Turns out, it was a good year for movies — and in some cases, a great one. Two titles in particular left me emotionally devastated (Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave). I saw a terrific documentary about killer whales in captivity (Blackfish), that subtly turned into a damning indictment of corporate greed. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg returned with the third part of their Cornetto trilogy, The World’s End, which made my list not only because it was the best comedy of the year, but because it succeeds as a rather touching portrait of an alcoholic desperate to reconnect with his youth. And horror made a triumphant return to the summer season it once dominated with James Wan’s sensational and scarifying The Conjuring.
American Hustle was my pick for best movie of the year, until I caved to my intuition at the last second and gave the spot to a movie about which I understand very little, but can’t seem to shake from my memory bank. Some titles I never got to, like Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, and Blue Is the Warmest Color. The Wolf of Wall Street just came out a week ago, and as soon as I have the chance to sit my butt down for three hours, I’ll check it out; but for now it doesn’t make this list. And then there are the countless other independent and foreign films, and documentaries, that are difficult to find even under the best of circumstances. Maybe sometime early in 2014 I’ll do as I did for 2011 and issue a redux list with movies I was able to catch up on. But for now, you’ll just have to do with my list of the 10 best movies of 2013 as it is.
#10. The World’s End
A night-long pub crawl and an alien invasion are all the details you need to know about this smart and raucous comedy from the genius comedy duo of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. The World’s End is the loose third of the so-called Cornetto Blood & Ice Cream trilogy that includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and it’s the best in the series, which is saying something. Pegg is the 40-year-old manchild, Gary King, who convinces his college buddies (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) to give the Golden Mile a try decades after they failed it miserably. 12 pubs in one night, that’s the plan, but the group’s momentum gets interrupted by otherworldly beings and their own deep and hilarious infighting. Just as the action comes to a head, Wright and Pegg blindside us with some rather wonderful poignancy, as Pegg’s character discovers just how quickly the world can pass you by. Frost figures in what I suspect will become a cult role, playing perhaps the funniest stumbling drunk I’ve ever seen on film.
A documentary about killer whales in captivity becomes a scathing indictment of animal cruelty and massive corporate greed. The SeaWorld corporation comes off looking criminal, as a series of former “trainers” tell the story of Tilikum, a show whale responsible for multiple deaths and injuries. SeaWorld spins each of Tilikum’s “incidents” to put blame on the trainers, despite evidence that points to deprivation training and cramped living quarters; after all, there’s no profit in a whale that kills people. Blackfish makes no claims of being unbiased; there’s an agenda here, but the evidence in its favor is strong, and SeaWorld is ultimately left without a leg to stand on. This is riveting filmmaking from start to finish.
#8. The Conjuring
Not only the best horror movie of the year, but possibly one of the best horror movies of all time. Director James Wan takes the age-old premise of the family menaced by malevolent entities in their new house and shoots it into the stratosphere. The Conjuring is moody and atmospheric, yes, but it’s also intense and scary as hell. Much has been made of the movie’s R-rating, which it earned more for the things you can’t see than those you can. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor are superb as the frazzled homeowners. And Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga give a unique spin to the resident ghost hunters who investigate the strange goings-on.[/onethird_last]
Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as a drifter who pulls two teenage boys into a web of mystery. Mud, as the stranger calls himself, is a wanted man…but is he a criminal? Young Ellis (a sensational Tye Sheridan) jumps headlong into this Twain-ian adventure that’s set largley in the bayous of Mississippi; but, his best friend, Neckbone, is a little less enthused. What happens — and why — is best left unsaid because the joy of Mud is in the unraveling of the tale, but I can say it involves some very bad men who do very bad things. Writer-director Jeff Nichols has given us a spectacular follow-up to his equally-impressive 2011 film, Take Shelter.[/onethird_last]
#6. Fruitvale Station
Emotionally devastating chronicle of the last 24-hours of a man’s life. The very real Oscar Grant was shot to death by a police officer on New Year’s Day, 2009, after he and some friends were involved in an altercation at an Oakland train station. Grant was unarmed and not resisting arrest. Ryan Coogler’s debut film subtly gathers power by showing us that Grant was not a perfect man — he was a low-level drug dealer and had been cheating on his girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter — but one who was desperate to change his life in an effort to be a better husband or father. This knowledge makes the shooting, when it arrives, and the aftermath all that much more heartbreaking. Actor Michael B. Jordan infuses Oscar with a sort of quiet determination to do the right thing, even in the face of adversity. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film.
Boy, did this movie take me by surprise. After two girls disappear on Thanksgiving, one of their fathers kidnaps a man who was spotted near the scene, holds him hostage, and attempts to torture a confession out of him. The problem is, the suspect has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and hardly speaks a word, and the cop assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) says no physical evidence links him to the crime. The father, however, is insistent he’s got the right man. The movie poses an interesting moral quandary: how deeply would you be willing to lose yourself to prove you’re right, even when all the evidence says you’re wrong? Features powerful work by Hugh Jackman, as the the distraught father, and the always-terrific Paul Dano, as the suspect. What a follow-up for director Denis Villenueve, who two years ago gave us the masterpiece, Incendies. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
#4. Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks does his finest work playing a cargo ship captain who finds himself in an extraordinary situation when Somali pirates hijack his vessel. Features tense action by Paul Greengrass, one of the best directors working today. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi, as the lead pirate, who was picked from an open casting call of more than 700 people, positions himself as an actor to watch; that he goes up against Hanks without flinching for a second proves he’s got talent. The final moments of the film feature some of the most sublime acting I’ve ever seen, as (SPOILER ALERT!) Phillips decompresses after his harrowing rescue.
#3. 12 Years a Slave
The most powerful movie of the year, 12 Years a Slave follows the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free-born American slave who was duped and sold into servitude in the mid-nineteenth century. Features terrific central performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, Michael Fassbender as the sadistic plantation owner, Epps, and the amazing Lupita Nyong’o in her film debut. Director Steve McQueen takes Nyong’o’s character, Patsey, through the seven circles of hell that include serving Epps’ every sexual whim and a flogging that is one of the single most painful moments ever caught on film. They are demands that almost shouldn’t be asked of any actress, but Nyongo’ faces them with fierce determination. An extraordinary achievement from one of the great emerging directors.
#2. American Hustle
American Hustle is a twisting, diving, delicious epic about politics, greed, corruption, deceit, and the decadence of the disco era. Christian Bale is electrifying as a con man whose latest con begins to spiral out of control. Amy Adams is equally impressive playing Bale’s girlfriend and expert liar, and Bradley Cooper continues his string of intriguing characters as Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent looking to make his mark. I sincerely wanted to call American Hustle the best movie of the year, but another one just seemed to keep getting in the way.
#1. Upstream Color
Full disclosure: I don’t know what Upstream Color is about. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I know it involves worms that, when ground up, have properties that allow people to control the actions of others. It features two protagonists who fall in love, a possible murder, pigs, and other things of a strange and experimental nature that make little sense on first viewing. I also know it’s melodic and beautiful and hypnotic, and visually striking, and it takes its time to unfold like few movies do. Upstream Color was made by someone with deep gifts — someone who understands shot composition, lighting, and design to a degree to which lesser filmmakers should aspire. Now consider that the writer and director, Shane Carruth, is a former software engineer self-taught in the art of film, who has only made one movie before this one (in 2004) and financed and privately distributed Upstream Color on a shoestring budget. I believe that’s the very definition of independent filmmaking. I can’t stop thinking about this movie for reasons I can’t explain, and I can’t wait to visit it again to see if I can unlock some of its mysteries.
Tied for 11th Place (alphabetically)