The 10 Best Movies of 2013

Earlier in the year at a recent panel discussion hosted by the University of Southern California, legendary directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke honestly about the current state of cinema. In particular, they lamented traditional U.S. filmmaking practices and predicted an “implosion” of the film industry as a result of digital media’s mass proliferation. Several weeks later, David Lynch condemned contemporary reception practices, referring to internet streaming as a “shameful” and “pathetic” way to watch a film.

Spielberg, Lucas, and Lynch raise thought-provoking and pertinent points, but their perspectives are ultimately muddled by their own biases. Despite shifting trends in media production, distribution, and reception, 2013 proved that cinema remains alive and well. On the one hand, Hollywood reinvented itself with films like Gravity (2013), a science fiction 3-D epic that could only be experienced in a movie theater. Hollywood found a clever way to use digital technology to lure audiences into the multiplexes, thereby reinforcing its dominance as an entertainment industry. On the other hand, independent companies discovered ways to distribute their movies on iTunes, Netflix and other on-demand streaming services, and this allowed their products to become more accessible to niche audiences. It is certainly true that media content can now be accessed in many different ways, but the quality of content has not diminished.

The following list represents the best that 2013 had to offer in cinema. These films underscore why cinema remains a relevant art form in the 21st century, and why it continues to inspire passionate discussion and debate.

10. Like Someone in Love

Set in Tokyo, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love depicts the ambiguous, playful relationship between a young prostitute (Rin Takanashi) and an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) over the course of two days. Similar to Kiarostami’s previous film Certified Copy (2010), Like Someone in Love forsakes narrative cohesion for thematic inquiries into issues of identity and communication in the modern world. It is a poignant, bittersweet film about isolation and loneliness and the lengths individuals will go to be heard, seen, and deeply understood. Regardless of whether or not you understand what the film is trying to say, you will walk out of it with an appreciation of its beautiful camerawork and soulful performances.

9. Nebraska

Nebraska is one of the few films in recent years that can claim to be distinctly American. Set in the heartland Bruce Springsteen often sings about, the film tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging father who wants to collect the million dollars he thinks he won from a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. This premise is merely an excuse to bring him together with his estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), his disappointed wife Kate (June Squibb), and his disappointing relatives and old friends. Nostalgia for a time gone by permeates the film, and although it is subtle, director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson portray characters who have been defeated by economic recession and technological progression. As Woody reminisces on his life and his accomplishments, he wonders if any of it has amounted to anything. By the end, I couldn’t help but think that Woody is just another sad, heartbroken character in one of Springsteen’s songs.

8. Short Term 12

There is a strong possibility that Brie Larson’s performance in Short Term 12 will be overlooked by the Academy, and that is a shame, because she’s pitch perfect in a role that many actresses would have overacted to the point of ruination. Larson keeps things quiet, and her facial expressions and body mannerisms are masterstrokes of nuance and subtlety. The film depicts the happenings inside a foster care facility, and it is filled to the brim with the highs and lows that define misfit youth culture. Set in a foster care facility, writer/director Destin Cretton depicts the lives of different teenagers who have been bruised and battered in their childhoods, and he provides a perceptive glimpse into the selfless adults who work tirelessly to brighten up their days. One of the leaders of the facility is Grace (Larson), a hardworking young woman who still suffers from old wounds well into her twenties. Short Term 12 is moving without being sentimental and funny without straying from the sad reality that some children in this world are in desperate need of love.

7. Fruitvale Station

Like most of us, Oscar Grant celebrated December 31, 2008 with close friends and family. Unlike most of us, Oscar Grant didn’t live to see what 2009 would bring. Fruitvale Station is a powerful recreation of Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) last day before he was innocently gunned down by a police officer on New Year’s Eve. The film is tough to watch, but viewers are rewarded with three terrific performances by Jordan as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda. In addition, we are given a beautifully rendered glimpse into the life of a deeply flawed but ultimately human man whose life ended much sooner than it should have.

6. Stories We Tell

E.H. Carr once said that facts of history never come to us pure because they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. Sarah Polley’s meta-documentary about her family history is rooted in this belief. In Stories We Tell, Polley interviews different family members in an attempt to come to terms with who her mother and father were. Each family member has a different interpretation of the same events, and it soon becomes clear that Polley is more interested in the limitations of memory and the ways individuals cope with the past than she is in trying to uncover a definitive history of her family. Like the great work of Errol Morris and Guy Maddin, Polley’s film calls our attention to the issues of subjectivity, perspective, and the inability to locate an objective truth.

5. Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime as Jasmine, a high society New Yorker whose husband’s legal woes force her to downsize her lifestyle and move in with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in California. Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s finest film since the 1990s, and it reminds us that the 77 year-old filmmaker hasn’t lost his touch. Some critics saw parallels to the Bernie Madoff scandal, and others compared it to A Streetcar Named Desire, but I think the film is Allen’s acknowledgement of those he’s hurt in his past. It’s hard to overlook the correlations between Jasmine’s realization toward the end of the film and Mia Farrow’s real-life discovery that Allen was sleeping with their step daughter. Is this an apology? A lament? It’s hard to tell. But when Allen leaves Jasmine muttering all alone on the bench, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how he’s remembered Farrow after all these years.

4. Before Midnight

Nine years after Before Sunset (2004), Jesse and Celine live together in Paris, have two daughters, and the same mundane commitments and obligations as every other adult. Fans of the Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) films were delighted to find that Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy reunited to make Before Midnight, the latest installment in cinema’s greatest love story. The conversations in this film are as perceptive as ever, but there are undertones of sadness and heartbreak that threaten even the most delightful moments. How does love survive in the face of life’s vicissitudes? This question lies at the heart of this wonderful film. We aren’t given any easy answers, but we can rest knowing that if Jesse and Celine can make it through, there’s hope for the rest of us.

3. Frances Ha

If you’re a twenty-something, Frances Ha is bound to resonate with you in some way. For me, the film strikes a particular chord. As a 23 year old student in New York City trying to pursue my dreams, I often feel as if the odds are stacked against me in a city that simply doesn’t want me. Greta Gerwig is a revelation as the neurotic, well-meaning Frances who simply can’t catch a break until the moment she least expects it. Like Lena Dunham’s television series GirlsFrances Ha is an honest depiction of what young adulthood is like for city dwellers of the internet generation. It isn’t easy, but it’s always exciting. This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film since The Squid and the Whale (2005).

2. Blue is the Warmest Color

Much has already been written about Blue is the Warmest Color and its undeserved controversy. If the film’s initial reception has taught us anything, it’s that some people refuse to face the fact that other people have sex. This is a shame, because director Abdellatif Kechiche has created a beautiful coming-of-age film that deals with love, sex, and identity in startlingly original ways. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are fiercely committed to their roles as two young women who develop a deep, passionate attraction to one another. The film takes its time to introduce the world in which Adele (Exarchopoulos) inhabits before she meets Emma (Seydoux), and this makes Emma’s impact on Adele’s ordinary life all the more powerful. Emma saves Adele, but as with most intense romances, she also causes her downfall. Blue is the Warmest Color is a profound film for anyone who has ever been in love.

1. The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is the most ambitious film of 2013, and the fact that filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino allows us to make some sense of his strange world is a major accomplishment. Although there isn’t much of a plot, the film revolves around Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man who is self-described as the king of Rome’s nightlife, as he reminiscences on his youth and the major changes Rome has undergone over the years. Like Nebraska, Sorrentino’s film is rooted in deep nostalgia for a time and a place gone by, and if Payne’s film recalls American classics like The Last Picture Show (1971), Sorrentino pays homage to Italian filmmakers like Fellini and the themes of ennui and decadence Italian cinema explored in the 1960s and 1970s. The Great Beauty is a momentous achievement by any standard and words don’t do justice to the film’s overall effect on the viewer. It is an experience that will never be forgotten, and I encourage every reader to seek the film out and give it a chance. The Great Beauty is the best film of 2013.

Most of the entries on my list are lesser-known independent and foreign films. I’m not opposed to Hollywood, and in another year Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Her might have made the cut. However, I live in New York City and am fortunate enough to be exposed to certain films that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. My hope is that on-demand streaming services will provide the general population with more access to these films so everyone can be part of the conversation.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Felix P.

    No Mud or West of Memphis?

    • Jon Lisi

      Mud is really great and I considered it. I ultimately went with Nebraska as I think they’re both distinctly American films and capture a time and a place really well. West of Memphis is also fine but when I was making the list I actually forgot about it and usually when that happens I take it as a sign.

  2. J. Bryan Jones

    Hrm. Moviegoers and the Golden Globes both seem to disagree with you. Many of these are/were difficult to find a place to see them. Hopefully you’ve seen the best rated movies of the years so you can make an informed decision if you’re going with the best movies overall of the year as opposed to best Independent movies of the year. Personally, I don’t see how anything can beat 12 Years a Slave.

    And yes, Gravity was highly overrated.

    • Jon Lisi

      Moviegoers wouldn’t disagree with me if they were given a chance to see these films! The problem is that many of them only opened and stayed in select cities. As for the Golden Globes, since when did they get anything write? One year they awarded Avatar over the Hurt Locker.

      I have a lot of respect for 12 Years a Slave, but I also have a few problems with it and think it’s at odds with itself.

  3. I agree with this list, although I would move Nebraska up.

  4. Allan Terry

    I like how some films that I found intolerably pretentious is reliably on this list. (As well as some films which features young hip indie film actresses without their shirts on). That’s become our household’s way of saying a film has more artistic pretension than actual merit…

    • Given the descriptions of quite a few of these films in this article, I am inclined to agree, but with the understanding that I haven’t seen any of these films.

  5. I am happy to see no Iron Man 3 or its friends here. Good list! Some I haven’t watched yet.

  6. Kristie Hall

    The Great Beauty is a terrific film. But people have to be a bit patient with it because it is not mainstream.

  7. Stewart

    It is nice to find a film critic whose tastes mirror your own, and whose recommendations reliably please. I have to write most famous critics off that list after several years of including their “Year’s Best” selections on my ‘To Watch’ queue. The result is too often disappointing and outrageously eclectic. For instance, anyone who includes “The Canyons” in a list of the year’s best films lives in an entirely different universe than I. I’m not even sure its life forms are carbon-based.

  8. Doreen Hansen

    I would have liked to have seen the way way back on there as well as side effects but it is a good list.

    • Jon Lisi

      I loved The Way Way Back and would encourage people to check it out even if it’s not on the list. It’s one of the better movies of the summer. Side Effects didn’t do it for me, but Behind the Candelabra was excellent.

  9. Some great films in that list. My favourites are Mud, Zero Dark Thirty, Gravity, Frances Ha, Only God Forgives, A Field in England and Upstream Color. Although it is surprising to see The Act of Killing omitted.

    • Jon Lisi

      The Act of Killing probably should’ve been on here, but I couldn’t decide what to take off. This year was seriously not messing around.

  10. Betsy Coleman

    There is plenty on your list that I’d take exception to, but it is great to see you’ve got the number 1 right. I am sad to see no place for The Way Way Back. That film took me truly by surprise at how emotionally engaging and well observed it was. I think it would be something right up your alley.

  11. Thanks for this year’s! I find myself rooting for Upstream Color to make its appearance, but understand it being divisive in some ways. On the other hand, glad to see Stories We Tell recognized.

    • Jon Lisi

      Upstream Color is an intriguing film that I’d encourage people to check out, but like you say it’s love it or hate and it didn’t really do it for me. It was kind of like Malick’s To the Wonder–I appreciated it and admired it but couldn’t connect.

  12. Sam Gray

    I don’t agree with you, but this is an interesting and refreshingly different list nevertheless.

  13. Had fun watching Nebraska. I didn’t think it’d be that profound.

  14. Vera Jenkins

    I half expected Stranger by the Lake to be on the list…

    • Jon Lisi

      I saw it at the NYFF and thought it was fantastic, but it’s technically not being released in theaters (at least in the U.S.) until the end of January so I decided to leave it off. Maybe next year!

  15. The Imposter was the best of the year.

    • Jon Lisi

      The Imposter is definitely an interesting film, but I decided to go with Polley’s as far as meta-documentaries go. But more people should check it out–it’s been more or less forgotten.

  16. Taylor Ramsey

    An interesting list. I have been looking forward to seeing several of them. Blue is the warmest and Nebraska most of all.
    Despite what Hollywood wants to think, I still don’t buy into the hype over 3D. It failed to really capture the market 50 years ago, and unless it can make greater inroads to the home theater market, I don’t see it saving the industry.
    If they continue to rely on gimmicks rather than simply making decent films, Hollywood will never really survive the onslaught of the internet. So Lynch etc can just learn to live with it, I guess.

    • Jon Lisi

      You raise a good point. I think what they’ll probably do to capitalize on the home video market is start financing smaller films again and just release them to VOD, and then save the spectacles like Gravity for theaters. But who knows? It’ll be interesting to see.

  17. Excellent list, I’ll be sure to check out The Great Beauty as soon as it becomes more readily available. Particularly pleased to see Frances Ha included. As much as I’ve enjoyed Baumbach’s work in the past, I would never have guessed he had it in him to make a film so refreshingly uncynical with regards to its characters.

  18. Don’t forgot the Iranian/French film The Past. Much better than anything Sandy “vanilla” Bullock, Julia “sweetheart” Roberts and George “middle of the road” Clooney has ever done.

    • Jon Lisi

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making entertaining Hollywood fare, but I do agree that The Past is a great film. I prefer A Separation but Farhadi is certainly one to watch.

  19. Alice Bishop

    Great list. I thought I’d seen most of the biggies from this year but apparently not – best get cracking !

  20. There’s a bit of me that wants to say these are incredibly obtuse films to put on a Best List – and another entirely that wants to applaud you for having gone all-out in terms of talking about artistry instead of the more conventional ‘oh man this was a cool thing’ stylee. Nicely done, man.

  21. I love films like Avengers and Man of Steel, and when people get a bit snooty I tend to go green and angry, but your reasoning here is clear and I am very interested in seeing Blue Jasmine. I would put another vote in for The Way Way Back- heartfelt without being pretentious.

  22. Kevin Licht

    Living in Missouri is tough sometimes. I would like to see all of these movies but unfortunately I have only seen a couple. Personally, I do find the list moving towards the pretentious side simply because picking films that are limited as far as accessibility goes somewhat dismisses the idea that bigger budget films can be considered artistic as well.

    Don’t get me wrong, Before Midnight would be in my top 5 if I were one for ranking films, but I do believe there has to be something said about accessibility to certain films (something I consider when comparing say, The Sopranos to The Wire).

    Basically, I would have liked to see at least one so-called “prestige” film on this list, whether it be Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle. Heck, even the Hobbit if that’s your bag.

    Of course these lists are mostly about personal taste, so you have to include what you like the most in them. So on that note… great list!

    • Jon Lisi

      I certainly understand where you’re coming from, and I came of age in a small town so I understand the frustrations with not having access.

      I go back and forth with this list: On the one hand, I stand by every film I’ve selected. They’re all great, and I feel as if it’s more beneficial for a reader to stumble upon a list with films they may not have discovered (not to claim that these films are secret only to me) as opposed to the big movies everyone has already seen.

      On the other hand, The Wolf of Wall Street is utterly brilliant, and I needed a second viewing to really let it sink it. At the time of the list’s publication, I’d only seen it once.

  23. I haven’t actually seen any of these films yet, but these look like really interesting choices. I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour; it sounds like a thoughtful and progressive adaptation of the graphic novel.

  24. KeshiaLynn13

    This list is superb in it’s choices, though I’d have to say that Nebraska deserves to be a little bit higher in the rankings, a truly poignant film.

  25. Panpan Yang

    Although you inactivated your facebook, at least I can find you here!

  26. I am glad I came across this article because I haven’t even heard of many of the films on this list. Now I will look out for them on DVD or a streaming service such as Netflix.

    • Jon Lisi

      They’re all great and with the exception of maybe number 10 you don’t need to go in with any preconceived conception of what cinema is. That is, you can simply watch them and get something out of them. The Kiarostami is probably a little more inaccessible.

  27. Mette Marie Kowalski

    Very nice list. I’ve only seen Before Midnight and Frances Ha of these, but they were some of the finest films 2013 had to offer. Frances Ha speaks to me even though I’m an 18-year old living in a village in Northern Germany, which I think shows what a great movie it is. I’m happy to hear that you like Girls as well, it’s been getting a lot of negative publicity at the moment. Before Midnight was painful to watch but a great achievement when it comes to it. I just can’t love it as much as the other two though, perhaps I’m escapist that way.
    My favorite films of 2013 so far were Her, The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers.

    • Jon Lisi

      I go back and forth with Before Midnight. On the one hand, I’m amazed that the level of quality has remained consistent, and I marvel at its bravery to tackle honest truths about aging. However, it doesn’t have what I loved about the first two films, which for me is that slight exaggeration that made the films fairytale like. Before Sunrise and Before Midnight were rooted in a reality and stylistically they adhere to cinematic realism, but the vast majority of us WON’T experience a connection like the one Jesse and Celine have. We won’t meet a random stranger on a train, spend a night with them, fall in love, fall out of touch, reconvene, feel the same way, etc. But that’s why I loved the first two–they presented an idealized version of what romantic love could be, and although I subconsciously knew that it was exaggerated, it gave me hope nonetheless.

      The third film is excellent, but it doesn’t have that magical appeal. Instead, it reminds me of ACTUAL relationships and how they ACTUALLY evolve. That’s all fine, but the first two were always slightly removed from the real world.

  28. That was the worst list of movies I have never seen. A collection of gay and lesbian chick flicks for the most part. You must be a woman? Keep your stupid opinions to yourself.

  29. I have not see any of these movies.

  30. Felicia Bonanno

    Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adele) is the best film I’ve seen in years. I can’t believe it is not more well-known in the United States. I wonder if this is due to the still high percentage of right-wing Conservatives in the United States who don’t support gay rights … ? I’ve heard France is more liberal about the issue.

    • Jon Lisi

      Glad you share my admiration for Blue is the Warmest Color.

      I think it has more to do with the fact that most foreign language movies in the United States don’t reach a wide audience. Despite getting great reviews and being on many top 10 lists, many American audiences won’t bother to watch a film with subtitles.

  31. Good list Jon. My own would probably include Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Only God Forgives, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I confess though that I don’t have many of these other films available to me because my local theaters are chains (AMC and Century) that don’t showcase foreign/independent films all that often. I am envious of you my friend; it’s probably a treat to be able to see lesser known films in the theater.

  32. Lauren Gabourel

    This is an interesting list. I’m a little sad ‘Her’ wasn’t on here, as I think it is not only a beautiful love story but a story of our time. It really transcends beyond a simple love story.

  33. Ishay Craig

    what a great list you’ve put together. i’m happy to see Frances Ha at number two because it was definitely my favorite film of 2013. It was certainly a movie that resonated. i have yet to see the great beauty. the trailer didn’t catch my attention but the praise from everyone means I should probably see it.

  34. I am glad, I read. Nice list of Movies, and really good, personable descriptions of each … with a somewhat clear idea what to expect, if you one hasn’t seen them yet. Good work!

  35. Emaloo

    I found Frances Ha to be a great look at female friendships. Movies often don’t portray female friendships that revolve around issues other than talking about boys. Baumbach showed not only the struggles of growing up, particularly as an artist, but the struggles of friendships as women can find themselves growing apart as they try to establish themselves as adults. I also applaud Frances Ha for giving these women multidimensional personalities. Frances was funny, smart, scared, driven and more. She wasn’t merely a tool for males.

  36. Elaina Chastain

    I saw Frances Ha and it was totally different from what I was expecting. Great acting and relatable storyline. I really need to check out Blue is the Warmest Color. Great post!

  37. I haven’t had the pleasure of viewing most the films on the list, but I have see Blue in the Warmest Color and i would have to agree. I was phenomenal movie and I’m glad that someone recognized that.

  38. bbemily

    The break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Color was POWERFUL. The most visceral response I’ve ever had to a film.

  39. VinceMoran

    Great list! I need to see The Great Beauty! Frances Ha, The Hunt, and 12 Years a Slave are at the head of my own Top 10. Frances Ha is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years, while The Hunt and 12 Years a Slave are so moving and stirring the response is almost physical.

  40. Danny Cox

    This was a bold article and I applaud you for that. I want to see Nebraska the most out of all of the movie on this list that I have not yet seen. In my opinion, The Wolf of Wall Street was the best movie I saw in 2013, but to each his own.

  41. I think this is pretty good, but American Hustle should have been on this list! Even if it was a major motion picture, the characters had so much depth and the plot line was flawless.
    Also Blue Jasmine totally ripped off Streetcar Named Desire.

  42. This was a really inspiring article for me because throughout the year I saw these flms being mentioned in Indie forms or post on facebook and I would like them and try to find more information about them but I never caught up.Thanks to you I do look forward to watching a couple of the films written about

  43. Interesting list, glad to see Nebraska on it!

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