The time of year has come to compile the infamous top ten list, summing up the best of the best from throughout the year. And while I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been piecing one together over the past three months, it is still an act of brain wracking and constant change that is in part requisite and in part cathartic. For most of us, the top ten list is the Everest of the movie year. And so, from the 150+ movies I’ve seen in 2013, narrowing it all down to ten is no cake walk but the process of distilling down to a minute selection is a great opportunity to revisit and reflect on some of the greats of the year.Striking the right balance between “favorite films” and “quality films” is as crucial a factor in the construction of this list as taking into account how likely I’ll be to enjoy this film down the line. Sufficed to say, it’s more than just recounting the grades that I’ve handed out throughout the year and jamming them into a linear position.
All five of the films which I seated with an A+ made the list but, strangely enough, not one film I granted an A to had what it takes to really cross enough into the “favorite” category. More than anything, this list is comprised of the films that I enjoyed the most, have affected me most strongly, that I have reflected on again and again, and see myself watching over and over again. But to make sure that I acknowledge those lingering on the precipice I’m also going to get into the runner-ups that didn’t quite push the envelope quite far enough.
For every victor that made its way into this highly subjective top ten list there is that barrage of those that didn’t quite make the cut; those that flirted with the top ten and got left on the editing floor.
I’ve included two of these close call lists and have detailed them in no particular order: Honorable Mentions; more genre movies who I want to tip my hat to as they were all movies I thoroughly enjoyed at the theater; and Outskirts; those that were just on the tipping point of the TT but just didn’t have the oomph to push them into them over the cuff.
The World’s End
Man of Steel
This is the End
All is Lost
What Maisie Knew
Only God Forgives
10. THE SPECTACULAR NOW/SHORT TERM 12
I figure I needed to shake things up somewhere down the line and why not start early and throw a tie in to throw people off? It’s been many months since I watched both of these coming of ages gems and, after much figuring, tweaking, and re-figuring, I found acknowledging one without the other was somewhat disingenuous to what I’m trying to accomplish with this list. So I went with the ol’ cop-out tie. Both took razor sharp looks at youth in society, both saw surprising, great performances from their young stars, and the direction of each meant the exposure of directors surging with storytelling prowess and emotional honesty. Aside from being a really honest teen drama, The Spectacular Now had the heart to make it stand out through the year.
“Dodging the stuffy trappings of many coming-of-age tales by reworking their stereotypes to its benefit, The Spectacular Now eclipses expectation. Instead of avoiding clichés entirely, Ponsoldt uses them to his advantage. And while the framework for the genre has clearly already been established, it rarely results in something this good and all around meaningful. It joins the ranks of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Superbad as timeless films about the difficulty of transition and the promise of human connection while carving out enough of a name for itself to be remembered years down the line.”
And while The Spectacular Now challenged us to look at high school sagas in a way that recognizes the dormant maturity and incumbent stress of our schooling years, Short Term 12 looked at a group of under-appreciated social workers, who like trashmen, take the leftovers of society’s unwanted, misplaced, and abandoned children and how difficult running an underfunded facility like Short Term 12 is for these criminally under-supported caretakers.
“Thanks to a charged-up level of emotional maturity, the film tackles difficult issues with careful footing – immediately establishing a reverent tone, dipped with charm and laced with smiles. The psychological trauma uncovered within the character’s brick-walled hearts is likewise handled with tender precision. Each reaction the film garnishes is no accident. Every bit has its place, a building block towards a grand scheme that ultimately delivers a big pay-off for those willing to engage in the bumps along the road.”
Both were staggering achievements that most likely won’t be find footing in many other Top Ten lists so I’m glad that I can include them both amongst mine. Going forward though, I promise, no more ties.
9. OUT OF THE FURNACE
Another criminally underrated film of 2013, Out of the Furnace is certainly no walk in the park and I could have my arm twisted to say that it’s the darkest entry on this list (many of you will probably cry heretic but just roll with me here.) Bleak and unblinking, Scott Cooper’s follow-up to the overrated Jeff Bridge’s drama Crazy Heart cuts to the bone of issues bubbling over in America and did it without spoonfeeding them down your throat. Stir that in with a career best performance from Christian Bale, an unforgettable villain courtesy of Woody Harrelson and the best scene involving a hot dog of all time and Out of the Furnace earns its place on this man’s list.
“Out of the Furnace is not the movie you expect, it’s not quite the movie you think you want, and it’s certainly not a movie you’ll see coming, but it is one of the best movies of 2013. Petering along a solemn road of America as industrialized hellhole, the jet-black tone and snail’s pace cadence of the film may prove too overbearing for some but those willing to dive into the mire will find a film overflowing with themes of chaotic grace, personal sacrifice, ego death, spiritual deterioration, and unbounded duty. Many similarities to early Kurosawa samurai films and Drive – which itself is largely plotted like a samurai film – emerge and make the film rich with subtext, even though unearthing that subtext is a bit of a harrowing chore.”
Keeping in line with movies that harness the allure of the darkly comic, Nebraska hangs tight with its mix of banal humor and caustic sentimentality. Bruce Dern’s Woody is as iconic and memorable a character as 2013 has seen and his strange blend of cluelessness and strong moral foundation seed just the right type of fundamental irony to reap rich comedy and drama from. But beneath the black humor of Nebraska is a nagging sense of urgency – this is a film that, no matter how small the scope may seem, is monumentally characteristic of society at large. Themes of economy, family, and destiny give the film purpose and secure it amongst the top shelf of 2013.
“Nebraska starts with the old school painted mountains of the Paramount logo, a veiled reminder of the golden days of the USA, and jumps into an austere black-and-white landscape of Montana as Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant stumbles down the snowy strip of government manicured grass between some train tracks and a largely vacant highway. Convinced he has won a million dollar prize, Woody’s intent on claiming his winnings in Nebraska even if that means walking the entire eight hundred mile trip on foot. A reminder of how off the tracks his life has veered, Woody sees his not-too-good-to-be-true grand prize as a means to a life he never had – a golden ticket to meaningfulness and utility long lost.”
As much as I wanted to fall head over heels for Gravity, I did have some standing flaws with its narrative. But those weren’t quite enough to overshadow just how marvelous a technical achievement Gravity truly is. Looking over 2013’s films that really wowed me, it’s impossible to not place this in the forefront. The fact that I saw it twice in the course of a week alone is enough to substantiate my ranking of this film amongst the best of the best, narrative issues aside. While it lacked the intellectual oomph and metaphorical undercurrents I was crossing my fingers for, the visual palette that Alfonso Cuarón played with here is easily the year’s best and some of the most impressive and immerse camerawork of all time.
“Gravity is pure entertainment done right and it’s achieved with transcendent technical mastery. Seamlessly blending nail-biting moments of suspense with quiet character moments in the vacuum of space, Cuarón has achieved a rare technical feat that sometimes overwhelms its lingering emotional subplot. But more than anything, it is a staggering success and one that will be appreciated by all. Cuarón has definitely chartered a new course here, setting the effects bar higher still than films like Inception or Avatar. Gravity is simply a game changer.”
6. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Gloomy and moody, the unorthodox folk tour that is the Coen Bros’ latest is brimming with character. The kind of character you get from years of chopping wood or wrestling with your bigger, older brother. Somberly akin to having someone you respect tell you that they’re disappointed in you, Inside Llewyn Davis hurts you in your soul. For all the missed connections, biffed relationships, and hidden betrayals, this attractively repulsive film couldn’t hew closer to the reality of trying out life as a struggling artist. Gone is the glamor of pop stars, gone is the envy. All we’re left with is a man and his music and the harsh reality of a winter’s chill. True, biting, and brimming with great music, Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens at their most artistic and oddly emotional.
“Inside Llewyn Davis is a mood piece if there ever was any, rich with soulful folk ballads, colorful characters, and stripped of the usual framework that we call a story. As a microcosm of an era and a subculture, Davis, with his caustic demeanor, is the last man you would expect to lead a story. But for all his many faults, he lives and breathes folk music. His battered existence is the stuff straight from a hokum Bob Dylan lyric. What better subject for a film about a music genre that has by and large represented lost souls and losing investments than a gruff man fading from relevance before he was ever close to it in the first place?” Full review here
5. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
However dour the premise of this movie may seem – a man dying of AIDS – it strikes an amazing balance of showcasing the triumph of the human spirit in the face of blistering adversity. Career topping performances from Matthew McCougnahey and Jared Leto shouldered by sensitive and enthusiastic, but never melodramatic, direction from Jean-Marc Vallée made Dallas Buyers Club more than just a story of darkness but rather one of hope. Like the first man on the moon, our greatest accomplishments are found in making the impossible possible and this is the story of Ron Woodroof. Although Woodroof didn’t find a cure, his efforts, and the efforts of many like him, changed both FDA policies and the social stigma revolving around HIV. The movie soars because instead of trying to milk the waterworks, Vallée is acutely aware of his grasp over his audience and prefers to mine for real drama. The result is this nearly perfect film.
“As a piece of cultural import, Dallas Buyers Club works so well because it is just as poignant look at drug administration as corporate bully and the monumental failings of the U.S. health care system today as it was then. Just look at the similar origin story of Walter White in Breaking Bad – another tale of a man with a clinical death sentence forced to function outside the law to pay for treatment – to upend parallels between the 80s and now. We may have waged unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet the U.S. government continues to wage an invisible war on the sick with their defunct health care policies. Canadian Vallée wrangles the issue close and holds it up to the camera. “Is this acceptable America?” he asks. Of course not. And yet, around and around we go.”
4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Ok so maybe there’s a bit of a masochistic trend surfacing here but I promise, not everything on this list will be so dark and depressing. Even with all the flack 12 Years a Slave has caught over the course of the last year, with many calling it historical torture porn, I fall squarely on the side of the supporters as this is an undeniably excellent film. For all the harshness that found its way into 12 Years, the battle for one’s humanity and the inimitable sense of gritty purpose make this not only a powerful biopic but a fully engaging, gripping watch. Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender offer a pair of captivating performances, and bolstered by rugged direction from Steve McQueen, are unafraid to stare down American slavery without bending. It’s a hard film to recommend and a difficult film to love but it is clearly one of the most unforgettable and powerful films to grace the screen in 2013, delivering a gut punch to your sense of justice and, likewise, soul.
“Director Steve McQueen is a particular type of dark visionary. Employing patience and human degradation as a litmus test of how much we can emotionally bear, McQueen peels back all the curtains of our collective American history, revealing the inky black turmoil stirring in the human soul. But torture is no new game for McQueen. In his first film, Hunger, McQueen explored a prison-bound hunger strike but his craft was not yet refined, too raw, cold, and indulgent to raise the welt he was hoping for. In Shame, he arm wrestled sex addiction out of romanticized glamor and into a pit of emptiness and human despair. Although fantastic acting and gruesome body horror prevailed, it continued the same dour tendencies that make his films so hard to sit through. In his third go around, he’s perfected his art, making a film that’s both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.”
3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Here we go, a fun one! Martin Scorsese is as dynamic a director as ever with The Wolf of Wall Street and the result is a three-hour romp through the bowels of drugs, sex, and bankrolls. Featuring two of the best performances of the year in Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, Wolf is pure adult entertainment at the theater, unlike anything else this year, and any other year in recent history, had to offer. Underscored with an electric current courtesy of the Leo-Scorsese super-duo, this jet black comedy sets a fire early on and lets the conflagration rise rapid and without bound. Although I was tempted with the idea of this being my number one pick, I pulled it out to the third spot because it lacked the emotional impact that the two finalists left with me. Nevertheless, Wolf is easily the most fun film of the year.
“Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a bombastic raunchfest spilling over with feverish humor and held in place by vibrant direction from Martin Scorsese and unhinged performances from its gifted cast. Sprawling and episodic, this “greed is great” epic is not only the funniest movie of the year, not only has one of the most outstanding performances in recent history, and not only is one of the most explicit films to hit the theaters under the guise of an R-rating, but, like icing on the proverbial cake, it offers a colossally poignant and timely cultural deconstruction of the financial institutions on which our country depends. And though it runs for exactly three hours, I’d watch this strung-out saga again in a second. A messy masterpiece on all fronts, The Wolf of Wall Street is a towering achievement.”
Even if Her was a short film made up entirely of that one scene in which Theodore and Sam consummate their new found feelings for one another, enveloped in blackness, bound by some ethereally indescribable and yet palpable bond, I would still applaud with a lump in my throat. There’s magic to Her that escapes even the most veteran of filmmakers so to see it come from Spike Jonze first effort as a writer/director is even more impressive and showstopping. Joaquin Phoenix’s romance with Scarlett Johansson’s AI Sam is easily the most complex, intriguing, and affecting relationship of the year. The fact that she isn’t human is hardly something of note come the end of the film. She just…is. And however much it may seem like it’s about the near-future, Her is really about the now; a warning sign of things to come and an invitation into the unknown.
“Anchored with a cast this talented that are each putting their all into each and every scene, Her is lightning in a bottle. Instead of feeling like this future world is strange, it feels entirely practical, slightly scary yet peculiarity hopeful. And however weird the concept of falling in love with an operating system seems, when we’re in heat of the moment, it never feels weird. It just feels right.”
1. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
I saw Before Midnight twice and both times were probably my most emotionally engaging experiences at the theater this year. I can’t deny it, I just am in love with this film. Technically a second sequel, Before Midnight drops the naive musings of twentysomethings found in Before Sunrise, reaches higher than the ennui and disappointment of the thirties oozing in Before Sunset, offering a deeply philosophical and meditative look at life as an ebbing flow of ups and downs that’s even superior than its ilk. A metaphorical extension of the Chinese notion of ying and yang, Before’s central couple, Jesse and Celine, are encapsulations of masculinity and femininity, completely embodying archetypes of what it means to be each and then transcending them. But more than anything, Before Midnight is a snapshot of life on earth as a wanderer; a constant explorer of uncharted territory. Not everything has a silver lining, not every relationship is built to last but, beneath everything, is this need for self-reflection; a right to muse about life and our place in it. There’s no saying where we’re going next and no measure of which decisions have gotten us to where we are today. But in life, things just are and all we can do is roll with the punches. Before Midnight rolls hard and it rolls deep and is a movie I would happily recommend to anyone willing to think, feel, explore, philosophize, and love.
“There’s therapeutic nihilism in Celine’s rough-hewn outlook on love and the world and Delpy embraces this character with a blanket of understanding. Even when Celine is being admittedly crazy, she sticks to her guns like a nagging coon, unable to help herself. Blanketed behind five-o-clock shadowed grit, Jesse is equally at fault for their relationship woes as his cock-eyed grin and boyish reflections don’t fill his quota for being a daddy. As a pair, Delpy and Hawke are solid gold.” Full review here.
And with that, my personal chapter on 2013 is closed. Over the next few weeks, look for articles on the Worst 10 Movies of 2013 and the Silver Screen Riot Awards in which I’ll look at the best performances, directing, cinematography, etc. of the year.