We thought that 2012 was a fantastic year for film, but 2013 turned out to be even better. Not even 50 places seems like quite enough to recognize every great movie that hit theaters over the past 12 months, but we’ve done our best to narrow it down. Nearly 30 staff writers submitted their picks for the top 15 films of the year of the year, and we aggregated the results to come up with the following list. We hope this serves as a reminder of some of the great cinema that was released in 2013 and also lets you know what underseen gems are worth your time to check out.
As always, be sure to let us know what great movies we forgot to include. What does your Top 50 looks like?
Update: Michael Mirasol, with assistance from Ian Jones, has created a short video to showcase the list. We’ve embedded it below, followed by our writers’ insights on each of the films shown.[embedvideo id=”84428020″ website=”vimeo”]
50.) “Frozen” (directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)
For much of this century, Walt Disney Studios appeared to be two steps behind. As their cousins at Pixar and their competition at Dreamworks embraced CG animation and superior storytellers, The Mouse House tripped over their own feet with poor storytelling, underwhelming execution, or sometimes both. For the second time in a generation, the studio needed to try waking Sleeping Beauty. With Frozen, it would appear as though Sleeping Beauty has been roused once again, and this time she’s out of bed and taking the fight to the dragon. The film is backed by some of the best music Disney has featured in a long time, thanks to the songwriting team behind Broadway hits like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Their music brings on a flood of emotions including feelings of independence, defiance, love, desire, humor, and cheek. Sleeping Beauty has grown quite a bit during her sleep and understands that the world around her has changed. The new world is one she no longer needs to be rescued from, nor one where she wants to be rescued. Frozen works well with these ideas to deliver something forceful, stunning, intricate, and loving. - Ryan McNeil
49.) “Wolf Children” (directed by: Mamoru Hosoda)
Perhaps the single most joyful experience I had with a film all year, Mamoru Hosada’s breathtaking animated family drama Wolf Children may seem at first to be a simple film for children. As it progresses, however, we witness over a decade in the lives of its characters in the span of only two hours, and its complexity only grows. The story of a single mother forced to raise a pair of werewolf children after a haunting tragedy, Wolf Children is a cinematic flower, a beautifully simple thing that grows into a breathtakingly gorgeous celebration of life as it flourishes. Both a character study of single motherhood and a wistful coming-of-age tale, a sorrowful parable and a joyous meditation, this might be the first animated film I’ve seen that captures Studio Ghibli magic while still carving out an identity of its own. It’s a rare, mature, lovely work about purpose, family, and beginning anew, and more viewers should seek it out. - Christopher Runyon
48.) “What Maisie Knew” (directed by: Scott McGehee)
Not since 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer has a film so effectively captured the emotional trauma of a divorce and custody battle. What makes What Maisie Knew, based on an 1897 Henry James novel adapted to modern day, even more impressive as a feat of storytelling is that the entire story is told through the eyes of its six-year old protagonist, played by the remarkable Onata Aprile. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan give brave performances as her destructively narcissistic parents, and Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham have terrific chemistry as the divorcees’ new partners who find themselves caring for Maisie. For anyone who has experienced an ugly divorce (as a child or a parent), some of the details here will feel remarkably real. The underrated directing team of Scott McGhee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) have a proven track record of successfully telling stories about children, and What Maisie Knew is their best yet. - Noah Gittell
47.) “Side Effects” (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
The chameleonic Steven Soderbergh reunites with Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for another chilling medical procedural, and the result is one that, like so many of the director’s films over the past 24 years, refuses to conform to genre or expectation. The films of Alfred Hitchcock are perhaps the most obvious inspiration, and not just because of one shocking, disturbingly matter-of-fact instance of violence that sees the film transition from relationship drama to pulpy, paranoid thriller. Jude Law is excellent at the head of a morally ambiguous set of characters, raising troubling questions about an over-prescribed society. The aesthetic, meanwhile, is as refined as in any Soderbergh picture. The cinematography, softly focused, seems both clinical and ethereal, and it is beautifully complemented by Thomas Newman’s eerie, lulling score. Like the characters, at times it feels that we too are slipping, into some half-real, drug-induced dream. - Tom Clift
46.) “20 Feet from Stardom” (directed by: Morgan Neville)
This soul-stirring documentary won my heart with its elegant style and crafty storytelling. 20 Feet from Stardom journeys through the turbulent history of rock and roll sitting next to the courtside seats of backup singers. About a dozen or so female vocalists recount the highs of regular work with legends like The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, and David Bowie, and the dispiriting lows of solo careers that never took off. Stardom is a stunning harmony of colorful anecdotes, sleek graphics, candid backstage stills, and the occasional interjection from a big-name musician. But for once, this show belongs to the ladies behind the band. - Monica Castillo
45.) “Fill the Void” (directed by Rama Burshtein)
It’s hard to turn on the television these days without finding a panel of pundits intensely arguing about the answer to one question: What is marriage? It’s a topic that has attracted controversy for centuries, as what began as an institution based on economics and family planning gradually transformed into one ideally founded on love, and the discussion will undoubtedly continue to evolve alongside society.
Fill the Void follows Shira, an Orthodox Jew living in Tel Aviv who finds herself pressured to marry her brother-in-law after the death of her sister. While the very prospect of an arranged marriage seems outlandish to most Western viewers, director Rama Burshtein finds a way to capture both the advantages and disadvantages of such rigid social structures, recognizing that we’re all constantly facing both outside and internal conflicts regardless of the communities we live in. In doing so, she presents one of the most universal romances in years, questioning how short-term emotions can impact an institution meant to last a lifetime. The film simmers with haunting moments of restraint, as characters find themselves wanting to talk but unsure of what to say, begging for a touch but afraid of what it might mean. What is marriage? For that matter, what is love? Fill the Void recognizes that the struggle to define them is messy, but it’s that confusion that makes them so beautiful. - Andrew Johnson
44.) “The Place Beyond the Pines” (directed by: Derek Cianfrance)
As Derek Cianfrance retained the verite nature of sophomore effort Blue Valentine whilst ballooning his narrative into a generational, Kazan-style family drama, The Place Beyond the Pines found the writer-director bounding forward as an artist. Technically, Pines is a marvel, complete with a finely-calibrated soundtrack and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s richest images to date, but the moments of truth from Cianfrance’s actors provide the emotional highs. Performances are uniformly outstanding, with Bradley Cooper revealing hitherto unplumbed depths and Ryan Gosling tragically exploding his own ice-cool antihero myth, while relative newcomers Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen threaten to walk away with the entire picture. Cianfrance asks questions about life and legacy too meandering for the film’s good, resulting in an admittedly saggier middle section, but he reached way beyond the regular confines of indie cinema with Pines’ episodic, decades-spanning tale, and that cannot be ignored. In fact, it should be celebrated. - Brogan Morris
43.) “Beyond the Hills” (directed by: Cristian Mungiu)
While 2013 may have seen foreign language films take a back seat to the large number of truly great English-language features and documentaries, Romanian cinema and its current king, Cristian Mungiu, hit 2013 with one of its truly great pictures. One of the year’s most intellectually stimulating features, Beyond the Hills is a brazen meditation on the constant fight between religion and superstition, blending some truly dark themes with an oddly entrancing sense of black comedy to make something entirely his own. Without the emotional gut punch that seemed to come in every frame of Mungiu’s masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, this picture truly opens up on multiple viewings, and with its eyes set to the heavens, the film seems Hell bent on questioning their existence entirely. Lyrically shot and chock full of fantastic performances, this is truly one of the great bits of world cinema from the past year. - Joshua Brunsting
42.) “American Hustle” (directed by: David O. Russell)
David O. Russell has a gift for the farce at work in American institutions, and in American Hustle he’s created another gem. After Vietnam and Watergate, the late ’70s were a hotbed of paranoia and self-promotion, creating self-serving con artists, politicians and criminals out to get theirs at the expense of everyone else. Abscam – the real world scandal around which is loosely based – shook the United States to its core. Yet it doesn’t take too much to see the remnants left today. A caper film destined to be included with classics like The Sting, the film has all the manic energy of Martin Scorsese in his Goodfellas-era prime. With the aid of a monstrously talented cast and a director in-tune with his most chaotic instincts, American Hustle succeeds not only in its recreation of the time, but by filling its world with unique, enthralling characters that are sure to delight audiences for a long time to come. - Colin Biggs
41.) “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (directed by: Francis Lawrence)
Based on the popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does not feel like a kids movie. Push away all notions of teen series adaptations, because this is quality filmmaking for all ages to enjoy. It deals with themes that are dark and disturbing, from the opening where we see our heroine Katniss Everdeen dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, to the announcement that she and Peeta have to go back into the games, and the violence and repression of a futuristic society that represents parts of the real world that we may be oblivious to. Catching Fire may stand as a grand metaphor for the way that entertainment and celebrity can control a society, and though it is very grandiose in its themes and execution, it makes for a thrilling experience. The acting is top-notch all around, with Jennifer Lawrence leading the way as a real role model for young girls. The film is filled with emotions, but is also a visual spectacle that you can’t take your eyes off of. Catching Fire is an achievement both as a sequel and as a blockbuster, as it is proof that action and spectacle can come with a great story and characters that are fully developed and that you can have an emotional bond with. - Adriana Floridia
40.) “Viola” (directed by: Matías Piñeiro)
In only his second feature Matías Piñeiro constructs an utterly entrancing film where the stage and life are one and the same. Ostensibly concerning the rehearsals of an all female Shakespearean troupe in Buenos Aires, Viola is far more concerned with the sumptuous pleasures that life, when intertwined with art, has to offer. It is a dazzling piece work in which the very fabric of reality is constantly pulsing and changing and dialogue seamlessly shifts between Shakespearean verse and sensuously charged conversations concerning romance and seduction without notice. Though Viola is seemingly small in scope – the film spends the majority of its hour-long running time confined within the rehearsal space and various apartments – Piñeiro’s lyrical camerawork and rich photography create a vibrant world that cannot be contained: performance is truly not confined to a stage. - Nick Usen
39.) “Much Ado About Nothing” (directed by: Joss Whedon)
The greatest play ever written on the destructive (as well as transformative) power of gossip gets a stunningly effective treatment in this new version, which makes Shakespeare’s language feel as natural as breathing. I chose this as my favorite movie of 2013 simply because it gave me most pleasure: it was so refreshing to see Bard’s source play reimagined as a parlor game for a group of performer friends who become their characters so seamlessly no historical costume is needed. The entire issue of virginity may seem irrelevant to the contemporary setting, but Whedon dodges the anachronism nicely by adding a dash of corporate ruthlessness to the milieu. The conclusion of the play is that “man is a giddy thing,” and this slight but momentous black-and-white movie, made at a time when few directors seem to believe in the redemptive power of elegance, was like a icy glass of water that my mumblecore-infected system badly craved and was grateful for receiving. - Michał Oleszczyk
38.) “This Is the End” (directed by: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen)
Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have been involved in some of cinema’s best recent comedies, and their first time behind the camera together – both in the director’s chair – pokes fun at both Hollywood and the shallow versions of themselves. This big-screen version of Jay and Seth vs the Apocalypse portrays actors in the way they appear most comical to great effect as we see their reaction to the end of the world. Jay Baruchel hates LA’s shallow world (except for Seth Rogen), while James Franco, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson are just worrying about themselves. They believe they deserve to be saved first and, while they commit misdemeanors of all sorts, think they are good people. Stupid in how they bring out their survival instinct and heavy on both sadistic and satirical elements, this Team Apatow collaboration (minus Judd himself) pokes fun at their lives in the most extreme way. It’s their best comedy in a while, and with Goldberg and Rogen teaming up again as directors for The Interview it’s clear they hope for more good form. - Katina Vangopoulos
37.) “Pacific Rim” (directed by: Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo Del Toro’s fanboy freakout takes place in a futuristic society where giant monsters from the sea duke it out with gigantic robots. I expected to hate it, and judging by the grief I got for putting Pacific Rim on my ten best list, hatred was the critically approved response. Screw that. Let the “good critics” beat off to ScarJo’s operating system. I’ll take my future world with epic-scale battles, mind controlled machinery, and badasses played by Ron Perlman and Idris Elba. As with Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro takes all the inhabitants of his universes seriously, and the backstory of Rinko Kikuchi, and her relationships with Elba and hotshot pilot Charlie Hunnam, provide a strong character element that’s normally missing from mindless summer action blockbusters. Visually arresting, emotionally involving and enjoyable as hell; it also contains the best post-credit scene ever. I’d kill for a pair of those shoes. - Odie Henderson
36.) “Paradise: Love” (directed by: Ulrich Seidl)
Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy boasts three exceptional films about women searching for contentment in the modern world, but the first one, Love, is the great one. It looks like a postcard for Kenyan sex tourism created by Vermeer. Divine light on a troublesome subject. If you’ve heard anything about this film, you’ve heard that it treats its chubby, affection-starved 50 year old protagonist about as shabbily as do her young Kenyan suitors. Perhaps, but one fruitful way of reading this film is to accept the unpredictably goofy, tender and idyllic turns her encounters sometimes take as equal in weight to the “reality” of her desperation and ignorance. Seidl’s position, far from explicit in his orderly compositions, is evident in the editing and the light he gives us to see by: It’s all about love. That still leaves plenty of room for acid post-colonial observations worthy of Frantz Fanon or Walter Rodney. - Steven Boone
35.) “The Great Beauty” (directed by: Paolo Sorrentino)
Comparing Paolo Sorrentino’s sixth feature to two of Italy’s most enduring, essential classics might be the definition of hubris, but The Great Beauty, by some awesome miracle, is more than capable of living up to its own hype. Consider it next in line after Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as a great Italian film about a specific era in Italy’s cultural lifespan; it’s a snapshot capturing a moment in time, one where the spirit of Silvio Berlusconi wafts over the proceedings like a self-indulgent smog. No one ever invokes the erstwhile prime minister’s name in the film, but no one needs to – as we traipse along Rome’s lonely cobblestone streets alongside bored socialite and novelist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), Berlusconi’s brand of reckless, celebratory excess rears its ugly head in Botox parlors and a never-ending parade of debauched rooftop parties thrown by the city’s elite. It’s an ugly, disillusioned world, but one in which Sorrentino crystallizes his identity as a filmmaker, stepping out as his own artist and not simply the distant relative of his forebears. - Andrew Crump
34.) “The Past” (directed by: Asghar Farhadi)
A little soapier, perhaps, than the masterful A Separation, yet when it comes down to it, Asghar Farhadi’s newest film is no less emotionally gripping. His first film set outside of Iran, The Past takes place in Paris, with the dialogue crisscrossing between French and Persian. The story concerns Ahmad, an Iranian man (played by Ali Mosaffa) asked by his estranged wife Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) to come to France to finalize their divorce, so that she may marry her boyfriend Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), whose own wife is in a coma. A relatively simple premise, but one the writer-director tills for maximum drama, as deception after deception is painstakingly drawn to the surface. The performances are stunning without exception, as viewers find their loyalties torn. Naturally, there are no villains or easy fixes, only flawed and damaged people. - Tom Clift
33.) “Mud” (directed by: Jeff Nichols)
Mud is the kind of film that sneaks under the radar and endures. A timeless story about the meaning of love and desperation in a cynical world, Jeff Nichols has crafted an elegant and masterful poem about middle America and whether or not romantic notions of life still have any meaning. Featuring a career-best turn from Matthew McConaughey and a brilliant performance by Tye Sheridan, the film is a modern American classic, the likes of which would have made mark Twain proud. - Kevin Ketchum
32.) “The Unspeakable Act” (directed by: Dan Sallitt)
Writer-director Dan Sallitt’s long-deserved breakthrough came as no surprise to those of us who already loved his previous work, but it did give him the festval ciricuit visibility he lacked so far. Newcomer Tallie Medel (who is a revelation in the picture), plays Jackie – a teenage Brooklynite hopelessly in love with her brother. Instead of Lena Dunham-y quirks and hipster smugness in handling of emotion, Sallitt gives us a near-Rohmerian insight into delicate territories cinema rarely ventures into. As I wrote in my original review of the film, “In the character of Jackie, Sallitt has created a believable portrait of a young woman slowly letting go of an insular notion of sex with her brother that she entertained for a long time, and which – even though discarded in the end – has played a part in her becoming who she is as a young adult.” - Michał Oleszczyk
31.) “Post Tenebras Lux” (directed by Carlos Reygadas)
An unknown territory where melancholy merges with brutality, reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, and past, future and present escape the chronological order. Post Tenebras Lux‘s polymorphic form is equally ravishing as it is disorienting, asking the viewer for more of a leap of faith than an intellectual process. Some might give up on it even before the endless, characteristically framed, shot-in-one-take prelude is over. Others will fly, float, maybe even drown with it.
Post Tenebras Lux is guided by intuition. The only binder between seemingly odd threads, moments and emotions is the relationship between its protagonists. Reygadas is telling a story of contrasts, but he doesn’t need to reach too far. He’s drawn to those bursting right under the tissue of everyday life. Those explosions are ones we unavoidably encounter just by living: death, passion, pain. He neither locates them in a certain system of norms and values nor seeks a cultural justification for them. Absurd fantasy, a language of a fairy tale that seems to be his perfect carrier, makes those “transported” feelings universal and therefore real and forever open to interpretation.
There’s something organic, fleeting, spiritual, yet tangible about Post Tenebras Lux. Its storytelling is simultaneously finessed and simple, its camerawork visionary, its imagination endless. I feel like trying to understand it would be a reduction, a loss. It’s better to go on a journey with it, silent and transparent. - Anna Tatarska
30.) “Gimme the Loot” (directed by: Adam Leon)
Along with Michel Gondry’s The We and the I, Gimme the Loot arrives almost 30 years too late. How I would have loved to have seen those films when I was a teenager instead of those John Hughes movies. I never identified with the kids in Hughes’ universe, but Loot’s Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Ty (Ty Hickson) were my kindred spirits. As these Bronx teenagers get into petty mischief and adventure in the city, writer-director Adam Leon spins a sweet yet biting yarn about class, camaraderie, graffiti artistry and what my ‘boys and I used to call “ghetto karma.” Gimme the Loot feels amoral about the criminal activity its characters attempt (and usually botch), but there’s always payback for the perpetrators: Rob now, and you’ll get robbed later.
Filmed in the rarely seen onscreen world of bodegas and rooftop water towers, Gimme the Loot gets everything right about my adolescent existence. Washington gives Sophia a toughness under which hides a delectable sweetness, and Hickson’s Ty has the standard issue goofy awkwardness of a teenage boy. Their chemistry is as sharply rendered as their performances.
Filled with gleefully foul-mouthed dialogue, Gimme The Loot reveals a surprising innocence in its closing shot, under which gospel legend Marion Williams sings Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” I wept, mourning the long lost era of my teenage wanderlust. - Odie Henderson
29.) “The Spectacular Now” (directed by: James Ponsoldt)
The Spectacular Now falls into the realm of movies that too many people dismiss quickly. It’s another teen romance that attempts (more than many of its contemporaries) to touch and make us feel for this couple while simultaneously highlighting just how bad this relationship can be. While watching James Ponsold’s third feature, our initial response is to bemoan Sutter’s life decisions and how he’s clearly a negative influence on Aimee. However, there’s something that changes not just in the characters on screen but in us. We begin to start hoping for something between them. Unfortunately, I still contend (despite my praise) many will dismiss this film. But if you’re willing to give yourself to two of the most enjoyable characters on screen that aren’t legally allowed in most American bars, then the film will find something spectacular to give you in return. - Andrew Robinson
28.) “Captain Phillips” (directed by: Paul Greengrass)
It only makes sense that Paul Greengrass, director of United 93, would be the ideal candidate to handle the account of Captain Phillips the harrowing hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates in April 2009. United 93 showcased Greengrass’ abilities to both keep us in suspense despite prior knowledge how the story ends and to keep us connected to recognizably human characters. Somehow, Greengrass has topped himself with Captain Phillips, his finest hour to date. He finds an ideal match in Tom Hanks, who turns in the best performance of his acclaimed career; we’re accustomed to seeing Hanks in glossy sentimental fare, and for Greengrass’ films to be unflinchingly unsentimental. They balance out beautifully together. Add to the mix Barkhad Abdi in his remarkable debut, nimbly dodging the “savage Other villain” stereotype at every turn (credit also to Billy Ray’s taut script). Finally, it closes with the best finale of any film this year, the most heart-wrenching ending I’ve seen in a studio film in years, that for once shows us the emotional toll that a taut thrill-ride would have on a person in real life. No clever one-liners, no triumphant crane shots pulling back– just shock and horror. A smart, complex, and nail-biting film, Captain Phillips is among the year’s best. - Russell Hainline
27.) “Computer Chess” (directed by: Andrew Bujalski)
Sometime in the early 1980s, my family purchased its first video camera. It was about the size of a country mailbox, with a lens roughly the dimensions of a soda can jutting out front and a viewfinder projecting at an angle from the side like a motorcycle sidecar. You ran a heavy, rope-like cable from the camera to an adapter that fed it power while sending its picture signal to either a VCR or a television set. The images this camera made were ghostly–literally: if you moved the camera too fast, an electronic ghost of your subject would linger on screen like something out of Spielberg’s Poltergeist.
Set in 1980, Computer Chess is about a great many things–artificial intelligence, capitalism, academia, sexism, competition, Cold War militarism, New Age mysticism, cats–but its true subject is the beauty of images and sounds recorded on an ancient analog tube camera. Critic Aaron Hillis said of this film’s imagery, “A fascinating but hardly beautiful look, this low-contrast gray smeariness is prone to artifacting, light leaks, and tracking glitches…” Hardly beautiful? For viewers of a certain age and inclination, this is the loveliest comedy of 2013. - Steven Boone
26.) “Something in the Air” (directed by: Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas’ film didn’t get much critical attention, with the general party line being that it was a middle-of-the-road autobiographical yarn. Something in the Air, however, is dealing with concerns far more immediate and contemporary than its more vocal meh-sayers copped to. Assayas’ characters, like his surrogate Gilles, are teenaged ‘70s revolutionaries growing to learn that the political activism of the late ‘60s has disappeared from populist eyes. He’s dramatizing the moment where progressive political concerns left the nightly news cycle and became just-another-niche. So his characters are left to abandon their revolutionary ideals; choosing instead to paint, and make movies, and go to school to study dance; in short, to indulge their passions. Air is a film about living in a society that spurns public welfare to instead fetishize individualism and pop culture – and about coming to terms with the fact that no revolution is coming to shake that up.
So having spent the year reading journalists and culture writers getting themselves enraged about torture-in-movies and representation-issues-in-movies and white-collar-crime-in-movies to a far greater extent than they had been about these issues in the real world, it feels impossible to dismiss Assayas’ all-that’s-left-is-pop presentation. His surrogate leaves activism behind to go to the cinema instead. Gilles isn’t just Assayas, though. He may as well represent the cultural concerns of the entire Western world. - Jake Mulligan