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.