Critic’s Picks: Top Films of 2013


Rounding off an Amazing Year of Movies…

I can’t remember a year of movies this good, or a year where so many of them piled on each other’s backs during the final Oscar season push. But I also can’t remember a year of movies where the cinematic, theater-going experience became so important, magical, and necessary. You might just point to Gravity’s grandiose vision of space, but that would discredit the nautically immersive All is Lost or the extravagant and glitzy The Great Gatsby. People who emphatically claim that television is the thriving medium in today’s small screen world, clearly missed out on many films’ large-screen rebuttals.

If I were to thematically categorize, and naturally generalize, the year in movies, it might look something like this. The spring forwarded the “American” pursuit of wealth and luxury, characters focused on desiring and pursuing totems of opulence, their fair share and shake at living the “good life” (Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Bling Ring). Blockbusters, of course, dominated the summer. There came a variety of impending apocalypses and notably many financial ones the major studios had ironically also inherited (The Lone Ranger, After Earth). JJ Abrams destroyed London in his latest Star Trek, Zach Snyder made Superman messiah while crucifying Metropolis in Man of Steel, while tag-team Marc Forster and Brad Pitt, and later Guillermo del Torro, practically tore apart the earth with zombies and water monster Kaijus in World War Z and Pacific Rim, respectively. Then it got serious quick. Autumn bred fantasies and realities of isolation and existential suffering. Gravity, Captain Phillips, 12 Years a Slave, and All is Lost headlined graphically and morally churning pictures of perseverance and drama.

But if I could succinctly package and define this year, its tagline would be indebted to “Year of the Documentary.” I’ve gotten the chance to interview two of the five directors whose films are nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars (Joshua Oppenheimer and Zachary Heinzerling). I’ve also seen some staggering and innovative explorations that in many ways transcended the documentary form. For these I have created my own list, because comparisons between narrative and documentary are both challenging and unjust.

This list is late. I know. It’s nearly February, and January releases have already begun to be thrown into the “forgotten” bin by now. But as someone desiring to provide an honest and personal account of their favorite films from 2013, there is not nearly enough time to see, write, and read about them all before midnight, December 31st, or even into mid-January.

Part of the reason is because, as the New York Times duly notes, there were over 900 films released for a theatrical run this year. I saw exactly ten percent of that figure this year, an all-time high in my critic’s log. So, as is typically the case, I have shrunk that number even more, a nearly impossible task, to express the films that moved and spoke to me the most. The Oscars are still over a month away. Approach these selections as subjective inclinations, worthy advice, and opportunities, for first or multiple viewings. Enjoy.


1. 12 Years A Slave: Steve McQueen brings a morally and aesthetically wrenching depiction of free-man-turned-slave Solomon Northup. Some might ridicule his portrait as exceptional and overwrought with hyper-realistic violence. To me, it’s the most authentic and dedicated depiction of American slavery to which the movies have laid claim, humbling and inspiring.


2. Her: Spike Jonze continues to display his unique, detail-oriented visual style with a story so resonant and reflective. Theodore Twomby’s love affair with his computer’s operating system is a creative and deceptive meditation on technology and its emotional potential.


3. Inside Llewyn Davis: Sure, the Coen Brothers may be charged for inducing a heavy dose of melancholy into your life. But only they could do it so charmingly. Oscar Isaac beautifully embodies a struggling folk singer beneath the winter chill and dissatisfied studios. The music, produced by T Bone Burnett, will transport you to 1960s Greenwhich Village in such calm, smooth strokes.


4. Gravity: Probably the cinematic experience of the year. But beyond Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning visuals and innovative approach to depicting space, lies a particularly personal journey. Sandra Bullock echoes Sigourney Weaver’s crew cut but becomes a more vulnerable astronaut whose battle with survival becomes a less a physical journey, and more mental and spiritual one.


5. Nebraska: The black and white. The small town community. The Midwest. Director Alexander Payne again proves his mastery in accurately and caringly depicting the sensibilities of his characters and locations. He also understands the intricacies and complexities that emerge within a family, or a tight-knit Nebraskan community.


6. Blue is the Warmest Color: I didn’t review this film from director Abdellatif Kechiche, but its reputation has probably preceded it. Yet, it’s a mostly unfair one. Yes, there are long extended scenes of lesbian sex. But beyond these intimate bedroom sequences is a beautifully captured romantic journey between Adele (an amazing Adèle Exarchopoulos ) and Emma, whose drama hinges more importantly on school, food, literature, and other French pleasures of life.


7. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass has filmed another immersive and engaging thriller centering on the disparate lifestyles of Somali pirates and an American cargo ship captain. These two overlap in the Indian Ocean, reinterpreting real-life events. The hijacking and ultimate rescue feels less like a patriotic spin, and more a geo-political critique on international affairs and the inherent, systemic sources of power.


8. Rush: Overlooked by Mr. Oscar, Ron Howard’s portrait of the Formula-One racing world and rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is loud and magnetizing. Daniel Bruhl deserved an Academy nomination for his role as Lauda, intensifying the blistering reality of driving in the 1970s era of playboy looks and showmanship. I want more of this Howard, not the overly sentimental one.


9. Spring Breakers: One of the most provocative and insular looks at college debauchery and hypnotic youth culture. Harmony Korine gives a polarizing account of four girls who bus down to St. Petersberg for their Spring Break, in search of fun, in search of something more. James Franco is perfectly crazy, too.


10. Drinking Buddies: A low-budget indie, now streaming on Netflix, this Joe Swanberg romance is emblematic of the struggles and subtleties of relationships. It’s refreshing to hear dialogue in its imperfect, free-flowing form. More refreshing to find so much truth in the movie’s yuppie characters and daily struggles.

Honorable Mentions: Mud, In A World…, Frances Ha, American Hustle, All is Lost, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Frutivale Station, The Bling Ring, Fill The Void, This is the End, The East

Top 5 Documentaries:

1. 20 Feet From Stardom

2. Stories We Tell

3. Cutie and the Boxer

4. The Act of Killing

5. Blackfish


2 responses to “Critic’s Picks: Top Films of 2013

  1. I just caught up with Drinking Buddies over the weekend, and I really enjoyed it. It was interesting to learn that all the dialogue was improvised around just a basic story. Glad to see that it made your list. I also was a big fan of Stories We Tell, so it’s cool that it made your documentaries group. I’m planning to watch 20 Feet from Stardom tonight; it sounds like I may be in for something great.

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