2013 has been one of the best years for film in recent memory. Having struggled a bit to fill up a top ten list for the past two years, this year I found there to be no lack of great films to put on it, leaving just a few that didn't make the final cut. However, what’s left demonstrates just how great this past year has been, with an inclusion of multiple genres such as drama, science-fiction, romance, fantasy, comedy, and even a documentary. So without further delay, let’s begin the countdown of the ten best films I had the pleasure of seeing in 2013.
10. Before Midnight – Here we have part three of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, which began with “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” “Before Midnight” picks up with Jesse and Celine nine years later in Greece, nearly twenty years since they first met. While much of the first half of the film returns to the unnatural-sounding and random conversation style of “Sunrise,” including a dinner scene that should have been removed for pacing purposes, the second half of the film takes off in a major way. It’s here where the film bunkers down and focuses on their relationship, allowing the brilliant writing and outstanding performances to shine through, and delivering an emotional rollercoaster that has the audience glued to the screen in anticipation of what will happen next. Not a bad accomplishment for a low-budget romantic drama.
9. Tim’s Vermeer – If there’s one thing I thoroughly enjoy, it’s documentaries about the creative process. Whether it’s about making a film (“Lost in La Mancha,” “Hearts of Darkness”) or creating a painting, there’s always so much to be learned about art in its many forms. In “Tim’s Vermeer,” inventor Tim Jenison takes us on a journey of discovery as he seeks to learn how master painter Johannes Vermeer was able to create works of art that were on the level of photographs. When he believes he has discovered the means with which Vermeer created his masterpieces, he goes about trying to replicate one of the master’s works using a painstaking method that could well prove vitally important to art history. This is a fascinating documentary that comes to us from Penn and Teller, who are normally known for their comedic material, but this is certainly no joke. It’s a spellbinding journey that will fascinate you and draw you into an obsession that has puzzled art historians for centuries.
8. Much Ado About Nothing – Joss Whedon’s fantastic contemporary update of William Shakespeare’s classic romantic-comedy. Even though Whedon is mainly known for his exploits in sci-fi/fantasy (“Firefly,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers,” etc.), he demonstrates that he can apply his keen eye for direction and sharp focus on characters to the Bard’s work as well. Using a terrific ensemble of actors who have worked with him before, Whedon is able to bring out all of the humor and the passion that makes this such a celebrated play. What’s rather amazing about this project is that it was filmed in 12 short days on a tiny budget, and at Whedon’s own house no less. Such spectacular things can happen when you combine a brilliant director, a great cast, and material that is just as relatable today as it was over 400 years ago.
7. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – The second part of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien beloved novel. It’s not on the same level as “An Unexpected Journey,” but it’s still an outstanding continuation of the tale, featuring action, adventure, romance, drama, and comedy. It gets a little bogged down with the additional material, as well as with the unnecessary action sequence between Smaug and the dwarves, but the events that are taken right from the book are done extraordinarily well. Jackson and his crew have even taken the barrel escape sequence from the book, which is fairly straightforward and uneventful, and turned it into one of the most rousing action sequences put to film this year. Over the course of two and a half hours, there’s no shortage of excitement to be found, leading to a lofty expectation of just how great the epic finale will be. If these first two films are any indication, it might be best to go ahead and reserve a spot for the conclusion on next year’s list.
6. Star Trek Into Darkness – Back in 2009, J.J. Abrams did what few thought possible by successfully rebooting the “Star Trek” franchise. This year, he showed us that the outstanding quality of the first film was no fluke, delivering another exciting, action-packed entry with “Star Trek Into Darkness.” This time around, instead of the stock Romulan villain (my one issue with the previous film), we have the mysterious John Harrison, a terrorist who declares a one-man war against Starfleet after perpetrating a terrorist bombing in London and a direct attack on their headquarters in San Francisco. Harrison is portrayed by the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives the character a strong presence and gravitas that makes him stand out. In fact, the only complaint I could think of regarding the film was that I would have liked to see him given more screentime. Aside from that, there’s nothing to complain about as Abrams once again delivers a fantastic film in the franchise that will astound trekkies and non-trekkies alike.
5. The Place Beyond the Pines – One of the most ambitious films of the year, “The Place Beyond the Pines” has a story that spans generations, beginning with a bank robber trying to provide for his new child and the cop who chases him down, and ending with their sons’ coincidental friendship. This is a film that could have easily fallen apart in any of its three acts, all of which concentrate on different characters, but director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance miraculously manages to keep things together, constructing the film in such a way as to show the various consequences of certain decisions not only to oneself, but also to family and even those you don’t know. “The Place Beyond the Pines” just goes to show what happens when filmmakers are willing to take a chance on material that’s bold and original, as opposed to something we’ve seen a million times before.
4. The Way, Way Back – An extraordinary coming of age tale from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who take the standard clichés we find in such a film and use them to such great effect that we barely notice that the film is made up of the same material as several other movies. It concerns young Duncan, who is forced to go on a vacation with his family and his mother’s new boyfriend. He’s a loner who isn’t all that outgoing, that is, until he meets Owen, the laid-back manager of a water park, who becomes something of a mentor to the boy. What makes “The Way, Way Back” so particularly effective is Faxon and Rash’s great screenplay, which sprinkles the film with a good dose of humor while putting the standard clichés to good use. On top of that, you have Sam Rockwell giving one of the best performances of his career as Owen. On the surface, it may seem like your everyday coming of age drama, but if you give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how affective it is.
3. Saving Mr. Banks – A marvelously delightful film about how Disney’s adaptation of “Mary Poppins” came to be. After trying to get the rights to the books for 20 years, Walt Disney finally convinces author P.L. Travers to come to Los Angeles in 1961 and see what they have planned for the big screen adaptation. These characters mean a great deal to her, so she wants to see everything done perfectly or else she won’t sign over the rights. Travers finds something wrong with just about every design Walt’s team has come up with, all this on top of some very strict stipulations that include no animation, no Dick Van Dyke, and a non-musical film.
We all know how it turns out, but it’s fascinating to see just how difficult it was to get the masterpiece made. The film’s success is due in no small part to the outstanding, Oscar-worthy performances from Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt. Without them pouring their hearts into their respective roles, it would not work half as well as it does. “Saving Mr. Banks” has a lot of heart, but it’s also another film that explores the creative process in a fascinating manner, giving us the inside look at how various elements of the film came to be. It also shows us just how much care went into making “Mary Poppins,” and why it will continue to endure for another 50 years and beyond.
2. Her – Spike Jonze’s unique story of the relationship between a man (Theo) and his computer’s operating system (Samantha) was a startling year-end surprise. Jonze, who is known for such great films as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” has crafted something of a thesis on love in the technological age and how far some are willing to go to find the companionship that they can’t seem to find in real life. He goes even further by asking difficult existential questions that there aren’t any real answers to. Are Samantha’s feelings real? Can their relationship be considered real? Perhaps none of it matters as long as Theo feels something that he believes is real.
Theo and Samantha’s relationship doesn’t follow the standard rules of romance, but that’s because it can’t. Instead of the usual clichés, Jonze uses this opportunity to go deeper into the nature of emotion, using fully-formed characters that are brought to life with outstanding performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. This is an amazing film that will have you thinking about it long after it’s over and is just another great example of what can happen when originality is allowed to flourish.
1. Gravity – We come to it at last. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” was the one film I saw in 2013 that earned a four-star rating, and it couldn’t be more deserved. The story is pretty simple: two astronauts are stranded in space after debris destroys their shuttle, forcing them to make a desperate attempt to find another way home, but the simplicity of the narrative is deceptive when compared with the scope of everything that Cuaron includes. All at once it’s a meditation on the human spirit, the fear of death, the difficulty in coping with tragedy, and finding the will to soldier on, all wrapped up in a 90-minute, edge-of-your-seat spectacle.
Weaving together all of these themes, gorgeous visuals, stunning camerawork, brilliant direction, fleshed-out characters, and a top-notch performance from Sandra Bullock, “Gravity” delivers an emotional punch that’s very rare in cinema nowadays. All the pieces come together to form one of the most unforgettable movie-going experiences of recent memory. This is easily the best film of 2013 and will be remembered for many years to come, not only for its intense visual beauty, but also for Cuaron’s daring in taking a story so simple and turning it into a grand masterpiece that is so much more than it seems.
Now playing in theaters: The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Out of the Furnace, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Dallas Buyers Club, Thor: The Dark World, Ender's Game, Carrie, Kill Your Darlings, Gravity
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Insidious: Chapter 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Elysium, The Hunt, Touchy Feely, The Rooftop, Drinking Buddies, Inpractical Jokers: Season One, Planes, Paranoia, The To Do List, Blackfish, Paradise, White House Down, Grown Ups 2, Girl Most Likely, Robotech: The Complete Set, The Way, Way Back
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.