SPECIAL: The Best Movies of 2013

Photo: A24

Photo: A24

Chris Luckett

2013 was a weak year for movies. Not since 2008 have there been so few great ones. That’s not to say there haven’t been any – as there definitely have been – but it was slim pickings this year. In any event, there were still 25 great ones. From animation and documentaries to period pieces and science-fiction, these were the best movies of 2013.

Honourable Mention: FRUITVALE STATION – A dramatization of the last day in the life Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), an innocent, unarmed man who was fatally shot by a police officer in early 2009


Told in two distinct halves, director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful drama of fathers, sons, and differing ideas of “doing the right thing.” Ryan Gosling is Luke Glanton, a travelling motorcycle stuntman who discovers he’s fathered a son to a woman he slept with his last time through town. Bradley Cooper plays Avery Cross, an officer whose life dramatically collides with Glanton’s, with reverberations that ripple through both their lives and their sons’. Both Gosling and Cooper are fantastic in this poignant, intertwining series of tales.


Currently nominated for an Academy Award, 20 Feet from Stardom puts the background singers of some of the most famous music of the last half-century front and center. Focussing on five notable background singers and featuring interviews with Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and more, the documentary intercuts footage of classic performances with the modern lives of the five singers and discussions of their career trajectories. Much like 2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 20 Feet from Stardom gives recognition to some of the most criminally underappreciated singers, all while keeping you dancing in your seat.


The Coen brothers returned with another fantastic movie, though this one failed to resonate with audiences the way Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and True Grit did, possibly due to the misanthropy it wears right on its sleeve. The Coens’ look at Greenwich Village in the 1960s focuses on Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling singer who is a burden to everyone he knows and blindly shuffles forward to a successful future that he doesn’t realize won’t ever come his way. With excellent performances from Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman, as well as the best soundtrack of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis is a pessimistic but humorous look at the death of folk singing.


Anwar Congo was the leader of the most feared death squad in North Sumatra during the Indonesians massacres of the ‘60s, during which time he personally murdered over 1,000 people. Decades later, the sexagenarian still boasts proudly of all the innocent people he slaughtered over his life. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer offered the proud Congo the chance to re-enact his most brutal killings for the camera, and the slow realizations that come to Congo over the course of filming are gripping and rewarding, leading to a climax that would almost be unbelievable in a fictional movie but here lands with resounding power.


Shane Carruth wrote, directed, and starred in the 2004 time-travel movie Primer, which many have hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi head-scratchers of our lifetime. It took nine years for his follow-up movie to arrive, but its brilliance leaves no doubt that Carruth’s success with Primer was no fluke. It is very difficult to say what Upstream Colour is about – although it does involve kidnapping, orchids, Walden’s Pond, PTSD, roundworms, brainwashing, and pig transfusions. The most Lynchian movie David Lynch didn’t make, Upstream Colour is nearly impossible to describe and even harder to forget.


Many who would have loved Spring Breakers dismissed it as a teen movie and most who saw it expecting a thumping sexcapade hated this beautifully tragic tale of lost souls. Centering on four college friends (Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) who decide to rob a bank to pay for their spring break trip to Florida, the girls quickly end up arrested after a particularly crazy party in Miami. They are bailed out by Alien (a notably bonkers James Franco), who lures them into his drug-filled lifestyle. Before long, the girls are pulled into a dangerous spiral of robberies, drugs, and murders. The incredibly sad and dark turns in the final act of the movie are made all the more unnerving by the movie’s neon-tinged visuals and EDM soundtrack.


In the wake of Harry Potter, many young-adult books have been adapted in the hopes of becoming the next big fantasy/sci-fi franchise. Of all the attempts to tap into what worked so well in the boy wizard’s adventures, Ender’s Game is the first to get it completely right while not encroaching on familiar territory. A fascinating look at both the ingenuity of children and the taxing toll of war, Ender’s Game is set aboard space stations where the young soldiers of the future train for an imminent alien war. Asa Butterfield is perfect as the bold Ender, and Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley are all magnificent as the higher-ups sculpting Ender into a leader without his knowledge or permission. It ends with hope for a sequel that likely won’t come, but Ender’s Game is still excellent as its own singular story.


Director Asghar Farhadi’s first film, A Separation, was the best movie of 2011. Its brilliance lied in getting you to sympathize with every character involved in a dispute and with not painting only one side as being right. Farhadi’s follow-up explores similar themes with similar techniques, but on a much larger canvas and with a greater cast and bigger revelations. When a man (Ali Mosaffa) returns to his ex-wife’s (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) house to finalize their divorce papers, he gets embroiled in a complicated drama of jilted spouses, tragic secrets, and devastating lies. Almost every character acts with noble intentions, but cruel fate twists each secret into its worst-case scenario before publicly exposing them one by one.


The most enrapturing period piece of last year wasn’t set in Elizabethan England or Ancient China but in New Jersey during the decadent ‘70s. From a technical standpoint, the design of American Hustle is flawless. The hair, costumes, props, set design, and soundtrack all perfectly capture the “me” decade to such an extent that, were it not for the presence of modern actors like Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence, the movie would look like it was actually filmed 40 years ago. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting, director David O. Russell continues the streak of great movies he’s been on since I Heart Huckabees with one of the best con artist movies of the last decade.


Based on a series of Belgian children’s books, Ernest & Celestine tells a rather traditional story: a bear and a mouse become friends, despite their differences. The wonder of this animated tale, though, comes not from its story but from its style and its humour. The animation, an always-moving swirl of watercolours and disconnected lines, is fantastically whimsical and the humour is gentle but uproarious. Painting its worlds of xenophobic bears and mice as animalistic Capulets and Montagues, Ernest and Celestine form a beautiful friendship that transcends language and species.


Over the last year, musical acts as varied as The Beach Boys, Heart, Barenaked Ladies, and Willie Nelson each pulled out of planned performances at various SeaWorld parks, and all because of what Blackfish exposed to the world. Even the ending to the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was changed after the director saw this heart-breaking look at the brutal mistreatment of orcas at SeaWorld and similar marine animal parks. Blackfish smartly focuses on one orca in particular, Tilikum, a 32-year-old “killer whale” who has killed three trainers in the years since his capture. As far as condemning documentaries go, Blackfish makes an open-and-shut case against the captivity of orcas and the undeniable cruelty of forcing them to perform for audiences.


Not a fun movie but a very important one, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He spends a dozen years in chains, picking cotton and playing the violin for his masters while never losing the flicker of hope inside of him that burns for his freedom and aches for his wife and children. By focusing the story specifically on Northup, 12 Years a Slave finds a way to make the unfathomable horrors of slavery comprehensible and soul-shaking. The camera stays tight on Northup for all of the film, placing you right beside the atrocities and challenging you to face America’s uncomfortable history head-on.


The best comedy of the year came and went over the summer, and many people missed it. Featuring an all-star comedic cast of Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Jack McBrayer, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg, and more, The To-Do List starts as a traditional teen sex comedy and then cleverly subverts every single trope of the genre. Brandy Klark (Plaza, wisely ditching her typically deadpan delivery) is the valedictorian of her high school, but discovers at a graduation party that she’s completely clueless about sex. To prepare for the sexual onslaught of college, she decides to become an expert on sex before summer’s end. It’s a rich premise for comedy and the cast and smart screenplay mine every opportunity with aplomb.


Kidnapping thrillers of the calibre of The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en don’t come along that often, but when they do, they’re ones to seek out. When the daughters of the Keller and Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped during a rainy day, a local creep (Paul Dano) is suspected but ultimately let go. The investigation by police detective Loki (a superb Jake Gyllenhaal) goes too slowly for Keller’s liking, so he decides to takes the law into his hands, kidnapping Dano’s character and torturing him to find out where his daughter is — despite the fact that it’s unclear whether or not he has the right person. Prisoners is a slow-burn detective thriller that explores dark and slippery territory with a visual flair straight out of David Fincher’s handbook and a mounting dread that builds to a tense climax and an absolutely perfect ending.


Generally speaking, there are usually only one or two really good horror released during any given year. 2013 gave the world the quite-good Insidious, Chapter 2, but the genre’s real gift was The Conjuring. Wan proves with this classic haunted house story, just as he did with the Insidious movies, that unoriginality is only important if the movie isn’t good enough at building tension. Wan knows that true fear comes not from frights and scares but from dread and anticipation (although that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of moments that make you jump out of your skin). One of the scariest movies in a number of years, The Conjuring is built upon classic horror techniques, but masters them so well that you’ll be too frightened to care about anything but finding a nightlight for afterward.


In 1995, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise looked at twenty-somethings Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who met on a train and ended up spending a night exploring Vienna and having great conversation while falling in love. In 2004, Linklater revisited thirty-somethings Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset for a real-time exploration of Paris and more scintillating conversation. In 2013, he returned to the couple, another nine years later and now in their forties, and followed them around for one day of a Greek vacation. As the third entry in its series, Before Midnight is the best of the romantic trilogy, but it also functions powerfully on its own. The hypothetical futures Jesse and Celine theorized about in Before Sunrise are now very much a reality, yet neither anticipated their lives being what they are, which leads to the most adult and stimulating dialogue of the series.


Generally, great modern romances succeed by either smart writing (like Say Anything… or When Harry Met Sally) or charming casts (like Love, Actually or 500 Days of Summer). As good as the writing in The Spectacular Now is — and it’s good — what makes it soar are the performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, who find a depth in their seemingly simplistic characters and slowly let it reveal itself. What begins like many other romantic comedies (the struggling, popular guy in school starts falling for the smart, shy wallflower) takes braver and braver chances, leading to a jaw-dropping turn in the final act that feels not like a manipulative script device but a wake-up call to the characters. Watching The Spectacular Now, you really hope and root for everything to work out for the two characters — which is a sign of a truly excellent romance.


Dallas Buyers Club sounds like it should be a depressing movie, but the true tale of a homophobic Texan in the ‘80s who contracted HIV and turned to smuggling drugs from Mexico for fellow AIDS sufferers is one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the year. Matthew McConaughey, slowly shedding weight over the course of the movie, gives one of the best performances of the year, using his Southern charm to make the initially reprehensible and ignorant Ron Woodruff somehow likeable. Jared Leto is also a revelation as Rayon, a transgender woman Woodruff teams up with to distribute the drugs – or, rather, to sell memberships wherein members get free access to AIDS-treating drugs. Woodruff (thankfully) never becomes a truly noble person, but his evolution from gay-bashing bigot to tolerant, caring crusader is a powerful and inspiring one.


Over the years, Ron Howard has directed such great movies as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, and Angels & Demons. Even so, Rush is one of his very best. The movie focuses on the bitter rivalry between two F-1 racers in the ‘70s: cocksure, glib playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and calculating, antisocial prodigy Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Hunt and Lauda’s dislike for each other grows into full-blown hatred, before morphing into begrudging respect. It’s a marvellous transformation to watch, with the impressive character development punctuated by incredibly gripping races. Even if you don’t care about F-1 or competitive racing, Rush is that rare sports-themed movie wherein the sport is really incidental to the story at the heart of the film.


There was a time, from 1989 to 1994, when animated Disney movies were at their apogee in both quality and in popularity. Whether it was due to 1995’s lackluster Pocahontas or Pixar’s paradigm-shifting Toy Story, one way or another Disney lost that alchemical magic after The Lion King. With Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney started to build back up to something wonderful and Frozen is the culmination of Disney’s latest animation renaissance. Employing Broadway-worthy songs, classic Disney character archetypes, animation that is in every way the peer of Pixar, and a story adapted from a Hans Christen Andersen story (whose works also, not so coincidentally, inspired The Little Mermaid), Frozen is not just the best animated movie of 2013 — it’s the best animated Disney movie in nearly 20 years.


If you saw The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, or United 93, you know how tense Paul Greengrass’s movies can be. Captain Phillips is his best work yet, starting off with an ominous sense of dread as the titular character (played by Tom Hanks) pilots a cargo ship through treacherous waters. As Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), board the ship and the crew take refuge amongst the nooks and crannies of the Maersk Alabama, the tension ratchets up, with hostages being taken and things growing more dire as the movie’s running time ticks away. It’s an insanely tense hostage situation, made all the more unusual by being set at sea, and it provides Hanks the opportunity to give one of the best performances of his career.


There are lots of amazing documentaries, but only a select few are so important you want to tell everyone you know to watch them. The Square is one such piece of work. Filmed over two-and-a-half years in Egypt, The Square begins with the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarek that the world watched live in January 2011, but shows it from the ground level, amidst the citizens protesting in Tahrir Square. More importantly, it then shows the worsening conditions in Egypt after all the TV crews left. What the world didn’t see, like the subsequent president (Mohamed Morsi) being even crueller than Mubarek or the millions-strong second protest in Tahrir Square to remove Morsi, is breath-taking to watch. Even if you know your Egyptian current events, going through the experience first-hand with activist Ahmed Hassan, actor Khalid Abdalla, and father-of-four Magdy Ashour drives home the reality of what Egyptians have been going through recently far better than rooftop CNN footage could.

3. HER

Spike Jonze’s debut feature was Being John Malkovich, one of the weirdest movies to come out of the ‘90s. His follow-up was the even more bizarre Adaptation., which managed to be a completely original Möbius strip of reality and fiction. Both movies were masterpieces of creativity and bravado; even if you didn’t like them, you couldn’t argue that either was boring or predictable. Jonze’s most recent film, Her, is another brilliant piece of cinema that is as twisted as his earlier works but also has a lot to say to modern audiences about technology, dependency, social interactions, loneliness, and love. Taking place in the near future, Theodore (a light-hearted Joaquin Phoenix) purchases OS1, the very first artificially intelligent operating system. (Imagine Siri, but with the brain, emotions, and wit of a person – and with Scarlett Johansson’s voice.) As the plot slowly builds and Theodore and Samantha (the name his operating system gave herself) progress from everyday conversation to emotional bonding, you worry about how far the movie will take their relationship. And then it does. Her sounds like a preposterous idea for a movie, but Jonze’s gift is being able to get you to get on board with ridiculous premises like finding a secret doorway into John Malkovich’s mind or a screenwriter becoming the main character of a movie he’s writing. Her may well be Jonze’s finest work yet.


If there was any movie last year that had an uphill battle with both studio heads and audiences, it was All is Lost. The entire movie takes place on the ocean, either about a sailboat or in a life raft. Star Robert Redford, 77, doesn’t exactly scream “box office draw” anymore or seem strong enough to perform the stunts needed by the script. What’s more, he is literally the only person seen during the whole 106-minute running time – which also means that, save for a few expletives and mayday calls, All is Lost is essentially a silent movie. Yet it’s also one of the most gripping thrillers of the year, one of the scariest horror films, one of the saddest love stories, one of the funniest dark comedies, and one of the most poignant dramas. Redford gives the greatest performance of 2013 and of his career as the nameless man struggling to stay alive after his sailboat gets impales by a random, floating cargo container. The way he evokes and conveys so much with just a squint of his eyes or a barely audibly sigh is subtly brilliant. All is Lost is the second movie from writer-director J.C. Chandor (after 2011’s fantastic Margin Call) and he’s already becoming the next Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan. Just as Tarantino had to live in the shadow of Pulp Fiction for many years and Nolan had to fight to escape the footprint of Memento, Chandor has his work cut out for him: it will be next-to-impossible for him to top All is Lost.


On paper, Gravity seems quite similar to All is Lost. Both look at dealing with existential despair, the state of being utterly alone, and the struggle to survive in practically insurmountable extremes. Both feature career-best performances from their leads, both are basically one-person shows. The only thing that makes Gravity an even better film that All is Lost is its ambition. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s previous work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men hinted that he was capable of greatness, but with Gravity he’s revealed himself to the next James Cameron. In size, scale, and spectacle, nothing last year came close to the mammoth scope and claustrophobic simplicity of Gravity. The action sequences in the movie – particularly the catalytic meteor shower that demolishes the space shuttle Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) was planning on using to return to Earth – are gripping, tense, and immaculately constructed. Cuarón and his special effects teams worked for three years to make Gravity, and it shows. The seventeen-minute opening shot, which is a marvel of modern filmmaking akin to the “rotating hallway” sequence in Inception, sets the stage and the expectations for one of the most unforgettable experiences at the movies. It’s a film that will go down as a modern milestone of visual innovation, right alongside Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Avatar. Gravity is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. Once you have, though, it’s something you’ll never forget.

How many of the Best Movies of 2013 have you seen? What movies were on your best-of-the-year list? Comment and share below!