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The 15 Best Movies of 2013

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When it comes to ranking the best or worst of anything, I'm a total obsessive about it. The process begins with day one of the new year and runs all the way through to the end. That doesn't make it any easier, mind you, in fact it makes sorting through the many movies I see each year (nearing 230 at the time of this post) all the more difficult. And 2013 has been especially tough because this has been one of the most stacked movie years I can remember, and it has nothing to do with the summer blockbuster season, which in general was a massive disappointment. By contrast the typically dreadful winter season was full of high-quality gems which sadly will be overlooked come Oscar time (but not by me!), and because of that there are more brilliant movies than ever to choose from. Which is just one reason why I've expanded my Top 10 to 15...that and to cut down on the usual flood of emails asking "How could you leave (insert movie here) off your list?!?!”

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Enough rambling, let's just jump right in.

15. The Place Beyond the Pines

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta

How is it that everybody has forgotten Derek Cianfrance's sprawling The Place Beyond the Pines? Never mind that it features the only good performance by Ryan Gosling this year, overshadowing Bradley Cooper just as he was overshadowed by other superior talents in American Hustle, but the film is a truly ambitious look at the legacy of violence wrapped in complicated narrative structure few directors would even dare.

14. The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Like horror movies? Great, then you need to check out Joshua Oppenheimer's chilling documentary The Act of Killing. You won't see Hollywood celebrating this "movie about movies", which offers probably the clearest look at the impact of our violent movie culture. Oppenheimer, who had gone to Indonesia for totally different reasons, ended up meeting Anwar Congo and a number of other movie-loving gangsters who had committed wholesale genocide of Communists and other enemies of state back in the 1960s, and have been living for decades as heroes, unabashedly boastful of their murderous actions. Convincing them to reenact the slaughter in the style of their favorite movies, the film becomes a deeply disturbing, darkly comic (which is even more unsettling) film about redemption and the power of cinema.

13. The Wind Rises

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

If The Wind Rises truly is Hayao Miyazaki's final movie, the legendary Studio Ghibli founder has gone out on top. Setting aside his impressive resume of fantasy classics, Miyazaki has been living in the real world more often of late, co-writing the post-WWII drama From Up on Poppy Hill and now with The Wind Rises he explores a similar time in Japan's difficult history. As complete and fully-realized as any biopic that emerged this year, the film tells the story of engineer Jiro Hirokoshi, a dreamer who would ultimately design the Zero Fighter plane used during the war. The aeronautical details are fascinating in and of themselves, but so is Hirokoshi's personal story as an obsessive artist in love with his craft and the one woman who accepted him for who he was. There's been a lot of controversy over what the film doesn't say, but none of that matters in the long run. All I know is when the movie was over I spent the next couple of hours online reading literally everything I could find on Hirohoshi. That never happens.

12. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone

Comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back have been flying around pretty easily, but for once they actually make a bit of sense. Catching Fire isn't just a better movie than The Hunger Games, it's bigger, handles the social and political themes with more nuance and raises the stakes in a way that changes the tenor of the franchise. And of course right at the center of it is the quietly confident Jennifer Lawrence (so different than her chaotic role in American Hustle), aided by great supporting cast that only got better with the additions of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and the ferocious Jena Malone.

11. Fast & Furious 6

Director: Justin Lin

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Luke Evans, Jordana Brewster

Okay, let's be honest: these movies are dumb as bricks, but nothing else can be counted on to deliver bigger bang for the buck and more "holy shit!" moments than Fast & Furious. The latest is a cornucopia of improbable car chases, crashes, and mid-air battles, led by an ethnically-diverse superstar cast that we've come to look at as family. As silly as they may be on screen, the genius of these movies is that they treat their audience with respect and give them exactly what they want year in and year out.

10. The Kings of Summer

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman

Jordan Vogt-Robert's impressive directorial debut The Kings of Summer may take some of its cues from 1980s childhood classics The Goonies and Stand By Me, but it quickly becomes apparent this quirky, funny little gem is doing its own thing. This timeless and slightly surreal comedy stars a handful of unknowns in Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and the goofy Moises Arias, as friends eager to get out from under their parents' shadows (including the gruff and hilarious Nick Offerman) by building their own home in the woods and living off the land. Subverting the genre and shattering preconceived notions all the way, the adults and kids are given equal consideration without a hint of irony, taking us on a journey that is both funny and poignant. But more than that, it's refreshing to see a comedy that doesn't take the cinematography for granted, and The Kings of Summer is a genuinely beautiful movie with big, sweeping sun-kissed images that will burn into your memory.

9. Trance

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

When Danny Boyle wasn't busy plotting the most recent Olympics, he was figuring out way to make mincemeat out of our brains with Trance. While it seems to have been overlooked since it came out early this year, there were few experiences I had more fulfilling than Boyle's delirious, pulsing heist thriller, with all its twists, turns, and palpable sexual energy. James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and that darn smirking Vincent Cassel have never been better in their careers in ever-shifting roles that constantly reframe who we think is worth trusting. The simple answer is "nobody".

8. Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Before Ethan Hawke embarrassed himself later in the year with Getaway, he would find much greater success in the continued 20-year collaboration with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight. The third film in the dialogue heavy series gives fans everything they think they've wanted for so long, finding Jesse and Celine married with kids, and as argumentative as ever. For two breathtakingly gorgeous hours walking with them through the Greek Isle, they discuss love, sex, family, and more in a way that feels remarkably natural. But true to this series' nature, their conversations don't go where we expect them to, veering down a dark path that forces us to question whether they were truly meant to live happily ever after.

7. Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine

Cast: Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, James Franco, Rachel Korine

James Franco gives head to a gun at one point in Harmony Korine's wild, neon spectacle Spring Breakers. Reason enough for me to put it in my Top 10, along with Franco's unforgettable drawl "Spring break forever, ya'll!" that is unquestionably the quote of the year. Some have been quick to write off the film as just another look at teen rebellion and excess, and while those are indeed factors there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. Looking like it was set on fire by candles made of Starbursts, the film and its army of half-naked starlets tosses aside any notions of normalcy and rips away at the facade of American culture. There's nowhere safe from the corrupting influence of sex, drugs, and violence; and while these are familiar ideas for Korine we've never seen them presented quite like this.

6. Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Full disclosure: Gravity had been sitting in my top 3 until only recently, which just goes to show how strong the last few weeks of movies have been. That's not taking anything away from what Alfonso Cuaron accomplished with Gravity, a film that endured a troubling production process to become one of the year's biggest hits, and an experience I think defines what going to the movies is all about. If movies are designed to take us into a world we can never hope to experience ourselves, then Gravity is the closest any of us will ever get to being in space. Cuaron captures the terrifying beauty of space in all its glory, fully immersing us into the impossible journey home of two stranded astronauts, played Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. What Cuaron accomplishes is so far-reaching that it's easy to overlook the contributions the actors make, but Clooney's reservoir of charm is the perfect balance to Bullock's desperation.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal

My first thought after the credits rolled on Martin Scorsese's 3-hour symphony of greed and depravity was, "How in the hell did this not get an NC-17 rating"??? Seriously, there are so many heinous acts committed in this constantly hilarious film, by none other than Hollywood golden boy Leonardo DiCaprio, that you need to see it multiples times just to properly sort them all out. When midget tossing is on the low rung of the immoral totem pole then that's really saying something, but let's just say cocaine gets snorted out of more orifices than I think it was ever meant to. While Goodfellas is clearly the model here in just about every respect, the film treads its own path in the story of Wall Street whiz kid Jordan Belfort, who starts from nothing before becoming top don at the craziest brokerage firm in the world. Besides DiCaprio, the film is bolstered by great supporting turns by Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, and a chest-thumping Matthew McConaughey.

4. American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner

Another film taking its cues from Goodfellas, David O. Russell's American Hustle is the most fun you'll have being conned all year. Very loosely based on the political Abscam scandal of the late '70s, which Russell knows you don't really give a fig about, this glitzy messy crime caper is a whirl of double-crosses and broken hearts, told through the questionable lens of a con-couple played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Throw in Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's chaotic wife, Bradley Cooper (and his curly 'do) as a scheming FBI agent, not to mention a game Jeremy Renner and you have the recipe for a film that is so dynamic it's easy to look over the plot's significant flaws.

3. 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch

One does not really enjoy a movie like 12 Years A Slave. You endure it. You experience it, and Steve McQueen's harrowing drama is the most unflinching look at the slavery era we've ever seen captured on film, TV, anywhere. McQueen brings his aloof approach to the unbelievable true story of Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped and forced into brutal slavery under the whip of masters ranging from coldly dismissive to sadistic. If Alfonso Cuaron's cast us adrift in the darkness of space, McQueen entraps us into the horrors of the antebellum South and never lets us escape its grip even for a moment.

2. The Spectacular Now

Director: James Ponsoldt

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

When I get asked why I make it a point to attend the Sundance Film Festival every year, the answer is because of movies like The Spectacular Now. One of the very first things I saw way back in January, after my glowing review I remarked that it was almost a certainty to be at or near the top of my 'Best Of..." list, regardless of how many great movies may follow it. And that has held true, obviously. Good to know I'm a man of word in this case. What struck me right off the bat was how far it sets itself apart from other teen romances. The teens all look and sound like normal everyday people, not the easily recognizable stereotypes we see perpetuated constantly in any number of similar movies. Showing the emotional range he displayed opposite Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, Miles Teller plays life-of-the-party high school senior Sutter Keely, with Shailene Woodley as the shy and disarmingly beautiful Aimee Finicky. We're treated to their courtship, which evolves naturally from mentorship, to friendship, to eventual romance, but from there it goes into unexpected territory as Sutter's personal demons threaten to engulf them both. Directed with an observant eye by James Ponsolt, it's probably the closest any film has come to matching the sincere tone of those great John Hughes movies we all love. The Spectacular Now deserves to be in the same conversation with all of them.

1. Short Term 12

Director: Destin Cretton

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever

The top two picks on this list are pretty much interchangeable for me, and if asked what my favorite movie of the year is tomorrow I may have the positions swapped. But right this very second Destin Cretton's masterful Short Term 12 sits at the top. It's a small film with big hopes, big ambitions, and big emotional stakes as we follow the mentors and charges at a foster care facility for at-risk teens. At the center of it is Grace, played with vulnerability and passion by one of my favorite actresses, Brie Larson. Her perfectly nuanced performance ranks as one of the year's finest, even if I think the Academy will ultimately overlook her. The script by emerging star Destin Cretton is a thing of beauty, hitting on all of the right emotional beats as it skillfully studies the devastating effects of abuse on its survivors. And while sometimes that exploration can get pretty bleak, Cretton never lets us totally give up hope, imbuing the film with an everlasting humanist spirit.


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