You know what? There were a lot of really good movies in 2013 — which makes the inaugural installment of Film Racket’s Top 10 Movies feature all the more fun. Usually, we critics are hard-pressed to pull out 10 films we truly loved. Normally you end up with five solid winners and five movies you could more or less forget about. I think that this year all of us can stand behind our top 10s with pride. There’s simply plenty of good stuff out there.
Thanks for reading our work in this first year of Film Racket’s existence. We look forward to offering our insights in the years to come. So dig in — here are our top 10 lists for 2013, one for each critic… and each with a bonus “worst of” pick that you can safely avoid. – Christopher Null, Editor in Chief, Film Racket
Christopher Null, Editor in Chief
1. All Is Lost – I never would have predicted that, after a career that included The Sting, All the President’s Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford’s finest performance would arrive at the age of 77 in a film that featured no other human beings but him and next to zero dialogue. All Is Lost, featuring Redford’s nameless and hopeless hero stranded at sea for days, is all at once a survival story, a tale of redemption, and the scariest horror flick you’ve ever seen. The old man and the sea? You don’t know the half of it.
2. 12 Years a Slave – America, we’ve got a lot of explainin’ to do.
3. In a World… - More insidery than The Player, but Lake Bell proves she’s got as an amazing an ear for dialogue as Altman did.
4. Enough Said – The only movie I think I’ve ever seen where the second of three acts was the most engaging. Nifty feat. James Gandolfini’s finest work by a mile.
5. Drinking Buddies – Savagely underrated and unseen, the film belongs to sad sack Jake Johnson (from New Girl, of all places), who pines for a flirty co-worker and gets precisely nowhere.
6. The Hunt – Ever been wrongfully accused of something? The Hunt will make your troubles look like a hangnail.
7. Before Midnight – Linklater’s “Before” series gets better and better. I’m ready for Before Jeopardy, when these two characters are still bickering away in the nursing home.
8. Stories We Tell – If you told me before I’d spend 108 minutes watching an actress talk about her quirky Canadian family and I’d enjoy it, I’d have told you you were nuts.
9. Room 237 – The funny thing isn’t how all these crackpots deconstruct The Shining with their wild interpretations. The funny thing is that you start to agree with them.
10. Nebraska – I can kind of see this story happening to me some day, only the crazy old man willing to walk 1000 miles to collect his “sweepstakes winnings” is me. Gas up, kids!
Worst Film of the Year: The Place Beyond the Pines – Aimless and trite, this is what happens when you don’t have any good ideas, but decide to make a movie anyway.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese has made his reputation on movies like this, except this time around, cocaine, hookers, and SEC violations replace blood, guts, and mob vendettas. With Leonardo DiCaprio giving yet another stellar “adult” performance and the accompanying cast syncing completely with the director’s den of inequity designs, what we wind up with is an amazing look at how the U.S. economy came to be reliant on, and then destroyed by, the blow-fueled amorality of the stock market. Sure, Jordan Belfort is a criminal con man who took decent middle class people and rendered them penniless, but this isn’t the point of the film. Instead of focusing on individual offenses, Scorsese indicts the entire system, one that continues to profit off the same pilfering as it did was this astonishing anti-hero was ‘Luded up and loaded.
2. 12 Years a Slave – The lesson on slavery and its undeniable stain that Hollywood has been too afraid to make for the last 100 years. It took an Englishman to show us our true core corruption, and it’s stunning.
3. Upstream Color – A young couple connects over the lessons learned at the hypnotic hands of a enigmatic thief who uses hallucinogens, Walden, and a pig farmer to victimize his targets. And then it gets weird.
4. American Hustle – The post-Watergate wound of ABSCAM as seen through the eyes of David O. Russell, his ridiculously good cast, and their late ’70s affronts to personal fashion and hairstyles.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis – In which Joel and Ethan Coen prove, once again, that even when dealing with a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene, they can find the post-modern meaning within.
6. Her - A man falls in love with his computer operating system… and then learns to love himself. Epic.
7. The Act of Killing – A documentary about the corruption in Indonesia and how a pair of glorified gangsters became national heroes after their murderous rampages from the past became modern myths for the country.
8. The World’s End – Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost use their third installment in the Three Flavours Cornetto series to riff on aging, arrested adolescence, and alien automatons. A classic comedy.
9. Spring Breakers – James Franco’s turn as a “gansta” white rapper with mayhem on his mind fuels a film that has more to say about the entirety of today’s youth than the singular story of the four young girls at the movie’s center.
10. Lords of Salem – With its bows to Italian terror and the surrealism of Ken Russell’s The Devils, rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie unleashes a brilliantly artistic vision of evil infesting and incarnate.
Worst Film of the Year: The Starving Games – Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer prove once again that they are the worst kind of comic minds as the unleash yet another unfunny spoof, this time attempting to take down the popular sci-fi series.
1. Stories We Tell – As one of our brightest filmmakers, Canada’s Sarah Polley departs from her thoughtful, passionate dramas to create a similarly emotional experience in the nonfiction realm. In this exploration of her family’s history — a melodramatic mother who died young, a witty father who’s something of a performer himself — Polley reconstructs the past by interviewing her siblings and acquaintances, parsing how those recollections differ from her own, and filling out the rest with her own fictional recreations. A masterful examination of how the past doesn’t just happen, but is created.
2. 12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen’s blistering adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir about being kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana prior to the Civil War is horrific and heroic in equal measures; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Northrup is dignified through and through without once seeming less than human.
3. Gravity – In this upper-orbit version of All is Lost, after her shuttle is destroyed Sandra Bullock’s lone astronaut hops from one unstable lilypad to the next in her taut, nervy struggle for survival; the year’s one great movie that you can recommend to nearly anyone.
4. Before Midnight – In the third installment of Richard Linklater’s love-in-bloom saga, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are another ten years into their lives, married and with children; drunk with talk and argument but tinged with the melancholy of middle age.
5. Fruitvale Station – The day leading up to the senseless 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant at an Oakland BART station is recreated with care, humor, and a tangible sense of tragedy.
6. A Touch of Sin – Jia Zhangke’s four-part epic takes true stories of people in modern China pushed to the edge and turns them into an unforgettable elegy for a society steadily detonating from within.
7. August: Osage County – A sprawling saga of family and dysfunction — adapted cleanly by Tracey Letts from his 3-hour-plus Pulitzer Price-winning play — whose dark, acidic humor never undercuts the recurring tragedy that lies underneath.
8. Gimme the Loot – A day in the life of a couple Bronx teenagers turns into the most impressive and heartfelt debut films of the year.
9. Room 237 – Listen to these crackpot theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and you’ll not only be amused and frightened by their vehemence but reminded of the joys of deep movie-watching.
10. Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass’s thoughtful but pulse-pounding take on the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of an American freighter is a true return to form; his best film since Bloody Sunday.
Worst Film of the Year: The Great Gatsby – Exactly what you would imagine when the great disco movie Cuisinart that is Baz Luhrman got his hands on a seminal American novel; celebrating the very excess it’s supposed to satirize — and dramatically stiff, to boot. A cacophonous bore.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis – The Coen brothers have always mixed the funny, sad, and mordant in their three decades of brilliant work. But Inside Llewyn Davis is a particularly strong cocktail of heartbreak and hilarity. Their invented sixties folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) isn’t exactly an unappreciated genius and he isn’t exactly an untalented hack; he’s stuck in a middle ground through a mixture of bad luck and worse behavior. Isaac has a beautiful voice, and the Coens have a great eye for wintry New York desolation, along with their perpetually sharp ear for dialogue. Storytelling so often depends on change; Inside Llewyn Davis manages to wring great drama and comedy out of moments where it seems like something or someone must change, but no one seems sure how. This cyclical week in the life is as finely calibrated as anything in the Coen filmography.
2. Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach goes fast and light with this zippy NYC-set comedy, but its final moments still have a lovely emotional kick.
3. Gravity – Simplicity of story blends with mind-bogglingly complex execution in Alfonso Cuaron’s triumphant, humane thrill ride.
4. The We and the I – This Michel Gondry project, made in collaboration with a bunch of Bronx teenagers, sounds like an experiment, but the young amateurs invest this chronicle of an afternoon bus ride with vibrant feeling.
5. Her – It’s hard to imagine a smarter or more tender movie about a man falling in love with his computer’s operating system.
6. Stoker – An unsettling, darkly funny, and elegantly stylish thriller with notes of De Palma, Hitchcock, and director Park Chan-wook. One of the most pleasurable movie-movies of the year.
7. The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann’s lavish adaptation of Fitzgerald’s hard-to-film masterpiece isn’t perfect, but it comes damn close to translating the author’s beautiful prose into the language of cinema.
8. The Bling Ring – In a year full of movies about striving and excess, Sofia Coppola points her camera at a callow group of teenagers and captures their seductive amorality.
9. Nebraska – A terrific ensemble bounces non-professional actors off of wonderfully understated performances from Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and (less subdued) June Squibb as midwest denizens: family and strangers all at once.
10. Prince Avalanche – A lyrical and funny two-hander from David Gordon Green, who confirms that his sensibility is equal parts arthouse and buddy comedy.
Worst Film of the Year: At Any Price – Just beneath the surface of this supposed human drama lurks an absolutely bonkers movie with an understanding of human behavior so limited it feels like aliens making a student film.
1. Spring Breakers – Woefully misunderstood by its detractors, Harmony Korine’s film is a scathing indictment of hedonism and the way in which our cultures both celebrates and excuses it. James Franco gives an unforgettable performance as Alien, a drug-dealing rapper who pushes four not-as-innocent-as-they-seem young women (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) even further down the road of crime and excess, to disastrous results. The day-glo color scheme and fractured storytelling style are hypnotic, and the use of music – especially Britney Spears’ “Everytime” – is perfect. Spring Breakers is a beautiful, spellbinding, unexpectedly moral, and, yes, substantive piece of pop art.
2. Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron’s nail-biting space adventure is thrilling all on its own, but the vital use of 3D to convey the vastness of space is what gives it a terrifying kick.
3. Short Term 12 – Brie Larsen gives one of the year’s best performances in this compassionate and quietly truthful story about the workers and children in a foster care program.
4. Dallas Buyers Club – An emaciated Matthew McConaughey becomes an unlikely hero in this powerful true story of a homophobe who seeks to treat his own AIDS diagnosis and ends up helping the very people he previously looked down upon.
5. 12 Years a Slave – There have been plenty of movies documenting the physical brutality of slavery, but Steve McQueen’s film about a free man kidnapped and sold to a vicious plantation owner conveys the psychological brutality like never before.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis – Another winner from the Coen brothers, about a struggling musician (Oscar Isaac) who hilariously – and poignantly – doesn’t realize that he’s his own worst enemy.
7. Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks plays a cargo ship captain who is kidnapped by Somali pirates after they hijack his vessel in this intense, geopolitically charged drama.
8. Nebraska – This story of a father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) going on a road trip is a deeply humane comedy/drama about the personal details parents keep from their children.
9. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, over-the-top tale of a stockbroker’s rise and fall is a harrowing portrait of what happens when you become addicted to money.
10. All is Lost – Robert Redford gives a tour de force performance as the only actor in this spiritual survival story about a man adrift at sea in a damaged boat.
Worst Film of the Year: A Haunted House – Marlon Wayans stars in this already outdated Paranormal Activity spoof that is packed with offensive scatological, misogynist, and homophobic “humor.”
1. Her - I love Her with all my heart. Endlessly endearing, Spike Jonze’s near-future love story of a man and his operating system is more natural and honest than a vast majority of traditional boy meets girl snoozers. This film leaves you smiling or welling up in equal measure – sometimes together. Joaquin Phoenix nails his role as a lonely, broken man who’s likeable without being piteous, while the heard-but-not-seen Scarlett Johansson hits every inflection and nuance to bring the OS to life, so to speak. Their romance takes place in a world that feels like a lived-in, natural extension of our present with subtle technological advancements and an evolution of contemporary designs. Her has a keen eye for where we may be headed, both in its representation of the physical world and the emotionally detached denizens who inhabit it.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis – Another engrossing masterwork from Joel & Ethan Coen, this time using more refined versions of their signature quirkiness to examine a folk singer (a star-making turn from Oscar Isaac) navigating pre-Dylan Greenwich Village while trapped in a cyclical, self-inflicted malaise.
3. Spring Breakers – Provocateur Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date is also his best, using a feverish, cotton candy-tinged mix of T&A, ultra-violence, and vacuous youth culture to simultaneously celebrate and mock the surface-level contrivances he explores.
4. 12 Years a Slave – Expertly directed by Steve McQueen and superbly acted by a tremendous cast, it is impossible to passively experience 12 Years a Slave; the film looks straight back at you – at times literally – demanding the attention the story deserves, however harrowing or difficult to endure.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street – The funniest film of the year is also one of the most frightening, with Martin Scorsese taking us on a wild romp through the immoral chaos and dubious humanity that drives the race to acquire wealth, at whatever ethical cost, in America’s free enterprise.
6. Short Term 12 – Brie Larson gives one of 2013’s best (and criminally overlooked) performances in writer/director Destin Cretin’s authentic study of the hurt, humor, and healing centered at a foster care facility for vulnerable teens.
7. Before Midnight – The talkative duo of Jesse and Celine (note-perfect performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) have conversed smartly through three films over 18 years, and I’m ready to listen again whenever they’re ready to let us eavesdrop.
8. The Act of Killing – Watching celebrated killers who carried out government-sanctioned murders in 1960’s Indonesia reenact their atrocities via cinema 50 years later is a jarring experience; mind-boggling and impossible to shake.
9. Stoker - The assured direction of Park Chan-wook – with his first English language feature – greatly elevates this edgy, moody, and disquieting family-in-turmoil riff on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
10. Stories We Tell – Intellectual and accessible, this ultra-personal documentary from Sarah Polley uses varying points of view regarding her family’s history, as well as the filmmaking form itself, to play with the process of narrative-building on the road to uncovering profound truths.
Worst Film of the Year: Scary Movie V – It’s not scary, certainly not funny, and I’m not even sure I would classify it as a movie.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis – The greatest elements of a Coen Brothers film – eccentricity, humanity, poetry – are all in top-form in this career masterwork by the accomplished moviemaking team. Initially posing as the story of a struggling folk musician in 1961 New York City, Inside Llewyn Davis carefully evolves into a bizarre character journey, strewn with plot points that are teased and then never revisited. Our scruffy outcast anti-hero is left to suffer (oh, like all great artists), with two movies’ worth of story ideas surfaced and summarily ignored. It’s a narrative that continually fascinates, with everything you’d expect from a superior Coen brothers movie. And then some.
2. 12 Years A Slave – Steve McQueen directs a near-perfect film of controlled artistry, harnessing the finest collection of performances in any 2013 movie.
3. Upstream Color – One of the most thrilling features of the year is Shane Carruth’s difficult mystery about our universal interconnectedness, reflected in two people who have experienced the same brain-frying abduction.
4. Enough Said – My choice for the best performances by a pair of romantic leads (psst, not Before Midnight), Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini make some minor magic with Nicole Holofcener’s exceptional script.
5. Museum Hours – A gentle look at the friendship between a tourist and a Viennese museum guard, framed within layers of visual art inside the gallery and out in the streets, and the ways in which we interpret it.
6. Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón’s painstakingly-produced technical wonder features storytelling that teases its brilliance – and just misses making Gravity one of the all-time Hollywood greats.
7. Short Term 12 – Brie Larson delivers one of the great performances of 2013 as a foster care facility leader, with Destin Cretton’s direction serving up all the right notes, scene after scene.
8. A Band Called Death – Somewhat lost among the throng of music documentaries of the past two years, this one should be seen by anyone who loves punk, family, and an unlikely story, not necessarily in that order.
9. Wish You Were Here – A gripping Australian drama that details the aftermath of a Cambodian vacation in which one of four travelers never returns.
10. Blue is the Warmest Color – French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos is an engaging, explosive powerhouse in this unapologetically thorough examination of a young woman’s life.
Worst Film of the Year: Identity Thief – It takes a special kind of bad to misuse both Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy. When your default strategy is “When in doubt, give the funny guy a karate chop to the neck,” you’re in desperate need of a rewrite.
1. Gravity – Technical virtuosity aside, you could run Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece on a grade-school projector using a bed sheet as a screen, and it would be fantastic. Just like Sandra Bullock’s terrified amateur astronaut, the special effects are a tool Cuarón uses to capture and amplify the human experience without isolating us from it. We lose and find ourselves all at once, which is why we go to the movies.
2. The Spectacular Now – Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller’s brilliant, histrionics-free performances as two high school seniors who stumble into a last-minute relationship elevate James Ponsoldt’s coming-of-age drama into a vivid flashback of being 17 and absolutely terrified/excited about what comes next.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis – When the Coen brothers infuse their feature-length existential jokes with recognizable emotions, few capture the tumultuous ride of the everyday shmuck (in this case a fantastic Oscar Isaac) better.
4. Before Midnight – Jesse and Céline and eloquent understatement forever.
5. Nebraska – I think it’s safe to say at this point that Alexander Payne’s work as America’s foremost unsentimental sentimentalist is beyond parallel.
6. Frances Ha – You either loved or loathed every second, but I thought Noah Baumbach (and his longtime muse, Greta Gerwig) did a marvelous job at portraying a young woman’s twisty journey to life’s adult table.
7. Blackfish – Having endured Weinstein’s many recent — and grating — documentaries as agents of social change (Bully, anyone?), director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s engrossing investigation into the inhumane practices at SeaWorld used facts and video footage and interviews to affect the audience; it never coasted on self-importance.
8. Spring Breakers – A satire of the Girls Gone Wild culture propelled by director Harmony Korine’s fatherly concern for his four misguided, vacationing female protagonists (including Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) and the pathetic gangsta (James Franco, gleefully shedding his hipster aloofness) who views the quartet as his salvation.
9. Short Term 12 – Please, God, don’t let anything happen to Brie Larson.
10. Unfinished Song – To quote a tearful George Costanza after watching Home Alone: “The old man got to me.”
Worst Film of the Year: Last Vegas