Matt’s Top 10 Films of 2013

     December 30, 2013


And so here we are again.  The “Top 10 Films” list is an act of vanity, and one I enjoy annually.  Almost everyone who does it is basically proclaiming, “I saw many movies this year, and lo, in my infinite wisdom, have culled them down into these chosen ten.  I would inscribe them on stone tablets had I the time or money to do so.”  But they do serve a purpose beyond ego (although I do love the ego part): they can guide.  We love movies, and we want to share them with other people so they can (hopefully) experience the same joy, wonder, fear, introspection, and a host of other emotions.  I can’t inscribe these titles in stone, but they still left a serious impact on me.  If you’ve seen these movies, I want to discuss them.  If you haven’t seen these movies, I hope you seek them out so we can have a conversation.  For me, these ten titles live beyond the screen, and not just in an itemized list.

Check out my Top 10 Films of 2013 after the jump.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): The Spectacular Now, Before Midnight, Kill Your Darlings, Frances Ha, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

10.) Short Term 12


This is a lesson in never judging a film by its festival synopsis.  The SXSW guide made Short Term 12 sound like utter tripe, but ecstatic word-of-mouth led me to a screening where I saw a movie that moved between heartbreaking and uplifting without ever missing a beat.  Writer-director Destin Cretton took his feature debut, walked it on a tightrope, and made it look easy.  He never once exploits his damaged characters, and always plays to the honesty of the situation.  And the honesty of a facility for at-risk kids does contain a lot of pain and anger, but the real power comes not through negativity, but through empathy.

9.) The Place Beyond the Pines


I’m genuinely surprised this movie didn’t take hold of other people the way it did with me.  What others saw as long, I saw as epic.  It’s a multi-generational conflict where good intentions pave a damned road for all.  Derek Cianfrance brings deep and thoughtful shading to all of his characters as he explores how a person’s strengths and flaws can be one and the same.  Filled with powerful betrayals and revelations, The Place Beyond the Pines has a magnificent breadth of storytelling that is truly worthy of its length.

8.) Frozen


I’m always rooting for Disney Studios Animation to succeed.  It was a big part of my childhood, and I want today’s animated family films to be just as great.  Frozen lives up to the standard, but does so by being both traditional and progressive.  It doesn’t play to nostalgia, but holds on to the best values with good comedy, lovely characters, and amazing songs.  However, it also embraces new themes and stunning CGI animation.  I desperately want Frozen to be the herald of a new golden age of Disney Studios Animation.  And even if I’m let down, I can cheer myself back up by singing “Let It Go”.

7.) 12 Years a Slave


This film is remarkable for so many reasons.  Yes, it’s a “tough watch” and you shouldn’t get anything less from a movie about slavery.  The film is never indulgent, and while the physical brutality is harsh, it’s the abuse of the soul that lingers.  Slavery is pure evil because those who perpetrate don’t even recognize its horror.  They can’t see Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) slowly losing his identity or Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) expressing utter joy at the thought of dying.  It’s all summed up in one of the saddest, damning lines of the year: “There is nothing to forgive.”

6.) The World’s End


It’s fitting that a film about growing up should be Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg‘s most mature to date.  It leaves behind the safety and security of a specific genre without losing the identity of their previous movies.  It’s a rich, layered, magnificently structured story that leads up to a brave and rewarding payoff.  It’s also a movie where blue blood/ink comes out of ceramic robots.  2013 had its fair share of thoughtful, introspective movies, but none of them matched The World’s End when it came to comedy and kinetic energy.  Cheers.

5.) Inside Llewyn Davis


I was enraptured by Inside Llewyn Davis the first time I saw it, and when I came back to it a couple months later, the film improved by leaps and bounds.  The movie remains so damn sad, but it beautifully highlights the fundamental unfairness of artistic success.  Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) may be an asshole, but you would be too if you were incredibly talented, devoted your life to your music, and the world didn’t care.  He may be his own worst enemy, but showbiz is a close second, and you feel his pain in almost every song.  I don’t know what it says about me that I love the hell out of the soundtrack.

4.) Nebraska


This year, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street all dived into the American excess and greed that fueled 2008’s economic collapse.  Only Nebraska was willing to show the ramifications of that collapse.  Alexander Payne created a deeply compassion picture that accurately reflected small-town, Midwestern life to present a funny and sweet portrait of what’s truly important in life.  Other economic collapse movies were big, glitzy, and glamorous, but none were as emotionally resonant and thoughtful as Nebraska.  Sometimes the softest voice speaks the loudest.

3.) Gravity


I’ve seen Gravity in IMAX 3D and I’ve seen it on a watermarked, 2D DVD.  It may be majestic on the former, but it’s no less life-affirming on the latter.  The movie was a singular experience in theaters, but it holds together because of a powerful, emotional core.  No matter how big the screen, I want Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to heal.  I’m one of the people who finds her much-maligned monologue about losing her daughter to be incredibly moving because Bullock sells the hell out of it.  You can nitpick the science, and you can dismiss the small scope of the story, but then you’d be missing the big picture.  And pictures don’t get much bigger than Gravity.

2.) Her


Leave it to the visionary mind of Spike Jonze to come up with a tricky premise—a man falls in love with his computer’s sentient operating system—and transform it into one of the best science fiction and romance stories of the past ten years.  The movie still retains the bittersweet tone of Jonze’s earlier pictures, but Her is his most audacious outing, and in some ways his most rewarding.  The level of talent on display is staggering, but it’s never showing off.  It’s all in service to an unusual but deeply moving story that will break your heart and put it back together.

1.)   The Act of Killing


We love movies.  They comfort us, thrill us, make us think, make us laugh, and conjure a whole range of emotions.  That’s “The Power of Cinema”.  And yet we also like to think that movies can’t turn people into killers and encourage massacres, but what if the conditions were just right?  What if gangster movies weren’t just a form of entertainment, but a life model?  We watch movies featuring killers so we can be entertained.  The killers in Joshua Oppenhimer‘s mind-blowing documentary watched those movies so they could take lessons.

But then Oppenheimer gave them the cameras, let them tell their own stories, and the results were twisted beyond all reason.  I could almost feel my brain making a popping sound while watching the film.  Genocides are, sadly, nothing unique, but Oppenheimer’s movie took us inside the sick, sadistic minds of killers, and into a world where they were revered and feared.  The picture is revelatory, disgusting, chilling, and constantly jaw-dropping.

This was my favorite movie of the year ever since I saw it back in March.  It’s not something I’ll pop back in the ol’ DVD player and watch to relax, but I couldn’t let it go, and it wouldn’t let me go.  The Act of Killing is cinema at its most powerful and most terrifying.


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