Has 2013 been a good year for film? Undoubtedly. Just listen to these honorable mentions that didn’t make this annual exercise of hair-pulling cinematic evaluation; “Philomena,” “Enough Said,” “Despicable Me 2,” “All is Lost,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Way Way Back,” and “Captain Phillips,” to name a few.
The following countdown may not all be five-star films, or have grossed record breaking amounts at the worldwide box-office, but they resonated on a level which has made them stand out from a mightily impressive crowd. Ladies and gentleman, we give you, in our humblest opinion, the best films of the last twelve months.
10. ‘The Conjuring’
Before moving onto the mechanics of turbo charged cars with the “Fast and Furious” franchise, director James Wan unleashed a late summer double-header that showcased mechanics of different kind, those within the horror genre.
“Insidious 2” was divisive, expanding on the weirdness a little too much, but this greatest hits haunted house horror was a superb throwback to when scares were achieved with imagination, storytelling, and hardly any CGI.
“The Conjuring” wasn’t a reinvention of the genre, but a pic’n’mix of years of exhausted tropes that were stripped back, reworked, and sewn into a slow-burn narrative which had audiences making sure that they covered their feet when they went to bed at night.
Disney has long been associated with the “return to form” tag each time the Magic Kingdom churns out animated fare. And let’s be honest, anything post-“Home on the Range” was going to be considered “classic” by comparison.
“Frozen” is the icicle-style peak of a cumulative process of getting the princess story right. “The Princess and the Frog” was wonder-wrapped in weird, before the pastel hued beauty and hit-and-miss songs of “Tangled” signaled there might be a happily ever after, after all.
And even though this does follow the template laid out by Rapunzel’s tale a little too closely, terrific songs from “The Book of Mormon” writers, memorable characters, and two strong female leads ensure that this is the best Disney animation since the era of Alan Menken, singing candles, and Mermaids with dinglehoppers.
8. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Kathryn Bigelow‘s 157-minute visual dossier chronicling the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden managed to belie that necessary running time and the jargon heavy, fact laden script, to inform, thrill, challenge and stimulate you as it snowballed towards that early morning raid in Abbottabad.
It’s not an overstatement to say that this was a movie of our times. It’s all anchored by Jessica Chastain’s understated performance as the devoted agent Maya. The film was, much like her character, hard to love, but made with such a real world immediacy and meticulous hand, that you get the feeling this will be revered in the decades to come.
7. ‘Frances Ha’
Hands down, one of the best scenes of 2013 was Greta Gerwig’s monochrome dance through the streets of New York accompanied by David Bowie. It was a moment which perfectly encapsulated the character at the heart of Noah Baumbach’s wonderful human study.
Film could draw criticize for its pretentious depiction of disenfranchised couch-surfers who still manage to attain a level of affluence and then moan about it, but Gerwig’s realization that she might need to grow up should strike a chord with anyone willing to stick with this infectious slice of life.
6. ‘The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’
With the second installation of the Hobbit series, director Peter Jackson mastered the balance between the light, children’s-book tone of “The Hobbit,” while retaining the darkness of his three previous “Lord of the Ring” blockbusters.
The film’s atmospheric rendering of Middle Earth brings audiences even closer to the action—especially handy when they meet the most menacing, magnificent cinematic dragon to date or watch the heroes fight orcs while floating down a river in barrels, a scene that produced the largest belly laugh of all five movies to date.
5. ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’
Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore film was a Greek tragedy displaced as a slice of backwater Americana. Bold, ambitious, unquestionably uneven, this tale of patriarchal struggles echoes through generations of two families.
The film challenged the viewer to stick with it, especially after an early, entirely unexpected twist. But due in no small part to some great work from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Dane Dehane, the audience’s patience is rewarded with a layered, sweeping drama, steeped in the tradition of some the greatest American fables.
4. ‘The Kings of Summer’
This word-of-mouth festival breakout is still largely unseen by many. It was only released for a short theatrical run when initial screening reactions prompted the distributors to open it in limited release.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s film is a snapshot in the lives of three friends who share a summer building a ramshackle hut in a clearing in the woods, where they tackle adolescent issues such as fights over girls and random wildlife attacks.
It is tender, weird, and wonderfully acted by the trio of young boys, and the effort required to track it down is fully rewarded. Viewed through an achingly honest lens, one which transcends the conventions usually associated with a film like this, “Kings of Summer” is the undiscovered gem of 2013.
3. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
Llewyn Davis’s failed career as a folk singer is proof that talent alone, no matter how great, does not trump fate. In this film, based on a true story, the stars align against our hero. It is a fascinating take on a performer who hasn’t made it—a sort of antidote to “A Star Is Born.”
The story is made complete by the exquisite soundtrack of the ‘60s, compiled under the direction of American musician and songwriter T -Bone Burnett.
The actors involved have never given better performances. John Goodman seems almost to burst into the viewer’s lap; F. Murray Abraham burns through the screen. Oscar Isaac in the titular role seems to exude star quality even though the script may disagree.
Is there any more hyperbole that we can throw the way of “Gravity”? It has had a debris-field’s worth of praise battering it relentlessly since release. So why doesn’t the single greatest cinematic viewing experience since “Jurassic Park” sit atop this chart? The key word is “experience,” for that’s what “Gravity” is.
The merits of it as a film can be weighed up when re-watched on DVD, where it will no doubt lose a lot of the impact, but will still reverberate as an exciting human thriller. For now, in the immediate aftermath, with palms barely dry from tension-ridden multiple viewings, it remains grandiose art, filmmaking of its time, all masterfully orchestrated by Alfonso Cuaron.
1. ’12 Years a Slave’
“12 Years A Slave” extinguishes any remnant of nostalgia remaining of America’s ugly slave history. Director Steve McQueen artfully builds the dozen-year long trials and tribulations of kidnapped free man Solomon Northup, played by British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the role of his lifetime.
“Schindler’s List” was perhaps the definitive artistic Holocaust movie. “12 Years a Slave” is hands-down the definitive depiction of slavery in America.
Heart-wrenching and rightfully shocking to the core, “12 Years a Slave” is the Epoch Times’s top movie of the year because of its ultimately life-affirming message, historical importance, and superb artistic handling.
Mark Jackson, Epoch Times Staff, and Diana Barth also contributed to this list. Follow Matthew Rodgers on twitter: @MainstreamMatt