Although in the past couple of years it’s taken me a few more weeks to see every film I’ve needed to from the year prior, 2013 was such an excellent year that I simply couldn’t wait for every film to come to me. And so I made my annual journeys up to Boston to see many of the films I was anticipating, even with the knowledge that they would be released where I live just a week or two later. What can I say? I’m an addict, and with my addiction comes the yearly, painstaking process of chopping my favorite films list down to ten. Doing so after a year that was particularly strong like 2013, especially in terms of independent film, has honestly never been more difficult. For 2013, a top twenty may have been more reflective, but I have to fit in and thus, only ten will do.
In addition to compiling my top ten, I’ve also singled out my favorite performances of the year, while also calling attention to those directors, writers, cinematographers and editors who I personally feel did the best work of the year. I’ve also decided to single out those movie scenes and shots that left an indelible mark on me when I left the theater. Also, while nine of the films in my top ten will not be ranked in any particular order, I will single out my favorite film of the year.
With 2014 now upon us and many new big-screen experiences to look forward to in the coming months, it’s always important to reflect on the year that has just past. Here’s hoping the year in film that was 2013 will stand the test of time as a great example of the eclectic tastes of the various members of both the Hollywood and independent film communities. Away we go.
Best Editing, Sound Design & Score
Shane Carruth, David Lowery, Johnny Marshall & Pete Horner – Upstream Color
One of the most widely praised films among critics in 2013 was undeniably Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. The film itself is a bit of an enigma, an experimental indie that I will admit to not completely understanding. Regardless of that fact, I loved the film and it’s ability to wind it’s way into your mind through stunning cinematography, incredible sound design and powerful editing. It has a mood reminiscent of no other film last year, with thanks to a fantastic score from the film’s writer-director and incredible multi-tasker, Shane Carruth. Carruth was joined on editing duties by David Lowery, writer-director of another one of my favorites of the year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The work here is unparalleled and there was no other film that was really even close to taking these awards from Carruth and company. When a film’s editing bowls you over, you certainly know it’s something special.
Bradford Young – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Runner-Up: Roger Deakins – Prisoners, Benoit Debie – Spring Breakers
Big things lie ahead for cinematographer Bradford Young. While his career thus far has been spent predominantly in the indies, his work on David Lowery’s tale of star-crossed Texas outlaws should make sure that his career takes a massive step forward in visibility in the coming years. From the lush fields of Texas where Ruth and Bob’s romance first blossomed to the interior of the darkly-lit farmhouse where their lives change forever, Young makes you want to live in every one of his shots. They have a time-gone-bye quality to them, a longingly nostalgic look at Ruth and Bob’s love that is now just a thing of the past. Roger Deakins stuns as always with his sun-free work in Prisoners, but for me even the great one couldn’t top Young’s work in 2013.
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Runner-Up: Spike Jonze – Her
While many will point to various blockbuster series when debating their favorite movie trilogies of all-time, there’s only one for me, one that maintained its quality from beginning to end: Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. The third film centered on the romantic relationship between Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse proves that sometimes sequels can be incredibly advantageous, particularly in taking its characters to a point perhaps pre-destined by the previous two films in the series. The writing is as strong as ever, clear evidence that they understand their characters completely. Hawke and Delpy give performances on par with the best of their careers, not just because they are great actors, but because they have provided themselves with incredible material. The film ends on one of the truly perfect movie moments of 2013, wrapping up my favorite film trilogy on an incredibly high note. Some clamor for another entry in the series, but not me. Honestly, how could they possibly top this?
Benoit Debie’s Neon-Glow Ending – Spring Breakers
One of the other achievements in cinematography in 2013 was Gaspar Noe-alum Benoit Debie’s work on Harmony Korine’s divisive Spring Breakers. While much was made of the substance (or lack thereof) on display in the film, the style is undeniable, particularly Debie’s work in the final scene of the film. As Alien and the girls approach their final victims, Debie’s cinematography is hypnotic. The contrast between the blacks of the surrounding ocean and the neon-glow yellows and pinks of the bridge and the crew’s clothing makes sure this is one sequence impossible to shake. I can’t think of a more fitting way for a film about the excess of spring break culture to end, with a whole lot more excess. It’s a work of beauty and this particular collection of shots form some of the best cinematography of the year.
The Quaaludes Sequence – The Wolf of Wall Street
Alien Sings Britney Spears – Spring Breakers
Runner-Up: The Hanging Scene – 12 Years a Slave
A year in which film enthusiasts were treated to their fair share of memorable movie scenes, I’ve decided to highlight two of the more oddly comedic sequences of the year. The first comes courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio tops everything in his career to date by committing himself to portraying Jordan Belfort’s quaalude use to hilarious effect. I honestly can not implore you enough to head to the theater and see this for yourself. It’s the best thing Scorsese has done in years. The second scene is yet another memorable one from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. This scene revolves around James Franco’s Alien, who decides to serenade the girls with some Britney Spears before they head out and commit some less-than-noble acts. It’s without question the best use of montage all year. Don’t believe me? Watch it for yourself below.
Best Supporting Actor
Ryan Gosling – The Place Beyond the Pines
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
James Franco – Spring Breakers
Runner-Up: Jake Gyllenhaal – Prisoners
That’s right. This category was so strong I went with a three-way tie, but I wasn’t just throwing these three actors together for the hell of it. While their characters may be extremely different, the performances behind them function much in the same way. Gosling proves in Pines what many of his fans have known for a while, he can do more with a look than a line of dialogue. His presence haunts the film even when he is not on-screen, much like Fassbender’s performance as slave owner Edwin Epps. His is an intense performance, highlighted by his ability to manipulate that film’s protagonist. Franco’s Alien is much the same, manipulating the collective protagonist of the girls to fall under his spell and join him in his world of debauchery. All three are fantastic and I just wouldn’t have felt right leaving any one of them out.
Best Supporting Actress
Scarlett Johansson – Her
Runner-Up: Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
While much has been debated in the film community over whether an actor should be nominated for a solely vocal performance, to call Scarlett Johansson’s work in Her just that would be an insult. It’s a performance that is among the best work of the year because it fully encapsulates the character of operating system Samantha, whether she has a physical form or not. While Samantha Morton was originally cast as Samantha, writer-director Spike Jonze decided in post-production that she didn’t really fit what he had mind. Johansson then came in and knocked it out of the park. Her performance is not just one of vocalization, but one of fully-realized human emotion from something that is not typically supposed to have such feelings. She completes one half of the whole that is her relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and the film is all the better for it. Her is the most beautifully told romance of the year, and much of that is thanks to the performance from one Scarlett Johansson.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street, Christian Bale – American Hustle
The most difficult category to decide and the only one I hadn’t decided upon when I started writing this, there were about ten performances in contention for this top spot. Ultimately however, I had to go with the one performance that I thought got to me the most, the one that emotionally drained me like not other. That performance is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s in 12 Years a Slave. He captures Solomon Northup’s unique struggle in a way that many actors wouldn’t dare. It’s a physical performance, full of looks and longing stares, more dependent on Ejiofor’s lived-in embodiment of the man than the words he actually speaks. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal that is absolutely some of the finest acting of the year. DiCaprio and Bale were closest to dethroning Ejiofor, mostly because the former delivered a high-wire act many wouldn’t dare, while the latter portrayed a type of character he seemingly never has before, and wound up being the best part of a flawed film. Ultimately though, it’s Ejiofor who reigns supreme. Here’s hoping he does the same come Oscar night.
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Runner-Up: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine, Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Although it would be incredibly easy to go with Blanchett here, considering she’s all but got the Oscar wrapped up and is wholly deserving of the honor, I’ve decided to go down a different path. Brie Larson is an actress whom I’ve admired for quite some time now. She’s been delivering fantastic supporting performances for much of her career and has never truly gotten the recognition she deserves. In 2013, she delivered one such turn in James Ponsoldt’s fantastic The Spectacular Now, but it wasn’t until later in the year when she finally got her turn as a lead. Boy, did she deliver. Short Term 12 could have easily been just another heartwarming indie. It certainly has all the trappings, being set in a foster care home for children and being helmed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose only previous feature credit was 2012’s aptly titled, I Am Not A Hipster. But it wasn’t, thanks to Cretton’s subtle touch and some fantastic performances, most notable of which is Larson’s as Grace, head of the home who has a troubled past much like the youth she supervises. It’s a career-making performance and easily some of the best work of 2013. Here’s hoping Larson becomes one of the go-to actresses in the industry.
Spike Jonze – Her
Runner-Up: Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Spike Jonze has been one of my favorite filmmakers for quite some time now. His debut, Being John Malkovich, was an assured work of originality, albeit with the signature of its writer, Charlie Kaufman. Jonze’s follow-up, Adaptation, remains one of my absolute favorite films, but it was also once again borne from a Kaufman script. His third outing, an adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are, was once again a co-effort, this time with novelist Dave Eggers. 2013’s Her, for all intensive purposes, is a Spike Jonze creation. For the first time, he serves as the lone writer on one of his directorial efforts and, how about that, it may just be the best work of his career. It is not only an incredibly romantic film, but it captures the technological advancements of our society in a light that doesn’t necessarily judge them, but rather explores our relationships with them. What would happen if you and your computer operating system became friends, let alone romantically involved? Her is a film that isn’t afraid of big ideas, despite its main focus being on Theodore and his relationship with Samantha. It’s a work of incredible originality that I can’t wait to visit again soon, and a lot of that credit goes to writer-director Spike Jonze.
My Top Ten
Honorable Mentions: Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, James Wan’s The Conjuring, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Jeff Nichols’ Mud, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity
Edgar Wright’s The World’s End
“Drink up. Let’s Boo-Boo.”
For my money Edgar Wright’s best entry in the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End is perhaps the most entertaining time I had at the movies all year. It sports an incredibly underrated performance from Simon Pegg and some of the best fight sequences in recent memory. I can’t wait for Ant-Man.
Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines
“Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team.”
Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious follow-up to Blue Valentine, Pines finds Ryan Gosling in fantastic form as motorcycle stuntman Luke, the protagonist of the first part of this triptych, a story told in three parts. Bradley Cooper shines as Avery Cross, the cop tasked with bringing him to justice, and the absolutely on-fire Dane DeHaan delivers as Jason, Luke’s offspring.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street
“I’ll tell you what: I’m never eating at Benihana again. I don’t care whose birthday it is.”
Martin Scorsese’s best film in quite some time, Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest hour (or is that three?), and Jonah Hill in dentures. Honestly, what more do you need?
Joel & Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis
“No, I had a partner… he threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.”
The best soundtrack of the year and a killer lead performance from Oscar Isaac, this is the Coen brothers at their most depressing, believe it or not. Honestly, it’s become hard to expect anything less than a great film from the duo, and this ranks up their with my favorites from them.
David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche
“So when you say something negative and insult the other person… you’re really just showing that other person what an unsure-of-yourself-type person that you really feel like you are?”
As far as I’m concerned the most underrated film of the year, this is David Gordon Green in top form with two actors in Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch who have some insane chemistry. It’s both hilarious and oddly moving and deserves to be mentioned among the best films of the year.
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers
“I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.”
James Franco, Harmony Korine and Benoit Debie. They’re the first people I’ll see in heaven, right?
Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight
“Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone.”
Linklater’s trilogy comes to a close on an achingly real and perfect note. Hawke and Delpy bring it. They’re not the perfect couple. Then again, no one is.
Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha
The Great Gerwig one-woman show. Stunning black and white cinematography and a far less depressing Noah Baumbach. If you’re of this age and can’t relate to this film, I don’t know what to tell ya.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
“I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
One of the best filmmakers working today finally gets his due in front of a wide audience. Steve McQueen’s work on 12 Years a Slave is as praised as anyone’s work in 2013, and don’t think for a second that he’s not deserving of it. The hanging scene and incredibly moving ending are some of the best movie moments of the year. This ensemble is impossible to beat.
My Favorite Film of the Year
Spike Jonze’s Her
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
A heartbreaking love story for modern times. A true original, centered by fantastic performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. It’s hard to believe, but Spike Jonze may have topped himself. The production design is top-notch and the work by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema is just beautiful. If this is what the future looks like, I hope I’m alive to see it.
End Note: This marks the second straight year a film starring Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of my list. Inherent Vice is expected to be released in 2014. Looks like it may just be a third.