2013 has been a great year for movies, so narrowing down our list of favorites was no easy task. As Cinema Blend has numerous writers with varying tastes in film, we decided to go solo this year in sharing our Top 10 lists of the best movies of 2013. Sean's list is up This is Kristy’s list, with some critical darlings, a panned biopic, several deeply dark comedies, and a string of heartstring-tugging coming-of-age tales.
10. Pain & Gain
To me it's a crime that Michael Bay's dark comedy about the insane exploits of The Sun Gym Gang has been deemed "Rotten." For decades Bay has made movies maligned for being (supposedly) just for teenage boys, and then he makes something sharper, smarter and a thousand times more bonkers, and still many critics sneered. Well, not this one.
Bay set up a brilliant satire about those who demand a shortcut to the American Dream, and how they are not just clownish but dangerous. He gave us anti-heroes who were misogynistic, homophobic, and relentlessly greedy, and in doing so offered a criticism of the very ideology he's often been accused of promoting. (And by my count, he did it better than Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street.) Plus, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie crush it in the leads, deftly blending heaps of machismo with humor and a childish short fuse.
Best Moment: Johnson's meat-headed kidnapper is barbequing severed human hands out in public. Just as I thought to myself, "No way," a title card came up reading: THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY. Well played, Bay.
Disney Animation reminded us why they've been a powerhouse in cinema for generations with this breathtaking movie musical. Helmed by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) and Chris Buck (Surf's Up), Frozen took the story of Hans Christen Andersen's "Snow Queen" as a jumping off point to tell a princess story unlike any Disney has shown us before. This one scoffed at love at first site, featured not one but two self-rescuing princesses, and made the central relationship of the film not between a princess and her seemingly perfect prince, but instead between two sisters who love each other despite their pretty major differences.
I loved how Frozen updated the princess story for modern sensibilities without throwing its wonder and whimsy out the window. Lee and Buck not only constructed a thoughtfully character-driven and progressive princess tale, but also managed to do so with an eye toward visuals that is simply astounding. The ice and snow alone in this movie is worth the price of admission, but the physical comedy dolled out by its leads--not to mention a summer-craving/scene-stealing snowman--makes it an easy sell to kids. Plus, the musical numbers are catchy, fun and addictive.
Best Moment: Let It Go. Hands down.
8. The Broken Circle Breakdown
In my review for this Belgian drama, I wrote that I haven't cried so hard watching a movie since I saw My Girl in the third grade. I understand where for some people that level of tear-jerking might be a deterrent, but I cannot recommend enough opening your heart (and yes, letting it break) for The Broken Circle Breakdown.
Fronted by Johan Heldenbergh and Veerie Baetens, this mesmerizing love story follows the highs and lows of two passionate Blue Grass musicians, Didier and Elise, who handle the grief of their young daughter's terminal illness in ways so different it threatens to tear them apart. The performances of these two make the narrative feel electric and painfully real, while the marvelous music makes the whole movie next-level moving. While most of the film is in Flemish, the performance of the songs is in English, which adds to the magic of their impact. On Sean's List, he said The Broken Circle Breakdown makes better use of the mournful melodies of this music than even Inside Llewyn Davis, and I completely agree-- being fully aware of how high that bar is. So give yourself over for a good cry.
Best Moment:The morning after the lovers first night together, Elise returns to Didier having given his pick-up an Americana makeover, and decked herself out in a stars and stripes bikini. As she crawls onto the hood of the truck with a sultry, "Hey cowboy," I wanted nothing more than to see them together forever.
7. The Past
As I detailed in my recent interview, there are few filmmakers on the planet I feel are as talented and thoughtful in the creation of their narratives than Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. In 2011, he blew my mind--and that of the Academy--with the powerful he-said-she-said drama A Separation. Then as follow-up to his landmark Academy Award win (the first time an Iranian film earned an Oscar) he made a French-language film, even though he doesn't speak that language. The result is a movie about an Iranian outsider trying to save the French family he walked away from before they tear each other apart.
What sets Farhadi apart from most filmmakers is how he dedicatedly avoids expositional dialogue that easily lays down who people are, what they want, or what's going on. Instead, he forces the audience to play detective from afar where we must unravel all these things on our own. Farhadi's job is not to give you answers, but to deliver a thought-provoking drama with performances and themes that refuse to be forgotten after you've left the theater. Casting, on its own, is a major factor in his films, and with an ensemble that boasts The Artist's Bérénice Bejo, A Prophet's Tahr Rahim, Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa, and fire-eyed newcomer Elyes Aguis, The Past contains some of the most compelling performances of the year.
Best Moment:The final shot. To explain it any further would be to taint your perception of it, so I won't dare!
6. Short Term 12
I have a friend who has told me stories about her time working at a school for troubled kids. These are children who've experienced incredible abuse or been a helpless witness to it. These are kids who harbor deep emotional, psychological or even physical scars. So with their stories in mind, I braced myself to watch Short Term 12, an indie drama centered on a foster care facility, its workers, and residents.
I expected something bleak and shocking, but instead writer-director Destin Cretton created an elegant story with dark corners, but a beaming ray of hope and joy shining bright at its core. Short Term 12 embraces its wounded and flawed heroes and shows us a story of human courage and resilience that leaves you feeling inspired. Brie Larson is a revelation as a counselor who is compassionate, complex, and wracked with fear of the future. The tenderness and strength she manages to convey with a quiet word or a single glance here is sure to make her an ingénue to keep your eye on. These kind of intimate, rough-and-tumble tales are exactly what makes independent film so important and glorious.
Best Moment:The full circle created by the final scene.
Few films are as sumptuous and devilishly seductive as this thriller penned by Wentworth Miller (yes, of Prison Break). For his first produced screenplay, Miller actually used a pseudonym to avoid people's preconceptions about a TV star turned screenwriter. It worked, and soon, acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook of The Vengeance Trilogy fame stepped up to helm. The result was a narrative of murder, love and family that felt tactile, and dangerous with an untamed and decidedly dark sense of humor.
Centering on the widow, daughter and brother of the late Richard Stoker, this tantalizing tale untangles a web of lies to pose provocative questions about the dueling forces of nature versus nurture. Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode gave themselves over to the film's theatrical and spooky tone. When combined with the luscious cross-fades of domesticity (a girl combing her mother's hair) to wilderness (fields of grain waving in the wind) something is knitted together that is at once wicked and wonderful.
Best Moment:The peculiar piano performance shared by teenaged India and her flirtatious uncle is a teaser and warning of what's to come.
4. The Kings of Summer
When I first reviewed the Sundance standout, I proclaimed The Kings of Summer "an instant classic in the vein of Stand By Me." Centering on three teen boys who run off into the woods for a summer out of the reach of their parents' well-meaning but smothering rules, this coming-of-age dramedy offers an unadulterated distillation of the bittersweetness of youth, from the promise of summer days, to the heady sensations crushes bring, the heart-cracking disappointments that follow, and the struggle against your parents to crack the code of your own identity.
There are plenty of stories about teens, but rarely is one as rich and wondrous as this. The cinematography is romantic, reveling in the colors and activity inherent in summer. Its story is relatable and well paced. Plus, it is brought to life by keen dialogue and an ensemble cast it's easy to gush over, whether it be Nick Offerman's gruffly loving dad, Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso's every-boy buddies, or Moises Arias deeply eccentric Biaggio. It's filled to the brim with such verve that you can practically feel the summer sun on your skin and smell the wet mossy scent of the woods. But most of all, it's smartly funny, showing the generational divide between kids and parents with empathy going to both sides in a way that makes it a must-see whatever your age.
Best Moment:There's tons of brilliant one-liners and great physical comedy. But for me, the best moment is a long take close-up of Robinson's character over what must be the longest night of his character's life.
To be frank, I sought out Wadjda at the Tribeca Film Festival because I was intrigued by the story of its making. Not only is it the first feature film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it is also the first feature-length movie helmed by a Saudi woman. And writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour had additional obstacles (besides financing, a lack of film infrastructure, the difficulties in securing locations in the nation) in that cultural mores prohibited her with speaking directly to her (male) crew. She often had to watch takes through a monitor in the back of a van, and direct via walkie-talkie. Fascinating, right? Well, the movie is even better, and a fitting reflection of overcoming gender inequality.
Named for its heroine, Wadjda tells a deceptively simple story of a young girl who is saving up money to buy a bicycle. Girls don't ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, but Wadjda has little to no interest or patience for what is expected of her. She wears purple sneakers, makes contraband friendship bracelets, and winsomely urges her father, who tirelessly demands a son from his wife, to see her value. Considering the odds against her, I expected this would be a grim film about the overwhelming oppression women in Saudi Arabia face. Instead--like Short Term 12--al-Monsour chose to focus on the little successes her spirited heroine experiences, not the obstacles that can at times seems smothering. In this way, this movie fronted by an affable little girl named Waad Mohammed is poignant, thought-provoking and fantastically uplifting.
Best Moment:Wadjda goes to lay claim to her bike, and while she can't offer a down payment, she offers the shop owner a mixed tape. She tells him directly, this makes them friends, and that means he won't dare sell her bike to anyone else. This girl's got some serious moxie.
2. 12 Years a Slave
There are certain movies that are undeniably hard to watch, and this blistering and brilliant biopic about the life of Solomon Northup is certainly one of them. So let's just get this out of the way: Yes, the depictions of abuse, rape, and slavery are disturbing, stomach-churning, and devastating. But they are also essential to telling the story of the man whose freedom was snatched away in the antebellum South of the United States. And to his credit, director Steve McQueen never relishes in the film's brutality, but instead underlines it with a deep cut thread of humanity that helps us understand how Northup--through all he's faced--can carry on and continue to reunite with his family. We as people are a concoction of potential for good an evil, and this is a tale of both.
Led by the extraordinary and layered performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, 12 Years A Slave depicts a time that’s specifics read long ago, but that’s themes are frightfully relevant even now. But aside from its powerful message about the complexity of mankind, this rightly raved about drama boasts the most stupendous ensemble cast of the year, featuring unforgettable performances from Adepero Oduye, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o. It's cinema like this that changes not just perspectives, but people.
Best Moment: Ravaged by the violence he's seen and suffered, Northup's face seems lost in despair. But around him his fellow slaves sing a spiritual, and as the music builds and the voices grow stronger, his own trembling tone joins in. We watch him make the decision to carry on, and continue to hope. And it's magnificent.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive
You know that thing where you read a book or blog, listen to a song or podcast, see a TV show or movie, and think, "Oh God. This was made just for me!" It was that mix of vulnerability and elation that I felt watching Jim Jarmusch's dreamy vampire dramedy Only Lovers Left Alive at the New York Film Festival last fall.
As a teen, I spent an embarrassing amount of time engrossed in vampire fiction of all sorts. As an adult, I crush on hard on Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, intensely entertaining actors who share an otherworldly allure and an enviable persona that blends that kind of coolness where you don't take yourself too seriously. Then Jarmusch with his offbeat sensibilities and genre-bending brain combined all of the above into a narrative about endless ennui that is miraculously spirited and hilarious. Focusing on a pair of undead lovers (Swinton and Hiddleston) who have been married for centuries, Only Lovers Left Alive makes vampires freshly sexy with its playful take on their mythos in a fully realized world, adding coolly unkempt hair, hordes of famous friends, and mystique-enhancing gloves.
As soon as this movie ended, I thirsted to see it again. There's been a lot of truly stupendous cinema out this year. So many excellent movies, in fact, I struggled to whittle a favorites list down to just 10. But nothing else made me swoon like this. Now open overseas, Only Lovers Left Alive will hit theaters Stateside in 2014, and clearly I can't recommend enough that you seek it out immediately and repeatedly.
Best Moment: How to choose! Every moment that Swinton and Hiddleston share onscreen is exhilarating, but there's one single shot where their naked bodies are in a tangle of slumber that is so beautiful I nearly squealed over its perfection.
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