The notion of summarizing a year in movies as “good” or “bad” and trotting out a top 10 list is an arbitrary exercise, but it’s one that I enjoy in partaking. Sure, it’s an attempt to reduce the irreducible, but sometimes good comes of it, and sometimes I just like to share movies I love. I had a slow year in movies, and have not seen as many as I have in previous years, but the great 2013 movie catchup was quite fruitful, and I was able to cobble together this list pretty easily. For reference, previous top 10s: [2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
Of the past few years, I feel like this one resembles 2011, a year in which I had no real clear favorite. Indeed, I could not even bring myself to “roughly” rank the films and used alphabetical ordering instead. Truly a copout, and I’ll try to do an ordering this year, even if I don’t have a really clear favorite. As for thematic consistency, I do see some things in 2013. Every one of my top 10 favorite movies this year surprised me with their subtlety, nuance, and complexity. Sometimes this was at least partially the result of poor marketing, but even in those cases, the story itself unfolded in unexpected ways. Another, more minor theme (at least, in terms of consistency), could be summarized as “lost people finding themselves” or perhaps “coming of age stories”. A few of these made it to my top 10 (and some are in Honorable Mention), but many did not (and a few I didn’t like at all).
As of this writing, I have seen 70 movies that would be considered a 2013 release. This is about on par with last year, but less than some previous years. It’s certainly less than most critics (who easily see twice as many movies in a given year), but probably a lot more than your typical moviegoer. Speaking of critics, my list has slowly been morphing away from critical consensus, think “favorite” rather than “best”. This is a disclaimer of sorts, but it’s also what makes my list distinct, right? I certainly have a couple widely praised movies in my list (and many of the critics’ favorites are in my honorable mention), but there are some movies here that rarely show up in anyones list. This is partly my love of genre film coming through, and also a belief that sometimes a movie doesn’t have to be “important” in order to be considered “great”. Alrighty then, enough introduction, let’s get to it:
Top 10 Movies of 2013
* In roughly reverse order
Stories We Tell – This is one of those documentaries I kept hearing critics talk about in hushed tones, but it always seemed like it would be pretentious and indulgent. It turned out to be neither. Sarah Polley interviews her family, and what at first seems indulgent quickly goes away as revelations start dropping. It’s a very personal story, obviously, but it’s easily relatable. And there’s a subtext about how stories are told that gets at something more universal, even if that part isn’t as explicitly laid out. An excellent film.
Captain Phillips – I don’t think the marketing for this movie did it any favors, but the film itself is a spectacular exercise in tension and unconventional action. There’s a monologue at the beginning that is a bit too on the nose, but once this true story of Somali pirates gets going, it never lets up. It’s a taut thriller with a couple of expertly staged set pieces, a surprisingly even handed portrayal of the Somali pirates (humanizing them without excusing their actions), and good performances all around.
In a World… – Charming indie film about an aspiring female voiceover talent and her struggle in a male-dominated industry. It’s a premise you might think would lead to preachiness, but writer/director Lake Bell keeps things light and emphasizes the humor rather than the preachiness (the issues come through naturally nonetheless and the movie is better for that). A lot of people found this movie slight, but it connected with me and made me laugh out loud. One of the most purely enjoyable movies on this list.
Gravity – Have spacesuit, will travel. A gorgeous spectacle of a movie, and while the story and themes are a bit ham-fisted, the method of delivery more than makes up for any shortcomings in that respect. Alfonso Cuaron manages to wring a huge amount of tension from a seemingly simple premise (astronauts stranded in space by flying space garbage), and that suspense just ratchets up higher and higher as the movie goes on. The backstory might even be unnecessary, though it didn’t bother me nearly as much as it seemed to bother others. Great movie all around.
The World’s End – Another hilarious entry in the quasi-official Cornetto trilogy, this one channels Doctor Who in a big way and wholly succeeds. In the running for funniest movie of the year, but it’s got a heart too. A winning combination that this particular group of filmmakers excels at.
You’re Next – It puts the “fun” back in home invasion movies. I was quite worried at the start of the film, as it initially focused on grating dysfunctional family tropes, but it quickly picks up, especially as twists are revealed, and it ends strong. It’s suspenseful and very tense, but also funny and entertaining. Indeed, it might be the most fun I had at a movie theater all year.
Room 237 – Ostensibly a documentary about three theories on Kubrick’s The Shining, the movie is actually a meditation on obsession and conspiracy theory, and the people who engage with them. Director Rodney Ascher does a remarkable job letting these theories play out, splicing in footage and visuals as needed (sometimes slyly commenting on the ridiculousness of the more challenging claims). While Kubrick fans will no doubt enjoy it, this film is elevated by its unflinching look at obsession and conspiracy theorists.
Side Effects – Steven Soderbergh channels Hitchcock’s scheming films with this tense, twisty thriller. There was a moment early on when I thought this would be a preachy film about the ills of the pharmaceutical industry, but instead, it engaged with genre architecture as a way to make the critique more broad. Everyone has an angle, everyone is scheming, and it’s great fun to watch that play out.
Short Term 12 – Another critical darling that didn’t sound like my cup of tea, this is nonetheless one of the most affecting movies of the year, and I really connected with this story centering on a foster-care facility. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart and will put you through the ringer, but it’s a masterfully executed film, and while it doesn’t ignore the tragedies of life, it also finds ways to celebrate and laugh at it.
Upstream Color – I don’t normally fall for tone poems or fever dreams in film, but this one hooked me and never let go. Even after months, I’m haunted by some of the imagery and thought provoking ideas and themes. A challenging, obtuse, but worthwhile movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s challenging, adventurous filmmaking at its best.
* In alphabetical order
12 Years a Slave – A harrowing one-timer of a movie that is undeniably well made and tells an interesting story (one which I’d not heard of before). I can’t take the full bore contrarian view on this movie and call it torture porn, but it is a movie meant to make you feel miserable and depressed (it succeeds) and that’s really not my thing. The most fascinating thing about this movie was the Benedict Cumberbatch character, but that segment was also among the shorter parts of the movie. I can appreciate the film for what it is and what it’s doing, but there’s something here that held me back.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane – The seven year wait as this film sat on shelves perhaps built up expectations a bit too much for me, but it’s a fine horror film that goes in interesting directions and puts some twists on standard genre tropes. Definitely worth seeking out for fans of the genre, but it’s probably got some broader appeal as well. I really liked this film and it was one of many films vying for the last couple of slots on the top 10.
American Hustle – A rock solid con man (and woman) story, even if there is a bit too much emphasis on the cartoonish histrionics of some of the characters. Still, it’s a pleasure to watch, and the exaggerated tone does work, perhaps because the actors involved were so fantastic (particularly Christian Bale and Amy Adams, though everyone is great in this). This is another film that was really close to nabbing that last slot in the top 10.
Drug War – Kaedrin favorite Johnny To is extremely prolific, and I’d put this one down as somewhere in the middle of the pack (which is still pretty good overall). It’s got a police procedural backbone, with some undercover work for flavor, and a couple of Johnny To’s expertly staged, chess-like action sequences (including a spectacular shootout at the end). A solid film, if not quite a top tier effot.
Her – Perhaps because of my love of Science Fiction literature, I almost always find myself disappointed by filmic takes on SFnal themes. This film is certainly much better than its premise (a man falls in love with his sentient computer) would have you believe, but it also doesn’t fully explore the implications of its SFnal ideas and its world never really approaches the depth or complexity of novels covering similar ground. That may be unfair, but that’s where I’m at, though I will say that I enjoyed this movie quite a bit nonetheless. It has fantastic performances (in particular, Scarlett Johansson’s voice acting is amazing) and a visual flare. Still, I found myself wanting more exploration and depth in the end.
Much Ado About Nothing – The best complement I can give this movie is that it really made me want to go and read more Shakespeare. I was really quite taken with this movie, though I can’t help but think that my enthusiasm was primarily based on the source material rather than this particular iteration. Not that it’s bad or anything. The performances are great and there are some nice visual flourishes too. And I like the story behind the movie as well (basically Joss Whedon and his friends made the movie at his house over the course of a week or so, right after The Avengers). Indeed, I very nearly placed this at #10 on the list above, and perhaps on another day, I would have. In the meantime, I’ve got to dig out that collected works of Shakespeare book I’ve got buried in a box somewhere.
Mud – A solid mixture of crime, thriller, and coming of age film with an artistic bent. It’s a little on the nose at times, and maybe a bit too long, but it’s a well made film, and it’s got yet another in a long string of interesting performances from Matthew McConaughey, not to mention some fine child acting.
Pacific Rim – So it’s a movie where giant robots and water monsters beat the hell out of each other. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a tremendous amount of fun, and there’s enough weight to the characters that it doesn’t devolve into mindless action. It is particularly good at worldbuilding, and its world has a terrifically lived-in quality that you don’t normally get in big summer action blockbusters. So yes, a ton of fun.
The Angels’ Share – An interesting film with some sharp edges, but enough round corners that it doesn’t matter. Some tonal oddness, but it works well enough for me and really sorta snuck up on me while I was watching it. Definitely worth watching, and I’m sure whiskey (er, whisky) nerds will enjoy.
The Conjuring – Fantastic old school horror, a slow burn with actual likable characters and a minimum of cynicism. It’s not perfect, but it is very effective, one of the scariest movies of the year, and it’s something that stuck with me after it was over. Impressive and creepy, it was another candidate for that final top 10 slot.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Surprisingly vulgar and yet full of vitality and energy, with an excellent lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and as always, masterful work from Martin Scorsese. The one strike against it is that it sorta begs comparison to Goodfellas, which is a tough act to follow. Wolf hits a lot of the same notes, but it never quite hits them as well as Scorsese’s previous masterwork. Nevertheless, this makes an interesting addition to the unofficial Goodfellas/Casino series where theft and corruption gradually becomes more and more legal. Just narrowly missed out on the top 10 here.
This Is the End – In the running for funniest film of the year, great ensemble, tons of fantastic cameos, and lots of raunchy laughs. Not for everyone, but certainly for me. Another film I considered for the top 10, but left out in favor of The World’s End…
Thor: The Dark World – For some reason, I tend to gravitate towards these Thor movies moreso than the other individual Marvel heroes (like Iron Man or Captain America). Perhaps its those Shakespearean undertones, or the fish out of water elements, or the just plain comedy (of Thor riding the subway or getting into a small car or hanging his hammer up on a coat rack), or the inclusion of Loki and Tom Hiddleston’s scene-stealing performance (though Chris Hemsworth manages an admirable charisma as well). Whatever the case, I enjoyed this more than any of the other Superhero movies this year, and am still greatly looking forward to the Marvel phase 2 stuff.
Trance – An engaging and energizing film with a raucous mashup of cliches that starts off plausible enough, then saunters into ludicrous territory, which would be bad if it didn’t rocket past that phase and into some next-level bonkers stuff towards the end. It’s an outlandish thriller with preposterous twists and turns, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks – This documentary covers a lot of ground and unearths a lot of interesting ideas and philosophical debates, though perhaps it gets a bit sidetracked by Julian Assange’s antics a bit towards the end… but then, so did the entire world, so it’s hard to fault the movie for that! Definitely worth watching, especially considering more recent events and NSA snooping and whatnot. Another contender for a top 10 slot.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Warm Bodies
- Iron Man 3
- The Spectacular Now
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- Bad Milo
- Fast & Furious 6
- Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Should Have Seen:
Despite the fact that I’ve seen 72 of this year’s movies (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away… mostly because I’m lazy! Or something wasn’t available yet. Take your pick. I may or may not catch up with some of these…
- Dallas Buyers Club
- The Act of Killing
- Enough Said
- The Wind Rises
- The Way Way Back
- Don Jon
- The Bling Ring
- In the House
And that just about wraps up my 2013 movie recap. Stay tuned next Sunday for the usual Oscar Liveblogging – previous installments here: [2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]