The year 2013 has been an amazing one for movies, though maybe every year is an amazing year for movies if one is ready to be amazed by movies. It’s also a particularly apt year to make a list of the best films. Making a list is not merely a numerical act but also a polemical one, and the best of this year’s films are polemical in their assertion of the singularity of cinema, as well as of the art form’s opposition to the disposable images of television. The 2013 crop comprises an unplanned, if not accidental, collective declaration of the essence of the cinema, an art of images and sounds that, at their best, don’t exist to tell a story or to tantalize the audience (though they may well do so) but, rather, to reflect a crisis in the life of the filmmaker and the state of the artist’s mind or, even, soul.
It’s no surprise that the popularity of so-called serious TV series followed closely on the rise, in the nineties, of a new generation of filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and Quentin Tarantino. These were filmmakers who outran the confident naturalism of the seventies and the nostalgic verities of the eighties in pursuit of their own disruptive extravagances. They created personalized symbolic worlds that mapped fuller and deeper realities than those of the familiar modes of unquestioned realism. In this new era of assertive directors, television producers took up the vacated middle ground, self-consciously delivering characters into living rooms, with no director to get in the way.
The ever-increasing prominence of television is, in turn, sparking a renewed reflection on the part of filmmakers about what cinema is, and what it can be. The conflict between the dependent image and the essential image, between the transparent and the conspicuous, is real and serious. The enthusiasm for serious television—and by television, I mean open-ended series with multiple directors—in large measure overlaps with, and reinforces, the art-house consensus, the latter-day tradition of quality. This decade will be remembered as the golden age of television, as the nineteen-twenties are remembered as the golden age of flagpole-sitting. In this case, TV series are the events that fulfill the desire for eventfulness while also providing an ostensible simulacrum of human interest. (This is in no way meant to cast aspersions on the many excellent artists who work in television; the effort that goes in may not overcome the systemic obstacles of script and character, the primacy of the show runner and the writer rather than the director.)
The best movies this year are films of combative cinema, audacious inventions in vision. The specificity and originality of their moment-to-moment creation of images offers new ways for viewers to confront the notion of what “narrative” might be. Their revitalization of storytelling as experience restores to the cinema its primordial mode of redefining consciousness. It’s significant that some of the filmmakers in the forefront of that charge are from the generation of the elders, innovators of the seventies. In the age of radical cinema sparked by digital technology, the rise of independent producers, and the ready ubiquity of the history of cinema (thanks to DVDs and streaming video), these older directors have experienced a glorious second youth. That artistic rejuvenation is also due to the stimulating ambiance of actual youth—a young generation of freethinking cinephiles, critics, and filmmakers who, thanks to the Internet, make their appreciation of these sublime extremes widely and quickly known, even when the mainstream of viewers and reviewers miss out.