Back in the blog game. This year has been a particularly crowded year for movies that’s seen a couple revolutionary looks at storied settings (Gravity & space, 12 Years a Slave & southern slavery, Spring Breakers & … spring break?), original insight on the 20th century American identity (American Hustle, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Inside Llewyn Davis), and a handful of tiny pictures that’ll stay in your heart and mind much longer than most of their big brothers (Fruitvale Station, Before Midnight, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers). Most of all, though, this year is notable for how much actors took over their movies, not due to their own star power but through pure screen presence. Hollywood got casting right this year, and it shows in movies big and small:
20 21 22, IN ORDER:
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
If you can get past the shock, pain, and guilt that 12 YEARS A SLAVE shares with each of its viewers, this is just an amazing historical picture. It’s the movie that most requires a re-view but is in the tough spot of being probably the hardest rewatch in history. Watch this alone and forget your relationship to any racial divides in this country, past and present. It’s just the best movie out there.
2. FRUITVALE STATION
Visually, this movie feels the smallest of all the films on this list. When the third act of this movie hits, it’s amazing just how big, real, and momentous the wrongful shooting of Oscar Grant feels. Actors ruled 2013, and Michael B. Jordan is up there with the best.
Just too much to love in this. The colors, the Clooney, the space. Sandra is great again. Space.
4. AMERICAN HUSTLE
When I say actors ruled 2013, I meant this girl. Amy Adams unleashed. She is the queen. She and Christian Bale are positioned to be loved from the first moments of this movie, but they don’t really need it. Too good.
5. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Oh Matthew. He’s made for the role of Ron Woodroof, and is just as remarkable as he has been in EVERYTHING of late (MAGIC MIKE, MUD, WOLF OF WALL STREET). But the marvel here is Jared Leto as Rayon. Jared’s been absent for a while, and his return is… well. I’m running out of adjectives. Give him the Oscar, please.
6. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
The climax of the series. Considering all three films (1995’s BEFORE SUNRISE, 2004’s BEFORE SUNSET, and this) as a single anthology might not completely make sense aesthetically, because the look is far cleaner now than low budget films did nine and eighteen years ago. It makes total sense narratively, though: this is the maturity of the attraction set out in the first two films, with real, unattractive conflict. These characters are legendary; their writing a unique achievement in consistency and actor-director collaboration.
7. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Like his CATCH ME IF YOU CAN co-star, Leonardo was unleashed in 2013. Unhinged, out of control. Finally. After four controlled performances in previous Scorsese films, Marty finally gives Jack Dawson the freedom to go crazy, and crazy he goes. Also: people don’t make movies like this. You expect this terrible protagonist to get truly punished somehow… and in the end you have to realize that 1) there are a lot of dicks like this, 2) a lot of people root for these misogynistic, greedy dicks, and 3) they are never punished accordant with their level of dick-ness. It’s too long, but that means there’s just a lot of good movie-ness that’s hard to ignore. Don’t forget Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill. Old Marty continues to surprise with how relatable and not Clint Eastwood-y his movies are.
8. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
I’m not a Coen brothers fan, or at least not more than your average bro. This movie is built around an incredibly likable schlub of a 60s musician, which keeps it much more focused than some of the brothers’ more annoying movies (TRUE GRIT. A SERIOUS MAN.).
9. SHORT TERM 12
The best screenplay of the year. So tight, so quick. It doesn’t build to an end as gracefully as it could, but the interplay and character writing is major league. And the acting isn’t bad. (it’s actually amazing — Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. are at the perfect place in their careers/age for this movie and can hopefully only grow from here).
Another example of the actors ruling 2013 thing. Hugh Jackman is cool. He likes Michigan and he’s Wolverine and we all love him for that, but his turn as the dad searching his kidnapped daughter is scary. Jake Gyllenhaal is even better, though, as the hyperactive blinker/detective in charge of the case. I love them both. I wish they were both my friends.
11. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Hobbitses. Am I biased? Maybe. But Kate Austen is an elf and Sherlock is a dragon. Don’t even try to criticize.
12. THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are below-25 acting royalty, if talent were the determinant. I can’t seem to understand the pervasiveness of alcohol/car use in this movie, but it’s a great example of a small movie made big by technical strength and pure young love cuteness.
So much heart. Also an incredibly self-aware production with memorable characters and songs. Walt Disney Animation Studios has out-movied Pixar over the past three years, and Frozen is the perfect example of how WDAS might have more insightful minds behind its films right now.
14. SIDE EFFECTS
Think CONTAGION, HAYWIRE, and OCEAN’S TWELVE, except much more contained, restrained, and better than all three combined. There’s a little MAGIC MIKE in there too. And Rooney Mara, whose glorious Lisbeth Salander (“hey hey,” “I made a friend,” “may I kill him?” “… not often enough, in my opinion.”) just cannot be shaken.
Matthew. This is a slow one, which suits him and his character’s rugged grifter-ness.
16. THE BUTLER
I expect this works much better in a crowd than alone, unlike #1 on this list, because it has a prevailing feeling of optimism to it all. Its maneuvering through American history feels incredibly genuine despite not hitting the visuals quite right.
Racing is just so much more cinematic that most sports, and still seems underrepresented in Hollywood due to many superficial and failed attempts to illustrate the adrenaline and fury at the heart of the sport. F1 racing is dangerous and dramatic, and it shines through in F1 drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt’s (Chris Hemsworth) 1970s on- and off-track personal rivalry. Ron Howard’s direction isn’t especially new, but Bruhl’s performance as the logical, methodical Lauda is on a level unseen even in most biopics. That this rivalry and story is actually true makes this feel like a dramatic history lesson, but it also shines light on a period in F1 when it was almost a fight to the death, commonly sending drivers to young graves. Its real stakes (<a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmuth_Koinigg” target=”_blank”>a driver</a> is decapitated (off screen) by a guard rail early on the film, a true event that took place in qualifying for Watkins Glen in 1974) make RUSH unique among racing films, and the colorful 70s landscape (surprisingly (or not?) shot on the digital Arri Alexa) makes it feel like a genuine time capsule.
18. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Joss. Shakespeare. Amy Acker <3
19. SPRING BREAKERS
In this movie, James Franco and these college girls perform “Everytime” by Britney Spears on a beach-side piano.
20. THE WORLD’S END
This goes gloriously off the rails, sort of like its American apocalyptic brother THIS IS THE END. Both are worth the view, this one being a little bit more coherent and containing of Martin Freeman and Rosamund Pike (automatic wins).
21. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
When she wasn’t curing cancer this year, Jennifer Lawrence effortlessly shot this odd distopic movie in a dome.
22. SAVING MR. BANKS
I would say Disney had lost its way in the past couple years, but it’s never really made good live action movies, has it? This movie is pretty hard to not enjoy, surprisingly.
*NOTE: I have yet to see the films HER, NEBRASKA, all accounts of which suggest they have a significant chance of breaking into this list. Also, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, PHILOMENA, and others, and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (but then again I haven’t seen most of this year’s foreign films). Updates to come.