The Top 20 Films of 2013

My Top 20 films of the year are listed below. For most them, clicking on the title will take you to my review of the film from earlier in the year. One qualifier before I begin: this doesn’t neatly fit into a “films of 2013” from a cinematic release perspective; thanks to film festivals and press screenings, some of the films here have yet to be released in Australia. While all of them have been released in the US, this isn’t a list of best 2013 US cinematic releases either, since at least one film on the list was screened in 2012 in the US but didn’t make it to here until this year. Equally, there are a couple films recently released in the US (I’m thinking Her and Inside Llewyn Davis here) that I haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. So, simply put: here are the new films I saw in 2013 that I liked the most:

20. Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
19. This is the End

James Franco, Seth Rogen et al in This is the End
18. Mud

Matthew McConaughey in Mud
17. You’re Next

You're Next (2013)
16. The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt
15. Upstream Color

Upstream Color
14. Blue is the Warmest Colour

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour
13. Only God Forgives

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives
12. Side Effects

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects
11. The Turning

The Turning

10. Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark ThirtyForget the controversy, this a thoughtful, thorough document that’s powerful as a character study and as a vital insight into modern history. Students will be watching this in classrooms five decades from now and that’s a damn good thing.

9. Wadjda

WadjdaWadjda is remarkable just for the story of its production; it’s challenging enough for female filmmakers to get films produced and distributed in the west nowadays, let alone in Saudi Arabia! That struggle and drive radiates from the screen in a potent feminist film that demands, and rewards, deep analysis.

8. The Act of Killing

The Act of KillingMaybe the director’s cut is a little too long, and I won’t deny that this is a difficult film to watch. Still, this is a miraculous documentary, surreal and insightful and confronting and impossible to forget.

7. Gravity

Sandra Bullock in GravityI have some problems with the Gravity screenplay, but it’s hard to deny the film’s effectiveness as an engrossing experience, placing you squarely in the head of Sandra Bullock’s stranded but sturdy astronaut. My only regret is choosing to see this in 2D, as the consensus seems to be that this was the 3D film (ever?).

6. Prisoners

Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard in PrisonersI like this more than most people seem to, which is likely testament to my long-held fondness for grim, intelligent thrillers (shlocky twists and all). Honestly, though, there’s one reason this film has ranked so highly for me. Five words: Director of Photography: Roger Deakins.

5. Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before MidnightHow does a film like this get made? A film that’s an honest, heartfelt reflection on adult relationships, built on a real foundation of characters that have been around for two decades now? I have no idea, but I’m sure glad we live in a world where a series like this exists (and, fingers crossed, will continue to grow in the future).

4. The Spectacular Now

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular NowTeenagers are the protagonists of the countless films, but The Spectacular Now is the first film I’ve seen in years that truly captures the truth of being a modern(ish) teenager, largely thanks to brilliant performances from Miles Teller and, especially, the sublime Shailene Woodley.

3. Short Term 12

Brie Larson in Short Term 12When I find a film I truly love – like, oh, say, Short Term 12 – I tend to look for flaws; it’s easy to pick apart a film you hate, but it’s more difficult to shine harsh light on films that connect with you on an emotional level like this one. The first flaw that occurred to me was, “oh, the ending is perhaps a little unrealistically happy given the level of dark emotion present.” When I stopped to consider the kind of happy endings I was talking about – a young man getting a date, a girl escaping her father for foster care, a young boy finding the energy to get out of bed – it put into perspective how consummately Short Term 12 had drawn me into the emotional reality of these characters. An astounding movie, and the most emotionally affecting thing I saw all year.

2. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a SlaveI’ve been lucky enough to see 12 Years a Slave twice (despite its release date not arriving ’til January), and the second viewing confirmed the immense achievement this film is. It shines light on the historical horror that lurks beneath the glossy exterior of the United States while also being a profoundly personal story. It’s also just perfectly composed; Steve McQueen is possibly the best director working today, and his talents are on full display here: the way the camera glides and spirals through long takes that go forever without being showy about it, with consistently precise framing and mise en scene. The real accolades, of course, have to go to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who delivers a transfixing, tremendous performance. Necessary.

1. Spring Breakers

Spring BreakersI’ve been trying to justify my love of Spring Breakers – another film I’ve seen twice this year – and it’s easy to pinpoint intellectual justifications. The film is a searing satire, a simultaneous celebration and interrogation of the excess that defines the modern American dream, the dream of, as I said in my review, having everything but doing nothing. But if I’m being honest, Spring Breakers resonates for me in the way it captures the hazy unreality of release, when intoxication takes over and reality seems to drift away, when everything seems possible and consequences seem implausible and the demarcation between dreams and the “real world” fades away. Spring break, y’all. Spring break forever.

36 thoughts on “The Top 20 Films of 2013

    • Thanks. I’d definitely recommend Short Term 12 to everyone. It’s not a perfect film but there’s so much emotional truth and a real insight into a subject that isn’t often covered in the movies.

  1. We agree on many of these (Wadjda, The Hunt, The Spectacular. Now, Dallas Buyer’s Club, etc).

    But we also disagree on some of them (including two of your top 5 (Spring Breakers and Before Midnight).

    But it’s a good list all the same. 😉

  2. Yeah! Boxing Day decisions and you just helped me out with this list! 🙂 This is the End and Side Effects have locked their value on my shopping list 🙂 I was just thinking if Spring Breakers was a 2013 movie..Netflix says its 2012. Watching it tonight then! Awesome stuff!

    • Good stuff, I hope you like ’em! Maybe Spring Breakers had a small festival release in 2012, but it seems to be on a bunch of 2013 film lists (it also topped John Waters’ list, of all people!).

    • Spring Breakers and Only God Forgives are the kind of films that I can totally understand people disliking; they’re both different films, very much interested in style above all else. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on Only God Forgives if you get to it.

      And yeah, Before Midnight was great. Looking forward (?) to revisiting it when I’m older.

  3. I’m a fan of a lot of these choices, especially Before Midnight, Mud, and Side Effects (which isn’t getting enough attention). I liked Spring Breakers, but I’m sort of mixed on it. It has some great sequences, and I admire the audacity of it, but I ended up feeling hollow by the end. Still, I understand why it’s showing up on year-end lists for sure. Cool list!

    • Thanks! I can understand why Side Effects isn’t getting a lot of attention – the story is kinda schlocky – but it’s so well executed.

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  5. Great list. 🙂 I need to do this but… I’ve missed some I know would make the list. Like Before Midnight. And I SO wanted to see The Spectacular Now!!! 😦 Wow – not seen Spring Breakers. But pretty sure it won’t be on my list anyway. 😉

    • It’s tricky when you know you’ve missed some great films. You could always make a list, like, “best new films I saw in 2013” then revise it later? The Spectacular Now was, well, spectacular!

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    • Excellent! Best part of writing about film is getting someone to see something great, so thanks for letting me know 🙂

    • Yeah, it’s a shame that he was never really in with a chance for Best Supporting Actor. Such an impressive, insane performance.

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