What a great year for movies 2013 was. I don’t know that we ever went more than a few weeks without something great to see in theatres, unlike most years when the really great stuff only comes out in the fall. Throughout the year, there were consistently great releases. February, April, August. Didn’t matter.
Before getting to my top 10 movies of 2013, I wanted to write about some other films that didn’t make the cut but very well could have. More than any other year, I’d say every genre but animation – Disney’s Frozen stands out as the best animated movie in the genre’s weakest year in memory – had a hell of a year at the movies in 2013.
Documentaries: The great, eye-opening and heartbreaking Blackfish, about a temperamental killer whale at SeaWorld and the park’s spin machine that keeps families visiting it in the thousands (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite); the astonishing The Act of Killing, which I still can’t wrap my head around. Filmmakers follow former executioners, now old men, who killed thousands in Indonesia as they make a movie about their exploits (dirs. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a director who remained anonymous); Sarah Polley‘s Stories We Tell: at first look, a documentary about the director’s search for truth about her family. Upon closer examination, a study of the human condition and the way our memory works. Polley is one of Canada’s best filmmakers.
Romantic comedies: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon had a lot to say about sex, porn and gender roles and featured Scarlett Johansson’s best work in years (note that Her, for which she does voice work, does not come out in Montreal until Jan. 10, 2014); Enough Said, directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini in one of his last roles.
Vive la France: There is nothing like the movies to really highlight North American prudishness. L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) and La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour) are two French films heavy on sex and nudity, but those things never distracted from the films’ cinematic prowess and their deeply affecting stories. In L’inconnu du lac, Frank is drawn to Michel, a man he’s only just met and whose secrets make him even more desirable to Frank, rather than cautious and wary of him. Enough can’t be said about Adèle Exarchopoulos’ performance in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue. Much has been made about the long and graphic sex scenes, but there’s much more here: it’s a coming of age story that’s hopeful then devastating then heartbreaking.
Best of the rest: The beautifully photographed Mud with Matthew McConaughey delivering yet another great performance and Tye Sheridan, one of the most promising young actors; Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, an exciting, powerful and surprising drama about a motorcycle stuntman and his run-ins with the law and the legacy he leaves his family; Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, a far-fetched and twist-full Hitchcockian tale released in February; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a great sci-fi movie on its own, but also a great adaptation of a so-so book; Pacific Rim: It’s much more than just Transformers with a brain and a heart (dir. Guillermo del Toro); Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, in which Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto surprise and delight. It’s Erin Brockovichesque in its treatment of a serious subject matter which is apt since its slick editing and occasional dark humour are so Soderberghesque; The World’s End another fun entry from the Wright-Frost-Pegg trio, The Way Way Back if only for the incredible work by Sam Rockwell, The Conjuring, which does old-horror tropes very well, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Tie for 11th place
It was a toss up, but if there could be a three-way tie for 11th place, it would include: Spring Breakers: it’s a hypnotic film that I admit took me about 20 minutes to get used to its visual and narrative style. I imagine this is one that will only get better with each viewing. By the end, you know that there is style and substance in Spring Breakers. Frances Ha, the latest by Noah Baumbach that stars Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach. It’s a black-and-white film that’s a cross between Woody Allen and Girls, if anyone on the HBO show was likeable. Frances Ha is breezy, fun, funny and the perfect vehicle for Gerwig. Nebraska, which I wrote about earlier this month when I first saw it. It’s emotionally sincere, often funny but also heartbreaking and heartwarming. A man takes his father on a road trip to claim prize money he thinks he won. Great performances by Bruce Dern and June Squibb.
BEST OF 2013: TOP 10 MOVIES OF THE YEAR
10. Stoker (dir. Chan-wook Park)
Stoker, a spring release that was haunting, chilling, spooky, and damn gorgeous to look at. Directed by Chan-wook Park and starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, Stoker is streaming on Netflix Canada.
9. Fruitvale Station (dir. Ryan Coogler)
It’s amazing that even knowing the ending and details of Oscar Grant III’s life didn’t detract from Fruitvale Station‘s power. Ryan Coogler knocks it out of the park in his directorial debut; Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer are likely and unfairly going to be overlooked this awards season.
8. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Prisoners stayed with me for days after I watched it. When his daughter and her friend go missing, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) isn’t satisfied with the speed of the work done by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). He takes matters into his own hands, looking for answers where he’s not supposed to. Come for the story and performances, stay for the cinematography by Roger Deakins. Prisoners is out on DVD.
7. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Before Sunrise is the last movie I would think could manage two sequels. Aren’t those reserved for superhero movies and epics based on books? Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and the great Julie Delpy achieve the seemingly impossible. Before Midnight might be the best entry in the series; it finds Jesse and Celine vacationing in Greece with their twin girls and, we soon find out, there is trouble in paradise. Before Midnight is out on DVD.
6. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
12 Years a Slave is a film perfect in every way imaginable. The acting, writing, story, cinematography and score all work together to make the film the most heart-wrenching and toughest to watch on the subject of American slavery.
5. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
A spectacle in every sense of the word. Catch it in theatres while you still can. In 91 minutes, director Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock take you on an emotional thrill ride that many filmmakers can’t pull off in 120+ minutes. Or ever.
4. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)
David O. Russell is a force to be reckoned with. Bringing together some of the best working actors today, American Hustle never lets up. It’s fun and funny and crazy – some of the best performances of the year are in American Hustle.
3. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)
It’s a return to form for Woody Allen after last year’s just-OK To Rome with Love. Blue Jasmine tells the story of the fall of a New York socialite; luckily Cate Blanchett is there to catch her. Hypnotizing work by the actress who has always been great but never better than she is in Blue Jasmine.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)
The latest by the Coen Brothers does not disappoint. Inside Llewyn Davis is the sometimes depressing story of an unlucky guy who can’t catch a break.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
I want to see The Wolf of Wall Street again and again. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up again, with one of the best supporting casts ever assembled. At 179 minutes, absolutely every second is accounted for. Nothing is here that shouldn’t be.