Every year I believe less and less that there’s such a thing as “The Best Film of The Year.” Award shows are fun, but they always seem to honor an excellent film that rubbed the fewest people the wrong way.
Watching a film is a personal experience for every viewer, and something that touches me deeply may just not really work for you. With some of the films I love, this is doubly true. As such, I always try to avoid telling people what the “Best” films of the year are. These are my “top” films of the year, which is probably a sneaky, dressed-up way of saying “favorite.”
No matter how much I may like my list, there’s always the feeling that I didn’t see enough films. I can’t see everything, and the list of what I missed is always filled with some reportedly wonderful films. This year they include Blue Jasmine, Short Term 12, Philomena, Frozen, and Fruitvale Station just to name a few. So if your favorite movie isn’t mentioned here, just assume I didn’t see it. That’s the safest route.
Without further adieu, my Top Films of 2013:
10. Thor: The Dark World
It’s not The Avengers, but this film was still a ton of fun. I’d watch Tom Hiddleston’s Loki if he were only pulling off confidence tricks in the streets of New York. He’s a pure joy to watch here, and most of the best moments are his. That scene where Thor and Loki walk through the great hall and Loki transforms into Jane Foster and Captain America to tease Thor? That was Hiddleston’s idea. This is obviously a comic book movie, but it has its heart in the right place. It’s fun to watch, even when it doesn’t always make perfect sense.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines
A somewhat forgotten film from pre-award season, The Place Beyond the Pines is the third film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance. Pines suffered from an ad campaign that made it appear to be a heist film pitting a tattooed Ryan Gosling against Bradley Cooper’s Boy Scout cop. Instead it’s a three act drama about the decisions we make and how they affect our families down the line. Ineptly describing the film to a friend as “that Ryan Gosling motorcycle movie,” he asked me if I was sure it wasn’t actually called “The Sins of the Father?” Wrong title, but he nailed it anyways.
Alexander Payne’s black and white Nebraska is a step back from the big(ger) budget and exotic locations of his previous film, The Descendents, but it’s a step in the right direction. Payne’s films work best when he’s examining the relationships between his characters. He makes them seem like the kind of people we know, and they’re always endowed with a wonderful sense of humor. Here Payne tells the story of a elderly man (Bruce Dern) who’s convinced he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, and the son (Will Forte) who’s willing to take him to Lincoln to claim the dubious prize if it will shut him up. Dern gives a magnificent understated performance, and Forte is better than he has any right to be, but watch out for the scene-stealing June Squibb as Dern’s filter-less wife who might be the best of them all. (See my full review HERE)
7. The Wolf of Wall Street
Don’t tell mom, but Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a wonderful, debauched ride. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his career as Jordan Belfort, a stock broker running a boiler room that sells junk stocks to suckers for a high commission. When he’s not doing business, Belfort and his friends engage in some of the wildest exploits ever put on film. It’s drugs, sex, and money to the max, and Scorsese turns an unflinching eye on Belfort and his associates. The Wolf of Wall Street is probably too long, but in Scorsese’s capable hands and featuring a stable of excellent supporting performances, you hardly notice. Belfort is despicable, but he represents a version of the American dream that we’d all secretly love to try.
6. 12 Years a Slave
Here’s your likely Best Picture winner. Enough has been said about Steve McQueen’s film that I don’t need to recap it. Just know that it’s brutal and heartbreaking. Michael Fassbender is great as always in a film that you won’t want to quickly re-watch but you can’t ignore.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
This spiritual successor to O Brother, Where Art Thou? shows a week in the life of a down-on-his-luck folk singer in New York in 1961. The lesser-known Oscar Isaac gives a star-making performance as the titular Llewyn Davis, a folk singer struggling to keep his stagnant career alive and retain an idealized “artistic integrity” that doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. The songs are almost all covers, but the singer-actors imbue them with life, and the film features live takes of their performances. Supplementing the cast of characters is an elusive housecat that serves as one of those wonderfully unexplained Coen Brothers symbols. Is it representative of Llewyn’s career, Llewyn himself, or something else entirely? He’s not telling. The film was mostly ignored at Oscar time, but that disappointment is something Llewyn Davis himself would intimately understand. It doesn’t matter. Even the Coen Brothers’ lesser movies are still gems.
4. All is Lost
Here’s the film that surprised me the most this year. I was expecting to see an okay film with one really good performance, but the film itself blew me away. The premise is stupidly simple: a man struggles to survive after an accident at sea, but contained within that narrative is a powerful examination of what it takes to survive against increasingly impossible odds. Robert Redford is incredible, and I think it’s a robbery that he missed out on a best actor Oscar nomination. I’d have picked him to win. J.C. Chandor will be a director to keep an eye on in the future. This is only his second film, but it’s viscerally powerful experience with life itself in the balance. (See my full review HERE)
This film was scientifically designed for me to fall in love with; a deeply emotional examination of what it means to be in love, even when that relationship seems crazy to the rest of the world. Set in a not-so-distant future, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a man struggling with his wife’s desire for a divorce who finds himself falling in love with the new operating system on his phone. Scarlett Johansson brings the OS Samantha to life with an outstanding vocal performance, and their relationship is as vibrant as any other put on film this year. Spike Jonze has made another imaginative Charlie Kaufman-eque film, but this time without the noted screenwriter himself. The human-technology love story is easy for unwilling audiences to dismiss, but this is masterful filmmaking. Every film requires some suspension of disbelief. Some just take more than others.
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
My love for this film is well documented. It’s the one I’ve thought the most about this year, and it never seems to be that far out of my mind. Blue tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student with an unexpected attraction to a blue-haired stranger she passed one day on the street (Lea Seydoux). It’s a coming of age film that dares to show the complications of first love in all its passions, brawls, and tears. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are both magic, giving deep, natural, emotive performances. Director Robert Kechiche’s camera never flinches, and in the end we’re reminded that life and relationships are too complicated to have an easy storybook ending. I completely understand that a three-hour, French film about a lesbian relationship isn’t for everybody, but I was enraptured. (See my full review HERE)
I love Alfonso Cuarón. From Y Tu Mamá También (see the parallels to Blue is the Warmest Color) to Children of Men, he’s proven himself to be a master filmmaker. Now, seven years in the making, he’s returned with his boldest achievement yet. In a year filled with films about survival against impossible odds, (All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave) Cuarón’s film about a pair of astronauts stranded in space is my top film of the year. I had a discussion with Screen Fellows editor David McGinnis not long after Gravity premiered where I wondered if I’d ever watch this movie again. The special effects are jaw dropping, and I still question whether they’ll hold up translated from a 3D IMAX screen to my home theater. It’s like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia on a 12 inch black and white TV. Gravity deserves to be seen in all its splendor. This is what the joyous wonder of movies is all about.
Dud of the Year – Man of Steel
Man of Steel is a disappointing mess. I’ve never been a fan of director Zac Snyder (see the equally sloppy Watchmen for context), but with The Dark Knight’s director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer on board, plus a great trailer, I had high hopes for this Superman reboot. Boy, was I wrong. Snyder slaps a destruction-porn CGI junkfest on the screen, apparently blind to a decade of great superhero movies that have ruled the box office lately. Jonathan Kent dies for no real reason to try and give this movie some emotional gravitas, but it’s all an exercise in futility. Snyder is bringing in Ben Affleck as Batman and Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio for the sequel, but I doubt it matters. He could cast Laurence Olivier and get a rewrite from Paddy Chayefsky and I still wouldn’t see it as long as Snyder is still at the helm.
See you in 2014.