2013 offered a wealth of memorable cinematic moments. Filmmakers young and old are finding new ways to bring ambitious and original work directly to their audience. While the gap continues to widen between small-budget VOD and big-budget theatrical offerings, the selection of quality has rarely been so diverse.
In other words, 2013 was a very good year at the movies. Here were 10 of my favorites:
1. Gravity - Alfonso Cuaron’s years-in-the-making triumph is the cinematic equivalent of floating through space for 90 minutes. All throughout, Gravity sustains a sublime balance of thematic weight and technological pioneering. Sandra Bullock’s emotional fight for survival makes this so much more than just a VFX showreel.
2. Spring Breakers - Possibly the year’s most lurid and subversively entertaining film. Is writer/director Harmony Korine indulging in the same excess as his morality-challenged characters? Or is this some sly commentary on our image-obsessed youth culture masquerading as a Girls Gone Wild video? The answer lies somewhere in James Franco’s hypnotic stunt of a supporting performance. He’s scary and funny and unforgettable. Just like the movie.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street - Much like Spring Breakers, Wolf is another black comedy of extreme narcissism and capitalistic excess. Nearly 40 years after Taxi Driver, and Scorsese is still making films that can shock and polarize. With an energized and full-committed DiCaprio dominating every scene, Wolf is an unapologetic tour through the world of a self-proclaimed "drug and sex addict,” and it ranks high among the modern masters’ very best films.
4. Blue Jasmine - With over 40 feature films credited as writer/director, you wouldn’t expect such a startlingly dark and mordantly funny film to come from a man in his 70s. Yet, Blue Jasmine is one of the darkest and saddest films in Woody Allen's career. Cate Blanchett's ‘modern-day Blanche Dubois’ is a performance that haunts you long after the credits roll.
5. Pacific Rim - An exquisitely crafted sci-fi marvel that has enough eye-popping spectacle and giddy imagination for three summer blockbusters. Guillermo Del Toro’s fully-realized creation is the rare action extravaganza that respects its characters and its audience.
6. Her - The relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his OS ‘Samantha’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansen) makes for one of the strangest love stories of the year. Like so many of Spike Jonze’s films, Her is infused with loneliness and melancholia right from the start. He creates an isolating future where people are inseparable from their smart phones. It’s a world that feels a lot like the one we live in today.
7. The Place Beyond the Pines - Right from the lengthy opening tracking shot, Pines establishes itself as an ambitious work of cinematic art. Derek Cianfrance’s sprawling crime epic is nearly overflowing with great scenes and memorable performances. It’s an intimately observed but epically scaled drama about the emotional baggage children inherit from their parents.
8. Nebraska - A leisurely paced black-and-white movie about dementia likely doesn’t scream out “must see” for most folks. This, however, is an Alexander Payne movie. In his hands, Nebraska becomes a funny and subtly moving look at the bond between fathers and sons, and an inquiring portrait about what gives most lives meaning. Bruce Dern takes center stage in the role of his lifetime, proving that some actors actually do get better with age.
9. Frances Ha - Like Nebraska, this is another beautifully-shot digital movie presented in black-and-white. Frances Ha channels the stripped-down, effervescent qualities of 80s independent cinema and the French New Wave but manages to be its own unique, warm-hearted creation. Following up the wonderful Greenberg, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created another low-key gem.
10. Rush - After throwaways like The Dilemma and The DaVinci Code series, it was beginning to look like Ron Howard had forgotten how to tell a simple and compelling story. Thankfully Rush sees the filmmaker fully revitalized, and ranks among Apollo 13 and Backdraft as the director’s most well-crafted and purely entertaining movie in years. Chris Hemsworth proves here that there's life beyond Thor, but it's Daniel Bruel's riveting, empathetic portrayal of Niki Lauda that makes this a ride worth taking.
"Honorable Mention" OR "The Alternate Top 10"
Disconnect, dir. Henry Alex Stern
Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler
The Conjuring, dir. James Wan
The Spectacular Now, dir. James Ponsoldt
Elysium, dir. Neil Blomkamp
The World's End, dir. Edgar Wright
The Counselor, dir. Ridley Scott
Inside Llewelyn Davis, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
American Hustle, dir. David O. Russell
Lone Survivor, dir. Peter Berg
Michael Bay's Pain & Gain