Was there any doubt? Gravity has catapulted to the list of not just one of my favorite films of 2013, but one of my favorites of all time. Nothing I have seen in a movie theater in the last five years has wowed me, moved me, thrilled me, and literally took my breath away like Alfonso Cuaron’s groundbreaking masterpiece. Sandra Bullock finally got the role of her career, in a rare big-budget studio movie that allows a woman to carry almost the entire story on her shoulders. Many great films were released in 2013, but only Gravity truly changed the ever-evolving cinematic landscape.
2. Before Midnight
One of the greatest love stories ever put on film, this third chapter in the Jesse and Celine saga is perhaps the richest yet. Before Sunset, the first sequel, is one of my favorite movies ever made, so to say I greatly anticipated this new installment is an understatement. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke pulled off a remarkable feat with this film, keeping the trademark long takes alive while also stranding our two beloved characters in the pits of marital Hell. Hawke and especially Delpy give astounding performances, in a film that completes one of the most remarkable movie trilogies of all time.
3. Stuck in Love
Easily the year’s most underrated movie, Stuck in Love might have scared potential viewers away with its lamer-than-lame title (its original title Writers is much preferred). Josh Boone’s observant and moving debut is The Perks of Being a Wallflower good, about a family of writers all trying to come to terms with both their creative processes and their complicated love lives. Greg Kinnear gives one of his best performances as an acclaimed novelist still yearning for his ex-wife, and Nat Wolfe and Lily Collins are just as terrific as his son and daughter. Add in witty dialogue, a killer soundtrack, and a most unexpected cameo, and you have the film that most surprised me this year.
4. The Way, Way Back
The other great coming-of-age dramatic comedy of 2013 was The Way, Way Back, a dazzling entertainment that made for the most pure fun I had at the movies last summer. Liam James gives a touching breakthrough performance as a teenager stuck at a Florida family vacation home with his single mom (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell, effectively playing against type). His only joy comes from working at the local waterpark, where the sarcastic manager (an Oscar-worthy Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing. Everything works in this hilarious, feel-good gem.
5. The Place Beyond the Pines
No, not every great film comes out in the second half of the year (or the last three months of the year, which Academy members seem to believe). Released back in March, Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing second feature plays out like a rich novel, with a unique narrative structure that brings the viewer in and out of characters’ lives, only to circle us back around again. Ryan Gosling is just as memorable here as he was in the director’s debut, Blue Valentine, and Bradley Cooper delivers a performance that is much more nuanced than the one he got the Oscar nomination for (American what?). Cianfrance is a master storyteller, and I eagerly await what he does next.
6. All is Lost
The most stunning omission from the Academy Awards nominations this year was Robert Redford’s tour-de-force of a performance in J.C. Chandor’s riveting and poetic All is Lost. Gravity is mostly Sandra Bullock alone in space, but even that film had George Clooney to lend a helping hand in the first half-hour. All is Lost is all Redford, all the time, with no dialogue, and with increasingly mounting tension, as he finds himself stranded at sea with seemingly no way to get home. This is one of those haunting films that slowly pulls you in, never lets go, and wrings tears out of you in a final scene of rousing catharsis.
Alexander Payne is six for six now, with the moving Nebraska his best work since Sideways. Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s most quietly affecting performances as Woody, an aging alcoholic who thinks he’s won a million dollars, but it’s Will Forte, the year’s unlikeliest dramatic actor, who holds the movie together, and gives it heart. The black and white cinematography looks stunning on a giant screen, making the desolate landscapes feel almost otherworldly. The involving script by Bob Nelson keeps surprising you, all the way through to an ending that is heartbreaking, the same time that it is surprisingly hopeful.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
It’s long. It’s outrageous. It’s filthy and crude. And it’s also a masterpiece. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Martin Scorsese’s truly great movies, an ambitious piece of energetic filmmaking that feels like it was made by someone half his age. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career (which, in a truly great and varied career, says a lot), and Jonah Hill wows in a role that both mortifies and charms the viewer’s socks off. The hilarious Quaalude scene is enough to put this movie on any top ten list; that the rest of the film is just as wildly entertaining and gloriously unapologetic makes it one of Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas.
9. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s very best film in years features his most complex lead female character since Annie Hall, a diverse and exciting cast, and one of his most engaging stories since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Cate Blanchett is well deserving of the Oscar, giving a powerhouse unhinged performance as a privileged New York socialite who loses everything and is forced to move in with her lower class sister (a terrific Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Stand-up comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay impress in supporting roles, but what impresses most is Allen, who at seventy-eight is still churning out sparkling scripts and, most importantly, continues to write beautiful characters for women.
10. Short Term 12
The last 2013 film I watched before making my final list pushed Enough Said and Prisoners, previously tied in the final slot, down into the second ten. Short Term 12 is an insightful slice of life, lovingly written and directed by Destin Cretton, about a group of twenty-somethings who supervise underprivileged teenagers at a residential treatment facility. The acting crackles with a raw intensity, especially from United States of Tara’s Brie Larson, who is a revelation as Grace. The stories of the facility’s inhabitants always feel truthful and never maudlin, and I loved the way Cretton opens and closes the movie with two memorably told stories, and two even more memorable sprints. Short Term 12 is one of the year’s best!
#11-20 (in alphabetical order)
Behind the Candelabra
Inside Llewyn Davis