Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2013

We count down the top 20 films of 2013, including Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and Derek Cianfrance's Place Beyond the Pines.

2013 was looking like a fairly rough year for cinema and for sure, the disappointments linger in the mind, particularly the summer’s big blockbusters which largely fell flat despite massive hype. Upon reflection, it’s actually been a very strong year with a host of very good films standing out amidst the usual mediocre fare. I’ve narrowed this down to the 20 best films of the year, as I see it, and welcome you to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Forming a best of list is always a difficult task for me, mainly due to the delayed release of the majority of awards contenders in the UK. Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were all released here in 2013, but for me, those are 2012 films. With that in mind, I release a list that, a month or two from now, could look very different. There’s every chance Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave and numerous other films could bother this list, but for now, here it is, my top 20…

20. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon)

19. Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener)

18. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)

17. What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee, David Seigel)

16. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (dir. Ben Stiller)

15. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

14. Rush (dir. Ron Howard)

13. This is the End (dir. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)

12. The Way, Way Back (dir. Nat Faxon, Jim Rash)

11. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)

10. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

The set-up might be simple and even cliched, but Alexander Payne’s story of a crotchety old man and his reluctant son on a roadtrip to collect a million dollar sweepstake eschews cheap self-discovery and overblown sentimentality with the writer/director’s trademark acerbic wit and perfectly judged mix of bawdy jokes and poignant truths. In the lead role, Bruce Dern gives his best performance in decades, imbuing his character with enough dignity to invite sympathy despite his rougher edges.

9. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Shot in beautiful black and white and playing like Woody Allen meets Lena Dunham via the French New Wave, Frances Ha is one of the year’s most loveable films. In the titular role, mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig creates a manic pixie dream girl that actually seems like a fully fleshed out human being, equal parts infuriating, flawed and utterly charming. Many films have observed the world of aimless twentysomethings in the big city but few have done it as well as this, with a script from Noah Baumbach that is surprisingly warm yet still bitingly funny and never less than endearing.

8. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

The plot might be slight but the joy of American Hustle lies in its over-the-top characters and sharp dialogue, all infused with David O. Russell’s trademark offbeat energy that enlivens this story of con artists, in all their different guises. In picking the best actors from his last two features, Russell has assembled one of the best ensemble casts imaginable, with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence all on top of their game, with Louis CK cropping up to steal scenes in a rare big-screen appearance. Arriving at a time of year that can become overrun with grand prestige pictures with a firm eye on awards season, American Hustle is a welcome slice of off-the-wall fun, combining heavyweight performances with a manic comic sensibility in much the same way Russell’s previous outing, Silver Linings Playbook, was last year.

7. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

With Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron builds on the virtuoso direction and stunning visuals that helped make Children of Men such a landmark sci-fi. Instead of that film’s grimy, dystopian aesthetic, Gravity has the sleek and glossy look of real-life space travel, stranding Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts far above our planet amidst a storm of debris from a broken satellite. Clooney is in full-on movie star mode but it’s Bullock who provides the beating heart beneath Cuaron’s breathtaking effects, providing her usual likeability with a more soulful twist. Much like the similarly excellent Captain Phillips, Gravity is a nerve-shreddingly tense cinematic experience, especially when viewed in IMAX 3D thanks to Cuaron’s expert use of the medium.

6. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)

Slight on plot but high on style and atmosphere, with a startling turn from James Franco at its centre, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is either a stunning take down of the shallow nature of today’s youth or just a complete exploitation of it, it’s often hard to tell. Like a sun-scorched, neon-drenched Malick, Korine eschews a conventional plot in favour of repeated dialogue, flashbacks and montages, none more impressive than a vicious crime spree intercut with Franco’s drug dealer serenading his teenage muses with a piano cover of haunting Britney Spears ballad Everytime. Much like the film itself, it’s an audacious and preposterous scene that shouldn’t work, but is somehow moving and appealingly out there.

5. The Kings of Summer (dir. Jordan Vogt Roberts)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts debut feature perfectly encapsulates the ups and downs of teenage life, particularly teenage male friendship and all the fun and bickering that goes with it, in this charming, poignant and raucously funny coming-of-age tale. The film mixes warm nostalgia for 80’s classics like Stand By Me while remaining fresh and feeling like an instant classic in its own right, with memorable performances from its three young leads (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Chris Galleta) and scene-stealing support from reliable deadpan specialist Nick Offerman.

4. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Despite being based on a well known true story, with no doubt over how it ends, director Paul Greengrass manages to ring every single bit of tension possible from the story of the captain of a US cargo ship that finds himself in the middle of a hijacking from Somali pirates. Greengrass wisely makes the Somalis feel like real people with real motivations of their own, instead of the cliched cutouts they would’ve been in a lesser film which just adds more stakes to the hijacking and ensuing hostage standoff. As the titular captain, Tom Hanks is firm but likeable and gives a stunning performance, particularly in the film’s emotional gut-punch of a closing scene.

3. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols made one of 2011’s best films with Take Shelter and now his latest effort Mud occupies the same status in 2013. Like a modern take on Mark Twain, Mud is a lyrical, nuanced and richly textured coming-of-age tale with excellent performances from a resurgent Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous drifter and young Tye Sheridan as the teen who decides to help him. Nichols’ yarn looks at masculinity through a slow burning but immediately involving thriller plot that’s told with sensitivity and unashamed romanticism. The final shootout feels like it’s from a lesser film but doesn’t detract from the rich characters and atmospheric setting Nichols creates.

2. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)

It’s rare that a near-three-hour film feels too short but even a run-time as lengthy as that can’t contain the ambition of Derek Cianfrance’s generation-spanning exploration of the impact fathers have on their sons. Told in three very distinct chapters, the film focuses on Ryan Gosling’s stunt rider-turned-getaway driver, Bradley Cooper’s rookie cop and two teenagers suffering in different ways thanks to their fathers. Shot in the same naturalistic style as Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine but with bravura long shots and action sequences thrown in for good measure, Pines’ slow burning plot, sweeping themes and grand running time make it an unwieldy film but a massively rewarding one nonetheless, at times captivating, powerful, suspenseful and gut-wrenching, with phenomenal performances across the board.

1. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Catching up with one of cinema’s longest running and most beguiling couples, Before Midnight joins Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to form a cinematic trilogy that is about as close to perfect as it gets. This third entry isn’t quite as upbeat or hopelessly romantic as the first two, with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine now married and struggling to keep their relationship together in the face of brewing resentment over broken marriages and past transgressions. Director Richard Linklater toys with the format of the first two films, adding more people and new locations to the walk-and-talk formula but the focus is still squarely on the central couple, with Hawke and Delpy, so comfortable in their roles by now, lending Jesse and Celine a rich, lived-in feel. But things are far from cosy and the film boldly delves into some very uncomfortable territory, culminating in a bitter and explosive argument in a hotel room that seems to signal the end of this beloved couple. It remains to be seen whether we’ll be seeing Jesse and Celine again in another nine years but so far, the Before trilogy stands out as an intelligent and novelistic look at the complete spectrum of contemporary relationships.