In Retrospect: The Best Movies of 2013

2013

Every year has its ups and its downs and the last 12 months weren’t any different. There were triumphs, there were failures… some good days, some bad ones, and then there were the days that just flew by. Someone awesome once said, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and 2013 was one of those years. Even if there was only one significant event to write about from a personal standpoint (and I did so in style), this last year was one that represented growth – personally, professionally, and um… horizontally. For the first two, I’m grateful. For the last one, I have the treadmill.

When it came to movies and moonlighting as a film writer, 2013 was nothing short of fantastic! For one, I created FilmFrontier, this wonderful hole in the web you’re currently at. Over the past 11 months, this little place has played host to all my film writing – silly, significant, daft, whatever. While I can’t tell you it’s going to be the final resting place for all my junk,* consider it my sweet spot for now.

I also managed to review 70 movies last year which is a personal best. Frankly, I’m amazed that I pulled it off considering I only get to write on weekends and the odd weekday. All credit goes out to Monica, my supercalifragilisticexpialidocious girlfriend, sometime editor, and full-time ambassador of Kwan. I’m eternally grateful for her encouragement and constructive criticism of my work. I’m not sure if she’s made me a better writer** but I’ve definitely become more prolific. Lord knows how she puts up with me.

Okay… okay… on to the movies. If you keep up with movies or know anyone who does… you’ll know that 2013 was a pretty magnificent year for film. Anyone who disagrees with that statement is (a) simply not looking hard enough, (b) a smug snob, (c) an asshole or (d) all of the above. It started out as every American year for film does – like crap – before picking up speed sometime in mid June, gaining momentum in late September-October before sprinting past the finish line in style by the time December wrapped it up. But of all the movies I watched 2013, the ones below were the ones I liked best.

*I plan on migrating everything to a dot com domain sometime later this year. Domain name ideas (and donations) are greatly appreciated.
**I have to make sure how I lavish my praise on her. I don’t want it all going to her head. She’s arrogant enough as it is. Just kidding.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

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Each one of these movies had a place on my top 10 at some point. But for some trivial reason or another, they failed to make the cut. Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Richard Curtis’ captivating romantic comedy About Time, transcended its hokey time traveling premise to weave a touching tale about the relationships we forge with family.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s genre-bending The Act of Killing changed the way we view documentaries by asking its subjects – Indonesian death squad leaders – to relive their sins from the perspective of their victims via short films.

Cate Blanchett’s ferocious performance as a woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown may end up being the lasting legacy of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine but Allen’s scathing portrait of the upper crust of Manhattan society makes it his best since 2005.

One of the year’s most intense movie-going experiences, Paul Greengrass’ taut docudrama Captain Phillips also has the luxury of featuring one of Tom Hanks’ best performances. The actor’s commanding turn serves as a reminder why he’s regarded as one of the consummate actors of his generation.

In Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling crafts a candid, and often moving, story of the 40-year-old marriage between struggling painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko. A tender examination of art, commerce and the sacrifices we make for love.

Her, Spike Jonze’s touching futuristic romance, starts off as a pointed satire of the ocean of loneliness created by our obsession with being connected to our technology but slowly transforms into a mature and thoughtful depiction of how our relationships develop, evolve and eventually shape us.

Oscar Isaac’s sublime performance as a struggling musician tip-toeing on the cusp of success is the crux of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ melancholic character study cum folk musical. One of the filmmakers’ most intimate films, it captures what it’s like to be gifted yet stuck in a never-ending cycle of failure and rejection.

Nebraska is many things – an exploration of regret, a snapshot of relationships between generations, a wistful comedy on aging and a heartfelt road trip drama. In Alexander Payne’s hands – it’s an exquisite study of human behavior.

It’s easy to scoff off Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker as an exercise in self-gratification but every frame, sound effect, color and costume change in this gothic remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt reveals a sinister subtext.

Using her family’s own complicated history as an example, writer-director Sarah Polley’s revealing, always fascinating, Stories We Tell documents the unreliable nature of memory, and how our perception of past events end up shaping our future.

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The Wind Rises

Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song is a dreamy look into the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the famed engineer behind the legendary Zero fighters – most famously used by the Japanese army in World War 2. Like all of Miyazaki’s works, this lyrical biopic is characterized by vivid animation, sumptuous fantasy sequences and whimsical characters. But at its heart, this is a melodramatic ode to the creative process – complete with all the frustrations, disappointments and joy that accompanies it.

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Mud

Mud has the immersive pull of a great American novel, one that could have been authored by William Faulkner or Mark Twain. The latter’s influence pervades every frame of this wonderful third feature from writer-director Jeff Nichols – from its novelistic structure to its idiosyncratic characters to its distinctive Southern flavor. Coming of age dramas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood but Nichols’ thematically rich work stands out because of its talented cast, led by a sensational Ty Sheridan and an effective Matthew McConaughey, as well as Nichols ability to make the rustic, almost forgotten world of the American South mythic.

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12 Years a Slave

What’s left to be said about the year’s most lauded film? As I’ve stated before on these walls, 12 Years a Slave is an unwavering, unsentimental, often brutal yet definitive portrait of the ugly history of the United States. Director Steve McQueen has built a reputation for crafting raw, uncompromising works that reveal the ugliness of humanity and his third feature is no different. Using Solomon Northup’s story as a foundation, McQueen chronicles one of society’s worst atrocities and makes the audience experience that horror first hand. Featuring impeccable performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender, this is a tough but essential watch.

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The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg’s powerful morality tale about an innocent man ostracized for a horrific crime that never existed in the first place, is the oldest film on this list. It premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where Mads Mikkelsen, best known for playing the villain in Casino Royale, rightly won the Best Actor prize for his tremendous performance. Although it made its stateside debut this summer, I was lucky enough to catch it in March at the Miami International Film Festival. A strict examination of the psychology behind mob mentality, The Hunt never manipulates you to “feel” for its central character nor does it ask you to antagonize the society that shuns him. At its heart, this is a film about society’s rabid readiness to accept misinformation as truth, without an iota of research.

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Rush

The best film of Ron Howard’s career, Rush has the vestige of a prestige drama but the energy of a big studio thriller. An invigorating sports drama that chronicles the bitter rivalry between two drivers – the hard-partying Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the icy, calculating Austrian Nikki Lauda (an outstanding Daniel Bruhl), this boisterous picture is a joy from its heart-pounding start to its pulsating finish. While it wasn’t one of the smarter films I watched in 2013, it definitely was among the ones I had the most fun with!

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Short Term 12

Short Term 12 sheds light on a subject that’s rarely seen in fictional narrative cinema: foster-care homes for teenagers. Viewed through the prism of Grace (An understated Brie Larson), one of the titular center’s counselors, who herself hides a tragic past, writer-director Destin Cretton molds an affecting, sad, and ultimately inspiring picture of people who’ve had their childhoods robbed from them. At once a buoyant hymn to the courage and patience of social workers and a poignant character-study of a disturbed young woman trying to escape the anguish of her past, this was the most pleasant surprise of 2013.

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American Hustle

Like I stated in my review last year, If 2013 were a high school prom, and all the movies were the students at it, then American Hustle would be the prom king. It’s not quite the year’s best but it’s the one everyone wants to be friends with. Writer-director David O. Russell is a contentious figure in the world of film but his talent is undeniable. His electrifying comedy of con artists, FBI agents, the mob, angry wives and slimy politicians may be based on true events but Russell makes it clear from the start that his movie’s all about his wild and messy characters. The actors are great, the hair even greater. I’ve seen it four times now and its spell never fades.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Even at the grand old age of 71, Martin Scorsese knows how to rile moviegoers up. A sprawling epic of greed and hedonism, Scorsese’s comic saga  about the rise and semi-fall of former Wall Street kingpin Jordan Belfort and his cronies doubles as a It’s a Wonderful Life for douchebags. It’s also the fastest three hours I spent in a movie theater in 2013. Featuring an inhibition-free, career-highlighting performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill at his most deranged, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese playing within the confines of his sandbox. Think Goodfellas but with morons, and lots and lots of drugs.

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Gravity

Wow! That’s the only honest way to describe Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. But if you need some bacon with your eggs, here you go: Gravity is landmark filmmaking.  It’s a movie that left me speechless, more often than any movie did in 2013. Its transporting nature meant I felt like a little kid sitting on a well-greased rollercoaster for the first time in my life. You want gut-wrenching – this was it. Not just an exquisitely crafted eye-popping thrill ride, Cuaron’s dazzling picture is also a deeply spiritual picture that touched on themes of rebirth and second chances. This is the product of a team of masters guided by the vision of a mensch. Wow!

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Before Midnight

And here it is… The valedictorian of 2013. Although there were plenty of great movies that came after it, there was never a doubt in my mind that this was going to be the film that sat on top of my list when all was said and done. The culmination of one of cinema’s greatest trilogies, Before Midnight stands as one of the most moving and thoughtful depictions of marriage on film, and as a career-topping achievement for writer-director Richard Linklater and co-writers/stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It’s an unflinching look at a couple whose love has begun to chafe away from the pressures of family life and years of repressed emotions. Writing great dialogue is a feat in and of itself but writing natural-sounding dialogue that’s also witty and insightful is an achievement. Before Midnight is about the evolving nature of love; it’s about acceptance, patience and above all, coming to peace with the fact that nothing in this cynical world is perfect–not even Jesse and Celine.

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And now… the best of the rest:

Monica Nikole Rodriguez’s (a.k.a. the significant other) Top 10 of 2013

BeforeMidnight

  1. Before Midnight
  2. American Hustle
  3. Rush
  4. Inside Llewyn Davis
  5. The Wind Rises
  6. Stoker
  7. To the Wonder
  8. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  9. About Time
  10. The Hunt

cutie-and-the-boxer

Just what the doc ordered. Five favorite documentaries
  1. Cutie and the Boxer
  2. The Act of Killing
  3. Stories We Tell
  4. Blackfish
  5. 20 Feet from Stardom

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Check your brain at the door. Five favorite mainstream blockbusters
  1. Gravity
  2. The Conjuring
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  4. Iron Man 3
  5. Oblivion

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Read between the lines. Five favorite foreign-language films
  1. The Hunt
  2. The Wind Rises
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color
  4. The Great Beauty
  5. In the House

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Not just for kids. Five favorite animated films
  1. The Wind Rises
  2. Get a Horse!
  3. Monsters University
  4. Frozen
  5. Ernest et Celestine

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Performance capture. Five favorite performances
  1. Brie Larson – Short Term 12
  2. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
  3. Mads Mikklesen – The Hunt
  4. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
  5. Julie Delpy – Before Midnight

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Made it ma! Top of the world. Five favorite breakout performances
  1. Brie Larson – Short Term 12
  2. Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
  4. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
  5. Miles Teller – The Spectacular Now

 

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Womp. Womp. Five most disappointing movies
  1. The Counselor
  2. Elysium
  3. Man of Steel
  4. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
  5. Only God Forgives

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It’s turkey time! Gobble Gobble! 10 Worst Movies
  1. A Good Day to Die Hard
  2. Now You See Me
  3. The Hangover Part 3
  4. Red 2
  5. The Counselor
  6. August: Osage County
  7. Jack the Giant Slayer
  8. Escape from Tomorrow
  9. Room 237
  10. Olympus Has Fallen

Click on the image below to read my year-in-review via superlatives.

2013-in-superlatives

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