Every year, it seems, as the resources to make great films become more and more readily available, more great storytellers emerge ready to take the stage. But many of the existing elite continue to create some of their best work. Pruning a list of just ten great films from 2013 has been harder than ever before. That said, here are ten that no film lover should pass up:
1. “The Kings of Summer” Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts
This hilarious yet tame coming-of-age comedy is about three teenage boys who decide to run away from home and build a fort in a nearby forest one summer. Astute Disney Channel watchers of a certain age will no doubt recognize Hannah Montana’s Rico (Moises Arias) in what has to be his finest role as Biaggio, the threesome’s quirkiest member. With the entire cast’s amazing comic timing and Chris Galleta’s amazing work as a first-time writer, this film is quickly becoming my favorite in the competitive coming-of-age subgenre.
2. “Nebraska” Dir. Alexander Payne
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the minimalistic drama/comedy “Nebraska” tells the story of an elderly man (played by Bruce Dern of “Marnie” and “Hang ‘Em High”) whose son (played by Will Forte of “Saturday Night Live”) takes him on a trip to redeem a scam letter saying he’s won a million dollars. Along the way, a stop in his hometown reveals old feuds and tenuous relationships.
“Nebraska” is by far Alexander Payne’s finest achievement. It is an incredibly moving masterwork on the subject of respect, empathy and the importance of family. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael does some of the most incredible black-and-white work of the 21st century and anything short of an Oscar for Dern would be a crime.
3. Gravity Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Though it’s easy to discuss “Gravity,” which tells the story of a stranded astronaut (Sandra Bullock) trying to return to earth, only as an effects-heavy visual feast, at its core, it’s a film about letting go. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Tree of Life”) films the story with surprising intimacy and gives Bullock all the room she needs to truly shine. Even audience members unimpressed by her Oscar winning performance in “The Blind Side” will be forced to admit that she is a seriously talented actress.
4. “12 Years a Slave” Dir. Steve McQueen
This film—widely considered the favorite for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards—tells the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Children of Men”) who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s. Hans Zimmer’s haunting score punctuates John Ridley’s incredibly memorable adaptation of Northrup’s own memoir to create one of the most brutal portraits in mainstream cinema of the heinous act of slavery.
5. “The Hunt” Dir. Thomas Vinterberg
In this Danish drama, “Hannibal”’s Mads Mikkelson gives the performance of his career as a Kindergarten teacher accused of sexual behavior towards one of his students. If you’re willing to brave some subtitles—and everyone should be—then you’ll be rewarded with one of the most distinctive and beautifully filmed movies all year.
6. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Dir. Peter Jackson
I wasn’t the world’s largest fan of the first film based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic prequel and I’ve been very concerned about the decision to augment the original text with original material in order to make it fill three films, but “The Desolation of Smaug” really showed that there may be a method to Jackson’s apparent madness. Every moment is totally entertaining and people unfamiliar with “The Hobbit”’s original text don’t even seem to be able to tell what’s new and what isn’t. By all accounts, it’s a smashing success.
7. “Captain Phillips” Dir. Paul Greengrass
This modern ‘shaky cam’ thriller tells the true story of the MV Maersk Alabama, which was boarded by Somali pirates as it crossed the Indian Ocean.
Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “United 93”) has always been extremely capable with the camera, but with “Captain Phillips,” he shows just how well he can work with actors.
8. “Iron Man 3” Dir. Shane Black
I’ve always been more of a DC Comics guy, but with “Iron Man 3,” I’ve been forced to admit that Marvel is really getting film adaptation right. Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Lethal Weapon 2”) directed and co-wrote a phenomenal addition to the Avengers canon with irreverent humor, delightfully original action choreography and stunningly sweeping cinematography.
9. “The Act of Killing” Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer et al.
Over the years, I’ve seen what must amount to hundreds of documentaries, but few have moved and affected me in as dramatic a way as “The Act of Killing.” In the film, Anwar Congo, an Indonesian death squad leader, is invited to re-enact the killings he committed in the style of some of his favorite Hollywood films. Far more than a simple exposé, “The Act of Killing” is a horrifying reminder of the potential for human destruction and devastation.
10. “Upstream Color,” Dir. Shane Carruth
By far the lowest-budget film on this list, “Upstream Color” is an incredibly remarkable achievement. Shane Carruth (Primer), who wrote, acted, directed and filmed, tells an unusual, impressionistic love story worthy of the likes of Terrence Malick or Gaspar Noé. That he was able to accomplish so much for a budget rumored to have been less than $100,000 is nearly unfathomable.