The year that Johnny Depp’s over-the-top character schtick totally and irreparably jumped the shark.
And the year even Bruce Willis didn’t seem to enjoy being a part of yet another Die Hard movie.
So you’d be forgiven if you thought 2013 was a bad year for the movies.
But you’d be wrong.
This was, in fact, one of the best movie years in recent memory, as Hollywood treated us to a bounty of impressive releases. The best of those grappled with important issues, such as racism, the economic climate, what it takes to survive (and thrive), and how tenuous our connections to each other are. They didn’t provide easy answers or soft commentary, but through a variety of storytelling methods and production values, they entertained us, and in some cases, even inspired us to change our ways.
Of the 66 films I saw this year (!!!), what were the ones that in some cases, literally made me want to stand up and cheer? Here’s my list (with links to my reviews, where they exist).
First, Some Honorable Mentions
Much as I’d like every movie to be on my best list, I can’t include them all. So here, in no particular order (other than alphabetically), are seven honorable mentions — films I enjoyed that just didn’t make the final cut:
The Spectacular Now
My 13 Favorite Films of the Year
Narrowing down my list to just 10 favorite films this year was near impossible. So, given that it’s 2013 and all, I’ve “cheated” and selected a “lucky 13.” Here they are:
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers’ latest tells the story of a self-destructive folk singer who, despite being very good at what he does, just can’t seem to catch a break. If that sounds like a familiar premise, it’s because the writer/directors have told variations on this story before. But that’s alright, because, to paraphrase Llewyn’s own words, a great story, just like a folk song, “was never new, and it never gets old.” What separates ILD from the other movies on this list is just how well that story is told: This is a gorgeously photographed movie that vividly and authentically brings to life the pre-Dylan folk-music scene in New York, circa 1961. Llewyn just wants his music to be heard, without compromising his artistic integrity, but he’s too stubborn to see that things have changed, and he’s never going to succeed. His loss is our gain. The movie features a cast full of memorable supporting characters, a great soundtrack, and a star-making performance by the immensely talented Oscar Isaac, who captures Llewyn’s frustration while at the same time displaying musical chops that demand to be heard. I’ve seen this movie twice already and look forward to seeing it many more times in the years to come.
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
It’s been a long time since a movie — a documentary, even — made me want to literally get up out of my seat and applaud when it was over. This one did, for all the right reasons. 20 Feet is essentially a tour through the history of rock & roll over the last 50 or so years, told through the eyes, ears, and voices of the backup singers who were, as the title indicates, so close to the spotlight they could taste it. Merry Clayton tells the story of how she was called in the middle of the night to perform on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Darlene Love recalls how she had given up on the music business and was cleaning houses when she heard her own song, “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” on the radio and decided to give it another shot. Every story here is thrilling, and the emotional payoff is well worth it. Thank God for all these singers, and bless director Morgan Neville for presenting everything in such an entertaining way that you’ll be sorry you never gave these talented performers a second thought before now.
3. Before Midnight
It’s been 18 years since Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) spent the night wandering around Vienna, and in that time — two movies later — their story has only grown richer and richer. But unlike in the past, when love for these two was an ideal, a dream, a possibility, now it’s reality, and it’s not so dreamy. Before Midnight tackles that shift head-on. This is a stunningly brutal and honest movie, especially in its final third, and some very long takes allow the scenes to play out in real time, giving the audience (and the actors) nowhere to hide. We’ve watched this couple develop over the years, so their pain becomes our pain. It’s not pretty, but you can’t look away.
4. 12 Years a Slave
Part of the genius of director Steve McQueen (Shame) and writer John Ridley is that 12 Years tells a story that belongs to all of us. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a beautiful performance of grace and raw power) was a free man living in upstate New York before he was tricked, drugged, ripped from his family, and sold into slavery in the Deep South. That setup makes the story more universal; it allows what unfolds to seem more absurd and excruciating. This is not an easy film to watch, whether we’re witnessing Michael Fassbender’s emotionally, violently, sexually abusive slave master in action, or Ejiofor hanging from a tree for an agonizing few minutes, with no one helping him. No film has ever brought the horrors and shame of slavery to the big screen like this film does. 12 Years is an important film (to say the least), and it must be seen. By everyone.
5. Fruitvale Station
In the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old resident of the Bay Area, was shot in cold blood by a transit cop. The confrontation was captured on cell phone cameras, and Grant became a symbol of the area’s racial inequality. Thankfully, first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler resists the temptation to portray Grant as a saintly figure, instead capturing the complicated essence of this devoted father, cheating boyfriend, hesitant pot dealer, and troubled son on the last day of his life. Kudos to Michael B. Jordan, whose subtle, complex performance is a wonderful tribute. “I’m trying to start fresh, but it’s just not working out,” Grant says at one point. Thanks to Coogler’s affecting film, you’ll wish he had much more time to keep on trying.
6. Captain Phillips
It’s been a long time since Tom Hanks gave an unvarnished performance of such vulnerability like he does here, in director Paul Greengrass’ thriller about the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates. To put it most bluntly, if you’ve ever taken Hanks for granted, his work in this film will remind you why he is one of this country’s best actors. Of course, when you’re working with Greengrass (United 93), there’s no room for gloss. The director uses handheld photography to put us right on that ship and capture in tense, adrenalized style just how heroic Phillips was in saving himself and his entire crew. What’s truly impressive about the film is not just the story, but the way Greengrass humanizes both sides of the conflict, showing that the pirates are acting out of desperation. They don’t necessarily deserve our respect or sympathy, but at least we understand their motives.
Bruce Dern gets the role of his career as Woody, a delusional old man who thinks he’s won a million dollars from a Publisher’s Clearinghouse–type company. MacGruber himself, Will Forte, plays the son who begrudgingly goes with him to collect the winnings, even though he knows his dad didn’t win squat, and June Squibb is priceless as Woody’s nagging wife. (All three are Oscar nomination–worthy.) The movie’s less about plot and more a chance for director Alexander Payne (The Descendants), working from a script by Robert W. Nelson, to take a closer look at the dynamic between a father and son. Gorgeously shot in black and white, and featuring a quirky cast full of amateur actors, this film is just a beauty — infused with a dose of cynicism. It’s a road trip worth taking.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
Cross Goodfellas with Boiler Room and you have Martin Scorsese’s latest film, a three-hour jolt of cinematic testosterone that revels in the same kind of excess that drove its protagonist to be one of the biggest scam artists on Wall Street in the early 1990s. Scorsese, working from an awesome script by Terence Winter, takes us deep into the world of Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, showing us just how brazen you have to be these days to make a buck, and the toll it takes when you earn it in spades. Wolf is a hilarious film filled with more drugs, nudity, and testosterone than some audiences can stomach — and that’s kind of the point. Belfort is no hero — not even close — but Scorsese’s genius is that we still laugh and cheer when he and his friends throw midgets, try to make sense after taking too many qualudes, destroy a yacht, and worst of all, take advantage of clients all for their selfish financial gain. Leonardo DiCaprio, who probably was hoarse by the time filming ended, is fantastic, and Jonah Hill, who, as Belfort’s sidekick, Donnie, gives his best performance since Moneyball. (Special mention as well to Margot Robie, the hottest woman on screen this year.) Wolf is the rare three-hour movie that I actually wish was longer. I can’t wait till the original, uncut, four-hour version arrives on Blu-ray.
Spike Jonze’s latest film (only his fourth) takes place in the near future, but it’s a story that resonates in the here and now. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a loner who falls hard for “Samantha,” his new computer operating system. That this situation feels utterly plausible is due in large part to Phoenix’s heartbreaking performance — and Scarlett Johansson’s, too. (That’s her sultry and good-humored voice.) But Jonze’s film is much more than a silly love story; it’s a deeply moving examination of how challenging it is to make connections with other people, and how it’s all-too-easy for some of us to read a little too much into the relationships we form with our devices and the people we meet through those devices. Attention anyone who spends a little too much time on social media, in online chat rooms, or staring into the screen of an iPhone: This one’s for you.
10. American Hustle
It would be so easy to dismiss David O. Russell’s Abscam film as derivative if it wasn’t so much damned fun. Hustle is a farce about artifice and duplicity, about the lengths we go to and the cons we pull to survive. It’s also a comedic showcase for a repertory company of players from Russell’s two most recent films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), and a giant homage to the disco era, complete with tacky wardrobes and a soundtrack filled with classic hits. (The hair and outfits alone are worth the price of admission.) Acting across the board is great, though special kudos go to bloated and balding Christian Bale and a crazy-sexy-good Jennifer Lawrence (the scene where she sings along with “Live and Let Die” while cleaning house is one of the year’s best sequences). This movie is no con: it’s the real deal.
11. All Is Lost
Director J.C. Chandor’s quiet masterpiece is the film Ang Lee hoped to make with Life of Pi. Robert Redford stars as an unnamed man sailing solo in the Indian Ocean, who must put all his resourcefulness and intelligence to work when the hull of his ship is breached. There’s no one to help him, and no time to waste, so he needs to make quick decisions and take quick action or he’ll sink. It’s just that simple. Watching Redford (who performed many of his own stunts) muster all his strength (physical and emotional) to do all he can to survive, then teeter on the verge of resignation, is a master class in minimalist acting. There’s no dialogue, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, he speaks volumes.
There was perhaps no sight as scary this year (on movie screens, anyway) as watching Sandra Bullock untether herself and go flying into the vast reaches and darkness of outer space. Her journey back to Earth, told with technical mastery by director Alfonso Cuarón and visual-effects wizard Tim Webber, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. And it MUST be seen on a big screen, in 3D. The film begins with a sustained single take (or, at least, one that looks like a sustained single take) that lasts 15 minutes. After that, we’re floating, helplessly, just like Bullock’s Ryan Stone, hoping to survive. That a film this big also feels so intimate is a testament to some great filmmaking. You’ll never forget the experience of watching this one.
13. The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back is a throwback movie, one in a long line of summertime coming-of-age films where a loser kid finds himself with the help of some older, immature types. But that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. In fact, as written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants), it’s a fun ride, with surprising twists and turns — including Steve Carell giving an against-type performance as a jerk who tells his girlfriend’s son that on a scale of one to 10, he’s a three. Sam Rockwell, giving a winning performance in the kind of role Bill Murray would have played back in the day, helps boost the kid’s confidence. Rash and Faxon get the film’s tone, setting, casting, and almost everything else right — including their use of a water park as a breeding ground for irresponsible slackers who think they have life figured out. This is a film with a laid-back, crowd-pleasing charm that easily wins you over.
And My Least Favorite Movies of the Year
The less said about these 10 films the better, so I’ll let the list speak for itself:
2. Girl Most Likely
How many of these films have YOU seen? What were your favorites and least favorite films this year? Share your thoughts in the comments field below.