10. The Spectacular Now
This a great little movie that cements Shailene Woodley’s star status. It’s like a less successful The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but that’s not a dig. It just lacks some of Perks’s emotional intensely while being fairly effective on its own. Part of what these films are able to do so well is to tackle the emotionally turbulent lives of teenagers without drowning them in sentimental schlock.
Favorite scene: Sutter’s boss confronts him about being drunk at work.
09. Spring Breakers
Proves that James Franco is both a joke and a genius. One of the boldest, weirdest films this year. With all of the talk of cultural appropriation in 2013, it’s strange that Spring Breakers’s sustained examination of that concept wasn’t at the center of more conversations.
Favorite scene: Any scene in which James Franco says, “Spring break…. Spring brrreaaakk.”
08. Iron Man 3
They gave Tony Stark an anxiety disorder, you guys. An anxiety disorder. And it completely works. Pepper Potts gets to destroy the villain. There’s a really rad riff on the Mandarin. Stark’s attack on the Mandarin’s compound with makeshift gadgets is one of the year’s most thrilling action sequences. There’s so much to love here.
Favorite scene: Pepper Potts gets to be the most powerful woman in the Marvel universe for 30 seconds.
07. Captain Phillips
I feel like Wesley Morris said it all over at Grantland.
Favorite scene: It has to be Tom Hanks’s career-best performance, culminating in an emotionally devastating breakdown after all of the action has ended.
06. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Look, I don’t know how these people are doing it, but they’ve managed two perfect adaptations in a row. Suzanne Collins’s books are excellent, but seeing them realized on screen with such care and thoughtfulness has been a special experience. Catching Fire takes everything that made the first film great, and ratchets it up to 11. Every performance is wonderful, the action is well-shot and propulsive, and the movie really begins to dig into the themes that make the books hit so hard. If they nail Mockingjay, we’re going to be looking at one of the best sci-fi film series of all time.
Favorite scene: District 12’s three victors find out they can’t escape the cruelty of the Capitol.
05. The Wolf of Wall Street
It’s crazy that Martin Scorsese is still such a vital filmmaker at this late stage in his career. Even Spielberg hasn’t been able to keep up, really.
Favorite scene: Obviously it’s DiCaprio’s stunning physical comedy as he tries to get to his car while high as fuuuuuck.
04. 12 Years a Slave
This is great, essential cinema. I might never watch it again. Absurd performances by white people. Get your shit together, white people.
Favorite scene: “I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
03. Before Midnight
There’s a stark and uncomfortable honesty in how this film interrogates its central relationship. Long-term relationships sometimes simmer with unavoidable issues and resentments. This film brings all of that to the fore, and then forces the characters to grapple with it through extended conversations. But really, Jesse is kind of an asshole. Delpy and Hawke are doing the kind of naturalistic work here that’s more or less unparalleled.
Favorite scene: The argument that starts in the hotel suite could be a scene from my life.
Alfonso Cuarón is simply one of the best filmmakers working today. Gravity is an intense thrill ride, a technical marvel that manages emotional resonance even though its script often falls on its face. Thank Sandra Bullock for that.
Favorite scene: Bullock struggles to her feet on the shore of a beach.
The reasons Her works for me are very similar to why I think Before Midnight is such an excellent film. It forces us to grapple with our own shortcomings as both friends and lovers. Painfully, it reminds us that the people in our lives change and grow in ways that we can’t possibly foresee. It challenges us to accept that the people in our lives, as much as we might love them, are ultimately beyond our ability to control. That’s beautiful, and it’s important. This movie reminds me of my favorite line from Life as a House: “Love is not enough.” Even at 14 I knew that was some profound shit.
Manuel Betancourt has a lovely description of why this film works so well.
Favorite scene: Theodore sets up his OS.
Honorable mentions: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Butler