The Top 10 Movies of a Top-Heavy Year

The best movies of 2013 were expertly directed, movingly acted, sometimes (though not always) spectacularly fun, and all opened before November.

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2013 was such a good year—at the movies, at least—that it was drawing the kinds of "best year ever" proclamations that are so symptomatic of our hyperbole-afflicted culture. But if it weren't such a good year, I suppose it would have been called the worst year ever, so on balance, people really dug 2013.

These raves for the year's cinematic output came around the early-fall film festival season, when the Telluride, Toronto, and New York festivals were premiering acclaimed film after acclaimed film, left and right. 12 Years a Slave was crowned the Oscar champ by VultureGravity got the big critical stamp of approval before tearing up the box-office. Inside Llewyn Davis played every film festival imaginable and enchanted critic-types across an entire continent.

For me personally, the year hit the skids sometime around mid-November, with the major late-breaking releases like Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle delivering rather sizeable disappointments, relative to my enthusiasm for them.

It's funny to look at the New York Film Festival as a dividing line in the cinematic year, as it ended up premiering two of my favorite films in Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave, plus a third film, Stranger By the Lake, that's a sure contender for my Top 10 next year once it's been formally released in the States. (Interestingly, I first saw my No. 1 film of this year when it played NYFF in 2012.) The longer-lead NYFF screenings, though—the ones that were set to open in late November/December—all seemed to underwhelm in one way or another. Inside Llewyn Davis was too wrapped up in its own isolation to let any air in. Nebraska managed to pull everything together by the end, but the first hour or so was oppressively petty and unpleasant. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a lifeless bust entirely. All Is Lost and Her were good movies that didn't captivate me the way they did other critics. I wonder if things would have been different had The Wolf of Wall Street premiered as the "secret screening" at NYFF like many of us expected it to. As it stands, Martin Scorsese's celebration/condemnation/celebration of the rich and insane screened too late for me to see it in time for this list, so if you feel like there's an asterisk that must be placed next to the subsequent ten films, you're free to do so.

As it stands, no film in my top ten opened theatrically later than October 18, hence my calendar-based hangups. Did the final quarter of the year really underwhelm that severely for me? Ultimately, I think it's the strength of the following films moreso than the weakness of their competitors that keeps this list so early-year dominant.

Before I get on with it already, I should throw out some Honorable Mentions to a handful of films that, were the breeze blowing a bit differently, might have snuck into that No. 10 slot, or higher. Films like the incredibly moving documentary about gays in Uganda, Call Me Kuchu, which was so unfortunately under-publicized and swallowed up by the bigger docs of the year (though how loudly can I possibly complain about a year that was this strong for documentaries?). Films like Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, which shares a spiritual place with a couple other films that did make my top ten in what was a banner year for female lead characters in indie films. Blue Is the Warmest Color and Her are two films you'll see on many a year-end list this month, and I recommend them so highly. August: Osage County is a film you probably won't see on as many year-end lists, but it deserves mention for a cast and a script that manage to counterbalance—and then some—some regrettably timid direction.

EDIT: At the last possible second, a late-breaking entry managed to bump Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines out of the No. 10 spot on the list. (I explain more here.) t's a justifiable but sad omission, as this ambitious multigenerational tale is a worthy achievement, despite (or maybe because of) its thorniness.

The Top Ten Films of 2013

10. The Heat

The funniest film of the year deserves a spot on anyone's Top 10 list. That's easy. It gets easier when the funniest film of the year features a pair of marvelously talented women in Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, chemistry for days, clearly having a fantastic time. You almost want them to make a movie together every year or two, just to see in how many different configurations they can make each other funnier. It gets easier still when the story arrives at the kind of emotional places that even a very good movie like Bridesmaids couldn't get to, without it feeling tacked on. Did you get misty-eyed at the end of The Heat? Why not? What is your problem?

9. 20 Feet From Stardom

Hands-down (palms-up, actually; palms up to Jesus), unquestionably the best time to be had at the movies in all of 2013. If you exited the theater after watching this documentary about the lives and ambitions and shortfalls and triumphs of some of the most accomplished backup singers of a golden age of rock/R&B without a hop in your step and a belting power note in your throat, I quite simply do not know how to deal with you. It's that simple. These women are fascinating and compelling, as both subjects and objects. And their stories are worth being told. 

8. The Act of Killing

For a while, it seems like Joshua Oppenheimer's film is an audacious stunt. An art project intended to shock. He took his cameras to Indonesia and asked death-squad members to re-enact their killings for the film in whatever dramatic and artistic way they wanted. It's an idea packed with danger and horrific frankness (the perpetrators/amateur filmmakers don't appear to have any problem boasting about their actions). But the accumulation of the scenes—reenactments and conversations among the regime members and the occasional moment of true introspection— builds to such surprisingly immediate conclusions. Out of this ugliness and crassness (some of these men have interesting ideas about how to best turn their murders into compelling entertainment) comes a narrative that hits hard. This is a project of true ambition and brave execution.

7. Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley's documentary look at her own family—its histories and myths and one scandal in particular—is so delightfully unlike anything else in the industry right now. Intensely personal without even a drop of masochism or a sense that Polley is reveling in her (or her family's) angst. Maybe it's the Canadian thing, but there is an openness about her family members, a self-awareness and sense of humor, that turns their telling of these potentially painful family secrets into something inviting. Like a trust exercise. Polley's skills as a director are so straightforwardly adventurous, it's rather exhilarating to watch her explore the possibilities of documentary filmmaking, almost as if she's testing concepts out that she just thought of that minute. She might be something of a genius. A Canadian child-star genius.

6. Gravity

It's hard to deny the hokiness of a lot of the Gravity script, but I cannot stress enough how little that matters in the face of such elementally thrilling filmmaking. Honestly, if Alfonso Cuaron wants to boil his narrative about human determination to survive calamity down to simple terms like motherhood and home and will, I'm actually okay with that. To me, that hangs together. Meanwhile, the grooves in my palms from gripping my hands so tightly tell a different story. Pure, disciplined visual spectacle might not scratch all the itches I have when I go to the movies, but it's very hard to deny this film credit for scratching that one itch so satisfyingly.

5. The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola makes movies for me. They're not for everybody, that's fine, I don't need a consensus around my opinion that watching Stephen Dorff lounge around the Chateau Marmont is a riveting, soul-nourishing way to spend a couple of hours. The protagonists in her latest movie might be her most outwardly motivated—they get a LOT done, actually—while at the same time most inwardly hollow. There's an odd kinetic energy to their complete vacuousness, though, and their decision-making and posturing at every turn is compulsively watchable. Some of the most indelible individual scenes in any movie all year, too, from Taissa Farmiga with the gun to robbing Audrina Patridge's house to that dazzling shopping trip around Paris Hilton's house.

4. Captain Phillips

At times unbearably tense—Paul Greengrass does that sometimesCaptain Phillips was a sterling example of the kinds of blockbuster films that should be the rule, rather than the exception. Tom Hanks brings every bit of his galvanized Hollywood charisma to bear on this role, and for a while that's all it is, and it's fine and the movie (and Barkhad Abdi as the lead Somali pirate) is humming along and doing a lot of the heavy lifting for him. And then, after about 30 minutes of high tension, there's the absolute gut punch of an ending that left me near breathless. It's a moment of surprising honesty in a genre (and from an actor like Hanks) where we've come to expect some degree of gloss. It's similar to how subtly Greengrass is able to suggest political truths that would otherwise feel inappropriately didactic. Greengrass lets the images and events of the film do the talking for him. The outsized might of the U.S. forces. The desperation in the Somali eyes. The ultimate ineffectiveness of Hanks's fatherly posture. Action, tension, heart, and brains. Food, fun, and fashion, Captain Phillips has it all.

3. Short Term 12

Destin Cretton's film seems build for terms like "delicate" and "heartfelt," but damned if I can find any better words to describe his story of a short-term foster care facility and, in particular, Grace (the wonderful Brie Larson in a performance that is getting her the attention she's deserved for years), who manages to be so perfectly empathetic as a worker and so frustratingly closed-off in her personal life. Larson and John Gallagher Jr. have a sweet chemistry that is somewhat rare in movies. It's the chemistry of equals. Of partners. It's very quietly subversive. 

2. 12 Years a Slave

I can leave the bigger-picture stuff to people who are far better equipped than I to speak to the significance of this movie in the greater cultural narrative about slavery. Except to say that to boil this film down to "this one finally gets it right" vs. "no film can ever get it right in this regard," while interesting and worthy in its own respect, doesn't entirely belong in a discussion of this film's merits, which are plentiful. Director Steve McQueen has taken a decent amount of flak for the chilliness in his career, and there has been some talk that there's a remove in this film as well. But by occasionally stepping back, McQueen really lets you see the ecosystem at work, how slavery depended on the compliance of corrupted people and the inaction of men who might otherwise have been good. This isn't a faceless monolith at work, and McQueen never lets any of the component parts off the hook. But the film is also never so crass as to misbelieve that it needs to grandstand. The story speaks for itself, and it's a terribly impactful one.

1. Frances Ha 

There are about eight billion ways Frances Ha could have stepped wrong and become the hipster cliche I think many were expecting it to be. Maybe I was among those people at first. I certainly never expected a Noah Baumbach movie to hold back from his usual harsh judgments of humanity. Even in the films of his that I quite like (Greenberg, for instance, or Margot at the Wedding), there's a strong sense of withering disregard and  misanthropy. It would probably be too pat to chalk up the generosity of spirit found in Frances Ha to Baumbach's co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, but certainly something is going on here. The film doesn't indulge Frances for her flighty, indecisive life, but it doesn't condemn her either. It just gets down into it with her and finds a place of warm, knowing, genuinely funny empathy. It's also a startlingly true portrait of aimlessness not as a lack of conviction or substance but as an extended preparation for something that never quite begins. This all makes it sound like an intellectual exercise, when, of course, there's no way this movie would have hit #1 on my list if it weren't such a pure delight, boasting an unforced sense of humor that gets under your skin in the best way.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.