The 2013 Top 10

December 31, 2013
A thought by James Berardinelli

We start every year the same way: a countdown ushering out the old, a kiss, a song, and best wishes for the next twelve months. Some years fulfill the promise that exists at 12:01 on January 1; many do not. It takes 365 days to make a determination. In the world of film, there are various metrics that can be applied to decide whether a year is successful or not. Studios get out their calculators and examine box office gross. Casual movie-goers may look at the level of excitement or anticipation generated by the year's biggest releases. Critics often compile Top 10 lists and use the strength of the titles on that roster to suggest something about the year as a whole.

If one was to judge 2013 solely on the basis of box office, it would be viewed as a success. When the last ticket is bought at 11:59 on New Year's Eve, the total box office intake is likely to either come close to or exceed that of 2012 (which currently ranks as the biggest year in movie history, assuming one doesn't adjust for inflation). Hollywood is happy about that. It means that, whatever issues viewers may have with individual movies and/or franchises, the industry as a whole is doing exceptionally well.

Some viewers have expressed disappointment about 2013's crop of blockbusters. Admittedly, this year lacked the "heat" of 2012. There were some recognizable titles: new chapters of Star Trek, Iron Man, Thor, Wolverine, The Hunger Games, and The Hobbit. But there were no mega-blockbusters along the lines of The Avengers or The Dark Knight Returns. Still, viewers went to see things they were familiar with. The top 5 money-makers for 2013 were all either sequels or remakes: Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, and Monsters University. Comfortable, recognizable characters are what viewers apparently crave, and the studios delivered.

No sequels made it to my Top 10. This is a personal list, designed to reflect no one's opinion but my own. It's not intended to be an objective reflection of quality, so take it for what it's worth. The top of the list is stronger than that of the one I compiled for 2012. In fact, the titles occupying this year's slots #1 and #2 surpassed anything that opened in 2012. And no film making the 2013 list was released prior to Memorial Day weekend. That's reflective of the studio desire to "backload" the year with "quality releases." Translated: if it has Oscar potential, it's probably not coming out until the autumn.

Honorable mentions - five films that didn't quite make the cut but which I still highly recommend (alphabetical):

The Conjuring:

Fruitvale Station:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:


Saving Mr. Banks:

Now here are the Top 10, in reverse order, with a few random comments:

#10: Short Term 12: A small movie that arrived relatively unheralded during the latter portion of the summer, Short Term 12 proved to be a revelation both in terms of its emotional authenticity and the strength of its acting. This story about the high stress job of working at a children's home avoids the pitfalls of oversentimentality and mawkishness and instead delivers a focused look at a small group of memorable characters. This offers a breakthrough performance for actress Brie Larson. Coming soon to home video.

#9: Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks has often been called the "modern-day Jimmy Stewart" (implying, I guess, that Stewart isn't "modern") but Captain Phillips gives him an opportunity to flex his acting muscles a little. A tense, unconventional thriller about high seas piracy, the movie uses Hanks to good effect - giving us a likeable character in the midst of a seemingly impossible situation. Director Paul Greengrass keeps the tension, like the stakes, high and delivers an ending that is both satisfying and authentic. Coming soon to home video.

#8: The Spectacular Now: An indie romance made with extraordinary care for the characters and their circumstances. The genre and the situations are conventional but the honesty of the relationships shows a maturity of writing one doesn't normally find in romantic comedies. Lead actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give appealing and nuanced performances that make it easy to become invested in their lives, problems, and love. This film was so liked by critic Roger Ebert when he saw a cut of it before his death that he programmed it for the 2013 Ebertfest. Coming soon to home video.

#7: Prisoners: One reason why Prisoners never caught on with audiences is probably because the material is too dark to represent escapist entertainment. The narrative focuses on the disappearance of two girls and the ways (sometimes unthinkable) in which family members and locals in the community react to the tragedy. The movie confronts thorny moral issues head-on. Prisoners is challenging and thought-provoking but in no way could it be considered to be fun. Currently available on home video.

#6: Her: If The Spectacular Now was the best conventional love story of 2013, then Her deserves a spot alongside it as the best unconventional romance. Told with Spike Jonze's typical quirkiness, this tale of love in the electronic age combines the familiar sci-fi trope of machines achieving consciousness with the idea that we as a society are becoming increasingly more comfortable relating to computers than other people. Her is a deeper, more thought provoking film than the description might suggest but it's also touching in sometimes unexpected ways. Opens wide theatrically on January 10, 2014. [Full review coming on January 9. Local embargo rules force me to hold posting until that day.]

#5: 12 Years a Slave: Featuring one of the best male performances of the year (from early Oscar favorite Chiwetel Ejiofor), this wrenching, stirring motion picture tells the tragic tale of a pre-Civil War black free man who is abducted and sold into slavery. It offers an honest portrayal of what it was like to live in the South during the first half of the nineteenth century. 12 Years a Slave pulls no punches and some of its most uncompromising scenes will force sensitive viewers to turn away. This isn't a revenge fantasy like last year's Django Unchained. Currently playing in theaters.

#4: Blue is the Warmest Color: The only foreign language film to make this year's list, Blue is the Warmest Color opened amidst controversy - graphic sex scenes, actresses sniping at the director, some lesbian critics calling it a "male fantasy" - but the experience of seeing the movie dispels most of those concerns. This languorous coming-of-age story provides an intimate portrait of a young woman coming to grasp with her sexuality, experiencing first love, and learning to live with the consequences of a tragic mistake. For my money, lead actress Adele Exarchopoulos gives the best female performance of the year, with the camera frequently lingering on her features in extreme close-up. Currently playing in theaters (limited release).

#3: The Wolf of Wall Street: Another controversial film, but this one is in English. Martin Scorsese puts aside gangsters and gunplay to focus on another sort of criminal: stock broker Jordan Belfort, whose Caligula-like activities during the '80s created a template for those who saw Wall Street as their own personal, debauched playground. Although some of the events in the film are exaggerated for comedic effect, the scary thing about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it's based on actual events. Blisteringly funny at times and distressingly bleak at others, this is unlike anything Scorsese has done recently. It's brilliant but definitely not for everyone. It contains enough nudity, sex, and drug use to turn off more conservative viewers. Along with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio stands atop my short list for best male performance of the year. Opened theatrically on December 25, 2013.

#2: Gravity: The Wolf of Wall Street might be aimed at only a select audience, but Gravity is for everyone and, judging by the box office results (it was 2013's highest grossing non-sequel/remake), nearly everyone saw it. The film is designed for the theatrical experience, making excellent use of both the big screen and 3-D. It will lose something at home; however, the narrative and character development are forceful enough to still allow the film to play strongly on a smaller screen (albeit without the "spectacle" element). Coming soon to home video.

#1: Before Midnight: This is my favorite film of 2013. It's also my favorite film (thus far) of the decade. The third movie in the Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy Before… series, this is the best, most mature of the three. Before Sunrise chronicled love at first sight. Before Sunset dealt with regrets and rekindling love. Before Midnight explores what happens when the honeymoon period is over and real life intervenes. Eighteen years after first meeting, Celine and Jesse are not in the same place they were that magical night in Vienna… As with its predecessors, Before Midnight is a talky affair but the dialogue sparkles with humor and substance. The final 30 minutes are powerful and honest. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will find many touchstones in this movie. It's already available for home viewing so there's no need to wait. And for subtitle-phobic viewers, although it takes place in Greece, it's (mostly) in English.