The Best Movies Of 2013: Mike Murphy’s Top 10

12 years a slave

Wow, here we are again.

2013 was a true blessing for us movie lovers. While it stumbled at points – May’s blockbuster overload was too much too quickly and ultimately left much to be desired – the year was filled with so many strong films that it’s simply impossible to give them all the credit they deserve. As I headed into this final stretch with my co-critics, Zack Sharf and James Hausman, we wrestled with our year-end lists, fighting for films that each of us loved so dearly to get some kind of shout-out, no matter how brief. But, this year more than ever, we were forced to kill many of our darlings. It really came down to the wire, and while all three of us have covered a wide spectrum of 2013’s excellence, it needs to be said that even if I had comprised a list of my Top 50 films of the year, some notable ones would still be left on the outside looking in. That’s how fantastic 2013 has been for movies, topping last year’s surprisingly great turnout; we reveled in its riches and are truly sad to see it go. But before 2014 is officially upon us, it’s time for one final list – the list of all lists, in fact. I’ve narrowed it down to a cemented tally, with only a single tie and a plethora of honorable mentions that I feel obligated to present before really getting into the meat of what I thought made 2013 a phenomenal year for motion pictures.

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects – his supposed swan song – dripped of Hitchcockian influence and slithered like a Brian De Palma film. Derek Cianfrance’s triptych The Place Beyond the Pines criticized legacy and theorized on fatherly sins rippling through generations. Danny Boyle’s underseen Trance was a barrage of trippy canon fire, a cinematic screwdriver heavy on the Kettle One. There were two beautiful coming-of-age tales over the summer, one full of whimsy and the other creatively mystical; at odds with his father, a teenager takes to the woods and literally dances to the beat of a different drum in The Kings of Summer, while Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan take risks of love and grapple with the reality of heartbreak in Jeff Nichols’ Mud. Middle-Earth set this year’s most exciting adventure, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, helmed by Peter Jackson at his blockbuster A-game, while the year’s best and most gratifying sequel came courtesy of Will Ferrell & Co. at their irreverent best in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. I robbed alongside The Bling Ring and lived through the final day of Oscar Grant’s life, helpless to save him at Fruitvale Station. From opposite sides of the pond, apocalyptic comedy reigned over the summer courtesy of both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s riotous This is the End and Edgar Wright’s bizarrely creative The World’s End. Meanwhile, Michael Bay’s beefed up Pain & Gain was part self-parody, part true-crime thriller and 100% larger than life. The Spectacular Now welcomed wunderkind Miles Teller and featured a gracefully natural performance from Shailene Woodley, becoming this year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while Ben Stiller livened our imaginations with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Peter Berg apologized for Battleship with his harrowing Lone Survivor, and Paul Greengrass proved that he is the master of the retroactive with Captain Phillips, which builds to a heart-stopping climax that is arguably the best screen moment of the year.

All of those are great, great films and peek at the diversity that occupied 2013 at the multiplex. A grand sampler of tones and types, of surprises and innovations, from young love to embracing adulthood, to unbelievable true stories and the pursuance of the American Dream. But these were only snippets, films that remained in my mind but didn’t exactly make an impact. The very best are below.

Here are my Top 10 Films of 2013:

La Vie d'Adèle (movie poster).jpg10. Blue is the Warmest Color – A very mature coming-of-age drama and one of the most daring romances ever made. Adelé Exarchopoulous is tremendous in Abdellatif Kechiche’s love story, an authentic and empathetic depiction of profound self and sexual discovery. It’s an involving and emotionally rich amour shared between two young women (the other played by Lea Seydoux) that lapses a substantial, though unknown period of time. A tenderly amorous piece of art, unpretentious and unafraid to meet breathtaking heights, determined to deliver authenticity and affecting verism, Blue is the Warmest Color is a 180 minute-long scrapbook of intimate memories.

Spring Breakers poster.jpg9. Spring Breakers – A visual intoxicant; Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a deconstructive force so head pounding, it leaves you with a surrogate hangover. It’s crass, violent, naked, and nauseating – a ‘luded up representation of next-gen debauchery, colorfully shot through an MTV filter and sporting an American Dream cynicism so slippery I’m sure tons of pedestrian viewers didn’t even realize that the film was making fun of them. Relentlessly grimy and thoroughly chilling…Shit, it’s got Generation Y culture by the balls. Hook, line and sinker by way of James Franco’s bravado turn as the internally pained gangsta, Alien. From tits to gunfire, Spring Breakers has been destined for cult fame since its inception and it’s sure to linger with you endlessly. Spring break forever, bitches.

Stories We Tell poster.jpg8. Stories We Tell – Actress Sarah Polley invites us into her life with this originally told, intimate documentary that begins as a portrait of her late mother but unfolds into a layered mystery bound up in a tangle of age-old stories. The soul-searching doc is wildly absorbing, crafted through conversational family interviews and archival footage. Polley manages to transform her ambitious narrative into a meditative thesis on how and why people tell stories the way they do – influence of invention melding with honesty, like an embellished film version of reality. Boldly expressive, it bursts with spontaneity, infectious energy and real emotions. Stories We Tell is reflective and instructive, inverting an entire cinematic genre and deconstructing the natural crisis of memory.

Dallas Buyers Club poster.jpg7. Dallas Buyers Club – The inspired casting of Matthew McConaughey as AIDS-stricken Ron Woodruff and Jared Leto as his transsexual business partner, Rayon, is the bread and butter of what makes Dallas Buyers Club so astonishing. These are two revelatory and alarmingly physical performances that exemplify both performers at their unequivocal best. Dallas is deeply raw but emotionally renovating and electrifying, seamlessly edited into a tight construction of both character and setting. Tough, without question, and void of a happy ending, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t making an effort to prolong life; it’s looking to affirm it. This was the satisfaction those like Woodruff and Rayon had to accept as the best treatment they were ever going to find so that their lives were still ones that deserved to be lived. Remember that we only have one life and we must do the best that we can with it, no matter the obstacle.

Gravity Poster.jpg6. Gravity – Cinema began with a trip to the moon, and a century later we’re still reaching for the stars. Gravity is the pinnacle of technically prominent feature filmmaking, directed to breathless perfection by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock in one of the year’s very best performances. As viewed in IMAX 3D, Gravity is cine-magic, a viewing experience that cannot be replicated on any other format. A terrifying interstellar plight that pummels for 88 grueling minutes, Gravity miraculously is much more than just Life of Pi in space. It’s about never giving up, even when the world and the vast expanse that surrounds it has you pinned. Letting go and fighting forward, rebirth and renewal, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that come with being human. Gravity is moviemaking at its absolute finest. Where will cinema take us next?

American Hustle 2013 poster.jpg5. American Hustle – Probably the only film on this list that I could watch every day and never tire of; American Hustle is David O. Russell’s opus, a terrific cinematic joke punchlined by a quintet of killer performances and a sharp script that jaunts to the beat of O. Russell’s pulsating direction. The camera swirls and swoops, climbs and dives, flashes and shines, the film throbs like onomatopoeias in how it’s musically cut together. It’s a jive full of an energetic veracity so refreshing, it’s like an older picture made about an even older time period, surveying the various lengths that any one person, on either side of a drawn moral line, will go in order to survive. Owing much to Scorsese, Hustle is like Goodfellas 2.0, looking to extract a single and specific type of audience reaction: Overjoyed enthusiasm. Hustle is eager to entertain, so let it do what it does best.

Nebraska Poster.jpg4. Nebraska/Inside Llewyn Davis – Two films that speak major personal volumes and share a tonal similarity so significant I see them as companion pieces, strangely enough. Therefore, I see no alternative to tying them.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is about searching for purpose, reconciling with the past, and the value of connection. Set amidst the titular barren landscape, and photographed in crisp black and white, Nebraska is magical because it’s so simple, from Bob Nelson’s dryly funny screenplay to the subtly effective characters livened by winning performances from Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb. Dern is especially remarkable; the veteran performer generates warmth for his cantankerous character through quiet fits of defeat and choice emotional cues that perfectly allow his suppressed character shadings to reveal themselves slowly but surely. Forte impresses too as the son desperate to connect with a father that is mentally drifting away. Bitingly poignant, Nebraska operates somberly, but come the end viewers will feel like a million bucks. In fact, I’ve never wanted to hug my own father more than after watching Payne’s affecting gem.

Inside Llewyn Davis Poster.jpgWhile Nebraska looks to celebrate the crisis of family, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is about the celebration of struggle and its cyclical affect on hardened artists. Oscar Isaac, in a breakout performance, plays the eponymous Dave von Ronk-inspired folk singer with such lived-in elegance that he vanishes from reality and wholly infuses this emblematic nomad with heart and soul, possessing an angelic pair of vocal chords to boot. Dusty and melancholy, Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen Brothers folk song, pouring with intimacy, dark humor, and stylish flavor spiced by its fabulous track list of reinvented folk singles. This is surely the Coens at their most personally contemplative and definitely at their most emotional; it’s a stinging philosophy on the restrictive limbo of independent artistry. Some will make it and some will not.

Prisoners2013Poster.jpg3. Prisoners – Surely the year’s most challenging wide release, Prisoners is maybe the last film you’d expect a major studio to release countrywide at the beginning of fall. Dense and brooding, Prisoners is a miraculously taut thriller in the vein of Fincher’s Se7en, enlisting a loaded ensemble headlined by a ferocious Hugh Jackman and a prickly Jake Gyllenhaal. Photographed by cinematographic messiah Roger Deakins, Prisoners is a fascinating moral study as well as a provocative visual maze as orchestrated by foreign filmmaker Denis Villenueve. The multi-faceted narrative tumbles and unravels unpredictably, conjuring deep, boiling sensations of horror and unsettlement; there was no point on my first viewing where I felt either calmly collected as a viewer or totally assured in my own predictions as a participant in the mystery. As per a recent second viewing, Prisoners not only holds up, but thankfully proves to be far more gratifying as it’s revisited. It’s just as vicious, just as damp, and somehow even more intense. This is the kind of film that is only destined to grow in prominence over time, an absolutely masterful piece of nail-biting cinema.

Her2013Poster.jpg2. Her – Spike Jonze’s introspective romance is already timeless even though it’s brand new and takes place in a not-too-distant future. Her is an intensely human work about a love shared between a man and an operating system, both played to ineffable brilliance by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix delivers the most surprising work of his career, gentile and vulnerable, while Johansson, in a voice-only performance, is profoundly transformative, evolving “Samantha” into a fully formed, emotive and operative being – not just a system – in our mind and hearts. Jonze’s tender screenplay is profoundly thoughtful with its understated observation about our societal dependence on technology and our allowance for personal detachment, as is his natural dialogue about longing and love. Is it wrong to love something that isn’t human? Her isn’t exactly human per say, but like Samantha, it blossoms into something intimate and special, crushingly compassionate and incomparably one of a kind; it’s a masterpiece that comes to live and breathe all on its own. Needless to say, I fell in love with Her.

12 Years a Slave film poster.jpg1. 12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen’s immaculate 12 Years a Slave is an epic achievement; relentlessly visceral and unflinchingly upfront, it’s a film that demands our attention by suffocating us with its realism and by assertively addressing the most sickening period in American history through an audacious visual technique. Solomon Northup’s traumatic autobiography is transferred into poetic prose by scribe John Ridley and anchored by a mesmerizing performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, while McQueen again vouches for beauty through pain, effectively recreating Northup’s plight through savagely relentless direction. Films were supposed to represent, or reflect, reality, but rarely does the realism percolate so affectingly than with Steve McQueen, who’s affinity for long takes in both raw static angles and meticulously blocked camera movements forces our face-to-face reconnect with our irredeemable past. It’s a skewering of emotions, fostering an unnamable reaction so incomparable to something traditional due to our fear in addressing such horrors head-on. I, myself, have still only seen the film once and still am unsure if I’m ready to endure the pain again. 12 Years a Slave is gutting, but that’s why it’s important. 12 Years a Slave works because it breaks you, it’s a visual torture that needs to be endured. This is the finest piece of filmmaking to have been on display all year, and it is the most vital film to come before us in a very, very long time. 

My Five Least Favorites:

1. Gangster SquadAt a time, both Darren Aronofsky and Ben Affleck were attached to direct but eventually it was handed to Zombieland’s Ruben Fleisher, and while he’s got style, it can’t make up for the patchy script or the overloaded ensemble who all disappoint, namely Ryan Gosling and a totally miscast Sean Penn. 

2. The Hangover Part IIIPotentially the worst film of the year; Part III proves that the initial Hangover film was a total fluke from Todd Phillips. The actors just look ready to move on.

3. Identity ThiefNothing against Jason Bateman or Melissa McCarthy, but they are hardly a match made in heaven. This road comedy from Horrible Bosses’ Seth Gordon is horrendously unfunny.

4. Now You See MeCaught between being frivolously imaginative and believably realistic, Now You See Me tricked a lot of people into believing it was an intelligent caper. Didn’t fool me.

5. The Counselor/Out of the FurnaceThere’s nothing like being let down. Ridley Scott’s gritty thriller written by Cormac McCarthy was a catastrophic miscalculation. Even when it goes for broke, The Counselor would have fared better in literary form. As for Furnace, writer/director Scott Cooper tosses so many ideas into play but fails to act on any of them. Instead, he wastes half of a killer ensemble and undoes strong work from Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson by over-plotting the narrative and spoon-feeding us their character development. Luckily, Casey Affleck’s great and will hopefully come out unscathed.

Still to be Seen: The Grandmaster, The Butler, Stoker, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, You’re Next, Don Jon, Frozen, Saving Mr. Banks

Article by Mike Murphy


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