Jonathan R. Lack’s 20 Next-Best Films Of 2013

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As I said in my Top 10 Films of 2013 article, 2013 was more than just a great year for films – it was a year filled with movies that were themselves filled with countless cinematic riches, a year made deep by both the number of quality titles, and the boundless depth of the titles themselves. Narrowing the best of the best down to just 10 was no easy task – though it resulted in a Top 10 comprised solely of masterpieces, I feel – and in making the list, I was left with a large number of leftovers I knew merited discussion.

So here we are with another list, this time chronicling the 20 Next-Best Films of 2013. These are the 20 movies that were in contention for my Top 10 list and did not make the cut, but I still feel are deserving of mention as some of the best 2013 had to offer. Many of these movies are ones that I know, in a less packed year, would have made my Top 10. Hell – I could have made a Top 10 based only on titles from this list, and it still would have been one of the best Top 10’s I had ever compiled. These are 20 terrific movies, and as with the main 10 list, I cannot recommend any of them highly enough.

Because ranking the Top 10 list was hard enough, and because ranking art in general is a silly and reductive task, I have elected to leave this list unranked, sorting the titles alphabetically. There are movies on here I like better than others, but overall, I feel the same affection for all these films, and that is reflected in the alphabetical organization.

Without further ado, here are the 20 Next-Best Films of 2013…

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About Time

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While this list is organized alphabetically, it happens that our first film, Richard Curtis’ About Time, is my absolute favorite on my next-best list, and was actually set to be on my Top 10 list for weeks until Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street knocked it off. This is a film that was all but ignored in the United States when it came out earlier this year, and while I had heard good things about it, the conversation surrounding the film was so quiet that I felt genuinely bowled over by the sheer volume of cinematic riches About Time has to offer.

It is a truly great romantic comedy, for starters, the rare genre entry in which the romantic material between the leads – played wonderfully by an earnest Domnhall Gleeson and a radiant Rachel McAdams – is legitimately funny, because both partners are fully fleshed out, well-rounded characters who share extremely charming chemistry, and because they are allowed to be a sincerely happy couple. There is something gleeful and jubilant about the depth of their connection, and where so many romantic films, comedy or otherwise, mine material through conflict, Curtis is smart enough to know that happiness, when written and executed well, can be absolutely infectious.

But it is no secret that Richard Curtis is good at writing romantic comedy. That’s par for the course for him. What sets About Time apart is Curtis’ employment of his premise, in which the main character discovers he and all his male ancestors have the ability to travel backwards through time. Curtis has fun with the time travel here and there, and he is never frightened of honestly confronting what this ability would mean for this character, for both bad and (mostly) good, but he mostly uses it as a springboard to larger discussions of life, love, aging, and loss. He is exploring what it means to live life to the fullest, examining the various paths people take to reach a point where they may say that, and studying how time itself hurts us, heals us, and makes all the many experiences of our lives possible, good and bad intertwined.

And I will freely admit…the number one reason this film places so highly for me is the relationship between Gleeson’s character and his father, played beautifully by Bill Nighy. There is a moment, near the end of the film, where Curtis employs time travel to give these characters the most perfect goodbye they could ever ask for, and it broke me, having lost my own father a year ago. I was sobbing right there in public, and I did not care – this was cinema at its most gloriously emotional, manipulative in the best possible way. About Time may have just missed out on my Top 10, but this sequence is easily my favorite individual scene of any movie this year, and I can imagine this film being one of my standby favorites for decades to come.

About Time is still playing in a small number of American theatres, and will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray February 4th. 

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American Hustle

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Though not without its flaws, David O. Russell’s latest film is a treat, primarily thanks to its tremendous cast. Watching Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, and an excellent supporting cast play off one another to terrifically rich, endlessly entertaining effect is one of the year’s great cinematic pleasures, while the film also offers a fun and engaging story, and conjures just enough dramatic poignancy to give it all some real weight.

Hustle is maybe a tad too much of an homage to other filmmakers and styles – Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas, in particular – to be praised above many of the more original accomplishments of the year, but taken as the enormous slice of entertainment riches it sets out to provide, American Hustle is a blast. And no film this year had better hair.

American Hustle is now playing in theatres everywhere.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy seemed like an impossible act to follow, and yet, here we have Anchorman 2, every bit as outrageously funny as the first film, but with an additional satirical edge that is sharp, fierce, and compelling. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have chosen to take the awfulness of Ron Burgundy to the Nth-degree, casting him as the cause for the inanity of the 24-hour news cycle, and as funny as it is to see Burgundy and his team burn the fourth estate to the ground, the material is also deeply shaking, because the further Ron Burgundy plunges into birthing the characteristics of modern ‘news’ networks, the more his crazy, unhinged, lunatic world looks like the one we live in now.

Anchorman 2 is now playing in theatres everywhere. Read my full review of the film here and check out our interview with the cast in the video below.


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The Bling Ring

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One of the most unpleasant films of 2013 is also one of its best, as Sophia Coppola’s gloriously repugnant fever dream of reckless excess, rampant insensitivity, and spiritual isolation is a disturbing and provocative look at the worst of what middle and upper-class teenage life can become at this specific moment in time. A lot of viewers had a kneejerk reaction of hatred towards this film, and while I understand the impulse, I think that kind of reaction is a shame, because as awful as much of what Coppola depicts here is, the ideas explored are incredibly important to modern America.

The real events that inspired the film – a group of teenagers who, between 2008 and 2009, robbed multiple celebrity houses in LA for upwards of $3 million in clothing, accessories, and cash – are in no way universal experiences, but the emotions and cultural influences that inspired them absolutely are. Coppola is interested in what happens when the instability of adolescence intersects with a culture overwhelmingly obsessed with materialism, a culture that has commodified fame as a packaged good, disconnected it from any sense of morality or individual identity, and placed it on a pedestal as something to strive for. Of course what comes out of that is horrible and monstrous – how could it not be? Refusing to look these problems in the face, refusing to engage with cultural discussions like this that very much need to happen, is a mistake, and I think The Bling Ring is a great launching point for the conversation, if only more people were willing to engage.

The Bling Ring is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Read my full review of the film here.

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Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine stands tall among the best of the iconic writer/director’s latter-day works, possessing a rich thematic resonance and depth of characterization that rivals both 2011’s Midnight in Paris and 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. That Blue Jasmine is also politically and socially topical just seems like icing on the cake for a film this uniformly excellent. Cate Blanchett is the standout here, of course, and her twitchy, finely observed portrait of neurosis made incarnate is indeed one of 2013’s best, but the entire ensemble, including Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Canavale, and Andrew Dice Clay, are electrifying.

Blue Jasmine will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray January 21st. Read my full review of the film here.

The Broken Circle Breakdown

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This Belgian film about a married couple reeling in the midst of their young daughter’s terminal illness is an absolute powerhouse, its fragmented, non-chronological structure employed perfectly to evoke the feeling of painful memories being sifted through. Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh are both tremendous in the lead roles, each delivering some of the rawest and most passionate acting of 2013, and I think any list of Best Actress or Actor would be incomplete without each of them. The film is excellent throughout, but its first eighty minutes or so are a bit of a slow burn, putting the pieces in place and building to an absolutely dynamite final half-hour. The finale is such a powerfully emotional stretch of film, a series of painful releases that resonate because of how well we know these characters, and it pushes The Broken Circle Breakdown into 2013’s absolute top tier.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is now playing in limited release.

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Captain Phillips

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I had had extreme, visceral reactions to several films in 2013, sudden outbursts of emotion prompted by the brilliance of the art or my depth of connection with the piece. Captain Phillips was different, however. Director Paul Greengrass has become so absurdly good at crafting cinematic tension, and here finds such a deep and complex thematic gear in which that tension operates, that my own visceral reaction to the film – feeling physically tense, literally moving to the edge of my seat, finding myself pausing for increasingly long durations between breaths – lasted from about the 45-minute mark all the way on to the end, at which point I felt nearly as broken and conflicted as the title character. Leads Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks are both terrific, with the film’s terrifying final moments probably representing the best work Hanks has ever done (and that is no small praise). Captain Phillips, both the performance and the film, are an absolute revelation.

Captain Phillips is still playing in select theatres, and will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray January 21st.

Dallas Buyers Club

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Jean Marc-Vallée doesn’t do anything particularly special in telling the story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic rodeo cowboy who contracts AIDS and survives by smuggling and selling effective, but non-FDA approved, anti-viral medications, but the tale itself is so immensely compelling that he really doesn’t need to.

Woodroof’s story concerns a piece of history America has tried very hard to keep hidden – that much of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was due to rampant Government obstructionism and medical incompetence – and the film is able to channel it through several fascinating characters, none more so than Woodroof himself, whose journey from homophobe to hero is convincing and touching.

Matthew McConaughey has never been better than he is here, and both he and the endlessly praised Jared Leto are great not just because of the physical commitment of their performances, but because in the midst of work that could so easily come across as gimmicky, they remember to build human, three-dimensional characters. I think Jennifer Garner is a pretty enormous weak link – she has never struck me as a hugely capable actress to begin with, but she’s asked to do more than she’s capable of here – but that only mars the film to a small extent. Dallas Buyers Club is a winner, and will serve as an effective teaching tool for some of the major problems of the AIDS epidemic for generations to come.

Dallas Buyers Club is now playing in theatres. 

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Don Jon

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As if being a great and universally beloved actor wasn’t enough, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stepped into the writer/director’s chair with Don Jon to prove himself a truly formidable filmmaker as well. This is easily one of the most finely crafted films of 2013, with an excellent screenplay that understands how to layer theme, character, and plot in perfect and impactful harmony, while the performances by Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, and others are all spectacular. Don Jon is simply a great film about the lines between sex, pleasure, and love, and few filmmakers this year so eloquently and entertainingly conveyed a thoughtful message as Gordon-Levitt did here.

Don Jon will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray December 31st.

Drinking Buddies

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Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is such a wonderful little character piece, one that is resolutely not broad, constantly painting its story about the difference between platonic and romantic love in narrow, profoundly human strokes, with a keen eye for observation and a great ear for the tenor of interpersonal relationships. I love the way the film deepens as it goes along, moving away from the direction one initially expects but winding up in a place that feels completely natural, honest, and satisfying.

Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick, and especially Jake Johnson are all excellent, giving relaxed and lived-in performances, but Olivia Wilde is the standout, doing her greatest work to date in the very best role she’s ever had. She is terrific here, and I hope that, when Hollywood gives her roles in the future, they take note of exactly how good Wilde is at conveying recognizable human flaws amidst her considerable charisma.

Drinking Buddies is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

From Up on Poppy Hill

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While The Wind Rises which made it onto my Top 10 list – proved a wonderfully fitting swan-song for Hayao Miyazaki, the other Studio Ghibli film that made its way to the United States this year was no slouch at all. Written by the elder Miyazaki, and directed by his son, Goro, From Up On Poppy Hill is a beautifully animated, deftly told tale of loss, love, and the complex relationship between the past and the present in a small seaside town in 1960s Japan. As with The Wind Rises, there is a clear metatextual element here, as the thematic crossroads between legacy and future must obviously be on everybody’s minds at Ghibli these days. But if Poppy Hill is any indication, the future is in good hands – Goro Miyazaki has evolved into a fine animation director, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

From Up on Poppy Hill is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Read my full review of the film here.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Yes, yes, I have my problems with the ending, and after multiple viewings, I still think there is a very awkward quality to splitting the film where they did, as so much of the second-half is putting the pieces together for something that is seconds away from happening when the movie cuts to black. But those multiple viewings have also intensified my love for everything this movie does well, which is pretty much everything else. Scene after scene, moment after moment, Peter Jackson and his cast and crew just nail this one, from the gloriously creepy, psychologically rich misadventure in Mirkwood, to the majestic evocation of Thranduil’s halls, to the perfection that is the ‘Barrels Out of Bond’ set piece, to the even more incredible realization of Laketown, on through an encounter with Smaug that is positively awe-inspiring in its scale, grandeur, and precision of craft.

Every major new character is a wild success, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug proving to be just as great a digital character creation as Gollum, and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel threatening to steal the show every time she’s on screen. The 13 dwarfs, so well and richly realized from the get-go, just get better and deeper and more interesting here, with Richard Armitage’s Thorin building into one of the most compelling figures in Jackson’s entire cinematic Middle-Earth. And Martin Freeman, of course, continues to be the absolute perfect Bilbo Baggins, even if I wish the middle-section of this film gave him a tad more to do. I love damn near every minute of The Desolation of Smaug, and if it does not necessarily work on its own terms as a movie – if it did, it may have been on my Top 10 – it has sold me, completely, on The Hobbit as trilogy, because with roots this deep, and foundations this strong, I think we are in for something truly great with next year’s There And Back Again.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now in theatres. Read my full review of the film here and check out our coverage of the world premiere below.


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In a World…

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Lake Bell’s wildly creative, comfortably low-key comedy about the daughter of a famous movie trailer voice-over artist trying to emerge from her father’s shadow to narrate trailers herself – I love that the movie allows me to write this sentence – was one of the Indie standouts of 2013, and definitely among the year’s best comedies. The entire cast is great, and the film’s charm only grows the more time one spends among the characters, but Bell is the standout here, in all three of her roles – as writer, director, and star – for she has managed not only to make something inventive, charming, and amiable, but also crafted an extremely strong and stealthy female empowerment narrative about what a woman’s voice means in our modern, patriarchal world.

In a World… will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray January 21st.

Iron Man 3

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2013 may have been the year many critics grew tired of the superhero movie, but it also happened to be a year filled with great ones, with Iron Man 3 in the genre’s all-time upper tier. Shane Black brought his own unique voice to the project, and wound up crafting an Iron Man that was bigger and better than its predecessors in almost every way, with stupendous action set pieces, a pleasantly surprising James Bond-esque narrative style, and some of the most complex comic-book movie characterization this side of The Dark Knight.

When I wrote about the film in May, I called it “an insightful and engaging psychological analysis of an impossibly rich and fascinating central character,” and said “it may be the current pinnacle of the superhero film as character piece.” I still think that’s true, and when you factor in the seemingly endless amounts of humor and intrigue, not calling Iron Man 3 one of the year’s best films seems like the crazy thing to do. Marvel is on a roll, and I for one feel tremendously lucky to be along for the ride.

Iron Man 3 is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Read my analysis of the film here.

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Man of Steel

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It is hard to know what to say about Man of Steel at this point. I love this movie. I love everything about it. I love that it takes a smart and thoughtful approach to reimagining Superman’s origin story, creating a firm and touching thematic core centered around the notion of Clark’s two fathers, and I love how completely the crisis and action of the movie rise out of Clark’s basic internal identify conflict. I love how far Zack Snyder pushed the scale of this film, and how much weight each beat of action has in developing Clark and Zod as characters, and in realistically depicting what might happen to our planet if we were visited by such superpowered beings. I love Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent, I love Amy Adams as the smartest Lois Lane we have ever seen on film, and I cannot get enough of Michael Shannon’s stirring General Zod. I think David S. Goyer has written an absolutely top-notch script, one that is more thematically unified and fully thought out than most films this year, and I think this is easily Snyder’s best work to date in the director’s chair. I love Hans Zimmer’s forceful and compelling score, which completely makes me forget about the iconic John Williams music.

And yet…no matter how many times I lay out, clearly and coherently, all the things I love about this movie, the people who hate Man of Steel will continue to act like I and all other fans of the film are illiterate jackasses for suggesting it could have positive merits. Never mind that nearly every complaint I have ever seen lodged against this movie is a willfully ignorant misinterpretation of what happens on screen – I just wish the film’s detractors were willing to have a calm and friendly discussion about the movie, rather than twisting and abusing everything the film presents so they can shout loudly at people who liked it.

I saw Man of Steel before a single review landed, and it felt like I was walking on cloud nine coming out of that theatre. I suspected it might be divisive, but I didn’t expect that the subsequently created atmosphere would be so positively toxic. That isn’t the movie’s fault, and it will all fade away with time, but being a Man of Steel fan in 2013 was a chore, and liking a movie should never have to feel like hard work. In any case, I still firmly believe Man of Steel is a tremendous film, one of the all-time great superhero movies, a blockbuster that is well ahead of its time, and easily one of 2013’s best.

Man of Steel is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Read my full review of the film here.

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Prisoners

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Prisoners was a film I watched on a whim, one I knew absolutely nothing about, and I was blown away by the dense plotting, novelistic structure, and moral and intellectual complexity. Prisoners is a superb crime procedural that gets exponentially deeper and richer as it moves along, right up to its closing moments. As an emotionally struggling, ethically compromised father, Hugh Jackman gives what I think is easily the best performance of his career, while the grounded work Jake Gyllenhaal does as a detective fighting to stay cold and detached during the most horrific investigation of his life is outstanding. Factor in the brilliant, haunting cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and sharp direction from Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker whose prior work I am unfamiliar with, and this is definitely one of the year’s best, albeit one that has, to my eyes at least, been oddly underrated.

Prisoners is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rush

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Far and away the best film Ron Howard has made since 1995’s Apollo 13, Rush is the historical narrative at its best, a stirring evocation of the infamous 1976 Formula One racing season that doubles as both a tremendous character study and one of the sharpest, smartest portraits of masculinity in modern mainstream film. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are each spectacular as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, respectively, with Brühl’s mastery of his own face and facial expressions recalling the works of the silent film greats. Howard’s direction and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography are positively inspired, and alongside Man of Steel and 12 Years of Slave, this is one of three truly great Hans Zimmer scores of the year. In a less crowded year, this really feels like the kind of movie that would have made my Top 10 – as it stands, it is still undoubtedly one of the year’s best.

Rush arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray January 28th.

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Spring Breakers

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It still stuns me that Spring Breakers was given a wide theatrical release. To me, this is a hair’s breadth away from being a full-on avant-garde piece, and while I found the film’s sweaty, disorientating, disturbingly excessive style exhilarating, unleashing the film on general audiences almost seems cruel.

No matter what, Spring Breakers is easily one of the best and smartest films of 2013, a movie that picks apart the myth of young adult individuality by showing how the things young people turn towards in search of making sense of the world – drinking, drugs, reckless sex, and even violence – are intensely subsuming and dehumanizing, with James Franco’s Alien, one of the year’s very best character evocations, standing in as the disturbing end result of it all.

At least, that’s one interpretation – Spring Breakers is as heavy and complex and intellectually rich as anything released this year, and when I got home from seeing it back in March, I typed 9 solid pages of notes, theories, and observations on the computer. I have tried several times to organize that all into a publishable essay, but the film keeps eluding me. Spring Breakers is an experience, one so perfectly and hauntingly realized that trying to capture what it has to say in writing is akin to bottling smoke.

Spring Breakers is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Thor: The Dark World

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It is possible I had no more fun at the movies all year than with Thor: The Dark World. The film is just a pitch-perfect comic-book movie, one that is not only unafraid to wholeheartedly embrace its pulp roots, but actually feels like something I could have seen in a Thor comic or cartoon series. And yet, what really blows me away here is that even while The Dark World is gloriously, gleefully unhinged – this is easily the funniest movie Marvel has ever made, and has some of the most creative set-pieces in the entire superhero cinema canon – it is also grounded in some of the most rock-solid, expertly thought-out internal logic, tonal and otherwise, I have ever seen from a blockbuster tentpole. It saddens me a bit that many critics and viewers dismissed this film; what does it say about our modern movie-going culture when we can’t just take wonderfully well-executed fun for what it is? Entertainment is still a crucially important part of cinema, and few films this year entertained as well as this one.

Thor: The Dark World is now playing in theatres.

This is the End

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Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg swung for the fences on this one, aiming to make something both ludicrously silly and emotionally, thematically poignant, and it really is awe-inspiring to see how far they hit it out of the park. When I reviewed the film, I said it was hard to believe that This is the End exists, and that is exactly how I still feel – something this completely unhinged, this audacious and insider-y and committed to making every moment, whether it be horrifyingly over-the-top or intimate and character-based, work to the fullest extent, should by all rights feel like a mess.

It’s an apocalypse comedy, dealing with religious themes of sin and redemption, about real-life celebrities playing totally whacked-out versions of themselves, trying to repair broken friendships before the end comes. And when the end does come, it is accompanied by a Backstreet Boys reunion. This movie should not work. And yet it does – it works beautifully, and hilariously, and gloriously, and if this is what Rogen and Goldberg could achieve in their first time in the director’s chair, their future seems effectively limitless.

This is the End is now playing on Blu-Ray and DVD. Read my full review of the film here.

That’s it for me! You now know what my 30 favorite films of 2013 were – here’s my Top 10 again if you need a refresher – so tell us, what were your favorite movies? Sound off in the comments!

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  • Kenneth Serenyi

    This is a good top 30. I bet your ‘Top 10 superhero movies’ list takes a beating every few months though… ;)

    • Jonathan Lack

      Oh yeah, that’s a list that’s always changing for me. But we’re in the golden age of the genre – it just means the superhero movie is in a healthy phase of its existence, whether other critics are tiring of it or not.