The Top 10 Films of 2013

In some ways, year-end top 10 lists are completely pointless, if not pretentious. Quality is almost entirely subjective, so anything approaching a “definitive” list is impossible. Also, there’s always bound to be movies that you miss, so a more appropriate title is “the top 10 films that I saw this year.” As a non-professional who has to pay to see things, there are many important films I’ve yet to see. All is Lost, Short Term 12, Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis and Her are a few that immediately come to mind.

With those caveats in place, I still adore top 10 lists, especially when film-goers have a chance to highlight films that they believe have been overlooked along with heaping further praise on the more “obvious” but no less deserving choices. I’ve put a lot of thought into my list, and I hope it shows. How do I choose what makes the cut? Well, I tend to go for movies that surprised me in some significant way. Whether I laughed more than expected, was lifted higher than I imagined or thrown for a loop in a way I didn’t anticipate, surprise is something so rare in the cinema, but so valuable. These movies all provided that value. Enjoy.


Could we have imagined such a completely satisfying conclusion to Edgar Wright’s bonkers Cornetto trilogy? The team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz reunited for this third outing, which finds stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost playing losers once again facing a supernatural menace (aliens, in this case).

What puts this movie above the others, for me, is the brilliant supporting cast, including Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine. But what truly anchors the film amidst all the madcap insanity is Pegg’s mesmerizing performance as a man who finds himself living in the perpetual “glory days” that Bruce Springsteen sang about. It’s alternately funny and tragic, like the film itself, and a sobering reminder that no one gets Oscars for “comedic” performances. That’s a shame, because this one was so much more.


Every time we think we’ve seen everything Tom Hanks can do, he reinvents himself and enthralls us anew. As Captain Rich Phillips, he gives perhaps the best performance of his career, because not an inch of him looks or acts like a movie star. Equal praise goes to native Somalian Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain. Their game of wits, based upon the true story that enthralled the nation in 2009, provided some of the most intense moments in cinema this year. Not surprising, considering that Paul Greengrass is one of the most exhilarating filmmakers in the business. And good lord, that ending. Be ready for it.


Don’t mistake this terrifying film for a typical revenge thriller. If anything, it’s a reaction against almost every one made in the last few decades. Pulling career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall as the man determined to find his daughter at all costs and the cop doing all he can to help, Prisoners is a slow burn, and a disturbing one. But its moral complexity, found in Jackman’s Keller Dover and his intense Catholic faith, make every decision feel as weighty as it should. Dover knows torture is wrong, for example, but what else is a desperate father to do? We may not approve of his decisions, but we can understand why he would make them. It makes this thriller so real, and atones for the sins of a thousand thoughtless slaughter fests from Segal, Stallone, Gibson and company.


In a killer year for documentaries, Sarah Polley’s layered film stands out by reminding us why we tell stories in the first place. Polley’s breathtaking oral history of her family centers on her mother, and some family secrets that come to the surface in some surprising ways. To say anything more would ruin the impact of the film, which unfolds like a can’t-put-down novel, as revelation after revelation glues us to the screen. We tell stories, Polley suggests, primarily to lie to ourselves. After all, life and memory don’t always play out as straightforward narrative. They’re messy, and Polley calls us (and herself) out on our willingness to coalesce human experience into a convenient narrative. While many documentaries are didactic or polemical in nature, Stories We Tell trades more in ambiguity. Kind of like life. It’s essential viewing for anyone who has ever desired to tell a story. And really, isn’t that all of us?


Seeing Fruitvale Station at a packed theater at the Sundance Film Festival is one of the movie highlights of my life. Seeing first-time director Ryan Coogler’s real-life depiction of the life and death of Oscar Grant (a great breakthrough performance by Michael B. Jordan), a bay-area black man senselessly killed by a white BART officer in 2009, reminded us of our obligation to our fellow man. We laughed, we cried, we pleaded that the story would turn out differently, that Jordan’s mother (a brilliant Octavia Spencer) would never have to bury her son. But, of course, she did, and that knowledge imbues the film with a sense of dread and urgency that even fuels the many joyful moments in this brilliantly acted, exhilarating debut. I can’t wait to see where Coogler and Jordan go next.


Is there any more consistently exciting director working today than David O. Russell? When his films arrive, it’s like the carnival’s in town and we’re all invited. It’s hard to not be swept up in his effortless energy, his brilliant writing and his ability to bring the best out of today’s most talented actors. In his loose fictional interpretation of events surrounding the Abscam bribery scandal of the ‘70s and ‘80s that took down a number of big Jersey-area politicians, he does that and more. He channels his own inner Scorsese, resulting in a rich crime drama full of memorable characters, a great pop-filled soundtrack and some of the best hair ever committed to a screen. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams are all at the top of their respective games, and great supporting performances from the likes of Louis C.K., Jeremy Renner and Robert DeNiro only sweeten the deal. I could watch Jennifer Lawrence singing “Live and Let Die” in yellow rubber gloves for hours. And that’s only one scene.


A perfect ending to what may go down as one of the best trilogies in movie history. Director Richard Linklater reunites with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for a bittersweet meditation on love, commitment, and the way life both strengthens and whittles away at both. If the previous films worked more like romantic fables, Before Midnight is so real it hurts. The possibility that these passionate lovers’ relationship may be on the rocks is beyond heartbreaking. If Linklater’s dialogue might be a bit too existential for some, Hawke and Delpy go a long way in making it feel as natural as breathing. The Before trilogy is one of the great triumphs of modern independent filmmaking; all you need is a good idea, a couple of passionate and talented artists, and a little bit of money. No pressure, right?

3. MUD

Combine the best elements of Stand By Me, The Goonies and the plays of Tennessee Williams, and you have a newly minted American classic on your hands. Director Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter, is one of the best films of the decade so far, and Mud continues the trend. This southern gothic tale, set on the Mississippi bayou, is filled to the brim with warm characters, beautiful locales and that ever-approaching mix of fear and excitement over growing up that is the cornerstone of any great coming-of-age story. Tye Sheridan provides one of the more natural and engaging child performances in recent memories, and Matthew McConaughey complements an incredible year as the title character, showing once again why he’s the most surprising actor in Hollywood. Along with amazing performances in The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, he’s ready for a date with Oscar. It’s more a matter of when, rather than if.


Wow, wow, wow. What else is there to say about Alfonso Cuaron’s revolutionary space film? I’m bored by conversations over how Gravity will hold up in years to come. Who cares? In the here and now, it is one of the most emotional, exhilarating and audacious experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Maybe it’s an obvious film for a top 10 list, but it’s on almost everyone’s, so that probably just means it’s really, really good. And it is; if all big-budget spectacles were this spectacular, I would have no life. Sandra Bullock is so exhilarating to watch; it’s the finest performance of her career by far. She has to carry most of the film on her shoulders, and she does so with impressive physicality and a quiet resolve. From its breathtaking opening to its haunting final shot, Gravity is the work of a true master. It will be emulated for years to come, but no one will come close to replicating this space opera for the ages.


The word “essential” should be very rarely used in the word of film. But, with 12 Years a Slave, it is entirely justified. Director Steve McQueen’s films have come off as a bit cold in the past, but in his treatment of American slavery his relatively objective lens lends the true story of Solomon Northup an appropriate level of gravitas and reverence. Northup, a free black man living in 1840s-era New York who is captured and sold into slavery in the south, is played with an aching level of passion by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the performance of the year. In his expressive eyes, we see not only Northup’s pain but also his unquenchable spark of hope. The supporting cast is all-around brilliant too, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Brad Pitt to Michael Fassbender. And Luptia Nyong’o as Patsy is one of the most wrenching breakthrough performances in memory.

12 Years is not an easy sit, and some might be looking forward to seeing it like they would a root canal. I did. I was shaking when I entered the theater, and I was shaking when I left. But that intensity underestimates the film’s aching beauty; from its sensuous cinematography and costumes to the quiet moments of hope and joy that can be found in the film’s small moments. The most memorable scene is not a whipping, or an act of verbal torture, but rather, a group of slaves, burying one of their own and singing, with both pain and hope, to the God that is still with them, even as others use the same God to subject and demean them. It’s rare to be reduced to a blubbering mess by a movie without feeling emotionally manipulated, but 12 Years is a passionate, beautiful masterpiece that earns such a heartfelt response.

Holiday Movie Review Roundup

This Christmas season, Hollywood seems especially concerned with one primary aspect of the holiday: consumerism. Several recently released films are about money; how much American society needs it as well as how much that same consumer society destroys and corrupts good and bad alike. During a time of year obsessed with consumerism, it’s an important theme. They’re also about dreams, both those that are broken and those that are occasionally fulfilled. I checked out a few new movies receiving major critical and awards attention.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour effigy to excess. Scorsese teams up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a fireball of a performance as Jordan Belfort, the real-life sleaze ball broker who made millions by scamming people out of money by selling them phony stocks. Along the way, he enlists the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a few select others in their attempt to grow their phony company, Stratton Oakmont, into a legitimate operation.

The film’s early scenes are fascinating, as a bright-eyed Belfort with ambition and ideals is enthralled by a Wall Street veteran (a brief but brilliant Matthew McConaughey) and begins to build his phony firm from the ground up. The process behind the operation is the most interesting part of the movie.

Belfort and company’s rise to the top (and descent to the depths of debauchery) is chronicled in increasingly graphic displays of rampant sex and drug use. It’s fun for a while, and some over-the-top scenes rank among the funniest in Scorsese history (one particularly brilliant, almost vaudevillian sequence involves Belfort’s overdose on Quaalude, his drug of choice). But the movie wears out its welcome by the end. So much screen time is devoted to the film’s ribald sexual content that most attempts at lasting character development fall flat. By the time the narrative switches gears by throwing in an FBI agent (an underused Kyle Chandler) hot on the scent to bust Stratton, it’s much too late to rein in the film’s overstuffed ambition.

Then there’s Belfort, a completely horrible person from beginning to end. Are we actually supposed to be rooting for this guy? Scorsese has made a career out of depicting despicable yet fascinating characters, but Belfort takes things a bit too far. DiCaprio plays him much too charming to actively root against, either. Azoff and the supporting characters don’t fare any better; everyone is thoroughly unredeemable. Much talk has been made over whether the film is misogynistic, and I think the criticisms are justified. There are lots of naked women in this movie, and, while Belfort’s model wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) gets ample screen time, she’s mostly just there as a sex object, too. It’s a shocking misstep from a director who has a history of very strong female characters.

Of course, some may argue that these things make sense when viewed through Belfort’s eyes, an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly (and down) to the audience. But just because the film hews to Belfort’s real-life story doesn’t imbue it with meaning. The film’s ultimate letdown is that it doesn’t bother to make us care for these sick characters or say anything new. It’s certainly outrageous that one of the foundations of our economy could be manipulated like this, but “money corrupts people” isn’t exactly a novel concept.

Wolf is an occasionally brilliant movie, but I can’t help but think that this is Scorsese’s version of a frat boy comedy. DiCaprio is certainly deserving of high praise; he seems to be completely enraptured in his insane performance; if the man doesn’t get an Oscar for this one, I’m not sure he ever will. The movie itself is an enthralling, often hilarious portrait of a director at his most gloriously unhinged, but those looking for a bit more depth beneath the madness will very likely feel bludgeoned and numbed by Scorsese’s raucous, slick con job.

 American Hustle

David O Russell channels his own inner Scorsese in American Hustle, a brilliant caper film that begs comparison to Goodfellas, among others. It’s the kind of film Scorsese used to make, a smoldering mix of memorable characters, a twisty plot and the distinct voice of a true American original.

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late ‘70s (the opening states that “some of this stuff actually happened,”) the film follows the exploits of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with what is described as an “elaborate” comb over), a professional New Jersey con man who, along with his girlfriend, Sydney (a sweltering Amy Adams) is pulled into an FBI sting operation led by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The goal is to implicate multiple Jersey politicians in taking bribe money under the banner of restoring the once-glorious Atlantic City.

Things are complicated both by Irving’s vindictive wife Rosalyn (a manic-depressive Jennifer Lawrence) and his friendship with naive politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who DiMaso asks Irving to implicate in the sting.

Hustle pulses with the urgency surrounding a high-stakes plot that could unravel at any moment. And, between con over con and Irving’s complex love triangle, the film threatens to unravel, too. But it doesn’t. Director O’Russell is such an exhilarating director, swooping the camera in every imaginable and lending the movie a vibrant, breakneck pace. O Russell proves himself once again as a brilliant writer, too. Despite the machinations of the plot, the film is ultimately a deep character study, a look at survival and the role the characters’ duplicitous natures contributes to their working-class ennui. In particular, the relationship between Irving, Sydney and Rosalyn is handled with aplomb, and grows even more engaging as the film continues.

The acting is off-the-charts great, with Bale, Adams, Lawrence and Cooper all pulling in AAA performances. Brilliant supporting work from Louis C.K. as a bumbling FBI agent and Robert DeNiro as a mobster (what else) rounds out the powerhouse package. O Russell’s attention to period detail (particularly the costumes and that glorious hair) lend the film an authentic vibe where it could have easily felt fabricated. His use of popular period music is equally exciting (and again, quite Scorsese-an).

Hustle has its flaws, but it’s so hard not to fall in love with, because it’s a movie in the purest sense of the word. A sheer joy for the art and craft of filmmaking permeates its pores. If he wasn’t already, David O Russell is now one of the most consistently surprising and accomplished directors in the business.

 Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks couldn’t be any more different. British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) seems entirely uninterested in money. She calls it a “dirty word,” but profits from her successful Mary Poppins books have dwindled, and she decides to humor Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who invites her to come to California in an attempt to convince her to sign over the rights to her story to make into the now-classic film.

Mr. Banks is the kind of film I instinctively enjoy, a movie about the movies that takes no small amount of joy in the artistic process. The ideological warfare between the stuffy and picky Travers (who insists she be called Mrs. Travers) and the wide-eyed, uncouth Disney (who insists he be called “Walt”) is engaging, but the real draw comes from the fact that these two impossible dreamers seem almost wholly unconcerned with money, but rather with seeing their dreams come to life. Of course, Walt Disney was a money machine, but its corrupting influence is, refreshingly, wholly absent here.

The movie tells Travers’ story by flashing back and forth from her traumatic childhood experience with her alcoholic father to her battles with Walt and company. The chronologically disjointed formula occasionally feels a bit manipulative, and many of the historical connections feel more concerned with cinematic indulgence than historical accuracy. But this is a movie of grand emotions, and it wears its heart very much on its sleeve.

Director John Lee Hancock gets great performances out of side characters such as the Poppins songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) and Travers’ chauffer (a typically pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti). Thompson is brilliant as Travers, giving just the right amount of sugar to a rather bitter role. She’s never so nasty that she becomes unbelievable. While Hanks doesn’t exactly look the part, he brings a warmth and sincerity to Walt Disney that is just too infectious to ignore.

The film is a big dollop of Disney sugar, but Travers’ backstory and her stubbornness offers just the right amount of dramatic heft to balance things out. It’s a completely engaging, refreshingly cynicism-free look at dreamers who may, for once, actually be able to make their dreams reality.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review: Finding the heart behind the epic

In JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the author displays a curious knack for brushing over details that he fears would bore the reader. He admits as much multiple times in the book itself. Peter Jackson, the Lord of the Rings director who has turned the book into its own epic trilogy, aims to do just the opposite. His desire to flesh out the characters, expand the story and create more direct connections with the Rings trilogy has created a film series that is in danger of being longer than the book that inspired it.

This fact has wrought both cheers and jeers from longtime fans. The first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, managed the rare feat of being both overlong and uneventful. While some might complain the Rings movies are also bloated, they didn’t feel like three hours because stuff actually happened. Journey, on the other hand, was quite a slog, rarely justifying its formidable length.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is, thankfully, a much more impressive and focused work than its predecessor, the main reason being that stuff actually happens. Cool stuff. It’s an adventurous, technically audacious blast. And then, of course, there’s the dragon. But we’ll get to that.

Desolation mercifully takes no time getting going, continuing the quest of the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who accompanies a group of dwarves to take back their homeland in the lonely mountain, which has been overtaken by a greedy dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Within the first hour, the merry band is nearly eaten by spiders and imprisoned by elves. And to think, in Journey they had barely left the shire by this point.

The main reason this sequel works so well is that Jackson and company’s additions (the script was co-written by Guillermo del Toro, who was originally attached to direct the trilogy) to the relatively simple original story feel much more like genuine improvements rather than attempts to pad the length of three movies. The main addition comes in the form of the Mirkwood elves, who, unlike the elves from the first film, are a bit dangerous and unpredictable. Their leader, Thranduil (Lee Pace) offers to help the dwarves on their journey; with caveats, of course. He is joined, in the movie, by his son Legolas (a returning Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a brand-new female elf character. Some fans cried foul over adding a character to the universe, but Tauriel is a fantastic addition to this male-dominant universe. The love triangle that develops between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili feels like one that actually may have some teeth to it (depending on what they do with it in the next film).

The human character of Bard is also expanded for the better. Although he plays an important role in the book, his character is not given much depth. Here he’s given a family and a more active role in helping the dwarves along on their journey. In fact, the entire town of Esgaroth, the town that has been displaced by Smaug, is more fully realized here; thus we care about what happens to the people here.

One of the more contentious aspects of the first film was its attempt to tie more directly to the Rings trilogy, creating a subplot involving the wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and their encounters with the dark necromancer (soon to be Sauron). Here, they make more sense; rather than Gandalf leaving for half the story, we actually get to see what he’s up to, which is kind of cool. Still, I feel these scenes detract too much from the main story, and strike me as unnecessary additions. They’re interesting, but not essential.

All complaints go away once Smaug the dragon shows up. He is truly an awe-inspiring creation, and is by far one of the greatest dragons to ever grace a screen. The incredible CGI combined with Cumberbatch’s fantastic voice lend an air of gravity and even regality to the dragon. He is, in every way, a triumph.

The movie is not, however, about a dragon, and Smaug thankfully doesn’t steal the movie from the true star of the show. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is about as endearing and lovable as a main character as has ever come from a fantasy universe. Seeing this character grow over the course of these movies is a treat, and Bilbo himself is a more interesting and nuanced character than Frodo, the protagonist form the Rings films. Credit for that goes equally to Tolkien’s original story, Freeman’s soulful performance and Jackson’s additions.

Smaug is still too long; it certainly won’t win over non-fans of the franchise, and I’m not sure the filmmakers have justified making this story into three long movies. But, Jackson and friends seem to have found the true, beating heart of this packed epic; a simple hobbit who, since he can’t go home yet, is doing the best he can. And, if he finds some courage (and a certain ring) along the way, we’re all the better for it.

Out of the Furnace Review: Stellar performances swimming in a thin story

On paper, Out of the Furnace is a slam dunk of a movie. Combine several of the finest actors of their generation with a hot director, set it in a gritty postwar fever dream and watch the fireworks. The result, however, is a good film that touches true greatness just often enough that it feels that much more disappointing.

Christian Bale gives perhaps his finest performance ever as Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steel mill worker trying to make ends meet. He and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) are taking care of their terminally ill father when Casey is called to serve in Iraq. Around the same time, Russell causes a fatal traffic accident while driving drunk and is forced to spend time in prison. When both men come back from their respective hells, Russell attempts to get his life back on track with his former girlfriend, Lena (a mesmerizing Zoe Saldana) while Rodney makes money fighting and gets involved with a scuzzy promoter (Willem Dafoe). When Rodney’s business causes him to run afoul of Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a vicious backwoods crime lord, he disappears, and, with the trail seemingly gone cold, Russell decides to track down his brother outside the bounds of the law.

What makes the simple story stand out are the fantastic performances. Bale is firing on all cylinders here as a man trying to do the right thing but beset on all sides by disappointment after disappointment. His trademark physicality and emotional expressions are on full display here. In particular, a scene between Russell and Lena after he gets out of prison is a master class in acting. Harrelson is terrifying, if a bit one-note, as the villain, and Affleck does a great job as directionless vet who always seems to be feeling some mix of anger, fear or resentment. His performance recalls the likes of the great Tobey Maguire in Brothers or Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.

In fact, Out of the Furnace often feels like a beguiling mix of those two films. Its gloomy ashen towers, dilapidated houses and bleak Pennsylvania landscapes are obvious visual homages to The Deer Hunter; in dealing with the ramifications of blue collar workers-turned-soldiers returning home, it seems like that film dolled up for a new generation. It’s a bold comparison to one of my all-time favorites, but the film occasionally earns it, particularly in the scenes between the two brothers, both trying to make their way but seemingly failing in different ways.

As the film moved past these compelling moments to the more mundane machinations of the revenge story, my interest began to wane. We’ve seen stories like this before, done much better. The only real pleasure towards the end of the film (besides the beautiful cinematography) is seeing these actors give it their all even when playing characters that aren’t as fleshed out as we’d like them to be. The thin plot often sets up conflicts without delivering on them; a subplot involving police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), the man committed to finding Rodney who also happens to be Lena’s new lover, is particularly undercooked. Director Scott Cooper’s leisurely pace suits the first half of the film well, but leaves the more traditional revenge plot completely unsatisfying. It feels, at times, like two different movies, both struggling for dominance, neither coming out on top. The ending is a letdown, and negates much of the dramatic tension so palpable in the rest of the film.

Out of the Furnace reminds me a lot of the 2009 film Brothers. Both are potent postwar dramas featuring stellar performances, but they’re also merely good movies with great ones trapped inside, struggling to get out. Out of the Furnace is not as good as the sum of its parts, but man, those are some really good parts. If there are many faults to find in the whole, it is still an electrifying film, featuring some of the finest living actors giving it their all. Even if you leave feeling unfulfilled, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it while it lasts.