These 10 films represent the very best in 2013 cinema.
The great films are not simply stories well told - nor do they simply illicit feelings. The very best films are masterpieces that demand genuine emotional engagement. They are stories that expose the human condition and artistically relate experiences of living and making choices.
When asked why I watch so many films (including dozens of horrifically bad movies per year) - I need only point to these 10 films.
- The 15 Worst Movies of 2013
- The F-List (#135-111)
- The D-List (#110-86)
- The C-List (#85-61)
- The B-List (#60-36)
- The A-List (#35-11)
Fun fact: During the past year, I watched 150 films released between Jan. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2013. Strung back-to-back, it would take 270 hours and 38 minutes to watch every film ranked in this comprehensive list.
#10: 'All Is Lost'
A film of few spoken words and only one character crafts one of the strongest films of this year.
In short: A lone sailor (Robert Redford) fights to survive the unforgiving sea when his yacht crashes into a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Everyone should not upfront: there's almost no dialogue in 'All is Lost.' The trailer features a large portion of this film's scripted dialogue. The only spoken lines consist of a voice-over monologue at film's outset, a brief radio conversation and the occasional grunt in frustration.
Without the crutch of painful exposition, inner monologue or forced 'isolated man talking to himself' dialogue, 'All is Lost' is forced into perfectly executing the fundamentals of storytelling. This harrowing survival story stands above most other films thanks largely to a brilliant performance from Redford, incredible film-making from its director and a well-crafted, focused script.
Redford's performance is arguably perfect. He absolutely holds the screen with the subtlest of reactions and commanding presence. His character has no name, history or background - yet Redford exactly conveys the core of the sailor's character.
This is a resourceful man who earnestly works with grim determination, even in the face of ever-worsening conditions at sea. Redford's nuanced performance avoids relying on huge, cartoony gesticulations to reveal his moods or reactions. Instead, Redford teaches a master class in acting - his small, subtle moves brilliantly reveal the man's honest reactions to a desperate situation.
One of the film's most effective scenes is a simple one: the man casually shaving as his crippled yacht slowly drifts toward a terrible storm. He has every reason to wildly freak-out during this calm before the storm, but the man takes the time to shave - for what could be the last time for a very long time. Or ever.
If Redford gets the lion's share of credit for executing this intense tale, then its writer-director deserves a great deal of acclaim too.
Filmmaker J.C. Chandor has crafted a finely tuned 'man versus nature' battle for survival. This film begins the second the yacht is impacted and this story ends exactly the moment it should. Every frame of this masterpiece either establishes character, presents a crisis or reveals an escalating situation. 'All is Lost' has exactly zero fat to trim - this is a wonderfully told tale of a lone man's relentless battle to survive the unforgiving ocean.
Redford's most entertaining turn in decades is the performance of a lifetime that absolutely demands consideration in the Best Actor category.
Final verdict: 'All is Lost' is a full realization of the visual medium that is cinema. His quiet, precisely-crafted performance is given room to breath in this dialogue-light drama.
DVD/Blu-ray release date: February 11
#9: 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
At first blush 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is a odd series of misadventures of a homeless artist - but it's only when a step back is taken that this film's sheer brilliance becomes obvious.
In short: A week in the life of a folk singer living in 1961 Greenwich Village.
There's no good synopsis of 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' It could be argued this is a film without a story. And if so, then it's one of the greatest films ever to not be saddled down by a three-act narrative structure.
Llewyn Davis is as much his own worst enemy as he is a talented folk singer. Many of the predicaments he finds himself in are of his own making. And it's hard to tell whether Davis is better at singing folk songs or burning every social bridge he has left.
Yet, all his flaws only succeed in making Davis a complex character - a man who is uncompromising in his art. And during his wandering journey, fate seems intent in keeping Davis on stage, with guitar in hand.
The brilliance of 'Llewyn Davis' is in presenting a stark, living world in a time and place that fosters the fledgling folk music. Davis is surrounded by and lives among singers who would become folk legends - yet he is too wrapped up in his own dilemmas to notice. The Coen Brothers create a rich and textured Village - a place and culture where folk musicians toil and beg for gigs that pay almost nothing.
This abstract film wonderfully captures an atmosphere and attitude. Its characters are complex and conflicted - torn between being able to make a living and performing their art. It's beat poets willing to live a rootless existence, critical jazz artists and talented folk singers who sell out.
In short: 'Llewyn Davis' is a oddly funny, melancholic period film that recounts a very specific period in music history. This is a film about artists, art and the flawed human beings behind the microphones.
Currently in theaters
The latest from director Alexander Payne ('The Descendants,' 'Sideways' and 'Election') is a brilliantly quiet and poetic hero's story.
In short: Elderly, cantankerous Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes - and he is absolutely determined to make the trip from Montana to Nebraska, by any means necessary, to claim his prize. His estranged son (Will Forte) decides to join Woody on the road trip.
'Nebraska' is not only a poignant and hilarious story told by a master filmmaker - it also features one of the strongest cast performances of 2013.
With award season just around the corner, let it be known: Bruce Dern and June Squibb (playing Woody's long suffering wife Kate) are strong contenders for acting awards. Even 'MacGruber' star Will Forte holds his own in this actors' film. Forte is surprisingly nuanced in this road trip comedy/drama, as the 'SNL' alum primarily serves as the straight man, often setting up or reacting to the jokes.
Dern's portrayal of a plainspoken, single-minded and ornery Woody Grant is compelling. Dern never lets Woody simply languish as a cranky old man - Dern presents a complex portrait of a man who will not be stopped, yet clearly suffers a lifetime of regrets. This journey defines what Woody has to live for and it brings him back to his origins. Although Woody always appears 'out-of-it,' Dern's performance injects a reserved, acute awareness into Woody's gaze.
Woody Grant's quixotic journey to collect a fortune - that may not exist - beautifully sets up a rich journey that takes Woody back to deeply personal places of his history and childhood.
This is adventure in the land of pickup trucks, old taverns and steak joints. Everything about this film is analog, not digital. 'Nebraska' is set in a world of lifelong farmers, hard-working mechanics and small-town folk. These are people with simple wants, revealing the courage of a people committed to their livelihoods, family and community.
The black-and-white palette presents visually-striking world of a stark, timeless landscape. It effectively flushes out the noise and allows the simplicity of America's heartland to stand out.
Finally, the film's funny and honest tone beautifully dances between sweet, endearing and gently tragic. This is a sharp comedy rife with dramatic insight and heart-wrenching moments.
'Nebraska' is much more than a story of a man trying to get rich quick. This is a complex (at times unlikable) old man whose personal journal reveals how Woody Grant became a cranky old drunk. And during Woody and David's trip together, a son learns about the events that molded his father and the father learns about the son he largely ignored.
Final verdict: 'Nebraska' is a masterful and understated hero's journey supported by an incredible cast and capped one of the great lead acting performances of 2013.
Currently in theaters
#7: 'Short Term 12'
The story of neglected youth and the young adults charged with taking care of these at-risk teens is raw, genuine, funny and heart wrenching.
In short: Grace, a young foster care facility supervisor (Brie Larson), tries to help a reluctant teen leave, tries to connect with a trouble new addition to the facility. Meanwhile a life-changing event dredges up childhood memories she has tried to suppress.
'Short Term 12' represents the very best of small, indie films - these stories take risks in telling hard stories ... risks that many mainstream studios try to avoid.
This incredible character study pays tribute to all social workers, who try to connect with and form relationships with teens who often come from dark, troubled homes.
Grace works tirelessly and devotedly in creating a safe environment for these teens. She tries to ease the transition of a young man turning 18, who has spent many years at the foster care facility, back out into the world. And she tries to deal with a new addition to the facility - a young girl who violently resists the foster facility.
'Short Term 12' presents a portrait of a hard-working woman who devotes all her efforts in protecting these kids - but has neglected her own well-being. While she is strong and compassionate toward the teens, she has problems processing and dealing with her own incredibly troubled past.
And Brie Larson is perfectly cast as this tough, compassionate, fragile, troubled and warm social worker. Her performances fleshes out a complete and sincere young social worker who is responsible for dozens of teens, but is still in need of help herself.
This film's strong script tells a story that is at times sweet, at times funny and at times dramatic - but its humor never feels out of place, its tender moments are never too saccharine and its intensely personal moments never approach melodrama.
Final verdict: Of all the films on this top 10 list, 'Short Term 12' may have the greatest emotional range - it gracefully tells story that is sweet, hilarious, heartbreaking and emotionally visceral.
DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 14
#6: 'Before Midnight'
'Before Midnight' is the rare sequel that is exponentially better than its predecessor ('Before Sunset'), which was a masterpiece in its own right.
In short: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who first met on a train 18 years ago and met again in 2004, now live together in Paris with their twin daughters. As they walk through a small Greek village, they ponder their relationship and their future.
'Before Sunrise' was one of the great romances of all time. Its sequel, 'Before Sunset,' ranks among the greatest film sequels of all time. Now 'Before Midnight' will cement the 'Before' series as one of - if not the - greatest film trilogies ever, while also surpassing the greatness of 'Sunset.'
One of the first scenes is a simple conversation Jesse and Celine share while they drive. They chat about Celine's current job and how terrible Jesse feels after sending his 14-year-old son back on a plane to Jesse's ex-wife. They joke, laugh and share their thoughts on each other's dilemmas.
The amazing brilliance of this one scene is that is all shot in one take. This long, winding, organic conversation perfectly captures their deeply intimate relationship. The perfectly at easy dynamic between Jesse and Celine is what sells this lengthy scene of two characters sharing a conversation that touches on a myriad of emotions.
Like its predecessors, 'Midnight' lacks a conventional narrative of plot points - much of the film is Jesse and Celine once again walking and talking. The overall story arch, however, follows the escalating revelations Jesse and Celine share or throw at each other as the film progresses. On the surface, 'Midnight' is just a series of conversations, most of which analyze the nature of being in love. But below that surface is an analysis of Jesse and Celine's entire relationship: from its idealized, romantic chance encounter on a train to their fateful reunion in 2004.
'Midnight' also perfectly builds off its previous films. They must live with the choices they made to be together after 'Sunset' and often allude to their romantic meeting in Vienna. It reveals how the Jesse and Celine have changed over the years and how they have fundamentally remained the same at their cores.
'Midnight' is essentially two characters dynamically interacting with each other - a simple, but guaranteed formula for incredible drama. What makes 'Midnight' work is the honestly and chemistry Jesse and Celine have with one another. Their admissions and reactions always seem to come from a natural place - none of the exchanges feel forced, as if to lead the pair toward a pre-determined ending.
If 'Sunrise' was about the magic of truly meeting another person and 'Sunset' is about a lingering love that never dies, then 'Midnight' perfectly captures of the truth of what it actually means to be in a relationship.
Final verdict: This incredibly written, beautifully acted and brilliantly layered masterpiece is one of the best films of 2013.
Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.
#5: 'Stories We Tell'
Simply calling 'Stories We Tell' a documentary is quite reductive. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and a layered, captivating look back at the lingering effects of 30-year old family secret.
In short: A filmmaker (Sarah Polley) follows rumors that her father may not actually be her biological father - in the process, she uncovers facets of her family and dead mother she had never known.
Writer-director Sarah Polley has masterfully crafted a heartfelt and honest recollection of her long-death actress mother Diane Polley, a story that is also a gripping mystery and a thoughtful analysis of memories and stories.
The simple framework of 'talking head' interviews with Diane's husband, collaborators, friends and children allows 'Stories' to present the intriguing idea of how various people remember the exact same person and events. Sometimes these people remember an event exactly the same way - sometimes their recollections differ.
These variances add compelling dimensions to an already dramatic story: that Diane Polley may have had an affair which, in turn, may have resulted in Sarah's birth. 'Stories' further injects greater depth into this drama by recalling the marital circumstances that could have compelled Diana toward infidelity and how this rumored affair continued to affect the Polley family decades after Diane's death.
It's worth noting that two of the central characters in this story, Diane and Sarah, do not take center stage. Instead, 'Stories' focuses on Diane's family and friends as they remember their lively, complex and flawed friend, mother and wife.
'Stories' is not satisfied with simply finding the answers to Sarah's lifelong, personal journey. The dramatic tension is totally invested in how Sarah and her family react to the secrets Diane kept. While a question of paternity is the catalyst for this deeply personal journey, 'Stories' broadens its scope to address of nature of memories, stories, fidelity and family. Even as Sarah uncovers one truth after another about her mom, 'Stories' takes the time to explore how the Polleys absorb these revelations about a woman they thought they knew.
Furthermore, this film isn't simply an arresting mystery told with the sensibility of a thriller - 'Stories' brilliantly takes on the concept of how elusive the truth becomes. Interviews with Diane's friends & family create a portrait of a complex woman in a complex situation. And despite that fact 'Stories' dutifully includes many interviews with Diane's loved ones, the only person who knew could fill in the gaps, and reveal the whole truth, was Diane Polley. Instead of just conceding in defeat that this mystery can never truly be solved, 'Stories' leverages the incomplete knowledge of Diane's motives and actions into its greatest strength: that stories, by their very nature, are fragmented and subjective accounts of the past.
In short: 'Stories We Tell' is a genre-bending work of art - which combines the conventions of documentary, mystery and dramatic narrative - in its relentless pursuit of an elusive truth.
Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.
Incredible acting, screenplay, cinematography, editing and 3D - 'Gravity' makes its claim as the best all-around film of 2013.
In short: A scientist (Sandra Bullock) and an astronaut (George Clooney) fight to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.
Find showtimes for 'Gravity'
This sci-fi thriller tests the endurance of audiences. Its wall-to-wall intensity offers only brief respites to catch your breath ... before another terrifying, dread-inducing sequence begins. Every moment of this film is overwhelming - overwhelming beauty, overwhelming danger and overwhelming suspense.
Alfonso Cuarón has directed a film that is filled with awe-inspiring wonder, stomach-dropping terror and a persistent eeriness. It beautifully composes the isolation and helplessness of space against the stunning backdrop of the Earth alone in space.
The genius of 'Gravity' is how streamlined this focused story is: every scene and frame directly relates to the 'survive the disaster' plot. Even at a trim 90 minutes in running time, this is an emotionally exhausting ride, compact with one escalating crisis right after another.
Bullock and Clooney are essentially the only two main characters in this film - and they prove why they are A-list stars among Hollywood's elite. Bullock commands every scene and it's hard to imagine anyone but Clooney playing the chatty, veteran astronaut. These two characters are not simply two names fighting to survive - these are two soulful characters whose humanity becomes the core of this incredibly moving story.
'Gravity' not only deserves an Oscar nomination for visual effects, it deserves to outright win the award right now. The stunning effects not only make this film possible or realized on the big screen - they precisely define an outer space environment that is simultaneously incredibly gorgeous and fatally dangerous.
Finally, this is a truly immersive film absolutely meant to be watched in 3D. It's not only worth the 3D premium - watching 'Gravity' in 2D should just not be allowed.
Final verdict: 'Gravity' is an absolute must-see film of 2013. By the time the end credits begin to roll, your palms will be sweaty, your heart will be moved and you'll have a few new gray hairs. This is cinematic storytelling at its most breathtaking.
Currently in theaters
#3: '12 Years a Slave'
What this horrific true story lacks in narrative structure, it makes up with a profound focus on the evils of slavery.
In short: The true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery.
The most unsettling aspect of '12 Years a Slave' is not the brutal violence or degradation inflicted upon slaves - this film reveals how institutionalized sin can warp society and destroy men.
The fact that Northup is a 'free' black man living in the north is almost incidental (although it does provide the basic narrative framework). He is ripped from his life as a family man working an honest job and turned into a piece of property with a price tag. Northup's story puts a very human, sympathetic face on the cruelties inflicted upon blacks.
The strongest aspect of '12 Years' could also be its easiest to criticize: this film has the most minimal of narrative - instead, it's a damning account of the atrocities subjected to black slaves.
While Northup brainstorms ways to escape his hell and staves off soul-crushing despair, he witnesses and experiences the worst inhumanities of slavery. '12 Years' is unflinching in its presentation of violence against slaves - everything from casual, evil racist comments to the execution of escaped slaves. It holds painfully long takes that accentuate the true horrors, forcing viewers to watch as slaves are beaten and tortured.
For example: one particularly long take focuses on a character who barely survives an attempted hanging. Although he is 'rescued' and still alive, he is left to struggle with a noose around his neck. He is only able to catch breathes whenever he can plant his toes in the soft mud below him. This shot goes on and on and on ... and it's very effective in letting the horrors of slavery sink in.
The complexity of the slave culture represented in this film also saves '12 Years a Slave' from descending into preachy territory. This movie isn't as simple as 'black characters good and white characters are evil' - much of this film is spent in the grey area. Some characters are clearly evil or good, many more are simply trying to survive - leading some to do what's necessary to avoid a whipping or leading 'nice' characters to become complicit in the sin of slavery.
At the very core of '12 Years a Slave' is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who deserves every award season accolade he will receive during the lead up to the Oscars. His gradual transformation from a proper, upright free man to a downcast, downtrodden slave is absolutely extraordinary. He is the heart and soul of Northup's hard-to-watch journey.
Just about every aspect of '12 Years a Slave' is tough to watch. Even the final resolution is painful. But this film is most effective when it reveals the routine indignities doled out to slaves.
Director Steve McQueen makes the physical violence difficult to watch, but it's the erosion of hope that is most disheartening. While bodies can heal from even the worst beatings, McQueen's focus on the psychological breakdown of slavery is what makes '12 Years' profound.
Final verdict: '12 Years a Slave' is an essential film that should be required viewing for all Americans.
Currently in theaters
#2: 'American Hustle'
An A-list cast, compelling story, rich characters and masterful direction make 'American Hustle' one of very best films this year.
In short: Two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) are coerced into helping an up-and-coming FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) - and they find themselves dealing with corrupt politicians and dangerous criminals.
'American Hustle' is simply one of the best films of 2013. Its rich, complex cast of character dynamically interact with each other in a story that pushes all of them into an increasingly impossible situation.
Each of these colorful characters has their own agenda, but they are forced to work with or against one another in a dangerous scenario that first threatens their livelihoods, their freedom and eventually their lives.
And the none-too-small miracle here is director David O. Russell's ability to pull off this potentially gritty crime story with a brilliantly comedic tone. Russell is the master of blending genres: 'Hustle' is a rare crime drama comedy that gracefully shifts gears between criminal elements, sharp comedic timing and a complex character drama.
'Hustle' has the legitimate dramatic tension between small-time con-men, manipulative authorities and dangerous criminals -- in a story told with great comedy timing. Its comedic tone is completely rooted in the situation or character - which prevents hilarious jokes/moments from undermining the very real stakes in play. The easy way to tell this story about the FBI Abscam operation would be a straight-forward crime drama - but this sharp script adds an impressive degree-of-difficulty in telling a crime story with a comedy take.
All five of the headline stars of 'Hustle' are recent Academy Award nominees - with Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence winning their Oscars by starring in David O. Russell movies. And from top to bottom, this cast is fleshed out with talent bringing their A-game.
Bale's acting range cannot be questioned now: the man has played a charming sociopath ('American Psycho'), a tortured vigilante ('The Dark Knight') - and now, a pear-shaped con artist. Bale's life-long swindler is not a conventional 'hero' - he is a balding, flabby, desperate, philandering con man with a bum ticker. The brilliance of his character and Bale's performance is believing this unlikely, conflicted hero is able to outsmart and outwit everyone around him, despite his own major shortcomings.
Great supporting characters do not sit on the bench - their performances pull focus/steal the show and allow their characters to radically impact the overall narrative. And in 'American Hustle,' that character performance belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence's erratic, combustible bored housewife character is the last to show up on screen, but she is a game changer. Her character performance gives some insight to Bale's character less-than-honorable decisions and her actions shake up the story from time to time. She is a wild card who wonderfully destabilizes an already delicate situation.
Russell stands alongside the great directors - 'Hustle' is his third consecutive film winning over Award Season acclaim. Russell received Best Director Oscar nominations for his past two films - 'The Fighter' and 'Silver Linings Playbook.'
Final verdict: 'American Hustle' is an incredible character driven story and a great example of great dramatic storytelling. The characters are complex and conflicted. The story pits characters against each other, as each of them fight for survival. It is an absolute must-see film.
Currently in theaters
The Best Film of 2013: 'Her'
The small story of a man and his computer is one of the very best films of 2013.
In short: A lonely writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) forms an unlikely relationship with his computer's artificially intelligent OS 'Samantha' (Scarlett Johansson).
This extraordinary premise sets up an incredible film that explores the nature of love and relationships. 'Her' is as melancholy as it is hopeful - it is a story about the isolation of loneliness and the intimate, intertwined nature of relationships.
Writer-director Spike Jonze's offbeat love story is a complete story - and the quirk of this peculiar relationship allows a deeper examination of what it means to live, experience, touch and truly connect with another soul. The core of 'Her' is the ability of anyone to evolve and grow together ... and apart.
First and foremost, Jonze brilliantly distills this love story to its most vital parts. Watching Theodore and Samantha fall in love is sweet - watching their relationship is rich and meaningful. To make the unbelievable premise - of a man falling in love with an OS - believable, Jonze allows their relationship room to take root and blossom. Their courting is flirtatious, endearing and thoughtful - and it becomes very easy to almost forget that Samantha is an OS.
But in not forgetting that Samantha is artificial, 'Her' attains another incredible degree of depth.
Disembodied Samantha (Johansson) is dynamic and complex - she is a soulful being who aspires to live, while Theodore has been too content in merely existing in a self-imposed isolation. These two make deep, significant choices that profoundly affect one another. While Samantha yearns to learn more about living, she is all too aware of her limitations - which opens up a whole new analysis. This unconventional love story goes far beyond telling an odd little love story - it ponders the temporal and the eternal.
This is sci-fi used to tell an incredibly human story: the beauty of living life and the tragedy of distancing apart from other people.
The fact that 'Her' is also sharply funny and visually striking seem like after thoughts - but ones that demand mentioning.
'Her' is not merely a wonderful love story - it is a beautifully told story that examines the nature of relationships and the human experience. Great films have compelling characters, set in rich worlds, and tell significant and meaningful stories.
'Her' stands tall as Spike Jonze's best film and the best film of 2013.
Currently in theaters