Alright, everyone! It’s all come down to this. After spending so much time talking about the worst movies of 2013, it’s finally time to talk about the best that 2013 had to offer. Despite some embarrassingly bad titles tossed around this year, I still maintain that it was a fantastic year for films, with plenty of variety to showcase. It had everything from sci-fi romance to action thrillers, from family dramas to survival thrillers in space, and from Hobbits and dragons to snowmen and reindeer. It seemed to have a little bit of something for everyone, and today, I’m counting it all down in the top ten best movies I saw all year. Please keep in mind that there are still high profile films I haven’t gotten around to like Blue is the Warmest Color, Nebraska, Philomena (or, as it’s now called, PhiloMANIA), and The Wind Rises.
Before moving on to the official top ten, I’d like to hand out some honorable mentions to films that would have been very deserving of placement on here. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a brutal, devastating, and essential portrait of slavery, lifted by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s stunning lead performance. Inside Llewyn Davis from the brothers Coen is among the duo’s best films in years, a tale as timeless and heartbreaking as the folk songs present in the feature. Woody Allen struck a home run with Blue Jasmine, thanks mainly due to the performances of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins as two sisters in a believably bitter situation. Dallas Buyers Club boasted fantastic performances all around, especially from those of the Oscar worthy Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Pacific Rim from Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best blockbusters of the year, and is an all around massive, spectacular, and thoroughly entertaining popcorn flick.
One project that I’d like to show due appreciation to (even though it isn’t a movie), is the spectacular survival-horror video game The Last of Us from the creative minds at Naughty Dog. If this qualified as a movie, it would have easily taken my position at number 1. Ever since finishing the game back in June, every image and emotion felt from the experience has stuck with me. From the gritty tone and atmosphere, the frightening sound design, the harrowing script, the inseparable duo of unforgettable lead characters, all the way down to the haunting score, The Last of Us not only proved how well a game can tell a story, but put any and all of the movies released this year to shame. It is perfection, one of the greatest games of all time, and a living testament that video games are high art.
All geeky gamer rambling done, let’s introduce the top ten.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Dir. Francis Lawrence
Catching Fire, as far as I’m concerned, is the year’s best blockbuster. Even though the original book was fine, but also very problematic, this movie is unwaveringly faithful to the source material, yet proves that execution is what matters most. Continuing on from where the original Hunger Games left off, the sequel seeks to refine and expand upon every element in more direct ways. One thing this series has always been good at is the critical and satirical take on reality television, and all the overblown celebrity that comes with it, everything from relationship rumors to pregnancy scandals. On top of that, it’s also a smart take on governmental oppression and communism, as well as that of revolution, the latter of which evokes memories of the uprising in Benghazi (or maybe I’m just reading too deep into it).
All of this is before we even get into the arena, and once we do, it’s non-stop intensity from frame 1. The action sequences are all superbly shot, edited, and choreographed, but know when to take a breather, lulling the viewer until the next heart stopping obstacle comes into play. The film features a stellar bunch of supporting players (including the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman), but of course, the main anchor to this film is Jennifer Lawrence, whose fantastic performance further solidifies Katniss as one of the great modern heroines. Bella Swann, take note…
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Another satirical entry on my list, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is among the most fun I’ve had with any movie this year. It doesn’t necessarily condone the insufferable behavior of Jordan Belfort, but that doesn’t mean it pulls it punches when it comes to full on dark comedy. Most of the enjoyment of this film comes from watching Belfort’s gleeful duplicity and sense of superiority. The man is a deceitful, crude, condescending, reckless, calculated, hard drinking, lustful, foul mouthed, and all around terrible human being who nevertheless likens himself as a god in his own right, and he clearly loves every single minute of it. Somehow, Leonardo DiCaprio manages to make this horrid person oddly charismatic and humorous, and relishes every minute of the performance. The film is quite excessive, but fitting to the thematic tone, with the luxuries that Belfort has such endless fun with instead making him miserable by the film’s ending... only to seemingly be doing it all over again. Is this cycle just doomed to repeat itself as humanity’s fascination with these crime stories grows? This film is utterly unapologetic, and is all the better for it.
Dir. Richard Linklater
It’s been a long journey for Jesse and Celine (played respectively by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), and in Richard Linklater’s third entry in the “Before” series, Before Midnight, it gets more complicated. Individually, the films are all aces, and as a whole, the three of them provide fascinating context. From Sunrise, where the two were without a care in the world that magical evening long ago, the two have now evolved into people questioning where that same passion has since gone. Love is not easy for the two of them, as their conflicting desires put them at extreme odds with each other. They’ve always been able to use their wits to ease tension, but when accusations are thrown around, and the two become verbally hostile (through their signature long conversations), issues like this are hard to simply laugh off.
It places important emphasis on the time they have left together, and over the passion that seemed to fade like a setting sun. It’s not simple for the two of them, and Before Midnight brings that maturity full circle, stripping away the enchantment of the previous films, but in a beneficial way that paints an authentic portrait of modern romance. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy should all be commended for their numerous years of hard work on this series, clearly maturing alongside their material, and creating a trilogy that only gets better with each new entry.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Prisoners is a film that makes me squirm the whole way through, but in a way that I welcome thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s fantastic Fincher-esque direction and Aaron Guzikowski’s layered script. A film that excels thanks to the wonderful build-up of events, much of the film’s focus and psychological insight is directed at Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover, a simple, but inspired approach that perfectly represents the struggles of all the characters. Dover is a deeply religious man, but he becomes more reckless and aggressive as the film goes on. He’s understandable in how he wants to rescue his daughter, but he’s constantly committing hostile actions against a man that he has no solid evidence against. We can sympathize with his obsession to save his daughter, but can we justify the heinous acts he commits, or should we condemn them? The film is smart to never directly answer this itself, and instead leave it to audience interpretation. The film wastes not a single second of its long running time, moving at a very methodical and suspenseful pace, and is shot impeccably by the great Roger Deakins.
Dir. Paul Greengrass
Captain Phillips is the year’s frontrunner for the title of “Movie that constantly made me hold my breath”. Working from a wonderful script, Paul Greengrass creates constant tension and investment during each sequence of the film. At the center of the experience is the conflicting toe-to-toe dance of wits between Richard Phillips, a man born into opportunity, and Abduwali Muse, a man born into a place where opportunity is few and far between. Tom Hanks effectively plays Phillips as not a blind hero, but as an everyman trying his best to understand the dilemma of his captors, all until his composure eventually falls in that incredible final scene. Barkhard Abdi also plays Muse effectively, going up against a veteran like Hanks with fierce hostility, eventually letting the desperation behind that violence seep through. Technically, the film is fantastic, with the best element being the editing by Christopher Rouse, who cuts and paces the film in a way that gives each situation in the film a gravity and strong emotional context, especially during the film’s second half where stress gets to Muse’s crew and Phillips.
Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
True story: When Frozen had finally ended, I started to cry a little on the way out. To this day, I can’t tell if it was because the 3D hurt my eyes, or if it was because the movie had just made me so happy. There is no better way to describe Frozen, which has become my cinematic obsession of 2013. I’ve played the soundtrack on near-constant repeat since the beginning of December, it’s the only movie this year I went to see twice in theaters, and on rewatch, not only did I like it even more than the first time, but it officially earns my vote as Disney’s best animated feature of the 21st century. The film lovingly follows through with the mold of the beloved Disney Renaissance, but also deconstructs those customs in a way that plays with audience expectations, and that genuinely shocks the viewer.
One idea of this comes from the idea of the meaning of true love, which Anna naively equates to romance, but the film toys around with, and fully realizes, the idea that true love isn’t necessarily the same thing as romance, particularly through the heartfelt sisterly bond at the center of the story. The characters in this film are too great, and too many to count, but the standout is undoubtedly Olaf. It would have been so easy to make this character annoying, but despite his oblivious and occasionally silly nature, Olaf is surprisingly very courageous and selfless, downright lovable, and absolutely hysterical. There’s not much more I can talk about before I start drawing this out. The animation is gorgeous, and the music is the best I’ve heard all year. If you haven’t already, I urge you to watch it, and then watch it again.
Stories We Tell
Dir. Sarah Polley
It is stated by one interviewee in Stories We Tell that the purpose of art is to get at absolute truth, but within the context of the film, no one truth is absolute. The history of Polley’s mother doesn’t always matchup between her numerous interviewees, as they each have their own interpretations of how events unfolded. These memories are subject to the biases of the individual experiences, meaning we never do get a clearer picture of the mother. However, as time goes on, you realize that that isn’t the point. Never content to just stick with one idea, Polley is smart to keep the picture unclear, and let each interviewee share their stories the way they saw it, with well placed bits filmed in Super 8 cameras adding visual punctuation.
The interpretations of family and friends don’t always connect, but none of them are necessarily wrong. If anything, it can show how one person and the events surrounding them can affect others in many different ways, all told in a very sweet, funny, and fascinating way. Although, this doesn’t mean Polley doesn’t turn the tables on herself from time to time. Even her vision of the story, and for the movie, can be subject to personal bias, trying to learn all she can of her mother’s past and the fact that she is making this documentary being very much intertwined with one another. What an embarrassment for the Oscars to have snubbed this in the Best Documentary Feature lineup.
Dir. Spike Jonze
In an age where social media and technology continues to evolve, the premise and timeliness of Her feel especially powerful. In the day and age of the film, the relationship with OS systems, rather than feel alienating to the people Theodore (a sensitively heartbreaking Joaquin Phoenix) meets, is greeted with a lot of social acceptance. For the film, this idealism of the ever changing nature of relationships provides one of its greatest strengths. Surely, the love that eventually blooms between he and Samantha (a gracefully nuanced Scarlett Johansson) feels real, but is it just another safeguard? Is it another way for him to shield himself from having an honest human relationship, and merely a way to avoid the responsibilities and heartbreaks of a genuine commitment?
It could be all those things and more, but it also serves as a wonderful commentary on the nature of what a truly committed relationship can be based on. The love that Theodore has for Samantha isn’t at any superficial face value, as many failed romances tend to fail because of lack of true compatibility. Stripping away all of those physical ideals, the love that blooms between the two is based on the sparkling chemistry and their well matched personalities, but it isn’t always perfect. As in every relationship, couples can hit major roadblocks and engage in heated arguments, and they can try to work through these issues, or decide it best to go separate ways. The way that Her engages all of these issues is absolutely terrific, played with complete authenticity, and fully realizing the ambitions it sets for itself.
Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
When you’ve got this much enthusiastic praise lavished on you, and even director James Cameron calling your film the best space film ever made, you’re obviously doing something right. Indeed, Gravity is everything that a terrific film should be, and even managed to do something that VERY few movies manage to do… it genuinely terrified me. A work of clear dedication, the bravura direction by Cuaron is nothing short of the achievement of the year. More of a survival thriller than straight up science-fiction, Gravity is a film that puts an unusual feeling of involvement in the experiences of the characters, sometimes literally thrusting us into their viewpoint with first-person shots through their helmets, something that creates a sense of nerve-wracking hyper-realism. It wreaks havoc with my vertigo, my claustrophobia, and even the sound (or lack thereof) can make an impact. What we don’t hear in the movie can often be more unsettling than what we can hear and the emptiness can further enhance the bleakness of the surroundings.
Gravity is a gorgeously designed film, and everything from Emmanuel Lubezki’s lingering photography to the stunning visual effects work immediately qualifies it among the most stunningly realized films of all time. Of course, there’s plenty of substance to go along with said style. The film achieves a well established sense of intimacy with main character Ryan Stone. We’re closely tied to her throughout the film, experiencing all her trauma and hopelessness hand in hand, and never once does this character hit a false note. Everything about her feels empathetic and genuine and it gives Sandra Bullock a chance to push her emotional, intellectual, and physical strengths to the limit in a career best performance. It’s more than worthy of the top position, and believe me, I was at war with myself over who should be there, but in the end, I knew exactly what the number one choice had to be…
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
Long story short, The Past is a film I simply consider to be perfect. The acting, the direction, the writing, the dilemmas, practically everything about it is flawless. Not only do I consider it the best film of 2013, I think it’s among the greatest foreign films I’ve ever seen, even over Farhadi’s own A Separation.
The main thing that grabs my attention of The Past is the writing. Farhadi treats the whole situation in a very sensitive fashion, never going over the top with events, which allow for more subtlety in reactions. Everything plays out in a natural, organic fashion, with every action committed in the film always having a rhyme and reason to it. Characters always stop to consider the consequences of their actions, both before and after they’ve occurred, and it feels incredibly empathetic. All the while I was watching this movie, I would ask myself “How would I react to a situation like this?” or “How would I respond to something like this?” and I found myself in total awe of how realistically everything played out, including the stunningly accurate depictions of guilt, grief, and family conflicts.
Whereas a lesser filmmaker would have wimped out in numerous areas, Farhadi completely commits to the tone of this movie, constructing something entirely sure of itself, and gracefully flowing scene-to-scene with not a weak moment in sight, especially in regards to the cast. To be honest, there’s not a single weak performance in this movie. Berenice Bejo gives perhaps the best performance in any film this year as Marie, a woman who has as much grace as any unconditionally loving mother, and one who tries her hardest to not let the everyday stress ruin her composure. However, those walls eventually fall down hard, leaving her to bare every ache in her heart in the movie’s later moments. Bejo simply brings something so unattainable in her actions that no other actress could have delivered on. The other main cast members are also excellent, with Mosaffa as a deeply caring father trying to make sense of situations, Rahim believably torn apart by his past actions, and Burlet creating a devastating portrait of guilt continually eating away at her.
So before I start drawing this out, I’ll say it once more. The Past is cinematic perfection, and officially establishes Farhadi as one of the great modern filmmakers. From this day forth, anything he decides to direct next will immediately be my most anticipated release of its year.
And with that, I can finally bring 2013 to a close. It’s been a long journey with plenty of ups and downs, but I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you so much for joining me. I hope you’ve had as much fun reading my reviews as I did writing them, and I hope you’ll continue to join me in the new cinematic year.
See you at the movies…