The Best Movies of 2013


Outstanding. That’s the simplest but most appropriate way to sum up the year in movies that was 2013. Outstanding.

A more interesting way would be to discuss the year in movie themes. The American dream, in one way or another, was a noticeable theme in seven of my top ten movies movies this year. It becomes even more noticeable when you factor in my top 20 and a few high-profile films that weren’t considered for my list (American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, etc.)

Children and the lengths we go to protect them were everywhere in 2013 movies, including five of my top ten. Also among my top ten are a survival story, the year’s best doc and foreign film, a few established auteurs, a few emerging ones, and the two best films of this still young decade so far.

But this year, I decided to make a top 20 list. I watched more movies in 2013 than in any other previously, and as such, I saw a lot more great stuff than usual. It didn’t seem right to post this without paying special attention to a few titles that wouldn’t have made a top 10.

So here we are: the 20 best movies of 2013. The important takeaway isn’t the number preceding each film but rather the fact that all are great films you should seek out as they become available. To that end, I’m noting how and when you can see all 20 films alongside the reasons I love them. Enjoy!

Honorable mentions: The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, A Hijacking, Let the Fire Burn, Prince Avalanche, Side Effects, The Spectacular Now

20.) Call Me Kuchu

Recent news in Uganda only amplifies the importance of this moving documentary and the men and women highlighted in it. They’re the few who are open about their homosexuality in a country whose government forbids that lifestyle with fire-breathing fervor. The inspiration provided by their courage is matched only by the overwhelming sadness you’ll feel by a tragedy that occurs late in the picture, but this is a truly must-watch documentary (the first but not last outlined on this countdown) you can check out on Netflix Instant and other VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Call Me Kuchu review.)

19.) The Place Beyond the Pines

The scope of writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s latest couldn’t more different than that of his previous feature, Blue Valentine. Here, he’s spanning generations to tell a powerful story about the bonds between fathers and sons and the lengths we’ll go to maintain or strengthen those bonds. At its core are exceptional performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, but the film is as technically proficient as it is well-acted, thematically resonant, and emotionally satisfying. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets. (Click here for my full The Place Beyond the Pines review.)

18.) After Tiller

Documentaries, by nature, are rarely calm, so color me surprising that the most calming documentary I’ve watched in a long time is about, of all things, abortion—specifically the four remaining doctors in America who perform late-term abortions. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson aren’t interested in making a pro-choice propaganda film or even a fact-based policy polemic. Instead, they’re introducing us to people. These people might have controversial jobs, but they have families and feelings. They’re smart and understanding. And the humanity at play here drowns out any sense of controversy, debate, or blind, angry passion that tends to come with this territory. In limited release with a DVD/VOD release date presumably in early 2014. (Click here for my full After Tiller review.)

17.) Frozen

The best animated movie for two years running hasn’t come from Pixar, but rather its parent company, Disney. Frozen even one-ups last year’s Wreck-It Ralph, however. Its terrific music and plucky characters are novel for the genre today. In fact, despite its computer-generated look, it deserves to be mentioned alongside Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and others from the so-called Golden Age of Disney. In theaters now. (Click here for my full Frozen review.)

16.) Before Midnight

Celine and Jessie have spent nine years together since the conclusion of Before Sunset (a perfect movie), and cracks that formed in their off-screen relationship during that time transform into gaping chasms here. It’s a tough movie to love because the romantic flame that flickered in Sunrise and Sunset is all but extinguished, but as one of the two remarks late, this (their relationship) isn’t perfect, but it’s real. And so it is with Before Midnight. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets.

15.) Drinking Buddies

Joe Swanberg’s perceptive little gem brings together Olivia Wilde and New Girl‘s Jake Johnson and tells a story of friendship, relationships, and craft beer. Featuring great music, even better performances, and understated direction that focuses almost exclusively on the film’s richly observed characters, it’s simply one of the best romantic comedies in years. Available now on DVD, Netflix Instant, and other VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Drinking Buddies review.)

14.) Spring Breakers

This deceptively bleak, gorgeously styled, and powerfully resonant picture has its fair share of detractors, and understandably so. Director Harmony Korine (a notorious boundary pusher) isn’t afraid to, for example, fill his frame with a woman’s jiggling ass a dozen or so times, but he does so in order to set the scene and mood for a film that’s more concerned with dissecting—nay, stomping on—college-aged dreams than titillating its viewers. Family dynamics play out in the most reversely symbiotic way imaginable. Every one of our main characters relies on the others to grow and change and “prosper,” but their collective idea of prospering is twisted, and that’s where Spring Breakers packs its punch. It’s an “amazing,” “magical” film. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Spring Breakers review.)

13.) A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhanke won Best Screenplay at Cannes this past year for his latest, an absolutely searing portrait of modern China. It’s a place where the rich abuse the poor, Chinese tradition, and in some cases, women struggling to get by. In Jia’s world—as it was in real life—the oppressed fight back. A Touch of Sin tells four very loosely related stories—stories that are based on notorious events that actually transpired in modern China. The bursts of violence that punctuate each story are shocking, but the film is quite elegant otherwise. It’s beautifully edited and directed by Jia (someone I’d been completely unfamiliar with). Some of the stories are more compelling than others, as you might expect, but they’re all meaningful and come together nicely in one of the year’s strongest foreign-language entries. In limited release. On DVD and VOD March 18, 2014.

12.) Muscle Shoals

There’s nothing stylistically boundary-pushing about Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s music doc about the small Alabama town that helped put Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Etta James, Clarence Carter, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers (among many others) on the map. But the joy you experience listening to these incredible artists’ music will be the same joy you experience watching them talk about this weird, wonderful place. On DVD and VOD February 25, 2014.

11.) Drug War

Director Johnnie To is a straight-up beast. The king of modern Hong Kong action crafts nothing less than the year’s most thrilling thriller—a cops-and-criminals shoot-em-up with wild characters, a delicious set-up, and so much tension and unpredictability that you can’t help but wonder why anyone else even tries at this game. Available now on DVD, Netflix Instant, and other VOD outlets.

10.) Nebraska

There has to be room on a top ten list for the film I revisited more than any other in a given year, right? I’m four viewings into my relationship with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and it hasn’t once ceased to bring a smile to my face. What’s odd is that the film has a dull edge that holds the viewer at arm’s length for much of the early going. Eventually, however, you’ll relent as I did and give the film a warm embrace. It’s an intensely relatable movie and filled with some outstanding performances, most notably from Bruce Dern. In limited release. (Click here for my full Nebraska review.)

9.) Dirty Wars

I wrote in my review of director Rick Rowley’s documentary, which stars investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, that it’s a film that chews up your hopeful, idealistic illusions regarding American leadership, spits them out, and leaves a cruise-missile-sized hole in your heart for good measure. It takes on the escalating number of drone and covert campaigns waged by the United States, often in nation-states it isn’t formally at war with, and it does so with a tenacity that leaves the American media in rubble. I haven’t had a filmgoing experience this devastating in a number of years. Available now on DVD, Netflix Instant, and other VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Dirty Wars review.)

8.) Mud

Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ latest rivaled Nebraska for my most-watched title of 2013 perhaps because I responded so strongly to its carefully constructed narrative and messy but thoughtful subtext. Among many other things, Mud is about love in all its messy incarnations, and through the eyes of a child (Tye Sheridan, fantastic), it takes the shape of a staggeringly honest and tender fairy tale. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Mud review.)

7.) Short Term 12

This one shouldn’t work. Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature is at times almost too mawkish, frenetic, and under-detailed. But every time you think it’s finally fallen off the tightrope it so expertly navigates, a well-placed quip or emotionally devastating revelation brings it back to a place of unequivocal brilliance. Both an onion-like character piece and a penetrating coming-of-age drama (with just enough beneath-the-pain smiles to make the exercise enjoyable), Short Term 12 is a once-in-a-blue-moon movie and features a once-in-a-blue-moon lead performance from Brie Larson. Available on DVD and VOD outlets January 14, 2014. (Click here for my full Short Term 12 review.)

6.) Gravity

“Life in space is impossible.” That quote opens Alfonso Cuaron’s expert survival story, and it perfectly sums up everything that follows. There’s little to Gravity besides palpable desperation that translates through the screen as edge-of-your-seat excitement. And those discontent with something that simple have had their say. To me, however, Gravity‘s familiarity is comfortable, and it allows Cuaron to focus on stellar craft—including editing, sound, and cinematography that rank among the best of the year—that made for a theater-going experience (in 3D, please) I’ll never, ever forget. In theaters with a DVD/VOD release date presumably in early 2014. (Click here for my full Gravity review.)

5.) The Hunt

No one is a villain in Thomas Vinterberg’s searing drama about a small Danish town that descends into chaos after false accusations of pedophilia are thrown around. Everyone is trying to navigate this mess in a way that ensures maximum safety for their family and, secondly, a modicum of fairness to the accused. But that means different things for different people. For some, it’s protecting Mads Mikkelsen’s Lucas—a kindergarten teacher. For others, it’s pitying him from afar. And for others still—the vocal majority, sadly—it means bullying him and his teenage son, beating them both, and worse. But while The Hunt will make your blood boil, it doesn’t offer easy answers. We’re forced to walk a mile in the shoes of everyone involved here, and the results make The Hunt tense, thought-provoking, terrific. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets. (Click here for my full The Hunt review.)

4.) Prisoners

At 153 minutes, director Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut is the longest film on my top ten by quite a margin, but it’s as tightly plotted a 153-minute movie as you’ll ever see. Your jaw will drop at the amount of ground covered by Aaron Guzikowski’s mammoth screenplay, but every crumb, clue, and detail is essential to the film’s conclusion. Roger Deakins’ dark, small-town-influenced cinematography, career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and an unshakable conclusion make comparisons to crime classics like Se7en perfectly appropriate. Available now on DVD and VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Prisoners review.)

3.) Frances Ha

A movie for and about a generation in the same way Annie Hall, The Breakfast Club, and The Social Network are, Frances Ha features the most appealing lead turn of the year—male or female—from Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach. It’s an honest portrait of the struggling artist/hipster set, but both Frances and Frances Ha are bright lights—unimpeachable bastions of optimism, big dreams, and enduring friendship, with some destructively doe-eyed perseverance thrown in for good measure. Available now on DVD, Netflix Instant, and other VOD outlets. (Click here for my full Frances Ha review.)

2.) 12 Years a Slave

I can’t overstate the gap between Frances Ha and this, Steve McQueen’s third film and an unequivocal masterpiece. I struggled for 11 months to find the film of 2013 because as much as I love everything preceding this and my #1, there wasn’t an obvious choice—a perfect movie that made me want to stand up and cheer.

December brought two, and while McQueen’s film ended up with the silver medal, that shouldn’t (doesn’t) diminish what he accomplishes here. 12 Years a Slave takes the uncompromising style that defined his previous two features, Hunger and Shame, and uses it in service of a story that cares about its characters and about involving its audience in more than a visceral way. 12 Years a Slave tells an unjust story about a dark era defined by unjust behavior, and as such, it’s an intensely emotional experience. Unbelievably, McQueen eschews even a hint of over-sentimentality. His portrait of slavery is blunt and matter-of-fact, but those qualities allow us to immerse ourselves in this world, the problems of these three-dimensional characters, and the still meaningful conversations they have with each other. In theaters now.

1.) Inside Llewyn Davis

As enigmatic as Barton Fink, as well-crafted as No Country for Old Men, and as emotionally effective as anything Joel and Ethan Coen have ever done, Inside Llewyn Davis is the best movie of 2013. Though it’s of a specific time and place, there’s a universality to its themes that will resonate with me for a long time. Inside Llewyn Davis (and inside Inside Llewyn Davis) is a heart that beats to express himself through his art, but his single-minded determination combines with a sort of good-hearted thoughtlessness that seems forever destined to make his life more difficult. It’s an inherently sad story, and that’s before you even reach the man’s soul, which has been broken into a thousand pieces over the death of his partner.

I thought the contest for my favorite film of the year had ended when the credits began to roll on 12 Years a Slave, but Inside Llewyn Davis burrowed its way into my brain and, eventually, began spreading like a virus. It has consumed almost every waking thought of mine for weeks now and has made almost every film I’ve seen since feel unworthy in comparison. Put simply, it’s a true film for the ages. In limited release now. Expanding January 10, 2013. (Click here for my full Inside Llewyn Davis review.)

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