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13 Best Movies of 2013: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ And More

This year was a great one for movies. Here’s The Daily Beast’s list of the best films of 2013.  

Warner Bros. Picture

Sony Pictures Classics; Annapurna Productions; Warner Bros. Picture; Sundance Selects

After a truly lackluster 2012, Hollywood rebounded to unleash one of the best years in movies in recent memory. There was something for everyone in 2013, from sci-fi blockbusters like Gravity to heartrending indies such as The Spectacular Now to the randy period pictures American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. It was such an embarrassment of riches at the movies that it’s pretty damn tough to narrow it down, but nevertheless, here are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best movies of the year.

Warner Bros. Picture

1. ‘Her’

No film this year touched me like Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze’s futuristic love story about a melancholy divorcé named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for his sentient operating system, “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The attention to detail is exquisite, from the architecture—an innovative hybrid of Los Angeles and Shanghai—to the bold, neutral color palette, emphasizing the film’s themes of urban/contemporary ennui amid an increasingly tech/device-reliant world. And the score, courtesy of Arcade Fire, is divine. But Jonze’s film would be nothing without its two central, extraordinary performances—Phoenix’s as a romantic adrift in an ocean of alienation and Johansson’s as his gregarious counterpoint. That they make this human-A.I. relationship believable is a staggering achievement. Her is, as a whole, a fascinating cinematic exploration of the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” and one of the few films this year to provide insightful commentary on the world we live in, and the one we aspire—or rather, don’t aspire—to inhabit.

Warner Bros. Picture

2. ‘Gravity’

This first film in seven years from acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) was worth the wait. The 3D sci-fi thriller centers on Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission, who’s joined by astronaut vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). After their ship is pummeled with space debris and left in pieces, the two must stay tethered to one another to survive. Cuarón’s movie is, first and foremost, a technological marvel boasting cutting-edge 3D cinematography and sound design that makes you feel like you’re actually in space. Then, there’s Bullock’s performance as Stone, breathing oxygen into a kick-ass heroine that earns every cheer and clap with her endless grit and determination. And, last but not least, is the ride itself. Gravity is the most out-and-out entertaining movie of the year, and will make you feel like a kid again, sitting in a dark theater being wowed by the magic you see onscreen.

Sundance Selects

3. ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

I feel slightly guilty when it comes to filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche’s thoroughly immersive French love story between the voracious schoolgirl Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), and her blue-haired, collegiate paramour, Emma (Lea Seydoux). The film was slightly overshadowed by the controversy between Seydoux and Kechiche, stemming from an interview I did with the actresses back in August. Allegations aside, Blue is the Warmest Color is a poignant portrait of first love featuring raw performances from its entire cast—in particular Exarchopoulos who, over the course of three hours, captures the entire spectrum of human emotion with stunning realism.

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Productions

4. ‘American Hustle’

Filmmaker David O. Russell is on an absolute roll with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now, American Hustle. This giddily chaotic caper flick is loosely based on Abscam, an FBI sting operation in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that roped in a Jersey mayor, congressmen, the mob, FBI agents posing as an Arab sheikh, and a con artist, who’s played in the film by Christian Bale. Russell has assembled the most formidable—and best—ensemble of the year in this film, which also sees Amy Adams star as Bale’s glamorous, triple-crossing mistress; Jeremy Renner as a do-gooder mayor; Bradley Cooper as a hot-headed FBI agent; and Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s fiery Long Island housewife. Dazzling costumes and hairdos aside, “American Hustle is, at its core, a fascinating meditation on corruption, and the ways in which the culture both provokes and shames it. It’s also one of the most finely acted—and most thrillingly, maddeningly alive—movies of the year,” I wrote in my review of the film.

Despina Spyrou/Sony Pictures Classics

5. ‘Before Midnight’

The third film in the Before Sunrise trilogy from filmmaker Richard Linklater and his co-writers/stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy made my list of the most overlooked films of the year, since it only grossed $8 million domestic. Set on the Greek islands nine years after the events of 2004’s Before Sunset, it centers once again on the brash American novelist Jesse (Hawke) and his passionate French wife, Celine (Delpy), struggling to make their relationship work. “The film is expertly acted, and the sharp dialogue flows—and boy, does it flow—from Hawke and Delpy’s mouths with such realism that you feel as if you’re watching an actual relationship unravel,” I wrote. It’s the best film in the trilogy, and cements the Before films status as one of the best—and unlikeliest—film series of all-time.

Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight

6. ‘12 Years A Slave’

There’s a sense of emotional detachment—iciness, cynicism—to British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s oeuvre that is a bit off-putting, but there’s no denying the technical mastery on display in his searing drama 12 Years A Slave. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man imprisoned and sold into slavery in 1841, and his struggle to return home. This is Homer’s The Odyssey by way of the antebellum South, boasting gripping performances—including Ejiofor as the wronged Northup, Michael Fassbender as a brutal slavemaster, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as his prized “property”—gorgeous lensing, and scene-after-scene that will carve itself into your memory. “McQueen’s movie is, far and away, the most uncompromising depiction of slavery ever put to film,” I wrote in my review. “Cracking whips rip flesh off backs with rapacious license. Women are raped and mutilated. Men, women, and children are stripped naked and inspected like chattel, and later, lynched with impunity. But this is as it were, and the violence in the film is never fetishized, but rather serves as a stark reminder of what so many black men, women, and children endured in this country’s not-so-distant past.”

Alison Rosa/CBS Films, via AP

7. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

The Coen Brothers are masters of form and tone, and here, they’ve crafted a maddening journey into the mind of a tortured artistic genius. That man is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a talented folk singer in early 1960s Greenwich Village whose thorniness and cynicism prevent his being “discovered.” Llewyn rubs everyone the wrong way, from ex-paramour Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who makes up one-half of a schmaltzy folk husband-wife duo with Jim (Justin Timberlake), to the cat that finds itself in his care, and refuses to compromise when it comes to his work. Inside Llewyn Davis, with its spot-on period detail, fine performances, and wonderful music—curated by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons—is one of the finest depictions of the struggling artist ever put to screen.

Michael Muller/A24 Films, via AP

8. ‘Spring Breakers’

Spring Breakers is the Yeezus of movies. By that, I mean it’s a polarizing work by an artistic madman/provocateur that manipulates form and culture to create a hypnotic work of art. Harmony Korine’s fever dream of a film follows four college girls’—Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and Rachel Korine—descent into madness, and their tutelage in thugdom from Alien (James Franco), a fugazi crime lord in South Florida who’s like Jay Gatsby on PCP. Korine’s film features gorgeous, nightmarish cinematography from Enter the Void’s Benoît Debie, a pulsing soundtrack by Skrillex, and a wildly entertaining turn by Franco as the cornrow-sporting wanksta. It’s a gonzo deconstruction of our cultural mores and the most gleefully anarchic film of the year. Seriously, consider this shit.

Merie W. Wallace

9. ‘Nebraska’

Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways) from a screenplay by Bob Nelson, this black-and-white road dramedy tells the tale of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an ex-alcoholic suffering from dementia who’s convinced himself that it’s his destiny to cash in a junk lotto ticket he received in the mail. So, joined by his son (Will Forte), they embark on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim their prize. The film is droll, featuring wry observations on Middle America, and a hilarious turn by June Squibb as Woody’s foul-mouthed wife, Kate. “The crisp, black and white lensing, courtesy of Phedon Papamichael, emphasizes each and every crack and contour on [Dern’s] grizzled face, like a Grant Wood painting. It’s a character that demands Dern to constantly shift back-and-forth up to a dozen times in a given scene from zoned out to readily engaged, and by the end of his futile journey, he emerges as a Midwestern Don Quixote, a near-mythical paragon of dogged persistence in the face of adversity. Woody is the cinematic embodiment of Bruce Dern, and vice versa,” I wrote.

A24 Films, via AP

10. ‘The Spectacular Now’

Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed) from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the team behind (500) Days of Summer), this teen drama centers on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, brilliant), the charming class clown of his high school who, after he’s dumped by his equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson), crosses paths with Aimee (Shailene Woodley). Aimee is a breath of fresh air for Sutter—a kindhearted geek with an eye towards the future—and the two eventually fall for one another, with Aimee convincing Sutter to confront his demons, and Sutter schooling Aimee on the follies of youth. Both performances are astonishing, and Ponsoldt’s film is a very tender, heartrending portrait of first love, as well as owning the past in order to create a bright future. 

Jim Bridges

11. ‘Mud’

This bildungsroman is helmed by Jeff Nichols, whose last film, Take Shelter, was criminally overlooked. It tells the tale of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a young Arkansas teen who, along with his pal Neckbone, stumbles upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey)—a mysterious man marooned on a deserted island off the Mississippi. Soon, the boys are roped into a plot to reunite Mud with his longtime love, played by Reese Witherspoon. With its magnetic performances—in particular McConaughey as the tattooed mystical figure—and lyrical imagery, it’s like a spiritual nephew of Beasts of the Southern Wild; a dark Southern fairy tale.

Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures

12. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, this freewheeling black comedy from filmmaking icon Martin Scorsese dramatizes the rise and fall of Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hedonistic, money-laundering stockbroker during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. It’s three hours of insane depravity, featuring little person-tossing, mounds of cocaine, orgies, and more—anchored by dementedly awesome performances from DiCaprio and Jonah Hill as his partner in crime. The film also features fine turns by newcomer Margot Robbie as Belfort’s sassy Jersey bride and Matthew McConaughey, who will floor you as Belfort’s shady, chest-beating mentor. Scorsese’s Wolf, while overlong, is dizzying, dirty, and brimming with energy.

Nibariki

13. ‘The Wind Rises’

The last movie by legendary Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a young Japanese boy who rises to become a chief designer of fighter planes for his country during World War II. It’s an expansive, fantastical film that also traces a large swatch of Japanese history, from the Great Depression to the rise of fascism, and does a beautiful job juxtaposing the lush animation and fine attention to detail with the grim realities of war. This is an honest, uncompromising work that deserves its rightful place among Miyazaki’s best. He will be sorely missed.

Disney/AP; Fox Searchlight; Daniel Daza; Ken Woroner

Honorable Mentions:

‘All Is Lost’

-J.C. Chandor’s marooned-at-sea epic is virtually dialogue-less, but features a monumental turn by screen legend Robert Redford as a troubleshooting seaman.

‘Enough Said’

-Nicole Holofcener’s charming romantic comedy features a role tailor-made for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a massage therapist searching for love, and is a fitting swan song for the late James Gandolfini, who delivers a tender, heartfelt performance as her schlubby paramour.

‘Frozen’

-Walt Disney Animation Studios has officially overtaken Pixar as top dog with this splendid movie-musical take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen.

‘Stories We Tell’

-Filmmaker Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary on her family is an enthralling investigation into family secrets, and their lasting effects on those they involve.