Every December, film critics batten down the hatches to practice the one ritual for which they are most qualified — determining the year’s 10 best movies.
In past years, it usually went down like this: there were (maybe) six or seven truly great films that deserved to make the cut without hesitation, while the last remaining three or four were a little harder to determine.
But 2013 was different, and that’s because there were so many great movies to choose from – especially after the Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals unspooled what turned out to be an embarrassment of riches. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, and weekend after weekend, the hits just kept on coming.
As a result, 2013 turned out to be a landmark year for film that easily featured the strongest slate since 1999, when cinematic gems like “The Matrix,” “Three Kings,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Fight Club,” “The Insider,” “Being John Malkovich” and Best Picture-winner “American Beauty” graced the big screen.
So unlike past years, where critics were hard-pressed to come up with enough movies to put on their list, this year, they’ll will be faced with an even bigger problem; what to leave off.
Talk about a good problem to have. That’s why, for the first time ever, I’ve taken the unprecedented step of expanding my best-of list from 10 to 13 – in honor, of course, of the great year for film that was 2013. And wouldn’t you know it, I still had a hard time deciding what to leave off. Ah, if only I had this problem every year…
1) “Gravity”: Wow, what a ride! Can you remember the last time a movie made you sit on the edge of your seat and ask yourself “How’d they do that?” over and over again? (OK, maybe it was “The Matrix,” but that was 14 long years ago). Director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) changed the game with this breathtaking, pulse-pounding, awe-inspiring masterpiece that absolutely had to be seen on the big screen (and in IMAX 3-D), and Sandra Bullock rose above it all with a career-defining performance that was – dare I say it – out of this world.
2) “Her”: Spike Jonze doesn’t make a lot of movies, but when he does, they’re usually pretty great (witness “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”). But his latest masterwork was more than just “great”; it’s his crowning achievement. Graced with glorious production values, beautiful cinematography and a haunting musical score (by Arcade Fire), this profound, compelling, wildly imaginative and heartbreaking love story about a lonely man (a never-better Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for his operating system (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson) was both a brilliant allegory about artificial intelligence and a cautionary tale about where the smartphone generation might be headed in the not-too-distant future.
3) “12 Years A Slave”: A harrowing movie about slavery that was hard to watch? What did you expect from this cinematic triumph based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, which depicted the horrors of slavery with the same level of unflinching brutal power that “Schindler’s List” depicted the Holocaust? Director Steve McQueen pulled no punches with this masterpiece about one of humanity’s darkest hours, and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a grueling performance as a slave whose spirit could not be broken.
4) “Inside Llewyn Davis”: Directors Joel and Ethan Coen and soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett made beautiful music together when they teamed up for 2000’s southern-set “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, but they’re even more in tune with this exquisite take on the New York folk scene in the early 1960s. Toplined by an incredible breakthrough performance from Oscar Isaac as a gifted troubadour whose talent was no match for his wisdom (or lack thereof), “Inside Llewyn Davis” represented the Coen Brothers at their superb, graceful and darkly comic best.
5) “Blue Jasmine”: Cate Blanchett gave a tour-de-force, Oscar-caliber performance as a self-entitled New York socialite who becomes unhinged when she loses everything, but writer-director Woody Allen’s best film since “Match Point” also featured stellar turns from Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale and (of all people!) Andrew Dice Clay. They effortlessly brought to life one of Allen’s best-ever screenplays, and as a result, “Blue Jasmine” wasn’t just a great Woody Allen movie; it was a great movie, period.
6) “Saving Mr. Banks”: An instant classic about the making of an instant classic that also featured an icon playing an icon, the best film yet from director John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie,” “The Blind Side”) was an elegant, whimsical, enchanting crowd-pleaser about how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) won the battle to make “Mary Poppins,” even though its uptight author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), fought him every step of the way. Thompson was radiant despite playing someone so difficult, while Hanks humanized Disney as a charming businessman who just wanted to make a movie.
7) “The Wolf Of Wall Street”: Yes, the story of ‘80s greed, debauchery and corruption has been done before. The same goes for the stylish, voiceover-saturated, adrenaline-fueled pace that director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker perfected with “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” But put them together, and the result was this wild, crazy, hilarious and totally outrageous three-hour sprint down Wall Street that featured the Oscar-winning filmmakers and five-time Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio firing on all cylinders (and then some). DiCaprio gave the performance of his career as a fast-talking, morally bankrupt stockbroker whose love of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and money-money-money made Gordon Gekko look like a wimp.
8) “All Is Lost”: After spending the better part of the last two decades as something of an elder statesman for independent film, Robert Redford sailed away with a career-defining performance as a lone man struggling to survive on a sinking yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s spare, nearly dialogue-free one-man show was as much a tale about man versus nature as it was about man versus himself. Think “Gravity” on a boat, but without all the bells and whistles.
9) “Blue Is The Warmest Color”: If a coming-of-age romance could ever be described as “epic,” it would be this intimate, sweeping, emotionally gripping love story masterfully directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Despite being best-known for the sexually explicit love scenes that bordered on pornography and led to the film being slapped with a dreaded NC-17 rating, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux gave daring, committed, soul-bearing performances as the star-crossed lovers who grew up, grew together and grew apart over the course of 10 heartbreaking years.
10) “Enough Said”: The fifth feature from writer-director Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends with Money”) was a mature, hilarious and heartfelt romantic comedy for grown-ups that featured four-time Emmy Award-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing something she’s never done before: she carried a movie, and she was so good as a single mother faced with empty nest syndrome that it felt like we were watching the TV legend’s talents unfold for the very first time. She also had irresistible chemistry with the late, great James Gandolfini, who left behind a revelatory performance as a lovable and vulnerable romantic leading man.
11) “The Conjuring”: Much better than it had any right to be, this superbly-crafted and genuinely terrifying summer offering about real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (effectively played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) was a pleasant surprise – that is, if you can call being scared out of your wits “pleasant.” After cutting his teeth with the horror hits “Saw” and “Insidious,” director James Wan put a fresh spin on old scare tactics, resulting in the best fun-scary movie to hit the big screen since 1982’s “Poltergeist.”
12) “Captain Phillips”: Tom Hanks epitomized grace under pressure as Richard Phillips, the commander of a U.S. cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in this visceral, riveting and very intense fact-based drama directed by Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “United 93”). On a structural level, the movie played out like “Zero Dark Thirty” on a boat, but it displayed intelligence, sophistication and depth for its balanced depiction of wildly different cultures and for making the pirates resonate as more than just one-dimensional bad guys.
13) “Lone Survivor”: Peter Berg – who previously directed commercial entertainment fare like “Friday Night Lights,” “The Rundown” and “Battleship” – upped his game to join the ranks of master-class filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass with this brutal, intense and superbly-crafted powerhouse about an ill-fated 2005 military mission in Afghanistan. The outstanding ensemble cast included Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch as grossly outnumbered Navy SEALs caught behind enemy lines, where they were forced to endure non-stop combat scenes so visceral and gripping that they left you shell-shocked.
Honorable Mentions: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Europa Report,” “Out of the Furnace,” “Frances Ha,” “Short Term 12,” “Prisoners,” “Before Midnight,” “The Way, Way Back,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Rush,” “Fruitvale Station,” “20 Feet from Stardom,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Nebraska”
-- Scott Mantz