December 19, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY’s Top 10 Films of 2013 and More


As a movie year, 2013 was awfully slow in getting started.  Hardly anything worth remembering opened all winter and spring–only 1 movie in the Top 10 below opened in theatres before late May.  Summer brought some relief, and then the film festival season that began at the end of August opened the doors wide to what felt like an unprecedented bounty, as 11 of the year’s top 20 premiered at Venice, Toronto, New York or the AFI festival in Los Angeles.  (In all, including Toronto 2012, 16 of the year’s best 20 films premiered at one major festival or another.)  It ended up being not just a good year, but a downright superb one, overflowing with excellent choices–most of which are in theatres right now.  One would say that this is a year where the Academy Awards could hardly go wrong–but of course they can.

Without further ado, the year’s best:


1.   AMERICAN HUSTLE (Sony; Director:  David O. Russell; Screenwriters: Russell and Eric Warren Singer):  A live-wire, barn-burning dramatic farce (farcial drama?) about deception–of oneself and others–greed, love, transformation, the glorious tackiness of the 1970s, and the American Way.  Russell combined the offbeat gleam of his early indies with the craft of his recent genre work, and his fantastic actors trusted him enough to utterly reinvent themselves in front of his camera.

2.   HER (Warners; Director/Screenwriter:  Spike Jonze):  Love in the age of technology.  Jonze’s genius was to tell the story of boy-meets-operating system not as a cautionary tale or an occasion for slapstick, but as a totally sincere, warm-hearted romantic (and sometimes very funny) fable, and from production design to costumes to music, its delicate tone was just about perfect.  Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson gave the best performances most likely to be ignored by the Academy this year.  (Also, script connoisseurship kudos to Amy Adams, who appears in both of the year’s best 2 movies.)

3.   INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (CBS Films; Directors/Screenwriters:  Joel & Ethan Coen):  The Coens travel to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s, on one of their mysteriously beautiful, startlingly funny, brilliantly precise voyages to a past that’s both completely real and a product of their unique imaginations.  Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman head the superb cast, T. Bone Burnett supervised the music, and Bruno Delbonnel’s desaturated photography was breathtaking.

4.   GRAVITY (Warners; Director: Alfonso Cuaron; Screenwriters: Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron):  Thinking of breathtaking… Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great magicians of modern filmmaking, and working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and an amazing group of CG artists, he created the visual filmgoing experience of 2013, bringing a believable facsimile of the experience of being in space to movie theatres and singlehandedly reminding us that in the right hands, 3D is more than a gimmick designed to raise ticket prices.  Sandra Bullock, who bore almost all the burden of keeping the story relatable and emotionally involving, showed more than a little magic herself.

5.   CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Sony; Director:  Paul Greenglass; Screenwriter:  Billy Ray):  At a time when mainstream cinema barely acknowledges the existence of an outside world, Greenglass insists on making thrillers that are topical, intelligent and edge-of-the-seat exciting.  Brilliantly edited by Christopher Rouse and with a spectacular film debut by Barkhad Abdi as the head pirate who invades the ship commanded by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the film, though, was that after decades of Hollywood stardom, Hanks still had tricks up his sleeve, reaching what may be a new peak with his work in the final reel of the drama.

6.   NEBRASKA (Paramount; Director:  Alexander Payne; Screenwriter:  Bob Nelson):  A simple story, told in spare black-and-white, about an old man indulged by his son in his stubbornly mistaken belief that he’s won a million dollars.  It became a lovely, tart and, in the end, deeply moving tale about families and coming to terms with life and death.  If this is Bruce Dern’s year to win a gold statue, he will have deserved it, and June Squibb, the little-known actress who played his wife, stole every shot she was in.

7.   SHORT TERM 12 (Cinedigm; Director/Screenwriter: Destin Cretton):  The year’s most wonderful surprise, a micro-budgeted indie with an almost comically unpromising premise (the daily life in a foster care facility for difficult-to-place youths), proving once again that honesty and insight can make any subject thrilling.  Brie Larson gave the breakout performance of the year, and the rest of the mostly unknown cast wasn’t far behind her.

8.   BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Sony Pictures Classics; Director: Richard Linklater; Screenwriters:  Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy):  At this point, for those of us who have followed the adventures of this couple from their debut in Before Sunrise 18 years ago, the mix of the lives of the characters, the performers and our own has become so intimate that a new installment feels almost like a family update.   Linklater, Hawke and Delpy were bracingly unsentimental about aging and long-term relationships this time around, while still being achingly romantic.  The almost 15-minute uninterrupted take of the characters having an argument in a crucial scene was as impressive a feat, in its way, as the outer-space adventure of Gravity.

9.   DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (Focus/Universal; Director: Jean-Marc Vallee; Screenwriters:  Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack):  Matthew McConaughey’s and Jared Leto’s transformative performances provide the center to this biography, but they shouldn’t overshadow the very fine work of the writers and director, who take a story that easily could have been a sober-minded, predictable soap about a bigot becoming a better man after being diagnosed with AIDS, and instead made it a feisty celebration of sheer orneriness.

10. SAVING MR. BANKS (Disney; Director:  John Lee Hancock; Screenwriters:  Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith):  Hollywood craft at its smooth, entertaining best, with splendid performances by Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, and the rest of a first-rate ensemble cast.  Was this really the way it all happened?  Probably not, but all the real-life participants knew very well the value of a good story.



1.   BLUE JASMINE (Sony Pictures Classics; Director/Screenwriter:  Woody Allen):  One of Allen’s most vital recent works, with a spectacular lead performance by Cate Blanchett as the wife of a fictionalized Bernie Madoff figure who became a modern-day Blanche DuBois.

2.   FROZEN  (Disney; Directors:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee; Screenwriter:  Lee):  The bang-up family entertainment of the year, combining glorious animation, songs, laughs and plot twists in the classic Disney way.  Generations from now, it’ll be watched on whatever the current form of entertainment technology happens to be.

3.   PRISONERS (Warners; Director Denis Villenueve; Screenwriter:  Aaron Guzikowski):  A tough-minded thriller about the tension between justice, revenge and humanity, and a hell of a crime yarn as well.  Hugh Jackman’s extremely fine performance has unfortunately been lost amid the crazy amount of award-caliber acting that’s been on view this year.

4.   BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (IFC Films; Director:  Abdellatif Kechiche; Screenwriters:  Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix):  A 3-hour pocket epic about passion (yes, explicitly so) and also love, and time, and politics (sexual and otherwise), and social status, and art, and everything else Kechiche could cram in.  The two women at its center, Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux, were fearless, even if they regretted it afterward.  (Reportedy, this was not a happy set.)  At its best, Blue deserved comparison with Scenes From A Marriage.

5.   MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Lionsgate; Director/Screenwriter:  Joss Whedon):  As rollicking and just plain fun as any Shakespeare adaptation has ever been.  Whedon shot the film with a cast and crew of his best friends–who, lucky for him, happen to be terrifically talented–and that’s exactly the way it feels

6.   FRUITVALE STATION (Weinstein Company; Director/Screenwriter:  Ryan Coogler):  A deeply empathetic true story about Oscar Grant (played beautifully by Michael B. Jordan), a man trying very hard to change his life for the better, on what will turn out to be his last day on earth.  Coogler’s approach to the material was inspired and sensitive.

7.   THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Paramount; Director:  Martin Scorsese; Screenwriter:  Terence Winter):  The Scorsese movie for which the phrase “too much is not enough” seems to have been invented, a 3-hour epic of Wall Street greed and spectacular excess.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s balls-to-the-wall, fevered performance holds it all together.

8.   12 YEARS A SLAVE (Fox Searchlight; Director:  Steve McQueen; Screenwriter:  John Ridley):  A powerful, unsparing recounting of the hell experienced by Solomon Northup, a free man abducted into brutal captivity to the pre-Civil War South.  Strongly performed by a cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o.

9.   FRANCES HA (IFC Films; Director:  Noah Baumbach; Screenwriters:  Baumbach, Greta Gerwig):  The airiest most charming work Baumbach has done in years (and oddly, the third black-and-white movie on this list, with Nebraska and Much Ado), inspired by 1960s New Wave cinema, Woody Allen’s urban comedies and star/co-writer Gerwig.

10. ALL IS LOST (Lionsgate/Roadside; Director/Screenwriter:  J.C. Chandor):  A man tries to survive, completely alone, on a boat that’s falling apart around him.  Robert Redford wasn’t just the story’s center, he was the story, perhaps all too well cast as the stoic sailor.  Chandor, who likes a challenge, went from the non-stop verbiage of Margin Call to almost no words at all in this memorable, doggedly existential adventure.


BEST MOVIES YOU HAVEN’T SEEN YET (From Sundance/Toronto 2013; Commercial Release 2014)

CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE? (Weinstein; Director/Screenwriter:  John Carney):  From the writer/director of Once, a lovely, funny, lyrical poem of a movie starring Mark Ruffalo as a music producer and Keira Knightley (who sings!) as his discovery.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (Weinstein; Director/Screenwriter:  Ned Benson):  An spectacularly ambitious pair of interlocking films, totaling over 3 hours, from (incredibly) first-time director Ned Benson, telling the story of a marriage that falls apart through the eyes of the husband (James McAvoy) and then the wife (Jessica Chastain).  Or vice versa.

THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL (Tribeca/IFC Films; Director/Screenwriter:  Franchesca Gregorini):  A moving, surprising fable about the relationship that forms between a troubled teen (Kaya Scodelario) and a woman (Jessica Biel) with a very big secret.

TRACKS (Trio; Director:  John Curran; Screenwriter: Marion Nelson):  Mia Wasikowska in the remarkable true-life tale of Robyn Davidson, who walked across 1700 miles of Australian desert almost alone, mostly because she felt like it.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."