I didn’t see everything last year. Not even close. Didn’t even see all the films I wanted to see to really do this list as much as justice as I’d like. But in any respect, here’s the list as best I could. Looking forward to comments of all kinds 🙂
Top Movies of 2013
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
I’ve often enjoyed the Coen Brothers’ work in the past, but I don’t think I have ever to the degree that I so much loved being a part of the world they immersed themselves in this time around. The major or minor Coen was the original question I asked after seeing this, but in the end I don’t think it really matters. This is an engrossing piece of cinema from men who truly know what they are doing. The screenplay is effective in just how little we know up front and the reveal is part of what makes the film so successful—this along with Oscar Issac’s performance, making you pull for a man who really isn’t all that fantastic a person to begin with.
2. Much Ado About Nothing
This makes complete sense. Of course Joss Whedon would follow up his highly successful Avengers film with this little Shakespeare film he shot in his back yard in black-and-white. The thing is, though, is that Whedon has managed to create not just a good follow-up, but a thoroughly great film that should have cemented Whedon as one of the great current American filmmakers. Instead, it was little seen, especially in light of the director’s box office pull all of a sudden, and Whedon will get right back to planning his next huge blockbuster. That takes nothing away from the way this film works: the performances are true showcases, especially from the leads, and it’s clear that the actors had an absolute blast making this film. Shakespeare fan or not, it’s a shame this was so overlooked because it was a charming, witty film from beginning to end.
3. The Way, Way Back
One of the best single movie-going experiences of the year, this one is all heart from unexpected places. Straight from the minds of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won an Oscar co-writing the wonderful The Descendants with Alexander Payne, this one is equal parts comedy and coming-of-age drama, an overused phrase that would usually be a killer one for me. But the writers—who take on directing this time, too—manage to keep the humor firing and really pulled me into Duncan’s plight. Add to that the truly engaging, funny and touching Sam Rockwell, and you’ve got one of my favorite films of 2013.
I’m starting to think that Alfonso Cuarón might not be one of us. He directed one of the better films in the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban) as well as one of the most engrossing “slow” movies I’ve ever seen in Children of Men (if you haven’t seen this….go do it now) and now this technical marvel. The opening shot (all 18 minutes of it, or whatever crazy number it is!) sets you up for a taught, engrossing film that is carried basically by the beautiful cinematography and the strength of the performance of Sandra Bullock. I was in the camp that felt that her Oscar wasn’t the most deserved for The Blindside, as that performance was good but certainly not her best, as we’ve now seen what Bullock is capable of here. Cuarón did amazing work here, but I think it’s wrong to dismiss this merely as a technical feat, as the film itself is well-paced and worthy of all the praise being heaped its way.
Spike Jonze is a crazy man. The strange thing is that Her, in many ways, could be his most restrained film to date, which, with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation in his filmography, that doesn’t really appear to be saying a lot, but I assure you it does. The directions that Jonze could have taken this film—about a man in the near-future Los Angeles who falls in love with his computer—are vast and beyond quirky, so the fact that he makes this is such a personal story is really quite a triumph. It’s also a smart film that has a great deal to say about our future and human disconnection. Those points are subtle, but that’s part of what makes the film work so well, along with the usually great Joaquin Phoenix and impressive voice of Scarlett Johansson.
6. American Hustle
Last year I was all kinds of in love with David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, so to say I was thrilled to see him teaming up with his two stars from that film and Christian Bale (one of my current favorite working actors) and Amy Adams would be an understatement. Even though this outing from Russell and Co was a tad underwhelming, it’s still a solid output that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, but in the end is a well-executed period piece about people who will stop at nothing to get what they want. This is an acting showcase first and foremost, however, and everyone is on top of his or her respective games.
7. About Time
I don’t expect this one will be on anyone else’s top 10 list, but my goodness this one knocked me off my feet and kicked me right in the face. I was immediately interested in seeing this upon catching the preview, and the filmmaking pedigree behind it only increased that interest, but I really had no idea how gripping and emotional a film this would be. A bit of a romantic drama with shades of science fiction, the film never lets on that the premise is a bit off-kilter, taking itself pretty seriously throughout. What it delivers is a film about making the most out of life and really latching onto the people who you love, because unlike in the film, we don’t get a chance to go back.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
After seeing this, I tried to picture a normal 71-year-old person even considering some of the insanity that goes on during the course of this film’s 3-hour running time, let alone putting it on film and calling it cinema. This is not, by any stretch, a putting down of the film, but simply my initial observation. That being said, this is the fastest 3-hour film I’ve ever seen, moving at a frantic pace and fueled by an equally out of this world performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. While the moral fiber of the film’s leading man is certainly in question, there’s a sense that Scorsese and his cast are all in on the collective wink, with the film serving as a cautionary tale, even as it glamorizes Jordan Belfort’s life. Not for the feint of heart, this film is not even close to Scorsese’s best, but it was a rip-roaring lot of fun.
9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I thought I really liked the first film in The Hunger Games film franchise, but as it turns out, I just hadn’t seen enough of this story on screen to really know what I was talking about. As solid a film as the original remains, Catching Fire runs circles around it in essentially every aspect. The characterization is better, the cinematography more controlled, even the actors seem more fluid and nuanced in their performances—this is just a better film than the first time around in every way. This is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster: it’s smart and, much like the book series, has things to say about our overdependence on the media.
One of the better-acted films of the year, Prisoners is also one of the more tense films I saw in all of 2013. Starting out in relative quiet as two families get together for Thanksgiving dinner, it isn’t long before the tension gets turned on and refuses to release for the majority of the film’s running time. Hugh Jackman runs most of the show, with a seething but controlled performance as one of the father’s who lost a child on that fateful day, and for the most part it is his show. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that it never feels cheesy, allowing the viewer to become captivated by the acting.
11. The Spectacular Now
Young adult lit sometimes makes for quite interesting movies, and this is the case here with The Spectacular Now. While nowhere near the level of last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this film manages to work so well because of the full-out performances of Shailene Woodley (who, in my estimation was robbed of an Oscar nomination for the previously mentioned The Descendants) and Miles Teller. The relationship between the two is convincing and even though we’ve seen a lot of this before, the level of the intensity that builds and builds throughout the film kept me paying attention even if some of the notes aren’t the most original.
Little Ronny Howard turned out to be quite an excellent director, and I think that Rush might just be his crowning achievement so far (in close seconds would be A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13). Even if some of the specifics of the story are fabricated to create drama (but come on, when does this not happen in biopics these days?), the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda feels genuine from the first time they lay eyes on one another. Credit to Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth (maybe he has a non-Marvel future in Hollywood after all) for excellent performances, which makes the film move along and keeps the viewer going along for the entire ride.
13. In A World…
Probably the funniest movie I saw this year that wasn’t a straight, go-for-the-gut comedy is In A World, a movie that dares to ask what would happen if a woman tried to enter the movie trailer voice-over industry. Lake Bell’s script is off-beat funny, and she sells the lead roll of the woman who wants to lead the industry coup with both humor and sensibility. Throw in some charming supportive roles from Demetri Martin and Rob Corddry, along with a is-she-or-isn’t-she in on the joke Eva Longoria, and you’ve got a very funny but also very touching comedy.
14. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen seems content to make a good movie every other time out of late, and since he released last year’s To Rome With Love, a dud in most ways, after the Best Picture nominated—and quite exquisite—Midnight in Paris, followed by this acting vehicle for Cate Blanchett and the cycle seems right on course. The trick is, the film overall is nowhere near as good as Midnight, but the writing is top notch, giving Blanchett, an almost guaranteed Best Actress Oscar nominee, so much to work with it’s scary. That she nails each and every depressing note is a tribute to how good she is.
15. The Great Gatsby
This final spot was the hardest to fill, and there were a lot of directions I could have gone (see the Honorable Mention category), but in the end, and even though I expect a lot of flack for this choice, I went with a movie I just flat out enjoyed seeing at the theater—so much, in fact, I saw it twice. I get that Baz Luhrmann gives us an over the top visual extravaganza here, but I do also see him lovingly handling the source material in a way that hasn’t been done before (for the love of all that is good, the Robert Redford take on the book is dreadfully boring), and, in his own way, conveys the insanity of the Roaring Twenties as only he can. Is it garish? Sometimes; but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun, with all the beautiful sets and costumes and people all over the place. I know this isn’t the most popular choice, but man-oh-man, did I really love watching this one.
Honorable Mention (in no particular order):
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Despicable Me 2
Iron Man 3
A Place Beyond the Pines
The World’s End
Now You See Me
Movies I’ve yet to see…
All is Lost
12 Years a Slave
Dallas Buyers Club
To the Wonder
Short Term 12
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Kill Your Darlings
Thor: The Dark World
Out of the Furnace
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
August: Osage County