Well, with 2013 officially gone and past, it’s finally time to look back at the year that was in cinema. Okay, sure, 2013 officially ended over a month ago, but I have spent this extra month catching up on films I (sometimes regrettably) hadn’t yet seen and, of course, also took my time deliberating which films, performances, and works were truly my favorites from those released during the year.
In my opinion, it seems quite safe to say that 2013 was a standout year for cinema, arguably one of the very best in my lifetime and certainly the best in recent memory — though 2010 sure was a fine year as well. Perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of 2013’s crop of films is that, over the course of the year, it became decidedly more and more difficult to piece together a top ten list without that feeling of leaving off some very good, very important films.
Since I began keeping track of 2013’s releases back in March, six different films owned the number-one spot on my work-in-progress Top Ten list, and once I saw the last film I wanted to see before compiling the final edition of that list — Asghar Farhadi’s magnificent Iranian-produced, French-language romantic drama The Past — I had about 20 different films jockeying for a spot. And with 6 or 7 films that I knew would be on the list, that left more than a dozen titles vying for the remaining 3 or 4 slots. I’m sure others had similar difficulties putting together their own Top Tens, but this was a bit of an exhausting exercise for me.
As always when creating a definitive list like this, there are a few films regrettably left on the cutting-room floor, but never fear, I pieced together an honorable mention as well to make sure that I could give a small shout-out to some other great films that didn’t quite make the list. But first, let’s take a look and see how exactly we got here. Humor me, will ya?
For me, 2013, got off to a typically rocky start thanks to the utter trash that made its way to cinemas in January, but lucky for me, my favorite film of 2012 — Silver Linings Playbook — had a very, very long stay in theaters, which meant I ended up seeing it a good five or six times before its theatrical run ended.
But then, in February, Steven Soderbergh got the ball rolling with what may be his last theatrically released film, Side Effects. It is a psychological thriller, Hitchcockian in nature, filled with twists and turns, and, much like the year in film, chockfull of nice surprises. I didn’t see too much else in theaters until May, instead opting to catch up on TV shows and movies on Netflix, but once summer rolled around, it was off to the races and goodbye to my hard-earned cash.
I spent the majority of June, July, and August at my local arthouse theater, checking out the highly acclaimed smaller releases from earlier in the year, primarily films that premiered at Sundance, SXSW, or other festivals across the country and globe. As it turns out, 2013 was quite the year for coming-of-age films and indie comedies, films like The Way Way Back, Frances Ha, The Spectacular Now, In A World…, and Enough Said, among others. In fact, I decided to do a write-up of my summer cinematic experiences, my “summer at the arthouse” as I called it, which you can check out here.
As the year drew on, it became clear that this was an unusually strong year for film, and not just for the big guys but for the little guys, too, and every size of film in between. World War Z proved that an absolutely hellish production didn’t necessarily lead to a poor film, The World’s End and This Is The End made for a great apocalyptic two-fer, Prisoners was a surprisingly taut thriller that rose far above the paint-by-numbers film its trailers advertised, and Gravity became one of the highest-acclaimed box-office attractions I can remember.
But unlike in other years where that run-on sentence would end without further additions to the list, 2013 continues on. Captain Phillips provided harrowing true-life thrills and one of the best final sequences of any film in 2013, 12 Years A Slave featured some of the most difficult-to-watch sequences I’ve seen in a while, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire provided a blockbuster sequel that wasn’t a letdown but rather an improvement, Nebraska reminded me of so many things I miss from my Midwestern upbringing and others I can’t possibly distance myself from enough, and American Hustle reminded us that a performance-led caper with a meandering plot could fight its way through all those awful hairdos and produce an intoxicating cinematic experience.
Surely that’s not all, but I’m sure by now you get the point: it was a fantastic year for films. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the continuation of Matthew McConaughey’s career renaissance — the McConaissance, if you will — with his roles in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club; the unbelievably compelling sports rivalry flick Rush; the awkward but unabashedly charming VOD hit Drinking Buddies; the heart-breaking aloneness portrayed by Robert Redford in All Is Lost; or the absolutely stunning performances and screenplays that comprised magnificent foreign-language films like The Hunt (Jagten), The Past (Le Passé), and Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adéle).
And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite documentary of the year, the magnificently layered and abundantly touching Stories We Tell, a film I considered putting on my Top Ten list but opted, instead, to keep separate from the narrative features, though it practically plays as a narrative feature given its structure and the story it, er, tells. Though I’m limiting my Top Ten to traditional feature films, I want it to be known that Sarah Polley’s heartfelt documentary is right up there among the year’s finest. You can read more about my thoughts on the film a little further down in this post.
All of this is to say that 2013 really was an excellent year for film, but instead of continuing to babble on and on and on with prose, I’ll allow you to (finally) read through my Honorable Mentions, on Special Recognition award, and my Top Ten list. Each entry in my Honorable Mentions contains a brief sentence or two about why I liked the film, and each entry in my Top Ten has a lengthier explanation to hopefully convince you of two things: first, why I liked it so much, and two, why you should see it if you haven’t already. So, without further ado, here are my honorable mentions, followed by my picks for the top ten films of 2013.
2013 HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
12 Years A Slave || directed by Steve McQueen
In a year of dark cinema, this is by far the grimmest film I’ve seen at the theater, largely due to the themes it tackles — slavery, the sale of free men and women, humans as property, and the dehumanization of an entire race, among others. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, 12 Years A Slave is a film that should be viewed by all.
All Is Lost || directed by J.C. Chandor
As the only character who appears on-screen, Robert Redford carries the film extremely well, portraying a vast array of emotions and putting on display a physicality rarely matched by many of today’s younger, fitter stars. He is darn near perfect in the role, particularly when he allows his emotions to really come through the outer surface of his character.
American Hustle || directed by David O. Russell
While his visual flair is on point here, director David O. Russell truly is the master of properly utilizing the eccentricities of his characters and using volatile personalities, motivations, and actions to move his story along. The world of American Hustle is so sprawling that it really allows the characters to breathe and shift the story all over the board.
The Hunt (Jagten) || directed by Thomas Vinterberg
This film asks weighty, difficult questions and isn’t afraid to face them head-on. Led by a knockout performance from Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt is a truly stressful, emotionally engaging piece of cinema. Once the narrative begins to unravel, so, too, do our senses of calm and safety.
In A World… || directed by Lake Bell
Though this is only Lake Bell’s first written and directed feature, In A World… feels like a veteran outing from a serious independent filmmaker.The film is well-balanced and extremely well-acted, a feat for any filmmaker but an especially great one given Bell’s relative inexperience behind the camera.
Nebraska || directed by Alexander Payne
Simple. Quaint. Unassuming. It’s the perfect description of Nebraska in the fall, and the perfect description of director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, the film. With the help of his curmudgeon lead Bruce Dern and a gaggle of other solid performers, Payne gets perfectly right all the mundane little moments that make up rural and even suburban Midwestern life.
The Past (Le Passé) || directed by Asghar Farhadi
An intimate family drama with a layered story and nuanced performances from the entire cast, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is most certainly one of the year’s best films, foreign-language or otherwise. Berenice Bejo, Pauline Burlet, and the rest of the cast are terrific, and with a fantastic screenplay that slowly (and smartly) reveals more and more about its characters, The Past is absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end.
Prisoners || directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a truly great crime thriller, replete with a host of solid name actors, a great story, and one of the finest, most satisfying endings I’ve seen at the theaters in some time, especially as far as thrillers are concerned. The trailers sold a generic suspense film, but Villeneuve has created a taut film that never feels as long as its runtime suggests.
Rush || directed by Ron Howard
Rare is the sports film that doesn’t feel like a sports film, the one that worries less about constant last-second drama and more about the people involved in the story. Ron Howard’s Rush is that rare breed, mixing character drama and intense competition in such a way that racing, while technically the “focus” of the film, takes a back seat and serves as a supporting character to the story’s marvelous leads.
The Spectacular Now || directed by James Ponsoldt
The Spectacular Now is a teenage tale unafraid of exploring hard truths and difficult subjects, its brazen, emboldened characters serving as realistic caricatures of ourselves as audience members, whether we are 14 or 40. Thanks to pitch perfect turns from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, the film captures the heart and spirit of the teenage generation through realistic dialogue and situations that never feel put-upon.
The Way, Way Back || directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
The Way, Way Back is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and completely endearing. While it certainly utilizes clichés at times, The Way Way Back rises above the typical coming-of-age pratfalls not by avoiding clichés but by being sincere when it maneuvers toward traditional genre tropes. It is honest and upbeat, not by faking it but by actually being it.
As I was putting together my Top Ten list, I came to the decision to keep my favorite documentary of 2013, Sarah Polley’s beautifully personal Stories We Tell, out of the running, instead limiting my list to narrative features only. But I knew that I needed to give the film its due recognition, and so, instead of relegating it to my admittedly overlong list of Honorable Mentions, I chose to give it a specific distinction — the Special Juror’s Award, with myself as the lone titular juror. Stories We Tell is a film I adore, and so, without further ado, please read on to learn more about why I felt Stories We Tell deserved special distinction in year chockfull of great films.
Stories We Tell || directed by Sarah Polley
We are all storytellers. Sometimes our stories are thrilling, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes one story can be each of these, all at once. Filmmaker Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell is one of those all-encompassing tales. But the thing about telling a story is that each of us views life through our own filter. What you see is not always what I see, and what I see not always what you see; our truths are our own, and they often differ. Most of these differences rest in the details, not so much the meat of the story but rather the marinade it is bathed in: one subtle difference or one opposing vantage point can change how two people view the same event, instance, or situation.
In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s story — in short, the story of one great big family secret, culled together through interviews, archive footage, and faux home video recreations — is neat and well-told, though highly contradictory depending upon who is telling it. But therein lies the point: we all remember and tell stories in different manners, view things under different hued lights. But Polley digs through the contradictions, the confusion, and the murk to finally discover the truth about her family, her mother, and herself in this fantastic doc.
TOP TEN FILMS OF 2013
Ah, finally, we come to this: my list of the Top Ten films of 2013, the movies I loved the most in a year where cinema truly reigned supreme. You can click each movie poster below to be linked to my review of the film over at Letterboxd. Now, let’s get on with it, starting with…
10. The Wolf of Wall Street || directed by Martin Scorsese
Feeding off the electric performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street is a darkly comic, hugely entertaining takedown of the excessive Wall Street lifestyle. On the surface — and in all of its promotional materials — the film looks like one big party, but it never loses sight of the fact that its characters actions are reprehensible. And DiCaprio, disgusting and unlikable as he may be here, brings so much energy to the lead role that you can’t help but keep your eyes locked on the screen for all three hours of the film’s runtime, though at times you might be inclined to look away.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film about money, what DiCaprio’s character Jordan Belfort refers to as the most addictive drug known to man. When Belfort first comes to Wall Street, he is a seemingly innocent newlywed looking to make money to support his wife. But in a short time, he is paying for hookers and snorting cocaine with even more frequency than his mentor, played by Matthew McConaughey. And that’s just the beginning of Belfort’s epic downward spiral.
One of the most controversial and misunderstood films of the year, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, is also one of the best. It has generated some of the most intriguing film-related conversations, and has been subject to some of the most blatantly ignorant backlash, but the beauty of cinema is that one man can take the view that Wolf glorifies excess, the other that it condemns it, and each can debate the merits of their arguments almost endlessly — though I’m absolutely on the side of condemnation, not glorification.
9. Side Effects || directed by Steven Soderbergh
In a quick Google search, the definition for the word “thriller” comes up as this: a novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage.
Centered on a woman (Rooney Mara) anxious about her changing life situation and all the prescriptions — and people — she uses and abuses to make life normal again, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects fits this definition to a tee. It is one half pharmaceutical industry treatise, the other half crime-detective thriller, and the two blend together to form a cohesive, clever whole through a variety of unexpected plot twists and two very impressive performances from Rooney Mara and Jude Law.
Coming on the heels of 2012’s male stripper drama Magic Mike and immediately preceding Behind the Candelabra, the director’s straight-to-HBO Liberace biopic, Side Effects — supposedly Soderbergh’s final theatrically released feature film — is a magnificent second-act in the rangy director’s three-part Hollywood exit strategy.
If Side Effects is indeed Soderbergh’s last theatrical film, he will be sorely missed, but at least he can say he went out on a high note. But don’t be surprised if, like the engaging Hitchcockian thriller he has crafted, Soderbergh makes a late-act plot twist of his own and decides to come back to the cinematic medium he has toiled in for the last 25 years. I’d certainly welcome it, given the career peak he’s exiting on.
8. Fruitvale Station || directed by Ryan Coogler
For all intents and purposes, Fruitvale Station could have been a manipulative film. First-time writer-director Ryan Coogler could have taken the easy way out, bastardized and butchered the story of Oscar Grant, littered his film with artificial events to make the audience care more for his protagonist — but he didn’t, and for that alone, Coogler should be applauded. And given how fantastic his first feature film turned out, the massive critical praise for Coogler’s work is very much deserved.
In Fruitvale Station, Coogler utilizes rising star Michael B. Jordan to great effect, bringing one of the year’s best performances out of a man who shows unbelievable promise, and who, frankly, should have been considered more heavily in Best Actor conversations than he seems to have been. Jordan wears the inner turmoil of Oscar Grant not on his sleeve, but on his shirt’s front, smack dab in the top-left, directly over his heart. Coogler and Jordan are a dynamic one-two storytelling punch, the former with his unique vision, the latter with his heart-wrenching performance.
Fruitvale Station explores themes of family, economy, racism, and above all, humanity. For one day, we see the life of Oscar Grant, his passion for life, his love for his family, and his deep anguish at the life he has lived thus far. Fruitvale Station has a heart that beats loud, from first frame to last, and serves as an example of emotionally charged cinema at its gut-punching finest. You want poignant, here it is folks.
7. Frozen || directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
On the surface, Disney’s latest fairy tale Frozen — a fresh new spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — is a highly entertaining rebirth of the animation house’s classic musical epic. But underneath its sparkly, snow-covered, veneer is an empowering, progressive tale that subverts so many of the studio’s own trusty tropes and storytelling mechanics.
Frozen is the most recent and biggest step forward in Disney’s second renaissance, which began with Tangled in 2010 and included stops in Winnie the Pooh‘s Hundred Acre Wood (2011) and the captivating video game world of Wreck-It Ralph (2012).
Much like those of its predecessors, Frozen‘s animated visuals create a world of true wonder that is easy to get wrapped up in. And if there has been a better vocal performance in the last 5 years, don’t tell Idina Menzel, whose rendition of the original song “Let It Go” will stop you dead in your tracks. If the visuals don’t drop your jaw, Menzel’s pipes will.
But of all the things the film has going for it, perhaps its greatest asset is its progressive themes: its riffs on the classic fairy tale trope of marrying Prince Charming; its strong and sometimes clumsy but never dainty female characters; and its self-empowered protagonists who discover they don’t need someone else to make them valued members of society. Frozen is a tale about love, not romantic but familial, pushing forth the notion that, at the end of the day, family, not true love, is what makes the world go round.
6. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints || directed by David Lowery
Since it first premiered at Sundance, writer-director David Lowery’s haunting romantic western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been likened to the films of Terrence Malick over and over, like a broken record. The Terrence Malick diehards out there aren’t likely to agree, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is, in my opinion, better than any Malick film I’ve ever seen — and I think The Thin Red Line is one heck of a film. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s clear that Lowery is a man with his own unique stories and vision, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is just the latest step in what looks to be a very promising career.
2013 was a year filled with tumultuous love stories, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is easily one of the most ill-fated of the bunch. Yet, despite the fact we are almost assured the film will come to an unfortunate, regretful end, David Lowery’s beautiful, alluring, and honest work provides us with the knowledge that even if his outlaw couple doesn’t survive, their love will live on.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a tale of love, compassion, and hope, delivered through a series of affecting scenes, anchored by three stellar performances, crafted with gorgeous picture-perfect cinematography, and punctuated by one of the best original scores of the year. The film is poetic, both narratively and visually, and is proof that Lowery is a unique, compelling, singular cinematic voice.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis || directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
The latest film from the brothers Coen isn’t a story so much as it is a journey, and the titular main character doesn’t do things so much as things happen in the world around him. Llewyn Davis lives a day at a time, focused not on the future but the present, trying not to thrive but to survive. Unfortunately, everything seems to go wrong for Llewyn, as each day is filled with mistakes, missed opportunities, or untimely events. In this way, each of us can relate to the character on some level, which is part of what draws viewers into the Coens’ folk-infused 1960s period drama.
With music that weighs heavily into both the atmosphere and the narrative of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis contains arguably the best overall use of music among 2013 releases. Oscar Isaac is a revelation as Davis, from picking fights with strangers to oozing anguish at a dinner party to playing in front of the owner of a popular folk music joint. Isaac’s performance is an all-around knockout, particularly the way he mines emotion through his guitar and his voice.
Roger Ebert once likened the movies to a machine that generates empathy, and that’s exactly what the Coens have crafted with Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an intimate portrait of a man trying to overcome his own struggles and face head-on whatever the next day brings. For the duration of the film, the cogs of Ebert’s metaphorical empathy-generator spin full-bore, and they don’t stop until the credits roll — with music to accompany them, of course.
4. Frances Ha || directed by Noah Baumbach
There is something so very sweet about low-key, small budget comedies like writer-director Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. And in a year ripe with very good coming-of-age tales, this one is, in my opinion, the best of the pack. It is unabashedly, beautifully awkward, mumblecore to the very bone, elegant in ways other larger coming-of-age films could never even aspire to be. I think understated is the key word I’m looking for here.
Led by the performance of co-writer Greta Gerwig as Frances, as well as some absolutely stunning black-and-white photography and a killer soundtrack — “Modern Love” will forever make me want to run through the streets — the film conjures memories of films from the French New Wave, and from the great American writer-director Woody Allen. But while it is surely an homage to those types of films, it is also a movie that stands perfectly straight on its own two feet, even if its main character can’t normally say the same about herself.
Frances Ha is a film stripped down to the barest of essentials and served up on a platter as a sort of instant nostalgia. It is funny, sharp, and sweetly romantic, but not in the traditional boy-meets-girl sense; it seems Baumbach and Gerwig know better than to go down that road with their main character, which I applaud them for. Above all, Frances Ha is a fun, carefree cinematic respite, sure to evoke both sorrow and bliss throughout its story, but in the end, the bliss is what remains, both on the screen and in our hearts.
3. Short Term 12 || directed by Destin Cretton
Touching. Moving. Poignant. These are words thrown around in reviews for films that often just scratch the surface of their definitions. But when it comes to Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Cretton’s film about the staff and at-risk teens who coexist at a short-term foster facility, those words hardly seem to do the film justice.
Its subtlety and sheer authenticity give rise to a natural groundswell of genuine human emotion, allowing the audience to share in the simultaneous torment and hopefulness that the film’s foster staff feels for its at-risk youth counterparts. Short Term 12 is an emphatic, heartrending rollercoaster ride that grabs you by the heart in its first frame and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll.
Rarely do we describe small, personal works of cinema as “harrowing.” The term is typically reserved for pulse-pounding thrillers, heavy dramas, and films with profound social commentary. But Short Term 12, despite its unassuming nature, is exactly that: harrowing. It’s an independent feature adapted from Cretton’s short film of the same name and made for less than $1 million, but don’t let the nonchalance of its production and distribution fool you: Short Term 12 is absolutely stunning, led by some of the very best young adult performances you are going to see.
2. Before Midnight || directed by Richard Linklater
Director Richard Linklater, together with his writing collaborators (and stars) Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, has made three of the most intimate, unassuming, true-to-life romantic dramas of his generation, and perhaps in the history of cinema. The immense critical success of this slice-of-life, walk-and-talk franchise is a testament to the trio’s approach, allowing ideas to form over time instead of forcing a narrative onto the page.
Before Midnight spans almost an entire day in the lives of now-cohabitating free spirits Celine and Jesse. It is composed of just a handful of scenes, each of which reveals bits and pieces about their relationship by allowing us to see it in action for the first time, as they interact with others and reminisce about the times of old. If ever a story, no matter how simple or complex, was perfectly told, Before Midnight may be that story.
It is always difficult to proclaim the latest installment in any series “the best,” often simply because the film feels too recent, our opinions of it not yet allowed to settle into place. And it’s especially hard with a series as consistently strong as Linklater’s Before… trilogy. But that said, after watching each of these films again and again and again, I don’t know that my opinion of the third film in this saga is going to change: it is, indeed, the best. The only question for me is, will it be the last?
1. Her || directed by Spike Jonze
Every so often, there is a film that comes along that is truly representative of the current point in our society’s history, a film that, whether fiction or nonfiction, forces us to step back and take a long, deep look at who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are headed.
In 2013, that film is Her. But not only is Her the most socially relevant fictional cinema that 2013 has to offer, it is also my unabashed favorite movie of the year. Spike Jonze’s low-key, stripped-down sci-fi is many things at once: an examination of relationships, love, and loss; a contemplation of connectedness and isolation; a meditation on humanity and the nature of existence; and of course, a rumination on the role technology plays in our lives. It’s also a genuinely funny and sincere off-beat love story.
The threads of each of these conceptual fibers are woven so perfectly, so seamlessly, that while the viewer can immediately see how Jonze has flipped the clichéd love story on its head, it takes a while for the deeper stitches to unravel, for the viewer to see everything Jonze has truly accomplished. Her is a visionary film from a visionary writer-director; it doesn’t just call for and reward contemplation, discussion, and repeat viewings, it prompts all three.
The more you think about its ambitious ideas, the more you talk about its complex viewpoints, the more you see the story and world that Spike Jonze has crafted, the more you will ultimately take from it. And not only that, the more you will like it, and perhaps — as I do — love it.
And so, there you have it folks, my list of what I consider to be my very favorite movies released in 2013. Certainly I could make arguments for just about any of my top six or seven films to take that number one spot, but for me, Her not only proved to be a highly entertaining sci-fi romance and a surprisingly funny and touching tragicomedy, it was also extremely thought-provoking, and thus led to a lot of interesting discussion both on the internet and in my own real-world interactions.
Even greater, Spike Jonze’s Her seems to be the one film that really defines where we are at as a society, specifically when considering the crossroads of technological innovation and interpersonal human interaction. All of these things factored into my enjoyment of the film, and the fact that I can think about and talk about Her for hours on end speaks volumes of the film’s inner workings, its commendable ambition, and, I would argue, its overall quality.
Again, listed below are my top ten favorite films of 2013, and be sure to check back in the coming days to see which films and performances receive additional acknowledgement when I hand out my slate of year-end awards!
2. Before Midnight
3. Short Term 12
4. Frances Ha
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
8. Fruitvale Station
9. Side Effects
10. The Wolf of Wall Street