Best Movies of 2013: Zack Sharf’s Top 10

Killing your darlings is never easy, but in a year as bold, provocative, and exhilarating as 2013, it was damn near tragic. As Mike Murphy previously wrote, “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 brilliant 2013 was at the multiplex. With only 10 spots on a year-end-list (and only room for one tie), it was with great reluctance that I had to leave off the on-edge suspense of Captain Phillips, the hyperactive mania of Spring Breakers, the sensory thrill ride of Gravity, the ensemble-charged wonders of American Hustle, the head spinning mystery of Prisoners, the ferocity of Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, and the stirring silence of Robert Redford in All Is Lost. But even without these remarkable works on my list, it’s a testament to what a great year of cinema this was that there are still 10 more movie classics to praise as the year’s very best. The following films, many full of romantic heart and coming-of-age honesty, brought me to cinematic highs and rekindled my faith in pursuing a career as a critic. Without further ado, the best films of 2013:


This-is-the-End-Film-Poster.jpg10. This Is The End – The meta masterpiece to end all meta movies, This Is The End pulls you in with its gut-busting-laugh-a-minute energy and keeps you glued with its brilliant satire of new Hollywood and its surprisingly heartfelt focus on friendship. Seeing this with a big crowd made for the rowdiest, most howling time at the movies in years (Michael Cera and Channing Tatum, anyone?). Jonah Hill, an Academy Award nomination gone to his head, Danny McBride, revving up his Kenny Powers-douchebag persona to an all time high, and James Franco, riffing on his studious, sensitive hipster tabloid image, are damn fearless. It’s the rare comedy that leaves you gasping for air from laughing so hard while still thinking about its social commentary genius. Now that’s mainstream entertainment at its finest.

Twenty Feet From Stardom poster.jpg9. 20 Feet From Stardom / Inside Llewyn Davis – Two films on opposite ends of the personality spectrum but united by their deeply felt insights into the struggles of self-made artistry. The dusty and somber Davis, one of the Coen Brothers’ most personal outings yet, leaves you with bruises as funny as they are painful (major credit to the blistering Carey Mulligan and a scorching John Goodman). Oscar Isaac, the breakthrough male of the year, sings his heart out and makes you feel the pain of a man starving to do more than merely exist. Inside Llewyn Davis Poster.jpgStardom, a documentary about back-up singers on the cusp of fame, hits you like an explosion of joy. Watching Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger listen to Clayton roar through the hook on “Gimme Shelter” might be the most glorious movie moment of the year. Together, these two works speak volumes to the hunger of artists striving to make a name for themselves and to step out of the shadows. Watch them and you’ll never hear or feel music the same way again.

La Vie d'Adèle (movie poster).jpg8. Blue Is The Warmest Color – Like Shame before it, Blue Is The Warmest Color got unfairly chastised for its graphic, NC-17 erotic sex scenes. Two women having emotionally intimate, physically stimulating sex. Big deal! This Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece is a bildungsroman of sexual discovery and indentity that hits you like nothing you’ve ever seen before. 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos gives the year’s single greatest, most daring performance, playing a doe-eyed young teen under the lustful spell of first love (with a powerful, striking Lea Seydoux) as well as her older, more knowledgeable but still tormented self. Balancing a self-discovery arc with an impactful social commentary about being homosexual in a heterosexual world, this three-hour epic is shot almost entirely in close-up, and Exarchopoulos, her face an ever-changing canvas of relatable, heartbreaking emotions, never misses a beat. Filmmaking doesn’t get more passionately alive or more liberating than this.

Mud poster.jpg7. Mud – Jeff Nichols’ affectionate Mud dips a wonderful coming-of-age story in a mystery about friendship and love both young and old. Written and directed with incredible attention paid to time, setting, and character, Mud is a Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer hybrid for the cinematic age. It meanders for a while, letting the tone and landscape settle into the viewer’s heart before peeling back the tension of its brooding plot. It’s the best book you’ve ever seen. Matthew McConaughey, a Best Actor lock this year for his work in Dallas Buyers Club, is just as sensational as the eponymous character, reveling in a mystical, paternal aura that charms and seduces with cautious secrets. Tye Sheridan, like Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis, is this year’s revelatory child performer, a puppy dog sponge absorbing all he can from the plethora of adults that make up his increasingly confusing world. Sheridan holds the entire film together with maturity beyond his years. Mud is sweet, sweet magic.

Nebraska Poster.jpg6. Nebraska – No one exposes the humor in heartbreak more effectively than director Alexander Payne, and Nebraska is a dry, poignant gem that cuts deep with the struggles that make up a lifetime of regrets. As Woody Grant, the cantankerous old grump who thinks he’s won a million dollars, Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career, filling every sigh, grunt, and beguiled expression with years of feeling. It’s a silent performance that speaks volumes. Will Forte, trading in his wild Saturday Night Live persona for nuanced subtlety, turns Woody’s sad-sack loner son into a relatable shadow of his father, and the raunchy June Squibb earns major laughs as Woody’s loud mouthed, foul mouthed wife. When these three actors converge, they bare a familiar history that is shockingly lived in. Sensitively directed and shot in pristine black-and-white, Nebraska is a gem indeed.

12 Years a Slave film poster.jpg5. 12 Years A Slave – As vital as filmmaking gets, 12 Years A Slave is a blistering masterwork from director Steve McQueen. A former visual installation artist, McQueen creates bold images – from a static shot lynching to a spinning one take whipping – that pierce through the screen and do more than just break your heart, they force you to wake up to the crimes of American history and to reopen a conversation with our disgraceful, life-shattering past. Home to the year’s most fearless ensemble cast, headed by a tour-de-force performance from long time supporting actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years is hauntingly beautiful and painfully unforgettable. It takes you to the very pit of despair in order to show you the power of life and the resilience of the human spirit.

Fruitvale Station poster.jpg4. Fruitvale Station – A remarkable debut for writer-director Ryan Coogler with a powerhouse breakthrough performance from Michael B. Jordon, Fruitvale Station never lets its racially charged story about the death of Oscar Grant go to its head. This is the best, most effective kind of political story – a human one. Showing all the charms and flaws in Oscar’s personality, Coogler crafts a marvelous look into the soul of a man over his final day alive. By the time white BART police officers are facing off against Oscar in the wee hours of New Years Day, you want to stand up and shout in a fit of anger not because of the racial divide, but because Oscar is a person, like you and me, with baggage, hopes, dreams, and a fighting chance at a better tomorrow. This is personal filmmaking that stuns you speechless.

The Spectacular Now film.jpg3. The Spectacular Now – A new age John Hughes classic, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is as beautiful as movies come, a pitch perfect time capsule of nostalgia that transports you back to the days of young love and troubling future plans. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so naturalistic as the central budding couple you can’t help but fall for their shy, charming connection and hope they can heal each other’s intimate wounds. Like the best coming-of-age stories, Spec Now evolves from a love story into a life story as the dark, worrisome nature of a wide-open future intrudes on the high-spirited final days of high school cockiness and youthful freedom. That hectic gray area between childhood and adulthood is what this lovely movie nails in all its humorous, heartbreaking glory.

Her2013Poster.jpg2. Her – As technologically forward seeking as it is emotionally present, Spike Jonze’s Her is the year’s most soul-searchingly tender movie. You want to reach out and give it a long, warm hug that never ends. A man falling for his operating system sounds silly, but Jonze and the remarkable duo of Joaquin Phoenix (at his most brimming best) and Scarlett Johansson (whose soulful voice work is transformative and Oscar-worthy) make it feel so startlingly real you may be shocked to find yourself feeling so much joy and pain for a couple as odd as this one. Shot with soft textures and featuring the year’s best original screenplay, Her overflows with truths about how we connect, intoxicates with its genius world-building, and moves you beyond words with its emotional honesty. It may be a science fiction love story but it’s as real as relationships get. Now that’s scary beautiful.

Before Midnight poster.jpg1. Before Midnight – Can love last over time? It’s the age-old question at the heart of Richard Linklater’s extraordinary Before Midnight, one that is answered in all its confusing, hilarious, and painful truths. To say I love this movie is an understatement. The minute I left my screening back in May I knew immediately I had witnessed a classic piece of cinema. Midnight caps off not only the greatest romance of all time but also one of the best movie trilogies ever. With a meticulous screenplay, sensitive direction, and performances of unshakeable authenticity courtesy of Ethan Hawke and the vibrant, mature Julie Delpy, Before Midnight grabs your heart and puts it through the ringer, creating a relationship that is complex, raw, and challenging. In a year of great romances, Midnight is the apex by a huge margin. It’s perfection.

Article by Zack Sharf


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