year Sight & Sound asks its pool of international contributors, respected colleagues and contacts to sum up the past year of cinema, both in the form of a snapshot top-five films list and with a few lines on their highlights of the year.

Given the vagaries of the international release schedules, we don't limit our voters to any prescribed list of films, just what they were able to see, so this is a broad church of a poll, including a number of films yet to emerge from the festival circuit into first-run cinemas (for UK filmgoers, that includes A Touch of Sin, Norte, the End of History and The Stranger by the Lake), plus a number that had already featured in our 2012 poll. (Leviathan, which only opened in the UK in late November, after we closed this poll, came 11th last year and 13th this.)

On this page you can find the aggregated results of our poll – led for the first time by a documentary, the groundbreaking and divisive The Act of Killing, in consideration of which we’ve published a new essay by Carrie McAlinden. Further down you can read our editors’ own selection and highlights, while overleaf you can explore all 111 voters’ submissions. Happy browsing!

Updated:

“In Southeast Asia, as in other places, dictators appoint rats and cockroaches as their executors, and they live to tell their tales. This experimental documentary is a horror show, a dagger, a guillotine, a confession box in an insane asylum. It’s also a very frightening lesson on history and how we remember it”


— Kong Rithdee
1. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer , Denmark / UK / Norway / Germany / Finland / Sweden / Netherlands / Poland 
23 votes
2. Gravity

“Seven years, two huge stars and the most expensive digital rendering equipment dollars can buy”


— Tom Huddleston

Read Jonathan Romney’s review

Read Nick James’s Venice blog post


See also Roger Luckhurst’s essay feature and our interview with Cuáron and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber in the December 2013 issue of Sight &Sound

Alfonso Cuáron, Mexico / USA
18 votes
3. Blue is the Warmest Colour

“Few films dig so deeply (and with such sense of intimacy) into the complexities of human relations, the joys and pains of self discovery and the hurtful realisation that our bodies and mind can yearn opposite things.”


— Fernanda Solórzano
Read Sophie Mayer’s review

Read Jonathan Romney’s Cannes blog post


See also Jonathan Romney’s interview with Andellatif Kechiche in the December 2013 issue of Sight &Sound


Watch Blue is the Warmest Colour on BFI Player
(La Vie d’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2
Abdellatif Kechiche, Belgium / Spain / France
17 votes
4. The Great Beauty

“A film which consolidates Paolo Sorrentino’s status as the boldest of contemporary auteurs – and reminds the world there is such a thing as genuine cinematic euphoria”


— Jonathan Romney
(La grande bellezza
)
Paolo Sorrentino
, France / Italy
15 votes
5. Frances Ha

Read Sophie Mayer’s review


See also Trevor Johnston’s interview feature with Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in the August 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

“The perfect movie about what it is to be young and lost and hopeful.”


— Tom Charity 
Noah Baumbach
, Brazil / USA
14 votes
=6. A Touch of Sin
(Tian zhu ding)
Jia Zhangke, China 
13 votes

“Jia’s astonishing wuxia update indicts with every kick and splash of red”


— Andrea Picard  
=6. Upstream Color

Read Michael Atkinson’s review


See also Jonathan Romney’s interview with Shane Carruth in the September 2013 issue of Sight &Sound

“Carruth’s enigmatic SF developed an extraordinary associative logic that left you unpicking the connections for days”


— Roger Luckhurst 
Shane Carruth, USA 
13 votes
8. The Selfish Giant

Read Jonathan Romney’s review


See also Kate Muir’s interview with Clio Barnard in the December 2013 issue of Sight & Sound


See also Clio Barnard’s Cannes diary in the July 2013 issue of Sight & Sound


Watch The Selfish Giant on BFI Player

“Barnard’s first ‘proper’ feature left me unable to speak for some 15 minutes after I’d seen it, after which I button-holed everyone in sight to hail the most distinctive voice to emerge in British cinema since Shane Meadows: skilfully distilled screenplay, perfect locations, stylistically stunning”


— Nick Roddick 
 Clio Barnard, UK
12 votes
=9. Norte, the End of History

Read Kieron Corless’s Cannes blog post


See also Aaron Cutler’s interview with Lav Diaz in the November 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

“Dense like literature and deeply rooted in the cave of cinema, Diaz’s film gives us the best and the worst of humanity.”


— Kong Rithdee 
(Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan)
Lav Diaz, Phillipines 
11 votes
=9. Stranger by the Lake

“The uneasiness it creates in the viewer ranges from the details of its Chabrolian tale of deathly desire to its puzzling sexual politics. Never have scrotums been used as such elegant compositional elements. Its effect is a state of constant arousal and distrust, and the filmmaking is unnervingly exquisite”


— Michael Koresky
(L’Inconnu du lac
Alain Guiraudie, France 
11 votes
Jim Jarmusch, USA 
Sight & Sound editors’ top five films and highlights 
Nick James, Editor 
(La grande bellezza)  Paolo Sorrentino, France / Italy 
Ida 
Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland / Denmark 
(Jiao You)  Tsai Ming-liang, France / Taiwan 
Shane Carruth, USA
Kathryn Bigelow, USA 
Highlights
2013 dazzled in its range of remarkable and/or pertinent films. I’ve picked those which shook the senses and sensibilities most.

Paolo Sorrentino’s yen for the high culture gesture can sometimes grate but the wit and panache of The Great Beauty outclasses even Il divo.


Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida vaunts a quieter perfectionism. If I say it’s like a Bela Tarr film slightly sped up I’m doing neither director a favour, but it’s the only shorthand that fits its heartfelt eloquence about Polish history and its consequences.


I’ve picked Stray Dogs because I was never so transfixed by a sequence of images.


Upstream Colour really stands for three films – I tie it together with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Spike Jonze’s Her, all of which represent fresh kinds of cinema about the way we live and think now. Shane Carruth’s film has many troubling morbid insights. I need to see Glazer’s film again but I have the feeling it’s a future classic about empathy as a virus. Her I’ve only just seen, think is tremendous, but want to hold back for next year’s poll.


Kathryn Bigelow’s profoundly misunderstood Zero Dark Thirty will not get many votes elsewhere but I’ve seen no more intelligent film on the west’s struggle with Al Quaida, and if Bigelow made a tactical mistake in thinking she could show ‘how it was’ from the CIA point of view and not get pilloried she none the less made the pathetic charade of Homeland impossible to watch.


In a very strong year for documentary, I prefer Rithy Pan’s The Missing Picture for emotional impact and Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets for insight over The Act of Killing, which I thought was far too interested in spectacle and not enough in investigation.


I can’t quite believe that Clio Barnard’s magnificent The Selfish Giant didn’t make my list.


Few films have given me more pleasure than Frances Ha and Wadjda.


Perhaps the contrast of 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained made both not quite edge the others, and the same perhaps applies to Blue is the Warmest Colour and Stranger by the Lake.


I deeply admire all of these films and want to say a word, too, for the distinctly adult pleasures of Nebraska, A Late Quartet, Gloria and Norte. What a year!

Isabel Stevens, Production Editor 
Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Pavavel, France / UK / USA
Jem Cohen, Austria / USA 
Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark / Germany / Finland / UK / Netherlands / Norway / Poland / Sweden 
Noah Baumbach, Brazil/USA 
Paul Bush, UK 
Highlights 

We started the year surrounded by the ocean in Life of Pi and ended it there too, with JC Chandor’s All is Lost. In between two smaller, but no less remarkable films floated along: Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran’s collaboration with Indian cargo sailors, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, but above all, Leviathan. Interestingly, it was this documentary about a fishing trawler, and not the sublime-courting Gravity, that offered the more immersive and disorientating spectacle about the horror of being adrift in an abyss.


Another highlight on a watery note was the Dockland Museum’s Estuary exhibition which showed numerous films about the Thames (including William Raban’s essay on the river) but most memorably John Smith’s cine-seascape, which surveyed the changing horizon over several months and seasons from one spot on Margate’s beach.


A few other memorable excavations:


David S. Shield’s study of American still and portrait photography from the silent era. Not the glossy tome you might expect (although the select number of reproductions are magnificent) but a detailed investigation, highlighting little-known photographers and their varied approaches to distilling a film into one image – from elaborate, moody staging to even etching into photographs.


Archival rummaging also played a key role in choreographer Siobhan Davies and filmmaker David Hinton’s All This Can Happen, an adaptation of Robert Walser’s The Walk. Using only fragments of old films and photographs to accompany Walser’s countryside stroll, it’s a meditation on movement which puts slow motion and split-screen techniques to innovative use.


Finally, another poetic film involving wandering: Andre Sauvage’s Etudes Sur Paris, a city symphony with eyes for the neglected edges and surreal sights of Paris; lost for so long, but now available on DVD (with a fantastic score from Jeff Mills). 
Kieron Corless, Deputy Editor 
Pedro Costa, Portugal (in the portmanteau Centro Histórico)
(Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan)  Lav Diaz, Philippines 
(Història De La Meva Mort)  Albert Serra, Spain / France 
(L’Inconnu du lac)  Alain Guiraudie, France 
Pat Collins, Ireland 
Highlights 

The Mania Akbari retrospective at BFI Southbank – a revelation, especially One.Two.One (released on DVD by the always excellent Second Run).


French documentarian Sylvain George’s first ever screening in the UK – and he was there at the ICA to introduce his magnificent Vers Madrid.


More Second Run releases – the exquisite Krzysztof Zanussi film Illumination from 1973, a real find (and in the same box set, Wojciech Marczewski’s anti-totalitarian satire Escape from Liberty Cinema).


On a visit to O Som e a Furia’s production offices in Lisbon in spring, I happily accepted an invitation to watch the first edit of Miguel Gomes’ new short Redemption. Another absolute beauty; why wasn’t it in the LFF?


The opening of BFI’s Gothic season was a balmy summer’s evening and a restoration of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. If that weren’t enough, an intro by the actress Peggy Cummins too. Great night.


Cannes this year had a few things to recommend it, by far the best being an inadvertent double bill of moving, complex memorials – Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture and Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust.


Three generations of great British essay filmmakers – Laura Mulvey, John Akomfrah and Kodwo Eshun – appeared on stage together at the finale of BFI Southbank’s Essay Film season. Good to hear Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling’s Song of the Shirt and the work of Marc Karlin eulogised and brilliantly analysed in Eshun’s introductory lecture as well. And a big cheer too for BFI DVD’s release of Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx.


Brokering a conversation between Albert Serra and Ben Rivers in the Sight & Sound office was a massive pleasure. As was learning that Serra’s stupendous The Story of My Death had taken the main prize at Locarno.


The screening of a newly restored 35mm print of Fellini’s Satyricon at Curzon Mayfair was a total delight. The collective A Nos Amours (Joanna Hogg, Adam Roberts) who organised it – and the ongoing Chantal Akerman retrospective – deserve hearty thanks.

As ever, Gareth Evans’ Thursday night berth at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was a neverending source of enlightenment and sociability – films by Margaret Tait, Chris Petit, Peter Whitehead and JG Ballard, amongst many others. Over at Tate Modern the loss of Stuart Comer to MoMA New York is incalculable, but George Clark is already shaping up to be a very worthy successor.


Finally, hats off to Álvaro Arróba, the Spanish critic responsible not only for the Viennale’s retrospective of the long-neglected Spanish director Gonzalo García Pelayo, but also for resurrecting his career. Finally a new film, after an absence of three decades! 
Nick Bradshaw, Web Editor 
Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark / Germany / Finland / UK / Netherlands / Norway / Poland / Sweden 
(L’Image manquante)  Rithy Panh, Cambodia / France 
Sarah Polley, Canada
Don Hertzfeldt, USA 
(Feng ai)  Wang Bing, Hong Kong 
Highlights 
I chose The Act of Killing in last year’s poll, but saw it anew (in its longer ‘director’s cut’) this year while watching its journey around the world, and continued to be enthralled by the ways in which it reconfigured the movies in front of our eyes, commandeered the writing of public history with ingenuity and courage, and threw up myriad moral challenges that cut to the quick.

Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is a quieter counterpart and counterpoint, scratching at another genocidal itch with subtlety and soul; both testify to art’s ability to resist and refute the most blanket efforts at human annihilation.


Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell also intrigued and inspired with its creative investigations of documentary memory and testimony. Meanwhile, Don Hertzfeldt’s dazzling homebrew feature ‘toon It’s Going to Be a Beautiful Day (belatedly screened in the UK thanks to the appropriately DIY good offices of critics David Jenkins and Tom Huddlestone) took the pathos of subjectivity and self-unreliability right out of its skin.


My movie-watching this year has been concentrated ever more into getaway flurries at film festivals, the most delightful a privilege of which was Galicia’s Play.Doc, where I caught up with Wang Bing’s 2012 dispatch from the Chinese wilds, the relative miniature Three Sisters. The Viennale brought me up to speed with his latest, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, a 237-minute inscription of life in a mental hospital in China’s Yunnan province that, like Hertzfeldt’s film (or indeed Oppenheimer’s), breaks down walls and brings us close to the supposedly alien other – casting us loose into the cosmos in the process. (I write this from IDFA, where I’m hoping to complete this year’s triathlon of four-hour movies by documentary masters with the films by Fred Wiseman and Claude Lanzmann.)


Some almost-rans: Victor Erice’s poised and pitch-perfect Broken Windows (Vidros Partidos), a swansong to European industry in the Guimarães portmanteau Centro Histórico; the Bulgarian doc Sofia’s Last Ambulance; Pawlikowski’s elegantly other-timely Ida, an unheralded marvel at the London Film Festival; and Before Midnight – a progressively more wondrous philosophical endeavour, even I no longer so recognised its characters (or entirely believed them? – perhaps, as an exhausted parent, I felt they were too capable of self-recognition).


Lastly, by way of ‘live cinema’, the son et lumière staged by Adam Curtis and Massive Attack at this year’s Manchester Festival, a playful and provocative historical rondo which I suspect presages a more polished, linear Curtis work to come… 
James Bell, Features Editor 
(Tian zhu ding)  Jia Zhang-ke, China / Hong Kong 
Quentin Tarantino, USA 
(Le dernier des injustes)  Claude Lanzmann, France / Austria 
Don Hertzfeldt, USA