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Film Feature: The Best Films of 2013

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

It was too good a year for ten. The best year in cinema since 2007 saw such a diverse, fascinating array of art that included amazing works from some of our most well-known directors (Joel & Ethan Coen, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Hayao Miyazaki) alongside its newer voices (Shane Carruth, Destin Cretton, Joshua Oppenheimer, James Ponsoldt).

And the variety of cinema at the top is overwhelming. Foreign films, animation, documentaries, comedies, dramas, epic storytelling, and intimate visions. Personal dramas of relationships like “Short Term 12” and “Nebraska” hold place near the top with technical exercises like “Gravity” and “Upstream Color.” It has been a truly inspirational year, the kind that reminds one why they love cinema in the first place.

And so I couldn’t hold myself to ten. I have filled my standard list out to thirteen. Go ahead. Call me a cheater. Since I’m sure some will ask, I think “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years a Slave” are very good films but not great ones (as illustrated in my reviews, here and here). You should see both but they didn’t make my top 13. These were my favorites, all of them movies that I could watch over and over again and continue to love.

Note: I can very easily organize the 13 films below into categories in which the individual ranking within them actually means very little. #13-8, #7-5, and #4-1 — the films within those three groups should be considered interchangeable. And so the films are divided into those distinct groups over the next three pages. I love them all. It’s just the degrees of love that vary.

The Spectacular Now

13. “The Spectacular Now”

Walk into any bar in the Midwest and you’re likely to find a Sutter Keely. He was the most popular kid in his high school but that’s where he peaked, partially due to alcoholism and partially due to a general lack of focus, which is actually an asset when you’re the life of the teenage party. James Ponsoldt and Miles Teller worked together to present us with one of the most memorable and believable characters of 2013 in Sutter. Overall, what Ponsoldt captures so wonderfully here that his film earned deserved comparison to Cameron Crowe is the balance between small course corrections in our life and the big moments that define it. If Sutter doesn’t end up on Aimee Finicky’s lawn that particular morning, he may still be in that bar, but it is the small changes he has to make that will propel him out of living in the now. The performances are believable and heartfelt across the board. I can’t wait to see what Ponsoldt does next.

Mud

12. “Mud”

Jeff Nichols’ masterful follow-up to “Take Shelter” works on multiple levels. It’s like a great young adult adventure novel brought to life but it also connects as a story about a boy dealing with the complex worlds of love and divorce. It is incredibly enjoyable just in terms of narrative but it also sparks conversation in the way that Nichols deftly plays with his themes. Is it a coincidence that Ellis (a stunning debut from Tye Sheridan) meets the chivalrous Mud (another amazing turn from Matthew McConaughey) at the same time that his parents’ relationship is collapsing and as he’s experiencing young love himself for the first time? A great cast, a dense screenplay, and perfect production values — “Mud” is one of the few films from 2013 that I guarantee you people will still be watching and admiring decades from now.

Stories We Tell

11. “Stories We Tell”

It all started with a desire to learn more about her mother. Sarah Polley, the writer/director of “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz” (two films that have added personal resonance after seeing this one), didn’t know a lot about her mother, who passed away before they could become friends. Interviewing her family members and her father, Polley finds out some amazing secrets, but this film is not a masterful one simply because of the fascinating twists and turns of its narrative. It is Polley’s best film because of what she did with what she learned — she crafted a work about not just her family’s past but how we all keep secrets and tell stories from generation to generation, especially about those are now gone. She made such a personal piece of work, using the language she knows best — that of an incredible filmmaker.

Nebraska

10. “Nebraska”

Like a musty, beat-up jacket that you’ve worn for too long, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” has a remarkable sense of familiarity. There’s something comfortable about that ragged article of clothing, even if it’s not flashy and well past its prime. As Woody Grant in Payne’s best film since “Election,” Bruce Dern finds the fascinating heart of a man who is realizing his legacy for the first time and the rest of the cast rise to Dern’s caliber to support him. There is a Woody Grant on every block in America — a guy who drinks too much, never opened up to his family, and hasn’t really accomplished much of note since he left his hometown. It takes a surprising piece of junk mail to shake him from his routine and begin the questions that we will all face in our twilight years. Tonally balanced in remarkable ways between comedy and drama (Payne’s films always are), “Nebraska” tells a story of an average guy in a way that is anything but average.

Mud

9. “The Wind Rises”

There is so much that we pour our hearts and souls into that we cannot save or hold on to again. The man who designs a plane used for war still does so with the same intense passion as the man who designs a plane used for peace. The man who enters into a love affair knowing that it will be doomed by death has the same passion as those who know not when their union will end. And a filmmaker like Hayao Miyazaki puts his passion into his work and then sends it into the world, rising like the wind in ways he can’t control or predict. Miyazaki’s final film is a lyrical masterpiece, a movie that hums like a piece of classical music, drifting along on a breeze like artistic expression and tragic love. It’s the best animated film of the year.

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