Still wondering what the best films of 2013 were? No? Oh…well…here’s my list anyways. Yay! I’ve had this order set since mid-January. None of my catch-up viewing managed to unseat anything I’d already placed. So it’s really been a matter of finding time to put it all together. I have honorable mentions but I wanted to give a special mention to Soderbergh’s two releases, Behind the Candelabra and Side Effects. Being on HBO confused the list-making process, but his Liberace biopic was terrific no matter the platform. With that and his sneaky great thriller, the “retired” director had a great year.
I also don’t include documentaries. However, I must mention The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell. They are both all-timers, sure to be talked about for years to come. Do yourself a favor and seek them out. Anyway, on to the list!
Blue Jasmine – Dir. Woody Allen
Anchored by great performances from Cate Blanchett (THE best performance of last year) and Sally Hawkins, the brilliant Woody Allen delivered another superb film. The Streetcar-esque plot opened up new class issues for Allen to explore while still being right in his wheelhouse of complicated relationships, anxious protagonists, and a deft mix of comedy and drama.
Drug War – Dir. Johnnie To
There’s nothing radical about this crime drama, and that’s almost revolutionary in the age of bloated blockbusters. It’s not that director To isn’t flashy, it’s that he favors spatial awareness and clarity over the faux-thrills of fast cuts and shaky cameras. It’s a better than average tale of cops and criminals that becomes great because of his assured approach.
Spring Breakers – Dir. Harmony Korine
Acid-pop filmmaking at its finest. Korine gives us a nightmare vision of hedonism. He appropriates the cinematic language of music videos and blends it with his avant-garde art installation sensibilities. It ends up being a good fit. It’s a lot of fun, crazy quotable, and James Franco unleashes a character for the history books.
Captain Phillips – Dir. Paul Greengrass
This hijacking thriller, based on the true story, is an amazing balancing act. It manages cunning political commentary, intimate character dynamics, and edge-of-your-seat suspense for the entire runtime. Greengrass is so proficient you might forget how difficult all that actually is. Oh yeah, and Tom Hanks gives his best performance in years.
Short Term 12 – Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
It’s the kind of set-up I expect to hate. An indie-film about a group home with quirky kids and a hardworking adult sacrificing for the work she loves. What sounds disastrous on paper is tremendous on the screen thanks to smart writing and a standout performance from Brie Larson. It’s an emotional film but it earns every last tear with poise and understanding.
10. Upstream Color – Dir. Shane Carruth
Thief: I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.
Almost a decade after Primer, writer/director (editor, actor, composer etc.) Shane Carruth made a most welcome return. Instead of the logistics of time travel, with this film Carruth probes a unique cycle of his own creation. It involves nematodes, pig souls, a thief, and a sampler. It’s a little out there but at its core is an effective love story. The pieces might be difficult to put together but it remains accessible so long as you enjoy big ideas and new cinematic visions.
9. Beyond the Hills – Dir. Cristian Mungiu
Priest: I’m all for tolerance, within reason.
With its long shots, slow pace, and distant style, this is easily the least accessible film on my list. It’s the most unsexy film about lesbian nuns and exorcism. But it’s still great. It might lack flair but it grabs the viewer and pulls you in. The film’s steady escalation eventually turns shocking not for suddenness but that it had been building at all. Which by the end is an apt fit for a film about how blind we can be to what’s right in front of us.
8. The World’s End – Dir. Edgar Wright
The Network: It’s pointless arguing with you
Edgar Wright brilliantly concludes his Cornetto Trilogy with this hysterical sci-fi confection. Simon Pegg gets “the band back together” for one last attempt at his hometown pub crawl. What could be an empty wallow in nostalgia becomes an exploration of it instead. Every last detail has a double meaning or a triple payoff, but the cleverness is always with purpose (and hilarious). And just when you think the film has done enough, it doubles-down and follows the premise all the way to the “bitter end”.
7. Before Midnight – Dir. Richard Linklater
Celine: Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone.
If you finally get to the mythical happily ever after, what happens next? The charming third film in the Before series ponders this and more. Jesse and Celine have made a life with each other but resentment, guilt, and eternity weigh down upon their idyll romance. It’s not doom and gloom, but life, warts and all. The film’s goals are modest, but the execution is staggering. There’s a naturalness attained that is remarkable. It’s a true gift to lovers of film.
6. Frances Ha – Dir. Noah Baumbach
Frances: I’m not a real person yet
There’s something so endearing watching the “undateable” Frances struggle to “do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” Greta Gerwig is magical in the role. At a glance the movie looks like nothing more than episodic trifles but it’s way more sophisticated than that. Noah Baumbach channels new wave, new new wave, Woody Allen, and his pal Wes Anderson to create this insightful and hilarious ode to self-discovery.
5. Gravity – Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Ryan: I’m ready
A technical marvel for sure, but much more than an empty thrill ride. It wouldn’t work as well as it does if there wasn’t something else under the surface. Yes, Alfonso Cuarón’s ideas of rebirth and philosophy are simplistic and obvious, but that is by design. They are no less effective just because they are easily understood. In that way it’s one of the most successful blends of art film and pop blockbuster ever made. And even if you don’t by into any of that, it’s still one helluva trip and that counts for something.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Llewyn: Au revoir
Llewyn, the sensational Oscar Isaac, is an unlikable loser and this is a movie about him failing. But he’s talented and we see a kernel of honesty inside him when he sings. It’s the only reason we put up with him. If the Coen brothers have a ceiling, they haven’t reached it yet. This film is another example of their stellar craftsmanship. It’s deeply layered (took me awhile to realize every song is about leaving/saying goodbye) and perfectly paced. It grows in esteem with every viewing.
3. Her – Dir. Spike Jonze
Samantha: The past is just a story we tell ourselves.
Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system in Spike Jonze’s lovely romance. The concept could easily fall flat or succumb to lazy contrivances. There’s a another universe where this is a bad Adam Sandler vehicle. But Jonze is better than that. He knows how to ground the story while maintaining a soft touch. The film doesn’t shy away from exploring ideas that the high concept presents. Jonze ends up creating a perfect snapshot of “how we live now” with a postcard from the future.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street – Dir. Martin Scorsese
Jordan: I am not gonna die sober!
Martin Scorsese got angry so he unleashed the completely unhinged Leonardo DiCaprio upon moviegoers. This is vital inflammatory filmmaking at its finest. By reveling in the excesses of greed, Scorsese reveals the rotten core of the American dream. Jordan Belfort and co. are disgusting, pathetic characters, yet a lot of people covet their world. Sure, you might have actual morals and want zero to do with doing whatever you want and getting away with it. That might be true. But we all live in a world where we’ve allowed such behavior to flourish. It’s okay to laugh, otherwise you’d have to hurl.
1. 12 Years a Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen
Solomon: I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.
This is an important film but I want people to move past this classification. It’s an accurate claim but the film is so much more (and plenty of bad films have been made from “important” topics). This is the true story of Solomon Northup a free man deceived, stolen from his life, and forced into bondage. Through Solomon and his journey, the film is able to cover a wide scope of the slavery experience in America. The brutality is upsetting as it should be. But this film is not rubbing our noses in unpleasantness. It’s diving into our dark history and finding the humanity among the horrors. By showing the backs the country was built on, it comments on where and who we are today. It does all this in a truly enriching and cinematic way. From the gorgeous camerawork to the gifted cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor and his soulful eyes will humble you), Steve McQueen has crafted the the best movie of 2013.
What were your favorite movies last year?