1. To the Wonder
Picking your favorite movie of the year is kind of like falling in love. You know you’re crazy about it, don’t care what others think but hope they meet your choice with approval. There were some great movies in 2013, but the one I loved the most was Terrence Malick’s bittersweet love story. Ben Affleck stars as an introverted Man’s Man, unable to fully give himself emotionally to his new bride, a French single mother (Olga Kurylenko, in one of the year’s best performances). The return of a long lost love (Rachel McAdams, who’s devastating) only complicates matters. Challenging, like Malick’s other films, as there’s little dialogue and the camera lingers on visual wonders and gorgeous landscapes more than the loose story. This is pure cinema, a treasure chest of dreamlike imagery, sublime music and cinematography, emotionally raw performances and thoughtful explorations of love and faith. It divided audiences and critics but in years to come, I believe this will stand as one of Malick’s most personal, haunting and artistically rich experiments. It moved me deeply and I hope adventurous filmgoers will seek it out.
2. Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give acting turns that will stun and exhilarate their longtime fans. This look at the early days of HIV awareness and treatment is surprisingly hilarious and never remotely sentimental. It alternates between being edgy, crowd pleasing and daring, at the same time, it avoids being preachy or political. Instead, it finds the human center of its characters by showing them at their most unguarded, complex and messiest.
Few films in recent years have given audiences this much awe. As a human drama, it’s a gut-wrenching survival tale, with Sandra Bullock in a career-best performance. As a way of taking audiences somewhere they’ve never been before and making outer space more scarily vivid than it’s been in previous films, Alfonso Cuaron uses special effects masterfully, not to create CGI distractions, but as a storytelling tool.
4. Before Sunrise
The third, and best so far, in Richard Linklater’s series of films about a Gen-X couple (the wonderful pairing of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) contemplating just how far they want to take their attraction towards one another. This one is funnier and sexier than the others and concludes in a way both fittingly open-ended and totally satisfying. For romantics in search of something meatier than Must Love Dogs, here’s a date movie that knows how wonderful (and how much work) a committed relationship can be.
5. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
This film exudes the same kind of exhilarating energy, passionate filmmaking and ability to keep audiences riveted as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Idris Elba portrays Nelson Mandela’s remarkable evolution, from trial lawyer to imprisoned opposition leader, with the same urgency and bravado as the film itself.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese, now 71, somehow got an American studio to fund his $100 million, sexually explicit American epic about our insatiable attraction to self-destructive millionaires. The work from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jonah Hill and Rob Reiner is outstanding and so is Scorsese’s ability to keep us glued to a remarkably raunchy but enormously entertaining cautionary tale on the perils of excess.
7. Side Effects
Most audiences missed Steven Soderbergh’s shocking thriller, which came and went without much fanfare in January. If you know nothing about it, good–you’re the perfect person to see this. If you love suspense and jaw-dropping plot twists, seek this one out. One of Soderbergh’s best, it showcases a terrific performance by Rooney Mara.
8. The Grandmaster
Wong Kar Wai’s hypnotic film creates a sensual swirl of imagery that seduces its audience. Portraying the life of Ip Man, the martial arts master who later became Bruce Lee’s teacher, Tony Leung’s imposing charisma carries the film, which alternates between re-telling China’s 20th century history with incredible action sequences. A kung fu art movie, it stands as one of the most ambitious in its genre, a romantic, rapturous, flying kick of an epic, comparable to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
9. Fruitvale Station
This soulful, compassionate film manages to take a horrible, sensationalist news story and make it a down-to-earth character piece. Octavia Spencer’s utterly naturalistic performance is piercing and so is the ending, which will remind many of Do the Right Thing.
10. Monsters University
A big comeback for Pixar, no movie made me laugh harder all year. All the heart, imagination and belly laughs you expect, in a winning comedy about never underestimating the power of the underdog. If Pixar wants to take another step back and cast Billy Crystal and John Goodman in Monsters Kindergarten, I’m there.
Photo from To The Wonder: Movieweb