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Mike’s Top Ten Films of 2013

And now for my favorite movies of 2013.

I think 2013 has to be considered the year of disappointment. Never have I seen so many movies that were so promising fail to deliver at such a large rate. Not to mention so much stuff getting pushed at the last minute. Last year, I had an easy list of ten slam dunk entries for my list. Even 2011 had about seven or eight easy choices. This year — I was struggling. I was really struggling. You can tell by my statistics. I only gave three movies 5 stars this year. I just wasn’t as in love with movies this year as I was last year. This has felt like the weakest overall year for film in a while. But, by process of elimination, there have to have been ten movies I liked the best. And this is that list.

The way the list works is, every year, I pick my ten favorite films of the year. I do this very deliberately, not picking based on what the trendy choices are, or what films wowed me in the moment. I think about this in terms of the long game, in terms of which films I’m still going to love five or ten years from now. My goal is to have as few changes as possible when I revisit this list any time in the future. One, maybe two changes over time isn’t anything crazy. But if I make a top ten list, and within two years, half of it has turned over, then it means I messed up my list.

The other thing I do is list an 11-20, so we can give love to films I really loved but wouldn’t put at the very top of my list. And then, to really get into all the films I liked, I provide a second tier and third tier of movies after that, to give as many examples as possible of films I really enjoyed. The total ends up being a top ten, an 11-20, and forty other movies that I single out for kudos each year.

So here are my top ten films of 2013:

Captain Phillips

10. Captain Phillips

This spot was up for grabs until the very last moment. I was really unsure of where I was going to go with this. But ultimately, I watched this movie again, and felt it held up as a really watchable movie. It also ends up being indicative of a trend that I seem to really be into this year, which I’ll get into later on.

This movie is thoroughly watchable. What I like most about it is how it really doesn’t waste time setting things up. They go, shit goes down, and we’re just with that until it’s over. I’m a big fan of that. And, after having watched it twice, it’s one of those movies you can watch over and over. It’s really engaging. It puts you right in this situation, and lets it play out in real time. I really like that aspect.

I also like that the film doesn’t try to make any “hero” statements, or “Hollywood-ize” any element of the story. Phillips doesn’t take out any of the pirates, he doesn’t have a huge heroic moment. He’s just a regular guy in a crazy situation and he reacts the way regular people do. This is the kind of movie I like to see. It reminds me of the 70s. Nothing is blown out of proportion. Even the hijacking takes two tries to get going. I love that. The motor goes down, they go away, and they come back the next day. This is real life stuff. And that makes it infinitely more compelling.

This one’s gonna have a real high replay value for me. Though, for the love of god, Paul Greengrass, just put the camera on a dolly for at least one scene a movie. I know we’re on a boat, but… come on.

The Wind Rises

9. The Wind Rises

I said to some friends a couple of weeks ago, that the real key as to whether this was a weak year or not would be whether this film made my top ten list. It’s not that this isn’t an incredible film — it’s one of only three that made five stars from me this year — it’s just that all of Miyazaki’s movies are five star movies, and while I love them all dearly, it’s the kind of thing where, I’m really only putting them on my Top Ten list if I’m really in love with them. Kiki’s DeliverySpirited Away, Totoro — these are the real top ones for me. Generally, I find enough movies from each year that I’m legitimately excited about to rank above a Miyazaki, and let him stay in the 11-20. Not as a downgrade, just because it’s what I do. But this year, I couldn’t find enough films that I legitimately loved over this to not put it in the top ten. So here we are.

This movie is incredible. I love how serious it is, but with the same visual flourishes that are the hallmark of a Miyazaki movie. He’s just a true master. And there’s nothing more exciting than watching a master at the height of his craft. The other thing I love about this movie is how it takes a very delicate subject (Colin described it as a movie that’s about Japan “in a time when you’re not supposed to like Japan”) and really just focuses on something simple — one man’s love of planes. And it’s just a joy to watch.

But like I said, there’s nothing more exciting than watching a master filmmaker play.

Her

8. Her

This is the one that might have the biggest chance of maybe falling off this list in the future, because I’ve only seen this one once. But I fell really in love with this movie. I thought it was a really sweet and tender love story. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I thought it was a great depiction of what life in the digital age is like, and I thought it remained completely honest throughout. It found a way to make a man falling in love with a computer feel organic. And that’s not an easy task.

I’m gonna need another watch to really iron out my feelings on this one, but as of right now, I loved this movie. A lot. And I wish we got more offbeat and interesting movies like this one.

(Note: I’m actually watching this movie again as I type up this list — nope. It belongs here. This movie is absolutely beautiful.)

Prisoners

7. Prisoners

My god. What a movie. I loved this when it came out, but I couldn’t have dreamt this was gonna hold up as a top ten. And yet, few films had as much of an impact on me as this one did. This one is powerful. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are amazing, and this one holds your attention all the way through. (Not to mention — Roger Deakins — talk about a true master. This dude is a treasure.) This is so good. Talk about putting you through the ringer. And that scene at the end, with Gyllenhaal driving to the hospital — dear god. Talk about suspense.

In case you somehow haven’t seen this movie, it’s one of the absolute best of the year. Featuring one of the best scripts, some of the best performances, and the best all around filmmaking. A+.

The Wolf of Wall Street

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

This was just a fucking joy. How could people hate on this movie? So what it was 3 hours? It was a fun as hell three hours. I loved every minute of this movie, and it never really felt like it was dragging. At most maybe fifteen minutes. Either way, this was fun, this was Scorsese doing what he does. A master filmmaker at work. How could you not enjoy that? Sure, it’s not one of his all-time best, but considering the filmography we’re working with, what are we really saying? DiCaprio is his usual great, Jonah Hill really is fantastic, as is Rob Reiner. Rob Reiner as Mad Max in this movie is really something. And McConaughey is so good in his one scene, I wished he had more of them. Everyone brings their A game here, and it’s just a fun movie. It’s in the same vein of Goodfellas and Casino, energy wise, but it’s not a comparable movie. On its own, this is a really great movie, and of course it’s one of my favorites.

And again, we’re back to one of the two themes of this list — great filmmakers doing work.

All Is Lost

5. All Is Lost

Oh, there was little doubt about this one ending up here. I was all over this from last year. A one-man show. An old man, at sea, his boat starts sinking — go. And that’s all this movie is. It’s really the brother film to Gravity. It’s the same exact thing from the other side of the coin. And I love that. I’m telling you, there’s something always interesting about a film that focus its lens in so tightly to one specific scenario and only focuses on that scenario. It goes back to High Noon. This film doesn’t happen in real time, of course, but it still strips narrative to its most basic form, which is just about the same thing.

This film is just spellbinding from beginning to end, and I’m gonna be really happy to be able to watch this from here on out.

American Hustle

4. American Hustle

Another example of a great filmmaker at work. David O. Russell is on a major run. At this point, everything he makes is just amazing. I thought he might have peaked at Silver Linings, but this one is still right up there. This one is so much fun. All the leads are just killing it, and he imbibes the film with that Goodfellas energy that just works. I’m not sure how this one is gonna hold up in the future in terms of specific ranking (it’ll still be top ten, and I don’t rank the top ten after the first year anyway), but that doesn’t matter. This film is fun as hell, and it’s the total package. Great filmmaker, great story, great cast, fun all around, and the soundtrack. I mean, what’s not to like?

Inside Llewyn Davis

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

My top three, starting here, was just a total no-brainer for me. They just jumped right up there from the moment I saw them, and they never moved.

I really didn’t know what I was going into with this movie. I know I’m in the Coen brothers’ hands, and those hands are about the best you can ever be in. So I knew I was getting quality, but I really didn’t know all that much about the movie. I didn’t really care to. I just went in. If I had known this movie would be closer to A Serious Man than it would be to most of their other movies, then I might have been a bit hesitant. But this is a completely different animal. I think what puts this over the top is that it has the soundtrack instead of the judaism. Maybe that’s the layer of connection that I just wasn’t able to have with that one, not having grown up around that religion. But this one just felt much more accessible for me, and I was with it every single step of the way. I was just riveted the entire time, and it felt like a perfect film. Most Coen brothers films feel that way, and I really don’t know how they do it. It’s another example of master filmmakers at the top of their craft. What I love most about how they tell stories is how things that seem deep or amazing about the narrative are just afterthoughts to them. This movie is almost a circle. We begin with a scene and end with almost that exact same scene. And it’s left open ended as to whether this is meant to be a repetitive loop or is just a single week in this guy’s life. And I feel like other filmmakers would either turn that into a big deal, or that would have been their goal heading into the narrative. Meanwhile, with the Coens, the thing that got them into the story is, “What if we wrote a movie about a folk singer guy in the period right before Dylan popped big, and what if, after a performance, someone punched him in the face?” And the result is this movie.

It’s just a masterpiece, this one. This actually feels like it’s going to end up as one of their underrated masterpieces, the ones that no one talks about as much, that don’t end up on the lists of their best five movies, but absolutely deserves to be there. This is an easy top three for me.

Frozen

2. Frozen

This was always one of the most anticipated movies of 2013 for me. Disney movies always are. Especially with them on the run that they’re on. Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph. They’ve gotten better every time, and now I’m more excited about Disney movies than I am for Pixar movies. And I honestly went into this knowing nothing. The first trailer came out, and I went, “I’m in.” And then I found out it was gonna be a classic Disney movie, with songs, and my excitement level went through the roof.

And I have to say — they didn’t disappoint. Now, I’m gonna say two very differing things about this movie, and I’ll start with the negatives first. And that’s — I know people are all over this movie, and are calling it one of the best Disney movies of all time. And I don’t believe that. That’s not to say I wouldn’t rank it highly on my list — based on my list from the Ranking Disney articles, it’s easily a top 20. But I still wouldn’t put it any higher than #16. I think there are a few very key factors that keep me from putting it any higher. Right now, I’d say I’d have it right below Pocahontas and right above Tangled — I just don’t think this will go down as a top ten all-timer for them. The two reasons for that are: first, it’s not hand-drawn. I’m sorry, but it’s a factor. This film is really not as visual as it should be. The digitally composed ones never are. You can’t really stop this movie at times and say, “Wow, what an image,” like you can with the real classic Disney movies. Pause Sleeping Beauty at any point in the movie, and you have a beautiful image that you can comb through for detail. That’s just not the case here, and I just can’t get behind a Disney movie that’s computer generated, because they just never take the time to compose images on those as they do otherwise. (Though I will say, Tangled did a better job of that than all the others. So there is hope. Though here, I think this is lacking, visually. Watch it again, you’ll see what I mean. So that’s a strike against it in terms of all time. The other thing that I think goes against this — it’s too fast. The pacing is too fast. It never stops to engage in the narrative or develop stuff. It really speeds through things. Even the opening scene — they speed right through Elsa’s powers and the consequence of them playing, and her decision to cut herself off from her sister. And it keeps speeding up from there. It’s a film that’s 108 minutes long, but it feels like they tried to tell too long a story in that time. I think they needed to slow it down and savor the great songs and great story they had there. I think there was too much of the donkey and the snowman and not enough stuff between sisters. Elsa didn’t get nearly enough screen time.

That said — this movie was fucking incredible, and obviously I loved it since it’s my #2 for the year. I love that there’s really no villain to this film (though them adding one seems a bit superfluous), and I love that it’s about women, and deals with the sister aspect and doesn’t waste (too much) time adding frills to that. It’s one sister going after another sister because of a misunderstanding and because she loves her. And I really responded to that, and I’m glad everyone else has too. This was a really big step for them. And I’m happy it worked out.

Plus the songs are fucking incredible. “Let It Go” is already one of the best Disney songs ever written. It’s fucking incredible. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is also incredible, though I wish they did a bit more with that, lyrically, just so it would work as a standalone song on top of how well it works in the film. “Love Is an Open Door” is just icing on the cake as well, because that song is so great, and is really the one under-appreciated song from the movie, if that’s even a thing. “For the First Time in Forever,” as we all know, is also great. They really batted four of four with those songs. And then you get “Frozen Heart” at the beginning, which is a great little supporting tune that only serves to make the others look better. Not crazy about the gnomes and their song, but whatever. My point is — this is a lovely movie, and I’m so glad Disney is almost back to being classic Disney. They’re right there. In terms of my Disney Venn Diagram, they’re hitting two of the three major segments. The three segments are: “Good story,” “hand-drawn animation,” and “not that racist.” And this movie has a good story, isn’t racist at all (for once) and the only thing it’s missing is hand-drawn animation. But the amazing songs help counterbalance that quite a bit. (It’s the lack of visuals that keep it from entering that top tier for me.)

This film was one of my favorite films of the year within its first ten minutes. I fucking loved this movie.

I was going to end this entry with another song, but I’ve gone with that one every time, and we’ll be hearing that one for the next two months as it goes on to win an Oscar. Now, I’ll end with this, because tell me this isn’t catchy as hell and you don’t randomly get this in your head all day (this song makes me giddy just thinking about it):

Gravity

1. Gravity

It’s a no contest. This is the movie that will define 2013 forever. This is a masterpiece on every level.

Talk about stripping narrative to its barebones. It’s a movie that features two people (and three total other voices), one of whom is gone by the midway point. It takes place entirely on space (well, essentially), and it’s a 90 minute film whose events happen in the span of… about three and a half hours. And it’s just spectacular. It’s so, so good. It’s completely riveting, the performances are amazing, and you can’t take your eyes away from it. Alfonso Cuaron really made a hell of a movie with this one, and if he does not win at least Best Director for this movie, it’ll really be a travesty.

This was easily my favorite movie of the year, because there really was nothing that ever came close to it. It debuted at #1, and nothing was able to knock it off since. And since this will be the movie that defines this year in the future, it’s really the only choice. This one’s going to hold up.

My one final comment about this, though, as it goes on to win a bunch of major awards and define a year in film — in case you haven’t seen it, go watch Children of Men. It’s even better than this.

– – – – – – – – – –

11. About Time — Oh, dear god, did I love this movie. Richard Curtis is a treasure. I had to wait so long to see this, but man, was it worth it. It’s so perfect. Everyone needs to hurry up and see this movie immediately. Though be prepared to weep like a child. This movie will ruin you, and put you back together again. It was so beautiful, and I savored every second of this, and I’m happy to have seen it.

12. 12 Years a Slave — This is the one I bet people were expecting to see higher on this list. But I’m gonna be honest with you — I watched this movie twice. And I just wasn’t feeling it. Not for a top ten. I loved it, and I’ll think highly of it, but I don’t think I can, in good conscience, make this a top ten movie just because everyone else has. It just doesn’t have that extra… thing… that makes something a top ten for me. It was great, and I’ll definitely be able to watch this again, and often, probably, but I just don’t see how this is more of a masterpiece than some of the other films this year. I just think it’s a very, very good film. I might actually prefer Shame over this. It’s completely deserving of all the accolades it’s getting, but it’s just not a top ten for me. It’s just outside it. (Also, the actual ranking of this was purely coincidental. Don’t think I’m not utterly amused by it, but it was completely coincidental.)

13. Out of the Furnace — What a slow burn of a film. It’s paced so deliberately, and the performances are so good (that scene with Christian Bale and Zoe Saldana might be my favorite single scene of 2013). At first, after I saw it, I had one of those reactions where it was, “That was really good, but this won’t end up past tier two.” And yet — it stays with you. That’s why I don’t immediately make lists. I let things sink in. I let them find their proper path. And this one floated right to the top over time. This one’s stayed with me, and I don’t think there are many more powerful films from 2013 than this one.

14. The Book Thief — My god, did I love this. This is one of those movies that I was predestined to love. All of its elements are things that I go for. The female protagonist, the child protagonist, the World War II time era (World War I would have been better, but it’s fine) — all of it. It’s not a perfect film, as evidenced by the fact that it’s not in the top ten, and there are moments I think were unnecessary to the plot (including the handling of an entire subplot), but on the whole, I loved this movie dearly, and wish more people got around to seeing it. It has a heart, and it’s not afraid to use it. And I know that will turn some people off, but I don’t care. Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are all fantastic, and the film was criminally underseen.

15. The Spectacular Now — This film is just wonderful. Few movies made me happier this year than this one did. Just watch this movie. I don’t need to say anything. It’s just incredible, and it’s definitely one of the most feel-good movies of the year. A complete joy.

16. August: Osage County — The performances are so good. And it’s so fucked up, in the best way. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this movie — it made me love Julia Roberts’s performance. I can’t think of a single other movie that really has ever done that. And everyone else is great, but I expect good things from them. I expected to like this movie in spite of Julia Roberts, when in fact she ended up being a driving factor in how much I liked it. And that’s the best thing I can say about this movie.

17. The Kings of Summer — This is one that came from completely off my radar and became one of my favorite movies of the year. There’s always one. This movie is so good, and so entertaining — I don’t even know what to say about it. How do you describe this movie? It’s just great. All the kids, especially the one who plays the weird one — it’s just about being a kid. And it makes you feel like a kid and makes you very, very happy. Everyone needs to see this one. It’s one of the real gems of 2013.

18. The Great Gatsby — Because how could it not be? It’s big, it’s colorful, the soundtrack is amazing, and it makes a classic story bigger than life. Which is really the only way to pull it off nowadays. Remember when he announced that he was doing this, and we all went, “Gatsby in 3D? What the hell?” And yet he pulled it off. It’s really a terrific feat, because the movie actually does hold up on repeated viewings. You still know whose movie it is, and you know that you’re getting a very stylized version of the story, but that’s not a bad thing. It actually works for this one. I don’t know how, but it does. As much as people want to say whatever they want to say about this, I had a good time watching this, and I think this was a great film.

19. Pacific Rim — Man, was this badass. I’ve watched this a few times now. To the point where I kept automatically putting this in tier two, until finally when I was ranking this 11-20 and I said, “You know… I really didn’t like any of these as much as I liked Pacific Rim.” So I had to have it here. This is so much fun. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. It’s just fucking fun. Giant monsters, giant robots — fighting. It has issues — too much comic relief interspersed is the big one — but on the whole, I didn’t have as much fun at too many more movies this year than I did at this one, and that counts for a lot. This movie is just a fun one to watch all the time, and it just pops off the screen with all the colors and badass images Guillermo del Toro gives us. And I think that deserves a spot in my top 20.

20. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — In January, I was hesitant about this movie. Because I knew nothing about it. And then, over the year, I got increasingly more excited for this. Because it’s a story that lent itself to this kind of movie. The original was a good idea, but it turned into a weird spy comedy, whereas this movie had the right idea all along. I really like how they handled this. The message of this movie is quite strong, and that’s why I’m leaving it here, despite my issues with some of this movie. (The early fantasy sequences were a bit clunky for me. They were shot too fast, and they just didn’t work with the rest of the movie.) On the whole, I think this is a really strong movie, and I’m glad it was what it was and didn’t go off in the wrong direction.

– – – – – – – – – –

And now for the rest of the movies I really enjoyed from 2013:

Tier two:

Before Midnight, The Best Offer, Dallas Buyers Club, Don Jon, Escape from Tomorrow, Frances Ha, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lone Survivor, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Philomena, The Place Beyond the Pines, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, Short Term 12, Side Effects, This Is the End, The World’s End, Wrong, You’re Next

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Labor Day, Machete Kills, Monsters University, Mud, Nebraska, Now You See Me, Only God Forgives, Pain & Gain, Paradise, Spring Breakers, Star Trek Into Darkness, 2 Guns, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Way Way Back, White House Down

– – – – – – – – – –

Last year, I ended my Top Ten list by telling people to watch movies more than once. It’s not fair to render judgment on a movie based solely on an initial watch. Movies exist forever, and to slap an everlasting opinion on them based on Tuesday is unfair.

This year, I’m going to end by telling everyone that all movies deserve a chance. All of them. Even the ones you know are going to be terrible. Because sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the movie you were expecting to be great isn’t. Sometimes a movie really is terrible, but there’s that one moment in it that actually is really inspired. Sometimes the best ideas come from watching the worst movies. Limiting yourself by only watching certain kinds of movies limits you as a person, and as a movie watcher. Everything deserves a chance, and it’s really not fair to skip something because you think you’re better than it. You never know what you’re going to like.

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