Monday, January 6, 2014

My Top Ten Films of 2013

Like just about every blogger out there, I felt the need to write up a Top Ten List of last year's films.  I haven't seen all of the major Oscar contenders, but as of now I feel like I've seen enough of them that my Top 10 is pretty stable.  Among those I haven't seen yet: Mud, Frozen, Nebraska, All is Lost and, most regrettably, Short Term 12.

The links will take you to my original reviews of each film.

1. 12 Years a Slave - Honestly, my top three films are pretty much a dead heat, but I feel inclined to give 12 Years a Slave the edge because it takes subject matter that could have felt like pandering Oscar bait and finds a way to make it a horrific personal film about one man trapped in a living nightmare.  It knows when to be subtle and when to beat us over the head with the brutality of slavery.  Of all the films I saw this year, this might have been the one that left me with the most to think about afterwards.  There's little doubt in my mind that Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the Oscar for his performance here and Steve McQueen is equally deserving of a Best Director nomination.

2. Gravity - I don't know how you begin to write a film like Gravity, much less direct it.  Alfonso Cuaron's film is a marvel of directing, visual effects and acting.  Some say there's no character arc in this, which to me is just indicative that they're not looking closely enough.  Many films this year offered spectacle, but for my money, no film delivered on that promise better than Gravity.

3. Her - Her could flippantly be described as a story about man who falls in love with his Siri.  That's not totally accurate.  The computer "operating system" Samantha is a few evolutionary steps above Siri, but not to a ridiculous degree.  Our lead character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely introvert who's still not made piece with his separation and impending divorce from his wife. Every part of Theodore's world has a veneer of phoniness to it, so it's not terribly surprising that he'd bond with his newly purchased O.S. "Samantha." In exploring the relationship, the film first seems to deconstruct the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope and in going beyond that, writer/director Spike Jonze begins to explore more universal truths about relationships.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street - A portrait of excess that's unfortunately been misunderstood by many. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese do some of their best work ever in this three-hour film about one of the greediest, slimiest stockbrokers to ever make a penny off his clients' greed and have them come back begging for more.  In its own way, it forces us to confront that part of ourselves that wants the life Jordan Belfort represents.

5. Captain Phillips - aka "the film that reminds us why Tom Hanks is so revered." The final scene of the film is incredible, as Hanks vividly shows us that the trauma of the hostage situation didn't end immediately with Phillips's liberation.  Equally impressive is how Barkhad Abdi holds his own with Hanks every moment they are on screen together - a feat that's even more remarkable once you realize this is Abdi's first feature film.

6. The Spectacular Now - There are a lot of virtues to be found in The Spectacular Now, but perhaps one of the most satisfying elements is the honest writing of the characters.  This is one of those movies where the viewer can't help but marvel at how authentic everything feels, even when it would be so easy for the script to veer into more common explorations of first love and high school cliques.  Director James Ponsoldt does a wonderful job of conveying the subtlety and nuance in Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script. This is the sort of film that is so natural that the writing appears deceptively easy, even though the truth is precisely the opposite. If you overlooked this one last summer, check it out on DVD when it's released later this month.

7. American Hustle - I didn't get to do a full review of this one back when I first saw it and now I wish I had because the capsule review here won't do justice to all my thoughts on it.  My big takeaway from this film was how rich and fleshed-out the characters were.  You want to know how to get a movie made? Get strong talent attached. And how do you do that? Write characters with as much range and complexity as the principle cast here.  Everyone scores here.  I've seen complaints that the structure was too loose, that the plot was too slight.  I don't agree with that and even if I did, guys like Christian Bale's Irving and Bradley Cooper's Richie were so fascinating, I'd have watched a whole movie of those guys just interacting.

8. Man of Steel - I rewatched this one a second time just a few weeks ago and found that my strong first impressions of the film weren't just "midnight screening" excitement. If anything, I enjoyed the film even more a second time.  David Goyer's script isn't quite as strong as some of his Dark Knight entries, but he still does a teriffic job of making an old story feel new. Some condemned this because this didn't feel like the Superman they knew.

As someone who's lived with multiple interpretations of the mythos including two or three comic book reboots, the Donner films, Lois & Clark, Smallville and more, I've gotten used to accepting sometimes wildly distinct takes on the continuity.  Judging this film on its own terms rather than what came before is not only fairer to the film, but a better way to enjoy it.  Henry Cavill is perfect casting as Superman and for my money one of the most exhilarating visual sequences of the year is Clark exiting the spaceship in full costume and gradually learning to take flight.  If the joy on Superman's face when he finally soars doesn't make you smile, you probably have no soul.

9. The Conjuring - The was the one unqualified success in horror this year.  Several reviewers have focused on the "clapping game" scare, but for my money the opening sequence was one of the first genuinely unsettling things I've seen in a horror film in a while.  More amazingly, it involves zero violence.  There's an amazing sense of dread achieved just with a dark hallway, a shaft of light bisecting the darkness, a prone doll and creepy writing on the wall.  As the director of Saw, James Wan bears some responsibility for the decade of torture porn scripts that I suffered through in its wake. Thus, I feel his role in reviving a more restrained approach to horror might be the biggest redemption story of the year.

10. Dallas Buyers Club - I've never really understood the hate for Matthew McConaughey. Like Ben Affleck, the guy's gotten a lot of hate and derision that seems undeserved.  There might have been a period where he was trapped in rom-com hell, but I've always liked the guy, maybe just out of affection for his work in A Time to Kill.  That's why it's so great to see him remind everyone just how good he can be in this 1980s-set story about a man with HIV who's given 30 days to live and prolongs his life through illegal medications which he also provides to other patients in his situation.  This is one I definitely feel I'll need to revisit outside of the awards glut, just to fully absorb it.  Jared Leto does great work as a transgender HIV-positive patient.  It's not really a feel-good movie and is probably my most-debated entry here, but man, is this a great second act for McConaughey.

Overall, 2013 was a great year for film.  This was the first year in a long time where I was often seeing more than one movie a week and still felt like I was falling behind in the awards season crush.  I could probably craft a full top ten list out of my runner-ups and still be leaving some great movies off.  Among the other films I really enjoyed that almost made the cut were Saving Mr. Banks, Don Jon, Rush, Side Effects, Lone Survivor and This is the End.  Also, V/H/S 2 was about 75% awesome, particularly the cult segment "Safe Haven" written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans.

Even the summer tentpoles were generally pretty good, with Iron Man 3 being the best movie of the trilogy (though nothing beats the first hour of the original film), Star Trek Into Darkness managing some great work with Kirk's character, even if the film wasn't quite as good as Abrams's previous effort, and World War Z proving that you CAN save a film late in production and that Damon Lindelof is capable of being your script's trauma surgeon.  There might have been some duds this year, but it definitely felt like the quantity of good material was a lot higher than in recent years.

No matter what your tastes were, there should have been something that came out this year that restored your faith in the movies.  If you came out of 2013 cynical about the state of film, I'm quite confidant in saying that nothing would satisfy you.


  1. I thought 2013 was okay by the lowered standards of the past few years, but only Gravity and Pacific Rim (terrible script, amazing spectacle) made me really excited about cinema as a medium again (although I've yet to see Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Nebraska & The Spectacular Now). I didn't rate American Hustle at all. I thought it was just over played in every sense, which only highlighted how slight the source material was. It so desperately wanted to be Casino that it came off as a pantomime version. Man of Steel was a mix of awe and awful for me. Some incredible visuals, some head-slapping choices. Loved Captain Phillips, The Way Way Back, This is The End, Stories We Tell, Searching for Sugar Man, Blue Jasmine, Gravity and All is Lost. There's a great batch of films yet to be released here (UK), so I'm even more excited about 2014 than 2013. Oh, and I just found your blog and love it. Keep it up :)

  2. Couldn't agree more with your choices for the top three of '13. I disagree with American Hustle, despite the period aesthetics and acting. However, I'm excited to see where cinema (storytelling/scriptwriting in particular) will take us in the coming year!

  3. You're absolutely right - 2013 was a great year for film. I occasionally find myself believing that the best movies were made long ago by people who died before I was born. But then I see something like Gravity or 12 Years a Slave and my faith in modern cinema is restored all over again. It inspires me to go out and see all kinds of other good work, and also, when I can discipline myself, to hopefully create some of my own.

  4. And Best Hair goes to American Hustle in a landslide. That opening comb-over scene was more than humorous -- it hid a lot of character and foreshadowing.

    Love your Top 3. Overall I think 2013 was the best batch of fresh and challenging movies since 1999.

    McConaughey in Mud, Dallas Buyer's Club and Wolf of Wall Street...that's one hell of a hat trick for any actor in a single year. Any critics at this point must have something personal against the man. Seems like a genuinely fearless, good guy.

  5. That's a good list, although I would have found room for Place Beyond The Pines, Hobbit and Byzantium. An honorable mentionof Wolverine and The Butler.

    1. Haven't seen THE HOBBIT or BYZANTIUM. I thought WOLVERINE was okay and a definite improvement on the first one, but my strongest emotion after walking out of that was "DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is gonna be awesome!"

      PLACE BEYOND THE PINES was okay, but it was a very detached viewing experience for me. Nothing about it really lingered with me and months later, I really didn't have anything to say about it or any interest in revisiting it again.

      THE BUTLER was the very definition of a mixed-bag for me. Whittaker and Winfrey both gave very strong performances, but that was balanced out by a number of flaws. And because I hate when people call a film "flawed" and state that as if that alone means it has no merit, I'll elaborate a little.

      They had noble motivations to tell a story about the Civil Rights movement and race relations in America. And I very much can appreciate what Oprah said about how a movie like this can keep that history alive for the next generation.

      But intentions aren't enough and the fact is that the story is able to only scratch the surface of each era of the White House because it has to cover so much history in just over two hours. The stunt-casting was also incredibly distracting, and in a couple cases, downright awful. I get that's a necessary evil in financing films like this, but it's not something I can easily overlook if I'm judging the film as a whole. If the flaws were more neutral, maybe it wouldn't have affected me, but here they actively detracted from the experience.

      Also, THE BUTLER had the misfortune to come out in a year where a lot of movies were firing on all cylinders. In a lesser year it might have snuck onto the list. But I'm glad it worked for you.

  6. Ha, I did a list on my blog yesterday I think and The Spectacular Now was my #1 and your reason pretty much mimics mine. Such an honest/pure portrayal of high school when most shows cast really old actors and glamorize it -- high school is anything but glamorous like in movies and television.

  7. That's 7/10 my own list. Seems we have similar taste. The other three not on your list: Short Term 12, Frances Ha, and Before Midnight.