Year-end lists sometimes seem self-defeating. Taste and opinions change over time. What I liked this year might fall out of favor a year later. I can already tell from lists I’ve made in the past. For example, in 2010, I said that “127 Hours” was better than “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” However, I would re-watch “Scott Pilgrim” over “127 Hours” any day. Part of making a good end of the year list is to try and predict what will also be good five years down the road while also living in the spectacular now (SORRY I HAD TO).
Making this list drives me crazy, but it is also one of my favorite posts to write. Thinking back helps to put the entire year into perspective. For instance, I found that some of the best films of 2013 had much in common. 2013 in film meant economic woes, nostalgia gone wrong, and exploration of what it means to be a success. Along the way, there were some great laughs, songs, and explosions.
Here is my list of the top 10 films of 2013:
10. The Kings of Summer
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ stellar directorial debut is a modern “Stand By Me.” “The Kings of Summer” is a coming-of-age story that is equal parts moving and hilarious. It is the rare high school comedy that doesn’t resort to exploiting awkwardness for laughs (“Superbad” and “Dazed and Confused” are about the only ones that ever did that right). Some great actors (Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally) and some very brief cameos (Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress) bring the banter to life. Keep an eye out for young Moises Arias, who plays Biaggio, who is no doubt one of the weirdest and most memorable characters in any film that came out this year.
9. Frances Ha
With the help of star and writer Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach turns out his best film to date. It’s earnest, funny, and never pretentious. Many of the confused twentysomethings seem startlingly like people I have met, and personalities I have embodied. It is light on its feet, serious when it needs to be, and fearless enough to take big detours and let its awesome soundtrack blare. “Frances Ha” is ultimately a redemption story, and the kind of film I hope that Noah Baumbach (and others like him) keep making.
The best blockbuster of the summer was not a movie about robots fighting monsters, but rather a comedy about a bunch of actors living through the rapture. “This Is The End” might be the smartest, most complex movie ever to come out of the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This is the dick-joke laced send-up of a bizarro Hollywood that I didn’t realize I was waiting for. “This Is The End” uses long back-and-forths as action set pieces. It wears its influences (such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist”) on its sleeves, and it gives us Michael Cera snorting cocaine. For that alone it more than deserves a spot on this list.
“The World’s End” is the fitting conclusion to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. “The World’s End” shows Wright is a visual storytelling prodigy. He is undeniably skilled as both a satirist and action director; everything that he spoofs is out of love. Plus, “The World’s End” contains a performance from Simon Pegg that would be getting more awards buzz if the world wasn’t such a cruel place. During a time when many people seem to think that “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was the best show ever invented (because nostalgia), the partial message of “The World’s End” is that the past is never as perfect as we remember. This seems like the perfect theme for the year 2013 in general as well as years to come, as “The World’s End” only gets better on repeat viewings.
Alexander Payne has been working with comedy, dramas, and comedy-dramas for his entire career. “Nebraska” is not his best film, but it feels like everything he has done has led him here. “Nebraska” resembles a bleak painting of the landscape of Middle America, sprinkled with some of the funniest characters you can imagine. Here is a road trip movie that takes its time, but somehow never meanders. It earns its big emotional ending that will make you want to go buy something nice for your father.
Watching “Gravity” in IMAX 3D is the closest I have ever felt to how people must have responded when they first saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in theaters. “Gravity” imitated both the physical feeling of being in space (there were several points where I was literally struggling to breath) and the frightening isolation of being lost in space. It is basically a one-woman show for Sandra Bullock, and boy does she deliver. You know how “Gravity” will end, yet this is the rare film that transcends story structure. With both “Gravity” and “Children of Men” under his belt, Alfonso Cuaron is now the only person who should be allowed to direct science fiction films.
Every time Woody Allen seems to have made a comeback (“Midnight in Paris”), he will find himself knocked down a peg (“To Rome With Love”). I guess that’s just what happens when you put out something every single year. Yet, “Blue Jasmine” is the kind of film Woody Allen has not made in a long time, and one I frankly didn’t know he was still capable of making. This is the darkest film he has made since “Match Point.” It is also one of his most haunting and mesmerizing. Out of “Blue Jasmine,” Allen constructs a broken woman who is strong because it is impossible to know what exactly she is capable of doing. It is bizarre to watch her talk to herself, because it is the only way she can connect with anyone. “Blue Jasmine” is the most provocative character study of the year.
I am getting kind of sick of heist movies as well as films that pretend to accurately portray the past. This is exactly why I am thankful for “American Hustle,” a film about one of the weirdest scandals in American history that doesn’t even bother to be faithful to the facts. The fun part is trying to figure out what is real and what is not. “American Hustle” has the most dynamic ensemble of the year, and some extremely catchy dialogue (“don’t put metal in the science oven”). Like its schlubby lead character, “American Hustle” can be messy and sometimes hard to understand, but its utter confidence in itself makes it so appealing.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
For those who dismiss “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a merely entertaining film with no substance, just look at all of the controversy it has caused in the past few days. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an epic about the pursuit of happiness gone too far. It is really about the pursuit of excess. During its three hour run time, “The Wolf of Wall Street” contains some scenes that work on such an amazingly high level because they are allowed lots of time to breath (the best among these: Belfort’s meeting with an FBI agent on his yacht; the hilarious Quaalude tripping scene). At its best, “The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t feel like its pushing the three hour mark. Most importantly, this film shows why Martin Scorsese makes crime stories better than any other American director: he understands that sometimes the criminals are much more fascinating than the cops.
It is easy to tell when a film is directed by the Coen Brothers. However, they also never make the same film twice. “Inside Llewyn Davis” shows that the Coen Brothers don’t lack compassion, it is just that they are not afraid to show that shitty actions have even shittier consequences. This is a meaningful film for anybody who has ever wanted to create anything, and the way that Llewyn’s artistic integrity becomes his undoing is both sad and meaningful. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is nihilism transformed into something beautiful. But enough about that. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the best directed and most unpredictable script of the year. Its soundtrack is as good as any you will ever hear. Characters do things that make no sense, and you will spend all of your time weeks later trying to figure out why. Most films fade from the memory quickly. “Inside Llewyn Davis” just won’t go away from mine. Even if their films are cynical, the Coen Brothers are the rare directors who don’t pander to their audience. “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t provide any easy answers. It asks questions that I want to think about. I know it will grow even more on me in the years to come until it shapes into something that everyone considers to be a timeless classic. For all of these reasons and more, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the best film of the year.
Honorable Mentions: 12 Years a Slave, Blackfish, Side Effects, The Spectacular Now, Captain Phillips, Evil Dead
Still Need To See: Her, Spring Breakers, Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, Frozen, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Dallas Buyers Club
Still Not Sure If This Counts: The Hunt- I saw it at Cannes in 2012, but it didn’t come out in America until this year. Either way, this incredible film deserves a list of its own.