12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave — an unsentimental, unsparing look at slavery — is easily the best movie of 2013. The poignant drama tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s.
The film is packed with powerful performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor's lead turn as a man struggling to get out of his chains, Paul Giamatti's cameo as a cruel slave trader, and Lupita Nyong'o's Oscar-worthy performance as an abused slave struggling to survive (along with at least a half-dozen more). Yes, it's hard to watch 12 Years a Slave, but that's the point; by depicting slavery so starkly, McQueen forces us to face its true horror. —John Hanlon, writer
We are reaching the peak of awards season, but as far as I'm concerned, the best movie of the year hit theaters all the way back in June: Before Midnight, the third entry in an improbable trilogy that began with 1995's Before Sunrise and continued with 2004's Before Sunset. When we last saw series protagonists Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), they had just reunited in Paris nine years after a brief but intense night together in Vienna. Before Midnight picks up the thread again in Greece in 2013, revealing that Jesse and Celine have been together during the nine years that have passed between movies — and that the passion of their early encounters has evolved into a relationship with unspoken tensions roiling just under the surface.
Hollywood romances tend to focus on the external problems a couple needs to overcome. But Before Midnight bravely tackles the far more realistic, far more complex internal problems that can start to crack even the strongest relationships. If Before Sunset proved that nine years is a long time to be apart, Before Midnight proves that nine years is a long time to be together, and the film's insights about love are as painful (but somehow thrilling) as they are true. Before Midnight is the kind of love story Hollywood films never tell — and that's exactly what makes it so important. —Scott Meslow, entertainment editor
The Day of the Doctor
Let's get this out of the way: Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, is not technically a movie. But the celebration of the time-and-space-traveling Time Lord was so highly anticipated that the BBC decided to give it a theatrical release in 15 different countries — and in 3D, no less.
The Day of the Doctor didn't beat out the box office haul of the Hunger Games. It didn't revolutionize 3D filmmaking like Gravity. And it's certainly not generating Oscar buzz like 12 Years a Slave. But the 50th anniversary special was a perfect demonstration of how Doctor Who brings together its fans in a way that only a few other shows can manage — and that was what made it the greatest experience I had at the movies this year. At my screening, people dressed up as their favorite Doctors or companions. Attendees chatted excitedly with one another before the show, even if they had never met before — a phenomenon that is basically unheard of in a New York City movie theater. A number of audience members proudly waved their Sonic Screwdrivers. When the screening started, people laughed, cheered, gasped, and even teared up in sync — and sometimes all at once, particularly at the first glimpse of Peter Capaldi, the newly crowned Twelfth Doctor.
Fellow movie-goers are usually the enemy, existing only in their potential to somehow ruin the experience for everyone else. This time, everyone was in it together, enjoying each other's company at a once-in-a-lifetime event. —Jillian Rayfield, writer
Escape From Tomorrow
It might not the best film of 2013, but I can't think of one that stirred up more controversy than Randy Moore's dark, deranged Escape From Tomorrow — and that was before anyone had even seen it. Moore shot the movie guerrilla-style in Walt Disney World and Disneyland without permission from the notoriously opaque Disney corporation. If the company had known he was filming, it would have understandably tried to deny him: Escape From Tomorrow transforms the Magic Kingdom into a surreal, hellish place, repurposing many of Disney's icons into depraved, maniacal characters.
But even without its now-legendary production history, Escape From Tomorrow would be one of the strangest, most original films of the year. The film begins innocuously enough: A father is laid off on the last day of his family's vacation at Disney World. He doesn't want to let it ruin the trip, however, and carries on as usual. But things take a turn for the dark as he begins experiencing demonic hallucinations while developing a creepy infatuation with a pair of French teenage girls. Escape From Tomorrow is like a David Lynch fever dream run amok, and is surely destined to become a cult classic. —Matt Cohen, writer
Fast & Furious 6
Long have I taken heat for my unabashed love of the Fast & Furious franchise — but I dare you to see this year's installment, Fast & Furious 6, and not hit the credits grinning like a madman. The Fast & Furious movies are not Oscar bait, they're not a moral template for our time, and they're sure as hell not believable. Know what they are, though? Fun. Pure, escapist fun.
Oh, and a note to Aaron Paul, who is trying to rev up his own action-movie career with a speedy car knock-off: Good luck, bitch. —Sarah Eberspacher, assistant photo editor
You'd be forgiven for wanting to watch something else on Netflix after the first five minutes of Frances Ha, which was co-written by director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig. The film, which follows a rudderless 27-year-old who loftily aspires to become a professional dancer, begins with all the millennial tropes the Girls generation is already familiar with: Frances is "un-dateable," she can't find a steady source of income, her roommate/best friend Sophie falls in love with a banker and leaves Frances to fend for herself, etc., etc. Everything unravels.
So: Frances gets drunk. She throws fits. She alienates her friends, buys things she can't afford, makes stories up to impress strangers, and avoids confrontation. She makes a mess.
But what makes Frances Ha so captivating isn't that Frances suddenly realizes she repels everyone in her orbit. (She doesn't.) Nor does the film indulge in the karmic notion that good things come to whose who wait. (They don't.) It's a simpler, deeper message than that: That life is wildly uneven, annoying, fickle, stupid — and despite it all, well worth experiencing. —Chris Gayomali, science and tech editor
I was so mesmerized by the trailer for Spike Jonze's Her that I watched it five times in a row. Could the film live up to my expectations? I'm happy to report that after seeing Her, I immediately wanted to watch the movie itself another five times. Her is a lush, wistful, romantic portrait of a sad sack named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who has recently gone through a break-up. He turns to his new OS device, Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), to organize his life — then begins to rely on her for companionship, and eventually even more.
Jonze envisions a near-future Los Angeles that captures the aimless loneliness that permeates the sunlit, palm-treed, color-saturated city. Her also serves as an examination of the influence of technology on our lives. With all the immediacy that the iPhone and its ilk provide, how do we establish meaningful connections with other humans? And what if the connections we do form are with the incorporeal? Jonze shows that any true connection, even fleeting, can be rewarding, maddening, and heartbreaking. —Kerensa Cadenas, writer
Mud is propelled by those well-worn plot lines of revenge and love. But this adult-sized film is told through the eyes of its teenage main character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who wears it better than men twice his age.
We catch Ellis when he's still an adventure-seeking kid, not yet burdened by the sins of the adults around him. But that grown-up world is caving in on him fast. His parents are headed for divorce and their river houseboat may soon be torn down by the state. So it's fitting that Ellis and his buddy Neckbone — I dare you to find a better nickname — seek out a private oasis in the form of an abandoned boat on a remote island. But this, too, has been claimed by an adult, though Mud is like no grown man Ellis has ever known. However caked in his namesake, Matthew McConaughey's Mud is softer than your typical gun-toting fugitive. (Side note: I have thoroughly enjoyed McConaughey's recent resurgence, and this role is the rather greasy icing on that cake.)
What unfolds is a modern-day Huck Finn adventure. The young actors who play Ellis and Neckbone are so natural in this habitat, so raw, that one can imagine writer/director Jeff Nichols just happened across them playing on the banks of the Mississippi River and started filming. Things get a little violent when the bounty hunters come on screen, but the heart of this film beats louder than any punch or gun shot. —Lauren Hansen, multimedia editor
Short Term 12
While there have been bigger, buzzier releases in 2013, no film has stuck with me more doggedly than Short Term 12, a raw, visceral tale that centers around the staff and inhabitants of a foster care facility for at-risk teens.
Brie Larson is magnetic as Grace, a vivacious but internally wounded supervisor at the home. She struggles with her own painful past, which also makes her ideally suited to connect with the kids in her care. The film neither glamorizes nor condemns the flawed foster system, offering an honest but ultimately inspiring perspective on growing up and forging a family for yourself. —Laura Prudom, writer
For viewers attuned to its wavelength, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers was an operatic frenzy of love: Bananas visuals, a loosey-goosey story, and James Franco in his most delightful performance to date. Of course, there were plenty of reasons to dislike the film, including an uncomfortable excess of exposed young thangs frolicking around. But the movie's extremes are exactly why I enjoyed Spring Breakers: It was weirdly polarizing in a way few films truly are these days. It's a movie that sends people into the theater expecting something, and does not disappoint.
Seeing vanilla Disney star Selena Gomez attempt to writhe her way into faux-adulthood alongside Franco's creepy-sad Alien was more than even longtime Harmony Korine fans could have predicted from his biggest movie yet. The story of these pea-brained college girls getting in over their heads during their first big spring break trip is so quintessentially American that it exists as a sort of hyper-stylized time capsule. That the film culminates in a tragic love story (of sorts) also felt so outside the likely scope of such an ostensibly shallow film that it genuinely surprised me — and reminded me, yet again, what an unpredictable filmmaker Korine has been throughout his career. If nothing else, the scene where Franco's Alien gleefully tells the girls to "look at my shit" became a sensation of its own, inspiring auto-tuned remixes on YouTube and endless Facebook posts. The strikes against the film are surely valid — but when you place it next to the rest of the year's fare, it shines like neon. —Jessica Jardine, writer
Stories We Tell
Actress and director Sarah Polley grew up with a family joke: That she had a different father than her other siblings. When she realized it was possible that this offhand joke was actually a reality, Polley decided to document the revelation of her mother's extramarital affair by interviewing all those directly and indirectly involved.
There have been many spectacular films this year, but none come close to the power of Stories We Tell. Using the narrative skills that netted her a Best Writing Oscar nomination with her first feature, Away From Her, Polley turns her documentary into a multi-level piece of art — one that grows with multiple viewings. Stories We Tell isn't an actual story so much as an investigation of how stories materialize and change as life evolves. It's a treatment that remains charming, beautiful, and thought-provoking throughout. —Monika Bartyzel, "Girls on Film" columnist
The best movie of 2013 might also have been the hardest to understand. Upstream Color is just as dense as Primer, writer-director Shane Carruth's notoriously complex first film. But where Primer is unflinchingly mechanical — fueled primarily by the twisty momentum of its borderline impenetrable time-travel plot — Upstream Color lingers on a series of lush, naturalistic images.
There are still engaging sci-fi elements in the film's story, which at first glance involves a criminal ring that extorts victims through worm-related hypnotic suggestion. But that story is ultimately secondary to the romance between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), two victims of the drug ring who bond over their shared traumatic experience. That the entire relationship between the two is conveyed with next to no dialogue is simply another testament to the power of Carruth's visuals. At a certain point, it's futile to try to capture the film's beauty in words. Upstream Color just has to be experienced. —Eric Thurm, writer
The Way, Way Back
This year brought a number of great coming-of-age films, but The Way, Way Back was by far the most poignant and heartfelt. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's teen dramedy expertly blends comic elements with poignant issues, delving deeper into family dynamics than the vast majority of teen films. As the film's protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) reacts to his mother's new relationship while dealing with the problems of being an outsider, which are presented realistically without being patronizing or demeaning. Every member of the film's ensemble cast, which includes Rob Corddry, Allison Janney, and AnnaSophia Robb, contributes an outstanding performance. And where else can you see Steve Carrell playing a jerk? —Meghan DeMaria, intern
The World's End
This year was crammed to the gills with mass-marketed, spandex-clad CGI spectaculars — the sort of dead-behind-the-eyes blockbusters that repeatedly remind us that spectacle trumps story when it comes to modern movies. Fortunately, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost were on hand to offer us a welcome tonic to Tinseltown's usual fare in the form of The World's End, the booze-fueled final installment of the trio's loosely linked "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy that started back in 2004 with their rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead. By mixing the alcoholic exploits of a group of friends with an alien invasion, The World's End mixed kinetic camerawork and pithy pop culture references with director Wright's now familiar brand of offbeat British humor — proving once again that he's one of the hottest talents working in film today. —Daniel Bettridge, writer