Top 10 Movies of 2013

2013 was a memorable year for movies, with a lot of great stories told. But not a single “perfect” 5-star movie for me. It’s the only year since the 1970’s that I don’t currently have at least one 5-star film for the year. That’s kind of surprising to me now that I know about it. I’ve seen 60 movies that were released in 2013 so far, but none of them grabbed me as being worthy of 5 stars…at least not yet. Maybe one or more of these films will move up at some point down the road, which has happened for other years. But I’ll settle for the 40 great to outstanding films I saw in the 3.5 to 4.5 star range for now. That’s probably better than most years.

My Top 10 is an eclectic mix of mainstream and indie films that range in box office receipts from $800 thousand to $800 million. So there’s probably at least one movie that you saw and one movie that you didn’t see. It’s exciting to see movie making at every level each year, bringing small films that surprise me at the last minute along with blockbusters that are expected years in advance. 3 of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 actually made it on this list: Man of Steel, Mud, and 12 Years a Slave. Most of the other films I anticipated were very good, but they just weren’t good enough for this list. With all of this said, on to the list:

10.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (4 stars)

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9.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  (4 stars)

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8.  Kill Your Darlings  (4 stars)

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7.  Prisoners  (4 stars)

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6.  Man of Steel  (4 stars)

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5.  Mud  (4 stars)

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4.  Captain Phillips  (4 stars)

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3.  12 Years a Slave  (4 stars)

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2.  Disconnect  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Before Midnight  (4.5 stars)

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The best and most surprising movie watching experience of 2013 for me was the “Before” Trilogy of movies from writer/director Richard Linklater. I had not seen either of the first 2 films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), until a few weeks ahead of the release of Before Midnight in May. They just weren’t on my radar of interest until I saw the trailer for Before Midnight and heard the buzz out of Sundance. So I rented the first 2 films on DVD from Netflix and got to work. Before Sunrise was great (4 stars). But it was Before Sunset (4.5 stars) that really grabbed me emotionally and then made me appreciate Before Sunrise even more. And Before Midnight (4.5 stars) just cemented the trilogy into my heart and head forever. There’s something about these 2 characters, Jesse and Celine, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, that just capture something very real and human. Their relationship has gone through a roller coaster ride over 18 years and it’s amazing to see these actors age on screen and off in these roles and develop their lives as these characters and as actors. There’s really no other series of movies quite like the Before Trilogy. And that’s a big part of why Before Midnight is my #1 movie of 2013. It was a coin toss between Disconnect and Before Midnight, but I went with Before Midnight because of the weight of all 3 movies connecting with me.

Disconnect is a greatly under appreciated film that has been completely overlooked by critics during the end of year awards. Which is extremely sad to me because it’s both classic in terms of good storytelling and modern in its plot details and execution. The cinematography, music and performances in Disconnect are among the best of the year. Jason Bateman is fantastic as a frazzled father of a son who attempts suicide. And the rest of the ensemble cast deliver standout characters that feel fully alive and fleshed out as real human beings. Disconnect is the film I wish Crash (2004) had been.

As for the rest of my list, each film featured great scenes with incredible cinematic experiences. All 10 of these movies are stories I will definitely revisit over the years and experience again. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of these will endear themselves to me in a way that elevates them to “perfect” status with 5 stars. That’s the beauty of movies…the best ones almost always get better over time.

 

Top 10 Movies of 2005

Solid movies from 2005. All are easily re-watchable and have improved with age.

10.  Hitch  (4 stars)

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9.  Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith  (4 stars)

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8.  Two For the Money  (4 stars)

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7.  Munich  (4 stars)

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6.  Batman Begins  (4 stars)

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5.  Prime  (4 stars)

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4.  A History of Violence  (4 stars)

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3.  The New World  (4 stars)

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2.  Cinderella Man  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Brokeback Mountain  (5 stars)

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While Crash (2005) won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, I know I’m not alone in championing Brokeback Mountain as the better film of the two. I like Crash and have given it 3.5 stars out of 5. But in my opinion it’s not in the same league as Brokeback. I’m definitely due to re-watch Crash since I haven’t seen it in over 5 years and I’m curious to see how it stands up now, almost a decade later. But I know that Brokeback Mountain stands up extremely well because I’ve re-watched it several times over the years, most recently in its upgraded Blu-ray format, where it really sings in terms of its cinematography, sound, music and production design…not to mention Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances. I didn’t love Brokeback initially as much as I do now. It’s a subtle, dark and sad movie that’s hard to really love at first. Looking back on Ledger’s sadly short career though, this is the performance I wish he had earned his acting Oscar for. I think it’s his best performance, with his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) next, and then as William Thatcher in A Knight’s Tale (2001).

The bottom line is that director Ang Lee made Brokeback Mountain at a time when nobody really wanted a mainstream “gay” movie, let alone a “gay cowboy” movie starring two straight leading Hollywood men. He broke down the walls of what a good love story could be, making Brokeback a movie that can appeal to anyone of any sexual orientation. It’s a testament to Lee’s incredible craftsmanship and commitment to telling great stories that he went around all the stereotypes that could have made this film a disaster, and focused instead on the characters of Jack and Ennis, humanizing them and helping us expand the boundaries of true love.

Top 10 Movies of 2012

Even though we’re a month into 2013, it usually takes me that long to catch up with and finish the movies from the previous year, as well as wait for them to be released in my local theaters. I like to see all the movies that I want to see and that I feel I should see (from critic’s POV’s) to fairly weigh in on my Top 10 Movies of any year.

I rate and rank movies both from my perspective and the perspective many critics take of what movies are important and relevant to cinema as an art form and “should” be seen by others. But to try and rate and rank movies without my personal bias for or against a film, as frivolous as that may be sometimes, seems like a completely fruitless exercise. At the end of the day, movies are EXTREMELY PERSONAL to each and every human being, and there’s no way to be some sort of unbiased critic picking “the best” movies for any other person or for the cinematic art form as a whole. So this Top 10 is and always will be my Top 10.

As of the writing of this post, I’ve seen 67 movies released in the U.S. in 2012, most of them in the theater on the big screen. And here are my Top 10 from that selection:

10.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower  (4 stars)

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9.  The Master  (4 stars)

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8.  Robot & Frank  (4 stars)

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7.  Skyfall  (4 stars)

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6.  The Hunger Games  (4 stars)

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5.  Safety Not Guaranteed  (4 stars)

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4.  Argo  (4 stars)

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3.  The Impossible  (4.5 stars)

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2.  The Dark Knight Rises  (5 stars)

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1.  Zero Dark Thirty  (5 stars)

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I’ve been torn between Zero Dark Thirty and The Dark Knight Rises as my #1 movie of 2012 for the last month. Flip-flopping back and forth between the two. And that’s the main reason this post is coming out now, seemingly so “late” in the season. The Dark Knight Rises was the only film seriously vying for the top of my list since I saw it twice in July. I kept waiting and waiting for a “better” and more “serious”, “critically important” movie to top it. It seemed like I shouldn’t have The Dark Knight Rises at the top of my list for so many reasons: it wasn’t as great as the two in the trilogy before it to most people (although I like it the best of the three), I’m 39 years old and shouldn’t love a superhero movie so much, I’m a serious dramatic character-driven movie fan, etc. But I flat-out loved the experience I had of seeing, hearing and feeling The Dark Knight Rises in digital IMAX twice this past Summer. It simply grabbed me so viscerally and emotionally and never let go. I still need to watch it a third time in my home theater to see if it holds up as well on the small screen. But on the big screen, it’s hard to beat in so many ways!

I’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty twice on the big screen as well. And the last 30 minutes of that movie are some of the best in movies, period. And now I’ve settled on Zero Dark Thirty as my #1 movie of 2012 because I think it has one little thing going for it that The Dark Knight Rises does not: the real history of the events at the center of the story (regardless of their supposed level of accuracy). While both movies have incredible villains at their core, there’s some kind of gravitas to ZDT’s hunt for Bin Laden in response to the terrible tragedy of 9/11. It just grabs me as being so relevant to my own life and the lives of everyone on the planet, which took a dramatic turn for different because of that event. The Dark Knight Rises is very relevant too, in a more abstract way. But over time, I predict Zero Dark Thirty will be a movie I choose to re-watch more than The Dark Knight Rises, and that is always a factor in ranking my films, as “arbitrary” and personal as it may be.

As always, there were a number or great movies that didn’t make this list of 10…at least not yet! Over time, a couple might sneak in…you never know. Here are 15 other movies that were in considered for this Top 10 and round out what would be my Top 25 Movies of 2012:

11. End of Watch  (4 stars)
12. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (3.5 stars)
13. Lincoln  (3.5 stars)
14. Prometheus  (3.5 stars)
15. Life of Pi  (3.5 stars)
16. Sound of My Voice  (3.5 stars)
17. Your Sister’s Sister  (3.5 stars)
18. The Lucky One  (3.5 stars)
19. Killing Them Softly  (3.5 stars)
20. Promised Land  (3.5 stars)
21. The Bourne Legacy  (3.5 stars)
22. Flight  (3.5 stars)
23. Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (3.5 stars)
24. The Grey  (3.5 stars)
25. Lawless  (3.5 stars)

Top 10 Movies of 2006

2006 brought a really interesting mix of movies, both big and small, covering a mix of genres. Some of these movies I’ve watched over and over multiple times, enjoying them more and more on each subsequent viewing, like Little Miss Sunshine and The Last Kiss. I own most of these movies on blu-ray and like to revisit them in regular rotation, escaping in to the worlds they so nicely create.

10.  Apocalypto  (4 stars)

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9.  Inside Man  (4 stars)

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8.  Notes on a Scandal  (4 stars)

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7.  Little Miss Sunshine  (4 stars)

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6.  Blood Diamond  (4 stars)

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5.  300  (4.5 stars)

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4.  The Last Kiss  (4.5 stars)

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3. The Departed  (4.5 stars)

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2.  United 93  (5 stars)

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1.  The Prestige  (5 stars)

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It’s a tough choice between The Prestige and United 93 for my #1 movie of 2006. Both films completely envelop you in their worlds and connect with you on so many levels. It wouldn’t surprise me if these two go back and forth for the title now and then. United 93 is by far the best film about the September 11 attacks on America still to this day. It’s absolutely riveting and chilling every time, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. British writer/director Paul Greengrass did something no American dared do, tell the story of 9-11 so that we can cathartically heal from it and understand it on a realistic level from many points of view and not just from the “Let’s go kill them there terrorists” George Bush line of thinking. That being said, The Prestige is another Christopher Nolan film that so justly shows why Nolan is simply one of the best working directors today. In the hiatus between his first two Batman movies, he popped out this magical mystery thriller with Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale. The cinematography, production design, acting, sound, music, editing, and every other possible facet of filmmaking is on gorgeous craftsmanlike display in The Prestige. And much like Inception, Nolan leaves us with a huge question mark at the end of The Prestige that sinks in to your psyche and never quite gets out. And each time you watch it, you get caught up in it again. The magic of Nolan is that he somehow keeps making fantastic films time after a time. He’s a real magician himself.

Safety Not Guaranteed

MOVIE RATING:  4 stars (B+)

What a surprise of a movie!! It’s just awesome when you go into a theater for a film with no expectations for it to be as good as it ends up being. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) is one of those rare theatrical treats. It just blew my mind at how fun and heartfelt it was considering its humble roots. It’s a real testament to the power and potential of indie filmmaking in this day and age when the democratization of filmmaking is better than its ever been. Jus as the poster promises, if you liked Little Miss Sunshine (2006), then you’ll probably dig this one. Not because the stories are similar, but because they’re both filled with quirky and interesting characters that are on personal journeys.

Written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow, Safety Not Guaranteed is the first feature film for both. And they really hit a home run (or at least a triple) with this one. The writing is superb with realistic dramatic dialog paired with great comedic punches. I laughed, I cried and really connected with the story on an emotional level. And of course that’s in large part due to the phenomenal acting from Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Karan Soni. The chemistry and camaraderie is just spectacular among these actors. They pulled off a story that in the hands of lesser actors, could go wrong really quickly.

With beautiful cinematography, good production design, solid editing and music that helps emphasize the story without overpowering it, Safety Not Guaranteed is guaranteed to take you away into a story that’s both believable and unbelievable. I really don’t want to say anymore because most of the fun of this film is knowing nothing going in. So I’ll leave my review at that.

 

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Check out details on this film and its Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

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MOVIE RATING:  4 stars (B+)

Being that I’m 50% Swedish and that I’ve visited Sweden 3 times in my life so far (with a 4th coming in 2015), I’m always interested in movies from the homeland. Whether it’s movies set in Sweden, filmed in Sweden, about Swedes, starring Swedes, or made by Swedes. Combine that with one of my favorite directors of all time, David Fincher, and one could easily say I had “MASSIVE” expectations for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). As my #1 Most Anticipated Movie of Fall 2011, director David Fincher’s english-language remake of the Swedish film had a lot to live up to. And it kind of didn’t initially. When I first saw the movie in the theater late last year, I was a bit disappointed. It just wasn’t exactly what I expected. I thought it lacked the extremely sharp and intelligent writing and feel of The Social Network (2010), Se7en (1995), and Fight Club (1999). Of course the acting, production design, cinematography, editing, sound, and music are all stellar and as good as any of Fincher’s finest films. But the story just didn’t grab me like those three masterpieces at first. I now see I was a bit too harsh on it. So I’ve upgraded my initial rating of 3.5 stars to 4 stars.

Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård and the rest of the supporting cast give absolutely wonderful performances. The casting was spot on. Yorick van Wageningen was an incredible discovery as the man that tortures and rapes Lisbeth Salander. As with every Fincher film, the production design is so perfectly detailed and brought to life that I felt completely like I was in Sweden (as I remember it from my trips), down to the details of the open-faced sandwiches. Donald Graham Burt is a master Production Designer, and that’s evidenced by his incredible filmography. Of course Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is hypnotizing, surprisingly appropriate, and flat out original. I don’t know how these guys come up with their music, and how Fincher and his editing team incorporate these pieces so well, but they did it again after nailing it on The Social Network (2010).

I really can’t say enough about how beautiful and perfect the cinematography is by Jeff Cronenweth and his team. Shot entirely on Red digital cinema cameras, mostly the Red Epic, TGWTDT reminds us all why film is basically dead as the primary medium for making movies today. With the Red Epic and Arri Alexa digital cinema cameras, the imagery and dynamic range that can be captured in various lighting conditions is simply the best its ever been in the digital age. And Cronenweth really knows how to use his Red tools. You can take just about any and every frame from the movie (all 227,520 of them), and look at it as a piece of still art work.

The editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall provided a technically perfect edit that seamlessly marriages dialog, visuals, sound effects, music, and graphics, but I do think TGWTDT suffers from a pacing problem in its storytelling sometimes. It stalls and lags at times, causing me to lose interest. Whether that’s an issue of writing within the screenplay from screenwriter Steven Zaillian, or an editing issue, I’m not totally sure. I haven’t seen the original Swedish movie or read the original Stieg Larsson novel, so it’s hard to say if it’s in the translation from Swedish to English, or from book to film, or if it’s just David Fincher’s style. I do think the pacing is less of an issue on repeated viewings when one knows what’s going to happen and where its going. But that’s true of most movies. Regardless, I do think this was a very successful remake of a foreign language film that brought an original approach to the material and a new style and feel to it to appeal to an American audience. I actually hope they do remake the other 2 films in the trilogy.

 

The teaser trailer below absolutely blew me away when I first saw it. Trent Reznor’s remake of the classic Led Zeppelin tune “Immigrant Song” was just so freaking fantastic paired with the slick imagery and fast editing, that it propelled TGWTDT to the top of my most anticipated movies list. Next to the trailer for The Tree of Life (2011), this was one of the best movie trailers last year, or any year.

 

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Check out details on this film and its Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.

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Top 10 Movies of 2007

2007 was a year that many movie lovers consider one of the best of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Mainly because of There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, the two epic Americana movies that battled it out for Best Picture at the Oscars. While I cheered for No Country For Old Men to win back in the Spring of 2008, I now believe There Will Be Blood is the much better film and the one that should have won Best Picture. But regardless, both are great movies that I own on blu-ray and appreciate much more now, 5 years later, than I did back in 2007.

10.  The Invisible  (4 stars)

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9.  Elizabeth: The Golden Age  (4 stars)

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8.  Dan In Real Life  (4 stars)

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7.  Gone Baby Gone  (4 stars)

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6.  Into the Wild  (4 stars)

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5.  No Country For Old Men  (4 stars)

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4.  Fracture  (4 stars)

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3.  The Bourne Ultimatum  (5 stars)

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2.  There Will Be Blood  (5 stars)

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1.  Sunshine  (5 stars)

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I’ve really come around on P.T. Anderson’s groundbreaking film There Will Be Blood. While I appreciated it and liked it on first viewing, it’s taken the last 5 years and 2 additional viewings to really fall in love with it. If I had made this Top 10 list at this time last year, There Will Be Blood wouldn’t have even made it on the list, but now it’s sky rocketed into #2 after my purchase of it on blu-ray and subsequent third viewing. Part of my wants it to be #1 because it’s the more respected and cinematic choice, but if you ask me which movie I want to watch more, There Will Be Blood or Sunshine, most times, I’d pick Sunshine. Danny Boyle just created such an incredible “world” on the Icarus spacecraft and the one-way trip to blow-up the sun is just such a thrilling concept, that it touched the geek in me. Not to mention the audio and visual elements of the movie are simply spectacular! So for now, Sunshine remains my #1 movie of 2007.