I wasn’t going to do a “Favorite Ten” thing this year, if only because I didn’t think I had seen enough of the movies that might make the list. I still haven’t watched The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wind Rises, All Is Lost, Frozen, The World’s End, The Act of Killing, or The Hunt. Okay, uh…that’s more than I thought it would be. Still, what can you do when you live in a small town?
I will give a respectful nod here to American Hustle, Dallas Buyers’ Club, and A Field in England, three intriguing movies that just aren’t quite what I want in a movie. I also want to give mention to films that in most years would make the list, but did not here because 2013 was absolutely phenomenal.
The Butler, Prisoners, and Pacific Rim come to mind in particular; they’re three incredibly different films, but they are all entirely successful grand-scale epics that accomplish lofty goals due to phenomenal direction and performances. The Butler portrays the Civil Rights Movement with significant nuance; Prisoners asks complex moral and ethical questions in an astonishingly complicated movie; and Pacific Rim elevates the blockbuster to well-written, awe-inspiring excitement. All of them are great, and The Butler and Prisoners especially might be two of the year’s best, but I don’t see myself going back to them as much as the ones on my list. Speaking of that list, without further ado….
10. Computer Chess
In a year of huge, big-budget, and loud movies—many of which were wonderful, of course—Computer Chess might be the quietest one from 2013; however, it’s also one of the most thoughtful. There are questions of every sort asked in here, chiefly about the distinction between us and computers, but also several others. My introduction to the “Mumblecore” film movement makes me want more, as the oddly charming aesthetic in this movie accomplishes so much and packs numerous ideas worth pursuing into open space allowed by minimalism. Read my review here.
9. Much Ado About Nothing
[NOTE: A friend kindly alerted me to the fact that this is technically speaking a 2012 release; that’s when it was shown at festivals, whereas 2013 is when it received a theatrical release. I went with the latter date because I’m currently only able to see movies as they show in theaters, which would not be true if I were a professional critic. Hopefully someday that will change, but I wanted to address the possible discrepancy.]
It’s Shakespeare. It’s fun. Everyone in it is having a blast, and the humor is perfectly executed. The aesthetic is incredible, and there’s little to hate in this reworking of the classic play, adding some life into the Shakespearean comedy and, for me, Joss Whedon’s filmography—two things I have long fallen out of love with. Read Chris’s review here.
8. In a World…
Lake Bell, who stars in, writes, and directs In a World…, has done something wonderful. This is her first movie, yet it reveals a penchant for great dialogue, skillful story-telling, and beautiful direction. I laughed a lot in this tale of a woman trying to break into the voice acting world—a world that appears to act as a placeholder for any male-dominated field, but feels sufficiently personalized to make the ambitious attempt work—but I was also given plenty of room to think. Bell’s script is clever and works both with standard narrative tropes and breaks them entirely to great effect. My only criticism, and the reason it isn’t higher up, is that Bell writes terrible antagonists here. They are bad because their arrogance won’t allow them to accept or empathize with others attempting to break into their world, yet Bell cannot think to characterize them past that. Their motives are basically that they’re jerks. If she thinks they’re bad for their inability to see humanity in others, she shouldn’t have made them as one-dimensional as possible. That’s the only thing that holds In a World… back, but for a movie that succeeds in nearly every other way, I don’t mind ignoring that issue. Read my full review here.
7. 12 Years a Slave
Christ, what a powerful movie. Steve McQueen reigns his style in to great effect, delivering a powerful narrative about an incredibly important subject. Moreover, each performance deserves the Oscars they were nominated for, i.e. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender. Read my review here.
6. Stories We Tell
I really, really like Sarah Polley. Take This Waltz is one of the most beautifully complicated films that I’ve ever seen, and Stories We Tell similarly pushes the boundaries of typical character construction and audience expectations in a way that produces something uniquely powerful. Stories We Tell might be a documentary, but Polley’s exploration of the affair that led to her birth becomes a lot more than a story about any one person, and instead is about everyone depicted, and moreover the hold stories have on our thoughts and memories. Polley, like the director of the next movie on this list, has made me a viewer who will go out of his way to find whatever she’s working on next. Read my review here.
I have to admit, I’m surprised by how much Mud has stuck with me. I saw it in September, but it really hasn’t left my mind in part due to the great performance from Matthew McConaughey’s (far more deserving of the Oscar here than in Dallas Buyers Club), not to mention young actor Tye Sheridan. But more importantly, director Jeff Nichols shows his consistently deft ability to construct a profoundly human story, one that dives deep into several psyches to tell a story we can all follow and relate to. Further, the sense of location that Nichols embeds into Mud sets him apart from most filmmakers working today; mix that with an action scene that is one of the best in recent memory, and you have not just one of the year’s best films, but perhaps one of the best working directors. Read Chris’s review here.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
I think that the Coens’ best films are the intimate character studies. A lot of the times, they drown themselves in cynicism, but Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t leave room for that. It’s a portrait of a man struggling to communicate in the wake of his music partner’s death. The soundtrack is phenomenal, as is the portrayal of the Greenwich folk scene in the 1960s. The Coens create a relatable protagonist who might in other hands be an unbearably unlikeable person, because they know that the key to a great character is not necessarily making him sweet, but understandable. Combine that with great cinematography and acting, not to mention a structure that cleverly invokes that of folk songs, and you have a human story that invites empathy—not to mention guaranteed satisfaction upon subsequent viewings. Read James’s review here.
Gravity is an event. I cannot relate any experience I’ve had watching a movie—in theaters or out—to it. I was enthralled, holding my breath in numerous scenes and gasping in others. I have never been so swept up by a movie. Alfonso Cuarón directs the hell out of Gravity, and we feel Sanda Bullock’s character’s fear, excitement, comfort, and everything else. Gravity might be the best movie of the year for its sheer storytelling skills, because rarely does a film come along that so effectively captivates an audience while remaining profoundly human in its depiction of what is ultimately a human story in a frightening world. Read my review here.
2. Upstream Color
If I’m being honest, Upstream Color is the reason I decided to make this list. I’d actually forgotten it came out in 2013 since the summer seems so long ago (the winters here will do that to you). Upstream Color is a fantastic movie, with director/writer/producer/composer/lead actor/cinematographer Shane Carruth using the control an indie filmmaker can have over his film to make something unabashedly experimental yet completely grounded. This is thought-provoking sci-fi, but the kind that says, “What do you think about this?” rather than, “Man, you’ll never figure out this shit; aren’t I a genius?” This movie feels incredibly intimate and personal, resulting in something beautiful and long-lasting in the viewers’ consciousness. Read my review here.
I love Her. It’s heartfelt, honest, thoughtful, sincere, genuine, and every other positive word I can think of. It’s also not an easy movie; watching Her is difficult but rewarding, and every aspect of production is complete; the product is a well-made movie in terms of writing, acting, directing, cinematography, set design, soundtrack, and everything else. The story is interesting, but is led by the characters in a just-barely-sci-fi world that allows us to consider where we are right now. Romance and technology—more importantly how they interact—are common social questions and Her provides a non-cynical view of the matter. It’s the perfect movie for right now, and it will likely maintain relevance for a long time to come. As soon as I left the theater, I wanted to watch it again, and I think that will make Her one of the movies on this list that I continue to come back to every so often for the rest of my life. Spike Jonze’s earnestness filled me to the brim with emotion—sad, of course, but also optimistic—and succeeded because it asked me to care and did not judge me when I did. Much like Never Let Me Go from 2010 or Take Shelter from 2011, Her will stay with me, making it my favorite film of 2013. Read my review here.