2013. 365 days. 163 films. 326 hours. That’s 13.58 days I’ve dedicated this year to watching new releases. 2013 was a great year for film – and I’m pretty comfortable with this list I’ve put together, even if I have missed a few releases here and there. The art of list-making is fluid – you can never cover as much ground as you would like, and it’s possible I’ll continue discovering this year’s great films well into 2014.
The annual ritual of narrowing down hundreds of titles to just 25 is a cruel but necessary discipline as a film critic. There are a lot of movies I wanted to include here, but couldn’t find room for – films like Prisoners, Maniac, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, About Time, and Before Midnight all appeared on this list at one point or another.
Anyway, let’s get down to the business of celebrating the cinema of 2013. Here are 25 moving pictures that moved me this year.
Top 25 Films of 2013
Directed by Spike Jonze, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer who pens personal love letters for those with difficulties expressing their feelings. Depressed due to his impending divorce, Theodore purchases an operating system with artificial intelligence, able to adapt and evolve like a human being.
The OS adopts a female personality and names herself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson). Theodore becomes fascinated by her ability and develops a romantic relationship with the operating system. With terrific performances by Phoenix and Johansson, and an ensemble that includes Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, Her is a sweet, sensual, and intimate work about the state of modern human interaction and relationships.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiographical memoir by Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery.
12 Years a Slave is beautifully written, brilliantly acted, and masterfully crafted. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a heartbreaking, poignant performance worthy of Best Actor. A powerful and devastating piece of cinema, McQueen’s film is one of the best of the year.
Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), the black-and-white Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a man with dementia from Billings, Montana who is convinced he’s won a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
His son, David (Will Forte, MacGruber), begrudgingly agrees to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings. Along the way, father and son visit Woody’s birthplace for an impromptu family reunion where David learns all about his estranged father’s troubled past.
With award-worthy performances by Dern, Forte, and June Squibb, Alexander Payne’s bittersweet Nebraska is one of the best films of the year – and a personal favorite for its staggering level of authenticity. The purpose of art is to reveal a truth, and make that truth bearable, and it is by that measure that Payne’s latest film is a work of art; a must-see film that will no doubt surprise and touch audiences who experience it.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Mud stars Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a charismatic desperado on the run from ruthless bounty hunters.
McConaughey delivers yet another tremendous performance after a stunning showing last year in Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are perfectly cast as the kind-hearted; rough around the edges Ellis and the take-no-shit Neckbone. The supporting cast, including Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker, flesh out Nichols’ down south drama with memorable, realistic characters.
While not as metaphorical (or ambiguous) as Take Shelter, Nichols’ Mud is an exquisite piece of storytelling that is as creatively rich as it is emotionally rewarding. A poignant coming-of-age tale, Mud is one of the best films of 2013.
5. Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue Is the Warmest Colour is based on the 2010 French graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. Directed by Abdel Kechiche, this coming-of-age drama features raw, honest performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.
This is one of modern cinema’s most emotionally absorbing love stories – a true romance in every sense. I can’t wait to revisit Kechiche’s three-hour lesbian epic when it is released on Blu-ray and DVD through The Criterion Collection on 25 February 2014.
6. Dallas Buyers Club
Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) and stars Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe) as Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan roughneck with an insatiable appetite for prostitutes and hardcore drugs.
Dallas, 1986. Ron Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV and is given 30 days to live. He begins taking AZT, the only AIDs drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. With the help of his doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and a fellow patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron creates the Dallas Buyers Club, providing its paying members with alternative treatments.
Dallas Buyers Club is filled with brilliant performances by actors who disappear into their real-life counterparts. McConaughey and Jared Leto deliver the goods, taking a somewhat stereotypical biopic and making it transcendent, emotionally engaging cinema.
7. Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), Stories We Tell examines the relationship between Polley’s parents, including the revelation that the filmmaker was the product of an extramarital affair.
Stories We Tell is an intimate, sometimes painful film – a complex love letter to Polley’s mother and father: retired British actor Michael Polley and Canadian TV personality Diane Polley, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 years old. Polly plays both filmmaker and detective in this well-crafted documentary that unfolds like a mystery, complete with unreliable narrators and contradictory stories.
Polley’s film is an extremely moving, heartfelt film that explores our nostalgia-tinged memories of the past and the blurred line between fact and fiction. Stories We Tell is one of the best movies of the year – a bittersweet, deeply personal family portrait that will leave you in wonder.
8. Drinking Buddies
Directed by Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), Drinking Buddies follows the complicated friendship of Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), who work together at a craft brewery. As friends, they’re way too close – it’s obvious there’s something more there, but Kate is dating Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke is with all-around good girl Jill (Anna Kendrick).
The two couples go on a weekend getaway together and things get even more problematic when Jill and Chris go on a hike and find themselves romantically entangled. Meanwhile, Kate and Luke flirt while playing cards and get cozy on the beach. Without giving away the intricacies of the narrative, the four characters struggle to balance their romantic relationships and platonic friendships with the opposite sex – some with success, others with disastrous results.
I’m most impressed by the improvised performances of Johnson, Wilde, and Kendrick – who worked closely with Swanberg in shaping their characters by sharing personal relationship experiences that informed the story. Everyone has doubts about whether they’re with the right person, or if they could be happier with someone else – and Drinking Buddies soars on the uncertainty of relationships.
9. Short Term 12
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is an exploration of empathy, showing the struggles of a twentysomething (Brie Larson) while working as a supervisor at a home for at-risk teens.
Larson, who you’ve seen in 21 Jump Street and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, delivers a breakout performance as a compassionate young woman who is at risk of letting her inner demons overwhelm her.
10. August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells, August: Osage County tells the dark, hilarious, and touching story of the women of the Weston family, whose lives have went in different directions until a family crisis brings them back to the house they grew up in. Based on the play by Tracy Letts, this film features some of the best writing of the year – with bold, dynamic performances by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
11. Upstream Color
In Upstream Color, the latest film by writer/director Shane Carruth (Primer), a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted and brainwashed by a small-time crook via an organic material harvested from a unique flower. She meets Jeff (Carruth) and after the two fall for each other, they come to realize that he too has been subjected to the same brainwashing process.
As the two spend increasing amounts of time together, they begin to occupy the same brain space – sharing one consciousness – and their pasts merge into one. His childhood stories become hers – her insecurities and fears become his. Together they are drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving from plant life to worms, livestock, and back again.
Carruth is easily one of the most interesting, original filmmakers out there right now and Upstream Color is certainly one of the more inventive, complexing films to be released this year. A hypnotic, cinematic brain-teaser, Upstream Color will no doubt alienate as many moviegoers as it entrances – but if you enjoy artistic, ambitious, and slightly ambiguous cinema, you absolutely must see Carruth’s film.
12. The Wolf of Wall Street
Hookers! Cocaine! Quaaludes! Written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as New York stock swindler Jordan Belfort. The film is based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name and co-stars Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, and Matthew McConaughey.
DiCaprio and Hill give career-best performances in this balls-out black comedy by director Martin Scorsese. A compelling portrait of hedonism, drugs, and the power of the almighty dollar, the excess of excess on display in The Wolf of Wall Street is precisely the point.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour bacchanal with more cocaine than Scarface, more orgies than Caligula, and more feckless dum-dums than The Bling Ring. Scorsese’s biting satire is funny, shocking, and exceedingly filthy. It’s impressive that, at 71, Scorsese is still the kind of punk rock filmmaker who isn’t afraid to offend genteel expectations and sensibilities.
13. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis is a smart, funny, and soulful film that follows a young folk singer (Oscar Isaac) as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. The Coen Brothers’ latest film offers solid performances, fantastic music, and a cat who could out-act that dog from The Artist any day of the week.
14. Rewind This!
Directed by Josh Johnson, Rewind This! chronicles the rise and fall of the Video Home System, better known by its acronym, VHS. Produced by Carolee Mitchell with cinematography and editing by Christopher Palmer, Rewind This! was shot over the course of three years as the filmmakers interviewed film critics, filmmakers, and industry professionals in the US, Canada, and Japan.
Over 100 interviews were conducted in attempting to tell the story of the VHS revolution – which meant following collectors (or VHS Warriors, if you will) such as Zack Carlson and visiting video tape meccas like I Luv Video. Obscure, ridiculous titles like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Bubba Smith’s workout video, Bubba Until It Hurts, and Rolling Vengeance, a movie about a killer monster truck with murderous modifications like a big-ass drill, showcase VHS’s varied, bizarre collection of movies.
Josh Johnson, Mitchell,and Palmer have crafted one hell of a great documentary – and for children of the ’80s who remember exploring the dusty shelves of their local video store, Rewind This! will take you back to Saturday night sleepovers spent renting tapes and eating pizza, watching movies and hoping the film itself lived up to the box art.
Directed by Park Chan-wook, Stoker stars Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) as India Stoker, whose 18th birthday is turned upside down after her loving father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies in a horrific car accident.
The quiet and reclusive India is left with her estranged, unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in their secluded mansion. At Richard’s funeral, Evelyn and India are introduced to Richard’s charming, charismatic (and creepy) brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who decides to stay indefinitely to help support his brother’s family.
Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director best known for his films Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and Thirst, makes his English-language debut with a dark, atmospheric film that feels as Hitchcockian as it does Kubrickian. Stoker is the perfect marriage of sumptuous imagery, disquieting dialogue, and great performances.
16. Pacific Rim
Co-Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), Pacific Rim is a spirited love letter to Japanese Kaiju films like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.
The film stars Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) as Raleigh Becket, a washed-up former Jaeger pilot brought out of retirement by the Pan Pacific Defense Corps to fight monsters once more. Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) joins Hunnam as Mako Mori, Becket’s untested co-pilot who lost her family in a Kaiju attack.
Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that, if seen at the right age, could hook a kid on movies for the rest of his or her life. Star Wars was that movie for me, and Pacific Rim embraces the unpretentious spirit of adventure that made George Lucas’ sprawling space saga resonate with an entire generation.
17. Muscle Shoals
Located alongside the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama changed the world as the birthplace for some of America’s most creative, exciting, and soulful music.
Directed by Greg Camalier, Muscle Shoals documents the history of the Muscle Shoals music scene and the players involved in creating that signature sound – including FAME Studios founder Rick Hall and The Swampers, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section that played with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Entertaining and informative, Muscle Shoals is a fantastic documentary with a great “behind the music” story.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Alicia Keys, Bono, and others bear witness to Muscle Shoals’ magnetism, mystery, and why it remains influential as a hot-spot for rhythm and blues. In a year that has seen such great music docs as A Band Called Death, Sound City, Good Ol’ Freda, and 20 Feet from Stardom, Muscle Shoals is my pick for the best of the bunch.
18. This is the End
Written and directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, This is the End is an apocalyptic meta-comedy where celebrities play exaggerated versions of themselves on the eve of Judgment Day. Jay Baruchel (Goon, Knocked Up) arrives in L.A to visit old friend and fellow Canadian Seth Rogen, who invites Jay to a housewarming party at James Franco‘s new million-dollar mecca.
Jay feels uncomfortable around Seth’s new Hollywood friends — including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Emma Watson — so Seth agrees to accompany him to a convenience store for cigarettes. While they’re perusing the candy aisle, beams of blue light shoot down from the sky and abduct a handful of the store’s customers. Frightened, Jay and Seth make their way back to Franco’s fortress amid explosions, car crashes, and mass hysteria as the world crumbles down around them.
This is the End feels like the demonic offspring of Superbad, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and Cabin in the Woods – an uproarious masterwork of horror-comedy that manages to be both obscene and heartfelt. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s directorial debut is one of my favorite films of 2013, and the funniest, most satisfying comedies I’ve seen in years.
19. You’re Next
Directed by Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, V/H/S), You’re Next follows Crispian Davidson (A.J. Bowen, The House of the Devil) as he brings his new girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) along to celebrate his parent’s wedding anniversary. The family’s reunion is derailed, however, when a gang of murders in creepy animal masks begin to hunt the family down one by one with brutal precision.
You’re Next is kind of like Die Hard meets Home Alone meets Them if it was directed by ’80s John Carpenter. Amongst the family is a survivalist expert who does everything right that so many slasher victims do wrong. The expert doesn’t run upstairs – doesn’t trip in the woods – instead they immediately survey the situation and batten down the hatches – rigging up traps and securing weapons for the family as they attempt to survive the attack.
You’re Next is a smart, scary, altogether hilarious take on the horror genre that cleverly subverts expectations and plays with the genre’s cliches to create a love letter to ’80s slasher movies. Wingard’s film is an endlessly entertaining horror-comedy with genuine scares and big laughs.
20. Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 is a mysterious and fascinating journey into the world of obsessive cinephilles. The film interviews fans of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining who, using their own brands of film analysis, connect Kubrick’s film with the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
The film has nine segments, each segment focusing on different elements within the film which, according to the film’s interview subjects, reveal hidden clues about the themes Kubrick’s entire body of work. Room 237 is an essential companion piece to The Shining and must-see for self-described film fanatics.
21. The World’s End
Edgar Wright‘s apocalyptic sci-fi comedy, The World’s End, is a sincere examination of friendship and the dangers of nostalgia while also providing a fitting conclusion to Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.
The film returns to many of the same ideas and themes Wright and Simon Pegg first explored in Shaun of the Dead, such as the concept of adults arrested in adolescence finally blossoming into maturity by battling an evil that has infiltrated their idyllic small town.
The World’s End is one of the best comedies of the year and features heartfelt and hilarious performances by Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as an impressive ensemble of supporting players.
22. The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), The Spectacular Now stars Miles Teller (Footloose) as Sutter Keely, a charming high school senior who lives in “the now.” Sutter is the life of the party – a kid with no plans for the future other than holding down his job at the local men’s clothing store.
Sutter’s lack of ambition might have something to do with being an aspiring alcoholic – carrying a flask of the hard stuff with him at all times. He finally hits rock bottom after being dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and wakes up on a lawn with Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. Aimee’s the shy, nice girl who reads science-fiction manga and works her mother’s paper route. While Aimee has dreams of escaping her dead-end small town, Sutter lives in the absorbing delusion of “the spectacular now,” and yet somehow, they’re drawn to one another.
Ponsoldt’s film captures the insecurity and confusion of adolescence, with brilliant performances by Teller and Woodley. It’s rare that young actors can portray teens with the maturity that these two display – their chemisty is palpable, and they’re simply phenomenal on screen together. The Spectacular Now is a wonderful coming-of-age story. John Hughes would be proud.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a pair of astronauts performing maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope.
The destruction of a Russian Spy satellite in Earth’s orbit has created a debris storm that is rapidly approaching the astronauts. A hail of space junk crashes into Explorer, sending the pair spiraling, untethered, into the vastness of outer space. With a dwindling supply of oxygen and no means of communication with Earth, the astronauts venture further out into the infinite to make contact with a habitable Chinese satellite.
Gravity is a high-tension survival thriller and a staggering achievement in special-effects cinema. Director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created a visceral cinematic experience; a visual triumph that elevates blockbuster filmmaking to the next level.
24. American Hustle
Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), American Hustle is loosely based on the 1978 ABSCAM scandal, a series of FBI operations designed to uncover corrupt government officials.
Funny, sexy, and altogether absurd, Russell’s film is a tantalizing crime drama about faking it in America. With fantastic production design, sharp direction, and a stacked cast including brilliant performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle is one of the year’s most entertaining films.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish is an eye-opening, disturbing documentary that will make you rethink attractions like SeaWorld and their value to culture. This heartbreaking film focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a killer whale who was involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping such large and intelligent animals in captivity.
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