Top 15 Best Films of 2013
2013 proved to be a relatively underwhelming year at the movies. For starters, the Oscar contenders flattered to deceive with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln a little too leisurely for its own good, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained a little too extravagant (while hugely entertaining) and Les Miserables and Flight emerging as enjoyable but flawed (Argo and Silver Linings Playbook were released in 2012).
The summer blockbusters, meanwhile, were largely forgettable despite the strong start given to the season by Iron Man 3 (thank you Shane Black!). Hence, it was left to some of the more independent films, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty and the year end Oscar hopefuls to deliver this year’s highs.
But which films make our list of the top 15 best of the year?
What’s the story? Two sisters, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), find their close sibling bond is threatened by the latter’s ability to turn anything she touches into ice. Separated by wary parents keen to keep Elsa’s power a secret, the two are eventually reunited at Elsa’s coronation. But when Anna inadvertently exposes her sister’s power, prompting Elsa to flee and turn their magical kingdom into ice, she faces a race against time to be reunited and break the spell.
Why so good?: It may sound like a contradiction but Disney’s Frozen is a film to warm the cockles of your heart! Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, this offers a hugely enjoyable mix of Disney tradition, subtle genre subversion, top-drawer animation, lively songs and memorable characters. It’s a film the whole family can enjoy that already looks destined for classic status.
What’s the story? When two young girls go missing from their suburban homes during Thanksgiving, the police are quick to pick up a suspect (Paul Dano). But when a lack of evidence prompts his release, one of the girl’s fathers (Hugh Jackman) feels compelled to take the law into his own hands, placing him at odds with the lead investigator (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his own conscience.
Why so good?: Seldom easy to watch, yet displaying an emotional complexity that’s been sorely missing from a lot of mainstream thrillers of late, Prisoners is an unrelenting thriller with genuine staying power. Jackman, especially, is on career-redefining form, while Gyllenhaal also excels, his jittery, loner detective a compelling and fiercely driven presence who must wrestle with his own demons [and restrictions] in order to crack the case. Prisoners is a consistently unsettling, emotionally draining affair that still rates among the best thrillers of the year.
13) 2 Guns
What’s the story? Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington play, respectively, DEA agent Robert Trench and Naval officer Michael Stigman who find themselves double crossed by everyone from their own colleagues to the CIA while attempting to bring down a notorious drug cartel led by Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). As they attempt to clear their names and turn the tables on their enemies, Trench and Stigman cross paths with Stigman’s own Navy boss (James Marsden), ruthless CIA man Earl (Bill Paxton) and Trench’s possibly crooked former lover Deb (Paula Patton).
Why so good?: Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington combine for one of the smartest action thrillers of the year. Based on the graphic novel series of the same name published by Boom! Studios and directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormakur, the film boasts great chemistry between its two leads, some well staged action sequences that opt for realism over effects and a strong sense of character and story. 2 Guns is a fantastically enjoyable action flick with stylish set pieces and genuinely memorable characters to match. Indeed, it doesn’t seem too early to describe it as a genre classic.
What’s the story? Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island in the Mississippi that they had travelled to in order to claim a boat in a tree as their own. Mud quickly befriends the two boys and recruits them in helping him to be reunited with his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), fully aware that both the law and a vengeful, ruthless father are closing in.
Why so good?: Jeff Nichols underlines his burgeoning reputation as one of America’s finest filmmakers with Mud, while Matthew McConaughey continues his career revival in spectacular fashion in the title role. Part coming-of-age story, part love story and part crime thriller, the film exists around the Mississippi river and also showcases two exceptional young talents in the boys at the heart of the story. This is absorbing, enriching and just a real pleasure to watch unfold.
What’s the story? This documentary follows the story of notorious killer whale Tilikum, who is responsible for the deaths of three individuals over the course of his life in captivity, including a top killer whale trainer. In doing so, it also examines the shocking tactics employed by entertainment parks such as SeaWorld Orlando and the devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent creatures in captivity.
Why so good?: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s excellent documentary deserves to be placed at the top of anyone’s must-see list. The ensuing film isn’t easy to watch but thanks to her incisive reporting, some genuinely disturbing footage and an ever-mounting sense of injustice, Blackfish remains a towering personal triumph that should resonate powerfully with every viewer that sees it. It also deserves to sit alongside other documentaries such as Project Nim and The Inside Job as films you need to see, if only to give you a better understanding of how the world sometimes works.
10) Drinking Buddies
What’s the story? Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work at a Chicago brewing company and are close friends who continually seem to be on the verge of developing into something more. However, Kate is seeing a wealthy, older man (Ron Livingston), while Luke is living with his fiance (Anna Kendrick) and being pressured into setting a wedding date. A double date weekend away throws a sharper spotlight on the relationships in question and subsequently paves the way for some of the decisions that follow.
Why so good?: A terrific ensemble cast make the most of some clever writing and the freedom to improvise in writer-director Joe Swanberg’s utterly absorbing Drinking Buddies. A relationship comedy-drama, this is intelligent, witty, heart-warming and surprising, displaying a rare maturity in its outlook on friendships and sexual relationships. It also gives Wilde (embracing a rare leading role) and Johnson (showing more dramatic range than New Girl necessarily allows) two terrific roles that they grasp with both hands. It’s also refreshing to find a comedy that’s this engaging without resorting to obvious gimmicks or lazy humour. In short, Drinking Buddies is well worth raising your own glass to and toasting as one of the films of the year.
9) This Is 40
What’s the story? Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, a struggling couple with two kids (Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters), who hit 40 within weeks of each other. How they cope with this landmark and the various ups and downs that have got them to this point forms the focus of what ensues.
Why so good?: Speaking as someone who only recently turned 40, Judd Apatow’s latest comedy is tailor-made and near-perfect. Speaking also as a lover of cinema and great comedy, This Is 40 is still near-perfect! Apatow’s skill is in heightening believable scenarios for comedic effect without ever losing sight of the human emotions at play. Hence, every argument is relatable on some level, whether it’s about family, finances, keeping the kids grounded but cool or maintaining a healthy work-life balance within a long-standing relationship. And while a lot of the jokes may be downright filthy and the language fairly fruity, the characters at play remain worth rooting for throughout, flaws and all.
8) Muscle Shoals
What’s the story? A town in Alabama, Muscle Shoals is currently home to two great recording studios, FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound. Its legacy includes some of the finest songs ever to be recorded, from Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman to Aretha Franklin’s Respect to The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses and Brown Sugar. Greg Camalier’s compelling documentary chronicles the history of these studios.
Why so good?: For music lovers in particular, Muscle Shoals offers a veritable treasure trove. But even for those with only a passing appreciation of music history, there is plenty to savour. It’s an affectionate, often inspiring, sometimes tragic, always moving and finally celebratory tribute to one of the most important locations in music history.
What’s the story? Taken at face value, Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is rich, successful, handsome. He could be Pretty Woman‘s Edward Lewis several years down the line complete with equally charming children. Scratch beneath that exterior, however, and there lies a ruthless businessman. He is a hedge fund manager who has invested badly and who is covering up a fraud. He’s also desperate to sell his company before the extent of his financial irregularities can be uncovered. And he’s having an affair. And then things get much, much worse.
Why so good?: Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage is an engrossing potboiler that is very much a product of these troubled financial times. It’s layered with moral and ethical ambiguity and paints a stark picture of corporate ruthlessness that grips from the outset. The result is a dark drama that genuinely impresses and which finds Gere on unmissable form. Jarecki, meanwhile, is clearly a name to watch.
6) Robot & Frank
What’s the story? Frank Langella plays grumpy ex-thief Frank, now struggling with the onset of dementia and estranged from his son (James Marsden) and daughter (Liv Tyler), the former of whom buys him a robot butler after becoming concerned by his deteriorating memory. Initially greeting Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) with disdain, Frank comes to depend on him and sees an opportunity to further his burglary career and thereby impress the attractive librarian (Susan Sarandon) he has a crush on.
Why so good?: Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is a crowd-pleaser par excellence that engages the head and the heart. It’s both a compelling human story and an intelligent examination of old age, companionship and the benefit and cost of scientific advance. That it comes wrapped in a buddy movie and crime caper makes it all the more impressive.
5) Enough Said
What’s the story? Divorced massage therapist Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is contemplating the imminent departure of her daughter to college. Encouraged by her friend (Toni Collette) to try dating once again, she subsequently meets fellow divorcee Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party and feels drawn to his sense of humour and easy-going manner. But matters become complicated by the discovery that her newest client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), just happens to be Albert’s ex, who is not backward in coming forward when it comes to criticising her former husband.
Why so good?: Nicole Holofcener’s film may now be notable for featuring one of James Gandolfini’s final performances but it also serves as a delightful reminder of how the writer-director crafts emotionally resonant films that are as heartfelt and authentic as they are consistently amusing. It’s impeccably performed, too, with Gandolfini delivering a sublime turn as the sensitive but witty Albert (thereby playing against type), and Dreyfus superb as the often hapless Eva, who projects confidence yet is riddled with insecurities. These two deliver one of the most memorable on-screen double acts you’ll see in a long time, especially within the romantic comedy genre.
4) All Is Lost
What’s the story? A lone sailor (Roobert Redford) is awoken from his sleep somewhere in the Indian Ocean by a bang that turns out to be a shipping container rubbing against the side of his vessel. Unfortunately, the container has breached the side of his boat and water has started to pour in. The man successfully patches this up but finds the damage is more widespread than at first thought: it has cut him off from the rest of the world as his electronics are largely fried. What ensues is an increasingly desperate attempt to find land, or even rescue, that becomes increasingly hampered by the elements.
Why so good?: Redford delivers a tour-de-force in JC Chandor’s gripping All Is Lost, the type of film that offers up cinema at its most visceral and pure. A survival drama that pits one man against the ocean, this is on a par with films like Gravity for the way it impresses as a piece of spectacle that never loses sight of the human emotions at its core. But what makes it all the more impressive is the performance that anchors it, a near wordless and extremely physical piece of acting that rewards screen veteran Redford with one of the best roles of his esteemed career.
3) Zero Dark Thirty
What’s the story? The story of how America hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
Why so good?: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty may be one of the most controversial movies of the year but it’s also one of the best and most unmissable. This is a tour-de-force piece of filmmaking that refuses to pull its punches in depicting the tireless efforts and often brutal tactics of those involved. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that is refreshingly complex and utterly compelling… intelligent filmmaking at its very best and essential for anyone who has their finger on the pulse of current world events.
What’s the story? Medical engineer Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission. When we meet her, she’s conducting repairs while on a routine space walk. With her is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), making his final flight before retirement. All seems to be jovial and easy-going until Houston suddenly warns of an impending shower of satellite debris, which subsequently strikes with such ferocity that their shuttle is severely damaged and Stone is cast adrift into space.
Why so good?: James Cameron, director of sci-fi classic Aliens, has already hailed Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity as the best space film ever. It’s high praise indeed and deserving of this special film. An awe-inspiring spectacle that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, this is arguably as close to visiting space as most audience members will ever get. It’s that immersive. What’s more, Gravity is an utterly gripping filmmaking experience – one that engages almost every sense (the sound is also amazing), while also connecting with the heart and the brain.
1) Captain Phillips
What’s the story? Inspired by the true story of the American shipping container captain who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.
Why so good?: Paul Greengrass returns to the type of unmissable form he displayed in United 93 with the mesmerising Captain Phillips. The film combines thoughtful characterisation with an awareness of the politics involved and pulse-pounding excitement. It is by far and away one of the most intense and draining films of the year and all the more memorable for it. Hanks, for his part, offers up a tour-de-force that’s sure to place him firmly in Oscar contention. His Captain Phillips is very much an everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation, whose quick thinking initially yields positive results. His sense of fear and desperation is also palpable throughout but it’s only late on that we see just what kind of toll events have taken and the results are emotionally devastating. It’s a bravura moment that is almost certain to reduce viewers to tears.