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. This is Sean’s list, which begins with a tenderhearted teen romance.
10. The Spectacular Now
It was a spectacular year for the coming-of-age genre. Jordan Vogt-Roberts followed frustrated teenagers into the woods for The Kings of Summer, where a clubhouse built for escape only led to more problems. And The Way Way Back, co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, recreated the perfect summer getaway… sandwiched within an excruciating summer vacation for teenager Liam James.
Those films didn’t strike as accurate a note as The Spectacular Now, a vibrant, tearful and commendably honest relationship story lifted from the dog-eared pages of John Hughes’ playbook. Shailene Woodley is fearlessly ordinary as the wallflower who attracts the eye of sarcastic Miles Teller. Their journey has bumps and twists, though screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber root them all in the credible wisps of our own teenage memories. This is Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club for the next generation.
9. All Is Lost
How the hell did All Is Lost get made? I don’t mean, "How did they film it?" (Though more than once, I did marvel at director J.C. Chandor’s impressive patience as he filmed a quiet, chaotic sea-faring drama.) I mean, "How the hell did Chandor convince a producer to back a largely dialogue-free drama that rests squarely on the shoulders of an 77-year-old actor?"
Thank God someone took a chance, because All Is Lost is mesmerizing. The plot couldn’t be more simple. A sailor alone at sea encounters a problem with his boat as a storm approaches. But the tension milked from this medium-concept scenario is nerve-rattling. It helps that the 77-year-old actor recruited by Chandor is Robert Redford, who hasn’t had a part as sparse but meaningful in years.
8. Saving Mr. Banks
Man, how I choked up when Emma Thompson – so frigid as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers – tapped her toe ever so slightly to the chorus of "Let’s Go Fly a Kite." At that moment, she was as enamored with the Mary Poppins compositions as I was with John Lee Hancock’s nostalgic tug-of-war drama, Saving Mr. Banks.
First and foremost, Thompson is terrific as the stoic author who has no interest in the animated crap peddled by "Uncle" Walt (Tom Hanks, also great). And maybe the movie whitewashes (or Disney-fies) history. From what I hear, Travers never gave in to the whims of Disney, and hated the movie version of Mary Poppins until the day she died. But I adore films about the creative process, about the give-and-take that ultimately leads to the creation of stories that are integral to our cinema-loving foundations. Mary Poppins is a masterpiece, and Hancock sprinkles the right dose of Disney pixie dust over this crowd-pleasing film to show us how movies are made in trenches by "soldiers" who need a spoonful of sugar to help the "medicine" of creativity go down.
7. The Broken Circle Breakdown
A friend told me he popped Broken Circle out of his DVD player after 20 minutes. He has a daughter, and a scene where a young girl stricken with cancer pulls out clumps of hair was too much for him to handle.
That’s hard to argue, and I certainly can’t fault him for bailing on Breakdown. But those who stayed with Felix Van Groeningen’s heartbreaking health-scare romance were rewarded with a rich, spiritual portrait of pain and suffering, and how loss either builds you up or reduces you to ash. Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) are grungy musicians who fall in love at first sight. The arrival of a child changes their life path. Their daughter’s illness changes it even further, perhaps past a point of return. If Oscar really recognized the year’s best performance, Baetens would hold all of the trophies for her gut-wrenching turn. Bonus: Broken Circle makes better use of mournful folk music than Inside Llewyn Davis.
6. Blue Is The Warmest Color
Yes, the "three-hour, French lesbian movie." But anyone who has absorbed the complete vision of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner knows you couldn’t sacrifice a single minute of the exquisitely beautiful yet unavoidably painful trip taken by young lovers Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux).
Placed right next to The Broken Circle Breakdown, it’s interesting to note how both movies discuss – from different angles – the dangers we face any time we open our hearts to another person. Love is nearly impossible to capture on screen, especially between actors paid to convince us of a chemistry. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux manage just that, courtesy of some graphic (graphic!) sex scenes… and several equally effective, passionate conversations defending the power of attraction. Blue is a difficult journey for both the characters and the audience, but one that’s so honest with every calculated step, you won’t soon forget it.
If Alfred Hitchcock’s finest movie had a baby with Brian De Palma’s sleaziest film, it would look like Stoker.
Sinister yet stylish, evil yet glorious, Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s ode to the dysfunctional family. It’s the only coming-of-age movie I can remember that trades in murder, incest, mystery and shoes. But it’s so gorgeous, marked by the director’s breathtaking, bold visual choices and subliminal references. Stoker boasts career-best performances by Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and, yes, Nicole Kidman. They’re all given in service of a proudly-wacky camp chiller that will playfully disgust and entertain those with a wicked, macabre sense of humor.
Intelligent, emotional, humorous, somber, futuristic but surprisingly contemporary, Spike Jonze’s Her engages on so many levels, I’m not sure I’ll full understand how much I appreciate this film until I fully understand the movie itself. If that ever happens.
Here’s what I can tell you: Her has Jonze operating in the same heady air he occupied for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. But his unconventional storytelling asks huge questions about romance and technology. What constitutes a normal relationship? Are we becoming too attached to our devices? And where will we be 10 years from now? I hope Phoenix still will be performing a decade in the future. As a heartbroken letter writer smitten with his new companion, Phoenix delivers a fearless, sympathetic and courageous turn that gives the operating systems of Her unexpected heart.
3. About Time
My wife and I watched the first hour of Richard Curtis’ endearing time-travel romance one evening, but stopped it right around the wedding of Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams. It was sweet, but nothing special. We agreed to finish it the next evening.
The second hour of About Time is the reason why the movie is on this list… and in the No. 3 slot. It devastated me. Reduced me to a blubbering mess. No other film released this year affected me on such an emotional level. I was happily demolished. After establishing the rules of its imaginative premise, Curtis plunges his characters on a roller coaster ride I never expected to endure. About Time relies on the classic "butterfly effect" storytelling clause, as a son and husband (played with warmth and wit by Gleeson) tries to use his unusual power to create a perfect life, only to learn that such an existence isn’t possible. McAdams is her usual adorable self. The brilliant Bill Nighy is as engaged as I’ve seen him in years. And the scene on the beach is perfection.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen has no idea how to pull his punches. Whether analyzing imprisonment (Hunger), sexual addiction (Shame) or, in this instance, the American institute of slavery, the Brit filmmaker plunges audiences fully into uncomfortable experiences, picking at scabs and poking at open wounds until his truths are exposed.
But McQueen’s also a masterful storyteller, and 12 Years illustrates just how adept the director is at pulling an audience’s strings to manipulate emotions. There’s just enough hope laced through the devastating journey of captured free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, brilliant) that we endure the hardships – mostly associated with a demonic Michael Fassbender – in search of closure. It wasn’t until I toughed through 12 Years a second time that I fully appreciated its genius. It’s a work of art, a thrilling recreation of a nasty period in our own history, and an unparalleled story of human perseverance. I can’t wait to see what McQueen does next.
The best film I saw all year.
Alfonso Cuaron created movie magic with Gravity, a spectacular edge-of-your-seat ride that, to me, looks like it actually was filmed in outer space. Sandra Bullock cements a special-effects extravaganza by playing Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer who must overcome impossible obstacles if she hopes to get back home following a space-based accident. But the star is the brilliant Cuaron, who – through 3D and IMAX – immersed us in an unforgettable theatrical experience that dragged us into the galaxies, where we held our breath and clutched at our arm rests begging the director to let us out of his vice grip. Gravity changed the game for science-fiction movie making, showing other tentpole directors how technology needs to be used to enhance a story. It compacted a lifetime of thrills into a taut package. And it established Cuaron as one of the most gifted filmmakers of our generation, a winning combination of Spielberg, Cameron and Kubrick. His eye-popping Gravity, in my humble opinion, is the year’s best film.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order): The Bling Ring; Dallas Buyers Club; The Great Gatsby; Short Term 12; Upstream Color