Thanksgiving was over a month ago, but now seems as good a time as any to thank the cinema gods for the fantastic films we got in 2013. With the usual caveats that this is more of a personal “favorites” list than an objective “best of” list, and that there are plenty of great films that weren’t included for the simple and shameful reason that I never got around to seeing them, here are the movies that made me laugh, howl, jump, and/or weep over the last twelve months.
Dishonorable mentions: Star Trek Into Darkness shortchanged its characters in favor of big, generic explosions; Elysium was a clunky, nonsensical disappointment after the elegant District 9; and Ruben Fleischer‘s ability to make the typically magnetic Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone look downright insipid in Gangster Squad might be kind of impressive if it weren’t so depressing.
Honorable mentions: The visceral thrills of Rush left me buzzing for days; the creepy, beautiful The Conjuring deserves special notice for that hide-and-clap sequence alone; 12 Years a Slave was a powerful story executed masterfully on all fronts; and while it’s hardly cinema at its most thought-provoking and groundbreaking, the “Puppy” Minion mini-movie from the Despicable Me 2 Blu-ray is really, really fucking cute. (That last one is mostly there because I just saw it last night, but seriously, go see it.)
10. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen‘s riches-to-rags tale can be tough to watch. His protagonist Jasmine starts out feeling off somehow, and becomes thoroughly unhinged, unloved, and unlikable by the end of the movie. However, it’s even tougher to not watch, thanks to a fascinating turn by Cate Blanchett. Her perfectly pitched performance keeps us feeling for this modern-day Blanche DuBois, even as we sympathize with the friends and family who’ve cast her off. The final scene of a totally ruined Jasmine stuck with me for a long time.
9. Pain & Gain
Several movies this year dealt with the perversion of the American Dream, from the literary-minded Great Gatsby to the self-consciously trashy Spring Breakers. But for my money, no one did it with as much verve as Michael Bay. I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes for this fact-based crime comedy going into it, but in retrospect maybe I should have. Who better to examine the hollowness of the more-is-more approach than the guy who’s directed all three Transformers movies?
Spike Jonze‘s high-tech romance felt like it was from the past, present, and the future. The future, because the idea of a man falling in love with an operating system still feels pretty far-fetched. The present, because given our current relationship with our gadgets, it’s probably not all that far off. And the past, because the story of a couple first growing toward each other and then evolving away from each other is as old as time. Wide-open performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson helped turn what could’ve been an exhaustively quirky exercise into a thoughtful love story for the ages.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen‘s Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t really go anywhere, but that’s kind of the point. Llewyn’s devotion to artistic integrity is kind of heroic, but it’s also a facet of his even more ironclad commitment to self-sabotage. What’s more admirable is his determination to endure — and his incredible talent, as demonstrated through the deeply affecting musical performances by Oscar Isaac. Like the best of the Coens’ work, Inside Llewyn Davis is smart, soulful, and deeply funny.
Gravity may have been 2013′s purest expression of the power of cinema. For 91 tense minutes, director Alfonso Cuarón demonstrated exactly what sets film apart from every other medium, including its close cousin TV. This was a movie that demanded to be seen in 3D and IMAX, so that you could experience the white-knuckle terror of outer space right alongside Sandra Bullock‘s Ryan Stone. As many critics noted around the time, it’s certainly the closest that most of us will ever get to actual space travel.
5. The Spectacular Now
On paper, The Spectacular Now sounds like every other indie coming-of-age tale out there. In execution, it’s one of the best — tenderest, truest, smartest, most romantic — teen movies in years. James Ponsoldt‘s relaxed approach lets the young lovers take their time falling for each other, and Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give performances that are both a) naturalistic in a way that make them seem like perfectly real teenagers, and b) magnetic in a way that cements their statuses as bona fide movie stars in the making.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive
(Caveat: This one is cheating, slightly, because Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t actually open in theaters until April. But it’d feel like cheating if I included it in my 2014 top 10, too, since I saw it in 2013, so I’m just leaving it here.)
With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has made a vampire romance unlike any vampire romance you’ve seen before. Most of the film is just Adam and Eve lounging around, but because Adam and Eve are played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, they’re impossibly cool and compelling even when they’re doing nothing at all. The enduring affection between them is touching, the mundane hardships of vampire life are funny, the existential despair of immortality is thought-provoking, and the wonderfully detailed world Jarmusch has constructed around them is one I wanted to live in forever.
3. Short Term 12
When it’s used to describe a movie, the word “gritty” typically means dark, grim, depressing, and cynical. But Short Term 12 proves it doesn’t have to be. Through his humble heroine (an amazing Brie Larson), director Destin Cretton finds hope in the harshest of places — a short-term foster care facility full of abused, neglected children. And he does so honestly, without falling back on the cheap, easy sentimentality that marks most “inspirational” dramas.
2. The World’s End
About two seconds after I walked out of The World’s End, I wanted to see it again. About two seconds after I walked out of The World’s End a second time, I wanted to see it again. The final installment of Edgar Wright‘s Cornetto trilogy adds maturity and emotional heft to his tried-and-tested formula without detracting from the laughs one bit. It’s also a treat to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost switch places for once. Pegg infuses his doofus character with a real sense of pathos, and Frost is just as entertaining playing the (relatively) respectable one as he is the stupid sidekick.
1. Before Midnight
Romance comes in all forms. In Before Sunrise, it took the shape of a thrilling, youthful infatuation. In Before Sunset, it showed up as a mature, regretful fling. In Before Midnight, it appears as a knock-down-drag-out fight between an established couple with nine years of petty annoyances and deep-seated resentments built up between them.
It’s not that Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) don’t love each other anymore. To the contrary, their argument is brutal in a way that only a spat between two deeply invested people could be. It’s just that marriage is really hard work, and doesn’t always have an obvious payoff. The easy thing for Richard Linklater and his stars to do would’ve been to give Celine and Jesse the happy ending fans have wanted for them since 1995. Instead, they gave us a portrait of long-term commitment every bit as rich and honest as Celine and Jesse’s rosier, earlier encounters.