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Year in review: The 10 best films of 2013

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With the champagne on ice and just in time for the calendar to shift to a new year, I've found the opportunity to reflect on the best films of 2013. When I became a parent for the first time in February, I learned that time is a valuable thing. I had a pessimistic feeling then that my free-swinging hop-out-and-see-a-movie days would be numbered and this movie website/blog would turn into a baby product review site. As I always say, "I wish this could pay the bills."

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For the third year in a row, I've been lucky enough to catch as many of the best and brightest movies of 2013 as possible before the official end of the year today. I managed to keep seeing movies and discovered the beauty of Video on Demand, which expanded my opportunities to review movies running concurrently in theaters. I found greater luck being near the big city of Chicago to win my way into advance screenings through contests and Gofobo events. The best part of all was getting the chance to treat myself and take part in the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, where three of my "10 Best" movies came from. I'm amazed that I was able to see all that I did with a new little piece of entertainment at home.

For the 2013 box office year, I scratched and clawed my way to seeing and reviewing 72 current films, up from last year's 67 films and 2011's 53. If you would have told me that in February, my wife and I would have said you were crazy. When it comes to making a final "10 Best," I definitely didn't see "everything." My four lone regrets of missed contenders are Tom Hank's Captain Phillips, Matthew McConaughey's Mud, and the well-regarded independent films Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12. I missed my windows and chances for those four. I wished I had seen them to possibly crack the Top 10 or Top 20.

Let's start breaking down 2013. I feel like I was stingier than usual with giving out high marks. Last year, I had 13 films earn the full five stars. Surprisingly and conveniently, I gave out exactly 10 five-star reviews this year, making this year's list an easy one to arrange and cut. No one gets left out. Halfway through 2013, as I do every year, I offered a "so far" list of the Best of 2013 up to that point. Unlike 2012 when none of the halfway movies made the final cut, four films from this year's June list survived to make the "10 Best."

Alright, here goes nothing. Here are my very own "10 Best of 2013." You are more than welcome to compare my list with those of the top-shelf critics, but I know, if you're reading this, their lists take a back seat to mine. In keeping with this website's theme and hook, each film is ranked and listed with its best life lesson. Thank you for all of the support and readership this year. I, for one, say a great big thank you for that. Enjoy!

HONORABLE MENTION

These are the "next ten" and the best of my four-star reviewed films from this past year. All are outstanding films, but all just missed the cut from being one of the year's ten best. All still carry very high recommendations from me, with and unexpected tissue box killer and crowd pleaser leading the bunch (full reviews are linked).

11. The Best Man Holiday

13. Gravity

13. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

14. All Is Lost

15. Dallas Buyers Club

16. The Great Gatsby

17. Saving Mr. Banks

18. The Wolf of Wall Street

19. Side Effects

20. Oblivion

THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2013 AND THEIR BEST LESSONS

10. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-- Opening the "10 Best," we have a bit of repeat winner with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. On my list last year in this very same position at #10 was the series's first chapter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As with The Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade ago, I find Jackson's epic works, including this year's middle chapter, to be superior filmmaking to so many other blockbuster entries. The scope of their created Middle Earth through highly detailed visual effects, makeup, costumes, and characterization is second to none in terms of imagination. With Benedict Cumberbatch's massive dragon dropping jaws and stealing the show (Cumberbatch appears three times on this list), I enjoyed The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to call it worthy of a spot on the "10 Best" with the promise that next year's conclusion, The Hobbit: There and Back Again likely completing the streak.

ITS BEST LESSON: THE GROWING CHANGE THAT COMES FROM EXPERIENCING BATTLE AND SURVIVAL-- Ian McKellen's Gandalf makes note very early in the film that he sees a change in Martin Freeman's Bilbo, following up his prophesy from the first film that he will never be the same after this experience. Between seeing what he has seen, surviving what he has encountered, learning to fight for himself and others, and having the metaphorical weight of a certain circular gold accessory slowing seeping into his mind, there is no doubt that Gandalf's observation is chillingly accurate. Courage is part of that change. This change isn't quite finished either, as we know. (full review)

9. Star Trek Into Darkness-- Man of Steel has the big time chops, as you will see later and higher on the list, as the best blockbuster of the year, but Star Trek Into Darkness has, by far, the best action and entertainment value. Balls to the wall with all the bells and whistles that a summer movie should pulse with, this movie never stops dishing out the "wow" moments between awesome action sequences and story twists that add to the scope and peril, even if we all saw the Benedict Cumberbatch reveal coming. This young crew, led by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, and Simon Pegg is a hoot to watch and have made their mark to be regarded as a separate and maybe even better crew than the old bunch. I get a kick out of them and their banter. As I said in June, four years was far too long of a wait between J.J. Abrams Star Trek films. This sequel was better than the first for me and I hope the third ride isn't far behind, but J.J.'s involvement with the Star Wars reboot will inevitably slow my hopes and the movie down.

ITS BEST LESSON: THE MORAL CHOICE VERSUS THE LOGICAL CHOICE-- The outstanding dichotomy of the Kirk and Spock collaborative friendship and co-leadership is the pissing contest between the moral choice and the logical one. As we all know, Spock is a man of logic. He makes the safe call, the most assured one, and doesn't let emotions cloud his judgment. Kirk is driven by his gut and fortitude. He will take risks when pushed to make a moral choice over the logical one. That clash is the root of their mutual respect and acts as the balanced mixture that makes them a great team of leaders. (full review)

8. Before Midnight-- As I said in June, I will admit to being a biased and fully convinced fan of this unlikely romantic trilogy from director Richard Linklater. Compared to the cute and romantic conversation of 1995's Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset, this third film that revisits Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy another nine years later for another day of chatter and connection between Jesse and Celine is far darker and not something I can recommend to everyone. It has the stinging bite of a relationship that has seen its ups and downs. However, the quality is completely there. The improvised screenplay from the trio is a sure-fire Oscar contender already and the conversation nature of this film is still its greatest strength. You always feel as though you are watching something unscripted. The effect of reflection and nostalgia also comes when watching this romance develop for nearly 20 years now with the same actors and characters that each bring new maturity to their roles.

ITS BEST LESSON: THE SUSTAINABILITY OF LOVE AND PASSION-- Finally, how do a couple of soul mates make it to that level? They find a way to sustain the love and passion that brought them together. There's no doubt that age and maturity will affect and steer that love and passion to different angles as the years go on. Lovers sometimes sacrifice a little bit of that passion for their individual careers. Parents forfeit a little bit more of that passion to caring for their children. After each element of life steals their piece of your passion and spirits, soul mates need to have enough left over for each other if they are really going to sustain love for the long-term. I like to think Jesse and Celine have enough make it to the senior years they speak of. (full review)

7. Labor Day-- In the first of three films on this list that I had the pleasure and opportunity to see at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival in advance of their theatrical release, we have Jason Reitman's stark departure from his usual smooth comedy with the romantic and introspective Labor Day. This one doesn't hit theaters until later in January 2014, but I was pleasantly surprised by its impact. The movie goes beyond what looks like a cheesy Lifetime Channel prisoner-kidnapper premise with a story that dives deep into three psyches, Kate Winslet's lonely single mother, Josh Brolin's wrongfully imprisoned fugitive, and newcomer Gattlin Griffin's teen who grows up changed by the events. Put this on your list to see in January and let me know what you think. It's something very different.

ITS BEST LESSON: NOTHING MISLEADS PEOPLE LIKE THE TRUTH-- This is a quotable mantra from Josh Brolin's Frank that rings true again and again during the film. It speaks to two tendencies. First, it supports how most lies are transparent compared to telling the truth. People see through lies. The truth is thicker. Secondly, misled or not, people listen more to the truth. Lies irk their warning sense while truth puts them at ease. (full review)

6. August: Osage County-- The second listed film from my 49th Chicago International Film Festival special presentations is the best ensemble piece of the year. August: Osage County opened in limited release over the Christmas holiday and expands to more theaters nationwide on January 10th. Based on Tracey Lett's hit play (and adapted by Letts himself), director John Wells brings family dysfunction to the forefront with this sunny Oklahoma drama/comedy. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts lock horns in a tense mother/daughter relationship and conflict that fuels the spilled family secrets that drive the film as folks (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, and Ewan McGregor) come together for a funeral back home. Other critics haven't sided with this one so far (68% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I, and the festival audience in Chicago, thought it was terrific and hilarious.

ITS BEST LESSON: WHEN THE LIMITS OF TELLING THE TRUTH ARE EXCEEDED-- Meryl Streep's Violet sees very few of her overwhelming flaws. She was yelled at and berated as a child and has been at peace with doing the very same with her chance as a parent. Her sister (Martindale) does the same with Little Charles (Cumberbatch) with her endless harping. Both piss and moan about how hard their lives are compared to their offspring. Violet feels that she's just "truth-telling" and saying what no one else has the gumption to say. She lacks the care of what should or shouldn't be said for decency's sake. Everyone, particularly Barbara (Roberts) as the oldest, has their limits of how much "truth-telling" they can swallow before they react, cross the line of parental respect, and fight back with equally hateful words. There's love in the Weston family, but it's thickly coated in disdain and disappointment. (full review)

5. Man of Steel-- Despite the split public vote and outcry, I was a big fan of Zack Synder's epic Superman revision. Even as an ardent fan of Christopher Reeve's memorable films, this hero, the greatest of all of them, needed an update. With great gravitas from Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, and star Henry Cavill, the end product had all of the "wow" factor the character deserved. I felt it carried a weight of meaningfulness and dared to give a comic book and superhero movie depth beyond most of the other films of the genre. This was an important movie that had to succeed where others have failed. For me, the movie completely delivered on its promised hype and succeeded in its extremely bold and calculated risks to remake a cultural icon. As I said at the halfway point of the year when this was #2, I couldn't have been more pleased by the end result.

ITS BEST LESSON: BEING A FORCE FOR GOOD-- Even Jor-El (Crowe) acknowledges, before sending his son away, the notion that his own son would be a "god to them," with "them" being us Earthlings with no superpowers. If he wanted to, he could vanquish us all with little effort. Instead, he chooses to be a force for good. While we are steeply in the real of science fiction fantasy, the idea that someone with superior power stands to be a feared and imminent threat is not a foreign concept. We innately fear what we don't understand, can't control, or that which stands greater than us. Upon his public reveal, Kal-El (Cavill) goes to great lengths to establish and prove himself to the world as the symbol of hope Jor-El intended and not the threat we should fear. With the panic of alien destruction, he has an uphill battle to earn society's trust as an ally and not an enemy. (full review)

4. The Place Beyond the Pines-- This excellent film from the beginning of the year from director Derek Cianfrance was my halfway point's #1 movie so far of 2013 back in June. In my full review, I stated that The Place Beyond the Pines, a three-arc epic of fathers and sons between a mesmerizing Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper, would have made the Top 5 of last year's year-end list. It was that good and just missed qualifying for last year's Oscars. It's long and slow at times for some, but I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. This was a blistering and unlikely family story with real reverberating consequences of action and inaction.

ITS BEST LESSON: FATHERS AND SONS SHARING FATES-- Traits are natural and correctable. Sins can be avoided and forgiven. However, it is an entirely deeper issue if fathers and sons are found to share the same fate. Fate and destiny are sometimes sealed things that cannot be avoided. Above traits and sins, fates are infinitely more difficult to avoid. There are definitely a few points in The Place Beyond the Pines where we see sealed fates and changed fates come to the forefronts of our characters. These three father-son dynamics and lessons go way beyond the whole "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" idiom. Far greater and far deeper connections are at work in this film. (full review)

3. The Way Way Back-- This feature film directing debut from the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants (my #1 film of 2011), Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is the best of the two-year renaissance of "coming-of-age" films comprised of 2012's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Moonrise Kingdom (two of my "10 Best" of 2012 films) and 2013's Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now. I absolutely love every single second of this film. It was arguably the most satisfying and pleasureable movie experience I had all year. I know it's not on the scale of blockbusters like Man of Steel or Oscar hopefuls like 12 Years a Slave, but this movie hit me square in my heart, offering laughs, smiles, and even a few tears. This has been the first movie title out of my mouth all year when someone asks me for a good film they likely haven't seen. If you have not seen it, get out the door right now. You will not be sorry.

ITS BEST LESSON: THE JOURNEY TO FIND A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE HAPPY-- For Liam James, Duncan's world when we meet him, no place is good for him at the moment. Home was where divorce hit him and when a summer away to someplace beautiful should be just what the doctor ordered, it becomes a suffocating daily humiliation for Duncan, thanks to the tenuous relationship with Trent (Steve Carell) and the misbehaving adults that are having more fun than the kids. When Duncan finds Water Wizz (or when Water Wizz finds Duncan, if that's your perspective), he discovers the first place in a long time that treats him like a person. The welcoming environment there does wonders for his confidence and his interpersonal inadequacies. He found a place he was genuinely happy and removed from all the people and places that made him unhappy. We should all be so lucky to have such a place. Hopefully, it's home. It would be even better if it was work. No matter where you are in life, you need one place where you are completely and unconditionally happy. (full review)

2. Her-- The new and very weird and quirky Spike Jonze romance Her blew my socks off last week. It's the kind of film I have not been able to get out of my head since seeing it and is something I might just have to see again to catch and appreciate more about it. I can't stop talking about it. Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson comprise and lead the most unlikely and best romantic film I saw this past year. Original, daring, different, risky, and all shades of aesthetically beautiful, Her captivated my attention from start to finish. Its thought-provoking weirdness isn't for everyone, but I found it outstanding. It opened in limited release over Chirstmas and will expand to more audiences on January 10th. I find the film to be worth the risk. There was even an outside chance that it would land in the #1 spot, but you will see that the next and top one was awfully tough to beat.

ITS BEST LESSON: FINDING CLOSURE FROM DIVORCE-- With all of the romantic and scientific question of the other lessons, this final lesson is where the story of Her is really coming from. This entire film is about a man trying to get through a reluctant divorce. As common as it has become, divorce is still never an easy process. No matter how fractured the marriage became, that former spouse will always occupy a small part of your heart and letting go can be difficult. Often in Her, during moments of reflection, we are privy to Theodore's (Phoenix) scattered and silent flashbacks to both happier and harder times with Catherine (Rooney Mara). Moving on and finding closure on your terms is the only way divorcees can truly be free to go out and love again after sharing part of their lives so intimately with someone else. (full review)

1. 12 Years a Slave-- For as much as Her and its quality tried, this is the slam dunk #1 film for 2013. There is no film more powerful, important, and finely composed from this year. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and newcomer Lupita N'yongo valiantly bring the slavery story of Solomon Northrup to searing life through director Steve McQueen (Shame). This is kind of influential and monumental filmmaking that gets remembered and revered for generations. 12 Years a Slave is a true masterpiece on every level. If it doesn't win the Oscar for Best Picture, shame on the Academy.

ITS BEST LESSON: NOT FALLING INTO DESPAIR WHEN SURROUNDED BY NOTHING BUT DESPAIR-- The emotion of despair is central to 12 Years a Slave. The lifestyle of slave workers is shackled as much by despair as it is by chains and the lashing end of a whip. The cruel work and control of their masters and property owners slowly extinguishes the scarce hope and connections they had as real men and women over time. With little possible chance for escape, refuge, or freedom, slaves on hard plantations before the Civil War had very little to live for, even to the point where having each other meant nothing and only added to the despair. Like living over survival, this is another feeling Solomon refuses to accept. (full review)

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