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The 10 Best Movies of 2013

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by on January 2, 2014

Of all the Top 10 lists we’ve assembled this year, few were harder to nail down and were less divisive than deciding on our top 10 films of 2013. However, after American Gladiator-style foam Q-Tip fights, careful deliberation, and a good night’s sleep, we’re pretty pleased with the results. Jessica Chobot and the Nerdist News team rounded up the Top 5 Geek Movies of the year, but we decided to open the playing field a bit. This was a fantastic year for film. In fact, there were too many good films to put on this list, so many that we didn’t even get to see everything this year! I know, right? Some of your favorites didn’t make the cut, some of my favorites didn’t make the cut, yet here we are nonetheless. Let’s just agree that there are plenty of films worthy of celebration in 2013 and these are but 10 of them.

10. The Wind Rises

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Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Mansai Nomura

Beautiful, thought-provoking, problematic, Studio Ghibli impresario Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu), is a fitting swan song, simultaneously elegiac and elegant. The film hones in on the life of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno), who designed fighter planes for Japan during World War II, the most famous of which is the iconic Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter. Yet, The Wind Rises isn’t a film that glorifies war; its effects and the devastation from natural disasters like the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 weigh heavy on Miyazaki’s mind, and he endeavors to contrast the ugliness of the military-industrial war machine with high-flying dream sequences featuring Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni and a saccharine-sweet love story. Horikoshi’s ill-fated – and completely fabricated – romance with sickly, tuberculosis-stricken painter Naoko serves as a metaphor for his work, a thing of beauty that is slowly corrupted and wrested away from his control. There is nothing Horikoshi can do about either his planes or his bride at the end of the day; all he can do is try to make something beautiful.

9. The World’s End

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Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Apocalypse weighed heavy on the minds of filmmakers across the globe this year, but few managed to render the end of the world with as much heart, humor, and high octane robot ass-kicking than Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. The final flavor of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End plays out like The Big Chill-meets-Invasion of the Body Snatchers to spectacular results, following a group of reunited childhood chums as they attempt to traverse the Golden Mile, a Herculean pub crawl that will take them to twelve different pubs and force twelve different pints down their not-so-thirsty gullets. Except they aren’t kids anymore. Most of the gang has moved on, save for Simon Pegg’s Gary King, a gothbro manchild forever clad in a black duster and swaddled in a blanket of regret. It is to Wright’s credit that a film so packed with rapier wits, breakneck repartee, and murderous robots also includes genuine reflection and moments of honest, poignant truth. Nostalgia can be a powerful force for positivity, but in The World’s End, we see just how destructive and all-consuming that desire to go back to “the good ol’ days” can really be.

8. Mud

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Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon

If 2013 hasn’t already been dubbed “The Year of McConaughey”, then I need to have some serious discussions with whomever handles “The Year of” naming around these parts. A sweet little fever dream of a film, Mud transports us to the backwoods of Arkansas where gawky, adventuresome teens Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) stubmle upon a wild-eyed, tattooed, profoundly superstitious man-on-the-lam named Mud (McConaughey). Despite his scurrilous background, Mud becomes something of a father figure to these boys, who are desperate for someone to look up to amidst their comparatively bleak, hostile surroundings. Bolstered by moving, evocative performances, particularly from newcomers Sheridan and Lofland, Mud sets sail, taking us on a cinematic voyage down the twisting turning Mississippi River, leaving us wondering what it was – or who it was – we just saw in the hazy dusk.

7. The Spectacular Now

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Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler

It seems like everyone and their mother came of age on screen in 2013, but few did it better than in James Ponsoldt’s heartfelt, deeply resonant story of two teens falling in love. There’s plenty to complain about with The Spectacular Now – the ending, for one – but the sheer magnetism and charismatic alchemy that happens when Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley share a scene is undeniable. This is the kind of film that will have a profound and lasting impact on an up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, mark my words. To compare it to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off somehow seems hollow and forced, but if there is a spiritual successor to the kind of teen movies of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, then The Spectacular Now should stand proudly at the head of the class, then find a way to ditch out and have one hell of an adventure.

6. Stoker

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Director: Chan-wook Park
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney

In case there was any doubt over whether Chan-wook Park is the undisputed master of balancing style and sleaze, then look no further than Stoker, a churning, discomfiting, slow burning thriller that will leave you squirming in your seat and hoping for just one more scene. The level of camp can be a bit off-putting for some, but what Park’s English-language debut lacks in a tight, coherent screenplay, it makes up for in unsettling atmosphere and gallows humor in spades. This is Lolita as directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a macabre, sexually charged, and deeply uncomfortable look at the Stoker family and the nature of obssession that never once averts its gaze. From a literal “coming” of age in the unforgettable piano scene to a fateful stay in a phone booth, Stoker is full of the kind of powerhouse performances (Wasikowska and Goode turn in career-bests) and dazzlingly inventive imagery that makes Park one of the most interesting and exciting directors in the game.

5. Gravity

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Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Inarguably the prettiest movie of the year, Gravity filled us with the thrill of soaring weightlessly through spaced and the anxious terror of uncontrollably drifting away from all hope of survival as the tether snaps and the satellite to which you’re attached is rent asunder by space debris-turned-flechette rounds. To see it in IMAX 3D was one of the definitive filmgoing experiences of the year, an adrenaline shot for awe-struck audiences. Truly a testament to how far filmmaking technology has come, Gravity expertly balances the vast infinite blackness of space with the hyperventilating claustrophobia of being alone, trapped inside a space suit with nowhere to go. Although plenty of filmmaking happens surrounded by green screens, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were transcendent in their commitment and portrayals of the astronauts adrift, making us forget for a moment that we were in a theater and leaving us breathless upon reentry in the theater lobby.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Garrett Hedlund

Not everyone is meant to succeed, and that point is hammered home in the relentlessly bleak Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from Americana auteurs the Coen Brothers. A sweetly sad little film, Inside Llewyn Davis follows the titular struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) as he tries to pick up the pieces of his crumbling personal and professional life and make it through the unforgivingly cold New York winter in 1961. Outstanding musical direction from T Bone Burnett provides the soundtrack to this cleverly constructed, fully realized world that the Coen Brothers have created, and yes it’s full of the kind of memorable, kooky characters you’ve come to expect from their oeuvre. Ambiguous, thoughtful, funny – Inside Llewyn Davis is the kind of film that sticks to your ribs like a winter chill cutting through your parka all the way to the bone. The hauntingly good performances and the sweet strains of Llewyn’s guitar will stay with you long after the credits roll.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler

Controversy aside, the best and most damning example of American excess in 2013 is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a rollicking, high-energy adaptation of real life white collar criminal Jordan Belfort’s eponymous memoir, that puts the kind of reckless, irresponsible behavior that plunged the country into a recession on a pedestal before swinging a sledgehammer at its base. Scorsese scholars will identify elements of Casino and Goodfellas in The Wolf of Wall Street‘s DNA, but the criminals in this film, who ruin lives at the touch of a button, are so much more reprehensible than the murdering mobsters in the former. Most impressive, though, is Leonardo DiCaprio, who turns in one of, if not the best performance of his career, creating a charismatic, morally bankrupt, constantly drug-addled firebrand as Belfort. At seventy-one years old, Scorsese has made one of the most electrifying, relevant films of the year, one which manages to enjoy the spoils of war while pointing out the war crime in the process.

2. 12 Years a Slave

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Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard

Never has a theater been so silent and somber than when the end credits of 12 Years a Slave rolled and we slowly, wordlessly filed out. Such is the power of director Steve McQueen’s incredible, moving, and unflinching 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing adaptation of the real life memoirs of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker kidnapped and impressed into slavery. Fearlessly tackling one of the ugliest chapters in American history, McQueen’s vision is brought to life by a plethora of powerhouse performances, lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s smoldering, peerless portrayal of Northrup. 12 Years a Slave shows not just the physical toll and brutality of slavery in America, but the psychological ramifications of both being enslaved and owning humans as slaves. It’s often uncomfortable to watch – case in point, the low, strangled gurgling of Northrup as he stands on tiptoes in the mud with a noose around his neck, trying desperately not to asphyxiate while children play tag around him – but this is and should be required viewing. The truth can be an ugly thing, and the time for averting one’s gaze has long passed.

1. Her

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Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt

It’s fitting that in a year where “selfie” was formally inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary that the year’s best film is about a man falling in love with his cell phone’s operating system. Not even Apple’s marketing department could have dreamed up such a prescient plot. As Spike Jonze’s dreamy, thoughtful, expertly production designed tale unfolds, we see bits of ourselves in Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles to cope with the grief of his failed marriage, bottles his emotions despite making his living writing love letters for complete strangers, and generally retreats from everyday life. Until he installs a new operating system, that is.

What follows is a whirlwind romance punctuated only by just how goddamn honest it is in spite of being one of the strangest love stories ever told, elevated to euphoric heights by startling, gripping performances from Phoenix and the never-seen but oft-heard voice of Scarlett Johansson (Sam, the titular OS). Rarely do we see a bit of sci-fi that reflects so perfectly on American society in the Internet age, but Her manages to transcend the trappings of the genre and comment both on the state of society as we know it now and say something more timeless about the nature of love and relationships. Turn off your phone and turn yourself on to the simple beauty of Her.

Whew. Well, that’s done. What do you guys think? What were your top films of 2013? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.

While you’re at it, why not check out the best comics of 2013, the best video games of 2013, and the best nerd moments of 2013? In any event, Happy New Year, and let’s hope 2014 is just as kind to us, pop culturally speaking.

Additional reporting by Kyle Anderson, Brian Walton, Ben Mekler, and Lauren Herstik.