POSTED December 16 2013

14 unforgettable movies of 2013

Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

I never felt comfortable with the idea of a “Top 10” list. It’s impossible to compare apples to mangoes. And even more impossible to rank them on a spectrum of best to tenth best.

This year I use another criterion: movies that stayed with me weeks after I saw them. The list is alphabetical and appended with the moment I can’t forget.

1) Before Midnight In Richard Linklater’s third film about the relationship of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the protagonists are in midlife, imperfectly juggling child custody, two careers, two continents, fidelity, domestic chores and meaning. Moment: “Sometimes I feel like I’m breathing oxygen and you’re breathing helium,” says Celine, contrasting her skepticism with Jesse’s jokey optimism.

2) The Bling Ring  Sofia Coppola’s deadpan satire of the celebrity culture and material possessions that California high-schoolers try to steal for themselves. Moment: A startling high-angle shot of the ring breaking-and-entering a celebrity’s glass-clad house makes the teenagers look like dolls entering a dollhouse.

3) Fill the Void Rama Burshtein’s film,  like a Jane Austen courtship story set in the patriarchal world of The Godfather, follows an 18-year-girl, an Orthodox Jew in Tel Aviv, and the matchmaker’s attempt to find a  mate. Moment: The film’s first sequence,  at a supermarket where girl and her mother are told to spy at a prospective groom in the dairy section.

4) Frozen  Co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Snow Queen” in this musical animation of estranged sisters, one afraid of her power and the other fearful of her sibling’s disconnection. Moment: Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) creates ice castles resembling modernist buildings.

5) Fruitvale Station In Ryan Coogler’s fact-based story, Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Oscar Grant, the young Oakland, CA ex-con who is turning around his life when tragedy strikes. Moments: Oscar’s text messages to his mother and wife (the matchless Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz).

6) Her Spike Jonze’s seriocomic portrait of  a time in the near-future when emotional life is outsourced or electronically mediated. As newly-separated Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) writes intimate birthday and anniversary letters for his clients he grows emotionally attached to his computer’s operating system, Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson). Best moment: When Theodore takes Samantha to the beach.

7) In a World Lake Bell writes, directs and stars in the comedy about a vocal coach who crashes the lucrative and mostly-male world of movie voice-over artists, finding her own voice in the process. Best moment: Bell coaching Eva Longoria to speak like a Cockney.

8) Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Inspired by the true-life story of the White House butler (Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines) who served eight presidents, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong contrast the apolitical witness to history who labored to support his family with his politicized son (David Oyelowo), a player on the stage of history. Indelible performances from the quiet Whittaker and outspoken Oyelowo, likewise Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Moment: The Gaines family dinner where Gaines’ son and his girlfriend have unkind words about Sidney Poitier.

9) Let the Fire Burn Documentary filmmaker Jason Osder answers the question about the 1985 confrontation between members of MOVE and the Philadelphia police: “How did an attempt to evict MOVE members become an inferno that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes?” Using only archival footage, Osder goes deep into the unimaginable. Moment: The conversation between Birdie Africa and Officer Jim Berghaier.

10) Mud Jeff Nichols’ tale of a young boy ( Tye Sheridan) whose parents are breaking up as he tries to reunite a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) with his estranged girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon. It) has the whiff of a modern Huck Finn. Moment: When the boy visits Witherspoon in her motel room.

11) Nebraska Alexander Payne’s story of a fractured family put together again by a road trip contrived to collect a Publisher’s Clearinghouse award. Bruce Dern is the scraggly patriarch, possibly suffering from dementia. Will Forte is his younger son. Moment: Returning the compressor.

12) Saving Mr. Banks  Ostensibly John Lee Hancock’s true-life allegory is about how P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, prickly fun) resisted the attempts of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, wily) to adapt Mary Poppins to the screen. It’s really about the alchemy of how artists transform personal pain into their work. Moment: Emma Thompson entering her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

13) Stories We Tell  Untangling family ties and the strands of her DNA, actress/director Sarah Polley struggles to find the truth of her paternity in a unique cine-memoir where the truth is elusive and documentary conventions are razzed. Moment: The final conversation as the credits sequence begins.

14) What Maisie Knew In the Scott McGehee and David Siegel update of Henry James’ story of a divorce seen through the eyes of a child, Onata Aprile is extraordinary as the title character, the trusting but perplexed six-year old shuttled among parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore) and caregivers. Moment: Maisie dropped off at the bar where her mother’s boyfriend works because there’s no one else to care for her.

Other notable performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo in 12 Years a Slave, Robert Redford in All is Lost and Amy Adams in Her.

For you, what are the most unforgettable movies of the year?



  1. I know I see fewer movies than most, if not all, of the people on this list. I loved Rush, which surprised me a bit, because Ron Howard’s movies usually leave me sort of cold and depressed. But someone finally made a genuinely gripping auto racing drama with a compelling love story in it, i.e., the one between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. There was real “opposites attract” chemistry and a sense of purpose behind their extreme behavior. I hated Gravity (although the special effects were really good) and Thor was horrible.

  2. David Broida says:

    Mud and Nebraska – and, Blue is the Warmest Color –

  3. wwolfe says:

    Much Ado About Nothing. The setting, the quality of light, and several actors giving performances that surprised me (Alexis Denisoff, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher). It managed to be sprightly, while also conveying an undercurrent of the characters being at risk that made it stick with me some five months after seeing it.

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