Hey, everybody! It’s that time of year — time to name my favorite movies from last year!
“But wait!” you say. “The time of year to name one’s favorites is sometime in January or perhaps, with some apology, February, but absolutely no later!”
“This is a good point,” I would respond, “but firstly, if I was a time lord, it’s not as though I would tell you. And anyway, it is that time of year — for reviewers who live in an area with no theaters that play anything other than major blockbusters who therefore do not catch up on the films of the year before until well into June.”
So, here we are, and anyway, it’s my site. What are you going to do about it?
…Wait, don’t change the page; please, I neeeeeeed youuuuuuuuuuu.
So, um, anyway. 2013 wasn’t a half-bad year for movies. It was actually a pretty good one. I think I overstated its greatness a touch in some of my earlier reviews, but then again, after the total mediocrity of 2012 and, to a lesser extent, 2011, it was easy to forget what it feels like to have that many great and/or interesting movies come out in a single year. So, yeah, maybe I overreacted a little, but still — overall, 2013 was a quality year with some quality cinema.
So, here are my Top 20 favorites for the year of 2013. Keep in mind that this is not a list of the “best” films of the year, though if I were to attempt to make one, its structure would be at least a little similar. No, this is just a list that tries to compile my personal reaction to the year’s films in some kind of order — one that’s fairly arbitrary and likely to change as I revisit some of these. For now, it’s the best I can do. (Also, I should note that there’s one movie I have yet to see that, based on the critical reception, might be a threat to this list, and that’s The Wind Rises.)
Without further ado…
20. All Is Lost
This was one of the most competitive years in recent memory for the Best Actor categories on the awards circuit. Regardless, it was insane how many of them opted to exclude Robert Redford from the running. Who else, this year, single-handedly carried an entire film? What other actor or actress had this much placed on their shoulders and worked it out? I’ll be clear — without Redford, this film wouldn’t work. The script supplies no information on this character, and it offers no supporting players with whom he can interact. It’s just him and the sea. I’ll admit that there are a lot of scenes in this movie that struck me as nothing more than a guy pulling on some ropes and whatnot, but what happens in between features some incredibly harrowing adventuring, some gorgeous visuals, and, again, absolutely brilliant acting.
There’s a cultural bandwagon surrounding this movie that I don’t quite think I’m on, but nevertheless, this is the best Disney Animation’s been since I was a small child. You’ve got your staples — rip-roaring adventure, fun characters, a snappy sense of visual comedy, a couple of decent songs, and some beautiful animation. Where Frozen goes the extra mile is in the surprising intelligence of its script. It goes well out of its way to subvert the usual Disney tropes of true love and specific gender roles, but it does that without hate and sarcasm. In showing the truth of the world we live in, it makes reality look better than fiction, and on that level, it really is a fantastic kids’ movie.
It’s always a pleasant experience to enjoy a movie more than you expect to, and that was the case here. It seemed like pretty transparent Oscar bait — likely a bit boring and stuffy and, honestly, kind of flat. And to be fair, I don’t think it ducks out of that entirely, but outside of that, it’s surprisingly sweet and funny, and moreover, it isn’t dumb. It wrestles with some pretty intense realities and gets through it mostly unscathed, even if it seems to like questions better than answers. The acting is great, the two leads have wonderful chemistry, and the film is a whole is quite charming.
17. Inside Llewyn Davis
I don’t think anyone would argue that Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t among the best directors working, if they aren’t, in fact, the best period. But they’re a diverse pair, and on a personal level, sometimes, they make films I love, and other times, they make films that I find inscrutable, weird, and/or a touch off-putting. Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhere in the middle — there’s a level on which I love it and a level on which I found that it just lost me. Fortunately, I spent more time in the first mindset than the second, and that’s why it made the list. It’s an enjoyable if not entirely insightful study of a terrible person who doesn’t realize he’s terrible and realizes even less his potential to do something great. It’s a universally spectacular cast of actors, and no one ever looks worse for getting to recite Coen dialogue. But of course, it’s the music that carries it to the next level.
16. The Kings of Summer
Here was another pleasant surprise in 2013. I’m kind of burned out on indie comedies because, as I said in this review, they tend to be more quirky and unusual than actually funny. The Kings of Summer, fortunately, is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Each of the three main characters fits well into the overall comedic tone — you’ve got your uptight, paranoid straight man, you’ve got your idealistic, melodramatic moron with tons of bad ideas that seem like great ones at the time, and you’ve got your complete lunatic. It’s a tried-and-true formula. And while the dramatic bits at the end don’t quite stick the way you’d hope, they still wrap the film up nicely and turn it into something that’s real but optimistic. We’ve been getting some great coming-of-age films lately, and The Kings of Summer belongs at the top of the stack.
15. Upstream Color
It’s difficult to talk about this movie because it’s difficult to watch this movie. Honestly, it’s been a year, and I’m still not entirely sure what actually happens in this. But you know what? I’m totally fine with that. Upstream Color is like one of the great symphonies — they’re sound only, not about anything concrete and containing no particular thesis, and yet, they’re beautiful. Upstream Color is imagery and sound in a beautiful and heartfelt narrative. It’s like someone set music to your favorite painting. Those, combined with what story it’s possible to comprehend, make Upstream Color, if not an intellectual experience, one that, emotionally, seems to take you on a journey through life in its entirety.
14. Pacific Rim
Because I like it when giant robots punch giant monsters in the face. I like it a lot.
13. Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station qualifies as “good enough that I wish it was better,” but still, it’s very good. More importantly, I think it’s the sort of film our society needs right around now, for all the things that have happened of late and how they’ve affected us as people. It’s gentle and unobtrusive, and yet, it feels like a desperate cry. It heard the controversy, and instead of going after it politically, it targets the moral element. Regardless of how you think this problem ought to be solved, it says, we absolutely cannot forget that we’re talking about human beings here. And whether you think they were good ones or not, they all had the potential to be. Each of them loved and was loved by someone. That’s about the most important thing a film can do, and I’m glad that Fruitvale Station managed to do it so well.
It says something about the quality of the films that were released this year that Wadjda didn’t even manage to scratch the Top 10. It’s pretty fantastic. It seems that films about bigotry and oppression are in vogue right now, and I’m glad that we managed to get a movie like Wadjda before it passed. To some extent, we need the films that focus on the major historical and modern injustices; they are weapons against complacency. But we also need films about the small ones — the little things we do that we perceive as bearable, not that bad, not technically limiting one person or another all that much more than oneself. We need films like Wadjda that show how the little things compound to restrict one’s identity and to transform the mundane and the everyday into an endless series of quiet suffering. All the better that Wadjda is otherwise a fairly lighthearted family film. I think this movie passed the year far too underrated. It needs to be seen.
11. This Is Martin Bonner
It’s strange, but it’s difficult to put this film at the top of a year-end favorites list for precisely the reason that it’s great — it’s low-key, small, short, and has no interest in anyone’s accolades. And I love that about it. It’s a simple story about the everyday, ordinary problems of a pair of everyday, ordinary people. And it executes that with grace, subtlety, and insight.
10. The World’s End
This isn’t even my favorite Edgar Wright movie, which says so much about his work. Yeah, you can definitely count me among the people who are very unhappy with Marvel right now over this whole Ant-Man situation. I’m always excited for anything Wright does. He might not be the best director working right now — though he probably belongs on the list somewhere — but he’s distinct and daring in his approach, and that’s sorely lacking in Hollywood culture right now. The World’s End is a true genre-blender: an adventure sci-fi comedy drama horror disaster movie. Most of Wright’s films are like that, and The World’s End is no different from them in that all of these disparate elements work somehow. No one is quite as good as Wright at managing absurd and constant comedy against incisive and gut-wrenching drama. The World’s End is a ton of fun, and you don’t have to turn your brain off. Sign me up.
9. The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is not for everyone. I know I keep saying that, but it always bears repeating, because I would hate to send an unprepared soul into the dark pit of insanity that is this movie. It’s Martin Scorcese at the top of his game, and let’s face it, this is a guy who plays pretty well even when he isn’t. The Wolf of Wall Street is directed with an electricity lacking from far too many of its counterparts — and given its willingness to do literally anything for a laugh, it badly needs that sense of completely unbound adventurousness. It is the id of a fraternity party animal unleashed on the big screen. And it’s kind of hilarious, in a guilty sort of way. A lot of people see it as embracing Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle, but not me. This isn’t really a film about indicting him anyway. It’s more of a wake-up call: These, by their own admission, are the guys who run your financial system and hold the power to crash the global economy in the palms of their hands. What are you going to do about it?
Seeing a movie like this clock in at only No. 8 really puts in perspective exactly what a good year 2013 was for movies. Without seeing it all laid in front of me like this, I would probably have guessed it for the Top 5. But yeah, Mud is a really, really good movie, and it only solidifies my opinion that Jeff Nichols, only three films into his career, is one of the best directors we have. As I said in my review, his greatest gift is his ability to examine and develop his characters so well that the viewers practically share their thoughts. It’s plain to see how everything that happens to them impacts their worldviews and shapes them for better or worse. This is the first time he’s tackled a Spielberg-esque coming-of-age story: rough and sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately sweet, heartfelt, and adventurous. Despite its flaws, Mud is the sort of movie I could watch again and again, and I don’t think I’d ever get bored with it. Also, how about that Matthew McConnaughey, huh?
7. Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig needs to be a star, like, right now. She’s an incredibly likable on-screen presence: haphazard and uncertain but filled with hope, wonder, and good humor. Frances Ha came along in my life exactly when I needed it. It’s one of the best films ever made about my generation. It’s ultimately a story about learning to become the master of your own destiny and realizing exactly how significant that ability is, how far it can take you and how much it can change. The way it tells that story is fluid, graceful, and subtle. More importantly, it doesn’t languish in its own misery. There’s a way to understand the darkness that exists while remaining optimistic about the light, and that’s the middle ground this film inhabits. It’s charming, funny, and, in the end, deeply moving.
6. Captain Phillips
I honestly didn’t think this movie could possibly be as good as it ultimately was. While the events on which it was based unfolded, I remember thinking that it was inevitably going to become a movie. The fact that it was released so soon after the event itself had me thinking it was just trying to capture the moment. The trailers only confirmed, in my mind, that the movie was made mainly to win awards. But lo and behold: not only is Captain Phillips pretty darn great, it’s arguably the best movie Paul Greengrass has ever made. Yeah, he still spends the entire run-time trying to nauseate you with the camera, but the story is absolutely fantastic, hands-down one of the best scripts of the year. The movie could easily have settled for being an action-thriller, but Billy Ray and Greengrass aimed for something higher, essentially turning the whole production into something of a metaphor for the West’s interactions with the Third World in general. It’s not very straightforward; it chooses to be emotionally complicated and to make everyone human, composed of good and evil alike. The ending is probably the year’s best; that scene — and this movie — belongs on Tom Hanks’s highlight reel. Captain Phillips is gripping, intelligent, and extremely well made.
5. Before Midnight
Richard Linklater is slowly turning into one of my favorite directors (and on that subject, am I the only person who seriously cannot wait for Boyhood?). He’s great with characters, actors, and dialogue, and he’s proven capable of working out a variety of different projects: from the raucous comedy of School of Rock to the quiet drama of, well, this. It seems of late that he’s interested in the impact of time on stories and on the filmmaking process. It started with the Before movies, and I’m loving this experience: creating a pair of characters and then jumping in on them every nine years, in our time as well as theirs, to see how their relationship has changed. As such, there isn’t much of a “plot,” per see. Largely, our two lovers, Jesse and Celine, just walk around and talk to each other. But they are wonderful together, and it’s heart breaking to see this film finally begin to expose the weaknesses in their relationship. It’s so grounded and real that it begins to feel like watching a pair of your own friends fight. Few scenes this year — or ever — have been as painful as the climax of Before Midnight. But there’s beauty here, too, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to spend another two hours with Jesse and Celine nine years from now.
4. 12 Years a Slave
I’m not sure how to even begin condensing my feelings about this movie other than to say that we needed this. Badly. Wadjda covered the minutia of oppression. 12 Years a Slave went for the jugulars. The story of Solomon Northup is an incredible one and the best one possible to expose the evils of slavery, seeing that he was traded from “kind” masters to brutal ones to those somewhere in the middle. It’s not just about the work and the beatings and whatever else, though. It’s about the inevitable way in which such a system deprives you of your humanity and drags you slowly into despair. That’s the part we all too often forget exists. And that’s the part that makes it hell. 12 Years a Slave is dark, haunting, and deeply disturbing — and that’s why it’s great. It’s a cry in the dark that refuses every temptation toward easy catharsis and traditional storytelling tactics. It’s intelligent, but it is also passionate. It was a worthy Best Picture winner.
This movie is an incredible experience. It’s stripped of bloat and pretense and focuses solely on creating the perils and beauties of outer space in intense detail and taking audiences on an adventure through it. Visually, it’s on the all-time list — Alfonso Cuaron achieved, at the very least, his directorial masterpiece with this. It’s not just the effects — though those are fantastic — it’s the technique. It’s the way he holds shots as long as he can, anchoring the camera to our heroine and following her through one terrifying calamity after the next. It’s the way he gives the camera weightlessness and unlimited freedom in movement, dragging it in and pulling it out and swirling above and below the action. It’s incredibly fluid filmmaking, and Cuaron uses it to maximum effect, making a movie that knows exactly how long to let the audience breathe and exactly when to ratchet the tension up to insufferable levels. Moreover, he knows that a functional experience works only because the audience is connected to it emotionally, and with incredibly limited storytelling tools at his disposal, he nevertheless manages to attach his viewers to his characters and to say something interesting about the human spirit and finding meaning in life. It’s that rare survival story that actually leaves you feeling truly glad to be alive.
2. Short Term 12
Any other year. Any other year, I’d be putting this in the No. 1 slot without the slightest doubt in my mind. Short Term 12 is amazing. It’s very nearly perfect. For me, it was eye-opening, taking me into a very real world about which I knew nothing and teaching me something new about my fellow man. It’s simultaneously dark and, yet, incredibly hopeful. It’s a film about healing and moving on. It helps immensely that Dustin Cretton worked in a group care home and brought his wealth of knowledge and experiences to writing this story. It’s very detailed and is constantly coming forth with new insights into the way abuse and neglect affects the minds of the children who suffer from it and have to carry it into adulthood. And it is so very compassionate toward them. It suffers alongside them but also urges everyone toward finding peace with the past. It’s a well told, well acted, emotionally involving, and insightful story. I wanted to give it the top slot on this list. I was convinced I was going to; I even suggested as much in my review of it. But I can’t put it at the top of this list. And the reason I can’t is…
Yeah. I imagine this is no surprise to anyone who reads this site. For me, 2013 definitely saved the best for last. I pretty much temporarily lost my sanity over how good this movie is. Like I said, it’s my favorite of 2013 without question, and right now, I am very ready to put it somewhere on the list of the one hundred or so best movies ever made. I think it might actually be my favorite movie out of the over 300 that I’ve reviewed to date. Movies don’t get much closer to being perfect than Her. The script is a piece of honest-to-goodness genius, with fully realized characters, a rich science fiction world, tons of original ideas, and a thousand different things to say about relationships, not just in the digital age but throughout history. It’s about human selfishness, but it’s more than that — it’s about the ways in which we’re selfish and don’t realize it. It’s about the complexities of social interaction, how the deepest hurt is so often caused unknowingly because of our failure to fully understand even ourselves and to communicate properly about the small burdens. But it’s not miserable; far from it, Her is a hopeful and sweet film. The angle from which it approaches this premise is the last one you’d expect it to — it’s not an uncomfortable, gradually agonizing, dark, and psychological cautionary tale about the dangers of certain technological advancements, though it certainly has a few things to say about increasing human detachment in the modern world. No, it’s a love story, through and through. It’s gentle and involving. You get genuinely wrapped up in these characters, even as their exploits occasionally inspire discomfort and wariness. It’s all structured to slowly bring its protagonist to realization and then, change. On top of that, it’s shot beautifully, acted expertly, edited gracefully, scored perfectly, and GAH. I love it. So help me, I love it. Favorite movie of 2013. I have no doubt whatsoever about it.
So, that’s the list. Again — 2013 was a pretty respectable year. Given the lateness of the hour, I’ve already gotten a small taste of what 2014 holds, and there’s been some surprisingly great stuff early on. Let’s hope that continues and makes my job easy next June.