What do we mean when we say “best film”? Films that have garnered unanimous praise? Films that launch an endless buzz of awards consideration? Yes, the best films usually do get people talking. But to me, the best films of the year are quite simply the ones that stay with me long after I’ve left the theater. The ones that pull me in and won’t let go, the ones with the power to move me even as I sit comfortably in my seat. What I’ve compiled here is a list of movies that have struck me emotionally as a viewer and left the storyteller in me completely floored. These movies have either devastated me or inspired me, sometimes both. These aren’t the kinds of films that are forgettable, but rather linger in your heart whether you want them to or not. Lucky for you, I’m here to tell you all about them and why you should see them if you haven’t already.
10. The World’s End Perhaps the most misunderstood movie of last year. This is one of the rare films that actually gets better the second time around. Upon first glance, the film seems like an overly bleak comedy that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. But my dear friend, that’s because it’s only your first beer. Repeat viewings reveal its narrative precision and complexity. “There comes a time in your life when you have to go forwards, not backwards,” Sam tells a drunk and vulnerable Gary King. The thing is, the only way for a character like Gary to move forward is by going backwards – a clever little metaphor that’s also taken quite literally when Gary and crew reverse their way out of an eviscerating town. To say more would only rob the viewer of discovering these little threads for themselves, so don’t be afraid to indulge this movie. Like Gary, you might learn a thing or two by the end of it.
9. Rush This film genuinely surprised me in the way that it approached its own story. Rather than playing up the racing aspect, it dials it down and focuses on the drama that happens off the track. By doing so, it reveals an emotional intensity that’s simply nonexistent behind the wheel. No doubt, the racing scenes are pulse-pounding, but the real excitement happens when Hunt and Lauda go toe to toe. Lead actors Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl do not disappoint when it comes to trading verbal punches. They also manage to carry the film on their own as they face their respective journies and conflicts. But what truly makes the movie for me is that despite such a heated rivalry, they still maintained a respect for one another that not only defined the sport, but also each other. Now, the film may have run out of steam in the awards race, but I assure you that it’s got more than enough in the tank to take you on a wildly entertaining ride. After all, who can say no to Chris Hemsworth?
Dark, haunting, and bleak, this journey into a parent’s worst nightmare is relentlessly grim and unforgiving. Hugh Jackman gives his best performance as an unhinged father who’s willing to leap moral bounds to get his daughter back. He displays a rage that’s far more terrifying than a mutant with adamantium claws. But this movie wouldn’t be what it is without Jake Gyllenhaal, who turns in a stunning character performance that’s filled with layers upon layers of intrigue. Tattoos on his body hint at a troubled past, and a distinct facial twitch serves as a mask for his violent outbursts. To watch him interrogate a suspect has become an odd guilty pleasure of mine. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the film is shot by Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers in the game. The image of flashlights cutting through a dark and stormy night shall forever haunt me, and I thank him for that.
7. The Spectacular Now One of the few movies that takes you back to that time in your life when you were eager to leave high school and dreading it all the same. Miles Teller exemplifies this broken sensibility and confidently conceals it through charm and humor. The luminous Shailene Woodley also co-stars, and her graceful presence is more than welcome in the film. Director James Ponsoldt knows exactly what to do with his two leads. During key moments in the film, Ponsoldt allows them to play the scene in these distinct long takes. But he’s not showing off. He’s simply giving them the room to fall in love naturally. So don’t be surprised when you start to fall in love with them too. Keep in mind, this isn’t your typical romance. This is a heartfelt coming-of-age story where our hero, Sutter, fully embraces the present moment and can’t see anything beyond high school. This is further reflected in his romantic attachment with Woodley’s character, Aimee. It’s only at the end of their relationship and his high school years that he realizes how meager and hollow his life truly is. It’s a devastating wake up call, and we can only feel for Sutter as he breaks down in front of his mother. Miles Teller is a star and he proves himself worthy here.
6. Dallas Buyers Club Matthew McConaughey has essentially reinvented his own career, and his turn in Dallas Buyers Club marks yet another transformation for the acting veteran. He completely gives himself over to the role of Ronald Woodruff, a homophobic rodeo cowboy who becomes an unlikely hero in the battle against AIDS. Both he and Jared Leto are damn near unrecognizable. But the truth of their performances lie far beyond the physical transformation. McConaughey and Leto use their fragile appearance as a pathway to discovering characters who aren’t merely surviving, but are doing their best to make a living through the suffering. In it, they find something worthwhile to fight for, and it is both entertaining and inspiring to see them search for something meaningful in their lives. Sure, this movie rests on the strength of the actors’ performances. But man do these performances shine.
5. The Place Beyond The Pines By far the most ambitious film of 2013. Whereas others were put-off by its triptych structure, I was enthralled by it. Switching protagonists in a film is never easy, but writer-director Derek Cianfrance does so effortlessly by keeping these characters connected through small coincidences. What becomes of them following these chance encounters is what transcends the film because their sins are being passed on like a family trait. Ryan Gosling gives a haunting performance as Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stuntman who seeks to become a true father following the discovery of a son he never knew he had. He’s only in the film for the first hour, but his presence is felt throughout. His actions echo through the lives of each character, specifically that of his son who at the end of the film believes he can escape his tortured past by riding off on a motorcycle when really he’s traveling down the same avenue as his father. It’s not the shortest film on the list, but if you’re a patient viewer you’ll be happy knowing that you got to see something great, even if it does leave you in pieces.
This film condemns death without being preachy about it. That’s because it has a story to tell, all through a day in the life of Oscar Grant. In the first few minutes, the film plays the actual video footage of the fatal shooting. We’re already shown Oscar’s fate, which makes his attempts at re-starting his life all the more heartbreaking. Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast as Oscar. He manages to humanize his character’s pain through genuine warmth and sincerity. Yes, he has led a violent past. But he’s trying to move on by making an honest living and by being there for his daughter. These moments show Oscar at his most tender. You see the truth in his eyes when he promises his daughter that he’ll see her again, and as an audience we can only cry because we know what awaits him at Fruitvale. This is a powerful dramatic feature that never exploits its hero or his family. Something needs to be said of the tragedy that occurred, and the film isn’t afraid to open up. Fair warning: the film may leave you open and wounded by the end of it. I, for one, am still healing.
This small indie drama with tremendous heart and soul features compelling performances all around, led valiantly by Brie Larson as Grace, who carries the picture on her crumpled shoulders and takes us on a journey that mends and breaks our heart then puts it back together again. The film takes place at a foster-care facility that houses neglected, at-risk children. Kids like Marcus and Jayden, who are just two of the countless youths who come and go. They each have a story to tell. Marcus, who’s set to be released following his 18th birthday, conveys his pain through a gut-wrenching song about a mother who beat him mercilessly. And Jayden, a frequent cutter who’s closed herself off from the world, writes a story that chronicles the trials of an abusive father. Both characters express their pain through art, and writer-director Destin Cretton crafts a beautiful portrait about loss and heartbreak. In a sense, everyone in the film is, or was at some point, a lost child looking for a home. Mason, Grace’s partner, turns out was an orphan who was eventually taken in by a loving family. It’s no wonder that the film uses distinct framing techniques during intimate character moments. It’s showing us that they’ve found a home with each other. Granted, it may not be the ideal home, but it’s filled with people who care. And that’s more than enough.
2. 12 Years a Slave Never have I stumbled across a film that devastated me over and over again. With brutal clarity, director Steve McQueen doesn’t just show us what slavery was like; he immerses us in it. The cruelty on display is merely a tool that places us in Solomon’s shoes. It’s the continual degradation and corrosion of his character that really tears us apart. This was his life for 12 years and we’re only given a peek. Even then, it’s still disheartening to witness. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt make excellent use of the long take to a stunning and powerful effect, the most vivid being a sequence where Solomon defends Patsey and is then forced to whip her under the command of sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps. For the most part, I can stomach what’s in front of me. This, however, proved to be the exception. Other instances feature a completely worn-down Solomon as he gradually accepts the prison he’s in. His eyes have become pools of torment, and when he realizes that the brutality will only get worse, he decides to sing along with his fellow men, desperately clinging onto what’s left of his soul. This is by far the hardest film I’ve ever had to watch. That being said, this isn’t a must-see film, nor would I recommend it to everyone. But it shouldn’t be ignored either.
1. Gravity A wondrous technical achievement. How director Alfonso Cuaron managed to film these breathtaking sequences is beyond me. The first scene alone is 13 minutes long without any actual cut, and the film utilizes these long takes to maintain our focus throughout. So as much as we want to shield ourselves from the panic, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki force us to keep on looking, and to hold on for dear life. When the debris first hit, sending Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone hurdling into a dark abyss, I actually forgot how to breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack. That alone speaks to just how immersive the film is. Aside from the action, Cuaron crafts a human story about a character who’s been adrift for most of her life. Up until this point, Dr. Ryan Stone hasn’t been truly living. She’s been committed to her work and nothing else. She’s also dependent on others, which is reflected in the film as she’s always tethered to something, much like an umbilical cord. The debris serves as a literal metaphor for the adversities she endured and will continue to endure along the way. As a character, she believes that she can’t face them on her own. Thing is, she’s always been alone, which means she’s got only herself to fight for. And only she can push herself to do so. So when the tether finally breaks, slowly but surely she re-discovers the will to live. The image of her floating freely in the womb of the space station is perhaps the most emotionally resonant frame in the movie because the film itself is a rebirth for the character. It’s Sandra’s best performance by far, mainly because it rests on subtlety and expression. Because when you get past the screaming and the panic, you see a mother who lost a daughter, and a woman who emerges free from the pain. This is a movie that deserves to be experienced on the big screen, and in 3D if possible. After all, the filmmakers didn’t go for any half measures. Why should you?
There you have it. These are the ten best films that I’ve seen all year. But that’s not to say that this was an easy list to create. Notice that I had to leave out gems like Frozen and Her, and personal favorites like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to include those films, but this past year was such a tight race that I had to leave a few by the wayside. Still, the mere mention of these films only adds to the fact that 2013 was a damn fine year for movies. I can only hope that 2014 will be just as great if not better. Please note that this is my list, based on my opinion. Nothing more. So feel free to disagree with me. Sound off in the comments below or create a top ten list of your own.