Before I start, I want to address how silly a ranking like this is bound to be. It’s not that lists are inherently dumb—we at NPI (and the Internet writ large) LOVE presenting things in list form. But listing the best movies of 2013 IN 2013 (or, technically, immediately after 2013) feels misguided. It takes a while for feelings about a movie to settle. I saw five of these movies in the last two weeks; who knows how I’ll feel about them in a month? It’s not always clear which movies will be remembered well, or suffer on a rewatching. Looking back at my list from last year, I see about a dozen changes I would make. So consider this list somewhat provisional.
With that said, I saw a lot of movies this year, and lists can be a helpful way of organizing your thoughts on those movies. I’ve borrowed some of my category ideas from Josh’s ranking, but unlike Josh I find the distinction between “independent” movies and studio films to be arbitrary to the point of distraction. Plus, it’s a little pretentious. If a movie is good, it’s good; if it’s bad, it’s bad. Who cares who made it or what the budget was?
Anyway, here are the movies I saw in 2013, in order from worst to best…
Movies I Actively Disliked
25) Now You See Me
I cannot remember why I paid to see this movie. (Who am I kidding? Yes I do.)
24) The Bling Ring
I had very high hopes for this movie, but it is just super boring.
23) The East
A forgettable film that falsely presents itself as smart and subversive.
22) Side Effects
The first hour or so of this movie is really good, but it goes completely off the rails in the third act.
21) The Great Gatsby
As someone who doesn’t get the fuss about Fitzgerald’s novel, I actually think Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance brings some vitality to the character. But Baz Luhrmann’s direction is silly and laughably heavy-handed.
20) Don Jon
An interesting concept for a movie that turns out to be pretty conventional.
These Movies Are Important. You Should Probably See Them, But They’re Not That Good.
19) Dirty Wars
The book is much better. It’s more informative and it doesn’t focus so much on the messenger (the movie seems to lionize Jeremy Scahill). But if you hate reading, see the movie for what it says about the drone war.
18) Fruitvale Station
The last scene of this movie is incredibly powerful. But everything before that is just about a guy running errands.
Some Other Movies
17) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
It isn’t nearly as funny as Anchorman, obviously. But what is?
16) Computer Chess
It’s hard to criticize a movie as original and unique as this, but it’s ultimately a little unsatisfying.
15) Dallas Buyers Club
A really good performance from Matthew McConaughey anchors a solid, interesting movie.
14) In A World…
A very deep cast and a funny script elevate a predictable story.
13) Blue Jasmine
Have enough people said Cate Blanchett is great in this? She is. But, seriously, a class on “computers” in 2013? Is that supposed to be a joke?
12) This Is The End
Very funny, from the initial discussion about gluten to the Backstreet Boys concert in Heaven.
This movie is pretty good, but it could have been great if it just eliminated all the parts where people talked.
10) Spring Breakers
I have already explained my feelings for this movie and my feelings have improved. I’m still not sure if it ever coheres completely, but there are bits and moments from it that stayed with me for a while. I will once again link to the great Britney Spears montage, but the scenes with Selena Gomez and James Franco are also riveting. That it’s so unconventional and unpredictable in the way the plot moves also works in favor of its staying power.
This film was admirably unsentimental without being cynical, which is a tricky balance to pull off. Will Forte gives a surprisingly good performance as David, and his attempts to bond with his father (played by Bruce Dern) are both funny and sad, in a darkly realistic way. June Squibb also gives an honest and cringe-inducing performance as David’s mother, making the whole family incredibly well-developed. Perhaps the best thing about the film, though, is how economical the dialogue is: Characters say a lot while saying very little.
8) Inside Llewyn Davis
I’d never dream that I’d rank a Coen brothers film about the 1960s folk scene lower than Josh, but it’s possible my expectations for this movie were just unreasonably high. It doesn’t have the heft or daring of Fargo or A Serious Man, but it does have the Coens’ trademark brand of humor, a great soundtrack, and a surprisingly good performance by Oscar Isaac at the center. Isaac seems too conventionally handsome to be curmudgeonly, but his barely controlled anger is under the surface of every scene, giving the movie energy as Davis bounces around aimlessly, picking up cats along the way.
7) Drinking Buddies
Before Drinking Buddies, I don’t know that I’d ever seen a movie in which characters never ever—even during the film’s climax—address the subtext of the film. The improvised dialogue rings true in a way that’s almost uncomfortable; characters never say exactly what they mean, and it’s not always clear if they’re trying to fool themselves or other people. It’s a funny, well-acted movie that resists simple classifications. Its characters and its story seem very specific, while also being universally relatable. Plus, Jake Johnson has a great beard in it…
6) 12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave could have been annoyingly heavy-handed, but (except for a scene near the end where Brad Pitt stops by to explain to everyone why slavery is wrong) it impressively avoids this fate. It manages this by not limiting itself to American slavery.Although its depictions of those horrors are vivid, 12 Years a Slave tackles human cruelty in general. Michael Fassbender’s slave-owner is so awful but also so nuanced that it’s possible to see parts of yourself in him even as he repels you. Chiwetel Ejiofor also refrains from making his character a pure martyr: He’s a little arrogant and a little naïve, but his hopefulness gives the movie a much-needed note of optimism.
5) Frances Ha
Adult friendships are hard, huh? Frances Ha illustrates how growing up can also mean growing apart from the people you’re close to, and how stagnating in life is often the result of trying to hold on to things that were important to you. I’m making this movie sound lofty and intellectual, but it’s also really funny and charming. The dialogue is witty, the plot moves quickly, and it’s full of characters that defy classification. Together they make for an original, entertaining movie that’s hard not to identify with on some level (said the 20-something blogger who lives in Brooklyn…).
4) American Hustle
David O. Russell has quietly become one of my favorite directors. He’s done it “quietly” because his movies are generally very simple in their stories and small in their scope. But the characters he creates are so precise and the performances he gets are so good that he elevates movies that could be just another underdog sports movie or just another romantic comedy. American Hustle is no different. At first it seems like it’s going to be about a big FBI case, but it really only uses that as the backdrop for a story about self-invention. The cast is uniformly great. Every scene has such subtle humor and shades of meaning that the story becomes almost irrelevant by the end.
3) Upstream Color
It might seem like your typical movie about botanically induced hypnosis, identity theft, a sound engineer engaged in some sort of human-bovine soul commingling, and the book Walden, but it’s actually much more complex than that. Look, I’m not going to pretend I completely understand Shane Carruth’s second film, even after seeing it twice. But it’s such an incredibly thought-provoking film that it doesn’t suffer from being so confusing. It’s a film that’s so engaged with ideas about identity and connection that it doesn’t have time to hold our hand through the story. And as in Primer, Carruth’s naturalistic grasp of the way people talk makes the characters feel real even as the story becomes increasingly surreal.
The success of Her—a movie with a premise that looks problematic on paper—comes in presenting its conceit completely straight, free from snide judgment or condescension. It’s a very funny movie, but the laughs never come at the expense of the characters. Spike Jonze manages the delicate sci-fi balance of creating a world that differs from reality only in degree, not in kind. As a result, Her is a story about how technology affects human connection that actually says something new and interesting. That it succeeds at this while also working as a touching love story is a very impressive feat—so impressive, in fact, that this would be #1 were it not for a disappointing cop-out of an ending.
1) The Wolf of Wall Street
So Martin Scorsese is pretty good. It may have seemed a little pointless for him to turn his attention to Wall Street—it’s a pretty well-worn subject for Hollywood. But the times demanded a really good film about Wall Street excess, and nobody was more equipped to make it than Scorsese, the master of gangster stories and moral decline. The Wolf of Wall Street is full of homage to old Mafia movies, drawing direct connections from those criminals to these. But what makes the movie even better is the way it makes clear that the logic guiding all those criminals is just Wall Street logic, pared to its essence. At the very beginning of the film, Matthew McConaughey gives DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort an introduction into the lessons of Wall Street: Steal from your clients and pleasure yourself. But Belfort leaves the prestige of the traditional firms before those basic lessons are refined into the philosophical bullshit that Gordon Gekko made famous.
Instead, Belfort sets out on his own and pursues those goals with reckless abandon. The movie is all about id unleashed, the raw pursuit of carnal pleasures. And it’s propulsive and wildly funny, possibly the funniest film of the year. Scorsese is so successful in bringing this to life that, like his gangster films, he risks glamorizing the very behavior he’s trying to condemn. But The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t lack a moral compass: Belfort is infantilized and put on display for all his flaws. Indeed, his flaws are the very things he boasts about.
There are no doubt people who, like the audience in the film’s final shot, view Belfort as a hero. But that is part of the point. DiCaprio gives Belfort the charm and magnetism that would make it possible for him to lie, cheat, and steal to the extent that he did—and make it possible for him to be forgiven (over and over again). The movie never forgets that what makes Belfort likable is also what makes him a bad person.