Top Films of 2013

“Storytelling has gone through a great evolution in today’s culture,” said my pastor on Christmas day sermon, speaking on the technology breakthroughs we’ve made this year through film and television. “The stories that were given to us as a result are for more than just entertainment,” he said. “They were given to us as insight for the ears and for the heart.”

Oh man, is he right. 2013 was one heckuva year for movies, and while I can’t necessarily say that it was better than last year (With The Avengers and Argo and all), it certainly didn’t let me down. Just like any other year in my career, the movies have never dissapointed me.

Unfortunately, if I want to remain “hip” or “relevant” in today’s culture, I have to do the long-dreaded top ten list. Did I mention before how much I hate doing these? While I like highlighting the best films among the year, I hate placing one film over another, like one of them inherently did something wrong to not fight for one spot higher. Can’t we just appreciate the films for what they are and be done with it?

Faithful readers will remember that I had trouble making this same list last year. I was so intent and so focused on rushing my 2012 list out there in a timely fashion that I left out a few notable pictures that I haven’t been given the chance to see yet, including Les Miserables, The Hunger Games and Beasts of The Southern Wild. I eventually re-wrote my top ten list and published it in late February, leaving out movies such as The Amazing Spider-man and Prometheus off of my list.

So what makes this year different from last year? I’m more sure of myself. I’ve given considerable thought to the movies I’ve seen, what movies others have seen and what has made the greater impact on me this year. I’ve also covered more ground than I did last year, and I saw more of the contenders that people will be paying close attention to come awards season. In short, dear reader, I have improved. As a critic, as a writer, and as a media analyst overall.

Keep two things in mind when reading this list. I look at these movies based on their own merit, specific to their genre, why they may or may not appeal to you, and why you should go and see them. I’m not going to judge Star Wars in the same way I judge Schindler’s List, and neither should you. I also have not seen every film released this year, so I sadly can’t give credit to those movies I haven’t seen. That includes movies such as Wolf Of Wall StreetHer, and perhaps most disappointingly, Fruitvale Station.

Despite that, I’m confident that these are my favorite pictures of the year, and that many of them will be your favorites as well. All ten of the movies you are about to see made a significant impact on me this year. They’ve delighted me. Entertained me. Gave me insight on issues I knew little about. But most importantly, they’ve reached emotional levels so personal that it’s hard to find someone who wasn’t affected by them this year.

If you are still reading my inexhaustible bantering, it means you are still interested in my top picks of the year (which indeed is very shocking to me). Let’s begin:

10) STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

A sequel of excellent caliber, a science-fiction film that not only lives up to its fans’ expectations, but in many ways, surpasses them. After Captain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) betrays Star Fleet, attacks their headquarters and flees to a Klingon planet, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are assigned to track down Harrison and bring him in, but soon discover a dark secret in his past that will change their lives forever. This movie is everything that a great sequel is supposed to be: exciting, engaging, suspenseful, emotive, and reminiscent of the original. It lacks the originality as it’s predecessor, but that hardly matters: the script is brilliant, director J.J. Abrams is great, and the fight sequences are exhilarating. Cumberbatch is irreplaceable. Three and a half stars

9) MAN OF STEEL

An ambitious and action-packed thrill ride giving new energy and enthusiasm to a cherished American franchise. When Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) discovers that he is a descendent of an extinct alien race from the planet Krypton, Clark needs to embrace his superhuman abilities and become the symbol of hope destined to inspire humanity. Directed by Zack Snyder (300), produced by Christopher Nolan (Inception) and written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Man Of Steel is a superhero epic that fires on all cylinders. The cast is great, the visual effects are striking, the story is compelling, and it looks at Superman from a more humanistic perspective, as an outsider trying to fit in to a world where he doesn’t belong. The definition of a Hollywood Blockbuster. Four stars.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.8) 42

A gripping, well-written sports story with a great cast to compel us through it. Chronicling the true story of the first professional African-american ballplayer in American history, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is asked by baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to play for the dodgers and unite a country through a time of separation. Written and directed by Brian Hedgeland, 42 does a good job switching between emotions, from that of anger and disappointment to that of happiness and endearment. Ford is good as the headstrong and stubborn Rickey, but the surprise performance comes from the little-known Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Jackie so well that its nearly impossible to think of anyone else portraying him. You’re not watching a movie when you watch 42. You’re watching a legacy. Four stars.

7) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

An exciting account on true events that somehow remains suspenseful, despite knowing how its going to end. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) leads the cargo ship Maersk Alabama over the pacific ocean when a band of pirates attack the ship, kidnap Phillips, and take him hostage. Now with the Navy and the U.S. Government looking for the pirates at every turn, the quest to find the pirates quickly turns to a race against time to find and save the selfless captain. Paul Greengrass, who helmed the Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum films, pioneers Hanks through this suspense thriller, and his expert timing combined with Hanks’ heartfelt performance made this film feel very real and fluid. The editing is tight, clean and efficient, cutting in and out at precise moments to give us the most tension and unease.  A convincing portrayal of events that is excellent at orchestrating emotions. Four stars.

6) SAVING MR. BANKS

A nostalgic, heartfelt, genuinely touching film about an author worried about her work similar to how a mother worries over her child. Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) is the author of her acclaimed series of her “Mary Poppins” books, and her war of the creative rights with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is nearing its end. However, after confronting her own past and getting to know Walt a little better, Pamela begins to feel more at ease sharing her story not only with Walt, but with the rest of the world. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that bounces in between emotions like a kid does inside a bounce house. Hanks is good as Walt Disney, but surprisingly, he isn’t the highlight performance. Emma Thompson is the driving force behind this biopic, delivering a performance so versatile and demanding that she comes to identify the film entirely through her own character. The most magical moment comes when Ms. Travers watches Walt’s film adaptation of Mary Poppins for the first time. Four stars.

5) RUSH

An unstoppable and uncontrollable rush of energy, excitement, and gravitas, a movie that starts on a high note and simply refuses to let up all the way through. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a hot-headed racer who knows nothing except instinct and winning. Nicki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a german racer who knows nothing except business and blunt honesty. Together these two rivals inspire and fuel each other’s ambition to outdo the other and win first place in the 1976 Formula One Season. This is a movie that is compelled by truth and driven by accuracy, pun intended. Hemsworth and Bruhl are perfect as Hunt and Lauda, their edginess and animosity apparent in every scene, never once breaking character. Ron Howard is documenting the film more than making it, and with the help of his screenwriter Pete Morgan and his editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, he makes a biographical picture that is both relevant and exciting for its audience. An incredibly driven film that is entirely, unforgettably awesome. Four stars.

4) THE BUTLER

An earnest, humble film, parts approachable and observant yet equally ambitious and honest. Forest Whitaker plays as Cecil Gaines, a black butler who grew up during the slave era, growed up learning how to be a white man’s servant, got a job at the White House, and continued to serve there for almost 35 years. As he watches history pass him by from President Eisenhower all the way up until President Regan, Cecil recounts how he’s changed as a husband and as a father and what it means to be a free black man in America. Lee Daniels directs an all-star cast through this gripping, emotionally overwhelming story, with actors like Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Mariah Carrey in it just to name a few. The best performances come from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, whose performances at many times carry the film on their own merit. A film that looks into the reality of circumstances and shows them exactly how they were, no matter how tragic or heartbreaking they were. Four stars.

3) THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

A tense, gripping, and pulsating film crackling with energy and drama. Taking place after their victory at the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) try to re-adjust to their normal life until President Snow (Donal Sutherland) declares that the 75th Hunger Games will feature all of the previous winners, including Katniss and Peeta. Now shoved back into the horrid games that scarred her in the first place, Katniss must find a way to not only survive the games with Peeta, but to retain her humanity after everything is over. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Catching Fire is the film that is everything the first thing was except more. The story is captivating, compelling, and deeply emotional. The themes are deep, powerful, and maddening. And the cast is more than exceptional, with Lawrence’s heartbreaking expressions at the center of it all. Not only one of the best sequels of the year, but one of the best movies of the year, period. Four stars.

2) GRAVITY

A film for a generation, a picture so convincing in its approach that its nearly impossible to think that it wasn’t even filmed in space. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer out on her very first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When debris suddenly strikes their station and leaves them astray, Stone and Kowalski need to fight to survive and find their way home back to planet Earth. There is literally not a single technical fault in the film. The visual effects are stunning, eye-popping, and visually-breathtaking. The cinematography by Emanuel Libewski is poignant, curious, and masterfully constructed. But the most credit needs to go to writer-director Alfonso Cuaron, who is so precise with the film’s visuals, story and Bullock’s performance that he makes the film just as emotional as it is anticipative and on the edge of your seat. It blurs the line in between science fiction and science reality, and is probably the best space movie I’ve ever seen. Four stars.

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE

One of the best films of the year, and among the best on the subject of racism and slavery. Based on the true story of a free man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), 12 Years A Slave chronicles his story of being drugged, captured, and sold into slavery for over a decade of his life. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) 12 Years A Slave is this year’s frontrunner of the Oscar for best picture, and it’s very deserving of that title. Not only is it tragic, maddening, and heartbreaking all at once: it is a very diverse and well-made film. The cinematography by Sean Bobbit is lush, broad, and captivating. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is slow and dreary, the third of his movies this year to be featured on this list. Ejiofor, however, is the star of this show, with his passionate, tearjerking performance driving us to care for this character and feel what he is feeling. Compels you to experience compassion and sympathy in ways almost no other film can do. Not even with Schindler’s List. Four stars.

Whether you’re a dedicated movie lover or simply a casual viewer, I encourage all of you to see the movies on this list. They did more than impact me: they touched and inspired the people all around me.

-David Dunn

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