Top 13 Films of 2013

 In Film & TV

No matter how you slice it, 2013 was a great year for movies. Even though some of the big blockbusters – like Man of SteelStar Trek Into Darkness and Elysium – disappointed a lot of people, we had surprise hits like Fast and Furious 6 and the tragically under-watched Pacific Rim.

Beyond the blockbusters, this past year overflowed with stellar films.

I tried to narrow my list down to 10 and just couldn’t do it. So what follows is the list of my 13 favorite films of 2013. I’ve reviewed about half of those films, so you can click over and find more info.

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional reviewer, and the Academy isn’t sending me screeners yet. Both Short Term 12 and Her are getting a ton of buzz. But I didn’t get a chance to see them.

Read through the list, and add your own suggestions in the comments!

Best Films 2013 small
Click to Read My Review

13. Pain and Gain

I know what you’re thinking: the very beginning of this list and already a Michael Bay film?! But Pain and Gain is a great film. It’s well-acted and completely over-the-top. The film feels so outrageous, in fact, that it actually stops at one point to remind you it’s a true story.

Bay was one of the first filmmakers this year to comment on the American Dream (Scorsese and David O. Russell waited till December). And while I don’t agree with his assessment that all it really takes to get rich in America is being smarter than everyone else, the film offers a fascinating perspective on just how far some people will go to get rich.

Read my review of Pain and Gain here.

12. Philomena

Philomena was a huge surprise for me. The film is exactly what the trailer promises – a sappy, feel-good film. But thanks largely to Dame Judi Dench’s powerful, sympathetic portrayal of the title character – an aging Irish woman forced by nuns to give up a baby she had as a teen – the film becomes a commentary on cynicism, idealism and religion.

The obvious contrast between the brutal institutional religion that sold illegitimate children and the quiet, simple and powerful faith embodied in Philomena is beautiful because it’s true. If the film weren’t based on a true story, it’d feel heavy-handed. But Philomena’s constant, steady optimism, her unwavering choice to see the best in people and circumstances, and to forgive no matter how she’s been wronged, overcome even the hardest cynic’s heart.

Expect Dame Dench to win some awards. And go see Philomena.


11. Mud

2013 was a great year for coming of age films, and Mud was easily the most surprising. Two Arkansas teens trying to cope with the changes that come from growing up and from their town changing come upon a fugitive who goes only by the moniker Mud.

Mud – a brilliant, subtle and heartbreaking McConaughy – is as stuck as the two boys, and their quest to restore a boat so Mud can flee draws them together. It’s a slow-burn thriller, and it’s just fantastic.

10. Fruitvale Station

There’s another film about America’s race history getting a lot of “best of 2013” buzz. That film is 12 Years a Slave. But Fruitvale Station – a dramatization of the 2009 BART shooting of Oakland resident Oscar Grant – is a much more powerful, affective (and effective) film. Fruitvale Station is set in modern day – making it much harder to ignore or explain away. Fruitvale also focuses on the final 24 hours of Grant’s life – a narrative choice every bit as intentional as 12 Years’ decision to show only Northrop’s time in captivity, but Fruitvale‘s choice humanizes Grant and finishes his story, while 12 Years’ does the opposite.

Fruitvale Station is a brutal film but beautiful and important, too.

Read my review of Fruitvale Station here.

Fruitvale Station Poster
Click to Read My Review
Click to Read My Review

9. Nebraska

I’m a huge Alexander Payne fan, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy Nebraska. Bruce Dern’s sure-to-win-awards turn as aging war vet Woody Grant is heartbreaking, captivating and beautiful. And Will Forte is surprisingly excellent as Woody’s compassionate-but-stuck son David.

Nebraska is a haunting look at growing older, leaving a legacy, and the power of relationships. It’s a Payne film to the core, so if you don’t love his films, you probably won’t love Nebraska. But you should.

Read my review of Nebraska here.

8. Evil Dead

The Evil Dead remake shouldn’t have worked. The original is a B-horror classic that’s at least as cheesy as it was innovative. Sam Rami’s 1981 original changed the horror film game, moving from sl0w-burn, show-little 70s style to a no-holds barred splatter-fest. Could the new film possibly raise the bar on horror again?

In short: yes. Eschewing the heavy CGI-effects popular in horror today for wholly practical effects, and not even trying to stick to a PG-13 rating but embracing the hard-R, the new Evil Dead proves that horror can still push the limits of what we’ve seen, surprise and – yes – horrify us.

Read my review of Evil Dead here.

Click to Read My Review
American Hustle
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7. American Hustle

American Hustle has been generating tons of buzz since its late-December release. Based loosely on the Abscam scandal from the late 1970s, the film focuses mainly on Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) and their quest for… stability? Probably? In any case, the film’s a bit slow, but it’s outstanding. All the actors give outstanding performances (Bale and Adams lead the pack though – expect some Oscar nods).

American Hustle is basically the same film as The Wolf of Wall Street – and I know that statement’s going to start a fight, but they both deal with the ugly underbelly of the American Dream. I preferred American Hustle largely because the acting was just phenomenal. Did I mention the actors already? Seriously. They were great.

Read my review here.

6. The Heat

You might think with the dearth of great buddy-cop comedies in the last few years that the genre is dried up (If you wanted to make the case, certainly the disappointing mess that was A Good Day to Die Hard would argue in your favor). But The Heat proves the forumla’s not broken; it just needed a breath of fresh air.

That new life was provided by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The two have incredible chemistry, excellent comedic timing and both are outstanding physical comedians on par with anything Chris Farley or Will Ferrell is capable of. The Heat has just enough of a girl-power undertone to make it a little bit more than just another buddy comedy.

I haven’t heard any sequel buzz yet, but I can’t wait. The Heat is one of the best comedies in years. (And yes, This is The End almost made the list, too. It was a tough call.)

The Heat Poster
Way Way Back

5. The Way, Way Back

Every year Sam Rockwell seems to make an amazing film. (Last year it was Seven Psychopaths.) This year, he makes The Way, Way Back the best coming-of-age film this year. He doesn’t do it all by himself – Toni Collette and Allison Janney are excellent as always and Steve Carell makes a shockingly great antagonist. But Rockwell’s loveable loser Owen totally steals the show as the mentor/big brother to Duncan.

The Way, Way Back is a sweet, fun, feel-good film.

4. The Conjuring

2013 was a great year for horror films, and it doesn’t get much better than The Conjuring. Allegedly based an unreleased casefile from famous demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the film traces a haunting of a family with five young girls. Director James Wan maintains a careful balance of tension and thematic elements that let him ratchet up the scares to a fantastic climax.

The Conjuring is a smart, old school-style horror flick. Unfortunately, Wan has declared he’s retiring from horror to do other films. Hopefully those will bomb and we can get tons more awesome horror movies from him. That’s a terrible thing to wish. But I can’t help it. The Conjuring is that good.

Pacific Rim
Click to read my review

3. Pacific Rim

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim bombed at the box office this summer. I guess a lot of people just didn’t want to see giant robots fighting giant monsters. They’d rather see Superman murder people or something. A shame. Because Pacific Rim was tons of fun. It was a blockbuster that didn’t try to be anything more than it was, didn’t aspire to be “about” anything.

Pacific Rim is just about giant robots. Fighting giant monsters.

It’s another film that was created to be seen on the big screen – no matter how awesome your TV is, it can’t compete with 3D IMAX. Don’t believe the haters. Pacific Rim was awesome, and you should’ve gone to see it.

Read my review of Pacific Rim here.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Sure, the Cohen Brothers have made a couple of less-than-stellar films. But over the last several years, theyve been on a run. No Country for Old MenTrue Grit and now Inside Llewyn Davis. Inside Llewyn Davis is a powerful, personal film that showcases the Cohens’ talents: the dialogue is snappy, the film looks gorgeous, and it’s packed with obscure and arcane references.

I’ll be writing a full review of Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s enough to note here the film explores the limits of human hope and by the end is a profound meditation on our existential despair. The acting is great – lead newcomer Oscar Isaac is great, Goodman is phenomenal (as always) and Justin Timberlake manages not to ruin the film. The music is great. The story is great.

Inside Llewyn davis
Click to read my review!

1. Gravity

If it’s not clear by now, I loved Gravity. I mean love loved it. I saw it four times in IMAX 3D and wept every time. Gravity is the new film from director Alfonzo Cuaron, which shot expectations through the roof. And Cuaron didn’t disappoint. Nearly every moment of the film was CGI – except for the actors’ heads – and thanks to brilliant turns by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney – space has never seemed so real. (Expect a Best Actress nomination for Bullock.)

Thematically, the film was rich, using Space as a metaphor for our existential despair. Gravity was loaded with rebirth images made all the more poignant by Cuaron’s flawless direction.

But what really made Gravity my #1 pick of the year was that it was made to be seen on the big screen. Gravity just won’t have the same weight (tehe!) on the small scree. So if you missed it the first time, do yourself a favor and catch it on its inevitable Oscars run.

Read my review here and listen to our StoryMen extra about it here.

There you have it! My 2013 recommendations! What did I leave off? Add ’em in the comments!

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  • Chase Ruble

    JR! Great list! I was excited to see what you would post as your top movies of 2013 and it’s an amazing list. I’ve been putting mine together and you said it best, “No matter how you slice it, 2013 was a great year for movies.” That beings said, the most talked about films not on this list are 12 Years a Slave and Wolf of Wall Street. While 12 Years a Slave wasn’t my number 1 pick of 2013, I’d love to hear why it didn’t crack your top 13. Cheers, pal!

  • therhoades

    Good list. I need to see #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 and #10 still. Crazy, right?? I enjoyed Pacific Rim, but wondered why it made the list and not Elysium? While Pacific Rim had the visual spectacle, Elysium had summer, blockbuster visual spectacle as well as killer story and great acting (minus J. Foster’s strange accent) and, as I recall, earned a really positive review on your blog?

  • Thanks Chase!
    Both 12 Years and Wolf of Wall Street were eclipsed by better films this year that dealt with the same subject matter. In the case of 12 Years, it was Fruitvale Station.

    My review of 12 Years summarizes why I wasn’t a fan of it. I think we need more race films like Fruitvale.

    (Oh, and in Wolf’s case, the better film was American Hustle!)

    What’s your top film this year?

  • HA! At least you’ve seen the top four 😉

    I liked Elysium a lot (as my review reveals), but I just flat out LOVED Pacific Rim. A lot more. I saw both in IMAX (Elysium wasn’t in 3D), and Pacific Rim took my heart. By a landslide.

  • Chase Ruble

    We see eye-to-eye when it comes to 12 Years vs Fruitvale. Fruitvale was a top 3 movie for me and, in my opinion, the only “must see” film of the year. Speaking of my top three: 1. Inside Llewn Davis 2. Mud 3. Fruitvale 4. The Kings of Summer 5. Wolf of Wall Street 6. Dallas Buyers Club (I figured I’d give my top three plus three more because you did your top 10 plus 3 more). Cheers, friend.

  • Shawn Kitchin

    I take it you didn’t see “42”? That definitely should’ve made the list.

  • Mikey Fissel

    i gave you a pass on Heat because so many of your other selections were excellent… but you lost me at Gravity. sure, it’d make my top 10, but the actual narrative– while thoughtful, couldn’t touch a lot of the films you have below it on the list. and, unlike you, after seeing it in IMAX 3D, i didn’t need to see it a second time (unlike Pacific Rim, which i could watch time and time again). with that criticism aside, very good list.

  • Thanks @mikeyfissel:disqus! I’ve found it fascinating how various people have responded to Gravity. It absolutely devastated me (obviously). My wife thought it was fine (sounds like her reaction was more like yours). Were you a space nerd growing up? I was and that definitely contributed to Gravity’s weightiness on my list (pun very much intended!).

  • I did see 42. It was also excellent. It’s probably in my top 20.

  • I finally got to see Dallas Buyers. It was great as well. And Wolf is growing on me the more I’ve been away from it. Did you see Philomena yet? I can’t wait to see it again. I saw Kings, and it didn’t do as much for me as I was expecting. Way Way Back and Spectacular Now (and Mud) all worked way better as coming-of-age flicks for me.

  • Mikey Fissel

    well, i THOUGHT i was a space nerd growing up– but now you have me doubting it, hehe. i really enjoyed it, and thought it needed to be “experienced” in IMAX 3D, but once i saw it, i thought most of what had me (story-wise) on the edge of my seat, was lost. i just didn’t think there was enough substance in the story to make me want to come back, though the ‘atmosphere’ Curon created was magnificent. balancing those two things out, it was a real good film that wouldn’t top my list. but i absolutely see how it could top some lists.

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