The biggest surprise of 2013 is just how great the movies turned out to be in the second half of the year. This summer saw one of the weakest seasons ever: sequel and remake after sequel and remake bogged down the multiplexes with lackluster and unoriginal content, although sprinkled throughout were a handful of excellent films like “The Spectacular Now,” “Enough Said,” and “The Great Gatsby." But the latter half of the year was certainly an eye-opener for high quality film. Almost every week saw the release of something superb, from “American Hustle” to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to “Captain Phillips.” In retrospect 2013 turned out to be a fantastic year for movies. Here are 13 films from 2013 that we loved and hope you did (or will) too.
13. “About Time”
One of the year’s best surprises. On the surface, “About Time” looks like your typical, sappy romantic comedy starring Rachel McAdams, but Richard Curtis’ (“Love Actually”) time travel drama is actually a beautiful and emotional story about fathers and sons and the sheer difficulty of living each day as best you can. Knockout performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy. Don’t let this one slip you by. Bring tissues.
12. “Side Effects”
Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical film is one more example of the director’s diversity and unpredictability. With a riveting screenplay by Scott Burns, “Side Effects” is both a commentary on our over-medicated country and an exciting Hitchcockian thriller. Sleek, sexy and haunting with fine performances from Jude Law, Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this smart and engaging drama is pure Soderbergh and a perfect bow for the director.
11. "Star Trek Into Darkness"
J.J. Abrams follows his 2009 “Trek” with this pulse-pounding adventure. Though it caused a furor with many “Trek” fans, “Into Darkness” is the slickest and most entertaining action film of the year, boosted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s juicy performance as Khan, sensational production design, an electrifying score and a rip-roaring story. Abrams and company drop the pretension seen in many other superhero and sci-fi flicks of the day and deliver an exhilarating old-school adventure.
10. "The World's End"
The most original, off-the-wall insane comedy of the year. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost close their “Cornetto” trilogy with the best of their unofficial series. Wright and company decimate today’s generic comedy genre by blending an awkward reunion of friends with an alien invasion, laugh-out-loud humor and sheer unpredictability — mix those with a great soundtrack and you have yourself a wild blast of entertainment. Not to be missed!
9. "The Way, Way Back"
This coming of age story is pure summertime delight with Liam James as Duncan, a teenager who reluctantly vacations with his mother (Toni Collette) and her obnoxious boyfriend (Steve Carell). Unable to find his place among his family or the neighborhood kids, Duncan finds a job at a nearby waterpark where he befriends the park’s wild man-child owner, played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell. A perfect screenplay and fantastic performances, this film perfectly captures growing pains and the pure exuberance of summer vacation.
8. "August: Osage County"
As far as fictional dysfunctional families go, Tracy Lett’s outstanding Pulitzer Prize-winning play is near the top. Meryl Streep is once again brilliant, this time as the pill-popping, boozing matriarch of an Oklahoma family who reunites for a funeral. Julia Roberts is at her best since her Oscar-winning performance in “Erin Brokovich” and the entire ensemble cast is near-perfect. One of the rare films this year that sports a strong female cast: Streep and Roberts are divine, but Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin and Julianne Nicholson all drive this great acting vehicle. Vile insults, double crossing and some serious awkward skeletons in the closet make for a rambunctious, shocking and deliciously entertaining film.
7. “The Place Beyond the Pines”
Derek Cianfrance’s morality play is a brooding, immersive experience with some of the best acting you will see all year. Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling and newcomers Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen give scorching performances. The triptych format is unique, unsettling and brilliant as three seemingly unrelated stories unfold over two generations of characters. Packed with nail-biting suspense and strong, layered and morally ambiguous characters, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a phenomenal crime drama.
Hugh Jackman gives an impressive and haunting performance as a father who takes matters into his own hands when his daughter and her best friend are kidnapped. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jackman’s equal as the eccentric detective on the case who must contend with the furious, vigilante father. Stellar cinematography by Roger Deakins and extraordinary and complex characters wading through an even more complex situation make this brooding mystery well worth many repeat viewings.
It’s not too often, especially today, to have a watershed moment in cinema, but “Gravity” is one. While this movie must be seen on the big screen (with superior surround sound) to be fully appreciated, it is undeniable to see just how groundbreaking Alfonso Cuaron’s thriller is. The incredible cinematography and production design put you directly into free-fall in one of the most harrowing movie experience you could have. Not to mention, Sandra Bullock’s performance owns this whole film; alone on screen for the majority of the picture is no easy feat (see also: Robert Redford’s superb performance in “All Is Lost”). “Gravity” is a great achievement.
4. “12 Years A Slave”
Few movies can leave you immobile and speechless at the end and “12 Years A Slave” does both. Director Steve McQueen’s visceral drama is the most realistic, gut-wrenching depiction of slavery in cinema. The true story is a heartbreaking one as a free man is sold back into slavery and must fight his way back to his family. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s subtle yet astounding performance as Solomon Northup is a marvel. Not to be missed are Michael Fassbender in his towering performance as the repulsive and cruel, but oddly love-struck, plantation owner and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as his victim.
3. "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are in top form, in fact, this is arguably DiCaprio’s best performance to date. A spellbinding three-hour epic of egregious greed and corruption that fits as comfortably into Scorsese’s canon as “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” though not necessarily for the faint of heart. Based on Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, “Wolf” is a more offbeat expose of the rise and fall-from-grace theme, laced with biting humor, impeccable performances by Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal,Rob Reiner, Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill, whose brilliant, transformative performance as Belfort’s partner in crime is one of the year’s best.
Bruce Dern gives the best performance of the year in Alexander Payne’s drama about a confused old man who believes he won a million dollars and decides to walk to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Gorgeous black and white cinematography provides a sobering look at the effects of the economic collapse on small town America. An honest, humorous and heartfelt script by Bob Nelson is delightful and alluring as it tackles entitlement and the heartbreaking journey of a father and son rediscovering each other. With incredible performances by Dern, June Squibb, as his caustic wife, and a fantastic dramatic turn by SNL’s Will Forte, “Nebraska” is a winner — even if Woody Grant isn’t.
1. “Saving Mr. Banks”
Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are marvelous as P.L. Travers and Walt Disney in this bittersweet drama about the making of the classic film “Mary Poppins.”
Director John Lee Hancock effortlessly balances parallel stories as Travers’ dark and troubled childhood plays out beside the struggles in the writers’ room as she, Disney and the Sherman brothers fight to find common ground in bringing her classic character to the big screen. “Banks” sparkles with the magic of the movies, but is grounded by flashes of melancholy and poignancy. A brilliant performance by Emma Thompson and a sublime supporting cast, especially Colin Farrell, make “Saving Mr. Banks” a crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping marvel. Truly a wonderful film and the best of the year.