The 10 Best Films of 2013

December 28, 2013

This list is always complicated by timing; I mention every year that by the time I compile my list of favorite films of the year, even when waiting until the last week of the year, there are still quite a few films that I know are worthy of consideration in anyone’s list that I simply have been unable to catch due to timing. December-January is prime movie release time in that every studio holds back its Award season hopefuls for a very last minute release so as to stay fresh in voter’s minds. My wife and I are movie buffs and the end of November through the first of January is our prime movie-going time. Though we catch a few major blockbusters during the summer rush, most of our movie dollars are saved to catch the big releases at the end of the year. Yet it is always impossible to catch all important flicks; sometimes because two or three major ones are released at the same time every week at the end of the year and timing/money simply doesn’t allow us to see every possible choice. Then there’s the frustrating way many big movies simply aren’t released widely for too long; such is the case with this year’s Long Walk to Freedom, a film I’ve been waiting to see since catching early teasers of Idris Elba portraying Nelson Mandela in a film that should surely be in the spotlight a bit now since it coincidentally comes out immediately after Mandela’s passing. In addition to that film, there are a few others I am sure would have had a large chance of making my own personal cut if I had had the opportunity to catch them before compiling this list: certainly 12 Years a Slave. Also:  Saving Mr. Banks, The Invisible Woman, Nebraska, August: Osage County, HER, Inside Llewyn DavisGravity, and Blue Jasmine to name a few big ones I’ve been wanting to see all  year long. There were also some interesting genre flicks I would have liked to have considered as well (The Spectacular Now; You’re Next).
Anyway, judging simply from what I have seen I feel comfortable with this list in that I loved every picture here. Looking back at last year’s list I know I would have certainly added Silver Linings Playbook and The Master in place of a few of my back-end choices had I seen them in time, but even counting the big picks I’ve mentioned here as not having seen yet, these following pictures would be hard to top. Here goes.


10) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

While overall I enjoyed the first film more, largely due to its quick and effortless act of world-building, this second Hunger Games adaptation is a great and intelligent action sci-fi flick;  it does in some ways feel like the typical middle chapter of a major story by being a “bridge” piece, but as far as such sequels go this is one of the better blockbuster sequels in the past few years. It doesn’t retread the same ground as its predecessor; it opens up that world in which the characters are living and give it even more reality. The action is at times bigger but not unnecessarily so; and it’s all helped along by its lead actress in that Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove herself as perhaps the best young actress of her generation, equally competent in popcorn blockbusters and performance heavy depth-pieces. This is but one of her great performances this year (and on this list).


9) Behind the Candelabra

I read speculation that Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, was deemed “too gay,” for a major theatrical studio release. If so, it’s is a shame because this HBO film lacks nothing in terms of pure cinematic quality more than capable of standing up with the year’s best dramas. Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his romantic live-in partner of five years deliver two of the best performances of the year and this is the only great Soderbergh movie I’ve seen in years. It may very well rank with the best biopics in recent memory in that it’s portrayal of its protagonist and his relationships is just so utterly human and real that even the most far removed from the man’s orientation, fame, lifestyle, wealth, and proclivities can’t help but find the story in it’s parts and pieces as some way relatable.


8) The Bling Ring

One of three great movies this year (and on this list) that portrays and subtly condemns the dark side of the American dream. Taken as a linear progression through modern US history, you can see the scrappy birth of (my #3 pick), the extravagant expansion of (my #4 pick) and (in this film) the “trickle-down” affect to youth in the modern day of some of America’s worst greedy tendencies. The Bling Ring showcases celebrity worship and soulless selfish ego, the hollowness of an unchecked wanting. Sophia Coppola continues her string of excellent directorial work, which here coupled with a great script and some of the best performances by young (and some first-time?) actors in recent memory allows the journey of these millennial famous-for-being-famous chasers to progress as their own with not overt surface judgement or pretentious commentary. Coppola’s admitted distaste with what these (historically–or should I say E! News–adapted) events represent and are born out of is shown by simply allowing her young performers to evoke that feeling in the audience subtly but progressively by their (often lack of ) character. A wonderfully shot art teen crime comedy.


7)  The Way Way Back

There were more unchecked (and non-guilty) laughs to be found here than in maybe in any other comedy I saw this year. Plus I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and this one is a great example of how to do that without being overly cliched or derivative. There’s enough heart and character on film here to balance those laughs out as well. Not to mention that this has one of the best ensemble casts of any other movie this year; Steve Carrell (at least to me) never really shows a wide diversity of range, and though he’s not the stand-out here it is nice to see him playing someone different than his usual character. But Liam James is great in the lead and Sam Rockwell is utterly hilarious as his unexpected mentor and boss at the water park. Maya Rudolph, Toni Collete, Amanda Peet, Rob Cordrry and the rest round out the cast terrifically.


6) The Book Thief

The Book Thief was released during the season of and to the people interested in viewing Oscar-bait but quickly got swallowed up and forgotten by the giants of the month; lukewarm reviews didn’t help in that regard either. That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful little movie with great performances, a captivating period-piece setting, great warmth, and a non-pretentious all-ages appropriate message. Though this setting has been used repetitively in some way throughout the history of film (WWII, Nazi-era Germany, the Holocaust), it was an interesting twist to see this time from within Germany by non-Jewish yet non-Nazi Germans.

much ado

5) Much Ado About Nothing

Whedon, the current brain-trust scribe of the Marvel Avengers films (and related titles), took a break from big budgets to film a pet project of his own this summer–a black and white production of the Shakespeare classic done in his own backyard with his friends. Apparently he and his Whedonverse friends have been doing down-time weekend Shakespeare readings for fun for years–and it shows. These folks pull it off wonderfully. This movie does a fine job of preserving the beauty of the language by keeping it as is and not paraphrasing or interpreting it, but each actor does it straight-forward and not over-the-top; that fact combined with the casual, modern  house-party setting and artsy yet under-stated cinematography helps the classic language be heard in a casual, common way so that there is little head-scratching as to what is going on or being talked about even for non-experts of Shakespeare.


4) The Wolf of Wall Street

Watch the first five minutes of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest epic opus and it will quickly reveal to any viewer why this is a controversial, polarizing film. I have  never heard so many audience gasps and audible moments of discomfort and shock to any film I have seen in a theater and those reactions begin from the moment the film begins to roll. This is one that has been almost universally lavished with critical praise while receiving quite disparate , mixed audience reception. It’s vulgar; it’s a high momentum train throttling directly at viewers showcasing ugly people doing ugly things. Yet it’s also more complex than first glance would have you think. I’ve thought more about this one since seeing it than perhaps any other big film of the year thus far; on its surface, with its snappy captivating (if discomfiting) script by the Sopranos scribe and its glossy, hyper-fantasy editing and camerawork by arguably the best living American director, it’s an unavoidably entertaining, often hilarious, over-the-top story that you in many ways hate to enjoy so much. Yet scratch that surface and it’s a full indictment of modern era Wall Street and the obscenity of the American dream (in that the dream as (de)volved from “making it” to “becoming obscenely wealthy at the expense of all others”). It’s a condemnation of the shallowness of hyperbolic greed and over-consumption, of the exploitation of the many by the few and the dissatisfaction found in the merely wrist-slapping punishments usually given to the worst of white-collar crime perpetrators. Scorsese shoots this one in the same manner he has shot his gangster and crooked cop tales and it fits; the script allows you to continuously laugh at protagonist Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, so much so that you are innocuously drawn to liking them by default just long enough before being reminded how terrible these folks are as human beings. DiCaprio gives an amazing performance, perhaps his best ever; Jonah Hill as his primary partner and wing-man also provides his own best work to date. It’s not for everyone, and it may be the only mainstream “R” film I’ve ever seen that I felt should require ID to determine a viewer is at least 21 to see, but it’s film-making at its finest. McConaughey, seen further on in this list for delivering his own performance of a lifetime, drops in for 15 minutes in an amazing cameo early in the film, one pivotal that is is seen incorporated into everything DiCaprio does as the lead from that point forward. Watch this one and for three hours you will be glued to your seat, shocked, laughing, and uncomfortable–but entertained.


3) American Hustle

David O. Russell makes terrific films–from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter to his (at least for me thus far) crowning achievement Silver Linings Playbook–he writes, produces, and directs films with terrific scripts and draws out career-high performances from his regular rotation of stars (Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence). This film is an often under-stated comedy that plays for laughs not just in lines but simply in absurd situations, visual gags, and the details lavished on a funny time and place setting of ’70s Urban America–bad hair, disco and all. This embellished recount of the Abscam scandal and its assortment of hustlers, con-artists, federal agents is a hoot. Jeremy Renner as the NJ mayor caught up in the fall almost tops all of the assorted talent surrounding him but everyone else does so well it’s hard to make that call. Louis C.K. as a ham-strung FBI boss is an added bonus.

dbuyers club

2) Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey has always been a promising actor but until rather recently he never had the kind of roles that allow him to display his full talent. His acting chops are at full force here in Dallas Buyers Club as a rough and tumble hard-living Texan rodeo rider who becomes HIV positive. His rampant homophobia makes it hard for him to accept this as even a possibility when it occurs to him in the early 1980s; acceptance soon gives way to a trans-national mission to procure and distribute (at a profit) alternative treatments for the virus at that time barred by the FDA. McConaughey is brilliant and convincing, and the viewers witness the journey of a real, complex person who finds his prejudices challenged and gradually evolves in subtle ways through his unexpected friendship with a transgender person. The best performance by anyone in any film I saw this year.


1) Philomena

In a year of excellent films this one might slip beneath the radar for many, which is unfortunate because it is a truly excellent film. Wonderfully acted, wittily scripted; at quick turning intervals warmly funny and emotionally sad. Judi Dench is always terrific, but she outdoes herself here. It’s like Dame Judi unplugged as we just watch her play every possible emotion out in convincing, captivating ways throughout the course of the film. Steve Coogan, not as well known to American audiences, does a great job here as well as he always does. This is a deep character work that shows the humanity of a diverse group of people, the possibility of unexpected friendships, and the full force impact and struggle of genuine forgiveness.

Honorable Mentions: The Place Between the Pines; The Conjuring; Iron Man 3; Thor 2


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