At the beginning of 2013, I had serious doubts about the year ahead in film. Aside from a packed summer slate, which promised one of the most mind-blowingly raucous three months in cinema history, there wasn't a whole lot to get excited about. Fast-forward to the vantage point of New Year's Eve, where the reality of that season comes into sharp focus as a depressing wash of mega-budget half-measures and spat-upon hopes. But thanks to a few off-brand gems in the spring, and a slate of Oscar-bait pictures stronger than any in recent memory, this has turned out to be one of the most entertaining, insightful, and soulful years at the movies.
My greatest surprise has been the wealth of documentary features. At one point, I'd considered making a separate list just for those, but there've been so many I didn't see that doing so felt disingenuous.
Speaking of which, now's the time for my annual "Best of List" caveat: even in my recently awarded capacity as a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, I wasn't able to watch every movie that came out this year. In fact, I've been told I skipped some pretty big ones. So, if you read the list below and wonder, "How could you not have picked [SUCH AND SUCH]", I ask that you please A) consult the Stub Drawer to see if I even reviewed the movie and B) if you don't find it listed there, rest assured that I either didn't catch it (and that I'm likely very, very sorry for having missed it), or it didn't cut the mustard for reasons contained in the review.
You may also wonder, "Why a list of 13, instead of the traditional 10?" Simply put: indecision. I wrestled for days with which films to include, and really beat myself up over the final cut. This morning, I realized that I'm under no obligation to do things like everyone else--so I made my own rules. Speaking of which, let's clarify what I mean by the "best" films of 2013:
These are the movies that I not only enjoyed when I first saw them, but which have stuck with me. Some I've seen multiple times. Others, I've not seen since January. Whatever the case, if they made the list, they tickled my inner film nerd, as well as the basest centers of my primordial brain. I offer no apologies, even though you have every right to be concerned with some of my choices. Speaking of which...
13. Movie 43 If you can get past this one, there's a good chance you'll make it through the rest of the list. Yes, Movie 43 is one of the most juvenile, worst-reviewed movies of the year, but I'll be damned if I didn't lose my mind with laughter in a practically empty theatre. With lame comedy after lame comedy shuffling through the multiplex, it was refreshing to see a hard-R, under-the-radar sketch farce featuring tons of mostly duped marquee stars doing stuff that mainstream audiences should never be subjected to.
12. Europa Report Yep, I chose this one over Gravity. My decision wasn't quite the nail-biter you might assume it would've been, though--precisely because Gravity succeeds largely due to big-screen spectacle. I don't know that I'd ever watch it again at home. Europa Report, though, holds up as a beautiful science fiction film and a mystery; a thoughtful, chilling take on the Doomed Space Crew Movie. If you're a fan of what Alfonso Cuarón did with more money than God and top-shelf stars, check out Sebastián Cordero's mini-masterpiece, and be moved and amazed.
11. Upstream Color Writer/director Shane Carruth continues his art-house exploration of the heady sci-fi drama. Fueled by unforgettable performances by Amy Seimetz and Andrew Sensenig, this tale of designer drugs and stolen identity will haunt your dreams and have you begging to know what will come spilling out of the auteur's mind next.
10. The World's End Leave it to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to deliver a nutty sci-fi adventure/comedy/horror-movie/bromance that has, at its heart, a black as night message about the dangers of addiction and nostalgia (and addiction to nostalgia). You'll laugh; you'll cry; you'll want to know what happens next in the bug-nuts world the filmmakers only hint at as the end credits start to roll.
9. Cockneys vs. Zombies Speaking of Wright and Pegg, who woulda thunk that a silly little movie called Cockneys vs. Zombies would turn out to not only be a non-knock-off of Shaun of the Dead, but a legitimately fun and superior film? From the animated rock 'n roll comic-book opening (set to the ear-worm-worthy sounds of "Monster" by The Automatic Automatic) to a finale that's as nail-biting as it is preposterous, this tale of undead upheaval in lower-class London is as touching and as screwy as they come. And I challenge anyone not to shed a tear when Alan Ford goes down with a fight.
8. Enough Said Of all the tragedies that befell the movie industry this year, one of the most unfortunate is that we'll never again see James Gandolfini explore roles such as this one. He and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are comedic and dramatic gold in the decade's best rom-com. The performances are unbelievably naturalistic, thanks to Nicole Holofcener's deliciously well-observed screenplay, and the plot only rears its all-too-convenient head briefly--letting us get back to the magic before it wears off.
7. The Act of Killing Quite simply, the most disturbing film I've seen in years. Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary about former warlords confessing their sins through the art of moviemaking may just shake off any faith you have in humanity. Impossible to recommend in good conscience, but sinfully unavoidable as a triumph of the medium.
6. American Hustle You'll spend half the time wondering if David O. Russell's latest is a farce, and the other half begging for a documentary about the real-life con artists who swindled the FBI in the 1970s to avoid jail time and go legit. With powerful, odd-ball performances all around, this is one of the year's most enjoyable, re-watchable films.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street A decade or so removed from American Hustle, you have Martin Scorsese's ode to stock-market excess. A cautionary tale of greed and gullibility, the real-life story of Jordan Belfort (played to unsettling perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio) is hard to watch and harder to comprehend, unless you're paying full attention. Years from now, The Wolf of Wall Street will be hailed as the masterpiece Americans were too stupid to understand.
4. Blue is the Warmest Color No, this didn't make the cut for its seven-minute lesbian sex scene. Blue is the Warmest Color continues 2013's trend towards naturalism in relationship dramas, and centers on a French high-schooler's decade-long relationship with the older art-school chick who awakens forbidden feelings. The stunning Adèle Exarchopoulos' gifts as a performer makes Jennifer Lawrence look like Martin Lawrence, and her chemistry with co-star Léa Seydoux will fail to impress only those who've never loved and lost.
3. The Spectacular Now A sort of unofficial cocktail of 2013's themes (naturalistic acting and writing, troubled relationships, and chemical abuse), The Spectacular Now fires on all cylinders as the year's defining hidden gem. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give documentary-caliber performances as a doomed teen couple living in a small town and struggling with addiction and family issues (he can't shake alcohol; she can't shake him). Director James Ponsoldt has a new super-fan in me.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis The movie that won my mind and my heart this year, Inside Llewyn Davis is a love-letter to assholes and folk music. The Coen Brothers and Oscar Isaac have created a compelling, unlikable character worth studying for inexplicable reasons. They've also given us a soundtrack of hummable tunes (in cooperation with T-Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, and others) that will have you re-playing scenes from the movie in your mind (and struggling to figure out the nine layers of meaning in each).
1. 12 Years a Slave No other movie shook me to the core from start to finish the way Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave did. A masterwork of acting, story, and production design, this story of a free man sold into slavery plays on identity, race, culture, and the limits to which we will go to preserve all three. Chewitel Ejiofor will be at the front of every major performance competition this year, and the only ones who don't get the hype are those who haven't seen his soul-crushing turn here.