In the admittedly short time I’ve been reviewing movies, I don’t think I’ve seen a year as good as 2013. It may not have had as many standout films as 2010 (which graced us with “Black Swan,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception” and “The Social Network,” among others), but the year as a whole was more consistently entertaining. From big Hollywood endeavors to small indie films, movie after movie showed us how much incredible talent is out there today. While some movies left audiences divided (including a few on this list), many were so good that it would be difficult for someone to argue against them. I suppose it all boils down to opinion in the end, but these are what I consider to be the absolute best films of 2013.
Honorable Mentions: Dallas Buyers Club, Ender’s Game, Mud, Saving Mr. Banks, Short Term 12
10) Gravity—“Gravity” has received a lot of support this year, from both filmgoers and movie critics alike, and it’s easy to see why. Its stunning visual splendor was unrivaled, the action was tense and exciting and the performances were top notch. This was an action spectacle that stood head and shoulders above its competition. But that was the problem: it was merely a spectacle. The meaning and thematic complexities that are so prevalent in the best science fiction films were completely missing. Its metaphors were thin, its story even thinner and the events that encompassed them were ludicrous. It certainly doesn’t deserve to stand beside some of the best cinematic genre offerings like “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some of the more hyperbolic among us have stated. Nevertheless, there’s no denying its effectiveness. As I watched the characters float around helplessly, with nothing surrounding them but the dark vacuum of space and spacesuits that were quickly running out of air, I realized I had been taking my wonderful inhalations of oxygen for granted my entire life. Never before has a movie made me feel this way. The things you’ll see in “Gravity,” from the soundless explosions to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet debris to the harrowing space leaps where the odds of survival are about one in a million, are a sight to behold. As things get more stressful and increasingly hopeless, your heart will be pounding so fast, you’ll question the strength of your bosom and hope it can contain it from escaping like a chestburster from “Alien.” These moments are flawless and offer up some of the most frightening beauty of the year. If any criticisms can be thrust upon it, it would be that the film doesn’t follow through on its bleak premise, offering up a typical heroic Hollywood ending. Even more egregiously, a specific last act scene shows the film’s desperation by taking a single plot device, one used by countless other movies that have no clue how to give their protagonist the motivation to go on, and turning itself from a wholly gripping movie into something that is, quite frankly, kind of silly. Yet “Gravity” is still impressive enough that even with those two major reservations I have, it still earns a spot on this list. Considering the excellent slate of films we were treated to this year, that’s really saying something.
9) About Time—We all wish we could go back in time. Remember that time you said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings? Or that time you stumbled over your words while talking to the prettiest girl you’ve ever met? Or when tragedy struck a friend or family member? What if you could go back and do it all again, changing those moments for the better? That’s the premise behind my next pick, “About Time,” the latest film from Richard Curtis, the writer and director of 2003’s romance hit, “Love Actually.” What’s explored here isn’t exactly new ground, but the way it’s handled is positively exquisite. The story is simple: Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has just turned 21 and his gift from his father (Bill Nighy) is the revelation that he can actually travel through time, but only to the past and to experiences he has lived through, thus allowing him to change situations in his favor. The story that follows is one of both utter joy and inescapable sadness. It’s one that explores the craziness of life and the hopelessness that one finds when they realize that some things simply can’t be changed. Even with this power, Tim finds that when one thing is fixed, another is broken. It’s a movie that acknowledges that life is messy and it sometimes isn’t going to play out the way you want it to, but it also stops to see its beauty. Throughout his time twisting journey, Tim realizes that happiness isn’t in fixing life’s stumbles, but in embracing them. But perhaps more than anything, he learns that the true key to happiness is simply in living and not taking for granted this wonderful and magical ride we’ve all been granted, in noticing the little things and not letting precious moments pass you by. “About Time” is admittedly a little rough around the edges, but those rough edges are minor when compared to the joy that encompasses them. This film is relatable to anyone who has ever made a mistake they wish they could fix, anyone who stumbled over their words when trying to explain to their crush how much they cared for them and anyone who has lived through life’s sad inevitabilities. “About Time” may be too sentimental for some to handle, but the romantically inclined won’t want to miss it.
8) Man of Steel—Aside from the Batman movies, DC Comics hasn’t reinvigorated one of their superheroes at the movies in a long time, despite a solid and underrated effort by Bryan Singer with 2006’s “Superman Returns.” “Man of Steel,” despite some not-too-surprising detractors, is exactly what DC needed. While it is by no means perfect, it reinvigorates Superman with some much needed style and defies the expectations most people have of him. Superman exists as a Christ-like figure, one that is willing to put himself in danger to protect the people of the world. Just as the story of Jesus shows his selflessness, the morals of Superman is one that values others above anything else. To attack Superman is mostly frivolous given his lack of weaknesses, but it’s not attacking him that causes him pain. To really hurt him, you have to attack his humanity and put others in danger. Perhaps more than any other Superman movie, “Man of Steel” understands this. Sometimes the Biblical allegory is a bit too on-the-nose, particularly when he floats outside of a crashing spaceship with his arms stretched out in the shape of a crucifix to save a falling Lois Lane, but it makes it no less interesting. In these ways and more, “Man of Steel” is more of a character study than an action movie, which may not appeal to some. Tack on a slow beginning (despite the most glorious and beautiful destruction of Krypton ever put to screen) and a nearly two and a half hour runtime and divisiveness is to be expected. But in my eyes, “Man of Steel” is a sight to behold and it isn’t until you think about it later that its true wonder shines through.
7) Captain Phillips—Movie ideas seem to come in pairs. “Antz” and “A Bug’s Life.” “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano.” “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact.” The list goes on. This year’s idea double down came in the form of “Captain Phillips” and the Danish film, “A Hijacking.” The latter barely registered on cinema radars, despite being a solid film that is absolutely worth seeing. But for sheer heart pounding tension, it doesn’t come close to matching “Captain Phillips,” a terrifying based-on-a-true-story film about a ship hijacked by Somalian pirates in 2009. While “A Hijacking” pulled you away from the boat to deal with the negotiations back at the company’s headquarters, “Captain Phillips” doesn’t sway its focus, opting instead to keep you locked on that ship with nowhere to escape. What proceeds is a string of mind games, the Somalian pirates using fear tactics to get the Captain and his crew to give into their demands and the Americans trying to convince them that what they’re doing isn’t worth it. Tom Hanks gives a marvelous performance in the title role, perhaps one of the best he’s ever given. If the actual crew is to be believed, the real Captain Phillips isn’t portrayed in a fair manner (and it was actually his own stubbornness that brought about the hijacking in the first place), but luckily, it hardly matters when judging the movie as a whole. Here, he’s harsh and demanding of his crew, but when push comes to shove, he’s protective and does everything he can to keep them safe, even if that means placing himself in further danger. Director Paul Greengrass, the man behind the second and third Bourne movies, loves to utilize shaky cam in his cinematic endeavors, a nauseating tactic that detracts from the experience far more than it adds, but this movie plays to his strengths. Boats aren’t stable and a gentle rocking back and forth is expected, so it’s less of a distraction here and instead effectively works to place you on that boat alongside Phillips and his crew. If you can see “A Hijacking,” do so, but be absolutely sure you don’t miss out on “Captain Phillips.”
6) Oblivion—The year is 2077, five years after a mandatory memory wipe, and the Earth has been ravaged. Years ago, a mysterious enemy called the Scavengers destroyed the moon and attacked Earth, so mankind did the only thing it could to win the war: it nuked itself. This, along with the changing weather patterns from the now destroyed moon, made the planet practically unlivable. Now, all remaining humans have evacuated to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Only a couple people remain back on Earth, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and their job is to extract whatever remaining resources it has left. However, after a shuttle crash lands on the planet with a beautiful woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) in it, the very same woman Jack keeps having flashbacks of, they discover things aren’t as they seem. That’s the premise of “Oblivion,” the absolute smartest science fiction movie of the year. While its detractors are quick to point out its genre clichés—and indeed, each twist is taken directly out of the big book of science fiction plot conventions—they’re neglecting to mention the sense of discovery and the careful thematic unraveling the film so beautifully handles. What makes “Oblivion” feel so fresh even in the face of these sci-fi clichés is the way they’re used, not because they simply fit the conventions of a science fiction story, but because they’re necessary to flesh out the meaning behind the picture. Like many of the most beloved sci-fi classics that came before, the film is about the human condition, not about dumbed down destruction and chaos. It explores the beauty of existence and the necessity to preserve it. It explores the importance of identity and the need to hold onto the memories that define us. It explores the meaning of life and death, intertwining them in a beautiful finale that gives purpose to both. Despite a few minor stumbles, including an uncharacteristically sappy final shot that doesn’t necessarily fit with the sadness and desperation that came before it, “Oblivion” is a beautifully shot and thought provoking movie.
5) 12 Years a Slave—If you ask me, those who judge movies based solely on their entertainment value approach cinema incorrectly. Some movies don’t intend to be entertaining. They shoot for something a little deeper, a little more emotional and can act as a reminder that, even with much of the hateful discourse that still pervades our society, we weren’t always so civil. “12 Years a Slave” is one of those films. It’s easily the most uncomfortable movie of the year, but a movie about one of the darkest times in America’s history should be. Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, the film follows Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in an Oscar worthy performance, a free black man who suddenly finds himself kidnapped and forced to work as a slave. While it would certainly be a jump to claim the film makes you know what it feels like to be a slave (I imagine the feeling is indescribable), “12 Years a Slave” portrays it so grimly and, one must assume, accurately, that it’s about as close as a movie is likely to get. Part of this is due to director Steve McQueen, who pulls no punches and opts to shoot in long takes during the film’s most wrenching scenes. By refusing to cut the camera during hangings and floggings, he effectively places you in the scene where you become a witness to every single blow and, just like the rest of the slaves standing around forced to watch, you’re unable to do anything to stop it. “12 Years a Slave” is a powerful film, one that is practically guaranteed to receive many Oscar nominations and wins and though one could argue it’s lacking subtlety, its in-your-face pervasiveness does exactly what it intends to: remind you of the hardships many endured during this disgraceful time. In this regard, “12 Years a Slave” is a smashing success.
4) Before Midnight—Rarely in the world of cinema does a romance come along and touch you in a way that can’t be explained. Even rarer does one relate to you or your ideas of a perfect love while still remaining grounded enough to avoid the fairy tale expectations society has associated with it. Director Richard Linklater’s enchanting 1995 film, “Before Sunrise,” managed to do both. It was a simple film, one where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend the night together strolling around Vienna and sharing stories about their lives, but it was nonetheless wonderful. The two characters connected not just on a physical level, but on intellectual, spiritual and emotional levels as well. The movie portrayed the type of magical night we all wish we could have, even if it is fleeting. Set in real time 18 years after the first film, the two are now married, but the honeymoon is over. If the previous two movies explored the love that can form between two people, “Before Midnight” is about the potential destruction of it. It answers the question that cynics wonder and romantics try to avoid at the end of a romance: what happens after the movie ends? Over time and in real life, the bond that was so strong before begins to weaken and it’s only natural for someone to wonder if they really love this person anymore. This movie explores that in-depth and, though it isn’t always pleasant, it’s always truthful. The pent-up frustration Jesse and Celine have been carrying around all come bubbling to the surface and hurtful things are said, things that threaten to end a relationship that looked so perfect all those years ago. But hidden within the fighting are philosophical themes that contemplate life, love, the inescapableness of time and the finite nature of all things. At one point, Jesse and Celine both realize that they’re getting old, perhaps closer to their deaths than their births, and such a notion puts things into perspective. Have they lived their lives the best they can? Have they done all they can to care for their children? Are they really happy with each other or has their attempt to recapture the feeling they felt that night in Vienna all those years ago fooled themselves into thinking they are? Much like the previous movies, there’s no clear answer (only another sequel will be able to shed some light), ending with a scene that feels hopeful, but not definite. “Before Midnight” rounds out one of the greatest romance trilogies ever (perhaps by default—romance trilogies aren’t exactly common). You’d be doing a disservice to yourself if you missed this one, but make sure you see “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” first.
3) Monsters University—It’s understandable if faith in the previously untouchable Pixar began to wane after the lackluster “Brave” and 2011’s “Cars 2,” the only Pixar movie to ever receive a negative critical reaction, but that faith should realign itself after seeing “Monsters University,” a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child’s imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship. The film works as a prequel to Monsters Inc., as young Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) heads off to college with aspirations of becoming a scarer. Naturally, his short stature and goofy demeanor hold him back, but he’s nevertheless determined. This set-up is how the film manages to be as insightful as it is. As we know from Monsters Inc., Mike’s dream doesn’t come true. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined. It’s a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the “you can be whatever you want to be” message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you had planned, it’s ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths. “Monsters University” was much loved by the critic community, but it wasn’t fully understood or appreciated by them, most failing to touch on its themes (and giving the pleasant, but intellectually empty “Frozen” more love). Don’t make the same mistake they did. “Monsters University” is an absolute treasure.
2) The Broken Circle Breakdown—It’s rare for a movie to encompass every theme and idea you’re interested in. Even movies that touch on them usually deviate in a way that is going to leave those initially interested viewers in the cold. “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” however, nails it. It’s not just something that feels like it’s tailored directly to me, but it feels like something I would have made myself if given the opportunity. For starters, it understands the spirituality of the universe and, in relation to the fear of death, brings hope in the light of a star by hypothesizing that if the universe truly goes on forever, that star will never die because its light, long after its death, will too travel forever. It’s a beautiful sentiment, one that is used to give hope to a young girl dying of cancer. One heartbreaking scene occurs early on when a bird flies into the family’s terranda (their clever mix of a terrace and a veranda). The little girl picks the bird up and starts crying uncontrollably. Although she is never explicitly told she is going to die, you sense that she knows. Deep down, she knows that she’s going to end up like that bird and she is scared of the potential nothingness that could follow. Naturally coinciding with such thoughtful discussions on death is religion, which this movie also explores from both points of view. The mother so badly wants to see her daughter again that she clings to her faith to help her through her days while the father, being an atheist, believes that it’s simply over and the girl is gone forever. Late movie words suggest that deep within him, he wants to believe—after all, who doesn’t—but he just can’t fight the doubt. Adding another layer of complexity to this theme is that the mother and father are in a bluegrass group, a genre of music that is deeply rooted in faith, which makes the songs not just beautiful, but thematically meaningful as well. It even discusses politics and the role of religion in them, in the way that they are impeding both intellectual and scientific progress. I know “The Broken Circle Breakdown” might sound heavy, and it is, but it’s also a thought provoking, memorable, profound and deeply moving movie that deserves to be seen.
1) Her—When it comes to full length directorial efforts, Spike Jonze can do no wrong. With only three previous films under his belt over a career that has spanned over two decades, it might be easy for one to assume that he doesn’t have “it,” that elusive spirit and wherewithal to really go for it and do something different. But when you think back to those three movies, the meta films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and the wonderfully imaginative and heartfelt “Where the Wild Things Are,” you realize nothing could be further from the truth. Like that 2009 marvel, his latest, the futuristic sci-fi romance, “Her,” is another film of unrivaled excellence, one that taps into ideas and themes in the way only the mind of Mr. Jonze can. Set in a not-too-distant future, the movie follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), an increasingly lonely man whose wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has left him. Still clinging onto a relationship that has clearly ended, he refuses to sign their divorce papers. One day, in a desperate attempt to alleviate his loneliness, he decides to purchase an operating system that he can install and speak to, whom he calls Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As the two speak, he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she’s nothing more than a computerized voice. She begins to reciprocate those feelings and finds in her a desire to be alive, which is obviously something she’ll never be able to obtain. In a nutshell, “Her” understands that being alive isn’t simply in existing, but in the interactions with other people and the love that grows from those relationships. It questions, if we don’t have someone to care about or that cares for us, are we really alive? But within all this thematic exploration is a human story about love and its messy existence. Even this so-called “perfect love,” the one that is programmed to say and be everything Theo could ever want and need, proves to be fleeting. What happens is something of profound sadness, though it nevertheless ends on a hopeful note, Theo having finally recaptured his humanity, even if it took a program to help him do it. “Her” is a movie that reminds us that to love and to be loved is to be alive. Through the heartbreaks and the crippling sadness that love sometimes brings, it remains the sole reason to be alive in the first place. Sappy though it sounds, “Her” approaches it in a way that can only be described as divine. Nobody should miss this movie. It is hands down the best film of 2013.