For professional film critics, you'll notice, the year in film tends to conclude prematurely. Those “Best Of” lists you see popping up everywhere often have been tallied, decided and finalized by mid-November — and in the web's ever-harried race for clicks and pageviews, that date seems to be advancing all the time. (The Voice's own film poll closed on Dec. 11.) Among the more regrettable consequences of this is an illusion of gatekeeping. The impulse to declare and broadcast an opinion of a film as far in advance of its release as possible has, I suspect, created a sense that the only films of the year worth talking about those are available exclusively to critics. (I admit and apologize for my own indulgence in this practice.)
It's doubtless frustrating to open countless Best Film lists to find an assortment of foreign curiosities and indies with only meager distribution — films bestowed only a nominal one-week theatrical run on the coasts before disappearing into obscurity. But one of the pleasant things about moviegoing in 2013 is that many of these titles, however minuscule their budgets, make their way to video-on-demand services, often in time for year-end catching up.
With that in mind, here are five of the year's most accomplished and highly regarded movies, each of which is available to stream, for no extra charge, on Netflix Instant.
1. Room 237 (Director: Rodney Ascher)
Not so much a documentary about The Shining as a portrait of the quiet madness its legacy has inspired and enshrined, Rodney Ascher's Room 237 quickly proves no less intriguing than the film its subjects regard with such reverence. It may be that the many conspiracy theories declaimed by Ascher's eccentric interviewees begin to seem almost infectious — it's as if the delusions of the film's obsessives could be caught like a disease. Be advised: Kubrick can never be seen the same way again.
2. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
One of Mexico's premier auteurs, the great Carlos Reygadas, returned this year with perhaps his most challenging feature film to date, the gorgeous, terrifying and frequently inscrutable Post Tenebras Lux. But despite its occasional forays into apparent abstraction — a sanguine Satan with a briefcase and a glowing, yard-long member, two arbitrary cuts to a schoolyard rugby match, and so on — the film never seeks to punish. Whatever effort may be required by Reygadas is duly returned.
3. Somebody Up There Likes Me (Bob Byington)
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a comedy of the sort popularized by The Office and its legion of carbon-copy primetime successors — founded on the pain of embarrassment and discomfort, its jokes largely revolve around its hero's various poses of social awkwardness. But Bob Byington's interests run deeper: His film is as invested in the pathos of the story as it is in the natural humor, which may be why its gags so often seem to touch a nerve.
4. This Is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan)
Be wary of any Sundance darling billed as “gentle” or “unassuming” — these are well-known critical euphemisms for “cloying” and “interminable,” common qualities among Park City alumni. But Chad Hartigan's This Is Martin Bonner, an understated drama about an aging Christian and the ex-convict he gradually befriends, is gentle and unassuming in the best possible sense: sophisticated rather than tepid, moving rather than bland.
5. Upstream Color
It's been nearly a decade since Shane Carruth emerged, seemingly from nowhere, to ensnare less elastic minds with his left-brain time-travel opus, Primer, in 2004, and the question of how the film world's only math-whiz auteur might one-up himself with his sophomore feature has finally been answered — though not quite as anybody expected. While no less complex than its predecessor, Upstream Color proved considerably warmer, revealing a side of its already exhaustively multitalented writer-director-editor-composer-star that few had anticipated: He's as interested in feeling as in thought.