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A Look Back: Favorite Movies of 2013

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Paramount Pictures

I’ve often debated with my fellow film critics about what exactly a year-end top ten list should consist of. Should it be a list of the best films of the year -- or of your personal favorites?

To me, the act of declaring a list of movies the absolute best of the year is so clinical, and often impersonal, that it’s bound to be an exercise in futility.

When it comes to my top ten, I always choose to focus on my favorites. Keep in mind: I’m not of the opinion that these are the best-crafted films of the year (though I think a few of them are). Rather they're the ones that personally affected me the most, be it in terms of pure enjoyment or emotional impact. These are the movies that I left the theater itching to see again; the movies that got under my skin in a way that left me thinking about them for days on end. So while I can acknowledge the expertise that went into the making of movies like “Fruitvale Station” and “12 Years a Slave,” they’re movies that I’m perfectly content never seeing again. Hence you won’t find them anywhere on this list.

But every year there are far more than ten movies that I look back on with true affection. I wish I could recognize all of them here, but it seems that the power of a list of this nature diminishes when you choose not to limit yourself. And when you do decide to suck it up and stick to that magic number of ten, you’ll likely always face a “Sophie’s Choice” conundrum at some point. (This year’s most painful elimination: Woody Allen’s fantastic “Blue Jasmine.”)

As usual, this year was just as difficult as always. Maybe even especially so, because 2013 was filled with some immensely likable movies, such as the twisty pharmaceutical thriller “Side Effects” or the cameo-packed apocalyptic comedy “This is the End.” I had my heart ripped to shreds by films like “The Hunt” and “Philomena,” and was deeply touched by the sensitive and honest nature of Destin Cretton’s little-seen indie drama “Short Term 12.” And I’d be remiss not to mention favorites such as “Spring Breakers,” “The Way Way Back,” “American Hustle,” “Enough Said,” and “Don Jon.” These movies that I chose to leave off my list will likely haunt me (I still regret leaving “Magic Mike” and “Anna Karenina” off my Best of 2012 list to this day). But at this moment in time, these are the movies that left the strongest impressions on me, and are what I’m proud to say are my top ten favorites of 2013.

10. Lone Survivor – I was hit by the unexpected greatness of this one late in the game – when I thought I already had my list locked down and finished. About Operation Red Wings, the 2005 failed Navy SEALS mission in Afghanistan that resulted in the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II, this is a movie that deeply affected me. Some are criticizing it for displaying blind patriotism, but I don’t see it that way at all. This is a powerful tribute to all those men who lost their lives; it’s pro-soldier, not pro-war. This is a story that is very much about courage and brotherhood, but what got to me the most is what the film delves into in the last 30 minutes. Because therein lies a message that I never expected: that of finding humanity and true heroism in the most unlikely of places. It’s claustrophobic, brutal, and painful to watch, but it’s a film that I haven’t been able to shake for a moment since I first saw it.

9. The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann’s much maligned take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic certainly has its flaws: it’s an extreme case of CGI overload, and at times the visuals can’t help but detract from some of scenes. But regardless of its shortcomings, I’ve found that I love it fully and completely, flaws and all. It’s a film filled with visual splendor, be it the costumes or the lavish production design; every frame is screaming Luhrmann’s name. Whether or not that’s a particularly good thing will have to be decided by each individual viewer. But for this viewer, it was gaudy excellence.

8. Stoker – Of all the movies I saw in 2013, this is the one that I randomly find myself thinking about the most often. The always-wonderful Mia Wasikowska plays India, a sullen teen dealing with the recent death of her father. When a mysterious uncle she never knew existed comes to live with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman), things take a dark turn.

In many ways, this is a movie that relishes catching you off guard with sumptuous auditory and visual tricks. If the story doesn’t linger in the mind, then the arresting imagery sure will. I found this to be daring and bold in ways that I wish more movies were nowadays. A twisted coming-of-age story, "Stoker" is alluring, provocative and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated movies of the year.

7. Gravity - It may sound like a cliché, but this is why we go to the movies. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s film is a stunner, with breathtaking cinematography and special effects, as well as career-best performance from Sandra Bullock. But more than that, “Gravity” is a deeply visceral experience. Some complain about the lack of story, but what it lacks in its narrative, it makes up for in its connection with its audience. The experience, your feelings while watching this, is the focus. And if Steven Price’s magnificent, sweeping score doesn’t give you chills, then I don’t know what will.

6. Her - Spike Jonze’s multilayered and profoundly touching film is like nothing else that came out this year. Taking place in a near future L.A., in layman’s terms, “Her” is about a man who falls in love with his computer. But to boil it down to such a seemingly silly, simplistic description is to do this movie a harsh injustice. Because in the fascinating world that Jonze has created, the relationship at the center of the story doesn’t just feel possible – it feels plausible. Soaked in warm orange-red tones (colors usually associated with optimism, passion), the color palette initially seems at odds with its protagonist, Theodore Twombly: a depressed, soon-to-be-divorced introvert. However his enthusiasm for life is reignited upon bonding with his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) – an advanced form of artificial intelligence that constantly evolves through experience. Filled with delicate touches of humor and peppered with striking loneliness, “Her” is a real gem: a unique, resonant story about the nature of love, and the human need for connection in an increasingly distanced and disconnected world.

5. Captain Phillips – “Captain Phillips” is an exercise in sheer, unadulterated tension. Even though I knew exactly how the real-life story played out, I found myself getting almost inexplicably emotional during the film’s climax. This is tension done right; the kind that hits you with such ferocity that you may start to cast doubt on your accurate knowledge of what really happened. Throw in one of Tom Hanks’ best performances in years (along with a scene-stealing performance from newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the gang of Somali pirates) and you have one powerhouse of a film.

4. About Time – As a huge fan of Richard Curtis, I knew “About Time” had potential to be one of my new favorite chick-flicks. But what I didn’t expect was such a beautiful look on life, family, and living without regret; a movie far more than the girly rom-com I assumed it was.

The set-up is simple: At the age of 21, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel through time. What starts out as a fun story with a twist (Tim’s first goal is to get a girlfriend) turns into a film that is at times laugh-out-loud funny and at times achingly sad – but one that is always heartfelt and relatable. Curtis never bothers much with the time-travel logistics of the story. Rather, he shrewdly uses this element to explore themes and ideas about how to live a fulfilling life that are clearly close to his heart.

As I stated in my review, “This is a story that is far more interested in the preciousness of life than rom-com clichés. Some will undoubtedly watch this movie through a cynical lens and will leave the theater rolling their eyes. And for those people, there’s nothing to be done. The message behind the story may be one we’ve heard a thousand times before, but a reminder never hurts – especially one as touching and life-affirming as this one. There’s no reason this film should be minimized as one meant just for women. This is the sort of movie that is filled with so much charm, humor, and heart that it’s truly difficult to resist – regardless of age or gender.”

3. Frozen - There are few things that inspire as much joy as a gorgeously crafted Disney film. And in a year filled with mostly lackluster animated movies, “Frozen” was a serious treat. Disney’s latest tells the story of sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Broadway superstar Idina Menzel). When Elsa unintentionally uses her powers to freeze the entire kingdom of Arrandale, it’s up to Anna to find her sister and save the kingdom from eternal winter.

I absolutely loved this movie's ability to surprise me and subvert my expectations. While I knew how the film would end (this is Disney, after all), I had no idea how it would get there, something I can’t say for most family movies. The character of Anna is endearingly awkward and adorable, and the humor transcends that just for kids (is there any character this year more lovable than Josh Gad’s Olaf the Snowman?). Not to mention the animation, which is filled with crystalline show effects, is simply exquisite. It also doesn’t hurt that Idina Menzel sings a glorious song called “Let it Go” that ranks right up there with some of Disney’s absolute best.

And "Frozen" isn’t afraid to make fun of classic Disney tropes, either. When Anna meets the handsome Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), it’s love at first sight for both of them. They meet, sing about how perfect they are for each other, and instantly get engaged. When Anna mentions this to other characters however, their reactions are all the same: “You can’t marry a man you just met!” Finally, a little sense!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street - Based on the life of former Wall Street heavyweight Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a no-holds-barred look at greed, corruption, and excess. Jordan is a swindler and a degenerate; a man whose primary concern is that of making money and shoving the maximum amount of drugs into his body. In the wrong hands, he’s a man who’s so repellant that it would be hard to stomach even an hour of him on screen. However DiCaprio transforms him into a character that we actually want to spend three-hour’s time with. He infuses such invigorating charisma into the character that there is even something bizarrely captivating about him.

Spanning the course of seven years, Scorsese wants us to, in some ways, feel like we’re partying alongside Jordan and his associates, all the while laughing at the ridiculousness of their wasteful, gaudy escapades. I won’t deny that I felt a sort of buzzing high as I walked out of the theater -- so much so that I felt an unrelenting need to see it again and again. But what is fueling that desire? Is just DiCaprio’s electrifying performance? The comedy? It’s a movie about horrible people doing horrible things. So what makes it something that demands to be revisited? I think the most telling scenes are Belfort’s speeches. You may not be on board with what he’s saying, but it’s difficult not to be seduced by his words and the conviction behind his spirited delivery. In the end, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a movie that is positively radiating with energy – delicious, debauched, downright hysterical energy.

1. Before Midnight - Before Midnight” is the third and final installment in Richard Linklater’s entrancing “Before” trilogy. It’s incredibly hard for me to put into words just what these movies have meant to me over the years. A quick recap: In 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” we were introduced to Jesse and Celine, two travelers in their early 20’s who meet on a train to Vienna and fall head over heels in love. Nine years later, “Before Sunset” came out: here, the characters are reunited. They’re older and have more baggage, yet both of them are still haunted by the “what ifs”: What if they were reunited sooner? How different would their lives be? “You can’t think like that,” Celine says to Jesse. “I know you shouldn't on most things, but - It's just, on this one it seemed like something was off,” Jesse muses.

That leads us to the latest film, “Before Midnight”: It’s been 18 years since we first met Jesse and Celine, and a lot has changed. Now they’ve been together for nine years, and have two beautiful twin daughters. Right from the get-go it’s clear: the honeymoon period is over. The best scene – a heated 30-minute fight between the two in a hotel room – caught me totally off guard. As a longtime fan of these movies, this is something I wasn’t at all prepared for. I was used to the Jesse and Celine who liked to take long walks and ponder the beautiful curiosities of life, not this. I felt hurt, betrayed by a couple who, in my eyes, were nothing short of perfect. But those feelings soon turned into a deep appreciation and understanding for what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy created with this trilogy. In my review, I said:

“So, is this the best in the series? It seems inappropriate to compare the three. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the order in which one most enjoys the “Before” movies has nothing to do with the quality of each individual film, but instead directly relates to where you are in life. I can relate to those young 20-somethings in “Sunrise”: still wide-eyed and dreamy, holding onto a night that can’t help but feel like fate…And it’s moments like this when I most want to hold on to my blissful naivety on the subject of love – when I want nothing more than to hold on to the Celine and Jesse of those first two films, the films where my ideals of romance were mirrored before me on screen. “Before Midnight” will have none of that though. It’ll make you smile. It’ll break your heart. But more than anything, it’ll leave you with an unwaveringly honest portrait of how even the most passionate love evolves over time.”

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