The Best Movies Of 2013: James Hausman’s Top 10

Gravity Still - H 2013A year ago, in my Top 10 list for 2012, I stated that 2012 would go down as one of the best years for film.  Well, I’ve got to retract that statement, as 2013 has eclipsed last year in almost every way possible.  As both my fellow critics Zack Sharf and Mike Murphy stated in their respective lists, there are at least fifty odd films that are deserving of a spot on this list, but alas there are only ten open spots.  So, it is with great sadness that I have to resort to the old saying; I have to kill my darlings.

Just missing the cut by a fraction of an inch is Steve McQueen’s hauntingly powerful 12 Years a Slave, Dennis Villeneuve’s dark and dreary murder mystery Prisoners, and Steven Soderberg’s love letter to Hitchcock and De Palma, Side Effects.  Not to mention Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious and rewarding Place Beyond the Pines, the one-two acting punch by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and the ethereal, mind-numbing Upstream Color.  All of these were fantastic films that in any other year would have found tops spots on my list; further proof of just how fantastic year at the movies it’s been.  These following ten films however, are the special ones, the films that brought tears to my eyes, that made me swoon, that lifted me up and tore me down.  These are the films filled with white-knuckle excitement and poignant dramatics, with amazing acting and craftsmanship that may or may not find love come Oscar night.  Simply put, these are my ten favorite films from 2013.


The Spectacular Now film.jpg10. The Spectacular Now – Starting off my list is James Ponsoldt’s excellent coming of age drama The Spectacular Now.  What could’ve been nothing more than another high school romance film is instead one of the best movies of the year, focusing more on the hardships of youth, the terrifying nature of addiction, and the fears of the future.  Most impressive, however, is how Ponsoldt manages to create full, three-dimensional characters that feel like real people rather than the typical high school caricatures we are so often force-fed.  There’s no manufactured drama or obligatory love triangle, no fighting for the popular girl or Prom shenanigans, instead we are given a story about real people dealing with very real and frightening problems.  It’s a breath of fresh air in a time of complacency for young adult films.                         

Captain Phillips Poster.jpg9. Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass has proven again and again that he’s the master of topical filmmaking, and he very well may have out done himself with this year’s Captain Phillips.  A film that could’ve been a horrid piece of jingoistic propaganda is instead a well-thought out, methodical examination of both sides of the famous hijacking of the Alabama Maersk.  Played to perfection by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a fascinating change of pace for arguably the world’s most famous actor, culminating in one of the most impressive pieces of acting all year.  The breathtaking final fifteen minutes may very well be the best fifteen minutes in all of cinema this year, with tension so palpable that my heart nearly stopped beating.  Captain Phillips is docudrama at its finest and another great film for Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass.

Nebraska Poster.jpg8. NebraskaIf you asked me what director seems to really understand the human condition best, I’d answer Alexander Payne.  For decades now, Payne has been churning out film after film chronicling the weird and unpredictable nature of the human psyche to amazing results.  Well, this year’s Nebraska is no different, as Payne manages to craft a poignant portrait of an old man filled with regret trying to make up for his past sins.  It’s a beautiful and heart wrenching film, gracefully captured in black and white, with Oscar worthy performances from Bruce Dern and June Squib.  It’s easily Payne’s most restrained work yet, but it also may be his most mature, allowing the comedy to come from the characters without ever being at the character’s sake.  With this film, Payne has once again proven that he’s one of the most insightful storytellers working today.

American Hustle 2013 poster.jpg7. American Hustle David O. Russell may not be the easiest director to work with, but if you had any doubt that he’s one of the greatest actor’s directors than you haven’t seen American Hustle.  Packed to the brim with award worthy performances, O. Russell has crafted a film filled with such vibrant energy and talent that it may just be his finest film yet.  Loosely based off the Abscam controversy of the 1970s, American Hustle is the craziest Scorsese film Scorsese never made.  Filled with the colorful cast of characters that’d fit right in alongside Henry Hill and the rest of the Goodfellas crew, American Hustle is home to the best ensemble of the year.  Amy Adams is revelatory as a sometimes British con-woman, Christian Bale proves he can play a fat, balding Jewish con-man to perfection, and Bradley Cooper is better than ever as the high-strung FBI agent meant to keep them in line.  In a year filled with serious, heavy films, American Hustle is the most fun you’re going to have at the cinema.

Mud poster.jpg6. MudThe second and last coming-of-age story on my list, Mud earns such high regards due to the fact that, in my opinion, it transcends the shackles of a typical coming-of-age story, instead functioning more as a Southern mythic fable.  Free-flowing but grand, Mud feels unlike anything else released this year, ultimately familiar yet unique all the same. Writer/director Jeff Nichols imbues a sense of grandiose adventure and myth to his story that immediately sets it apart from any and all coming of age stories that have come before and will come in the future.  It’s an amazing achievement that owes much of its success to the incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and the young Tye Sheridan, who together form the core that we latch onto so tightly.  It may hit the beats you expect but Mud is anything but conventional.

Inside Llewyn Davis Poster.jpg5. Inside Llewyn Davis – No matter what your art is, the struggle to succeed as any form of artist is a universal feeling, one that the Coen Brothers capture magnificently in Inside Llewyn Davis.  Melancholy yet uplifting, the Coen Brother’s newest film may be their most refined yet, a character study so unflinchingly real that it feels like they just picked up some folk singer off the street and asked him to be himself in front of a camera.  The music of the film alone is worthy of a spot on this list, but in combination with Oscar Isaac’s incredible performance and the Coen Brother’s folk song-like structure, Inside Llewyn Davis adds up to one of the best movies of the year and another excellent addition to their catalogue of classic films.

Stories We Tell poster.jpg4. Stories We Tell – Documentaries are capable of being some of the most innovative and inventive pieces of film in existence, so it’s sad to see so many stay in the confines of our definition of “documentaries,” content to be cut and dry information dumps.  So it was to my great surprise just how different and unique Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is.  For a while the film seems to be a fantastically personal examination of her family’s history and the identity of her father, but as the film unfolds, more and more it slowly becomes about memory and the way we choose to remember our past, how we choose to allow others a glimpse into our past and share our stories with them.  It’s about how a single story can be interpreted and remembered completely differently for different people and how a single moment’s impact can ripple through time and space, effecting people in the far flung future.  It’s a gorgeous, intimate film and one of my favorite documentaries.

Her2013Poster.jpg3. Her – Spike Jonze has created something truly special with Her.  It’s a film that’s both contemporary and timeless simultaneously, functioning both as a statement on modern socialization and dating but also as a classic story of love, growth, and connection.  Spike Jonze delivers his best work yet, creating a not-too-far-future that’s instantly recognizable and crafting some of the most vivid and real characters in any movie all year.  Joaquin Phoenix takes a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn from his vicious role in last year’s The Master, playing the tender, soft-spoken Theodore with such vulnerability that he’s almost unrecognizable.  Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, delivers some of her finest work to date in a completely unseen role.  She brings such a sense of innocent wonder to her A.I. “Samantha” that you eventually stop thinking of her as any sort of machine or system but as a real emotional being.  That alone is an unbelievable achievement, but the real achievement is the fact that Jonze has proven there’s still so much to explore when it comes to love and human connections.  In a time where many think they’ve felt everything they’re ever going to feel, Her swoops in to show them there’s always something new waiting on the horizon.

Before Midnight poster.jpg2. Before Midnight – Just narrowly nudging in front of Her for my number two spot is Richard Linklater’s magnificent third entry in the Before trilogy, Before Midnight.  While I heavily considered having the two tied for second, I decided that Before Midnight sneaks ahead thanks to my affinity and love for Celine and Jesse, and if there’s one thing the film completely succeeds at, it’s reacquainting us with the couple in a brutally honest and raw fashion.  No one ever said love is easy, and if you had any doubts about just how hard it is to maintain love over long periods of time then you need to see this film.  It’s a stunningly real look at love and relationships thanks to Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawk and Linklater, who all wrote the script together.  Linklater’s subtle, unobtrusive direction and Hawk and Delpy’s performances combine to create the best movie in a near perfect trilogy.  Who knows if there’ll be another follow up in nine years, but I for one, am holding my breath.

Gravity Poster.jpg1. Gravity – I’m a sucker for progress.  I love it when a film comes out of nowhere and singlehandedly pushes forward the medium.  I love going into a theater and realizing I’m watching something completely and entirely unique, something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, something that I know is history in the making.  Those are the exact feelings I had as I sat through the experience that is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and it’s for those reasons that it’s my favorite film of the year.  Regardless of the effects, cinematography, and direction though, I truly believe that Gravity is the best film to come out this year.  Some may criticize it for having a simplistic story, but what many don’t recognize are the thematic layers underneath the point A to point B storyline.  The film is about so much more than just survival; it’s about the human experience.  It’s about finding that desire to live, to keep struggling and trying and forcing yourself to keeping putting that foot forward.  It’s a universal story that just happens to be set in space.  It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and the complexity of everything surrounding it only makes it more impressive.  Gravity is a film that won’t soon be forgotten, it’s truly revolutionary, and it’s the best film I’ve seen all year.

Still to See:
All is Lost
Fruitvale Station
20 Feet From Stardom
Act of Killing
Wolf of Wall Street

Article by James Hausman


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