Top 10 lists are inherently flawed. How does one compare the “greatness” of a film like Gravity to a film like 12 Years a Slave? The two could not be more different from each other, but they both exemplify the best of what movies have to offer. Alas, the Oscars attempt to measure the quality of one film against the quality of another year after year, but for my personal Top 10 list I’ve opted to rank according to “favorite” rather than “best”. 2013 was a very good year for film, particularly these last two months. I enjoyed a great deal of what 2013 had to offer—way more than just the following 10 movies—but if forced to choose, I’ve come up with a list of my 10 favorites. It’s entirely possible that my arbitrary rankings could look entirely different tomorrow, but after the jump I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite films of 2013.
Way back in January, I’d have said you were crazy if you told me Disney Animation’s 2013 film would make my Top 10 list. But here we are. Frozen is an absolute delight from its opening minutes to its closing scene. The film harkens back to Disney’s glory days, when voice actors were cast for their acting and singing ability instead of their starpower. The songs in Frozen, particularly the chill-inducing “Let It Go”, are Disney’s best in over a decade, and it’s reassuring to see a film aimed at a younger audience that is led by not one but two strong, independent female characters. Frozen is a refreshing jolt to an increasingly lethargic and dumbed-down slate of big studio animated films, and it’s also one of the most entertaining films of the year.
I initially expected This Is the End to be a funny yet forgettable improv-heavy comedy in which a bunch of celebrities made fun of themselves for 90 minutes, but I was very, very wrong. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg turned in one hell of a directorial debut by piecing together a surprisingly tight comedy that gets increasingly insane as it rolls forward, leading to an absolutely joyous conclusion. Danny McBride shines as “Danny McBride” and gets one of the best character introductions in recent memory, and the film’s many cameos never verge on the indulgent—especially standout Michael Cera. This Is the End is not just the funniest film of the year, it’s also the craziest.
Director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is one of the more ambitious films of 2013. The family saga is told in a unique triptych structure that drives home the theme of actions reverberating across generations, but the secret weapon that makes the film work is Ryan Gosling in a haunting performance as Luke Glanton. Though his character only has a limited amount of screentime, Gosling’s performance looms large over the rest of the film even when he’s not directly involved. Cianfrance also draws out excellent performances from the rest of his cast, including Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn, and while some weren’t thrilled with how the film played out, I was blown away.
While the majority of sequels follow the “bigger = better” formula, director Richard Linklater and his stars/co-writers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have mastered the art of the follow-up: character is everything. Nine years after seeing Jesse and Celine once again in Before Sunset, the aforementioned trio caught up once more in the third installment of the series, Before Midnight, to stellar results. The film takes a look at life in a long-term relationship, warts and all, and Linklater explores this issue with a fantastic even-handedness through the eyes of Jesse and Celine. The pic is at turns funny, sad, and frustrating, and the events unfold in an all-too-familiar manner with the seeds of the third act fight being planted in the first 10 minutes of the film. It’s a triumph of strong screenwriting, acting, and directing, and marks the rare instance of “number three” sequels that happen to be just as good—if not better—than the previous two films.
Though not as closely connected as Linklater’s Before series, The World’s End is an excellent trilogy capper in its own way. Writer/director Edgar Wright, star/co-writer Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost closed out their unofficial Three Flavours trilogy with this year’s sci-fi-leaning The World’s End, and while their previous two entries showcased a wonderful blend of character drama with exciting genre shadings, The World’s End might just be the most emotionally complex—and ultimately fulfilling—of the bunch. Pegg turns in a career best performance as Gary King, and subsequent viewings reveal just how tightly structured and whip smart Pegg and Wright’s script is. The film’s conclusion is rather unexpected and a bit befuddling at first, but it’s a thematically appropriate finale for one of the most entertaining “trilogies” in recent memory.
My expectations for Alfonso Cuaron’s space-set dramatic thriller were sky-high. As a big fan of his previous work I was already looking forward to his next feature, but the fact that he was working on this mysterious space film and utilizing crazy technology to bring it to life only made me more eager to see it. Though I was prepared to be a tad disappointed given my expectations, I was genuinely awe-struck upon first seeing Gravity—in IMAX 3D no less. This is movie magic at its absolute finest, and the wonder of the technical prowess on display is all in service to an emotional character arc that drives home the theme of overcoming adversity and our inherent human nature to survive. Gravity is why we go to the movies.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more emotionally devastated by a film than I was when I first saw director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. We all know that slavery was a horrible, horrible thing, but McQueen forces the audience to confront the issue head-on with an unflinching look at one of mankind’s greatest atrocities. McQueen never coddles his audience by smoothing out the rough edges, but the film also never feels indulgent or overly graphic. Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant as Solomon Northup, but it’s Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey that’s perhaps the most affecting and ultimately tragic character. What Solomon went through was absolutely terrible, but he eventually returned home to his family. For Patsey, this is how she spent her entire life, and she encapsulates the existence of the vast majority of slaves.
Though much of the conversation regarding Blue Is the Warmest Color has been in reference to the film’s rating, explicit sex scenes, or director Abdellatif Kechiche’s harsh treatment of his actresses, the film happens to be one of the most complete and compelling chronicles of love in some time. The nearly three-hour pic is an epically intimate portrait of the life of Adele, portrayed by Adele Exarchopoulos in one of the best performances of the year. It’s an emotionally involving tale that covers nearly every aspect of Adele’s young adulthood, specifically focusing on her relationship with the intriguing Emma, played by Lea Seydoux. As Adele slowly falls in love with Emma, the audience becomes invested in the relationship. As things progress throughout the rest of the film, we’re right there with Adele, feeling her vibrant passion, anger, frustration, and heartbreak. It’s a mesmerizing portrait of love (not “lesbian love”, just love) and one of the best films of the year.
Director Spike Jonze’s Her is almost like a magic trick. There are so many ways that this love story between a man and his operating system could have gone wrong, but Jonze and his wonderful cast—led by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson—make you buy into this romance wholeheartedly to marvelous results. This delicate, emotionally charged tale of love and humanity is much more than a story about a man and his phone; it’s the story of us. Humans, by nature, are imperfect, but the human capacity is a boundless, unquantifiable entity that is impossible to mimic. We have so much to give, and though opening up to each other leaves us vulnerable to pain and heartbreak, it also allows for genuine love and friendship—two things that are unique to the human spirit. Her captures this beautifully through Jonze’s elegant lens, and it’s another 2013 film that I’ve had a really hard time shaking. This is one for the books.
When it comes to the Coen Brothers, you never know what to expect. The duo very much march to the beat of their own drum, and each film feels like they’re making exactly the kind of movie that they want to be making. They can seamlessly move from screwball comedy to dark, brooding drama, but Inside Llewyn Davis is something else entirely. This film was impossible to get out of my head once I saw it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days, and I still can’t. It’s the most melancholy work from the Coen Brothers we’ve seen yet, and it’s so rich with layers that I just want to keep watching it over and over again so I can peel them back one-by-one.
Oscar Isaac absolutely disappears into the lead role and turns in quite possibly the most immersive performance of the year—he is Llewyn Davis. The characters are colorful, as always, and the music is fantastic, but the theme of struggling to make something of your life is particularly involving. This is the kind of movie that, after you see it, you want to immediately watch again and then sit down with your friends and talk about it for hours on end over a beer or two. It’s funny, moving, and unique, and for these reasons and so many more, Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite film of 2013.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
20 Feet from Stardom – One of the most entertaining films of the year was this documentary chronicling backup singers and their crucial role in the music industry for the past 50 years. It’s an eye opening and surprisingly emotional look at music’s
“unsung heroes”, as it were.
About Time – Writer/director Richard Curtis is three-for-three in my book, and his time travel romantic comedy/family drama was one of 2013’s most pleasant surprises.
Blue Jasmine – Though most of the conversation regarding Woody Allen‘s 2013 film has deservedly been focusing on Cate Blanchett‘s jaw-dropping, tour de force performance, the pic itself is a fascinatingly dark character study. It also features excellent supporting turns from Sally Hawkins, Louis C.K., and yes, Andrew Dice Clay.
Short Term 12 – Proof positive that the size of a film’s budget has nothing to do with its impact, director Destin Crettin‘s drama about a foster care facility is a funny, emotionally involving, and earnest gem. The young ensemble cast is tremendous all around.
The Wolf of Wall Street – A hilarious, frenetic indictment of Wall Street excess and the selfish “me, me, me” culture that it perpetuates from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese with a fearless turn from Leonardo DiCaprio to boot. Though it’s nearly three hours in length, I would’ve happily stayed in the theater for another hour just to see what else Scorsese had up his sleeve. And that Quaalude scene…
Movies I’m Sorry I Missed: Stories We Tell, Spring Breakers