The 13 Best Films of 2013: Critic’s Picks

By  · Published on December 30th, 2013

Before Midnight! Gravity! The Wolf of Wall Street! Fruitvale Station! The Great Beauty! Philomena! Frances Ha! Blue Jasmine! Spring Breakers! Nebraska! Dallas Buyers Club! The Wind Rises! Saving Mr. Banks!

None of the thirteen critically acclaimed films above are on my list of the thirteen best films of 2013 below.

Make of that what you will, but of the whopping 241 new releases I watched this year these are the thirteen that have stuck with me the strongest. That said, I did make a conscious effort to focus on U.S. releases for the list since I have a separate Top 13 for Best Foreign Language films. It’s been a fantastic year in cinema all around, and I could just as easily offered a list twice as long.

Keep reading to see what I feel are the thirteen best movies of 2013.

13. Much Ado About Nothing

No other film this year had me smiling as much as Joss Whedon’s minimalist take on William Shakespeare’s deliriously good comedy of manners and fidelity, and like my number one pick it’s sat high in my memory for nearly a year now since seeing it in March. The cast is perfection, the black & white photography is illuminating, and the humor feels right at home in modern times. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are the heart and soul of the film, and it’s nigh impossible to watch them without falling and feeling in love.

12. The World’s End

Yes, Edgar Wright’s most recent film is extremely funny, highly energetic, and visually creative, but it’s also the deepest and weightiest film of his career. You can watch it for the laughs and physical hijinks, including some of the best fight scenes of the year, and that would be more than enough to make it a fantastic film, but if you scratch the surface even a little bit there’s a wonderfully effective and affecting story about friendship and memories pulsating beneath.

11. What Maisie Knew

This is not only one of the least known films to make the cut but also one of the simplest. It’s about a young girl whose parents have split up, and we watch as she’s shuffled about as little more than a weapon to use against each other and as hope sits achingly near in the wings. Onata Aprile’s title performance reveals her as the least precocious or annoying child actor of all time, and seeing the world through her eyes is an alternately heartbreaking and celebratory experience. It also might just be the best adaptation of a literary classic that you didn’t even know was a classic literary adaptation.

10. American Hustle

Yeah, that’s right. David O. Russell’s not so subtle riff on the work of Martin Scorsese is a better film than the one Scorsese himself released this year. To be sure, I love both, but Russell’s film adds a layer missing from The Wolf of Wall Street in that its characters actually have character. There’s something to them aside from being tools, means to an end, or vessels for showing human weakness and depravity. They come across as actual humans. Sure it’s played a bit over the top at times and there’s a messiness to the way it unfurls, but people are messy, especially when they’re trying their damnedest to be someone they’re not.

9. The Act of Killing

While I’ve enjoyed many documentaries over the years they rarely leave a lasting impression on me. (Sorry Chris.) 2013 changed that with two docs that not only held me in their grip while watching but that also found a permanent home in my mind ever since. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film looks at the men behind Indonesia’s mass killings in decades past through the lens of their current celebrity, but while that alone would be enlightening he crafts something incredible by letting his subjects tell their stories using various film genres. The results are astounding and include some of the most jaw-dropping moments of the year.

8. The Hunt

I intentionally shifted away from foreign language films here as I’ve posted a separate list for those, but I felt compelled to include this one because it really is just so damn good and effective. Mads Mikkelsen’s central performance as a man accused of the most heinous of crimes is a wonder of fear, rage, and a barely concealed loss of control. The film’s exploration of rumor as fact, mob mentality, and the core idea that we’ll never really know everything there is to know about a person are expertly presented in the form of a very human thriller.

7. 12 Years a Slave

We all know that slavery was (and still is, sadly) a terrible, vile thing, but Steve McQueen’s third feature is still a bit of an education for far too many. Its greatness goes beyond being simply a teaching tool though as it strives to tell not just a tale of human suffering and cruelty but one of perseverance and forgiveness too. Beautifully shot and powerfully acted (by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and others), the film is an emotionally draining experience that I will probably never watch again.

6. All Is Lost

This year saw at least three high profile films featuring characters isolated and fighting for their very survival. Gravity and Captain Phillips are the bigger of the three and fine films in their own right, but it’s J.C. Chandor’s stripped down tale of one man lost at sea that managed so much more with so little. Robert Redford’s performance relies almost exclusively on expressions, actions, and the look in his eyes that runs the gamut of fear, conviction, and resilience. Chandor’s script lacks dialogue, but it respects viewers’ intelligence by only offering what’s necessary and letting us connect the dots.

5. Stories We Tell

The second documentary on my list is at once both the simpler of the two and the more intricately designed. Sarah Polley turns her cameras on her own family in an effort to understand and explore how her parents, themselves artists and storytellers, crafted perhaps their greatest collaboration in her. It’s a sweet and funny film, but it’s also as full of twists, turns, and surprises as any thriller. Polley finds some interesting truths here about herself and about creative personalities in general.

4. Blue Ruin

It’s rare that I’ll see the same movie twice during a film festival, both because there’s always so much more to see and because I wouldn’t want to prevent someone else from seeing the movie for the first time, but I made an exception for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest. A synopsis risks leaving the impression that the movie is simply a low budget revenge tale when in reality it’s something much greater. It actually puts “Hollywood” revenge films to shame with its performances (especially lead Macon Blair) and a script that smartly inverts much of what the genre has taught us to expect.

3. Her

Who knew Spike Jonze was such a romantic? His latest film puts a mildly sci-fi layer atop a story about love, self-awareness, and the connection we share with others, and the result is something of rare beauty. Joaquin Phoenix leaves behind the affectations and quirks that have marked too many of his past roles and delivers one of the year’s best and most affecting. It’s not falling in love with an artificial intelligence that’s scary, it’s opening up to the idea of loving yourself so that someone else can do the same that terrifies.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Joel and Ethan Coen may be critical darlings, but it wasn’t until this year and their sixteenth feature that I truly and fully fell in love with one of their films. I’ve liked some of their movies before of course, some very much, and I’ve strongly disliked others, but their tale of a folk singer struggling against the music scene and against himself has left me in awe. Llewyn Davis (and Oscar Isaac’s achingly honest performance) pulled me along on his journey like so few characters do, left me immersed in his frustrations and failures, and helped make a film that looks damn cold remarkably warm instead. But I still don’t like folk music.

1. Upstream Color

My first viewing of Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature was almost a year ago at Sundance, and the fact that it has resonated with me so strongly for so long made it difficult to choose anything else for the top spot. The film’s narrative is deceptively simple but buried behind a creative structure that’s only as dense and difficult as you want it to be. Go beyond the mind games, pigs, and karate, and you’ll find a smart, beautiful, and wise tale about identity brought to life with sharp vision and an incredible lead performance by Amy Seimetz.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.