Top Ten of 2013

top 10 of 2013

I have seen more than 170 motion pictures released in 2013, and so I can confidently label it a special year for film. While it had its share of duds (Getaway, The Big Wedding, Hansel and Gretel) and disappointing blockbusters (Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Elysium), it also included at least two films likely to pass the “Are You A Classic?” Test of Time (Gravity & 12 Years a Slave). Moreover, it produced many other high quality pictures, so many, in fact, that three movies (Mud, Dallas Buyer’s Club and her) fail to make my 2013 Top Ten but might have been my 2012 Number One, if they had been released a year earlier. Another half dozen movies (Frozen, Gravity, The Spectacular Now, The Conjuring, The Square and Blackfish) might have made my 2012 Top Five.

And I haven’t even mentioned the high quality performances that dominated the year. So many leading males deserved award recognition that Michael Shannon’s performance in The Iceman, Tequan Richmond’s turn in Blue Caprice, and Terrence Stamp’s nuanced portrayal of an aging, misanthropic husband all went unnoticed, more or less. Multiple leading females were equally ignored, no matter their skill, including, but not limited to, Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies, Olesya Rulin, and—most of all—Elle Fanning, whose performance I label the best of the year, by anyone. Many supporting actors (Octavia Spencer, Melanie Diaz, Casey Affleck, Sarah Polley, Ryan Gosling, Lea Seydoux, Gemma Arterton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Vanessa Redgrave, and more) suffered the same fate.

All of which leads me to this: there are not many years in film history that are as successful as 2013, something that made compiling this list especially difficult.


10. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf of Wall Street Top Ten

Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-nominated film is chauvinistic, features zero likable characters, and includes only one female with any personality. By rights, it is not the sort of film I normally like. But Scorcese’s artistic choices and his actors’ performances are so sensational that The Wolf of Wall Street overcomes my established biases. It also helps that this film is riotously funny while still being satirically and thematically powerful.

9. Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Top Ten 

Short Term 12’s writer/director Destin Cretton crafts a memorable and impacting drama, primarily because his screenplay is one of the year’s best. He develops his characters well, and his dialogue is also remarkable, all the more so because he makes exposition interesting. Dynamic performances, especially Brie Larson’s, do not hurt.

8. Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and Rosa Top Ten 

Sally Potter’s film is not precisely entertaining, but it is emotionally gripping and technically brilliant. She has a knack for period detail and an even greater touch with actors. Elle Fanning (Ginger) is awe-inspiring, and Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland) and Christina Hendricks (Natalie) are memorable, too.

7. Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell Top Ten 

At first glance, Stories We Tell seems incapable of success. How can a single family’s personal story justify a feature length documentary? In director Sarah Polley’s hands, however, it does. Because she makes it about so much more than her family. While Stories We Tell is not the only, or highest rated, film in my Top Ten that the Academy ignored, I consider it the year’s greatest Oscar snub. Two of the nominated documentaries are so middling that I cannot understand how they topped this one.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis

 Inside Llewyn Davis Top Ten

The Coen brothers latest is edited brilliantly, shot remarkably and exact in its period details. Even better, it is psychologically introspective, proving to be 2013’s best character study. Soulful music and strong performances, especially from Oscar Isaac, help make Inside Llewyn Davis memorable.

5. Fruitvale Station

 Fruitvale Station Top Ten

Anchored by remarkable sound design, impressive camerawork, and a brilliant screenplay, Fruitvale Station is an emotional experience. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), the protagonist, isn’t perfect, is, in fact, often his own worst enemy, but his imperfections just make him more relatable. As does director Ryan Coogler’s ability to set tone through ambience.

4. The Hunt

The Hunt Top Ten 

Director Thomas Vinterburg creates one of the most artistically memorable films of the year, exceeded, perhaps, by only Gravity. Between ordinary sets, mundane camera angles, unobtrusive lighting, and a subtle score, Vinterburg makes us feel we’re watching real people respond to a real crisis.  His actors help him in that regard, as does his cinematographer, who is careful not to let any of The Hunt’s shots be too beautiful.

3. The Act of Killing

 The Act of Killing Top Ten

Fittingly upsetting, The Act of Killing is thematically resonant, making us consider the nature of immorality. In crafting The Act of Killing as a hybrid drama/documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer proves an exceptional director, one who uses simulations to make us feel, not just to inform. Oppenheimer’s refusal to openly judge his subjects is just as wise; he gives them enough room to condemn themselves, as it were.

2. 12 Years a Slave

 12 Years a Slave

While Steve McQueen’s epic treatise on Systems Theory and slavery isn’t my favorite film of 2013, it is the best made. McQueen’s camera is unflinching, and his willingness to immerse in discomfort is truly admirable. Ditto that for how he accesses the viewer’s emotions without manipulating them. 12 Years a Slave will be studied for years to come.

1. Wadjda

 Wadjda Top Ten

I cannot claim that Wadjda is more powerful than 12 Years a Slave. Nor can I argue that its director, Haifaa Al Mansour, is more artistically gifted than Steve McQueen. But I can submit that Wadjda is thematically timeless, well acted and emotionally moving in its own right. I can also opine that its screenplay is the best of the year, if only because Al Mansour makes her political points without ever sacrificing her feel good narrative. Wadjda mightn’t be 2013’s best movie, but it is my favorite.

101 thoughts on “Top Ten of 2013

  1. Yes! Glad Short Term 12 got into the Top Ten. Fantastic movie.

    And while I am here: the other day, my Mum was looking through my blog and her first comment was “Why can’t you be more like jjames’s website?” So thanks for stealing the respect of my parents from me, haha!

    • I never meant to cause familial strife. Honest I didn’t. 😉

      And Short Term 12 really is terrific. A part of me wants to place it considerably higher than this, but the year has just been so strong …

      • It depends what you want. I thought 2012 was slightly strong for more ‘fun’ films (or maybe that is just because it was the year I embraced my love of film with both hands), but 2013 has had a higher brow of movies (12 Years, Her, Short Term 12). And then you have 2015: The Year of the Blockbuster, if that is more your cup of tea.

      • That’s a good point. Though I do think 2013 has a lot of “fun” flicks, too, none of the are as good as The Avengers, for example.

  2. The more I think about it, the more I think 12 Years a Slave will take home the Best Picture Oscar. I do hope Nebraska is recognized too – best screenplay would be the one where I feel it has the biggest chance.

    • In an ideal world, Nebraska deserves recognition, but I don’t see it getting much. I think Her the favorite (and deserved winner) of Original, and American Hustle as the potential upset.

      And I agree that 12 Years will win Best Picture. I think it much better than the other nominees, in the same way that other classics are better than those they competed against. I think time is going to judge 12 Years as well as any movie of the last few decades.

  3. Great list JJ.

    We might disagree on Ginger and rosa, but all the others I saw were great movies. Still havent sen Wadjda, 12 Short Term and The Act of Killing

    • Of those, I think you will most likely enjoy Wadjda (not surprisingly, I suppose, since I called it my favorite film of the year).

      And I remember our disagreement on Ginger and Rosa. I also remember not blaming you for disliking it. It isn’t for everyone.

  4. Wadjda. That one has been on my list for a while now, but I am never in the right mood for it. I think I’ll end up watching The Hunt sooner, which has also been evading me for quite sometime. Good list!

    • Both are excellent. You see enough movies that I trust you’ll see Wadjda eventually. And so I won’t pressure you. 😉

      Let me know your thoughts when you do see them.

  5. Very interesting choices, some of which I have yet to see, e.g. ‘Ginger and Rosa’ and ‘Wadjda’. My list would probably include some of these titles and definitely ‘Upstream Colour’, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and possibly ‘The Great Beauty’. though you may argue that some of them belong to the year 2012 list.

    • First, thanks for stopping by. Second, your homework assignment is to see Wadjda, especially since you like so many non-English language movies. 🙂

      I call all of the titles you named 2013 flicks. Of them Upstream Color is my favorite (I gave it a B+). I think it just short of exceptional, but also the best experimental/art-house film I saw all year. For a long time, it was actually on the ever fluctuating Current Top Ten – 2013 page I used to have displayed. And it would still be in my Top 25.

      I like Blue is The Warmest Color quite a bit, too (gave it a B-), but I think it has several significant flaws that hold it back.

      I just reviewed The Great Beauty earlier this week. While it is definitely artistically impressive, it think its artistry often proves detrimental to the story. While I still call it above average (a C+), I do not think it anything memorable.

      • For what it’s worth, I’m first and foremost an academic. And like most academics, I think respectful and courteous disagreement the most interesting kind of conversation to have. So if you ever do disagree, feel free to point out exactly why. 🙂

        I can’t wait to read your review of Wadjda.

  6. 170 films, wow! I haven’t seen all of these, but I’m liking the look of your top 10. Nice to see Short Term 12 mentioned. Brie Larson’s performance in that might be my favorite of the year. She is going to be HUGE.

    • She deserves to be huge – she is really fantastic, at least in Short Term 12.

      And yeah. I was fortunate enough to see an unghastly number of movies this year. I doubt I will ever repeat that output for the rest of my life, but we’ll see.

  7. That’s a huge number of 2013 films you’ve watched, very cool! A number of your top ten I still need to watch, among them Wadjda and Stories We Tell sound fantastic. I’m glad to see your Wolf and Inside and your list, they’re my faves too!

    • Those two really are good. So are the two you cite not having seen. Start with Wadjda. It is so very effective as a message flick and a narrative.

      And yeah. I have been blessed with seeing an abundant number of movies the last twelve months. I doubt I ever repeat that output, but we’ll see.

  8. Very interesting list James. Some very technically brilliant pieces of cinema here. My list looks a lot different but good to see the variance. Nice

    • Thanks. Which one do you disagree with most?

      (And I definitely have my preferences. I look for movies that use the medium of film to help improve a story that already features interesting conflict and well developed characters.)

      • Oh I don’t necessarily disagree with any of them. Well, outside of The Act of Killing. But you already know about that one 🙂 I had to basically turn in my movie-reviewing credibility card b/c I hated on it so much.

      • Yeah. I did know that one. 🙂

        And turn in your card? No. Just turns out that hard to watch documentaries about gruesome subjects told in unconventional ways mightn’t be your thing.

  9. Very interesting list Josh. Great to see Llewyn Davis, The Hunt and Fruitvale Station make the cut. I have a copy of Wadjda but haven’t watched it yet. It looks like I really should do that now.

  10. Great and diverse list sir. A few on here I have not had the chance to see, but any list with Fruitvale Station in it is more than alright with me. I’m a big Act of Killing fan as well. Great stuff.

    Could I just ask your logic of not including Gravity on your list. It scraped into mine at number 7 or 8 approx, so whilst I love it, not as big a fan as many. It’s just up top you say it will become a classic, but then don’t include it.

    • I wondered if anyone was going to notice and ask about that. Thank you for being the first!

      I think Gravity’s visual and sound design achievements awe-inspiring, instant-classic good. I also think its actors excellent, the way Cuaron builds tension remarkable, and the overall quality of the story strong. But I do not hold it in the same esteem as most. (I explain why in more detail in the longer review, of course.) One, I do not like the now Oscar-winning score, much at all. And two the lite character and plot development hold it back from true emotional resonance.

      Which is to say … I think most critics will judge Gravity a classic, but I’m not necessarily one of them. I judge it a good film, one that earns most of its awards and accolades, but that is held back some by a few notable missteps.

      • Yeah that is all fair enough. Interesting you didn’t like the score at all. I will have to listen closely next time I check it out.I don’t recall absolutely loving it, or being bothered by it at all.

        For me, the main issue the film will have going forward in being labelled a classic, either for me on a personal level or more broadly, is just how intrinsic the big screen and 3D were to the experience. I think that the re-play on the small screen, will be a much different experience.

      • It probably will be very different on the small screen, making that a very fair point.

        My issue with the score isn’t in its composition. It’s in its effect on the movie – the sound effects are silenced but the music simply replaces them. Instead of crashing metal and fire, we hear booming, bass heavy orchestral instruments explode. The score ensues we never hear the silence Cuaron promises us. I think silence like what Ryan Stone hears would have made the experience all the more immersive and unsettling.

  11. Great list of movies James. I love that you included many ones that most people have not seen or have forgotten. I have not heard of your number 1 but will try and seek it out. Stories We Tell may have been snubbed by The Oscars but Im curious which 2 should have been removed

    • Thanks. I wasn’t setting out to champion lesser known moves, but I guess that’s the way it played out this year.

      Wadjda is now available on DVD/VOD, at least in the States (I think I remember reading you live in Minnesota?).

      As to the documentaries. Cutie and the Boxer and Dirty Wars. The former is remarkable only for its mediocrity. And the latter might have been interesting but gets too bogged down in its own methods and misguided focus.

  12. Good list my friend! You have totally put Wadjda and The Hunt on my must watch list. In fact there is a poster of Wadjda at a video store by my house that makes me t think of you and every time my husband goes to rent movies for us, he has been searching for the Hunt…Thanks James for making me a crazy woman looking for movies I have to see!!! 🙂

    • That’s what I’m here for. 🙂

      Also, I didn’t know people still rented movies at video stores. Huh. 🙂 I can’t wait to read what you think once you’ve seen them.

      • HAHAHAHA so many tell me that! They’re like wait you rent movies??? like at a store??? I am on a constant quest for videos stores. Our Blockbuster closed down and we found a place by our house, but now he is closing in June. I hate overpaying when I can rent a new movie for like 2-3 bucks. I did break down this weekend and ordered Gravity on demand with Direct TV. I have issues!! lol

  13. Sorry I’m late to the party Josh, was too busy w/ the Oscar stuff, ahah. LOVE your list! Though I don’t agree w/ all of them (Wolf, Llewyn Davis) and there are a few I haven’t seen yet, I LOVE the 3 films on your top 5 (The Hunt, Act of Killing & 12 Yrs A Slave). But no love for Gravity? 😦

    • Well. I did say I think it’ll be named a classic. 😉 I just don’t love Gravity the way most do. The lite character and plot development holds it back a bit, in my opinion. And, as you know, I don’t like the score at all.

      • I think Gravity is indeed a modern classic. I actually think the *simple* plot works in its favor. I find it to be surprisingly deep and emotional, interesting that you didn’t care for the score either as I think it’s one of the best from last year.

      • I think the score is beautiful, but I hate the impact it has on the movie. Cuaron promises us silence, and delivers it, more or less, in his audio design. But then the score just replaces other sound effects. When we would normally hear an explosion, we hear booming, bass heavy explosions of orchestral instruments instead. I think Gravity would have been more immersive if it had played the same silence Ryan Stone heard.

        The character development, I think, is a very minor flaw.

  14. Great list, and well elucidated. I still need to catch Stories We Tell and Fruitvale Station (both of which I own) but I don’t think I’ve seen Ginger and Rosa anywhere other than on your list! I will have to hunt it down.

    • I’d be interested in reading your thoughts if you can find Ginger and Rosa. I think it some brilliant (and maddening) storytelling with some truly impeccable performances at the center.

      I suppose I should qualify. I will be interested in reading your thoughts on all three. They’re all very, very good.

  15. Some great choices here! I haven’t put together my own list for 2013 but every time I read another list I realise how tough it is to get 2013 into just ten movies! There’s a few here that I still need to catch up but I think I would definitely have to put Inside Llewyn Davis in there and Blue Jasmine.

    • This was a great year, so managing to list just ten was really hard. Which on this list haven’t you seen, out of curiosity?

      Obviously, I agree on Llewyn Davis. But I don’t like Blue Jasmine as much as others. I think we might have already had this conversation in other places, but I think Woody Allen’s movie a tour de force of acting and dialogue, but also a rather hollow thematic experience.

      • I’m really looking forward to seeing Stories We Tell, Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12. I’ve also heard so many good things about Act Of Killing. My top ten will probably change when I’ve seen those! I managed to see Blue Jasmine for a second time last night and still really liked it. I agree with you that the performances really do stand out but I connected with the screenplay too.

      • All four of the titles you name as needing to see are really good. Stories We Tell is the least tense, if you’re in the mood for some lighter viewing.

        The Act of Killing has two versions. The director’s cut is about 40 minutes longer and delves more deeply into both the subjects and the society in which they leave. Which goes a long way to making it even more disturbing than the US theatrical release.

        And there is definitely a lot to like in Blue Jasmine. I still gave it a B-, which is to say I still think it accomplishes most of its objectives.

  16. You’ve watched a 170 films released in 2013, that’s a record. I mean, I’ve watched 100’s and 100’s of films per year, but I don’t think I watched so many films released within one year, within that year.
    There are only 365 days a year, and assuming you’ve watched other films not released in 2013, as well, including classics. How many films per day have you seen.
    I remember watching 4 of 5 films in a day, a few times (not in recent years though), besides that I have never seen so many films released in the same year within that year.

    • I have never before seen 170 from a single year in that year either. And I doubt I ever do again. I probably saw around 15 not 2013 films this year.

      • Oki, more like off of your list I have only seen The Wolf of Wall Street and The Hunt 😦 Makes for a bad run for me haha, but I had honestly not even heard of most of the movies on your list, but they sound very good!

      • I think they are. 🙂

        And that just means you have 8 good movies to see. Start with Wadjda, of course. Then just make your way through 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. 🙂

      • 🙂 That sounds like a plan… though I am sure that you have seen the majority of them! I will think, and I will see what I can get here from your list! 😀

  17. Fascinating list – I’ve only seen numbers 10 and 2, but hope to see Inside Llewyn Davis next week, and have most of the others queued up on one system or another! I hadn’t heard of Stories We Tell and it sounds really good.

    • I look forward to reading your thoughts on those you haven’t seem as you see them. Stories We Tell is very poignant, surprisingly so given its content.

      Remind me, did you like Wolf and 12 Years? Do you feel they belong?

      • They certainly belong as it’s your list! I never made a top 10 myself as I never feel like I’ve seen enough, whereas with 170 I think you are in a good position to do so. It often takes me a year or two to catch up; as such I haven’t yet seen The Hunt, Llewyn, her, Dallas Buyers Club, and many of the year’s best documentaries…or Mud…etc. etc.

        So there’s the caveat (!)…but if I were to make a top ten The Wolf Of Wall Street wouldn’t be in it. 12 Years would be close to the top, for sure, as would Nebraska and The Place Beyond The Pines. I don’t necessarily think they are the best two films of 2013, but the two I enjoyed the most last year were Gravity and American Hustle. But lots still to see!

      • I liked Nebraska and The Place Beyond The Pines, too. I think both have some flaws that prevent them from being masterpieces, but they remain thematically poignant enough to deserve a recommendation. I wouldn’t fault anyone for putting either of them on a Top Ten list, if someone were to do so.

        Ditto that, in many ways, for Gravity and Hustle. I think they have their share of flaws, as well, but they are certainly entertaining pictures. I gave Hustle the higher grade (B+ to a B for Gravity), but that doesn’t necessarily mean I like the latter more.

        And I thought I remembered us agreeing on 12 Years and less so on Wolf. 🙂

  18. I haven’t seen many out of those – just can’t find the energy to see Llewyn Davis and Ginger and Rosa – but it’s nice to see The Hunt here, it’s such a powerful movie and it really should have one Foreign Film on Oscars.

    • I haven’t seen The Missing Picture yet, so I’m not quite ready to say The Hunt deserved the win. I will say it is the best of the four nominees I have seen, though. And that The Great Beauty is the worst.

      Obviously, you know what I think about Llewyn Davis and Ginger and Rosa, given their inclusion on this list. I can’t be sure you’d like either, but I think both are fantastic.

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