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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Harper's Top 10 Movies of 2013

2013 was an interesting year for movies.  Yes, we got a lot of the same in terms of sequels, remakes, and the like, but there were some strong moves towards a different playing field for films.  Science fiction and comic book movies continue to rise in the hands of strong auteurs (Gravity) and in more mainstream flicks (After Earth); we've seen many great filmmakers return for their newest features while some relatively new faces made very strong freshman works.  I didn't get to see everything--there are just so many movies and not enough time!--but I like to think I saw a good smattering of films this year.  So, without further ado, here are my top 10 favorite films of 2013!


10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence

I liked the first Hunger Games film.  It had a lot more societal and science-fiction ideas than I expected, and had great action.  However, it felt very self-contained, and I didn't really get a sense of the world these characters lived in.  Catching Fire fixed all that in my eyes.  It took the relatively simple concept and expanded it in a way that was fascinating, suspenseful, and very exciting.  The fact that it prominently featured the main host hotel for DragonCon in the infamous elevator scene didn't hurt either!


9. Pacific Rim
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

This one caught a lot of flak (cough, Kyle!), and while I fully understand those complaints, I could not help but love it.  Sure, the big action was a blast to watch and had me immediately wanting to get action figures and playsets like an 8 year old, but it was the world building that really stuck with me.  The idea of having giant monsters and robots fight is not necessarily new, but seeing what that does to the world, the culture, and its people really raised the stakes for me.  Yes, it was cheesy, and some of the acting wasn't great, but if you didn't walk out pumping your fist and yelling, "Elbow rockets engage!" then you, sir, didn't have a childhood.

  8. Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder

I had problems with this movie.  The first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it, I think.  There were, of course, some issues with the morality of the film in a couple notorious ways, but upon viewing it again, I saw past most of that.  It's a movie that does the scale and power (both physically and symbolically) of Superman justice.  The alien invasion angle was a brilliant way to freshen up a 75-year-old story, and most of the emotional moments rang very true.  In many ways, Man of Steel seems like the impressive but imperfect setup for a grand Superman saga, even more so now that practically the entire DC Universe might as well be in the sequel.  Putting aside those imperfections, though, just seeing this special child born on Krypton among the epic fantasy battle backdrop gets me every time.

 7. Sound City
Directed by Dave Grohl

I only got to see a couple documentaries this year unfortunately, but at least one of them was fantastic.  I'll admit, I've got a big bias as an audio engineer, but this movie was fascinating, fun, and rewarding.  Set against the backdrop of one of the most important studios in America closing its doors and getting rid of its priceless Neve console, Dave Grohl manages to tell a story about American music itself.  Like all great documentaries, it's informative but entertaining, but this one also has a fantastic integrated soundtrack, and anyone would be hard pressed not to find at least one music idol in the film somewhere.

 6. Gravity
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Talk about a spectacle, and one that spread like wildfire.  I was excited for this for quite a long time, being a big fan of Cuaron, and in many ways it was better than I expected.  Sure, it's got some problems that will long be argued in small science-fiction rooms by space geeks for years to come, but no one can deny the beauty and terror that this film encompasses.  The incredible visuals may lose some impact when brought home on blu-ray, but Cuaron was able to add in a lot of nice thematic content that makes it just as interesting upon repeat viewings.

 5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I talked at length about my favorite directing team's newest feature in my review, but suffice to say I enjoyed it very much.  It had wonderful characters, a unique narrative style, a great sense of humor, and a fantastically subtle surreal undertone.  Add in a great soundtrack and you've got a very strong, if not their absolute best, Coen Brothers film.

 4. Before Midnight
Directed by Richard Linklater

Welcome to one of the greatest experiments in movie history.  Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have managed to incredibly successfully add to their once-every-ten-years series.  Before Midnight is superbly and naturally acted and does a better job telling a starkly honest and yet heartrendingly romantic story than perhaps any film ever has.  I always have to remind myself that despite the films very casual and intuitive narrative, Jesse and Celine are not real people.  A totally unique and beautiful film.

 3. Don Jon
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Who would've thought that goofy guy from 3rd Rock from the Sun would become not just a star, but such a thoughtful filmmaker?  I walked into this movie expecting a funny romance capitalizing on the success of The Jersey Shore, but what I got was so much more interesting.  Gordon-Levitt does a masterful job of drawing you in with laugh out loud humor so that when the real story comes out, you are already full on in love with these characters.  Working through a powerfully rhythmic narrative, Don Jon is both an anti-romance and a romance, and manages to bring respect and understanding to a character than initially seems about as interesting as a block of wood.

2. Mud
Directed by Jeff Nichols

I had heard wonderful things about Mud from many friends of mine, but I was totally caught off-guard by how much I adored this movie.  Like Before Midnight, Mud takes a harsher and more human look at love and relationships, but from the perspective of childhood.  There is absolutely no black and white morality, no complete love or hate in any of the main characters, and even those that seem one-dimensional at first (Ellis's father, for example), become some of the most fascinatingly real tertiary characters I've ever seen.  There is something for everyone here: a coming of age story of family and friendship; an adventure that gets out of hand; a crime tale that looms with inevitable doom.  Viewers raved about McConaughey's performance with good reason, but I am infinitely impressed with the performances of Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the two boys wrapped up in Mud's life, who are about as real and raw as any rendition of boyhood friendship I've ever seen.

 1. Stoker
Directed by Chan-wook Park

I'm not seeing this on a lot of best of 2013 lists, and it absolutely baffles me.  One of South Korea's most celebrated filmmakers brought his unique style to a Hitchcock-inspired story filmed in America, and it was everything I was hoping for.  While the numerous Hitchcock references were absolutely wonderful, it was the way in which Park nailed the master of suspense's sense of tension and tone that sealed the deal; the movie is creepy, more than a little disturbing, and scary without being over-the-top, and the violence is so stylized and quiet that it doesn't feel excessive.  The narrative style here, like many of the best Korean New Wave films, is stunningly unpredictable and exciting, and fascinating editing and sound design bring a thrillingly anti-Hollywood feel to the movie.  This is one I could (and have) watch over and over again and never lose any kind of admiration for its bold and unique style.


You can see my complete list of all the 2013 movies I saw this year in order of preference here on Letterboxd.  That way, you know, you can see your favorite movie there and tell me why it should be higher up!

In the meantime, here are the top most anticipated films of 2013 that I have yet to see for various reasons...
  • Her
  • Only God Forgives
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Nebraska
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • All is Lost
  • The Grandmaster
  • This is the End
Will any of these take the spot from one of the above ten films?  Give me your recommendations on Twitter or Facebook!
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