Each year when I put together a list of the best movies—whether for work or for fun—it usually doesn’t take much effort. There are, generally, five or six movies that stand out above the rest, whether they’re huge Hollywood blockbusters or tiny indie gems.
This year the story is a little different. When going back through my notes, I easily found 11 movies that were deserving of special mention. It’s almost as if there was a trend in 2013, and the trend was releasing good movies.
Not that there weren’t stinkers (hello, Safe Haven!), but this isn’t one of those lists. Here are the films that affected me most in 2013, starting with the best and working toward the honorable mentions.
12 Years a Slave
No one has portrayed slavery in the United States as director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley have here: Brutal, inhumane, terrifying. The story of a free man from the north (the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapped and sold into slavery, the story shines a light on the normalcy of owning human property, the quiet acknowledgment from southerners that the institution was wrong, and their uses of physical and psychological torture to keep it in place. 12 Years a Slave is heartbreaking, its performances are superior, and its direction and editing shockingly efficient in showing the horror of the everyday.
Blue is the Warmest Color
If you’ve heard about or read about Blue is the Warmest Color, you know it’s filled with long, explicit lesbian sex scenes. (If not, you’ve just been told.) You should also know it’s one of the most honest portrayals of a young person’s life ever put on film. In its three-hour running time, we follow Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she slowly comes out (to herself but not her family), finds love (and nearly obsession), and makes a life as a young professional. It’s long and indulgent, but like many of the best movies, it rewards the patient.
All is Lost
As I noted in my review, Robert Redford has long been one of our greatest movie stars. He’s never been one of our greatest actors. In All is Lost, he rises to the challenge. He must: Redford is literally the only cast member, a man struggling to survive on the Indian Ocean as his boat suffers a hull breach and terrible weather. There’s little dialogue, and Redford and director JC Chandor work well together to increase tension and propel the story.
The Spectacular Now
Did high school hurt this much? The wild guy who doesn’t give a shit and the quiet, charming, straight-A student fall in love in director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a budding alcoholic and Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has never had a boyfriend. At first, it’s unclear whether she’s bringing him up or he’s bringing her down. When it becomes clear, it’s painful watching these two get lost in each other, even as we keep rooting for them. This movie has been unfairly compared to John Hughes; it’s better. See it with Kleenex.
Olivia Wilde is a good actor who’s never found a good lead until Drinking Buddies. She’s Kate, a microbrewery manager who may be in love with her coworker, Luke (Jake Johnson). Of course, they both have significant others. It sounds banal, but writer-director Joe Swanberg finds the sublime in the mundane, and he nails the difficulties that can sometimes spring up in male-female friendships.
Director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska—my vote for best original screenplay (by Bob Nelson)—takes his standard premise of showcasing difficult people and making them human. Here, Woody (Bruce Dern), an old coot, hits the road with his reluctant son (Will Forte) in order to track down $1 million Woody thinks he’s won. It takes time finding its way, but this father-son road trip movie is worth the effort.
Lake Bell’s writing and directing debut In a World… manages to combine a romantic comedy with explorations of gender roles, marriage, and the world of voiceover acting. It’s funny and charming, even if it could have used a different director of photography.
In the foreign film department, No is as captivating as they come. It’s the story of the 1988 vote Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet allowed to determine whether he would serve another eight years, and the campaigns the pro-Pinochet (“Yes”) and anti-Pinochet sides (“No”) mounted. Gael García Bernal is perfect as the “No” side’s leader. Technically No came out in 2012, but it didn’t get much stateside play until this year.
Matthew McConaughey was in two winners, Mud and Dallas Buyers Club, which are both uplifting and downbeat in their own ways. It’s nice to see McConaughey use his powers for good instead of evil after years and years of terrible romantic comedies.
And finally, for horror movie fans out there, there’s You’re Next, possibly the best mainstream horror movie of the last 10 years. It’s a simple premise: What happens when there’s a home invasion and the invaders run into someone who’s just as violent as they are? This movie is riveting and manages to avoid the trap most horror movies run into: It never runs out of steam.
It’s too much to assume 2014 will go as swimmingly, but here’s to dreaming. And nothing will be as bad as Safe Haven. Maybe.