The Best Movies of 2013

The Atlantic's film critic picks the top titles—and doles out some less-conventional awards.
Warner Bros; Focus; Animal Kingdom Films; Fox Searchlight

2013 was a tremendous year for film—the best, I think, since 2007 (No Country, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Zodiac, Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). The summer may have been a bummer, featuring such disappointments as Elysium and Pacific Rim, but since October it seems that nearly every week has brought a treat. As a result, I’m expanding my usual top ten list to a baker’s dozen, with another 13 honorable mentions trailing behind. A few caveats: The order of the films on the list—and, in particular, that of the top two—changes in my mind on an hourly basis, so don’t take it too much to heart. Also, for all the movies I saw this year, there were plenty more that I did not, including, alas, quite a few foreign films and documentaries. So if you notice omissions from the list, that is quite possibly the reason. And, as is customary, I’ve included a variety of more idiosyncratic awards after the main event. With that, let’s get rolling.

1. Her

Subtle, moving, and immaculately constructed, Spike Jonze’s latest may be the closest thing to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind since Eternal Sunshine itself.

2. 12 Years a Slave

An utter tour de force by director Steve McQueen, a beautiful and harrowing reminder of the power of cinema.

3. Short Term 12

A gem from director Destin Cretton, featuring one of the best performances of the year by Brie Larson.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street

Fast, funny, and remarkably filthy, Scorsese’s new film is an irresistible display of cinematic technique, Goodfellas retold as farce.

5. Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass’s gripping account of the taking of a container ship by Somali pirates benefits from exceptional turns by old (Tom Hanks) and new (Barkhad Abdi) alike.

6. Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron’s exercise in spatial geometry is the first film since Titanic that has seemed to me a genuine evolutionary leap in filmmaking technology (sorry, Avatar). Had the script been sharper, it would have been at or near the very top of the list.

7. All Is Lost

Writer/director J. C. Chandor (whose first feature, Margin Call, was among the best films of 2011) offers an object lesson in the virtue of understatement in this one-character drama featuring Robert Redford. If only Chandor had penned Gravity

8. Dallas Buyers Club

Where has this Matthew McConaughey been hiding all these years, and what finally brought him to the surface? The erstwhile naked bongo drummer comes out of nowhere with one of the best—arguably the best—performance of the year.

9. American Hustle

How can a movie be so good, yet nonetheless be mildly disappointing? David O. Russell’s cast shines in this delirious chronicle of the Abscam scandal, but the director occasionally loses his grip on the narrative thread.

10. Rush

Yet another of the year’s mid-budget wonders: Ron Howard’s direction dispenses with the usual blockbuster bells and whistles, and actor Daniel Bruehl (Inglourious Basterds) delivers a revelatory performance.

11. Enough Said

For all her Emmys and her decades of cultural ubiquity, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is only now coming fully into her own. Under Nicole Holofcener’s direction, she and James Gandolfini—playing a character truer to his real self than perhaps any other of his career—deliver the most touching romantic comedy of the year.

12. Inside Llewyn Davis

How is it that this film—a superior Coens project, if not quite an at-their-peak Coens project—is so low on the list? Can we put a few of this year’s movies in the bank for next year? Also: Welcome to the big time, Oscar Isaac. You’ve earned it.

13. The Way, Way Back

Bold, innovative, unexpected? No, no, and no. But I couldn’t leave this mid-summer charmer off the list. Come for Sam Rockwell, stay for Allison Janney, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph …

Fox Searchlight

Honorable Mentions: Before Midnight, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Mud, Nebraska, Philomena, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, Side Effects, Stories We Tell, We Are What We Are, The World’s End

And the rest...

Best Performance by a Voice With No Body: Scarlett Johansson, Her
Best Performance by a Body With (Almost) No Voice: Robert Redford, All Is Lost

Best Cameo: Channing Tatum as Danny McBride’s sex slave in This Is the End
Runner-up: Chris Evans as Loki as Captain America in Thor: The Dark World

Presented by

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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