Top 10 Movies of 2013

Usually when I make this list, I have 11, maybe 12 movies that I have to wrestle with. Something always gets left out and more than half the time, I come back and change my mind on the movie(s) I left out. Two years ago I left out a movie called Warrior, which is an outstanding film that is also available on Netflix Instant and you should watch it, and I had to correct that oversight almost immediately. This year, though, no less than 18 movies were in serious contention for a place on the list. That speaks to both the overall strength of the year in film (one of the best ever) and to the difficult balance in the difference between "best" and "favorite." This is my attempt to marry those two terms as best I can. This is not the list of the ten films I would put up for Best Picture if the Academy decided to bestow upon me a vote nor is it a collection of the ten movies I "loved" the most this year and would consider my favorites. Films like The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave would hold prominent positions if I went with the former approach while you'll find Fast and Furious 6 and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues would be high up the list if it was comprised of the latter. So this is kind of somewhere in the middle. Maybe one of these days I ought to just make two lists, one the "best of the year" and the other my "favorites of the year." But for now, what I have is my ever-in flux Top 10 Films of 2013. Enjoy.

Honorable Mention: Two Great Documentaries Sound City (Dave Grohl), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

I always wrestle with how to quantify documentaries compared to standard films because really it's a completely different thing. But both of these movies deserve mention. Sound City is a celebration of rock 'n roll, the second half of which turns into a star-studded concert that made for an outstanding soundtrack. Any time you can get the surviving members of Nirvana playing with Paul McCartney, you're doing something wrong. Stories We Tell is an intimate, almost eerie look at a long-held family secret. It gave me chills more than once.

10. Nebraska (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk)


I loved Alexander Payne's last film, The Descendants, and the more I think about Nebraska, the better it gets. Payne has a way of hiding deep, complex, and even painful emotions within a lighthearted story and Nebraska is possibly the best example of this. The performances are spectacular (Dern will get an Oscar nomination and Forte should) and while releasing the movie in black and white may seem like a gimmick, it absolutely works with the setting.

9. The World's End (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman)

In an otherwise down year for comedy, The World's End was for a very long time the one shining beacon of comedic hope. The third film in Edgar Wright's loosely tied together Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is quite possibly the best of the bunch and is so exquisitely tied together that I almost immediately got lost in the world the film dwells in and had an insanely good time. Anchorman 2 probably made me laugh more but in terms of laughs and quality filmmaking, this one takes the cake.

8. Dallas Buyers Club (Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner)


It's a surprise to me that Dallas Buyers Club was able to crack this list. When it was announced, I expected it to be a good film, even an Oscar contender, but the subject matter (a roughneck in 1986 Dallas discovers that he has contracted HIV) didn't lend itself to what you'd consider an enjoyable movie. Yet somehow, through the force of nature that is Matthew McConaughey and the excellent direction of Jean-Marc Vallee, that's exactly what it is. I have a familial connection with this story so I may be slightly biased but DBC turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year for me.

7. Rush (Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde)

Its subject matter (Formula 1 racing) caused American audiences to overlook it and its release date (late September) didn't help with critics and as such, Rush is probably going to get left off the list of Best Picture nominees. That's a shame, though, because Ron Howard crafted together an excellent film highlighted by two very strong performances (Bruhl and Hemsworth). Rush is one of the best sports movies I've seen in quite some time and a reminder of how good Howard really is behind the camera.

6. Frozen (Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff)


How good is Frozen, you ask? It's so good that when I checked its Rotten Tomatoes score and found it to be ONLY 89%, I was outraged. I have yet to talk to a single person who did not come out extremely impressed with this movie and I wholeheartedly agree. A delightful film that grows on me more and more. Also, this movie deserves special mention because the trailers were HORRIBLE. Seriously, whoever cut those trailers together should be fired immediately. The word of mouth had to be strong on this film in order to overcome that early obstacle and it has become one of the biggest hits of the year.

5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson)

A marked improvement on the first film in the series (which I quite liked, by the way), I would say Catching Fire was the best blockbuster movie of the year and it wasn't particularly close. Francis Lawrence proved to be the perfect director to bring what I consider to be a lackluster novel to life on the big screen and a now comfortable Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding in the lead role. If this is any indication of things to come, the next two films in this franchise will be tremendous.

4. Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi)

This is the most consistent film on the list. After the first five minutes (a rocky, forced scene between Hanks and Catherine Keener), Captain Phillips settles into this strong groove that carries on throughout the entirety of the film. There are almost no peaks or valleys but it stays on this excellent plateau for a little over two hours. And then, suddenly and almost out of nowhere, the final five minutes, in which Hanks gives us the best piece of acting he's done in at least a decade, hits you like a sack of pennies and the entire thing comes together in glorious form.

3. The Way Way Back (Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell)


At this point, I'm not sure what else I can even say about The Way Way Back. I've talked about it nonstop, I've recommended it to literally anyone who happened to walk within ear shot of me, and I've forced a number of my friends to watch it. This is, by far, my favorite film of the year and Sam Rockwell's performance alone is worth the price of admission.

2. Gravity (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney)

I had Gravity listed as the number one movie of the year since I saw it in October and it stayed there until this very moment. If I had a vote to cast for the Academy, I think I would put this movie at the top of the ballot. The only thing that holds it back is the rewatchability factor. I wrote in my review that if you watch Gravity in the comfort of your own home, even on a giant TV, even on Blu-Ray, you would be seeing a different film than I did in theaters. I believe that statement to be inarguable. As such, it's difficult to quantify how good it is. If you can't enjoy/appreciate a film as much upon a second viewing, let alone a twentieth, is it really THAT good? I'm really not sure. I do know this. This was the number one most spectacular film experience I had this year and really, that could be extended out to say the most incredible film experience I've ever had. So, if you haven't seen Gravity yet, you need to see it and moreover, you need to see it in a theater on the biggest screen you can find.

1. Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jakob Lofland)


About ten years ago, Johnny Lee Hancock did a remake of The Alamo. It is considered to be one of the biggest flops of all-time and it is also one of my very favorite movies. The problem with the movie is that no one who isn't a Texan could possibly care about it. Mud is basically The Alamo perfected. It's a VERY good movie, marked by exquisite filmmaking (Jeff Nichols is rapidly becoming one of my favorite directors) and maybe even better performances (this movie kicked off The Year of McConaughey and you could definitely make the case that newcomer Sheridan is even better) that almost everyone responded to positively. It has a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and almost every review I've seen has approved of it. But if you're a Southerner or if you spent significant time in the South, there's a tremendous poetry to Mud that takes it from "very good" to "great" or even higher. Godfrey Cheshire wrote an excellent piece on this very topic for Indiewire and I doubt I could say it better myself. Gravity is the bigger spectacle and I think The Way Way Back is more universally accessible but if you're a serious film lover and a Southerner to boot, there are few films that understand the South better than Mud.

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

waywaybackposter An awkward 14 year old with an extreme lack of self-esteem, Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged to a sleepy Massachusetts beach town along with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), to spend an extended summer vacation with Pam’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan does not get along with Trent who is trying to assert his authority as a father figure before he’s earned the right and Pam’s infatuation with Trent leaves Duncan feeling even more alienated and alone than he’s ever been. With no friends to hang with and a great desire to be as far away from Trent as possible, Duncan winds up absentmindedly sneaking into a run-down waterpark called Water Wizz and becomes acquainted with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s underachieving manager. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, giving him a job, a new sense of purpose, and some friendly prodding to bring him out of his shell, and as things in Duncan’s life become even more tumultuous, the life he has begun to establish at Water Wizz becomes a beacon of brightly lit hope in a world that looks increasingly dark.

There are no words to properly describe how much I loved The Way, Way Back. I am a sucker for this sort of coming-of-age indie drama but rarely does one of these movies meet all of my expectations. There’s always a side-plot that I don’t care about, a prime supporting character that I hate, a sense of melodrama that grates away at me, or some other flaw that ultimately leaves me wanting. Not so with The Way, Way Back. This is EXACTLY the movie I wanted it to be and as such, stands out as one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve had in quite some time. It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, an honest look at life that touches on real subjects and yet still remains a triumphant endeavor. In a summer that has been filled to the gills with overwrought action and mediocre blockbusters, The Way, Way Back is exactly the breath of fresh air that I so desperately needed.

Much of The Way, Way Back’s success is due to its superb collection of talent. Carell plays against type and again proves to be one of the most subtly commanding actors in the business. Trent is a total jerk but rather than letting his jerkdom become the character’s only personality trait (which happens all too often in a film like this), Carell paints him as a much more layered character, a guy who’s trying to be a good person even if, in the end, he can’t get out of his own way. Collette perfectly embodies the hardworking, goodhearted single mom who trusts too easily and falls into the same traps over and over again. James’ performance is perhaps less nuanced than that of his adult counterparts but his work is no less important to the atmosphere of the film and since his character is the central focus of the film, he is asked to give it much of its emotional resonance and he rings that bell quite well. The supporting actors, including Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, and many others, provide a rich landscape of important people in Duncan’s development and all of them work well, especially Allison Janney who is, unsurprisingly, absolutely hilarious as a desperate and borderline alcoholic neighbor.

At the end of the day, though, The Way, Way Back is Rockwell’s world and we’re all just fortunate to be around while he plies his craft. One of the most well-respected and yet criminally under-appreciated actors in the industry, Rockwell has delivered outstanding work in small roles for many years without ever being given the opportunity to completely break out. I cannot call this his best work as his turn in 2009’s Moon was unquestionably some of the best work I have EVER seen in a movie, but what he’s doing here is no less impressive and I would say much more accessible. This could have easily been a fun-but-weightless role in the hands of another actor and instead, Rockwell transforms Owen into a multi-layered, fascinating character who is an absolutely perfect match for Duncan. It is unlikely that his name will be listed among the Oscar nominees when award season comes around but I am willing to say here and now that I do not believe I will see a finer performance this year.


In the places in which the actors do not carry the load, the remainder of The Way, Way Back’s success relies on the near-flawless writing and direction of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who took home an Oscar for writing 2011’s The Descendants. The material here is lighter than that of The Descendants but perhaps the defining stroke of genius is simply allowing the film to be less weighty. That is to say, too often in this sort of coming-of-age drama, the film tries too hard to make the issues of one outcast boy or girl take on the weight of the world and the film ends up drowning in the melodrama. Here, though, we remain tied to the micro rather than expanding to the macro and as such, you can really and truly become invested and engrossed in Duncan’s life. You feel for this kid, you hurt when he hurts, you cheer when he has even a modicum of success, and you root desperately for him to break out of his shell once and for all. It's not unique ground that we're covering here but it is the way in which the film touches on that ground that makes it such a treat. What sets The Way, Way Back apart is its joyous outlook on life that prevents it from getting bogged down in the darker edges of its story. The film touches on real, genuinely difficult issues and yet the tone manages to remain gloriously and remarkably uplifting, which is a feat in and of itself. And if all of that isn’t enough for you, the soundtrack is immaculate and might just be worth the price of admission in and of itself. This is a fabulous film, EASILY the best movie I’ve seen this summer, and one that I plan on watching many times over. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for a bit of language, innuendo, and drug use)