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My 10 Favorite Films of 2013

image via Deadline.com

12 Years a Slave image via Deadline.com

Well, my goal to create a list of my favorite films of 2013 BEFORE the Oscar telecast on March 5th has finally been met. Many are touting ’13 as one of the more memorable years for film in recent memory, and I’d have to agree. As soon as the fall/winter awards season arrived, it seemed as if one interesting film after another was out every weekend. That’s the way it should be — it’s not called “awards season” for nothing — but 2013 was extra impressive.

Auteurs really made their mark. Directors like Scorsese, Allen, Jonze, Greengrass and Payne showed off why they’re so highly regarded as artists. It was a great year of some career-best performances from people like Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Matthew McConaughey and Michael Fassbender. Even Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor I normally tolerate, blew me away. It’s hard not to be in awe of the

image via sensesofcinema.com

The Act of Killing image via sensesofcinema.com

barrage of heartbreaking, hopeful, original, violent and gentle movies that came out last year.

I started with a “short list” of 21 films that really stood out to me, and I managed to whittle it down to ten. As I mentioned last year and the year before, these are strictly my favorites. I couldn’t possibly say these are the absolute best. I just love each of them for my own reasons. Personally, last year was probably the busiest of my life and I worried that I wouldn’t get to see all the films I wanted to before the Oscar telecast in March. However, I persevered and I covered all the bases pretty well. No need to call me a hero — I live to serve. Send donations.

Fair warning, there will inevitably be some spoilers ahead. I don’t think they’ll ruin anything for you, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t caution you anyway. And here… we… go!

  1. 12 Years a Slave – My favorite movie of 2012, Django Unchained, is a slave movie, and now here I am again. Slavery is where the similarities between the two films end, however. Where Django mixes brutality with glee, this is all brutality. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor undervalued for far too long, gives one of the top five performances of the year (three of the rest of the four are also in this movie — Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o; the fifth is Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine). Ejiofor portrays a man named Solomon Northrup, a free man who was abducted in 1841, stripped of his identity and sold into slavery. The title summarizes the story even more succinctly, but you have to experience his dozen years for yourself. It’s not easy. The abuses he and the other slaves endure are unforgivably horrific and the camera does not look away. Quite the opposite — it frequently lingers. Director Steve McQueen showed amazing promise with his first two features, Hunger and Shame, and I couldn’t wait for what he came up with next after watching the latter for the first time. Well, this is what he came up with: a terrifying true story that’s one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. Ever.
  2. The Act of Killing – Where my favorite film of the year portrays historical atrocities with fine actors, this close second turns the camera on the actual perpetrators of historical atrocities. It’s officially my favorite documentary ever made. Wholly original and bone chilling to watch, the stars of this nightmare are actual mass murderers. The men here were part of a group who raped, maimed, tortured and killed countless people in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. Now, here they are: old men who want to put together their own Hollywood-style movie to commemorate what they consider to be their vital role in their country’s history. They re-enact slaughters and interrogations, and they even add in creepy dream sequences that would give David Lynch nightmares. One disgusting slob even fondly reminisces about how much he liked to rape pre-pubescent girls. If you think you can manage the rage that’s sure to boil up inside you, give this film a chance. I don’t want to give away much more than that, but I will be vague and mention the ending. It left me as shaken and shocked as any movie ever has.
  3. Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen is one of my favorite filmmakers. It drives me crazy when people say he hasn’t made a movie in years that’s comparable to his earlier work. The past ten years of his career have been as impressive as any of the other decades in which he worked. Here’s yet another powerful, shocking, intelligent character study that is sure to stand the test of time along with ManhattanCrimes & MisdemeanorsHusbands & Wives and Match Point. Cate Blanchett gives her finest performance ever as a woman pushed to her mental brink. I might even go so far as to say it’s the best performance in an Allen film ever. No offense to Diane Keaton, Michael Caine or Dianne Wiest, but what Blanchett does in this movie is nothing short of perfect. If you’re normally not much of a fan of Woody’s movies, at least watch it for Andrew Dice Clay’s surprisingly amazing turn as her brother-in-law. No one but Woody saw that coming.
  4. The Hunt – Oh the power of rumor. It can ruin a life so quickly. As this film shows, a small town, an angelic child, and a few leading questions are all it takes to send a man’s life spiraling straight down into the bowels of Hell. This Danish drama stars Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher who’s suspected of molesting a young girl in his class. This film is not like Doubt — it’s not about whether or not he committed the crime (he didn’t), but about how quickly a misjudgment can compound into a witch hunt. News of the abuse spreads and he’s ostracized, even after he’s no longer a suspect of the police. It’s a scary look at how easily people can be manipulated. All they need is to hear something once before it becomes their absolute truth. That’s important to remember in life and a good reason why you should never want your future to be in the hands of a jury of your peers. Whether it’s court or the court of public opinion, it’s dangerous.
  5. Sightseers – I’d only seen one other Ben Wheatley film before this one. It’s called Kill List, and though I wasn’t enthralled by it, I found it provocative enough to check out what he had coming next. I’m so glad I did. This is a violent, dark and hilarious look at a severely dysfunctional couple who head out on a road trip (I think the Brits call it “caravanning,” but don’t quote me on that). They seem pleasant enough at first, but this guy has one hell of a temper. Innocent people suffer his unpredictable wrath, and his gal pal soon joins in on the homicidal fun. It’s graphic and shocking throughout, but I couldn’t stop laughing. The dry humor is just wonderful, and these two schlubby actors, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, would almost be adorable together if they weren’t so crazy.
  6. Her – Spike Jonze has always been a favorite of mine. In junior high/high school, his distinct style immediately resonated with me when I saw Being John Malkovich and AdaptationHer definitely has his stamp on it, but it lacks the awkward, cynical feel that the aforementioned films have. This one is sweet and moving and romantic. I’m the type who drifts more towards awkward and cynical, but this really impressed me. It’s about a man who falls into a love affair with his phone’s operating system. That story seems ripe for a snide satire about man’s continuing detachment from “real” life, but that’s not what Her is about. For a film about technology, it’s very human and emotional, due in great part to Joaquin Phoenix’s wonderful performance, as well as Scarlett Johansson’s stellar voiceover work. It doesn’t try to be hip or ironic. It’s just a love story. A really, really good one, too.
  7. Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks has been so good for so long that it’s easy to forget how good he is. I know the race for a Best Actor Oscar nomination was a crowded field, but the fact that Hanks didn’t get nominated this year for his portrayal of Richard Phillips is a crying shame. Most everyone remembers the true story: Somali pirates overtook the Maersk Alabama ship and then took the captain hostage in a lifeboat. It was harrowing to hear about on the news, and director Paul Greengrass does a great job of creating an almost unbearably tense two hours that’s faithful to the actual events. Even though I knew the final outcome before I watched the film, I still was sweating through the whole thing. It’s the most tense and suspenseful movie of the year.
  8. Prisoners – Speaking of tense and suspenseful, here’s a mystery/thriller that will also leave you reeling. I can barely believe I’m writing this, but Jake Gyllenhaal is spectacular as a cop investigating the disappearance of two young girls. Hugh Jackman is the father of one of the kids and he doesn’t think he has time to wait for the cops. I don’t want to give away any more than that because as dark and twisted as this movie is, piecing together the clues of the story is an absolute blast. It’s a whodunit crime film mixed with a tense family drama with a dash of psychological thriller thrown in for good measure. Director Denis Villeneuve balances all of this craziness to create one of the most disturbing — and fun — movies of the year.
  9. Mud – I don’t know what clicked in Matthew McConaughey’s brain a couple years ago, but the guy is really choosing some strong roles in strong movies by strong filmmakers. This one is from director Jeff Nichols, who has shown he’s adept at making smart films set in the south. Mud is his third film and it cements his status as a thoughtful writer/director who knows how to put interesting, subtle characters on screen. They’re never over-the-top, but they’re always unique. Case in point, the children in this movie are spectacular, and that’s coming from someone who hates child actors in general. The reason they’re so likable is they’re not stereotypes or overly precocious. They come across as real people, which is not a respect that most screenplays usually pay to children. Nichols really seems to have an ear for natural-sounding dialogue, which is something I value.
  10. American Hustle – Similar to David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook last year, I wasn’t initially sure what bothered me about this movie. It seemed a bit too flippant about its subject, but then I realized my prejudice against Playbook was unfairly seeping into my assessment of American HustlePlaybook feigned grit and sadness so that audiences would enjoy its levity all the more, but Hustle legitimately mixes pain and humor in an engaging way. Christian Bale gives yet another amazing performance as a con-man, and he’s supported by Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper — quite an impressive bunch. What might be more amazing is that Louis C.K. steals almost ever scene he’s in. The whole thing is loosely based on a true story, but that doesn’t really matter because it’s about these people. The characters here feel real, even though they’re all played by glamorous movie stars. They leave the glamour behind, though, and what we’re left with are flawed, interesting characters. They take what would normally only be an interesting premise and turn it into an interesting overall film. Plus, I laughed.

That’s that. All ten. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a month, a year or a decade, but who cares? I love these movies today and I’d happily watch any one of them again. I had a lot of close calls. Chan-wook Park’s Stoker is an impressive neo-gothic chiller; Dead Man Down is one of the best action-dramas I’ve seen in years; and The Wolf of Wall Street is an exceptional return to comedy for Martin Scorsese. NebraskaDallas Buyers ClubFrances Ha — all amazing and memorable. I hate to beat a dead horse, but 2013 really packed in some impressive efforts for cinephiles.

If you have your own favorites, post your comments below or hit me up on Twitter. Lists may be arbitrary, but I love reading them — don’t be shy. I’m always looking for a gem that I missed or one that I need to revisit.

Now, here’s hoping Ellen Degeneres isn’t as annoying as I suspect she’ll be on Oscar night.

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  1. DiDo
    March 2, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    I think the way the awards spread out this year is a testament to the quality of films that had been nominated. I still haven’t seen them all, but the ones I have seen have all ben incredible in their own way.

  1. February 20, 2015 at 7:15 am

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