Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Favorite Movies of 2013

After slumping in 2012 and seeing only 47 new movies (the first time since 1996, when I was 16, that I didn't see 50+), I rebounded and saw 52 in 2013. Heading into December, I wasn't sure I'd make it, but a brutal cold front that extended my winter break by two days and made going outside highly unpleasant, all while my fiancee was in Hawaii for work, allowed me to put Netflix to good use and cruise back above the benchmark. Both Netflix and Red Box were a bigger part of my movie-viewing than ever before, so while finding time to get to the theater a gets harder and harder, I was still able to keep caught up on things.

Before going any further, I want to single out what was easily my least-favorite film of 2013, Die Hard 5, officially known as A Good Day to Die Hard, which is a bad title, but not as bad as the movie itself. The original Die Hard is a classic, and still holds up very well, and the first two sequels are enjoyable too, but the last two installments have completely lost site of what made that first movie so good, and what made John McClane such a great character. McClane used to be an easy-to-root-for everyman, caught in a crazy situation and making the best of it; the action, while tremendous, felt grounded in some sort of reality. Now he's been transformed into dull, unlikable superman, surviving falls that should have killed him (or at least have put an end to his day). Based on the fourth entry and the previews for this one, I went in with low expectations, but it still fell far short.

Alright, that out of the way, onto the movies I actually enjoyed last year. There were more of them than I'll include here, but I do want to note three documentaries I very much enjoyed: 

Blackfish - Looks at the death of a SeaWorld trainer, who was killed by one of the theme park's Orcas, and makes a convincing case that the parks are pretty terrible places.

Dirty Wars - Looks at how the U.S. government and military establishment is operating around the globe, in places and in ways you don't see covered much on the news.

A Band Called Death - Did you know one of the first punk bands consisted of three African American brothers from Detroit? They predate the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and other well known acts too.

Now on to the list...

Top Ten Movies of 2013

10) The Wolf of Wall Street - Excessive excess and an unclear message are outweighed by a fantastic lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio (and supporting turn by Jonah Hill), along with a couple of the best scenes of the year.

9) Fruitvale Station - This was my favorite movie of the year until mid-October (which goes to show how backend-heavy studios are about releasing their best films). I've loved Michael B. Jordan since 'The Wire,' and am happy to see his star rising.

8) Dallas Buyers Club - Twenty years after Philadelphia comes another great movie about early years of the AIDS epidemic, but Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof is a very different man than Tom Hanks' Andrew Beckett.

7) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - A solid improvement from the first one, with better pacing and fewer 20-minutes scenes of dwarves eating. Smaug himself was very well done, and the abrupt ending means the final entry should start with a bang.

6) Captain Phillips - Another on the long list of Tom Hanks' excellent performances, but also a great supporting turn from newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who helps the movie present the Somalian pirates as real people with understandable motives for their actions.

5) Nebraska - In many ways a very sad movie, but also one of the year's funniest, I think. In a year with  so many great performances, I'm not yet sure who I hope wins Best Actor, but I certainly wouldn't complain if it were Bruce Dern.

4) American Hustle - This was the most fun I had at the movies all year long. The story has enough twists and turns to keep you off balance, but not so many that you ever feel lost, the actors all do fine work, and the look and sound of the movie is a delight.

3) 12 Years a Slave - Among the most devastating films I've ever watched, with a couple scenes that were hard to keep my eyes on, and one of the most heartbreaking apologies I've ever heard. Tremendous work from the entire cast.

2) Gravity - Director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki  have an incredible sense of physical space and camera movement, making this unlike anything I've seen before. It wouldn't rate this highly if it were only a technical achievement, but once the tension kicks in it never lets up, and Bullock's performance is strong. Captivating from the first shot to the last.

1) Her - I've enjoyed all of Spike Jonze's other films, but the previews for this one made me think the  core idea was too goofy to work. I was wrong. The premise ends up feeling entirely plausible, a future that could arrive in another couple decades (well, not the part about Los Angeles having a state-of-the-art public transportation system). It's also a beautiful looking film, both in terms of shot composition and production design. Add in top strong work from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson, and you've got my favorite film of 2013.


  1. Thanks for your list, Jason. You've driven me to finally add a few missed gems to my cue. Also, reading short and more personal reviews of films I've seen helps me understand them a little better, here especially "Nebraska" and "Her." With the latter, I definitely enjoyed Jonze's visual interpretation of a future Los Angeles in which people spend much more time physically in public space (work, trains and pedestrian areas) than in the private space of cars (I believe there are no cars in the movie) and yet, still are within their virtual private bubbles by virtue of being so involved with their... devices. Also, I loved the "state of the art public transport system" which the city is making toddler-steps toward achieving now... but how to effectively install it in a 70 by 70 mile city? That could take a century.

  2. That is an amazing list! I love watching Her as well, and I'm inclined to put it on my top 2013 list. I'm quite curious as to how your list this year will turn up. I hope you post this year's list soon! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Simon Walker @ The Viewlorium