10 Best Films of 2013

2013 was a pretty great year for movies. Sure, there were some significant let-downs (Pacific Rim, for all its glorious action sequences, was a disappointment from maestro Guillermo del Toro). Yet the year was also filled plenty of wondrous slices of entertainment (Catching Fire, despite being a big blockbuster, was the biggest surprise of the year when it came to quality), terrific comedies, stirring dramas, and the greatest film to come along in the new millennium. Here’s my list of the best films of 2013. I mean it to be in no way as comprehensive, as there are several upcoming films that I’m anxiously awaiting  (Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle). Yet here is the list of the best films that I have seen. I hope you can find something on here that you enjoy.Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Nebraska (Alexander Payne’s brutally emotional film which never knows whether its a satire or a genuine film, but is lifted above all its flaws by a remarkable performance by Bruce Dern)

Captain Phillips (an expertly done thriller which falters in the second half)

The Spectacular Now (a teen pic that comes so close to transcending its genre and becoming a great film, and then doesn’t)

Fruitvale Station (a topical film that, as powerful as it is, never lets you forget that it’s political filmmaking),

Mud (a mystifying and classically told fable which doesn’t have enough weight to carry it all the way through)

Before Midnight (a flawlessly executed film with a completely vapid couple at its center)

The Way, Way Back (a joyful slice of summer entertainment)

10. The Bling Ring

Unlike the great films of her father Francis, Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring is not a timeless masterpiece. On the other hand, this gem is a film made for right now. This is a bold, stylish and unsettling portrait of present-day America won’t have nearly as much impact a decade from now. Today, however, the film strikes a chord with almost everything about society, mainly the obsession with stuff. There are so many beautiful things, so many shots of glamorous objects and households. Yet it’s also heavily cynical about the cultural acceptance of this hyper-consumerism, and when the film pulls the rug out from under you, it hits you with an immense force. Some critics have dismissed this as a materialistic drama, or a dull satire, but they’re missing the point: this is diamond-hard, razor-sharp horror. (Rated R)

9. Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer is like a flower: It starts out relatively insignificant, and over the course of its short 84-minute running time, grows into a beautiful dissection of love and art. It’s a gorgeous documentary with less of an arc than a series of events culminating in a greater understanding and amount of empathy for these two starving artists. It’s a small film, but in its quiet headspace, it dreams up wondrous depictions of reality. (Rated R)

8. Prisoners

Watching Prisoners is a rough experience. It’s running time stretches across the two-hour mark, the plot twists grow progressively darker, and its violence is graphic and disturbing. Yet, even though it’s exhausting, it’s impossible not to marvel at how well-crafted this film is. It’s a vigilante thriller that covers both well-tread and innovative new ground. The cinematography is gorgeous, giving the entire film a sense of eerie calm. The film isn’t flawless (moments drag or become a bit heavy-handed), but Prisoners is unforgettable. Don’t miss it. (Rated R)

7. The World’s End

In a summer filled with disappointing blockbusters (Pacific Rim) and endless sequels (Iron Man 3), the most entertaining blockbuster of the year came from Britain. The last and arguably best in the Cornetto trilogy (previous installments Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, have become cult classics) is an apocalyptic action-comedy with wit, intelligence, and genuine soul. It’s not simply an endless parade of CGI action sequences and dull characters. There are actual ideas, themes, a real plot.  It’s a bit shaggy, and totally ridiculous, but it’s still one of the most entertaining-and surprisingly thoughtful- films of the year. (Rated R)

6. Frances Ha

This is a love story. I know it might not seem like it from the trailer, or the summary, but I assure you, it’s the most loving story of connection that’s been made in the past several years. Yet this isn’t a boy-meets-girl story. No, it’s a film about two friends who begin to drift apart and struggle to stay together. It’s beautifully written, and Greta Gerwig gives an earth-shatteringly perfect performance as the title character. It’s the kind of film that not just makes you smile, but raises your spirits higher than you could imagine and makes it stay there for days. I couldn’t have loved it more. (Rated R)

5. Blue Jasmine

I don’t love Woody Allen. Sure, I loved Manhattan, and Midnight in Paris was a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon, but films like Annie Hall have an aggressively manic and incessant joking manner to them that just rubs me the wrong way. Blue Jasmine, his new film, however, is a blisteringly sharp-edged social commentary with such an invigorating energy that it can be stunning when you realize how fused with loss, loneliness, and frenzied emptiness the film is. Yet, even with Woody Allen’s time bouncing and witty script and a whole ensemble of wonderful performances, the film wouldn’t work with out Cate Blanchett in the central role. I cannot praise highly enough her performance in this film. Blanchett has this intense magnetism that just draws you to her on the screen and makes you never, ever want to look away. It’s beyond description, because this doesn’t feel like a performance. This is a full embodiment of a character, brought vividly to life on the screen. It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. (Rated PG-13)

4. All is Lost

All is Lost has almost no dialogue. There is only one character: an unnamed sailor alone at sea. The story has no red herrings, not much violence, and very little that qualifies as conventional “action.” Yet the film is simply exhilarating, from the opening moments to the final shot. Robert Redford acts with a ferocity that commands every scene. The images rival that of Life of Pi, but this is simultaneously a less ambitious and better film. It’s a jolt of pure cinema, an experiment that paid off marvelously. (Rated PG-13)

3. Room 237

Who would have thought that a documentary on The Shining conspiracy theories would be this good? Yet it is, marvelously and perfectly. Room 237 is sharper, wittier, tenser, and more thrilling and suspenseful than the majority of the films I saw this year (with two notable exceptions). It’s conspiracies are mostly crazy, yet they’re revealed in such a way that they make perfect sense, and compel you to learn more. More powerfully, however, is how the film is able to make you sympathize with conspiracy theorists. They’ve become trapped in the maze of The Shining, and, for 102 minutes, you will be as well. (Not Rated, but includes a multitude of footage from The Shining, Rated R)

2. Gravity

Story-wise, Gravity is fairly straightforward. Two astronauts become stranded in space and are forced to find a way back to earth on their own. In retrospect, nothing is very surprising about the setup, the execution, or the finale. Yet it is unlike anything else that has ever been made. It’s poetic and thrilling, thoughtful and brisk, thoroughly conventional and completely original. Some have critized it for being too shallow, and others have brushed it off as a “thrill ride” instead of as cinema. But in truth, the story feels organic and natural, without It’s a visceral experience of a film, the kind of movie you leave most hoping you’d seen. (Rated PG-13)

1. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is brutal, agonizing, uncompromising, and bluntly vicious. I say this not as a way to deter you from seeing the film, merely as a warning. This isn’t merely the best crafted film of the year, it is the most vital. This shies away from nothing, yet never feels exploitatve. It chronicles the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the antebellum North, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Chitwetel Ejiofor gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on film as the protagonist of this story. Steve McQueen (who’s previously directed Shame and Hunger), pulls no punches. Scenes and individual shots go on much longer than they need to, and yet you can’t tear your eyes away. The soundscape, the gorgeous Southern wildlife, all are shockingly contrasted with the greatest cinematic depiction of one of the worst points in American history. When the ending finally arrives, the audience, like Solomon, feels not joy or even relief, simply and immense sadness. The most powerful moment comes late in the film, with an extended close-up of Solomon looking around. For several seconds, his eyes stare directly at us, and we feel his pain, his frustration, his anger, his sadness, his helplessness. Then, in what may bee the most heartbreaking moment, he looks away, knowing full well that we cannot help him. Yes, this film is Rated R, and I realize some parents may be reluctant to take their children to see this film (and rightfully so). Yet it is absolutely essential that you do. This isn’t merely a new American classic, it’s a film that should be seen at least once by every person in the United States of America. It’s that important, and that great. (Rated R)