25. Enough Said
24. Don Jon
22. Side Effects
20. Upstream Color
19. American Hustle
18. Dallas Buyers Club
17. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
16. The Place Beyond the Pines
15. Pacific Rim
14. Blue Jasmine
13. This is the End
12. Out of the Furnace
11. Before Midnight
Ron Howard's Rush is an exciting sports film, and it's filled with great competition and a cockiness that makes every minute fun to watch. If you don't know the specifics of the true story, even better: the rivalry between Britain's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria's Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) during the 1976 Formula 1 racing season has as many twists and turns as an event at Watkins Glen. But there's one reason Rush races ahead of more average sports stories: Daniel Bruhl's portrayal of Niki Lauda. If Bruhl's face looks familiar, he had roles in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and was in one of the Bourne films, but in Rush he really becomes a name to watch. As "rat-faced" Niki, Bruhl portrays a racing obsession (and making his life goal beating cocky playboy James Hunt) with a charm and likability that grows as the film's minutes zoom by. And after a race that changes both of the drivers' lives forever, James and Niki's competition morphs into an ever-growing respect for one another that defines the rest of their lives.
Short Term 12
This little indie film probably isn't on your radar, but it should be. It's mostly about a character named Grace (Brie Larson) who works at a facility for at-risk teenagers. These kids come from broken homes, or they've been molested, or they have anger issues that don't allow them to communicate well with others their age. Short Term 12 is about the people who basically dedicate their lives to make a difference in the kids' lives. It could have easily (and quickly) fallen into TV movie cliches and eye-rolling, but it somehow sidesteps most of the pitfalls of the genre, becoming an emotional experience that is sad, heart-breaking and hopeful from scene-to-scene. Brie Larson is a wonder as Grace, and John Gallagher, Jr.'s Mason (you might recognize him from HBO's The Newsroom) is funny and touching, as he slowly comes to realize the reasons why Grace is so passionate about her work. It can be a little corny at times (no story about social work avoids that), but Short Term 12 has the most true-life emotion of any film this year.
Alfonso Cuaron created one of my favorite films of the last decade in 2006's Children of Men: the cold and realistic setting was made even more real when the theater I saw it in (during the winter time) hadn't turned on the heat yet due to its early matinee showing. We could actually see our breath. I went to see Gravity at the IMAX and had a similar experience (but not due to the temperature): the big enveloping screen made me feel like I was actually floating in space, adding to the weightlessness feeling that is prevalent throughout the film. Gravity instilled a sense of panic in my nervous system that I wasn't sure was possible in modern cinema. It's also the most technically brilliant film 2013: though I couldn't really care less about the story (or Sandra Bullock's dead child plot line), Gravity is sheer glory in its special effects, computer generated imagery, and its use of sound (or lack thereof, due to the vacuum of space). No, Gravity doesn't have a great story, and it didn't come close to affecting me like Children of Men, but it's a master class in the potential of where film making may be headed in the coming years.
Blackfish is the best documentary of the year. It's also one of the most thrilling films, period. You're stuck in you're own little bubble if you think this story of the behavior of killer whales in captivity (particularly at SeaWorld) is just liberal propaganda or just another basic sob story of animal cruelty (not that those aren't relevant, too). Focusing on Tilikum, a killer whale whose bloodline is full of rage and violent outbursts against trainers at ocean-life parks, Blackfish plays out like a horror movie: it's drowning in shocks and incredibly violent moments that almost take your breath away. It can also bring tears to your eyes--not just because of the living conditions or treatment of the killer whales (which surely is sad enough), but because of the trainers whose lives have been altered even if they had perfectly good intentions. Blackfish does two things: it makes you never want to go to SeaWorld (if you ever did, anyway), and it solidifies its status as top-notch documentary film making.
Iron Man 3
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
If Hollywood did something correctly in 2013, it may have been big-budget sequels. Most were better than their previous installments (Maybe not Star Trek Into Darkness, but it was at least as good), something that is rare in this era that puts more stock into watching the money roll in than the actual quality of a film. These three were the best of the bunch:
Iron Man 3: This sequel far surpassed Iron Man 2. Reinvigorated by director Shane Black (of 90's era action movie fame), this incarnation of Tony Stark's story is full of wit and incredibly done comic-book action sequences (that plane scene) that leave you breathless. It unfortunately still contains Gwyneth Paltrow, but an entertaining Guy Pearce is a nice touch.
Star Trek Into Darkness: Many fans were pissed about the big reveal (that wasn't much of a reveal at all): it's Khan! How dare they do another story about Khan? But I really didn't care. It's every bit as fun as J.J. Abrams' first installment, and Benedict Cumberbatch's villainous performance is thrilling. I could listen to him read J. R. R. Tolkien and it would be entertaining--and I did later in the year, because he's the voice of the dragon Smaug in the newest Hobbit.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: I was wondering how the filmmakers would pull off "The Clock" (the new arena for the competitors). I thought they did an admirable job. The budget was almost double of the original, and it's easy to tell: the action and special effects are slicker and more exciting. And though Jennifer Lawrence can show off her acting chops easier in other roles, she embodies Katniss and is as watchable as ever.
You're Next was some of the most fun that I've had at the movies this year, and that's why it has climbed so high on my list. In a year full of pretty good (not amazing) movies taking on serious subject matter (many of which take themselves a little too seriously), You're Next was a breath of fresh air--well, not too fresh, with all of the bloody mist flying about. It starts off as a typical low-budget slasher film with some less-than-stellar acting: a wealthy family is having a reunion at their remote Missouri mansion. There's plenty of family tension with arguing and dick-measuring (not literally). The crew sits down for dinner and...all Hell breaks loose. Outfitted with creepy animal masks, a group of intruders begins to assault the house, picking off members of the family with brutal weapons and excessive violence. It's short and sweet at 95 minutes (more would have been too much), and it's slathered with stylistic horror, it's full of laughs and it has a heroine who is significantly more than what she seems. A fun time.
Matthew McConaughey is the man. Throughout the past couple of years, he has completely transformed himself into a damn fine American actor: Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyer's Club, The Wolf of Wall Street--his roles in all of these films (however big or small) are memorable and are the work of a person at the top of their game. He's already garnering praise for HBO's new show True Detective and also is starring in one of my most anticipated films of 2014, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Mud is no different. Directed by the skilled independent director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), Mud is a modern day Mark Twain-esque story about two coming-of-age boys and a strange man on the run (McConaughey), taking place among the swamps of the Mississippi River. It has the essence of a fairy tale: Nichols directs the setting and nature of the area to make it feel almost timeless. But McConaughey's performance is what anchors Mud: it's full of sadness and regret, but also a fierce excitement and hope. Many people didn't like the violent outburst of an ending. But I thought it solidified Mud as an unsettling parable about growing up.
12 Years A Slave
If you had seen director Steve McQueen's other two films, Hunger and Shame, you'd realize that the man can take on any subject, making it riveting and uncomfortable viewing. American slavery is already an uncomfortable subject, one that hasn't been portrayed that well in cinema (I'm not counting last year's revenge fantasy Django Unchained). Until now: 12 Year's a Slave is necessary viewing, and not just for white liberals who want to suffer in guilt because of their ancestors. For everyone. Some of the film follows a pretty standard path, but a few particulars stand-out: Michael Fassbender's scary portrayal of slave owner Edwin Epps. Can he just be a part of every film from now on? Chiwitel Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free black man who wakes up in chains after a night of drinking, and realizes the tightrope walk of life and death that he's now living. And two scenes that are incredibly difficult to watch: Solomon hanging from a noose with his tiptoes barely touching the ground and Solomon having to whip another slave to save his own life. McQueen's handling of these scenes transforms them into some of the best of the year.
Prisoners is far from a feel-good movie. It has the kind of story that gets under your skin and sits there, festering until a resolution allows the pressure to dissipate. It's incredibly powerful: when Keller Dover's (Hugh Jackman) daughter gets kidnapped, how far should he take himself into an abyss of violence when he thinks he knows who committed the crime? And can Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) locate the girls before it's far too late? Both Jackman and Gyllenhall have top-notch performances, but I'm especially partial to Gyllenhaal's: his Detective seems typical at first (single, incredible solving-crimes record), but it's not long before you can see something boiling under the surface of his nervous tics. But the real star of Prisoners is director Denis Villeneuve. This is his first American film, and his beautiful direction, transfixing imagery and incredible use of darkness and light allows Prisoners to transcend a normal kidnapping film, becoming a dread-filled exercise in great film making.
The Wolf of Wall Street
No film this year is crazier than The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his rise from pushing penny stocks at a rundown strip mall operation to snorting cocaine out of an expensive stripper's butt hole. And no performance reaches the highs of Leonardo DiCaprio's: his passion, his insanity, his hilarity, his powerful speeches, his shocking bursts of emotion. Martin Scorsese--DiCaprio's frequent collaborator (and after Wolf, let's hope these two have even more in store for us in the near future)--has created a three-hour film about sex, drugs and America that consistently pushes the boundaries of good taste and misogyny yet crosses the line so quickly that the audience refuses to care. It's the work and cockiness of (since Scorsese is 71) a much younger man. You may think The Wolf of Wall Street is a drama about stock brokers on Wall Street who behave badly on their free time. But you'd be wrong: The Wolf of Wall Street is a bleak black comedy--and it's one of the funniest films of the year.