2013 was quite a year for the movies. I saw 36 new releases, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to write about them all (yes, even Safe Haven). As always, there are a handful I didn’t have the time to see, but I’m fairly confident that the following ten are a good representation of what the year had to offer. (Click through to my full musings if you’d like to read more of my thoughts on any film)
For me, Spike Jonze’s Her is the film of 2013. With its barely-futuristic science fiction setting and a plot that presents human interaction in a world of modern technological convenience as its central conflict, it not only captures the zeitgeist of the times, but serves as a reminder for all mankind (past, present, and future) what it means to be human. Perhaps that’s why, while walking out of the theater, I held my significant other a little closer than usual.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis is the most singular film of 2013, with the voice of writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen echoing off every frame. The heavily-featured soundtrack by T-Bone Burnett is really great, so much so that I wondered if my estimation of the film improperly inflated after repeat listens. But a second viewing proved otherwise, as Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich and multifaceted film that for me—much like Llewyn’s description of a folk song (it’s never new and never gets old)—is an instant classic.
3. 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is the most important film of 2013, and I’m a little surprised it’s coming in at my number three. But all three of these films are incredible pictures, and my arrangement may be little more than a function of the order in which I saw them. Steve McQueen’s direction here is truly some of the year’s best, and though he may lose the Oscar to Alfonso Cuarón for the sheer achievement that is Gravity, his unflinching work on 12 Years a Slave makes it the powerful experience that it is. Strong enough to make us change the way we see our past and reconsider the world we live in today, 12 Years a Slave is a film that deserves the Best Picture Oscar.
What an achievement. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a technological feat, a directorial triumph, and a landmark in modern cinema. Though slightly marred by some clunky and sentimental writing, it shook up the box office as a much-needed return of the theatrical event. You can’t go to outer space in your living room, but at an IMAX screening of Gravity, you can come darn close.
5. Dallas Buyers Club
Two of the year’s best performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto combine with a delicate screenplay that juggles a number of difficult themes to make Dallas Buyers Club one of the best films from 2013. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s writing skillfully balances sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, the political morality of the pharmaceutical industry and its regulatory environment, and the sheer act of living and loving in the face of mortality—all difficult, sensitive themes seldom addressed in the movies today, and rarely as pervasive as they are here. But it’s the transformative performances from McConaughey and Leto that most obviously make the film. Dallas Buyers Club is their story, and they carry it with both subtlety and panache, respect, and dignity.
6. Short Term 12
SXSW film fest favorite Short Term 12 is the most emotionally resonate film I’ve seen in quite a long time. In it, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton gives us a number of empathetically-charged moments, many featuring the outstanding Brie Larson. But beyond all the tears of endearment, the real reason I loved this film was due to the well-written characters Cretton gives us. And there are so many of them, all rounded and complex and human in most every way. And when they make progress, it too feels honest—for every two steps forward we see another step back.
How do you tell a story about two diametrically opposed characters with two completely different backgrounds and beliefs? You treat both sides with respect. That’s exactly what the Steve Coogan and Judi Dench characters do in Philomena, and it’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed the picture. Another is Dench’s title character, who’s so warm and endearing on screen that she makes me want to do away with some of my own bitterness and cynicism and embrace the joyous naiveté she so wondrously exudes.
8. Captain Phillips
This Paul Greengrass thriller is as gripping as any other movie from 2013 (Gravity included), and it concludes with one of the year’s best endings. Tom Hanks turns in what may be the best piece of acting in his career, but it wasn’t enough to garnish an Oscar nomination. That accolade goes to the film’s other captain, played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who imbues his role with such vital humanity that it’s impossible to pin this film down as a simpleminded us-vs-them, get the bad guys and rescue our hero action flick. Captain Phillips is a film with compassion, humanity, and empathy. That it comes in as my number eight speaks to what a great year it was at the movies.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may be the 2013 film I most want to revisit. Chalk it up to Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and Bob Nelson’s memorable characters, brought to life by such talent as Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach. It’s a film that, despite possessing obvious first act flaws, has continued to warm up to me after leaving the theater. It’s an essential film in that, much like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show that so clearly influences it, is more concerned with setting and character than plot or narrative progression.
10. Enough Said
Some films are so honest, so universal and true to life that we can’t help but see ourselves in them. Such was my experience with Enough Said. Two truly endearing performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini were enough to keep me glued to the screen, wondering how the story of their two everyday characters would unfold. But it was writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s genuine screenplay and treatment that unexpectedly brought me to tears as Louis-Dreyfus’s character says goodbye to her college-bound daughter. It’s a moment we’ve seen in countless other films, but rarely has it had such emotional resonance. In a cinema where fiction is always masquerading as truth, this film is an unassuming masterpiece.
Honorable Mention: The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese’s still got it), The Spectacular Now (young leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are worth keeping an eye on), and Spring Breakers (because James Franco. And that Britney Spears “Everytime” sequence.)
I also saw: Fruitvale Station, The Way Way Back, 42, American Hustle, August: Osage County, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Conjuring, Don Jon, Iron Man 3, Last Vegas, Oblivion, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, Side Effects, Warm Bodies, The Great Gatsby, All Is Lost, Gangster Squad, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Safe Haven.