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Tom Santilli's 15 Best Movies of 2013

"Mud" tops Tom Santilli's "Best of 2013" list.
"Mud" tops Tom Santilli's "Best of 2013" list.
2013 Roadside Attractions

It's time to make sense of the year that was in movies. Yes, it's yet another "year-end" list for you to chew on. As the year draws towards its conclusion, here is a look back at the best films of 2013.

Last year, I compiled a Top 25, because there were just so many films worthy of mention. This year the list is down to 15, because quite frankly, there were only 15 films (or so) that I felt remotely passionate about this time around. There was still a lot to like within films that didn't crack my list (Daniel Bruhl's performance in Rush, Bruce Dern in Nebraska and Brie Larson in Short Term 12 come to mind), but here are my personal best of the best.

Of course, these lists rarely have any lasting resonance. They are meant to be easily digestible, read mainly as a means of comparison to see just how closely a particular critic falls in-line with your own personal preferences. Most movie-goers will read these lists with hopes of finding their favorite films listed among the obscure, mostly irrelevant (to them), independent or foreign films that seem to populate many critic's year-end lists. Others will scour over the choices waiting to pounce. "You picked that?!? That movie sucked!"

Surely, my list will produce similar cries of foul and maybe a few agreeing cheers, perhaps both well warranted. They are subjective picks and I assure you that these selections are not meant to be "controversial" or to "raise eyebrows." These are simply my favorite films of the year, reputation and stature be damned (worthy to note that I sadly missed The Great Beauty, Philomena and Justin Bieber's Believe. I beg your forgiveness for their exclusion).

So without further ado, sink your teeth into this: My Top 15 films of 2013:

15. Dallas Buyers Club. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "Dallas Buyers Club is not without problems. About half-way through, Woodroof becomes a two-dimensional "hero," a man who becomes heroic internally because the film demands this of him. There is little in the way of drama at that point as well as it dips deeply into predictable waters." Why it's on this list: Not a glowing review by any means, this movie grew on me based on its stellar performances. Jared Leto's performance will most likely land him an Oscar win (a nomination seems to be a foregone conclusion), but 2013 is the year of Matthew McConaughey. This film is his best bet for a nomination, but he's deserving of two other Supporting Actor nods as well, for Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street. He is simply stellar here. These fine performances just sneak this movie onto my list.

14. This Is the End. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "In a film including humor aimed at the lowest of brows, This Is the End actually has some pretty brilliant stuff in it. Co-written and co-directed by Seth Rogen (along with Evan Goldberg), this is the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a horny 13-year old, who just so happens to be in his 30s." Why it's on this list: Simply put, it was the funniest film of the year. It may not be up everyone's alley, but it was unique and laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, featuring a slew of hilarious cameos from Michael Cera to Emma Watson to Rihanna.

13. The Square.

Why it's on this list: I haven't yet written a full review of this film, but The Square was the best documentary of 2013 (and the only one on my year-end list). It is a film about the Arab Spring, the upheaval that was and is going in within Egypt, as the citizens joined in peace to overthrow their dictatorial government that had oppressed them for years. It was a miraculous show of the power of democracy and the will of human unity, that they were able to stand together in the town square. But it's what happened after their important protest that is the most compelling, and perhaps, what says the most about the human spirit. The movie gives us on-the-ground access to different citizens from different walks of life and it attempts to show the complexities that the people of Egypt have to face in the years to come. Riveting stuff and a must-see.

12. Only God Forgives. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "If only Refn could infuse his actors with the same fearlessness and emotion that the rest of this film possesses. A great example of this is Kristin Scott Thomas, the only performance in the film that is precisely spot-on. She is cold, hard and calculating, but she is alive. So many other characters in Refn's films - this one included - seem dead on arrival. Less-than-par acting (and direction of these actors) is a big deal, knocking Only God Forgives out of the upper echelon of 2013 films. But what a brilliant accomplishment otherwise." Why it's on this list: This film is a controversial one and was despised by many (in fact, you may find this film on some critics' "Worst of the Year" lists). I had, in fact, hated director Nicolas Winding Refn's previous film, Drive, a film that ironically was loved by many. But Only God Forgives excelled with its use of imagery and theme. When it came to being "memorable," Only God Forgives is one of the few films I saw this year that I will never forget. It has Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the big-screen's most ruthless and memorable villains in recent movie history. It also includes some of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. I really dug this film, what it accomplished and what it was going for. And I've yet to shake it.

11. To the Wonder. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "To the Wonder is a dreamy, visual masterpiece that is more akin to a poem than a traditional dramatic film. " Why it's on this list: I'll be the first to admit that I was shocked by how much I liked this Terrence Malick movie, when I absolutely hated The Tree of Life, amongst others of his previous films. But this movie is so breath-taking and beautiful, it was hard not to be affected by it. Here is a master craftsman at work, attempting to transcend the usual methods of film-making by foregoing plot and character in lieu of theme and feel. He succeeds brilliantly, at times, in a movie that requires patience and attention.

10. Gravity. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "When astronauts return from space - being accustomed to the anti-gravity - they often feel weighed down...like they can barely lift their legs or rise from the ground. Perhaps that's Earth's way of saying: Stay close to me. Because what's up there, is not meant for you. But thanks to this wondrous film, we can untether ourselves from the limits of technology. Gravity knows no limits and proves with a resounding punch that finally, without a doubt, quite literally anything is possible in the movies." Why it's on this list: Wow, what an amazing visual spectacle. For pushing visual effects into the future alone, this movie should grace every year-end list. It's an important film in that regard, but it was also the only movie that I saw this year that felt more like an experience, rather than just a movie. When it ended, I wanted to go on it again.

9. Blue Jasmine. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "This is an unmistakable Woody Allen film through and through, beginning with the same font and opening graphics that we've come to expect and continuing with the same jazzy score that seems mismatched with the on-screen material. But if his neurotic, self-loathing comedic tone and his recognizable rhythm of dialogue could be harnessed and shot out of a fire hose, Blue Jasmine is only given a light spray...enough to feel familiar but not enough to make it come off like just "another Woody Allen movie."" Why it's on this list: Woody Allen's best film in years, featuring great, memorable performances from Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and of all people, Andrew "Dice" Clay.

8. The Kings of Summer. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "As hilarious as this movie is - and it is quite funny - it also makes many sly observations about growing up, family and happiness. It carries with it the quirkiness of an independent film but the confidence of a Summer blockbuster." Why it's on this list: The first of three coming-of-age films to appear on this list, The Kings of Summer just hit all the right notes. Nick Offerman gives an under-rated performance as a disapproving father and the assortment of child actors that round out the cast have real chemistry. The film also goes against the grain when it comes to the viewer's expectations. It was one of the best "feel good" movies of the Summer.

7. The Bling Ring. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "I've never simultaneously loved a movie and despised its characters and ideas as much as I did with this film. This is clearly Sofia Coppola's most effective film to date, capturing a grim reality of modern American culture without ever hammering home a message. It's inevitable, perhaps, that as each generation tries to provide more for their children than what they had, eventually a generation would come along that feels that it has all it needs...The Bling Ring is the film that Spring Breakers - released earlier this year - wanted to be. " Why it's on this list: There is a dangerous message here hidden beneath all of the on-screen bling. It's biting social commentary and one of the most spot-on depictions of the emerging "Me" Generation to date. The Bling Ring has sadly been over-looked by many critics now that we've hit December, but it stands up for me as one of the year's most important films.

6. 12 Years a Slave. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "Solomon's story is easy to rally behind and shows the ugliness that existed in early and recent American history. But this old story also struck me as timely. While our country may have come extremely far in the fight for racial equality and against the injustices of racial segregation, we live in a polarized time. Whether dealing with such a terrible topic as slavery or even a modern-day issue like poverty or gay rights, 12 Years a Slave portrays compassion and tolerance above all else, as the only two virtues that are capable of overcoming such man-made evil." Why it's on this list: It's the Oscar front-runner for Best Picture and well-deserving. It is the year's most powerful film, with a bevy of great performances starting with Chiwetel Ejiofor and expanding to include Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. Just because it's the front-runner, it has experienced some back-lash as of late, as all favorites-to-win do. But that doesn't mean it isn't deserving. If it's not among the year's best films, it at least should be in the discussion.

5. Before Midnight. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "It is no coincidence that this third chapter takes place in Greece, the birthplace of tragedy. Keeping in line with the first two films, Before Midnight is all talk, but the insights and truths uncovered once again make for a moving movie-going experience." Why it's on this list: It's unique, in fact, the only other two films like it are its predecessors, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The other two films deal with common topics, like falling in love. All three are talk-fests, but the chemistry between Julia Delpy and Ethan Hawke is tangible. The film portrays a rarely seen time in a couple's evolution. We've all seen films about meeting someone, falling in love and even films depicting old couples as they near their final days together. But there hasn't really been a movie that unflinchingly examines that not-talked-about-too-often, in-between phase in a relationship. When the shine has left and where forever seems like an excruciatingly painful, long time away. It's brilliantly written and was handled with care.

4. Frances Ha. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "For anyone that has ever tried to plug a square peg into a round hole, or if you've ever been forced to grow up, Frances Ha is the film for you. Though she doesn't know which direction to lean into and gets swept up from time to time, we root for Frances, because we all have been there." Why it's on this list: Greta Gerwig, Greta Gerwig, Greta Gerwig.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "It's so funny that you will barely miss the scathing social commentary and even though the content is blunt and may be hard to swallow, it is a deliciously fulfilling, jagged-little-pill." Why it's on this list: Scorsese is a legend, that we know, but when he just goes for broke - as he does here - it's an incredible thing to witness. It's a film made in the same style as the world it portrays - a world of excessive, greedy, fun-loving bastards - so any critiques that the film is bloated or over-long may have missed the point. The film is bloated...and proud of it. It features great performances, especially from DiCaprio and break-through actress Margot Robbie, and some of the most memorable scenes of the year. I simply couldn't take my eyes off the screen.

2. The Spectacular Now. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "This is a complex coming-of-age story not easily communicated in a 99-minute film. So much could have gone wrong, or came across as unauthentic, but every intrinsic note was spot-on. It's quite an achievement really, a spectacular piece of cinema that ends not with shock, tragedy or happily ever after, but the way a realistic story should: Untidy. It's no cliff-hanger, but we are left satisfied, with a sense of hope not only for the now, but for the future." Why it's on this list: Here is an example of complex characters given a simplistic story in which to exist. As Shailene Woodley's character says in the film, nobody is just one thing. But so often in movies - especially coming-of-age dramas - the opposite is true. Woodley and Teller are both amazing here but the really spectacular thing about The Spectacular Now is how it handles such familiar material and then makes it feel fresh, new and unexpected.

1. Mud. (read the full review).

What I had written about it: "Sometimes, you don't need to over-do it with style, or think so far out-of-the-box as to re-define a genre. Mud takes a fairly straight-forward plot and refuses to muck things up with artistic enhancements or visual gimmickry. " Why it's on this list: I could honestly interchange my Top Three picks, as all three of these movies were well-deserving of "Best Film of the Year." But the reason I ultimately chose Mud, is because of all of the films on this list, it doesn't set out to be a great film (although it is one). Instead, director Jeff Nichols seems to set out to just tell a great story. There is a strong ensemble cast, unexpected developments along the way and simply put, it doesn't have any flaws. That doesn't make Mud a "perfect" film, but man is it an effective one. Too often, films released earlier in the year are given an awards-season death sentence, but it would be a shame if voters didn't recognize Mud, the year's best film.

What were your favorite films of 2013? What films did I get wrong and which ones do you agree with? Feel free to sound off below.

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