I know, I know. “Best” lists are SO December of last year, and in January and February it should be all about Oscar Talk. I didn’t plan to wait this long to finally compile my list of favorites of the year. It just sort of turned out that way thanks to a busy schedule that prevented me from seeing all of the Oscar-buzz films till recently. Still, with the Oscars just around the corner, I think now is a perfectly acceptable time to share with any new readers of mine exactly what my tastes are in movies. This was a phenomenal year for the movies, and it was a real pleasure revisiting my watch-list to build a list of films that I found to be the best. I usually struggle to fill an entire list of twenty, but this year I really did have to carefully select between at least thirty different films. Thankfully, disappointments at movie theaters in 2013 were rare. So without further ado, here they are – twenty of my favorite films of 2013.
20. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers films have, in recent years, maintained a pretty heavy pattern of darkly comic and strangely cynical world views in their films, and the greatly challenging Inside Llewyn Davis was no exception. Oscar Isaac portrays the title character and he consistently exudes a hopefulness and passion for his art that keeps us sympathizing with him even though he’s hardly the most noble of characters. With a plethora of a lovely music performances, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes as effective and memorable of an experience as any “musical” film that has been released in decades with songs that tell the characters’ story with as much clarity as any monologue or dialogue can.
19. Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey has wisely taken a real career turn for the better in the last few years, staying away from the romantic comedies and gravitating towards the sorts of roles that I never could have imagined he was capable of. He gives of himself so generously as a performer and is such a marvel to watch that one can completely forgive the rather formulaic story and needless characters who permeate the rest of the film. But watching this characters’ journey as a homophobic jerk who finds himself infected with the HIV virus is a marvelous experience. The film doesn’t try to show some kind of miraculous change of heart for him, as that likely would have forced it into cheap sentimentality.
18. Enough Said
With the film market permeated with one cheap romantic comedy after another, Enough Said is a breath of fresh air for anyone longing for just a little bit of honesty in the otherwise bankrupt genre. The interactions between Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini are natural enough to actually feel like you can walk outside and meet them somewhere. The film occasionally goes for rather sitcomish behavior, but who better to deal with such behavior than Louis-Dreyfuss, the star of one of the greatest sitcoms ever made? They avoid raunch, they avoid cliched dialogue and they avoid silly pratfalls. It’s simply a movie about two people connecting in as awkward and heartwarming a way as is to be expected.
17. Spring Breakers
In what will undoubtedly remain as one of the most pleasant surprises of a movie experience I’ve ever had, Spring Breakers is an extraordinary thrill-ride. A true gem in terms of its use of sound effects, music, cinematography and seamless editing, giving it a hazy dreamlike quality that kept me glued to the screen from start to finish. Is the social commentary a bit confused? Maybe. But why let that bother you when there is so much to love about the film’s construction. What begins feeling like a cautionary tale about what your kids do when you’re not around slowly devolves into a beautiful Lynchian nightmare that demonstrates filmmaking of the highest caliber. You do not want to be doing the wrong kinds of drugs while watching this movie.
A rare example of a high-quality film that also managed to appeal to the masses. Gravity was one of several remarkable films this year that effectively became a 100 minute exercise in putting the audience through hell in the best possible way. With so many summer blockbusters that use special effects as a way of distracting the audience from the fact that there’s little of a story to tell, Gravity used them to show us a side of the universe that most of us have likely always wondered about but would likely never experience. It was as exciting and terrifying a filmgoing experience as I’ve ever had.
15. The World’s End
Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” has deservedly become one of the most cherished set of comedies by film geeks like myself in recent memory. The World’s End finished this up just perfectly. A hilarious action/sci-fi/comedy that doubles as a message that probably hit close to home for a number of its devoted audience members. As a man who’s nearing his ten year high school reunion, I’m feeling the effects of nostalgia and leaving shameful immaturish youth experiences behind, and that’s exactly what these characters are going through as well. And Wright-regular Simon Pegg embodies the persona of such a character brilliantly. While the Cornetto trilogy may technically be over, I hope there continue to be multiple future collaborations between these wonderfully creative artists.
14. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s unmistakable gift at crafting inimitable dialogue is something that we’ve been treated to for decades, and I am always grateful for it. Even when his films aren’t perfect, they always prove worthwhile viewing. Blue Jasmine, thankfully, was more than worthwhile viewing. An update of A Streetcar Named Desire, only hilarious instead of devastating, that was highlighted by Cate Blanchett doing arguably the best work of her incredibly impressive career. Every word that comes out the characters mouths is gold, and while we can pretty much guess where the story is going, Allen’s style and terrific sense of cynical comedy keeps us as engaged as ever. I see no reason not to look forward to another several decades of work from this excellent filmmaker.
This largely forgotten effort from April was essentially “Crash but with the internet.” Yes, as a 19 year old kid, I enjoyed Crash. I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much if I revisited it today though, which is why I choose not to. Disconnect is an ensemble drama that show us the dangers and horrific experiences of those who abuse, or are simply careless with the internet. It’s no secret that the internet has strongly impacted society’s ability to relate to each other, and while Disconnect’s approach to this may be heavy-handed, and may be too on-the-nose for some, I couldn’t help but feel moved by every story. Yes, the double meaning of the title is a good indicator of how this film operates. You’ve been warned.
12. Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley has been on my radar since I was a wee lad of 4 and would watch her as Ramona Quimby. I certainly never imagined that she would become such an accomplished filmmaker, and now a documentarian. A family history investigation through interviews with her relatives treats us to a surprisingly very engaging revelation and insight into her life, as well as insights into how stories we tell can mold and change throughout generations. It’s a personal film for her, to be sure, but when she invites us in, we’re very grateful to be welcomed. A revelation towards the end about her own process of making the film pulls the rug right out from under us and helps us reevaluate the whole experience of what we just watched. It’s documentary filmmaking of a whole new intimate level.
11. The Spectacular Now
Alcoholism is a theme in films that has always hit close to home for me, and while many may see The Spectacular Now as simply a coming-of-age love story between two largely different souls, it works just as well as a cautionary tale of what consumption can do to the brightest and smartest of young people. This is a beautifully effective, and devastating story of first love, and the young actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller have such distinguished chemistry, you’d swear the film was largely improvised. I’m unaware of whether or not it was, but perhaps it’s best if it remains a secret. The greatness of this love story easily could have been drowned out by silly lamentations or big declarative speeches, but The Spectacular Now is subtler than that. We don’t need to see what’s going to happen. We feel it through the characters’ glances, behavior and casual banter. Beautiful.
10. Short Term 12
Brie Larson solidifies herself as a real movie star as a woman who specializes in working with and helping troubled teens. With a scenario like that, it’s almost a given that she would have issues to deal with herself, but the film effortlessly avoids any sort of cheesiness that could have turned it into some sort of after-school special. The teens are all beautifully played by some amazing young actors, and listening to them express their struggles, whether by making up games, or giving an electrifying rap performance, is beautiful to watch.
9. All Is Lost
Robert Redford’s long history on the screen is filled with numerous wonderful highlights, but his turn a man lost at sea, known only as “Our Man” must be high on the list as one of his very best. We spend nearly two hours with him as he calmly and efficiently struggles to stay alive, and to watch each setback and challenge present itself is not only captivating, but often heartbreaking. J.C. Chandor directs the film patiently, allowing us to take in every moment, without being distracted by any unnecessary flourishes. There’s almost no dialogue onscreen, because why should there be? We’re placed right there on this journey with him, and it’s a hugely rewarding experience.
8. Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks has long been considered America’s leading man. Needless to say, in order to be considered America’s leading man, you must always convey a nice, wholesome, relatable image. To maintain such an image, one can never drift too far away from what the public is expecting. This has resulted in Hanks being greatly criticized by those who accuse him of always playing himself. They’re not entirely wrong, but when an actor is able to stretch that familiar persona as far as Hanks was asked to do in Captain Phillips, I’m certainly not going to argue with the way he does things. Paul Greengrass’ true story account of a pirate hijacking is just as stunning as his United 93. He gives an accurate account of the proceedings, and manages to keep everything endlessly nervewracking. And the performances by Hanks, along with Barkhad Abdi go a long way towards keeping the audience engaged. A thrilling experience.
7. Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig, who also wrote this delightfully peppy story of a 20-something girl struggling to make it in New York, has such a natural quality to her performances that makes her instantly relatable and rootworthy, even when she does incredibly stupid things. Frances Ha jumps from one awkward situation to another as we follow this free spirit who’s starting to lose her faith in the idea that her passion for art will carry her all the way. She’s lost, and the absurdity of her situation is humorous and depressing all the same. Shot in deliciously grainy black and white, the film almost feels like the product of a lost artist trying to extract a relic from their past dreams of college years. It’s lovely, inspired and fairly depressing all at once.
6. Blue Is The Warmest Color
Look past the sex scenes, which even I will agree may have gone on a bit longer than they needed to, and you’re treated to one of the most honest and heartbreaking love stories ever put on film. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchapolous, both of whom were unmistakably robbed at the Oscars, give performances that seem to exist outside the realm of “acting.” They’re not acting, they’re behaving. Abdellatif Kechiche directs the film with an almost documentary feel, allowing us to live in these lives and never letting us off the hook when things get heartbreaking. Exarchapolous goes through such a roller-coaster of self-discovery from great happiness to great loss, and she’s completely fascinating to watch all the way through. Not since Blue Valentine, 2010’s best film, has a filmed love story been quite so emotionally draining. After an extremely rapid 3 hour run time, we may be exhausted, but it’s exactly what I go to the movies for.
Some movies I have to say I enjoyed, almost despite my better judgment, because they are so well-made that it almost seems silly to harp on the occasional minor storytelling flaw. Prisoners had me on the edge of my seat for a solid 2 ½ straight hours. A terribly bleak, distressing experience highlighted by career-best performances by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film becomes something of a morality tale about the effects of torture, and while it may not succeed entirely on that front, as a mystery thriller, it’s as good as anything I’ve seen in a long, long time. You will not be able to tear your eyes away.
4. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Call me a chauvinist, sexist, immoral pig if you will, but The Wolf Of Wall Street must have been the most consistently entertaining film I saw all year. Many people condemned the film on the grounds that it supported immoral behavior, which is an argument that I just do not buy. To have sugarcoated the film and masked some of the awful things these people did would have been disingenuous and to have turned the film into some sort of morality lesson would have been insulting to the audience. The shocking excess of sinful pleasures these characters experience provides an insight into the human condition, and allows us to laugh at the absurdity of this often-ridiculous world we live in. It tells the truth. Yet all of this would be meaningless if it weren’t so insanely well-made, and being a Martin Scorsese film, we expect nothing less. Every filmmaking flourish that Scorsese has perfected over his 47 year career is present here, and then some. It’s invigorating, guilt-inducing, unceasingly entertaining art of the highest order.
3. Before Midnight
The third feature in what nobody could have predicted would become a trilogy, also happens to be the best. Before Midnight is an often uncomfortable, always fascinating, look at what many years together can do to a relationship. The awkwardness, the snippiness, the extended arguments; it’s not an anti-love story. It’s very much a relationship story, and a lovely one at that. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have such a strong, lived-in chemistry with each other, and it’s just as rewarding listening to them speak while they’re angry as it is while they were courting 18 years ago. I’d love to see them again.
After seeing and reviewing Her a few months back, I’ve continued to be amazed by how strongly the love story resonated with me. While the film cleverly poses questions about what the world will be like as technology continues to progress and change us, the reason why the film was so successful was because of how true it stayed to its characters without drifting away and making the disembodied voice some sort of gimmick. It’s a heartbreakingly effective story that asks us to examine our own lives, without getting preachy.
1. 12 Years A Slave
In what must be the bleakest and most painfully straightforward film about slavery I’ve seen, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an extraordinary performance as Solomon Northop, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film which tells his story could have easily slipped into cheesy sentimentality or cardboard stereotypes with its characters, which certainly would have been a great disservice to such a painful experience. Every scene is filmed with an understated grace. Every character is fully fleshed out. As unmistakably evil as the slave owners are, they are all given multiple levels of complexity. Especially Michael Fassbender, who gives a performance as sly and terrifying as he is wholly immoral. A beautifully made film in every regard.