By Scott Harvey
The year 2013 in movies was like a championship thoroughbred. Out of the gate, it started slow. For critics, it was nothing new or surprising. The beginning of the year is usually reserved for the films that weren’t good enough to be released during prime Oscar bait season. But when some of the big budget summer blockbusters turned out to be tremendous duds (The Great Gatsby, Man of Steel), I was worried that 2013 had come up lame.
My concern soon vanished. Like two-year-old Secretariat, 2013 came roaring down the stretch with a stampede of superb films. And, as always, there were new discoveries to make.
This year, moviegoers were transported to outer space to explore the sheer terror of being lost with seemingly no chance of survival. We were dropped right in the middle of a candy-colored future where computers are as human as all of us. We hopped from pub to pub with some old friends, took a road trip into the sinister underbelly of the American Midwest, watched an irrepressible bigot transform into a crusading hero for hundreds afflicted with HIV, glimpsed the dark depths a vengeful father will go to, and felt the agony of seeing a life cut short much too soon.
It was truly an unforgettable year for movies. Here’s the finest it had to offer.
10. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
A more than fitting conclusion to the Cornetto trilogy from director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), The World’s End is fast, clever, and very, very funny. Wright’s favorite leading men, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, bring their own unique charms to their roles and there’s excellent supporting work from Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Pierce Brosnan among others. No movie this year made me laugh more than this one.
9. Prisoners (Denis Villenueve)
A film that gave a new meaning to the phrase “nail biting,” “Prisoners” pinned me to my seat for nearly two and a half hours with its gripping tale of a father (Hugh Jackman) trying to get revenge for his daughter’s kidnapping. Villenueve’s film excels among thrillers not only for exploring the dark depths that Jackman’s character is willing to go to but also for questioning whether his quest is even just. Breathlessly exciting and thoughtful, “Prisoners” is a must see for thriller fans.
8. American Hustle (David O. Russell)
There may not be a better filmmaker working right now than David O. Russell. The man behind 2011’s The Fighter and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook struck gold again with his energetic caper American Hustle, loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. The all-star cast, which includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, knocks it out of the park, bringing vigor and humor to their larger than life characters.
7. The Way, Way Back (Jim Rash and Nat Faxon)
Sure, we’ve seen it all before, but rarely has it been so charming and funny. A beachside coming of age tale, The Way, Way Back is a true crowd pleaser with terrific performances, especially from a boozy Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, who is dead-on brilliant as the motor-mouthed slacker that takes a shine to Duncan (Liam James), a depressed teen forced to spend the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend (a truly villainous Steve Carrell). Funny and warm-hearted, I can’t imagine anyone not loving this movie.
6. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)
Anchored by a whopper of a performance from Brie Larson, Cretton’s directorial debut is the deeply felt tale of a young couple (Larson and John Gallagher) in charge of a temporary home for underprivileged teens that is both brutal and uplifting. Newcomers Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield are terrific as two particularly troubled youths. The honesty and intimacy that Cretton achieves is truly rare among films, indie or mainstream. It’s sometimes tough but always rewarding.
5. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
Another film from a first time director, Fruitvale Station was the most urgent, impassioned film of the year. Michael B. Jordan’s star-making turn as Oscar Grant, a black man killed in a train station by a white policeman, is not merely a cookie cutter, racially-tinged examination of the crime. It’s a soulful look at the last day in Oscar’s life. Oscar is not a saint, but he’s certainly admirable in the way he cares for his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz, superb) and his young daughter. Fruitvale Station is a tragic tale, but there’s something hopeful about it too.
4. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, The Spectacular Now may be the rawest film about teenagers since Catherine Hardwicke’s nearly unwatchable Thirteen. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are both phenomenal as an unlikely couple dealing with the struggles of senior year and what the future holds. Equaling them is the consistently brilliant Kyle Chandler, who is heartbreakingly believable as Teller’s alcoholic father. Not a happy tale but a necessary one.
3. Her (Spike Jonze)
Jonze’s tale of a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his hyper-intelligent operating system (exquisitely voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is offbeat for sure, but it’s also literate and beautifully crafted. It’s not just a love story but a film about what it means to be human and to be excited about the world. The film is original in every way and nearly perfect, excepting a couple of unnecessarily murky scenes.
2. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)
This year’s Argo, Dallas Buyers Club is the riveting true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a bull-riding homophobe who contracts AIDS from taking drugs with an unsafe needle. After accepting his fate, Ron’s partnership with junkie drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto, excellent) leads to the establishment of a black market pharmaceutical ring that distributes drugs not approved by the FDA to needy AIDS patients. Fascinating in its machinations and featuring the performance of the year from Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club is a stirring tale of the human spirit, one that rarely hits a wrong note.
1. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
I’ve heard from many people who have no interest in seeing Nebraska because it looks bleak and depressing. Take it from me, it’s absolutely not. Payne’s wonderfully homespun tale of elderly dementia and the bond between fathers and sons is supremely acted, observant, and, yes, funny. It’s this year’s most essential motion picture. Don’t let the trailers fool you. This is a transcendent film with an upbeat ending and an intriguing message: sometimes when someone you love is losing their mind, the best thing to do is go with them.