What is there to make of 2013′s cinematic year? Like most years it started slow and small, got big and interesting, then wore out its welcome for a while until Fall came with some great pictures… but also more junk. At this point it’s getting pointless to begrudge sequels as they are the way of the world, but this was also the year that comic book movies figured out how to be a part of the machine, while also having personality. But what was the best of it? Here’s our picks for the best films of 2013.
All in all, it was a good film year, perhaps the best since 2007, and though we present our list alphabetically, if we had a film of the year, the consensus would be for Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Our Top Ten (Presented in Alphabetical Order):
Though 1995’s exuberantly romantic Before Sunrise may have been more hopeful, and 2004’s Before Sunset may have been more achingly gorgeous, Before Midnight, the third film in Richard Linklater’s ongoing tale of chatty star-crossers Jesse and Celine, is by far the most assured and intelligent of the three. Overflowing with a leisurely confidence and long, lovely takes, the film scrutinizes a day and night in the 18th year of an ongoing romance, with all of its inherent fractures and accumulated grievances, and questions whether prolonged love affairs are fueled by passion, or simply a desire to not die alone.
By turns wickedly funny and painful, Before Midnight mines the depths of Jesse and Celine’s midlife romance, offering an honest and detailed portrait of two people who have (de)evolved from lovers to partners. Though the film may not be as breathlessly romantic as prior efforts, its ending circuitously works back towards the original movie’s opening lines, and to a sense of renewed hope. Using Rohmer as its guiding North Star, this is a Midnight well worth gazing at, again and again and again. – Travis Woods
2. Blue Jasmine
While many are off praising the latest December Oscar-worthy films, myself and a few others are still singing the praises of Blue Jasmine. The latest Woody Allen movie came out earlier this fall but continues to grab nominations for what I hope will be Cate Blanchett‘s second Oscar win. The amazing cast and Allen’s clever storytelling gobble you up into the world of the troubled socialite from start to finish. Blue Jasmine is still playing in limited theaters so if you get the chance see it now. – Melissa Molina
Read our review of Blue Jasmine
The Conjuring isn’t just one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the best horror flicks to come about in a long, long time. Based on the true story of famous ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, the film focuses on one of the couple’s terrifying early cases. From the very first scene, James Wan‘s film delivers scare after scare after scare. And though the film isn’t all that deep, the mastery of tension and technique is jaw dropping. – Laura Aguirre
Though audiences haven’t been paying as much attention to Hong Kong and HK cinema as they were in the nineties, director Johnnie To has been one of the greatest filmmakers to emerge in the post-Jackie Chan/John Woo era. With Drug War he shows that he’s a genius at procedurals, as he follows a cop who arrests a drug lord who — in an effort to avoid the death penalty — decides to give up an entire cartel. Director To knows that the genre is familiar, and that television has changed and innovated how we look at cops and robbers, but from the opening set piece (which shows how things went bad for the drug dealer) to the end shootout, there’s such a command of the language of cinema, and so many great details that the film transcends genre. Stripped down and brilliant, Drug War is the best action movie of the year, but more than that, it finds a way to make a very familiar story fresh and exciting. – Damon Houx
Gravity was the Avatar of 2013, just with a much better story and all-around great performances. It was a movie that was meant to be seen in IMAX 3D, because only then could it be fully appreciated in all its greatness. But even if you disregard the stunning visuals (and they are stunning), Alfonso Cuaron‘s film was blessed with an amazing survival story and a career-defining performance by Sandra Bullock. Gravity is a near flawless movie that’s uses special effects to tell a story, not just for spectacle’s sake. – LA
A virtual whirlpool of Coen brothers tropes—the Barton Fink-esque portrait of the compromised artist as an embattled man, the bleak whole-universe-versus-Job-figure sadness of A Serious Man, the cynical exhaustion of No Country for Old Men, the broad-stroked humor of their screwball work (basically, John Goodman’s scenes), and the music-nut passion of O Brother, Where Art Thou?—stretched tight over a loving tribute to the early 1960s New York folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis is not only as finely drawn a character portrait as The Man Who Wasn’t There or the aforementioned A Serious Man, it’s top-tier Coen filmmaking.
Buoyed by Oscar Isaac’s nuanced performance (and performances), it’s a film that powerfully (and, more important, knowingly) examines the drive and despondence of the creative impulse, and those who are helplessly tied to it. Also: it’s a Coen brothers film, which is justification enough for its existence. – TW
What makes Short Term 12 transcendent is that it evokes the same feelings as the best of Italian neo-realism, while never feeling like an homage. There is truth in Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film, a truth that comes out of the performances by his cast, who are all brilliant, with Brie Larson in the center, playing a social worker at a clinic for children who are too messed up to go to a foster home, but not violent enough to end up in juvenile detention.
Great films create worlds, and you get the feeling that not only have you enjoyed watching the movie, but that you may look at the world from a new perspective, and may have learned something along the way. Short Term 12 is one of those movies. It sinks in, and there are no false moves. – DH
Chan-wook Park is an incredible South Korean filmmaker whose been showering the world with his strange but visually captivating films. This year he officially made his American debut with Stoker, a dark tale that takes us through the eyes of a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) as the sudden death of her father, and the arrival of her mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) distorts her once tranquil world. Chan-wook Park’s style, the cast and even the score are absolutely amazing, yet this one flew under the radar for a number of people early on in the year. It’s out on DVD and Blu-ray now so go watch it. – MM
Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave is a revelation. It’s one of the few films that will leave you transformed. He pulled no punches in retelling Solomon Northup’s harrowing experience in bondage. He showed the brutality of a practice that was considered commonplace for hundreds of years. It’s a reflection of the past, and a testament to the men and women who survived the most heinous period in American history. – Krystal Clark
Read our review of 12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street is a raunchy whirlwind that leaves no time to catch your breath. Both Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio jump feet first into this ridiculous story about greed and excess. It’s a pleasant departure from DiCaprio’s previous roles, where he’s usually a tortured soul carrying the weight of the world. As Jordan Belfort, he gives a master class in carelessness and comedy. Who knew DiCaprio could bring the laughs? – KC
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
Unlike most movies, the plot of The Best Man Holiday isn’t spoiled in the trailer. And with a cast this large, everyone is given good material to chew on. Despite the time lapse between the original and the sequel, the actors still have it. The chemistry we saw 14 years ago is still there. It may sound cliche, but you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and most importantly, you’ll want to watch it again. – KC
12. The Counselor
The combination of Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott is the sort of thing that sounds amazing, but the pitch blackness that the two found for The Counselor meant that the studio turned their back on it (as did audiences), even with stars like Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz. But the end result is greatness as the two play with and reinvent the film noir in the tale of a doomed man and femme fatales. Michael Fassbender leads the cast as a lawyer who wants in on the drug business, even though everyone tells him his pursuit is going to lead to his death. Penelope Cruz plays his girlfriend, and Diaz plays a woman who is such a predator she has cheetah spots tattooed onto her body. As to be expected from a McCarthy script, every line is amazing, with Pitt having the most fun as an advisor to Fassbender who knows the business, but is no less doomed. The film will likely find an audience on home video, but – make no mistake — this is Scott’s best work in a long, long time. -DH
13. Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig is absolutely sensational in Frances Ha, it’s the sort of performance that deserves (but rarely gets) awards. Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach deserve a shout-out for this spectacular black and white indie, that says more about the Millennial Generation than Sofia Coppola‘s boring The Bling Ring. Despite all the horrible situations and downright-struggles that we see Gerwig’s character go through, there’s always a feeling of hope and warmth that shines through. – LA
Spike Jonze‘s slightly futuristic love story, and slight comedy, won myself and many others over with his soft directing touches and a charming performance out of Joaquin Phoenix. If there’s one futuristic world I would want to live in one day, it would be the one portrayed in this film. – MM
15. Iron Man 3
2013 is marked by the greatest improvements to the comic book genre. Though there’s been numerous hits, it seems that the studios (Marvel especially) understand that now they’ve built their worlds, so it’s time to play in them. With Iron Man 3, they hired Shane Black to co-write and direct, and in doing so found someone who could work within the Marvel universe while also making the material his own. Or perhaps it was a way to acknowledge Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark wouldn’t exist without Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With one of the best twists of the year, a great supporting cast, and an inventive plot, Iron Man 3 offered the fun of The Avengers, and the inventiveness of the best of Bond. Though Downey Jr. might be wearing out his welcome Johnny Depp-style, after this film we can’t wait to see him return to the suit. – DH
While those only familiar with the work of director Nicholas Winding Refn via the ‘80s pop cinema sheen of Drive may have found Only God Forgives’ narrative-obfuscating pure formalism an exercise in style riffage without any substance (hell, we’ve loved him since the Pusher days and even we found the first sitting to be a slog), subsequent viewings reveal the film to be an enterprise of pure, visceral (and gorgeous!) cinema. Using a psychosexual tale of revenge, Oedipal obsession, and karaoke as a minimalist launching pad for an innumerable amount of visual—rather than narrative—ideas, Only God Forgives and its Rubik’s cubing of violent setpieces stands as one of the year’s most daring (and rewarding, for those who have the time and patience) films. - TW
17. Room 237
Less an inquiry into the myriad of possible interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s time-warped and labyrinthine 1980 horror film, The Shining, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is a penetrating documentary about the eternal dance (or tug of war, depending on your point of view) between audience interpretation vs. authorial intent.
Featuring nine fan interpretations of Kubrick’s chilly classic, ranging from the fairly plausible (a post-colonial look at the European genocide of Native Americans) to the re-goddamn-diculous (the film was Kubrick’s veiled apology for participating in the 1969 moon landing “hoax”), Room 237 investigates the endless pathways that filmgoers discover and create for themselves when exploring the hedgemazes of possibility within cinema. And, like the titular haunted room itself, what the viewers find there is just as attributable to their own ghosts and demons as it is to the Management. - TW
18. Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers has the same power of some ecstasy mixed with two shots of Patron. After watching it, you’ll want to go jump in a crowd of raving teens and party like it’s your last living day. With its brilliant soundtrack and eerie, dreamy story structure, Harmony Korine‘s insane art film is definitely one worth savoring, especially because of James Franco‘s performance as Alien. Say what you want about the man, but he poured his heart and soul into it. – LA
19. This is the End
This is the End is an old fashioned laugh fest. The cameo-filled comedy, features actors like James Franco and Seth Rogen playing exaggerated versions of themselves. The film is a pop culture time capsule with cameos from the hottest stars of today and yesterday (we’re looking at you Backstreet Boys). Despite its apocalyptic subject matter the cast looks like they’re having fun, and in turn so will you. – KC
20. Upstream Color
Those who are familiar with the independent film scene know the existence of Shane Carruth, or at least have watched Primer. His unique look into the world of science fiction, while still seducing us with the complicated lives of his main characters, are just a couple things that made many of us interested in watching his sophomore film Upstream Color when it came out earlier this year. Obviously it didn’t disappoint, weaving us through this emotional part of our main character’s lives as they struggle with a parasite taking over their minds. Not everybody can write, direct and do a great job acting as a main character in their own film, but Shane Carruth definitely can. – MM
OUR TOP FIVE MOST UNDERRATED FILMS OF THE YEAR:
What may be most surprising about Bullet to the Head is that star Sylvester Stallone and director Walter Hill never worked together before. Both became stars in the late seventies and eighties for their action cinema, but it wasn’t until 2013 that they finally worked together. Hill’s always favored a stripped-down action aesthetic, and in this lean 90 minute movie he pairs Stallone with Sung Kang in the style of 48 Hrs. The film was a bomb, but like Brian De Palma‘s Passion, it showcased what makes the director great, even if it reveals itself to be an autumnal work. But the pacing, and smart B-movie-ness of it makes for a very entertaining little package that should have found an audience. If Drug War transcends being just a genre piece, then Bullet is happy to deliver what you want out of an action movie. And there is value in that. – DH
Kudos to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for calling out the media’s false representation of relationships. We’ve never seen a story about porn addiction told in such an earnest way. In Don Jon, we see how it’s ruined Jon’s (Gordon-Levitt) perception of sex. We also see how Barbara’s (Scarlett Johansson) living in a world of Jack and Roses, which has ruined her ability to accept anything less than Titanic-level romance. There’s something deeper going on here. You may not notice at first, but Gordon-Levitt’s trying to teach us something. – KC
Sure, it runs about a half-hour longer than it should, and its ploddingly linear three-act timeline never recaptures the kinetic energy and pleasures of its first 35 minutes, but The Place Beyond the Pines is still an admirably sprawling and ambitious work by director Derek Cianfrance. Novelistic in its storytelling of a small town bank robber (Ryan Gosling), the naïve but ambitious cop who catches him (Bradley Cooper), and the fallout their mutual sins have upon their sons in the film’s 15-years-later third act, The Place Beyond the Pines marries intimate portraitures of small and sorrowful lives to a widescreen panorama of morality, consequence, and family. It’s like an early Springsteen downer ballad brought to vivid celluloid life—overly earnest and maybe a little too nuts-and-bolts for everyone’s taste, but still knowing, haunting, and true. – TW
Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell is an unlikely, yet fascinating documentary that slowly reveals the hidden secrets of one Canadian family. Actress-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley set out to expose her own family’s most private (and interesting) affairs by gathering a bunch of close friends and family members to get the skinny on her late mother Diane. But Stories We Tell isn’t just about Diane. Polley brilliantly dissects every interview, photograph and old movie clip to reveal something about the stories people tell and hear. It’s hard to believe that such a soap opera-ish story is actually all-true, but that’s what makes this documentary so exceptional. – LA
Many movie-goers consider August as the dumping ground of the summer film season, but in recent years that isn’t really the case. A prime example is You’re Next, a refreshing take on the home invasion horror drama where a family is targeted by a small group of killers in creepy barnyard animal masks. There’s a lot more depth to it than you would expect, along with perhaps one of the best badass female protagonists of the year, brought to life by Sharni Vinson. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are both turning into big names in the horror genre, and this movie is a great example as to why that’s the case. – MM
What were your favorite movies of the year?