I wasn’t initially going to do a top ten list this year. It seems like indulgent ego stroking, a lot of work for very little gain, and, to be honest, not only am I super busy, I’m also a lazy sack of crap. Besides, while there may be one or two movies on my countdown that you won’t find on 90% of critic’s lists, there aren’t many earth-shattering surprises. But I’m bored at work, and I have to arrange my favorite movies into some semblance of order to vote on them later anyway, so what the hell, I might as well write about them, too, while I’m at it.
This has been a tough list to make. 2013 has been a strong year across the board, from big blockbusters to indie fare and niche genre stuff. You might notice one title that has a very good chance of walking away with the best picture Oscar doesn’t have a home here. Overall, there was a woeful lack of quality animated movies this year. “Frozen” is easily the best, but it is only good, not great like some have claimed, and I seriously doubt we’ll be talking about it much a year or two from now.
Also, as usual, I’m also totally cheating with this list. You may notice that there are multiple number 10s. It isn’t that I can’t count—I can totally count to ten most days—but I got to the point where if I’d removed any one film, my list wouldn’t have been complete. There were movies that came close, but there is significant distance between the films I included and everything else.
10. “Drug War” / “Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear”
If “Drug War” isn’t Johnnie To at the top of his considerable game, it’s damn close. Full of moral ambiguity, betrayal, and intricate, interesting violence, this is the kind of movie John Woo would have made in his Hong Kong heyday. “Ninja 2” is straight up badass action of the old-school variety. Once again, Scott Adkins proves himself the reigning MVP of DTV action. Watching him dismantle an entire dojo full of rivals, in a single shot no less, may be my favorite film moment of the year.
10. “Pacific Rim”
Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-versus-mechs adventure “Pacific Rim” isn’t going to win any awards for acting or writing. There isn’t much in the way of plot or character, but that’s not the point. What this film does, and does beautifully, is capture the feeling of being a kid on a playground, smashing your toys into each other while making explody noises with your mouth, pretending that you’re right there in the middle of the action. For all of its myriad shortcomings, I couldn’t stop smiling during “Pacific Rim.”
It took nine years for fans of Shane Carruth’s indie time-travel mind-fuck “Primer” to get a follow up, but it was worth every single day. Oblique, metaphorical, and methodically paced, “Upstream Color” is the story of two broken, wounded people who find each other in strange, dire circumstances. To be honest, I’m still not sure what the hell is going on in this movie, but I love it. Beautiful and discordant, the mystery is most of the pleasure, and “Upstream Color” may be best consumed as a puzzle viewed in pieces, where the edges don’t necessarily match up, yet still form a stunning whole.
8. “The Act of Killing”
Watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” is an experience like no other. In a grander scheme this is the single most important film of 2013. Cameras follow Indonesian thugs and former death squad soldiers responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people as they brazenly reenact their crimes. The result is surreal, harrowing, and haunting. You can scarcely believe that these people actually exist in the real world, let alone still retain positions of power and influence, and watching them justify and excuse their actions—and in some cases, be relentlessly tormented by them—is truly perspective-altering. As soul scarring as “The Act of Killing” is to witness, it is also impossible to look away, and a film that you need to see.
Watching Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” brings back memories of the first time you saw “Goodfellas,” and finds the venerable director firing on all cylinders, even adding some new tricks for good measure. A bombastic, chaotic satire of unchecked greed, “Wolf” is funny, juvenile, and whip smart. Clocking in at three full hours, you hurtle along at break neck speed, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s loud, brash, devil-may-care performance is likely going to add to his trophy collection when they start handing out awards.
6. “The World’sEnd”
On the surface, Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” is a send up of “Body Snatchers” style science fiction, but it is so, so much more than that. As goofy and fun as it can be—and it’s every bit as entertaining as predecessors “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”—it is also the most complete portrait of deep friendship you’ve seen in a long time. When a group of estranged pals get together to recreate an epic pub-crawl, their entire past—the good, the bad, and the hideously ugly—comes roaring back with a vengeance. Throw in some doppelganger alien robots trying to take over the world, and you have a movie that is as affecting as it is awesome.
5. “The Kingsof Summer”
No film this year shows a young man’s desire to be an adult, or his abject fear of growing up and dying inside, like “The Kings of Summer.” Hanging on the cusp of adulthood, but still being treated like children, three friends run away and build a sort of dream house in woods. Part manic adolescent dream, part soul-crushing reality check, “The Kings of Summer” is bittersweet, wildly funny, and deathly serious, all at the same time. This is a story of rebellion, adventure, friendship, and waving a big old middle finger at a lifetime of expectations.
No movie-going experience in 2013 measured up to Alfonso Cuaron’s space adventure “Gravity.” None even came close. You start out big, and before long you’re being flung through space right along side Sandra Bullock, just trying to survive in the most inhospitable environment you can imagine. One wrong move separates you from life and death, and that tension never wavers, the view never stops short of breathtaking, and more than any other offering this year, “Gravity” makes you remember the true magic that makes you love going to the movies in the first place.
Simultaneously the most natural and unnatural love story of the year, Spike Jonze’s “Her” is inventive, romantic, and genuinely affecting. Never mind that the two leads never appear on screen together—hell, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t even have a damn body—this is cinema’s most earnest, real relationship in years. Suck it, every saccharine, bittersweet romantic comedy ever, you’ve just been owned like nobody’s business. You wind up drained, spent, and emotionally pulverized, as if you’ve gone through the highs and lows inherent in a real life relationship.
2. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Inside Llweyn Davis” doesn’t overwhelm you with greatness right away. You recognize that the Coen Brothers’ latest is very good, but how good doesn’t set in until later, when you realize that you haven’t stopped thinking about it for three days. An in depth character study of a complex, deeply flawed protagonist, this is so much more than a bad-person-who-has-bad-things-happen-to-him story. Oscar Isaac gives a subtle, pitch-perfect performance as the titular folk singer, and no movie this year sticks with you quite like “Inside Llewn Davis.”
We can go round and round about whether or not “Stoker” is a horror film or not, but calling it one thing or another doesn’t lessen the impact of Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut one bit. Creepy and atmospheric at every turn, the “Oldboy” director is in top form as he crafts a delicate portrait of one hell of a dysfunctional family, using gorgeous cinematography and eerie performances all around to subvert your expectations at every turn.
Honorable Mentions. Some of these almost made the list, others are movies that I just think should be getting a little bit more love. Either way, they’re all damn fine films that you should run out and see if you haven’t already.
“12 Years A Slave”—Bold and important, Steve McQueen’s latest offers a brilliant, unflinching look at the ugliest chapter in our collective history. When you talk about actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender giving career performances, that’s really saying something. As great as “12 Years A Slave” is, and maybe it should be on my list—if I eventually regret leaving one off, it’ll likely be this one—it’s great exactly how you expect it to be. You walk out of the theater having seen the precise movie you thought you were going to, and as moving as it is, that leaves something to be desired.
“Nebraska”—Another very good movie, the story in Alexander Payne’s newest has a few quirks to set it apart, but the events unfold in a predictable manner. You should still give it a look for the three leads. Bruce Dern, June Squibb, and Will Forte are incredible, and form the real soul of the film. Who would have ever have thought I’d be trying to convince you that the guy who played MacGruber gave one of the best performances of the year?
“Sightseers”—Ben Wheatley is a twisted dude. His pitch-black comedy, “Sightseers,” while hilarious, is as bleak and brutal as any horror film. He plumbs the depth of depravity and violence that lurk just below the surface of the seemingly mundane, and the result is as funny as it is unsettling.
“Only God Forgives”—Nicholas Winding Refn’s hallucinatory Freudian dream is the other that I may eventually regret leaving off of this list. No film has been more divisive this year, finding a home on many best as well worst lists. I do understand why people don’t like it, but I absolutely love it. Cries of style over substance began ringing out as soon as the film debuted in Cannes, and while aesthetic is definitely a chief concern, what a style. Gorgeous and moody, “Only God Forgives” is practically a silent film, a near master’s course in nonverbal filmmaking.
“This is the End”—Hilarious and blasphemous, “This is the End” is the year’s best, foul-mouthed comedy, and worth watching for the mass celebrity deaths alone.
“You’re Next”—Not the most original home invasion horror film out there, the long-delayed “You’re Next” finally showed up and delivered a fun jolt of genre fun.