December is a wonderful time of year, filled with holiday cheer, delicate snowflakes, warm nights next to crackling fireplaces and, my favorite, best-of lists. And looking back on 2013, I had my work cut out for me. It has been a truly fantastic year for cinema.
Sure, things started off slow with a certain amount of the typical drivel throughout January, February and March, but even then, Hollywood mixed in some truly interesting and compelling films. You won’t see Park Chan-wook’s deliciously sinister Stoker, Steven Soderbergh’s hair-raising psychological thriller Side Effects or Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s excellent doc Sound City here, but in a weaker year, all three could have easily made the cut.
As 2013 progressed and summer set in, cinema picked up steam with a sprinkling of surprisingly good blockbusters (The Great Gatsby, Fast & Furious 6) and smart, character-driven indies (The Kings of Summer, Drinking Buddies). Nothing, however, could have prepared me for this fall, throughout which studios dished out countless terrific films in each and every genre, so many that this critic kept waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop. But, do you know what? It never did. 2013 has been a year packed with a range of high-quality films. I don’t envy the Academy this year – whatever they choose, there will be many critics who’ll loudly decry their picks and point to various other deserving actors, actresses and filmmakers.
Coming up with a top 10 list this year was tricky, but I’m happy with my picks. I can’t claim to have seen every movie that came out this year – Captain Phillips, Rush, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street all evaded me. That said, my hope in constructing this top 10 list is that readers will uncover some hidden gems, take a closer look at some of the more popular picks and gain a broader picture of what cinema looked like in 2013 as a whole.
Some excellent films that didn’t quite make the cut:
20. The Great Gatsby
18. Fast & Furious 6
17. Side Effects
16. Only God Forgives
15. Drinking Buddies
14. Sound City
13. Pacific Rim
11. The Kings of Summer
And now to the list! Happy reading!Next
10) Stuck in Love
Unfairly ignored upon its release, this quiet and unassuming family drama is packed with real feeling. A heartwarming and remarkably assured debut by writer/director Josh Boone, Stuck in Love was one of my most unexpected cinematic pleasures this past year.
Following a dysfunctional family of writers torn apart by divorce, Stuck in Love steers clear of genre tropes to tell a sweet, realistic story about human behavior, familial ties and the nature of creative writing. Boasting a stellar cast led by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly, Stuck in Love has more truth to it than any other romantic drama this year, and its honest nature is truly refreshing.
That’s not say that it aims low; conversely, Stuck in Love works diligently to bring together an ensemble cast in ways both organic and unconventional. With a hugely talented supporting cast including Lily Collins, Logan Lerman, Nat Wolff and Liana Liberato (all the best they’ve ever been), crafting a narrative that does justice to each character must have been extremely difficult. That it succeeds so completely is a testament to Boone’s overwhelming talent. Few directors had stronger debuts this year.
Stuck in Love is a beautiful, heartfelt gift to writers, but it should be seen by just about anyone who enjoys getting swept up in a genuine story.Previous Next
9) The Conjuring
The year’s scariest movie is also one of its best. As directed by James Wan, The Conjuring is a brilliant nail-biter, a frightfest masterfully crafted by a true lover of the genre. Strong turns from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson just add to the film’s sense of professionalism. This is a classic haunted-house movie done deliciously right. More than in any other horror film in recent memory, I cared about the characters of The Conjuring, and if that’s not a tribute to the power of the film’s cast, I don’t know what is.
Wan’s flare for sound effects and set design makes The Conjuring a treat for all the senses, as well as a genuinely great horror flick. The director creatively utilizes every dark corner and seemingly innocuous prop to construct an almost unbearable atmosphere of dread, without delving into the same blood-and-guts of the Saw franchise he pioneered. It’s old-fashioned but in such a way that reminds us what we loved about the horror genre to begin with. You’ll never see a childish game of clap hide-and-go-seek the same way again, and that’s a very good thing.Previous Next
8) The Hunt
The first of two films on this list featuring a script by Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm, The Hunt turns a searing spotlight on a small Danish community, envisioning what horrors unfold when a blatant lie about a kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) spreads like wildfire. The strength of the movie, as co-written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is its willingness to provide brutal, frighteningly plausible answers to the tough questions it asks.
Vinterberg expertly builds an atmosphere of palpable dread in his small-town setting to match The Hunt‘s dark story. Mikkelsen is electric and awards-worthy in the lead role of Lucas, a teacher wrongly accused of sexual misconduct with a young pupil. He’s aided by an excellent supporting cast including Thomas Bo Larson and incredible child actor Annika Wedderkopp.
The Hunt is far from an easy film to watch, but it’s also a very important one. In exploring how today’s tight-knit communities allow the dark side of human nature to emerge through exercises in mob mentality, it crafts an utterly chilling, ripped-from-the-headlines modern tragedy. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away.Previous Next
7) Spring Breakers
Some people will watch Spring Breakers in hopes of witnessing former Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens break bad. And that’s just fine, if it means that more people will see Harmony Korine’s brilliant, darkly hilarious ode to the hedonistic, candy-colored fantasy of spring break.
Nightmarish, neon-heavy camerawork captures the intensity and opacity of the haze of drugs, sex and alcohol in which the film’s young stars find themselves, and it also drives home the sense that Korine is filming a paradise lost. His messages in Spring Breakers are dark ones: materialism has fostered a disconnect between actions and responsibilities so severe that American morals have been irreversibly eroded. The American education system has failed, so much so that the girls at the film’s center feel so wound up and infuriated by the pointlessness of it all that their shaking off of responsibilities involves indulging in the same boozy gun fantasies imparted to them through a lifetime of violent video games. Korine films it all with the intrusive, sleazy gaze of a Girls Gone Wild choreographer.
“Bikinis and big booties, y’all, that’s what life is about!” howls James Franco’s gonzo gangster Alien in one scene. He’s that party boy who never went home, completely committed to the booze-soaked wonderland he calls home. And Franco plays him brilliantly – watch him proudly proclaim, “Look at my shit!” to Hudgens’ Candy and Ashley Benson’s Brit as he displays everything from dark tanning oil to loaded semiautomatics, and you’ll understand why Annapurna’s Oscar bid for him is deadly serious. Hudgens and Benson are also both terrifically unhinged.
In a word, Spring Breakers is unforgettable. But this is a film that deserves so much more than a one-word consensus. It deserves to be discussed, analyzed and watched countless times. See it and soak it up, because Spring Breakers is Korine’s most thought-provoking work since Kids.Previous Next
6) The Spectacular Now
Bringing the teen drama subgenre back down to Earth, James Ponsoldt’s smart look at teenagers on the cusp of adulthood is easily one of the most affecting coming-of-age stories of recent years. It walks a fine line, treating its subjects with the utmost respect but never glorifying them. As a result, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a fun-loving senior caught up in the fantasy of eternal spontaneity, and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a kind-hearted girl patiently biding her time until college, are two of the most honest and believable on-screen teens I’ve ever seen.The actors are fantastic, each turning in graceful, sincere performances. The chemistry between Teller and Woodley never feels forced, and their relationship is innately, sometimes painfully, realistic.
It’s very rare that a film feels as heartfelt and plainly beautiful as The Spectacular Now. It deals with difficult subject matter, from the inevitable fear that comes with moving on from high school to the passionate, ephemeral nature of first love, but Ponsoldt approaches it with such care and reverence that not once does it feel exploitative, cheesy or calculated. Indeed, it really is spectacular.Previous Next
5) A Hijacking
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that proves innovation is still alive and well in filmmaking. A Hijacking, an extraordinary Danish film written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, is one of those movies. A thriller that at every turn defies the conventions of its genre, A Hijacking is a truly stunning achievement.
Focusing on the hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the ensuing negotiations ostensibly intended to rescue the ship’s crew, Lindholm’s film thrives on searing silences and tense conversations. He opts never to show the hijacking at all, immediately jumping from before the appearance of the pirates’ motorboats to after their successful takeover. The focus here is clearly on complex human interaction over high-budget action, but the film is all the more explosive for that unique perspective.
Two electric performances succeed in making the film’s quietest moments its most heart-pounding. Pilou Asbæk, playing the terrified cook on board the hijacked ship, captures the complex emotional journey of a man held at gunpoint for weeks on end, exhibiting terror, anger and, finally, disturbing detachment. Søren Malling is equally good as the CEO of the ship’s company, who feels the overwhelming weight of his men’s lives and is slowly crushed by the pressure of heading up negotiations.
An unequivocally tense and terrific thriller, A Hijacking captivates with innovative direction, stunning performances and a grittily realistic, utterly engrossing atmosphere.Previous Next
4) Inside Llewyn Davis
Life’s hard for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the tragicomic hero of the Coen Brothers’ ode to the starving artist. A folk singer determined to make his own kind of music and also find success, Llewyn is stuck in a rut. He’s old-fashioned to make it big but too committed to his bit to ever compromise. Isaac makes the character incredibly likable, even in moments of frustrating stubbornness and coldness towards others. The Coen Brothers don’t deal in simple protagonists, and Llewyn is certainly complex enough to hold his own film. He’s grieving his partner’s death, struggling to make his way in the world, failing to build relationships with the people in his life and simply unwilling to confront his own shortcomings.
All of this comes out in the film’s music, which truly takes us inside Llewyn Davis in a way better experienced than described. Three of the film’s central songs – “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” and “The Death of Queen Jane” – are still swirling around in my head and giving me new things to consider about Inside Llewyn Davis.
Jean (Carey Mulligan, wonderfully tart) says at one point, “That’s why all the same shit is going to keep happening to you, because you want it to!” She has a point, and the Coen Brothers expertly capture both the cyclic nature of Llewyn’s existence and his willingness to keep going round and round. He’s hoping for a break but lacks the drive or originality to earn one. Thematically, the film is as rich and layered as anything the Coen Brothers have ever done. Particularly, James Joyce’s Ulysses plays a major role in the story, one that becomes more pronounced upon multiple viewings. The writer-directors do right by their 1961 Greenwich Village setting, and they work Llewyn into the time period so seamlessly that every aspect of his character rings true.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers’ darkest and most relentlessly melancholy works. It’s also one of their finest and most fully formed.
For more on the film, check out our exclusive video interview with the cast below.
Denis Villeneuve’s complex and compelling thriller is one of the most unshakable cinematic experiences of the year. Powered by two career-best performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, as the determined cop on the trail of two abducted children, and Hugh Jackman, as a grieving father who decides to take justice into his own hands, Prisoners is not just a thriller. It’s also an aggressively intelligent character study, as well as a meticulous dissection of society and justice. The greatest triumph of Prisoners is how it exposes both the savagery of human instinct and the folly of human desire to build order out of a very natural state of chaos.
Villeneuve’s devotion to establishing and maintaining a nauseatingly nightmarish atmosphere, coupled with the resounding strength of his cast’s performances, turns Prisoners into something exceedingly ambitious and memorable. Moral quagmires abound in Prisoners, and the way Villeneuve approaches them is both innovative and disturbing. Prisoners asks a lot of scary questions and poses even scarier answers, presenting itself as equal parts ethical mind-bender and relentless thriller. It’s bold, brutal and unforgettable.
Prisoners is one of the must-see films of 2013. In its refusal to give easy answers, its commitment to developing strong and believable characters and its determination to delve into the darker side of human nature, the film transcends the limitations of its genre to become something much more interesting, not to mention much better. Prisoners captivates, in all the best ways.Previous Next
2) 12 Years A Slave
Steve McQueen’s retelling of the ordeal of Solomon Northup, a freed man who was abducted and sold as a slave in the 1840s, is the most difficult film you’ll watch this year. It’s also an extremely important landmark in cinema, a film about slavery that’s quite possibly essential in its determination to face the horrors of the past.
The greatest triumph of 12 Years A Slave is how masterfully McQueen guides our eyes. In one scene, a horrific whipping focuses first on the individual meting out the punishment, and the audience winces just hearing the violent crack of the whip. Then, McQueen slowly pans around, to show us the results, the blood sprays and flying pieces of flesh ripped out of a slave’s back. It’s a heart-rending, stomach-churning image, one that will be forever seared into the minds of its viewers. And that’s exactly the point.
McQueen is gifted with the strongest cast of any film this year. Chiwetel Ejiofor stuns as Northup, communicating abject misery and smoldering fury with a single glance of his deep, emotive eyes. Stooped but never bowed, anguished but never shattered, Ejiofor radiates silent fortitude. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender grounds his cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps in terrifying madness, turning in a volatile powder-keg of a performance. As Epps’ abused slave Patsey, Lupita Nyong’o is all kinds of heartbreaking, exposing slavery’s brutal, emotional toll with luminescent grace. The rest of the cast is aces as well, particularly Paul Dano as the sadistic Tibeats and Sarah Paulson as Epps’ callous, jealous wife.
One more admirable aspect of 12 Years A Slave is McQueen’s refusal to levy the blame at any one character. Despite all of the sickening evil on display, the culprit is a broken but widely accepted system, one in which complacency is the only viable option. Though Northup’s ordeal ends after a little more than a decade, 12 Years A Slave brings us closer to the nightmarish reality of slavery than any film before it. For that, it’s not only one of the year’s best films, but its most crucial.Previous Next
Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that the special effects in Alfonso Cuarón’s space-set thriller are out of this world. It’s the most technically marvelous accomplishment of the year; no other film even comes close. However, there’s much more to Gravity than its mind-blowing presentation. Despite its large scale and effects-heavy premise, Gravity is also the most deeply touching and emotionally draining film of the year.
Placing its dramatic weight squarely on Sandra Bullock’s shoulders, Gravity tells a simple but oh-so-powerful story about life, death, courage and perseverance. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first space walk who is also grieving the death of her child, with stunning openness, capturing an absorbing, compelling range of emotions that never feels less than truthful. George Clooney brings appropriate charisma and depth to a minimal supporting role, but his character acts more as a symbol than anything else.
That’s another thing about Gravity. Cuarón packs the film (which we could easily call the director’s masterpiece) with religious and cultural metaphors so potent and heartfelt that Gravity adopts an intimate, philosophical bent. The things that Cuarón puts up on the screen are gorgeous and heartbreaking in ways that words cannot do justice, so all I can say is that you should see Gravity. No, scratch that, you need to see Gravity. As soon as possible. It transcends the previously-set limitations of cinema to make the greatest film about space exploration, and perhaps the greatest film about the innate human drive to survive, of all time.Previous