10. John Dies at the End – The latest bizarro-comic masterwork from the king of such things, Don Coscarelli’s film was the year’s best comedy until a certain eyebrowly-gifted director had to steal the top spot. Deserving an Oscar nomination for this tenderloin slice adaptation of David Wong’s novel, Coscarelli’s intersection of horror and humor is precisely what the droves of scary movie parodies attempt yet rarely achieve. In his first leading role, Chase Williamson nails each line with impeccable comedic timing and exudes an everyman quality to heighten the insanity around him. Cued to Brian Tyler’s heroic Spaghetti Western theme, the ensuing blend of sci-fi, horror, and buddy comedy yields a constant rush of supreme entertainment and sights unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere…except in Coscarelli’s next film, of course.
9. Mud – Jeff Nichols resumes his exploration of distinctly Arkansas masculinity in this sleeper hit, which continued to sell out shows at The Carolina nearly three months after opening weekend. Not quite reaching the highs of 2011’s Take Shelter, this more accessible though no less accomplished work solidified Matthew McConaughey as a born-again Movie Star. Enlisting two boys (a more than game Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) to help reunite him with his troubled true love (Reese Witherspoon, likewise returning to form), his titular man on the run is a pleasure to encounter on each visit to his island hideout. The film has drawn numerous comparisons to Huckleberry Finn, but with homemade diving bells and a character named Neckbone, the world feels wholly Nichols’.
8. The Spectacular Now – If Smashed established James Ponsoldt as a promising young filmmaker, this thoughtful coming-of-age story left no doubt to his talent. Working from (500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s eloquent rendering of Tim Tharp’s YA novel, Ponsoldt turns the evolution of teenage budding alcoholic Sutter Keely into the year’s best romance. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley make for an immensely charming couple whose walk-and-talk revelations rival that of Before Midnight’s. Looming behind the glee, however, is an ugly past and potential future, revealed in a gut-wrenching turn by Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s boozy father. With such a well-realized world, it’s no wonder Sutter chooses to live fully in the present, but as these walls slowly break down it’s a gift to go through the changes with him.
7. Blue Jasmine – After memorable trips to Paris and Rome, Woody Allen returns to the U.S. and proves that even at 78 he can make a great film anywhere. Splitting time between New York and San Francisco, his tale of a Blanche Dubois-like former socialite (Cate Blanchett, easily the best performance this year by an actress), her beleaguered sister (Sally Hawkins), and the men in their lives walks a dangerous line between comedy and misery. Melding the two to wondrously complex ends, Allen’s script also does his characters right when their respective fantasy’s bubbles inevitably burst, which wasn’t the case with his past two films. Beyond that, comparisons to his best work is warranted: for me, it’s his best since Hannah and Her Sisters.
6. Gimme the Loot – At 81 minutes, Adam Leon’s first feature film is one of the year’s shortest, but in that span it also manages to be the most naturalistic, fresh, and ranks among the funniest. Spearheaded by Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson, neither of whom show the least hint of “acting,” the joyfully real tale of graffiti artists hustling to spray paint the New York Mets’ Home Run Apple is so nice you’ll want to watch it twice.
5. Upstream Color – If you write, direct, star in, produce, compose the original music for, co-edit, and operate the camera for your film, chances are you’ll get the results you’re after. Shane Carruth does just that in his second effort, a true indie for which there’s truly no comparison…other than Carruth’s debut Primer. In this complex work of shared loss and redemption, no filmmaker asked his or her audience to trust them more in 2013 and none rewarded the faithful more for their efforts.
4. Nebraska – Alexander Payne looked off his game without co-writer Jim Taylor in 2011’s The Descendants. Turns out the problem was Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who proved mostly middling once more this year with The Way, Way Back, leaving Payne to take Bob Nelson’s Nebraska script and make his finest film yet. Appropriately filmed in black and white, Payne’s growth via road trip trope feels new in the hands of Bruce Dern (stunning) and Will Forte (who knew?) as a father and son unconventionally bonding while testing the “better late than never” adage. Conveying plenty through consistent minimalism, down to Mark Orton‘s fabulous score, it’s a major film that, in a weaker year, would sweep the top awards.
3. The Place Beyond the Pines – Up until late October I wasn’t sure anything could top Derek Cianfrance’s exceptional third feature. Lingering in my memory since its early April release, the Shakespearean tale of fathers and sons unfolds in three heartbreaking acts, each building on one another to a bold, rich climax. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have rarely been better, Ray Liotta continues his impressive recent streak of nasty supporting characters, and Eva Mendes shows a dramatic side that I didn’t think she was capable of reaching. While many balked at its final act, I was rapt, so fully invested in these tragically linked stories that I was willing to overlook the occasional flaw. Without such imperfections, Cianfrance’s film wouldn’t be nearly as close to ideal.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street – My favorite film of the year and the most alive I felt at the cinemas all year, which is all the more remarkable considering this feeling was sustained for three solid hours (as opposed to three liquid hours). Scorsese regains his sense of self after the largely anonymous Hugo and Leonardo DiCaprio, at last given a chance to show his comedic chops, has never been better.
1.12 Years a Slave – The year’s best film (and probably my favorite on an emotional and visual level) is not one to pop in the DVD player for a good time, but a challenging piece of art to be parceled out every few years like Schindler’s List. British director Steve McQueen takes his style of beautifully depicting ugly topics and applies them to America’s ugliest detail. In a South so gorgeously rendered, the injustices laid upon free Northerner Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, giving the year’s best performance) as he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery make for a harrowing journey amplify this frequently mishandled subject to new tragic heights. As they did upon its release, many viewers continue to balk at watching it, claiming that they don’t want to subject themselves to such a difficult film. Do not let perceived fears keep you from this masterpiece! For those brave enough to step up, a challenging yet ultimately victorious odyssey awaits, one that’s sure to lift your vicariously battered soul and bring you to your knees.
Only God Forgives; Philomena; The Wind Rises; Her; The Conjuring; Insidious: Chapter 2; Fruitvale Station; This Is the End; Captain Phillips; Monsters University; Side Effects; Short Term 12; Don Jon; About Time; Before Midnight; Elysium; The Crash Reel; Rush; Inside Llewyn Davis; Stoker; Dallas Buyers Club; To the Wonder; The Counselor; Trance; 20 Feet from Stardom; Downloaded; Muscle Shoals; In A World…; Frances Ha (liked it a lot better the 2nd time)
Pain & Gain – Who knew that a Michael Bay film starring The Rock (whose Snitch and G.I. Joe: Retaliation we’d already suffered through by April 26) would be one of the year’s smartest and entertaining offerings? After the misery of The Big Wedding that spring morning, I braced for another disaster yet was met with a barrage of interesting (though deeply moronic) characters, a thorough rendering of mid-’90s ambition (none better than when backed by Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”), and just enough of Bay’s visual majesty to bring it all together. Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie nicely complement a perfectly cast Mr. Johnson while Tony Shalhoub’s slimy millionaire all but begs for the trio’s wrath and Ed Harris counteracts the numbskullery with vintage cool. I’d have felt guilty for laughing so much if it wasn’t so legitimately good, but it was, so I didn’t. Most impressive of all was that in a year where deconstructing the American Dream was hip, only The Wolf of Wall Street skewered it better.
The Internship – No one told Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson that it’s not 2005, and that’s very OK.
We’re The Millers – Commits to crassness and rides it to the (predictable) finish line.
The Call – Abigail Breslin in a trunk + Halle Berry on the phone = one of the year’s most heart-pounding (literally, in my case) thrillers.
This Is the End – Apparently, all the Apatow boys had to do to resurrect their careers was lampoon themselves. More, please.
White House Down – Ridiculous action paired with funny lines that actually work. Bonus points for not being Olympus Has Fallen.
The Purge – What The Hunger Games wants to be when it grows up.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 – I still don’t want to see Goodnight Moon: The Movie, but if it could somehow be as wacky as this picture book sequel, I might be on board.
The Lone Ranger – The year’s most misunderstood film is also its most cleanly shot action entry (take that, Pacific Rim!) and features a Johnny Depp performance as fresh and funny as Capt. Jack Sparrow was a decade before.
The Last Stand – A bloodier, funnier cousin of White House Down. More like this Ah-nuld; less like Escape Plan.
Pines over Nebraska, thats just silly.
Happy to see Nebraska ranked so highly for you. In fact I’ve got it at my #4 spot too. It could’ve even claimed number one, but for a few missteps in the first half that broke the spell. From its midway point on, I don’t know if there was a finer piece of cinema all year. Easily Payne’s best yet, as you say. The score and the pastoral landscapes, along with some of the content I suppose, brought Lynch’s The Straight Story to mind at times, which I certainly didn’t mind.
Nice to see Gimme the Loot get some love here. One of those that gets dismissed as a “minor movie” too often, which is especially unfair in this case since it does so many things right. And the two leads are really a joy to watch.
You’re inclusion of The Spectacular Now has me puzzled though. I really wanted to like that one a whole lot more than I ultimately did. It had worked better for me if Shailene Woodley’s character had been given a little more agency within the story. Though I still remember feeling there were other script troubles keeping it from amounting to anything great in my estimation.
And yeah, The Wind Rises is good enough to be Honorably Mentioned twice.
The Spectacular Now worked for me. I liked Ponsoldt’s style in Smashed and thought he grew even more here. The key was the rapport between the two leads; I just found them both so appealing and loved spending time with them.
I don’t know…I guess you either fall for them and care about every little thing they do or you don’t get hooked and it just seems like a big waste of time. I can understand that…it’s something I experienced plenty last year.
Two times Wind Rises…
“The Way Way Back” was hands down my fave movie of 2013. “Mud” was a close second place.
“In a World” was a lotta fun. “Frances Ha” and “Philomena” were pretty good. “Blue Jasmine” was entertaining, much better than “To Rome with Love” but far short of “Midnight In Paris”.
“Before Midnight” really made me think.
“Nebraska” was good but a bit too long (or maybe too slow).
“The Place Beyond the Pines” should have been great, but was too long by a third and the last act was next to intolerable.
As a history nut, I wanted to love “12 Years A Slave” but found it too preachy and agenda-driven.
No mention of “Enough Said”? It deserved honorable mention.
And how could you review “Inside Llewyn Davis” when it doesn’t play here until January 10?
“Enough Said” is a pleasant movie, but a bit slight and hasn’t stuck with me much.
I saw “Inside Llewyn Davis” at a critics screening earlier in the month and saw “Her” (which also opens Jan. 10) on a screener over Thanksgiving weekend. The studios want us to vote for their movies in our year-end awards, so they give us the goods early.
I would never say that “12 Years” is preachy. As for agenda-driven…I mean, slavery was awful…
Just want to say that I loved The Way, Way Back and I disagree, I think Faxon and Rash did a great job on the script.
I have to vigorously disagree with John Dies at the End. Dreadful movie in my opinion. I read your worst movies of the year, and I have to say I enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen much, much more than White House Down. The latter suffers from its PG13 rating.
I’ll admit that John Dies at the End works for a very specific sense of humor. Have you seen Coscarelli’s Phantasm or Bubba Ho-Tep?
As for the Die Hard in the White House showdown, I found the deathly serious Olympus Has Fallen used its R rating as an excuse for excess cruelty while the PG-13 White House Down (which embraces its ridiculousness) didn’t have to resort to such malicious ends.