This was another great year for movies. The best since 2007. It makes 2012, which was pretty good, look like shit. Unlike most years, where there’s usually a handful of truly great movies and a whole bunch you have room in your heart to love, 2013 was one where a masterpiece or two seemed to come out every month. Even months that are traditional dumping grounds for movies no one gives a shit about.

Occasionally there’s a theme for the movies that come out. Or at least, I find one that I notice in them. I’m not sure 2013 has a theme except for just how solid and even the quality has been. Some people are learning lessons from the huge, lazy productions that made no money in the last couple of years. Even movies like Star Trek: Into Darkness, written by hacks, manages to run off a competent screenplay. But don’t worry, it’s not on my Top 15 list.

Now that you’re sitting down again, please feel free to have a look at previous years’ lists after you’ve read this one. It can be kind of fun to look back at my picks and then bug me about how I’ve changed my mind about some of them. People are fallible and distance yields insight. I do these reviews, and these lists, to have fun with the practice of criticism. It keeps the pencil sharp and, more importantly, it keeps me writing.

In some ways, this was one of the least agonizing Top 15 lists I’ve done since I started doing them. Last year was torture by comparison. It could be because I missed many of the big prestige films that started coming out around October. It could be because I am just way more solid about my love for these films. Because I did miss so many, I think 2013 may be another year where I look back and feel the strong desire to shuffle things around. 2008 was like that, what with Synechdoche, New York and There Will Be Blood not featuring on my list at all.

Hopefully it interests you, dear reader, that I’ve picked several films for this list which can only be considered controversial choices. 2013 had more than its fair share of unfairly reviled, underrated films. Usually these kinds of movies simply slip under the radar and everybody pays attention to (and loves) the big dumb movies that cost all the moneys. I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing that these underrated films even got noticed, but I wish I didn’t feel so alone in my quest to champion them on the internet.

Oh well. Let’s get on with it!

The usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of your preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.

15. Frozen

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Frozen is the best thing Disney’s in-house animation crew have done since Lilo & Stitch. It’s a heartfelt fairy tale with very intimate scope and an incredibly powerful outsider story. I hope it has set the bar to a new high for Disney, Pixar, and the other major animation houses. Elsa is a definitive character, transcending this film and becoming a potential symbol for a new generation of female character that have fully broken through to the other side of the sticky self-awareness of gender in contemporary media. Frozen is a film everybody can get behind, that you can show your kids without reservation and enjoy right along with them.

14. Don Jon

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Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a consummately mature and charming movie about gender, relationships, and the way we all protect ourselves and our desires with masks that are eventually difficult to take off. It’s incredibly funny and insightful, taking a light touch with its potentially heavy and provocative subject (and position) which keeps it from being preachy or didactic which would undermine just how damn entertaining and smart it is. In a year full of great comedies, Don Jon is probably the most relevant to our daily lives.

13. The Kings of Summer

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Review

If there is a definitive theme for 2013 films, it may just be coming of age stories. There have been a lot of them this year, and none so pure and involving as The Kings of Summer. Though its premise is a bit outlandish, it transcends the trap of insincerity and quirkjerking that usually entraps these sorts of movies. It is the anti-The Way Way Back and manages to be about all the same things and a lot more with all the charm, humanity, and genuine emotional engagement that sorry film tries to cheat its way to. The Kings of Summer never cheats. It never rings false and it never contrives or produces without earning. Though it lacks the darker underbelly that coming of age stories (especially about boys) typically have, there’s nothing wrong with the optimist version of the story.

12. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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No review

One of my big regrets writing criticism in 2013 is that I didn’t manage to get out a review for Catching Fire. Better than the first one in every way, yet feeling like a natural extension (and escalation) of it, Catching Fire is one of the best sequels I can think of. When discussing sequels, people often use The Empire Strikes Back as a way to describe the “perfect” sequel. Sequels, especially middle chapters in trilogies, usually have the most issues being self-contained and satisfying by their own merits. Catching Fire is a true The Empire Strikes Back case, though. In fact, 2013 was also a year of great sequels (especially for Marvel) and I think that the franchising fever that Hollywood has been stricken with for the last decade or so has produced at least that much in terms of positive outcomes. Catching Fire is an influential movie, with Katniss Everdeen (and therefore Jennifer Lawrence) becoming new symbols of dystopian fiction and iconic female characters in any fiction. I’m totally conscious of not wanting to turn this argument into a mini-review of the film (regrets!) so I’ll leave it at that.

11. The Counselor

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Review

The Counselor is the first on this list of the goddamn masterpieces that many people hated this year. This is one of Ridley Scott’s “small movies” and to me, it feels like a reaction to Prometheus. Having made a movie that most thinking people hate, Scott decided to make a movie that does not care what you think of it whatsoever. It almost actively dislikes the audience back. It’s like if Javier Bardem’s character was the avatar of the movie, at some party where his confidence and off-putting clothing made everyone wonder why he doesn’t care more what people will think about how he looks and acts. But he just does what he does because fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. To a great extent, that’s the exact attitude that informs The Counselor and its testy relationship with audiences. This is a movie that indicts us all, on some level, for sitting by and letting the War on Drugs continue to claim lives, both innocent and otherwise, and waste tragic amounts of time, money, and resources.

10. Prisoners

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Review

Prisoners is a movie I think about a lot. It’s got as much density, layering, and narrative in it as some seasons worth of TV shows have. This a relentless and challenging film that features several fully realized thematic components which would, individually, be enough to fill out whole moves in their own right. A morality play, a sinister thriller, a police procedural, and the best Christian Pyscho movie since Se7en…  it’s all these things and an allegory about different types of justice. Prisoners is a movie that landed and stuck, but I think it’ll sneak up on some people. Just how good it is, especially the more you think about it. You’ll also never look at Hugh Jackman, who’s had a pretty good year, the same way again.

9. The East

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Review

Getting to review and list a Brit Marling movie every year makes me feel so fucking spoiled. Continuing to be the best thing ever in The East (again collaborating with Zal Batmanglij of Sound of My Voice), she has helped craft another great character and this time one who is at the center of a deeply complex and topical story. Concerned with the extents to which activism can/can’t and should/shouldn’t go, The East is at its best when it refuses to settle on the easy binaries and absolutist moral divisions and rests its case on the invention of a third path. It’s so much easier to pick a side in a two-sided argument and stay with that, but The East acknowledges both sides with more fairness than it has to. It encompasses the merits and the flaws and transcends them, creating a synthesis of moral action that nicely aligns with the Hegelian progression of ideas. The East is being unfairly maligned as a pop ecoterrorist movie with only vague pretenses and nothing to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s surprising how carefully yet willingly this film makes a case and stands by it. Beyond that, it also functions beautifully as a spy movie and character study, showcasing some of the best young actors in films today.

8. Spring Breakers

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Review

So imagine a different party. This one is full of regular people again, people who care what others think and indulge a basic level of conformity based on that. Like you, like me. Regular people, no implied judgement. Along comes James Franco’s Alien, not unlike Javier Bardem, and he just doesn’t care. Not only that, but he’s actively dangerous. That is Spring Breakers in a (probably) half-baked nutshell. Spring Breakers is the kind of film that is a masterpiece most people are going to hate and simply not understand. That’s okay. It’s not a case where you can really blame anyone for not getting it. In fact, I sort of think Harmony Korine banked on his movie being so off-putting, so nasty about the worst aspects of our generation, that no one would really want to deal with it. Getting back to that party, Alien is standing there with an invisible bubble around him, an aura that none of the normal people are going to penetrate. He’s just too much. And he doesn’t care if you think so. It would be easier to ignore Spring Breakers if its neon-lit poetics weren’t so alluring and enticing. But they are. That’s the danger. That’s the genius. Spring Breakers is a great companion to The Counselor not only for being honest about the appeal of the shadier side of life, but for refusing to absolve us all of our complicity in it or how it is used to manipulate, sell, and destroy.

7. The World’s End

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Review

For my money, this is the best and most insightful of the masterwork “Cornetto Trilogy”. The World’s End does super complicated and nuanced shit with action, symbolism, comedy, characterization, and narrative compartmentalization and makes it look easy. Edgar Wright is so at the top of his game, so in command of his skillset, that watching him work it in these films is exactly like watching Cirque du Soleil or a fucking concert pianist. If it has any flaws, it may be simply too overstuffed for most people. Of course, the dummies get caught up in the stylized and heightened bits (the fights mostly), but that shit matters not. What matters is the memories, man. The memories!

6. The Fast and the Furious 6

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Review

Somewhere between “We hongry” and Fast Five, I became a diehard fan and apologist of the Fast and Furious franchise. For me and those special fellows of mine, this is the action franchise. It’s weird how it happened, and that it happened at all. But I’m so glad it did. Fast 6 betters its predecessor in every way, upping the ante and including more fisticuffs and gunfights that echo and extend from the best examples from other movies. Combining its special, goofy charm with the car chases and fights of the Bourne films with Michael Mann-style gunplay, Fast was well on its way to converting even its stubborn detractors until the untimely death of Paul Walker. Those who know me know that this movie isn’t so high on this list because of his death, but because it is honestly the best classic-style action film of 2013. Hands down. With Walker gone, the future of the series is clouded but even if it doesn’t reach the heights it does in this entry, it won’t take away the fact that these movies turned an embarrassing Point Break rip off into the weirdest, most unlikely successful franchise in contemporary cinema.

5. The Croods

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Review

The Croods is fucking amazing. At first glance, it’s another celebrity-stocked cynical cash-in movie in a “genre” (can animated films really be one genre, don’t they encompass many?) that was once full of little else. Nowadays, it doesn’t even surprise me when it isn’t a Pixar or Disney movie that raises the bar for animated films. Dreamworks now continuously resets that bar and shows no signs of slowing down or getting complacent (unlike Pixar perhaps). Not only is The Croods a beautiful example of what animation is capable of, it also features a great story with tons of heart and a cast of likable, flawed, and heroic characters. Ultimately, this film is a love letter to the transcendent nature of imagination. That makes it a powerful movie to watch with kids, who understand land whales and giant owlcats in a way that adults often can’t, which keeps movies like The Croods much less most of animation in general in a kind of self-contained ghetto. Animation is where some of the most exciting things are happening right now, in terms of entertainment. Not just in film, but in television as well. The Croods is the kind of movie that makes you proud of not being too much of a snob to watch “cartoons”.

4. Only God Forgives

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Review

This one is probably the most underrated film on this list. It is also the most unfairly maligned, maybe. Spring Breakers is rightfully controversial, but the reaction to Only God Forgives kind of perplexes me. Mostly because some of it comes from people who should have been ready for Nicolas Winding-Refn to return to the weirder, moodier, and darker films he is better known for. Maybe the shock comes from Ryan Gosling, who is one of those actors who takes the kinds of risks that put him in movies that land on best and worst lists at the same time (another example? James Franco). Gosling is fully self-aware in this film, doing what can only be described as assassination to the somewhat ignorance-based (people need to watch some of his older films, seriously) perception of him in pop culture. Only God Forgives is a surreal tale of masculinity, Freudian sexual depravity, and finding a moral center in a nihilistic, hostile world. In most years, a movie like this would seem singular but in 2013 it’s another masterpiece in an embarrassment of riches.

3. Pacific Rim

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Review

Speaking of riches, it’s fundamentally amazing that a movie like Pacific Rim even exists. It bothers me more than it probably should that this is a movie that I actually have to defend to people. Pacific Rim is a work of such immense scale and imagination that most criticisms of it seem misguided at best. I’ve seen it more times than any other film on this list, and my love for it has grown each time. Initially, I was taken in a bit by the lukewarm reception it received from people who expected it to be a little less the live-action anime that it turned out to be (and rightfully so, I think). With clever flips of genre gender conventions, action so crazy and big that it’s in a class of its own, and an arrangement of details and world-building that are basically a license for expanded universe and fan fiction, Pacific Rim has everything it takes to be a lasting cultural pastime, and it’s the closest thing to a Star Wars that our generation has produced. Too bad it won’t be appreciated in its time.

2. Gravity

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Review

The only tough call I made on this list was putting this movie second after my number one pick. Gravity is one of those rare films that completely bridges the gap between the supposed high and low brows of filmgoer. Everybody gets this movie. The last time a science fiction film appealed so readily to every channel was probably Inception. Not only is Gravity the most beautiful and exciting movie of 2013, it’s got to go down as one of the greatest (if not the) space-set films ever made. Though I understand the misgivings some might have over other films in this list, I’d never understand anyone who had anything bad to say about Gravity. It’s the closest thing to a perfect movie anyone could really ask for. Narratively, technically, and structurally, and in every other way it counts for a film, Gravity is an unequivocal masterpiece.

1. Upstream Color

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Review

Shane Carruth is a genius. Upstream Color is only his second film and though it is entirely his own, with no studio involvement and no compromises, it never descends into self-indulgence and always maintains a careful, confident restraint that serves its elegiac, mysterious story. I called Upstream Color one of the weirdest love stories ever told. It is that, and far more than that. It’s a tone poem about the inexplicable nature of, well, nature. And connection. And love. And the finding of patterns, of symphonies in the unconnected, trivial, and even the ugly. It’s a movie that defies easy classification, yet is unapologetically a work of science (or speculative, if you like) fiction. Like many of my most favorite movies, the ones most deserving time and appreciation, it is a film that requires you to think and pay attention and then think some more. It’s a film that reacts to you as you watch it, rewarding you for not being a passive pair of eyes but a participant in the occasionally (but always uniquely) interactive dimension of film.

Honorable Mentions

Wish I’d Seen*

  • The Brass Teapot
  • Kiss of the Damned
  • The English Teacher
  • Violet & Daisy
  • The Bling Ring
  • Blue Jasmine
  • Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • Short Term 12
  • Rush
  • Diana
  • Filth
  • How I Live Now
  • Blue is the Warmest Colour
  • Captain Phillips
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • All is Lost
  • The Fifth Estate
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Philomena
  • Charlie Countryman
  • Nebraska
  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Her
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

*A few of these won’t technically be released in my area til 2014. I will possibly end up counting films like Her or Inside Llewyn Davis as 2014 films for the purposes of next year’s list.

*

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RIP you beautiful man.

So goes another year. Another list. See you in 2014.