2013 was kind of an amazing year for movies.
It didn’t seem that way at first glance, but as I was taking a look back and compiling would-be entries for this article, it really hit me just how many great movies came out this year. Granted, there were several films I was anticipating that I haven’t gotten a chance to see (such as “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Her” and “Short Term 12”), but overall, I’m very happy with the list I’ve assembled. As always, any list like this is extremely subjective and not all of these movies are “Oscar worthy,” but hey, opinions, man. Feel free to drop me a line with your disagreements, as well as list of your own.
10. “FROM UP ON POPPY HILL”
This one was unexpected. I only saw it thanks to it being a gift to my wife and I from some dear friends, but I’m exceptionally grateful I had the chance to watch it. At its core, “From Up On Poppy Hill” is a “boy meets girl” story with a twist, but it’s the delicacy with which Goro Miyazaki (son of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki) handles the lives of and relationship between Umi and Shun that this becomes something memorable and truly heartfelt. It’s a quiet, intimate film, the likes of which we don’t normally associate with animated fare, but that’s part of what makes this one feel so special.
9. “PACIFIC RIM”
I am under no illusions that this is a perfect movie. It has flaws — some of them glaring. But I don’t care. I love this movie. I love the energy it has, I love the way that Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham’s obvious love for kaiju movies and giant robot anime is on full display here. In my review, I remarked that this was Del Toro’s “Star Wars,” an assessment I still fully stand behind. It is a loving tribute to the genres and archetypes that enamored Del Toro as a young film fan, and that love comes across so fully in a film that is bursting with personality and fun. No other movie this year made me grin with delight the way that “Pacific Rim” did.
Is there another movie this year that proved just how unique the theater-going experience can be than Alfonso Cuaron’s latest? I submit to you there was not. This is bravado filmmaking at its finest, a piece of work that manages to provide a thrilling, white-knuckle spectacle while rooting it all in solid characterization. “Gravity” is a film can be seen in other formats and locations, but to be fully experienced the way its creator intended one must be seated in a darkened theater.
7. “ALL IS LOST”
“Gravity” may be the more thrilling and technologically astonishing minimalist film from 2013, but the collaboration between Robert Redford and director J.C. Chandor was the one that left me more feeling like there was more to chew on. There’s something remarkable in watching not only how Chandor keeps things moving despite so little happening, but how captivating Redford is with a performance that is largely physical (he only has about 12 lines of dialogue). Redford has made a career out of engaging performances, but this is something that could really only have been accomplished at this stage of his career. It’s outstanding stuff and marks Chandor as one to absolutely keep an eye on in the future.
6. “BLUE JASMINE”
Age means nothing. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese (check back later in the list for more on him) proved this beyond any doubt in 2013. Allen is, undoubtedly, hit-or-miss when it comes to his output, but when he hits, we get material like “Blue Jasmine.” It’s one Allen’s best films in years thanks to his directorial stamp, but also in large part to the stunning performance by Cate Blanchett as the titular Jasmine. She is a selfish, self-destructive, massively unlikable character and Blanchett does career-best work as she weaves her into a character worthy of sympathy and pathos. There’s no denying that “Blue Jasmine” is a massive downer of a movie (that final shot is about as bleak as it gets), but that it’s one of the year’s best, most compelling movies is further proof of the geniuses at work here.
5. “The Grandmaster”
A beautiful, poetic (and surprisingly sad) film, leave it to Wong Kar-Wai to deliver an insightful film about one of the greatest names in martial arts history. With some stunning cinematography and a wonderfully internalized lead performance by Tony Leung, Wai gives us an intriguing portrait of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man. Plenty of films have been made about Ip Man, but none of them have ever felt so gorgeously and thoughtfully constructed as this. There is a longer cut out there than what North American theaters received, which apparently enhances the film a great deal, but as it stands, this was a film that lingered in my mind for quite some time after first viewing and I can’t wait to experience it again.
4. “Captain Phillips”
Even if the film surrounding him didn’t match his work, Tom Hanks’ performance alone would merit placing “Captain Phillips” on my year-end list. Hanks is one of the modern greats, and his work here is further evidence of why. He takes his work as the real life Capt. Richard Phillips to places I didn’t expect and have never seen in Hanks’ performance. It’s amazing work. Thankfully, director Paul Greengrass’ documentary-style direction is every bit as immersive and riveting as Hanks’ acting, resulting in one of the most intense film experiences of the year. This is a film that feels true to life, while also presenting us with tough questions about the reality that surrounds what we perceive to be barbaric acts.
3. “12 Years a Slave”
This is one of the year’s most essential films. Yes, the United States’ history has been depicted and addressed before in cinema, but never has it felt so unflinchingly real. Director Steve McQueen presents us with a story that is both harrowing and yet (at times) uplifting as we watch Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) go from freeman to slave and his monumental journey back to freedom. It is a difficult and often brutal film, but it is one that everyone should see. At the center of it all is Ejiofor as Solomon, a constant of grace, poise, stature and determination amid a living hell that is beyond what most of us could only ever dream of. I’m not sure I ever need or want to watch “12 Years a Slave” again, but I am so very glad I did the first time. A tremendous piece of filmmaking.
2. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
How in the world did a film this energetic, this stylish and this angry come from a 71-year-old director? It boggles the mind, honestly. This is a film that is going to (and already has) elicit no small amount of ire, mostly from people up in arms about the graphic, debauched content on full display. However, their anger is most likely misplaced. This isn’t a film that celebrates the likes of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio in a career-best performance), it’s one that is equally furious at irresponsible crooks like him and the system that allows his ilk to keep getting away with it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a knockout of a film, one that scoffs at the notion of pulling punches and goes full bore after its targets with a sharpness we rarely see in cinema. This is not a movie for everyone, not by a long shot. But it is without question one of the year’s most significant films.
1. “Before Midnight”
There’s nothing quite like Richard Linklater’s latest film. Sure, there are countless films that focus on a couple’s rocky marriage, but none of them carry the weight that the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) does. You see, the work of this director and his leads that began with “Before Sunrise” is part of the most engaging ongoing story in movie history. Every eight years, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy reunite to catch us up on how these two and their relationship have evolved. And what we receive, with “Before Midnight” in particular, is one of the most brutally honest portraits of how a relationship ebbs and flows and how the people at the center of it deal with the pressures and stresses of their lives. I’ve never seen a film that feels so genuine in not only how it addresses a relationship, but in how it depicts its characters. There is a true weight of experience and history that is found in the ongoing story of Jesse and Celine, and we are truly lucky to be able to watch as these three artists bring it to life. There are other films that were more thrilling, more visceral, more exciting than “Before Midnight,” but none of them felt so real. (One final note: while “Before Midnight” is approachable and accessible if you have not seen the previous two films, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” you will get so much more out of it if you have watched the others.)
So many of these films came so close to making it on this list, but alas, I only had 10 spots. They include: “Frozen,” “Rush,” “Riddick,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Fruitvale Station,” “The Wolverine,” “Pain & Gain,” “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel,” “Only God Forgives,” “You’re Next,” “The World’s End,” “Prisoners.”