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Films of 2013: The A-List (#35-11)

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Every single film on this list isn't only worth a viewing - the each represent the very best of their genres in 2013.

Although this list is spread out - with films representing horror, documentaries, comedies and more - the commonality among all 25 of these films is they are all very well told stories.

Each of these films is an exciting experience - whether the film exudes pure joy, challenges conventions/genres or simply features an incredible aspect of film making.

#35: 'You're Next'
#35: 'You're Next' Lionsgate

#35: 'You're Next'

'You're Next' (watch the trailer)

This off-beat home invasion thriller stands out amid a sea of indistinguishable slashers - it is a sharply funny and refreshing take on the 'last girl' trope.

It simultaneously delivers a tride-and-true slasher flick as well as a witty comedy that pokes fun at the horror genre. This is no small feat - 'You're Next' is every bit a gruesome thriller as it is a smartly written and self-aware indie comedy that respects the genre.

'You're Next' is smarter than the usual slasher and far more violent than the typical comedy.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#34: 'It's A Disaster'
#34: 'It's A Disaster' Oscilloscope Laboratories

#34: 'It's A Disaster'

'It's A Disaster' (watch the trailer)

Most comedies rely solely on comedy hay-makers - large, over-the-top gags designed solely for applause break laughs. 'It's A Disaster,' however, is the rare comedy that scores a KO via sharp, hard-hitting comedy jabs.

The layering an indie comedy over a disaster backdrop works perfectly here. The consequences of the disaster plot are ever present from the beginning of the movie - but it's always in the background.

The terrorist attacks highlight just how each of characters would react - from pragmatic fatalism, paranoia to catatonic shock. The characters' responses to a terrible terrorist attack takes center stage.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#33: 'Upstream Color'
#33: 'Upstream Color' erbp

#33: 'Upstream Color'

'Upstream Color' (watch the trailer)

If Terrence Malick made a sci-fi film, it would be 'Upstream Color.'

This abstract, edgy movie is part emotional drama, intriguing mystery and hypnotic analysis of identity.

'Upsteam' walks a very fine line - it's experimental film in execution, but surprisingly reveals a very structured mystery narrative. It maintains a trance-like tone and mystique as it allows the characters to unravel and the mystery to deepen. This is a beautifully executed and brave film that tells a very conventional story in the most unconventional manner. 'Upstream' employs timelapse, time jumps, whispering VO, long spans without much dialogue -- yet it succeeds in telling a story that's hard to look away from for even a second.

This genre-bending story is a trippy story that somehow never slips into confusion and an intriguing drama that allows the characters and narrative to twist, turn and evolve elegantly.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#32: 'The Conjuring'
#32: 'The Conjuring' Warner Bros. Pictures

#32: 'The Conjuring'

'The Conjuring' (watch the trailer)

This throwback to the classic supernatural movie is complete with old-school scares and creepiness.

A sinister, coiled threat - capable of true evil - permeates every frame of this movie. This effectively creates an eerie, creepy, edge-of-your-seat mood which perfectly sets up jarringly terrifying moments.

But the strength of this well-executed traditional horror flick are the Warrens - played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. Although they are paranormal experts, at the beginning of this film they are not yet ready to take on demons face-to-face again. This vulnerability of damaged heroes effectively ratchets up the stakes for the Warrens as well as the family being victimized by demons.

'The Conjuring' is a welcomed classic possession flick that emphasizes character while also delivering solid chills.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#31: 'The Heat'
#31: 'The Heat' 20th Century Fox

#31: 'The Heat'

'The Heat' (watch the NSFW trailer)

As the highest ranking straight-up comedy, 'The Heat' stands among the great films of 2013 simply because it is a relentless assault of hilarious, if crude, jokes.

But more importantly, 'The Heat' has a strong comedic tone and defined voice - one that's a little off-center and closer to the absurd than conventional humor. Combine its off-kilter sense of humor with the incredible chemistry between its two main stars and it's clear why 'The Heat' made this tier of 2013 films.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#30: 'Fast & Furious 6'
#30: 'Fast & Furious 6' Universal Pictures

#30: 'Fast & Furious 6'

'Fast & Furious 6' (watch the trailer)

'Furious 6' doesn't have the strongest script. Its characters don't have the greatest depth. It doesn't reinvent the wheel in any significant way.

Simply put: 'Fast & Furious 6' is just a flat-out fun, action-packed - if ridiculous - summer blockbuster. The stunts are absurd. The action sequences are incredible. Most films are lucky to have one great action set piece - 'Furious 6' has at least three major sequences ... any one of which could be the centerpiece in just about any other blockbuster.

Some of the plot points might not light up just right. And some scenes or character goals might be frivolous. And a more than a few leaps of logic must be made to fill some admittedly large plot holes.

But in regard to summer blockbusters, 'Fast & Furious 6' succeeds where it counts most - 'Furious 6' was the most fun and entertaining movie of the summer.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#29: 'We Steal Secrets'
#29: 'We Steal Secrets' Focus World

#29: 'We Steal Secrets'

'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks' (watch the trailer)

This exciting film has the energy of a spy thriller and exists in the context of the information revolution.

This film establishes Julian Assange as a sort of exciting character - dealing in the world's secrets - who is always on the run from government agents. But it also humanizes the other, lesser-known characters in the WikiLeaks saga.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#28: 'A Band Called Death'
#28: 'A Band Called Death' Drafthouse Films

#28: 'A Band Called Death'

'A Band Called Death' (watch the trailer)

A lone single - released more than 30 years ago by a long defunct band - is the focal point of this exceptional documentary.

'A Band Called Death' is an emotional rollercoaster that documents the birth, death and rebirth of a pioneering punk band. It bursts with the energy of protopunk and rides it though Death's modest beginnings all the way through to their unlikely resurrection.

The filmmography of Death is the the heartbeat of this film -- and it injects an energized jolt into this documentary from its first frame it's uplifting conclusion.

'A Band Called Death' bursts with relentless passion and the joy of discovering new music.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#27: 'The Way Way Back'
#27: 'The Way Way Back' Fox Searchlight Pictures

#27: 'The Way Way Back'

'The Way Way Back' (watch the trailer)

Most coming-of-age stories rely on any one of several crutches: big adventure or personal loss story, usually with a sarcastic/way-too-witty teen at the center.

'The Way Way Back' has a refreshing simplicity: an awkward teen spending the summer with his mother and her jerk boyfriend.

This teenage boy walks, talks and acts in a way that reminds us all how we were as teens. He's not cool or particularly funny or brilliantly talented in any specific way.

But this streamlined storyframe and a focus on character allows 'Way Way Back' a clear and funny character arch for its less than graceful protagonist.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#26: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'
#26: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' IFC Films

#26: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' (watch the trailer)

Here's yet another Terence Malick shout out: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' has the texture and tone of a Malick film, but with a fairly straight forward narrative and characters who directly interact with one another.

Virtually every character in this doomed love story begins in a difficult place - and the film only exerts more pressure on its characters, forcing them to act out of desperation, out of fear and out of love.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#25: 'The Place Beyond the Pines'
#25: 'The Place Beyond the Pines' Focus Features

#25: 'The Place Beyond the Pines'

'The Place Beyond the Pines' (watch the trailer)

As mentioned before, great drama comes from placing protagonists in impossible situations.

'Pines' absolutely forces its three lead characters to act and each protagonist must react to the enduring consequences of their choices. And each lead character is dynamic: Ryan Gosling is as loving as he is brutal. Bradley Cooper's rookie cop is naive as he is decisive. Dane DeHaan's troubled teen is awkward as he is undeniably resolute.

For a 2hr 20 min film told in three parts, the pace doesn't lull often and remains captivating from its opening to its final frame. Each scene and each choice wonderfully bleeds into the next scene and urges the next decision. This is how a film that is occasionally dialogue-light momentum: its energy is derived from true character conflict and not simply exterior plot events.

A major part of the film's energy comes from its unrelenting tension: desperation, fear, mistrust and family dynamic. A sense of dread permeates every moment - dread for each hero's safety and dread of what each hero is capable of doing.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#24: 'No'
#24: 'No' Sony Pictures Classics

#24: 'No'

'No' (watch the trailer)

Creating a film about the fall of Pinochet's dictatorial regime is a no-brainer - but focusing on the marketing war, instead of the protesters or political debates, gives this film a refreshing take on a revolution.

The narrative simplicity of casting one side in favor keeping Pinochet in power ('Yes') versus radicals who push for democratically elected politicians ('No') allows 'No' to explore the complex political climate, while always having a firm narrative framework to rely upon.

This frees the film up to touch upon various the deeply held sentiments of the Chilean people - some of whom have prospered under Pinochet, while others have been political prisoners. It also allows 'No' the flexibility of being a political thriller with some unexpected lighter laughs - comedic moments that are always pertinent to the weighty task at hand.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#23: 'Captain Phillips'
#23: 'Captain Phillips' Columbia Pictures

#23: 'Captain Phillips'

'Captain Phillips' (watch the trailer)

Just it looks like Tom Hanks will settle for a 'great' performance, his heartbreaking and emotionally raw moments in the third act are impossible to look away from.

And Hanks is arguably not even the best actor in 'Phillips.'

Barkhad Abdi - know the name, it will definitely be brought up during Awards Season. Abdi's turn as the lead Somali pirate is equal parts intelligent, charming, ruthless, desperate and commanding. He even manages to make the lethally dangerous pirates somewhat sympathetic.

Hanks and Abdi are two equally-matched adversaries, each forced into desperate choices as they fighting for their lives. This dynamic thrusts the narrative forward, forcing these two men to make increasingly dangerous decisions.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 21

#22: 'Blackfish'
#22: 'Blackfish' Magnolia Pictures

#22: 'Blackfish'

'Blackfish' (watch the trailer)

Virtually all agenda-based documentaries feel imbalanced - like they are preaching to the choir in an attempt to rally the faithful against the agreed upon enemy. (For examples: see any Michael Moore film).

But 'Blackfish' presents an undeniably moving case against keeping Orcas in captivity that is infuriating, heartbreaking and - ultimately - convincing. It not only shines a light on the atrocities these animals suffer - but it also presents Orca whales as emotionally complex and highly intelligent animals who are all too aware of their imprisonment and treatment.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#21: 'What Maisie Knew'
#21: 'What Maisie Knew' Millennium Entertainment

#21: 'What Maisie Knew'

'What Maisie Knew' (watch the trailer)

This is an actors' film - and its 6-yr-old child star owns every frame.

Onata Aprile's nuanced, intelligent and incredible performance is the cornerstone of this sometimes hard-to-watch heartbreaking film.

While this film may have its flaws, Aprile's performance does not. This is the first of many films left on this list where the featured attraction is not the film's story or direction - sometimes its just an inspired performance.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#20: 'Enough Said'
#20: 'Enough Said' Fox Searchlight Pictures

#20: 'Enough Said'

'Enough Said' (watch the trailer)

Not all great films have stories were life or death hang in the balance. As long as the narrative stakes are important to the characters and to the story, great films can tell small, personal stories with incredible grace and impact.

'Enough Said' is simply two great acting performances (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini) telling a story that reveals how a small lie can upend a person's whole world.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 14

#19: 'Fruitvale Station'
#19: 'Fruitvale Station' The Weinstein Company

#19: 'Fruitvale Station'

'Fruitvale Station' (watch the trailer)

In presenting a powerful portrait of one man's last day alive, 'Fruitvale Station' makes a convicted statement about his real life death.

This film's star, Michael B. Jordan, and its masterful director, Ryan Coogler, tell a sympathetic story of an Oakland man struggling to rebuild his life and provide for his young family. It presents a very human story - one that reveals his flaws as much as it shows his devotion - without reducing its main character into a simple caricature of a real man.

By crafting such a nuanced picture of a father/son/boyfriend, 'Fruitvale Station' succeeds in its tragic tale.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 14

#18: 'Blue Jasmine'
#18: 'Blue Jasmine' Sony Pictures Classics

#18: 'Blue Jasmine'

'Blue Jasmine' (watch the trailer)

Woody Allen's latest is a portrait of a woman slowly coming apart at the seams.

Jasmine's downward spiral so hard to watch ... but harder to look away from, thanks to Cate Blanchett's brilliant performance. She gives Jasmine so much sincere range - from hysterical to poised - and a constantly simmering volatility that makes Jasmine capable to doing anything at anytime

Her performance as Jasmine is captivating. She is charmingly confident one moment, then intensely emotionally fragile the next moment. She never hesitates in pointing out the failings of those around her, while remaining blissfully ignorant of her own shortcomings. These incredible swings never feel abrupt - they feel realistic and natural for the anxiety-ridden Jasmine.

'Blue Jasmine' is a good Woody Allen film - but the real reason to see this is to stand in awe of Blanchett's amazing performance.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 21

#17: 'Mud'
#17: 'Mud' Lionsgate

#17: 'Mud'

'Mud' (watch the trailer)

Great films sometimes wear many hats well - in this case, 'Mud' excels as a fugitive drama, coming-of-age tale and a story about relationships.

The mastery of tone is incredible. "Mud" gracefully flows from touching to intense to introspective to funny without jarring transitions or manipulative cues. The fugitive-on-the-run plot is simply the framework for a story about fathers-and-sons, what it means to be in love and how to move forward after being abandoned.

And count this as another excellent outing for McConaughey, who is quietly turning out great performances in recent years.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#16: 'Frances Ha'
#16: 'Frances Ha' IFC Films

#16: 'Frances Ha'

'Frances Ha' (watch the trailer)

Great drama coming from dropping a character in a tough crisis - and sometimes, the protagonist just flails. But no film does a better job of capturing the wild flailing of its hero than 'Frances Ha.'

Since it's impossible to discuss this indie gem without comparing it to the HBO series 'Girls,' well - think of 'Frances Ha' as a smarter, more artful version of 'Girls.'

While often off-beat and quirky, this arrested development comedy warmly embraces its sympathetic - if flawed - heroine, allowing her to make terrible decisions, but never letting her descend into a caricature of a 'modern day single girl.'

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant.

#15: 'Dallas Buyers Club'
#15: 'Dallas Buyers Club' Focus Features

#15: 'Dallas Buyers Club'

'Dallas Buyers Club' (watch the trailer)

This drama set amid the '80s AIDS epidemic is a redemption story, a condemnation of that eras politics and a fight for survival.

And its anchored by incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

And, as always, the great films put their characters in impossible situations - the forces them to act. These main characters are essentially given a death sentence - but instead of just rolling over and dying, these two characters fight to live with HIV rather than die of despair.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: February 4

#14: 'Philomena'
#14: 'Philomena' The Weinstein Company

#14: 'Philomena'

'Philomena' (watch the trailer)

 

A million 'made for TV' movies have stories focused on long-lost children - but many of them are distant melodramas.

But 'Philomena' is every bit as much a sharply written, odd couple comedy as it is a tale of lifelong regret, a unyielding search for answers and a sharp damning of a despicable part of Ireland's history.

This true story is an unbelievable story that stretches from small Irish pubs all the way to the White House. As their journey uncovers more and more of a widespread travesty inflicted upon teen mothers in the 1950s, 'Philomena' always remains laser focused on the personal journey of its 'daft' old Irish lady and her cynical reporter ally.

Currently in theaters

#13: 'The Hunt'
#13: 'The Hunt' Magnolia Pictures

#13: 'The Hunt'

'The Hunt' (watch the trailer)

The more impossible the situation, the stronger the protagonist must be to face such odds.

This intense drama reveals how a terrible, disgusting lie can not only upend one man's life - but also put him in grave danger from those he considered his closest friends.

This protagonist is utterly alone as he stands, resolute, in his claim of innocence even after a whole village has found him guilty without a trial. 'The Hunt' is an engrossing dramatic thriller from start to its intelligent final moments.

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

#12: '20 Feet from Stardom'
#12: '20 Feet from Stardom' RADiUS-TWC

#12: '20 Feet from Stardom'

'20 Feet from Stardom' (watch the trailer)

If you make it through this triumphant, joyous and uplifting documentary without tapping your toes once, then you hate music.

'20 Feet from Stardom' serves as a beautiful tribute to the oft-unheralded backup singers in music history. And in doing so, it reveals a new dimension to dozens of familiar and iconic rock-and-roll songs.

'Twenty Feet' puts a face to some of music history's greatest hooks - it fleshes out their struggles, frustrations and their glorious successes. But it also reveals the critically important role back-up singers have played in the evolution of pop music.

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 14

#11: 'The Act of Killing'
#11: 'The Act of Killing' Drafthouse Films

#11: 'The Act of Killing'

'The Act of Killing' (watch the trailer)

The fact that this incredible and profound documentary did not make the Top 10 films of 2013 shows just how strong the overall field was last year.

The banality of evil does not begin to describe this disturbing, innovative and exciting piece of film making.

This documentary is not about the 1965 mass killings of communists in Indonesia - it is about the executioners who are hailed as heroes. This brilliant documentary reveals how these righteous murderers see themselves and their horrific actions. The casual, almost bored, way they explain strangling, decapitating and stabbing communists is absolutely incredible.

'The Act of Killing' is an eye-opening and shocking look into the mind of men who systematically murdered thousands - and how they have lived with themselves in the decades since the purge. 

Now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

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