It’s a good problem to have when your first cut of the top ten movies of the year comes in at about thirty. In 2013, the field was so dense and competition so intense, with one seemingly terrific film after another opening well throughout the second half of the year, that finding the ten great films was quite a challenge, simply because the paring down was so painful. Following my ranked list below, you’ll see another collection of terrific 2013 films that could easily comprise another best list (with explanations as to why they are so special; just listing them didn’t seem quite respectful enough). Truthfully, I made and remade the list more than a dozen times, wincing each time a jewel was bumped from the “final” cut. I even pondered the nature of what “ten” really meant in a transparent attempt to sneak more films in. What if I awarded a few ties?
A few more qualifiers—as much as it saddened me to move Inside Llewyn Davis to the also-rans, it hurt like hell doing the same for Short-Term 12, one of the year’s purest surprises and a film I hope will clean up at the Independent Spirit Awards. And then there’s the movie I lost my heart to, Her, sitting down there below like a loser, when in truth it moved me as much as anything else I’d seen this year. Ditto Lone Survivor, a you-are-there, war is hell cry of a movie, much better than its pandering first trailer suggested it could ever be. Captain Phillips? Well, seeing that disappear from my top ten gave me palpitations like Tom Hanks in the film’s final coda of shock and bewilderment. And then there was The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s polarizing—both loved and reviled—pitch black crime and punishment epic. And I could go on about The Conjuring, a first-class piece of cinema and sterling example of an instant genre classic…but let’s get to this year’s winners, shall we, before I have another change of heart?
1. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s masters of the universe epic of stockbroker scam-artist Jordan Belfort’s rise to the top of the financial world, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio’s possessed, career high performance, all manic gusto, surrounded by a cavalcade of hookers, cocaine and boys club debauchery. In a brazen picture, we’re asked to look at engaging stars behaving very badly (including Jonah Hill as Leo’s partner in crime) with other peoples’ money, gleefully huckstering and swaggering for nearly three hours, an indictment of the 1% takers who tanked the American economy. They’re cocks of the proverbial walk, minus penance—in as bold an American movie as seen in decades.
2. 12 Years a Slave – In Steve McQueen’s masterful achievement and the first true slavery epic in American film history, Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northrup, a free northerner kidnapped into slavery circa 1841, only to undergo unspeakable abominations at the hands of a barbaric, zealot slave owner played by Michael Fassbender. In a movie about the survival of the human spirit and retention of personal identity in the abyss, featuring nearly unbearable scenes of degradation (all true) and tiny moments of compassion, Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, as a doomed slave who becomes a pawn between Fassbender and venomous wife Sarah Paulson, give the film stoicism and heart. As an American tragedy writ large and angry cry for re-examination of our cultural identity and history, 12 Years a Slave is 2013’s best drama.
3. American Hustle – Pure razzle-dazzle, American Hustle is as grand a time as one can have at the movies, a story of survival—the preeminent theme in American films this year—amongst con-men, a fictional quartet of grifters who blow the lid off the real-life 1978 ABSCAM bribery scandal. As written by David O. Russell with a seamless blend of comedy, drama and the con, tonally deft and confidently styled, Christian Bale and an eye-opening Amy Adams are small time crooks duped by an ambitious FBI agent, Bradley Cooper, into busting a much larger fish. Loyalty to the con—and love—is tested in the triangle, and Jennifer Lawrence acts everyone off the screen as Bale’s blowsy, too talkative and underestimated wife turned mafia moll. Sheer entertainment, impeccably dressed, coiffed, period-mounted and performed. With The Fighter, it may be Russell’s best picture.
4. What Maisie Knew – As a critique of neglectful parenting and a hopeful plea for the nontraditional family, What Maisie Knew gave us two monstrously selfish, divorcing Manhattan parents—a fading rock star (Julianne Moore, miraculously garnering empathy in a toxic role) and a selfish art dealer (Steve Coogan), abandoning their tiny daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), to mere acquaintances, a kind hearted bartender (Alexander Skarsgaard) and nanny (Joanna Vanderham), inadvertently stuck in the middle of it all but with the ability to care for the child, and perhaps each other. Based on a Henry James story and nearly Dickensian in its view of a child alone in a cruel city, What Maisie Knew, ultimately, was the difference between her parents genes and the real love of her new caregivers, an important message in a film of utmost tenderness, at times recalling the disintegrations of Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon.
5. Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is flat-out his best movie in a decade or more, like The Wolf of Wall Street a rebuke of greed and Wall Street swindlers, telling the Ruth Madoff-esque tale of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, a Park Avenue trophy wife to a crooked Alec Baldwin, who enjoys lavish vacations, multiple homes, the finest of jewels—until his fall into prison and worse, after which she must reinvent her life. But how? Untethered, she suffers a mental break and moves in with a working class sister, played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins, but she is ill equipped to get on with life, unable to let go of her allusions and adrift from any semblance of a real identity. In a portrait of darkness visible etched by Blanchett with razor’s edge precision, a tight rope of comedy and pathos, an unsympathetic woman played with great compassion, the actress delivers the year’s best performance in film, in a movie indictment of a world Allen has so often called home. Blue Jasmine is his stunning reprisal of a conscience-less ruling class, and Allen pins his brittle anti-heroine to the wall—an obtuse victim of her own grandiosity and denial, unable to come down to reality, dying on the vine.
6. Blue is the Warmest Color – A full descent into the mad passion of love as only the French can deliver, Blue is the Warmest Color—the year’s best love story—is a miraculous thing of beauty. At three hours, director Abdellatif Kechiche pushed young actresses Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux to their physical and emotional limits, and unlocked scenes so grandly passionate, the highs and lows of love over nearly a decade in his characters’ lives, that the picture becomes a transcendent epic of heartbreak. It’s a sprawling tale about identity, where a working class teen (Exarchopolous) falls for a more cultured, older artist (Seydoux). Initially, the pair engages in an deep, mutual union, but the axiom says that all first love must end in despair; the women grow up, and apart. When the break comes, the torrent of emotions unleashed—some intense moments were performed in over a hundred, on-set takes—is like a seasonal change, a force of nature in the film that, like its young protagonist, throws us right into a maelstrom. It’s an extraordinarily affecting film of innocence lost, and the actresses were rightfully coronated with the 2013 Palm D’Or at Cannes, along with their director. One of the great films about love, and nonsense accusations about the “male (directorial) gaze” on his lovely actresses during their lengthy loves scenes should be dismissed.
7. Disconnect – An early year sleeper of unusual social relevance, Disconnect weaves several seemingly unrelated stories together, each tied to the theme of our reliance on technology and its destructive force on the modern family, marriage and teenager. In perhaps the most timely and relevant screenplay this year, director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern produce a Gordian knot of characters addicted to technology, then tie it so tightly as to corner each—Jason Bateman is a father whose withdrawn teen son is duped into a suicide attempt by a social networking bully; Alexander Skarsgaard and Paul Patton a depressed couple, finances cleaned out after her dalliance with an online suitor; Andrea Riseborough an ambitious TV reporter cozying up to an online, teen sex trade worker, played by Max Thieriot; Frank Grillo the distant father of a teenaged boy who holds the key to part of the crisis. Bateman and Riseborough are criminally overlooked this awards season, but I’ve sent over a hundred folks to see this little film and nearly a year later, it is still being discussed. One of the year’s strongest dramas.
8. Gravity – The year’s supreme technical achievement, director Alfonso Cuaron’s herculean creation, a film of simple emotions and awe-inspiring aural and visual sophistication, found a melancholy Sandra Bullock, never better, as an astronaut stranded in space after her crew and hardware were destroyed. Nursing a recent personal tragedy and conflicted about her own will to survive, she faces incredible obstacles (the internal ones are the most compelling) in her efforts to get back to Earth. From debris field showers to a spectacular re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and with one likable actress carrying the film on her shoulders, the visionary experience Cuaron has created is the most vividly immediate and transporting film of the year—you’ve never seen anything like it, ever, and in 3D the impact of Gravity is humbling. Unmissable.
9. At Any Price – The most egregiously overlooked picture of 2013 is a heartland morality tale starring Dennis Quaid as a Midwestern, once king farmer losing his grip—competitors and genetically engineered crops, as well as two wayward sons, threaten his professional and personal livelihoods. Quaid, the perpetually unsung great American actor, turns in a performance of near Greek tragedy proportions while his small town reputation dwindles and his sons display no interest in carrying on the family legacy, or relationships with him. Zac Efron plays the younger son, a fledgling stock car driver with recesses of anger, and Kim Dickens is the wife who sees more than we suspect. Two moral dilemmas present themselves as tests of character, and Quaid impressively wrestles with both. Heather Graham is a lonely woman with nothing to lose, sleeping with both father and son, and the superbly rendered location—shot in downstate Illinois by director Ramin Bahrani—presents the heartland as a place of intense competition for business, diminished loyalties and the antitheses of neighborly hospitality.
10. Prisoners – At once a mystery, character study, examination of vigilantism and cold stare into the face of evil, Prisoners is a difficult experience—harrowing in its depiction of a Thanksgiving Day, dual child kidnapping that devastates two sets of parents (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), provocative in their individual responses to the crises and illustrative of how such events can split a family apart. What do you do, the film asks, when what you love most is gone and no one can help you? How do you bear it? Overall, a beautifully made film courtesy of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, who create a dark, gray, murky world of rising dread in the working class Pennsylvania milieu, while Aaron Guzikowski’s marvelously layered screenplay keeps us guessing—to the ends the frustrated parents will go for justice, if their suspect and captive (Paul Dano) is guilty, and whether a lone wolf cop with baggage (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal) will find the children, and redemption. The expansive running time, just short of three hours, deconstructs a frightening cabal of small town depravity and dwindling hope.
And in no particular order, the too-close-to-call runners up:
The Counselor, for everything it does so wickedly good, starting with Cameron Diaz’ black-hearted villainess to Cormac McCarthy’s literate monologues on crime and punishment, to the top-notch cinematography and score, and for Ridley Scott’s guts in presenting a misanthropic world view right to the deus ex machina, lockstep finale.
Short-Term 12, for Brie Larson’s intense work as an aide in a teen foster care facility working through her own issues, and its important subject of teenagers in trauma, crying out, sometimes silently, to be heard.
Inside Llewyn Davis, for its lovingly rendered time, place and star-making performance from Oscar Isaac.
Her, for its tender ruminations on the nature of love and commitment, and starkly beautiful vision of a near future where anything, it seems, is possible.
Lone Survivor, for its intensity and realism in its battle sequences, and for director Peter Berg allowing his characters be real, confused and imperfect in the fog of war.
Captain Phillips, for Paul Greengrass’ hallmark precision, and for Tom Hanks’ overwhelming denouement, something no one has done onscreen, in such a way, before.
Saving Mr. Banks, for Emma Thompson’s meticulous, mannered, funny, commanding turn, and for its art and life coalescence in the gorgeous final reconcilitation.
Dallas Buyers Club, for the trio of pitch-perfect performances from a heroic Matthew McConaughey, a tragic Jared Leto and an overlooked Jennifer Garner, portraying goodness, the most difficult thing to reveal onscreen, with such integrity.
Before Midnight, for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s fierce commitments to their signature characters of Jesse and Celine, two people we have come to know and love, and see ourselves in more each time they appear.
Mud, for Jeff Nichols’ lyrical evocation of the fading Mississippi riverbank life and its impact on the formation of two penniless, idealistic young boys, and Matthew McConaughey, who makes a depressed teen, beautifully played by Tye Sheridan, believe in love again.
All is Lost, for Robert Redford’s extraordinarily resourceful piece of acting, alone, on the sea, without dialogue; it wasn’t a gimmick, but a work of great imagination on his part, and for J.C. Chandor, who steered the ship.
The Spectacular Now, for Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as appealing a teen couple as the movies will ever see; you can bank on that.
Rush, for Daniel Bruhl’s fearless performance as sometimes unlikable Formula One racer Niki Lauda, and for Ron Howard and Anthony Dod Mantle’s gorgeous mounting of an era, expertly recreated both on an off the track.
The Conjuring, for James Wan’s superb classy, expert understanding of genre, comprehensive exploration of the dark and our primal fears, seamless combination of suggestive restraint and Grand Guignol third act, and for Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga pulling out the stops, and the rug from us.
The Great Gatsby, for Leonardo DiCaprio’s other indelible performance this year, an unabashedly emotional freefall, for young Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki’s ingenious work as a leggy flapper and showman Baz Luhrmann’s oh-so-beautiful mounting of, among his many visions here, a shimmering, art deco Times Square.
Starbuck, for Patrick Huard’s gentle manner in each and every scene, a movie sold as a broad comedy but one that happened to be immensely thoughtful, skillfully sidestepping the maudlin in favor of real character moments.
Side Effects, for the flawless style and direction by Steven Soderbergh, echoing Repulsion, featuring Rooney Mara as a chilling femme fatale ensnared in her own lies and prescription cocktails, Channing Tatum caught in her web and Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones one-upping each other with relish.
Beyond the Hills, for its astonishing examination of personal identity and its reconciliation with faith, and the brave performances of actresses Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.
The Way Way Back, for its warmth in telling a summer by the seaside coming of age story with real humor, courtesy of Alison Janney, and real heart, thanks to the great Sam Rockwell, who deserves a nod on January 16.
Upstream Color, for its complete originality and confirmation that there are still singular and original, independent voices working in American movies, and for writer-director-star Shane Carruth’s leaps of narrative and aesthetic faith.
Philomena, for the perfect pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, unlikely partners for a deep movie about a simple person of dignity and faith, played to perfection by Dench.
Frances Ha, for Greta Gerwig. And Noah Baumbach. What a gift. That is all.
The East, for the dynamic pairing of writers and partners Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and for Marling’s performance as an undercover agent turned radical, eyes opened; let’s hope the pair continues making intelligent, original films.
Blackfish, for exposing something shameful, sordid and completely under the radar screen – yet will be no more.