Looking Back: Ethan Chooses His Own Top 15 Favorite Films of 2013
by Ethan Anderton
January 2, 2014
The year 2013 is officially in the past. After the annual break on New Year's Day, we're moving swiftly into 2014. Though the holiday in the middle of the week has slowed down the news flow considerably (just like Christmas), next week we'll be back in full swing. But before we get back in the regular news flow and prepare for our yearly jaunt to the Sundance Film Festival next month, this writer wanted to wrap-up our year-end coverage, and say goodbye to 2013 on the big screen. Below you'll find my persona Top 15 Favorite Films of 2013. It was hard cutting the list down to just 30 films, and it was painful to pull some of them off the final list. But that's how you truly pick your absolute favorite films of the year. So here we go!
When one trailer boldly claimed that this was the best Disney film since The Lion King, it set the bar pretty high. But the computer animated musical came through with flying colors. Accompanied by gorgeous original music, sang wonderfully by leading ladies Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, and some truly stunning animation, Frozen is a fairytale for the ages. And with a subtle theme that has ties to the acceptance of homosexuality ("conceal, don't feel"), it's a relevant film that is good for the whole family, and sends a strong message of tolerance and love.
#14. All Is Lost
Robert Redford has been relatively low key over the past five years, and his limited projects haven't fared all that well. Lions for Lambs was a dud, The Conspirator lacked a powerful punch, and The Company You Keep didn't get much traction. But All Is Lost turned out to be pure classic cinema. J.C. Chandor went from the heavy dialogue and ensemble cast of his debut feature Margin Call to the quiet, nearly dialogue-free story led by a single man. Redford essentially only has his body and face at his disposal, as he tries to survive a small boating accident, which turns into a life threatening gamble on the high seas. It's compelling, suspenseful and captivating.
It's probably the only film on this list that I will never want to watch again for fear of feeling sick to my stomach. Blackfish points the lens at the seemingly happy marine mammal attraction that is SeaWorld. But when they pull back the curtain of the aquatic sensation, they find secrets, corruption and death. This isn't just a fluffy "Save the Whales" plea from the likes of PETA or other extreme animal organizations, but a revealing look at the scenes behind SeaWorld, and the improperly handled killer whales. What makes this even more of a powerful statement is the talking heads of former employees of SeaWorld who have come to realize everything that is wrong at this popular theme park that needs to be shut down.
Joining the likes of quality thrillers like Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac, this suspenseful mystery keeps viewers guessing the whole way through. Featuring tour de force performances by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film also seeks to find out just how far a parent will go to get their child back. If you care to look deeper, there's also some thematic ties to the war on terror, torture and blurry facts. Paul Dano also turns in a truly creepy supporting performance as the assumed kidnapper as a puzzle slowly forms in this lengthy, but never boring, portrait of two different kinds of insanity.
#11. Spring Breakers
Many have called Spring Breakers one of the worst films of the year, but they just don't understand. The film is repetitive as it follows a group of teenage girls (including Disney stars like Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez) on spring break as they rob, drink, party and get naughty in more ways than one, with the out of this world thug Alien (James Franco in an Oscar worthy performance). But that's the idea. The film is a critique of a generation that is lazy, disrespectful and wants everything handed to them on a silver platter. Spring Breakers is Harmony Korine's prank on the reality show based, new-MTV generation of teens obsessed with repeated nostalgia, irresponsibility and a skewed American dream.
#10. The World's End
As the only straight-up comedy on this list, director Edgar Wright truly deserves tons of praise for a film that has volumes to say about friendship, mistakes from the past, and the inevitable effects of growing up (or in the case of Simon Pegg's Gary King, not growing up). As the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, the film comes nearly 10 years after Shaun of the Dead. That means teens who discovered Wright, Pegg and Nick Frost are entering their late 20s, with some even nearing their 30s. That age is rife with confusion, depression and a struggle with truly entering the adult world. The film addresses those issues, which also seem to become prevalent with every decade of life that passes, and mashes it with spectacular comedy, some fun sci-fi action, and a masterful soundtrack.
#9. The Spectacular Now
Much like The World's End, this film makes use of the common coming-of-age tale, but this high-school based story adds a unique twist. Miles Teller plays an alcoholic senior who is always the life of the party, but who is regarded as a bit of a joke with no real future. Even when the right girl like Shailene Woodley comes around, it doesn't snap him out of his alcoholic funk, handed down from his deadbeat, irresponsible father (Kyle Chandler). It's the performances from Teller and Woodley which truly make this adaptation of Tim Tharp's book of the same name a must-see for those entering college, and those who have already experienced it.
#8. Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig comes out of nowhere to inject some life and spontaneous fun into our hearts with Frances Ha. Complete with a title that doesn't make complete sense until an end that will bring a grin to your face, this black and white feature is perfect for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out what to do with their life as everyone else around them seems to have a detailed map. It's a slice of a life that's in progress, and serves as a nice reminder to take advantage of those years when we don't have much to answer to. Frances Ha is a slice of life that should be familiar to everyone, and is full of great humor and music.
It's just a coincidence that the two most prominent black and white features of the year are both in a row, and this offers a completely different glimpse of life. The film uses old age to set off a road trip that finds a wandering, middle-aged man (Will Forte) to learn more about his father (Bruce Dern in a career-defining performance) and his whole family. Everyone has those parents or grandparents who seem to be a little loopy, and bicker like children. But these are people who have spent nearly their whole lives together, and they're both happy and have their own brand of crazy together.
With the quirk we've all come to love from director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Election), the film points a lens at the quaint Midwest, and while there's fun to be made about this odd family, Payne mocks them affectionately, perhaps even favoring the small, rural lifestyle that these people embody. When Forte and his brother (Bob Odenkirk) steal an air compressor from who they believe to be a conniving old colleague of their father, it's a simple delight and joy devoid of complication that people seem to be much more fond of nowadays, despite the stress it brings.
#6. Dallas Buyers Club
In this day and age where too many people seemed to be concerned and frightened by a certain minority's lifestyle choices (as their legal rights as citizens are denied), we flash back to another decade when people dealt with pain and misunderstanding. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a rough-around-the-edges, good ole boy who finds himself with the confusing and rare disease known as AIDS. At the time, the disease was predominantly associated with homosexuals, thus causing a lot of prejudice in both society and the medical community. But McConaughey is a straight man who finds himself shunned by those he used to get drunk with.
Given only a month to live, Woodroof was ready to give up, but a glimpse into the flawed medical experts trying to quickly quell the effects of this devastating illness gives him new motivation to live, helping many who he normally would back away from. Spawning an unlikely friendship with a cross-dressing Jared Leto (the best performance the actor has given to date), this film is an emotional rollercoaster that tugs at all the heartstrings, and shines a light on a dark time from humanity's past, which makes us wonder why we're still struggling with different kinds of prejudice today.
#5. 12 Years a Slave
The story of despicable slavery in America's past has been told countless times before, but 12 Years a Slave focuses on the true story of one man from decades past who didn't grow up without freedom, but had it taken away from him by the same people who "let" him buy a house and raise a family as a free black man. Chiwetel Ejiorfor finally gets the leading man status he deserves as Solomon Northup, a free black man stripped away from his own life and forced to work as a slave for no less than 12 years, being shuffled around to various owners, being worked and whipped to the bone.
To call this true story harrowing would be an understatement, as even the more reasonable slave owner in Northrup's time spent as a slave is unwilling to help him upon learning of his true identity. Michael Fassbender gives his most dastardly performance yet as brutal slave owner driven by the word of God, thinking that he's doing exactly what the Lord has intended him to do. With scenes of torture that rival that of Passion of the Christ, this is a heartbreaking story that serves as a grim reminder of the drastic missteps our young country made. Again, it's a wonder that there's still racism and hate today knowing how it has scarred our past.
Spike Jonze gets back behind the camera with a story that will become increasingly relevant as technology continues to grow at an exponential rate. Taking a page from Apple's book of an intuitive and smart operating system like Siri, the nondescript future of this tale sees an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) fall in love with a romantic, charming guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who is commissioned to write love letters for other people (a likely development in an increasingly impersonal future). While the film makes the idea of technology invading our lives in this way totally feasible and believable, Her is more about the experience of love, and what it means to share your life with someone, for better or worse.
By using an operating system learning about love, the film allows us to see just how vulnerable our emotions make us. Love is complicated, and while many like to think there's only one person out there for them to fall in love with, it's not out of the realm of possibility to love more than one person (not in a polyamorous way). In fact, the love that people may experience in seemingly failed relationships may just be a stepping stone to finding the more compatible love that we all really want. And that's just the tip of this brilliant iceberg Jonze brings to life so masterfully.
#3. Before Midnight
Perfection. My hopes were high when the film was announced to play at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and it seemed nearly impossible for the film to meet my expectations. Following Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, it was difficult to imagine a film (as the third in an unlikely series) exceeding expectations. However, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy came together to collectively write a raw, genuine romance that puts real love on display, with all its ups and downs. It's simultaneously heartwrenching and affirming as to the endurance of true love.
As I wrote in my review from Sundance, "Whether you had married parents or now have your own kids and deal with the trials and tribulations of being married with a family, this film is real. It's a raw departure from the whisical romance that blossomed in Before Sunrise, and a logical progression of two estranged former lovers in Before Sunset who are now spending their lives together. Hawke and Delpy are easily the most phenomenal onscreen couple ever." That praise still stands after seeing the film a few more times since its premiere at Sundance (where I went out of my way to see it twice). Bravo!
Alfonso Cuarón is a master filmmaker, and the way he directs movies is innovative both technically and as a storyteller. He doesn't let the limitations of the world we live in hold back his vision, and Gravity is more evidence of his enduring creativity and dedication to tell a story the right way. Just on the big screen, the film is an achievement that puts you in space, struggling with our stranded characters (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) every step of the way. This is an isolated story that has all the urgency of a thriller that unfolds over days with even longer running times. And yet, this satisfies on almost every level.
But in addition, the making of this film is what's truly remarkable. Every single shot in the film is a special effects shot. And the film is put together so well with seamless effects and camera work that it feels like we're in space. In reality, Bullock and Clooney were barely in the same room when shooting the entirety of the film. An entire book could be written on the beauty of dozens of shots in this sci-fi masterpiece. It's a milestone film that deserves the kind of praise and excitement that inexplicably surrounded Avatar, a film that should really only be praised for its technological achievements, and nothing else. It's ironic that a film that is so grounded had to take viewers to space to experience incredible, but simple, storytelling.
#1. The Wolf of Wall Street
As much as I love Martin Scorsese, there was no indication that this film would have the power to take the top spot as my favorite film of the year. But when a film runs just under three hours, and I'm still wanting to see the initial four hour cut to see what ended up on the cutting room floor, then that's something special. There's a lot of controversy surrounding this film for glorifying the corrupt, slimy, adulterous, and thieving ways of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in this true story, but those people simply don't understand what they're being shown. The reason there seems to be no moral compass for these characters and there's no lesson for them to learn is to reflect what's happening in the real world.
The Wolf of Wall Street shows the pure insanity and indulgence that is happening behind the scenes of these corporations. In fact, there seems to be more complaints about how this is depicted in the film than about the fact that this kind of behavior is happening all the time by people just like Jordan Belfort who are still happily working on Wall Street today, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Scorsese perfectly puts all this craziness on display (with a performance from Jonah Hill that makes the actor disappear for three hours), and while the sheer ridiculousness of much of Belfort's leisure and business is entertaining, it's also positively maddening, and that's what people should be taking away at the end.
Honorable Mentions: Blue is the Warmest Color, The Great Gatsby, Philomena, The Kings of Summer, This is The End, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Blue Jasmine, The Way Way Back, Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, Rush, Fruitvale Station
What I Missed: Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, Short Term 12, Lone Survivor, August: Osage County, Some Velvet Morning, Labor Day, Only God Forgives, Stories We Tell, 42, The Place Beyond the Pines
And that's all folks. This list was extremely difficult to put together, and as you can see above, there are still a handful of films that I've yet to see. However, I'm quite confident in this list of favorites. Though I will say that films like The Great Gatsby, Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks all could have tied for the next spot. In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to give a four-way tie to The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Before Midnight and Her in the top spot, but that just didn't seem fair. All of those films were deserving, and they're fairly interchangeable as the top four.
Also, don't forget our list of this year's best performances (for both actors and actresses) along with his 20 Favorite Scenes of 2013. In addition, we also tossed up my picks for the 15 Best Official Movie Posters and Tim Buel's 8 Favorite Horror Films. Jeremy Kirk also counted down his 10 Favorite Soundtracks/Scores of 2013, and Ethan Anderton listed his 6 Most Hilarious Comedies of 2013, along with a reflection on his 13 Most Anticipated Films of 2013. If you missed Joey & Jeremy's Top 10 from a couple days ago, here they are. What do you think of my picks for 2013? Did I miss some of your favorites? Sound off below!