If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.
It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.
2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE”
David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.
3. “ABOUT TIME”
Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.
It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese’s last truly great film, but the director has rebounded in style with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” highlighted by Terrence Winter’s uproarious script and Leonard DiCaprio’s brilliant turn as Jordan Belfort. You’ve never seen the actor quite like this before, and he’s in top form as the notorious stockbroker with what is arguably his finest performance for Scorsese yet. The rest of the cast is terrific as well, especially Jonah Hill in another award-worthy display, up-and-comer Margot Robbie and Matthew McConaughey in a short but memorable cameo. Loud, flashy and totally obscene, the movie is like a private tour through Belfort’s excessive, hard-partying lifestyle, including what is easily one of the greatest sequences of the year. (Hint: it involves a highly potent strain of Quaaludes.) Though it’s a little too long for its own good, the characters are so magnetic and the dialogue so fast and funny that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hard not to enjoy. It’s Scorsese’s best film in years, and one that will only get better with time.
5. “CAPTAIN PHILLIPS”
Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American-flagged cargo ship by Somali pirates, “Captain Phillips” is a gripping hostage thriller that boasts some outstanding performances. Director Paul Greengrass has a knack for dramatizing real-life events (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and the excellent “United 93”), and that success continues here, throwing the audience right into the middle of the action docudrama-style in order to fully capture the intensity of the situation. But while Greengrass excels at creating a sense of claustrophobic tension (especially once the story moves into the lifeboat, where he really ratchets up the suspense), it’s the acting that makes “Captain Phillips” such a pleasure to watch unfold. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is particularly impressive as the leader of the pirates, while Tom Hanks delivers his strongest performance in over a decade as the title character. The final five minutes alone pack such an emotional wallop that it practically guarantees him another Oscar nomination, and his work throughout is a stark reminder why he’s one of the most revered actors in the business.
Three-hour French movies aren’t normally my cup of tea, but director Abdellatif Kechiche’s superb coming-of-age love story is a rare exception. Though the lesbian drama has been mired in controversy since its Cannes premiere, there’s a good reason why “Blue is the Warmest Color” has won just about every major prize for Best Foreign Language Film. (Sadly, it’s ineligible for the Academy Awards due to a silly technicality.) Sure, the poorly edited time jumps in the latter half are a little confusing, and the sex scenes are more gratuitous than they needed to be, but those minor flaws are forgivable when you have a pair of actors as phenomenal as Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux steering the ship. The former, in particular, is a revelation, delivering such a fearlessly vulnerable and emotionally affecting performance that it’s surprising she hasn’t been a bigger part of the Oscar discussion. Exarchopoulos completely pours herself (snot and all) into the role, and it’s her star-making turn that makes this unflinchingly honest look at the trials and tribulations of love so engrossing.
7. “THE WAY, WAY BACK”
Though it lacks the “wow” factor to be a serious awards contender, “The Way, Way Back” is still a really enjoyable film thanks to its winning script and talented cast. Youngster Liam James holds his own against some great actors as the perpetually awkward wallflower, while Steve Carell plays against type in a role that proves he may be a stronger dramatic actor than a comedian. However, it’s Sam Rockwell who shines the brightest as the fast-talking king of the water park. Channeling Bill Murray from “Meatballs,” Rockwell’s Owen is the kind of guy that people naturally gravitate towards, and it’s easy to see why on account of the actor’s immensely charming and hilarious performance. Writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for penning the 2011 tragicomedy “The Descendants”) also deserve a lot of credit for writing a movie that’s as smart, funny and sweet as it is incredibly heartbreaking at times, because although their coming-of-age story follows an all-too-familiar path, they manage to make it feel like an entirely fresh experience.
As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Suzanne Collins’ novel, but is superior to the first movie in just about every way, including more spirited performances from its two leads and better development for the supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone – actors you wouldn’t normally associate with a big budget franchise like this – are just a few of the notable additions to the already impressive cast, and there’s not a weak link among them. The script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt is also crucial to the movie’s success, removing a lot of the unnecessary filler while raising the stakes to create a smarter and more focused adaptation that’s extremely well-paced for its 146 minute runtime. “Catching Fire” is everything you could want from a sequel without many of the usual failings, and it’s a prime example of a tentpole film that offers both style and substance.
Leave it to Spike Jonze to create one of the more unique love stories in cinematic history. Set in a near future that feels remarkably authentic (well, except for the high-waisted pants that dominate the fashion), “Her” is a subtle but effective commentary on the role that technology plays in our increasingly anti-social lives; one where we’re more connected to our gadgets than the people around us. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as a man so desperate to connect with someone that he doesn’t care that they’re not real, but none of it would work without Scarlett Johansson. While it’s unlikely that the actress will receive the awards recognition that she deserves, Johansson is the heart of the movie, providing a sweet, soulful and fully rounded vocal performance that makes it seem like she’s actually there. That’s harder said than done, resulting in a relationship that not only feels more real than most of the films this year, but plays a big part in its success as a romantic dramedy and an enchanting piece of science fiction.
Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut plays like one giant homage to Alfred Hitchcock (particularly his 1943 film “Shadow of a Doubt”), but with a decidedly unique and erotic twist that’s every bit as perverse as his previous work – the kind of movie that gets under your skin and stays there for days. To call the film a slow burn would be putting it lightly, but it’s entirely compelling in the way that it patiently seduces the audience into an almost dreamlike trance. You simply can’t look away, and that’s thanks mostly to the stylish combination of Chung Chung-hoon’s rich cinematography and Nicholas de Toth’s playful editing. Though it would be easy to criticize the movie for favoring style over substance, there’s a lot more going on behind the sumptuous visuals, including some excellent performances by Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman. “Stoker” isn’t for everyone, but fans of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy won’t be disappointed by his latest offbeat, psychosexual thriller.
Tags: 12 Years a Slave, 2013 Year End Movies, About Time, American Hustle, best films of 2013, best movies of 2013, Blue is the Warmest Color, Captain Phillips, Don Jon, Drug War, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Philomena, Stoker, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Way Way Back, The Wolf of Wall Street, The World's End, What Maisie Knew, World War Z