Andrew's Top Ten: Best Films of 2013

Filed under: Top Fives

That stiff golden boy they call Oscar had his list, so why can't I? That's right film fans, I'm back for another list to count down my favourite flicks from 2013. In keeping with last year's format (and if you couldn't already tell by the title), this list will consist of the 10 films from last year that I, Andrew Burns, personally consider to be of the best quality and/or just enjoyed the most. With exception of a small handful of films, I have pretty much viewed most of the supposed "best of the best" from last year. Without further ado, enjoy my list of the top ten films of 2013.

10. Mud

Last year was without a doubt belongs to Matthew McConaughy in terms of performances. The guy was in 3 amazing films (thats including this one) and the real shock is none of them were his chick flick bread and butter kind of movie. Two of those three McConaughy films are on this list and the one that missed the cut is the one he is winning all the rewards for right now. I'll explain.

Yes, McConaughy is phenomenal in The Dallas Buyers Club (and has taken home the award for Best Actor Sunday night because it) but personally I believe Mud to be the better all-around film. Mud might not have the award worthy lead perform, or have a strong important message that DBC has, yet it does excel when it comes to it's characters and their relationships.

The film starts out with two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (yes that's the character's actual name), finding a boat in a tree somewhere on the Mississippi. Before the story takes you on a kid like adventure downriver the boys meet and begin an unusual friendship with a fugitive named Mud (McConaughy) who is using the tree-challenged boat as his home/hide out. Throughout the course of the film the boys help Mud fix up and un-tree the boat leading to them being mixed up in his dangerous past. Both Mud and Ellis (played by new comer Tye Sheridan) get burned by the women in their lives, making the film an odd yet balanced mix of being part failed love stories for and part gripping thriller. Mud was a quiet release for some reason and I'm not sure why because it does have star power to go with it's substance. Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon all help make this a great character piece. Most critics may have forgotten Mud by now but I venture in a few years down the road they'll be referencing this film when Tye Sheridan's career takes off because this kid held his own with McConaughy.

9. Much Ado About Nothing

On my Top Ten list of movies last year I gave the number one spot to Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers. It lived up to its hype, fulfilled comic book fans expectations, and was the biggest box-office hit of 2012; making over 1.5 Billion dollars worldwide. With that kind of success Whedon could have asked Disney for the keys to their Kingdom and they probably would have said yes. But what does he do instead? How does he follow up one of the biggest movies of all time? Whedon quietly puts Much Ado About Nothing.

Yes, as weird as it sounds, coming from a multi-franchised, multi-million dollar budgeted film with massive scope, scale, and insane star power Whedon went in the completely opposite direction. He made a small black & white movie, with dialogue entirely spoken in Shakespearean style English and he made it with his friends. Three attributes that don't typically see in movies today but with Whedon at the helm it's a refreshingly welcomed change from the norm.

Most movie audiences will probably only recognise a few of the cast members but TV audiences (especially Joss fans) will immediately identity with the familiar faces. From Buffy, to Firefly, Dollhouse, and even The Avengers, Whedon brought most of his former cast members together for this funny and charming modern take on this Shakespeare classic. I'll admit for someone who hated Shakespeare back in high school the opening 10 minutes of Much Ado almost made me stop watching because of the dialogue alone. But I think the nostalgia of seeing Joss' impressive rolodex of actors all play together with so much genuine amusement help me get lost in the story. This could have been a silent film and I still would have loved it. Even though you might not understand what characters are saying half the time like I didn't the movie is like a party you don't want to leave. To put it simply Much Ado is a brilliant romantic comedy with style to spare. The only thing that could have made the film better was more Nathan Fillion. That man is hilarious.

8. Side Effects

I'm a sucker for Soderbergh so this pick is a little bitter sweet as it might be the last time I can say one of my favourite films of the year was a Steven Soderbergh film. Without going too much into the studio politics of it all the acclaimed director responsible from some of the cinema's modern classics (not to mention some of my all-time favourites) like Traffic, The Limey, Out of Sight, and even the Ocean's trilogy has said Side Effects will be his last theatrically released film. Sucks I know right? But before Soderbergh folded up his director's chair he made one hell of a thriller with one hell of a cast.

I can't really go into Side Effects too much without spoiling the film, but I'll try. The best way I could explain what kind of movie Side Effects is exactly is its a psychopharmacological thriller. Pills, death, and deception is the name of the game in this one and to elaborate anymore would again spoil the flick for those yet to see it. What I can comment on is the cast and the style of filmmaking here.

Side Effects main cast is a fantastic ensemble of Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum. Soderbergh takes these great actors and uses their characters like chess pieces, calculatingly trying to out maneuver each other in an endless battle of wits; often without even being noticed by one another. The pharmaceutical element to the film keeps audiences guessing if certain characters are truthful or truly troubled. The type of director that's always literally behind the camera Soderbergh shows the audience the story moving in one direction when things are in fact going in the opposite. If Side Effects is sadly Soderbergh's final feature film, he left this fan at the edge of his seat with this intelligent thriller.

7. Pacific Rim

In a summer time box-office landscape of sequels, prequels and pre-existing franchises, director Guillermo del Toro did what he does best. He delivered the uniquely unexpected and did it in blockbuster form.

Just encase you couldn't tell by the previews or posters Pacific Rim is essentially a story about giant man-made robots fighting giant alien monsters. With lizard like creatures the size of skyscrapers the film obviously has aspects to it that harken back to those classic monster movies of old, yet what del Toro does with that premise does set it apart from many comparisons. Somehow del Toro is able to make the world of Pacific Rim feels familiar enough to follow along with, but at the same time in a completely original way that is gives movie-goers something they haven't seen before. The action, adventure, and originality are easily the features that most average movie audiences will be first to point out what makes Pacific Rim the damn fun flick to watch that it is. But for an action movie connoisseur like myself I'd like to point out what I thought made it stand out among the other summer blockbusters.

First of all the film is not one of those in your face American-centric driven stories where the characters are trying to save the day for Uncle Sam. Pacific Rim might be an American studio funded film but it's very much an international film with the majority of the cast being from all over. The next thing that stood out has to be the film's score. I'm a bit of a film score nut but why I think Ramin Djawadi's music matters so much because it has the immediately recognisable, yet original, theme to it that has kind of gone away from modern movies. Djawadi's score might not have that iconic feel to it but when you hear it you know some robots are about to fight some monsters. And speaking of robots and monsters I'd be remised if I didn't point out the amazing visuals and art design in this world del Toro created. The level of detail and effort that went into making these creatures not only look live-like but different from each of the one that came before it is truly unbelievable. Pacific Rim could be a one-off film, and I'd be okay with that, but with the incredible amount of work that went into it, and if del Toro stays involved, this franchise can only get better.

6. Fast 6

Yup, see what I did there? I coincidentally or ironically gave Fast 6 the sixth spot on my list. A bit high on the list some might say. Not 'Top Ten' material most would say. Guilty pleasures aside, for me, I think the flick earned it and I'll try and explain why without looking like too much of an idiot.

I've gone from secretly being a fan of the Fast and Furious to defending these films when people immediately dismiss them; often without even seeing them first. The fact is yes they are cheesy, yes they have those outrageously ridiculous one-liners, and yes they are as over the top as it gets with the action but they are a hundred percent entertainment. Some movies make you think, some challenge you, and then there are the ones that allow you to turn your brain off for a couple of hours and just enjoy the ride. Fast 6 is that kind of flick.

The Fast and Furious franchise has gone away from its street car racing roots and transitioned full on into the heist/action genre. Kind of like the Italian Job without the kids cars. The nice flashy cars are a give in here but for fourth time Fast and Furious director, Justin Lin, he continues to find new ways and new vehicles to amazing audiences with stunts movie-goers have never seen before while tethering it to an interesting story-line. Sequels often raise the bar in trying to top their predecessors but with the amount, size and scale of the car chase scenes Fast 6 has it, it's going to be a while before another film tops what they did in this movie. There are race cars that can drive sideways and flip other cars, tank battles on an open freeway, and multi-car-jumbo-jet finale that somehow tops it all.

Being his fourth and final time behind the Fast and Furious franchise Lin not only knows these characters and this universe better than anyone but he knows how ridiculous these premises can get and pads the action sequences with great comedic relief. While balancing those wows with laughs Lin has also done something I don't think any film franchise has done before with Fast 6 in that he concludes the film as the last chapter in a trilogy; which actually have all been prequels. Sounds confusing, I know. Pretty much the third Fast and Furious film, Tokyo Drift (Lin's first in the series), chronologically takes place after the events in Fast 6 and apparently opens them up to another trilogy. Again, sounds confusing, but trust me it worth the ride. The only downer being this will the last full film in the series where co-star Paul Walker will be a part of due to his passing.

If you can suspend disbelief Fast 6 is the ultimate form of entertainment for those audiences that don't mind some cheese at the edge of their seat.

5. Oblivion

So I admit this film wasn't or won't be in critic's annual Top Ten, let alone Top Five like I just ranked it here, but there is just something about Joseph Kosinksi and his style of filmmaking that sets him apart from others. If you haven't heard of Kosinksi before don't be too surprised because Oblivion is only his sophomore film, yet the lack of experience in the director's chair doesn't translate to the screen. Even though he continues within the sci-fi genre like his last film, Tron: Legacy, Kosinksi only repeats in excellence.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world 60 years in the future Oblivion tells a story of Jack (Tom Cruise) a pilot / one-man maintenance crew and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) acting as his base command who together maintain machines that are helping to restore Earth after a global alien attack. You never see any of the aliens responsible but Earth has become a wasteland with only remanence of the old world scattered like crumbs in a desert. Kosinksi actually summed up the look of the film best by referring to it as "a beautiful desolation".

Just like Kosinksi's first film, Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is without a doubt one of the most beautifully looking films of last year. Its combination of the incredible barren landscapes of a failed future paired with the cleanly polished look of the innovative and stunning set / prop design that truly give the film a unique visual style. But Kosinksi doesn't rest the film on it's visuals or Cruise's star power, the film actually is a genuine sci-fi thriller in the classical sense of the genre. The movie gives you just enough dramatic landmarks that help the story feel familiar yet maintains the behind the curtain twist and reveal that treats you with the unexpected of the unknown. To top it all off the film has this fantastic electronic musical score. Instead going the typical film composer route for the score Kosinksi, again, manages to get some dynamic and theatrical music from an amazing electronic group. Just this time instead of Daft Punk like he used in Legacy he uses the musical talents of a group called M83.

It might be a bit bold to say but I really consider Oblivion to be one of the best modern science fiction films of the last decade. It's got everything you want in a sci-fi from the look down to the story and one awesome soundtrack.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street

Scorsese being Scorsese. I really don't need to say much more than that.

Okay fine I'll elaborate.

Pairing back up with his frequent star of choice, Leonardo DiCaprio, legendary film director Martin Scorsese has made yet another masterpiece to enjoy. Like most of Marty's work The Wolf of Wall Street is epic, its R-rated, and its long. If you are a fan of some of Scorsese's previous work like Goodfellas, Casino, or Gangs of New York this real life dramatization of the now infamous Jordan Belfort will be right up your alley.

The film is an extravagant and stylized telling of the rise and fall of wealthy stockbroker Jordan Belfort played to perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio. In the past DiCaprio has had some outstanding performances, often in other Scorsese films, but his work here is truly his best stuff to date. Fitted with some of the coolest 80's white collar criminal attire DiCaprio takes the character of Belfort to every extreme emotionally, and even physically in some parts (the white Lamborghini scene). Throughout the film Leo becomes the savior to his fellow corrupt while seeming untouchable from the FBI flaunting his wealth and power in plain sight, all between his next high.

DiCaprio is without a doubt the driving force for The Wolf of Wall Street but when dramatizing the road to his unethical empire of wealth he has some help. Jonah Hill plays the character of Donnie Azoff, a madman and Belfort's co-pilot / partner in crime. Much like Leo, Hill's outlandishly hilarious portrayal of this drugged out Donnie is the best work he has ever done. Then there is the vixen, Naomi, played by the absolutely gorgeous Margot Robbie. What Robbie is able to do onscreen with just Naomi's glance, well the expression oozes sex comes to mind. She manages to turns Belfort's world upside down in the sexiest way possible; before the FBI does for real. Oh ya, and I almost forgot McConaughey has probably the best cameo going to complete his performance trifecta of 2013.

Some people have complained about some of the, shall I say explicit aspects of the film, but I think those people labeling it as crass and dismissing the film because of those parts somehow forgot who's movie it is. It's a Scorsese flick and that's really all you need to know.

3. Her

I started making up this list just shortly after the end of the year. There were still a few films I had yet to see but for the most part I had my ten films for this list. Then I met Her and everything changed.

Perhaps one of the most unconventional love stories ever put on film Her is a story about recently heartbroken man who finds love again in the most unimaginable place; a computer operating system. Just imagine if Siri had a personality and a soul, its kind of like that, but even that is a crude analogy. Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and socially distant Theodore who decides to purchase this new operating system called OS1. It's actually marketed as "not just an operating system, it's a consciousness" (way better than my Siri comparison). Shortly after starting the program up Theodore meets his OS and her name is Samantha. You never see Samantha, even in a digital form, she is just a voice who can speak through electronic devices.

You know what, explaining the premise for this film sounds absolutely absurd, and I'm not doing it justice, but trust me what writer / director Spike Jonze is able to do with this story is truly remarkable.

Even though Her is set in a semi-distance future the movie isn't sci-fi film with a love story, it's the other way around. It's a deeply intimate and moving love story with minor sci-fi elements you don't even notice because you are lost in Theodore and Samantha's very real relationship. Joaquin's character might be the only image of the couple you see on screen but as an audience member you feel Scarlett's Samantha through her voice there with him in every moment they are together. Don't get me started on Scarlett's award snubs because of that technicality. What Scarlett is able to do just simply with her voice is nothing short of extraordinary. She is able to melt your heart, arouse multiple emotions, make you laugh and fall madly in love with her. Of course Spike and Joaquin have been awarded and nominated for their magnificent work here, and rightfully so, but this film only works if you feel Samantha is a person not just a computer and Scarlett unquestionably brings her to life.

Her is a film I've continued to recommend to people only to be met with an uncertain maybe because without even viewing the movie they hear the premise of a relationship between man and a computer and think it too strange. Sure it might be unconventional but Her is one of the most romantic, moving and genuine love stories I've seen on film in a long time.

2. The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2

I know what most of you readers are thinking, he picked Batman cartoon as his second favourite film of the year. What is this guy 12 years old? (Cue the bad '12 years a geek' joke) Yes this is an animated film of comic book characters to most viewers but to those who know and understand the source material this film is based on its much, much bigger than a mere cartoon.

The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2 is the second and final half of this animated adaption for Frank Miller's seminal 4 part graphic novel series, "The Dark Knight Returns" or "DKR", from 1986. For those non-comic book fans or readers "The Dark Knight Returns" is not simply just another tale of the caped crusader, it is largely considered to be one of the most influential books within the entire medium of comics. Miller's "DKR" dark and gritty take on these characters, which were predominantly written for children at that point in time, not only changed the iconography of the characters but changed the entire industry of comics. Almost 30 years has passed since the books were first released and today writers, artists and readers still largely consider Frank Miller's writing in "DKR" to be scripture and the story biblical.

Just like Part 1 this straight to home video movie is essentially two stories married into one film. Director Jay Oliva continues again here with Part 2 as this film faithfully covers chapters three and four of Miller's novel. The first half of the film is the ultimate and final confrontation between Batman and the Joker, which leads into the finale; the epic conflict between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. To quickly recap if you are unfamiliar with the events of Part 1 leading up to this film: an aged Batman is thrust out of retirement when a world without superheroes has fallen back into fear by the corrupt and powerful. Basically 10 years has passed since there last was a Batman and things haven't changed for the better.

Because Oliva stays so true to the source material the clash between Batman and the re-emerged Joker is quite terrifying. If that sounds like a bit a stretch just remember Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight and understand he and Nolan largely drew from this storyline for their version of the character. Lost's Michael Emerson voices the horrific villain brilliantly where I even got chills during the 'tunnel of love' scene (sounds corny I know). That final fight between Batman and the sadistic clown price of crime proves this isn't a kids movie as woman and children are graphical slaughtered in the clown's wake. The film could have just been about those two iconic characters last battle and it still would have been great but the showdown that comes next between two old friends is what makes this a classic.

Complete with perhaps the best Batman and Superman musical score from Christopher Drake, Oliva adapts the biblical clash between the two heroes in dynamic fashion. There is a ton a political and religious subtext that carries over from Miller's book when the film address the implications of one of these two supposed heroes having to submit to the other's authority. Without ruining the story there are certain events that lead up to their fight that don't involve the classic kryptonite cop-out strategy most would assume Batman would need to beat Superman. The film and the finale take Batman from being an outlaw to being a saviour of the people; and in turn turned Superman from saviour to the government's mercenary. Oliva brilliantly depicts how Miller was able to vilify Superman, the one character in comic book literature who is/was to be considered to be the ultimate incorruptible beacon of hope, and pit him against Batman in a war of man verse god. Like I said biblical stuff.

The average fan will enjoy this film just because it's a great Batman story, but for a true fan of the character this is closed version of this epic story that will probably ever be taken from the pages of the legendary 1986 graphic novel.

1. Gravity

Not only the ultimate movie experience of the year but in my books the best movie overall has to be Gravity. No other film delivered that pure form of escapism we all watch movies for. It entertained, it astonished, and it amazed audiences worldwide in the way movies are supposed to do. Completely deserving of all those tag lines you see critics use like: 'puts you at the edge of your seat', 'visually stunning', 'cinematic masterpiece', and of course 'best film of the year'. Gravity is all of those and so much more.

Visionary director Alfonso Cuaron spend years developing this film and the when the technology behind it was finally there he took his day dreams and made them a reality that almost felt real. From that opening 13 MINUTE long uninterrupted shot, a trait Cuaron is known for, you are unable to blink as it feels as if you are ripped from your seat and thrust into the terrifying depths of space. The film slows down just enough for you to catch your breath and then almost immediately takes it away again. That feeling only repeats throughout the course of the film giving it that true thrill ride experience.

From start to finish the frame is filled with some of the most spectacular images put on film. The way Cuaron moves the cameras and sets up his shoots from all around the actor(s) is both bold and impressive because if his visual effects team didn't back him up the way they did this could have just been my favourite B-movie of the year. I doubt its still playing any IMAXs still but to truly appreciate every effect and striking shot this film has to offer people really should see this movie on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. The gorgeous images of the Earth and empty space are so mesmerizing you start to get lost in the moment. Then that's where importance of the 3D comes in as the shrapnel and debris feels like it literally flies past you and propels you back into the story. To steal from my original review of the film (see here) 'to try and describe the beautiful and mind-blowing visuals of the film anymore would just do them a disservice'. This movie has to be seen to be believed.

The visuals of Gravity maybe what most audiences take away from the film but Sandra Bullock's performance, Steven Price's score, and Glenn Freemantle's sound design is what pulls you into the film. Bullock, who only really is acting across from George Clooney for a small portion of the film, gives the performance of her career surrounded by no one. Then there is the marriage between Price's (now academy award winning*) score and Freemantle's (also academy award winning*) sound design that really draws movie-goers in. There is an eerie sense of realism when the film goes from the incredibly dramatic score and the blast of various sound effects to the complete and utter silence of space. When that music goes off and all other sounds stops you feel that same sensation of utter panic that's on Bullock's face.

I've seen Gravity a few times since it first hit theaters and it still maintains that 'wow' factor after multiple viewings; even watching from home. There were a lot of great films from year, too many to include on this short list, but personal no other film gave me the experience Gravity did. Had to give it the top spot.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 12 Years a Slave – The film with some of the most power performances and moments put on screen in sometime. This Oscar winning film earns every accolade it has received.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – An overlooked Coen Brothers flick which centres around a troubled folk singer. A depressing but very well made film.
  • The World's End – This Edgar Wright comedy was the funniest film from last year. A fitting finale to the Cornetto trilogy of Wright/Pegg/Frost.
  • Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox – Another great DC animated feature adapting its story from another popular past comic series. This Flash centred tale plays with the idea of an alternate reality and takes these iconic characters and makes them unrecognizable; even to fanboys.
  • Man of Steel – Not without its share of story issues but this Superman reboot kicks off the DC cinematic universe with some extraordinary visuals and perfect casting for the future of the franchise and the brand.
  • Lone Survivor - One of the most realistic war films in decades. The sound effects and design are so absolutely incredible in this film you almost feel as if you in the warzone on screen.

Tags: Top 10, Much Ado About Nothing, Side Effects, Pacific Rim, Fast 6, Oblivion, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2, Gravity

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Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.

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