After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last June, I was forced to cut back on reviewing movies every week. In between chemo treatments and sleeping for days on end, I’ve made an effort to see as many new releases as possible. Now at the start of a promising new year, I am happy to announce that I am virtually cancer free. Even better, I have a lot of truly great films from yesteryear to talk about.
There’s no doubt that 2013 was a long, difficult year for me, as I’m sure it was many. At the very least, though, the movies were always there to provide us with a much-needed escape. Whether they excited us, made us uncontrollably laugh, or left us weeping like babies, all 30 movies on this list have two things in common, for me at least. First of all, they gave me hope for the current state of motion pictures. Secondly, they gave me hope in general.
1. “12 Years a Slave:” Not since the 1977 miniseries “Roots” has a depiction of slavery been more painfully honest and thought provoking than “12 Years a Slave.” Chiwetel Ejiofor is astounding as Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is kidnapped, separated from his family, and sold into slavery. He winds up on a Southern plantation run by an excruciatingly cruel sadist named Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender in the most unsettling performance this side of Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.” The standout in this near flawless cast is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young woman who becomes the target of her slave driver’s sexual desires. This is not the feel good movie of the year, but it is the year’s most important cinematic experience, pulling no punches as it exposes Southern plantations for the internment camps they were. Although the film does end with one enslaved person achieving their freedom, “12 Years a Slave” also bluntly reminds us that many slaves did not. Just as shameful, most of their captors never received any form of punishment for their heinous acts. Steve McQueen deserves to become the first person of African descent to win the Best Director Oscar for the best picture of the year.
2. “Frozen:” Disney is officially in full-on renaissance mode with their latest animated classic, “Frozen.” As far as Disney fairytales go, “Frozen” gets it right in just about every department. The music, the characters, the story, the pacing, the suspense, the romance, the themes, the humor, and, of course, the animation, it’s all done to near perfection. The film is also a thoughtful movie about sisters that takes several inspired chances with the fairytale formula. No wonder it’s become the surprise box office sensation of the year.
3. “Gravity:” A film so visually astounding that you’ll be half convinced director Alfonso Cuarón shot on location in outer space. The effective use of sound, sets, effects, and 3-D photography only makes the film more horrifying as an astronaut played by Sandra Bullock is sent adrift. From beginning to end, the audience feels all of Bullock’s dread, excitement, denial, loss, regret, and hope in her pursuit to survive.
4. “Short Term 12:” Despite only making a million dollars at the box office, Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12” has garnered one of the most passionate followings of any movie released in 2013. Hopefully that following will continue to grow now that the film is out on DVD. Brie Larson is an easy choice for breakthrough actress of the year for her performance as Grace, a young woman who looks after “underprivileged” kids at a foster care facility. Although she’s only a few years older than most of these youths, Grace has all the love, strictness, integrity, and good judgment of a natural mother. Like the film itself, many of Grace’s kids are full of pain and anger. Through their often heartbreaking interactions with Grace, however, they come to realize that it doesn’t matter how damaged a person might appear. Everyone has the potential to be something in life and they certainly have the potential to be loved. 5. “Her:” Spike Jonze’s film isn’t just one of the most memorable of recent times, but also a film that’s very much ahead of it’s own time. Joaquin Phoenix hits just the right levels of lonely, dumpy, and pathetic as Theodore, a man who purchases an operating system designed to evolve like an actual human being. The female OS names herself Samantha on the spot and is voiced by the wonderfully affectionate Scarlett Johansson. Jonze’s screenplay tackles its subject matter with great intelligence, great humor, and great sincerity above all else. It further provides a fascinating commentary on the state of artificial emotion, human emotion, artificial connections, and human connections.
6. “Prisoners:” On the surface, “Prisoners” might look like just another generic thriller. But director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski bring so much more to the table than one would ever expect. This is primarily because the narrative is so well structured, delivering on every plot point and leaving plenty room for human drama. It’s also helped by two striking performances from Hugh Jackman as a father hell-bent on finding his kidnapped daughter and Jake Gyllenhaal as a restrained detective assigned to the case. While “Prisoners” is definitely a suspenseful movie, it goes beyond being purely a suspense movie.
7. “The Spectacular Now:” 2013 was a terrific year for coming of age movies and the best was “The Spectacular Now.” Miles Teller takes a big step forward in his career as a slacker teenager named Sutter who falls head over heals for a girl named Aimee, played by Shailene Woodley. “The Spectacular Now” is given every opportunity to slip up and become a conventional romantic comedy. Against all the odds, though, it manages to avoid the clichés of so many dumber movies and TV shows about teenagers. Even the supposedly happy ending has an uncertain quality to it reminiscent of “The Graduate.” This is truly one of the most honest movies ever made about love, life, and becoming an adult.
8. “The Way Way Back:” If one movie gave “The Spectacular Now” a run for its money as 2013’s best coming of age story, it was “The Way Way Back.” This wonderful comedy from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is lead by newcomer Liam James. He nails it as Duncan, a socially awkward teen in store for a summer full of romance, humor, tears, life lessons, and even magic. Like a great summer vacation, “The Way Way Back” makes you wish it would last forever.
9. “American Hustle:” On the heels of “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell continues his winning streak with the enormously entertaining “American Hustle.” As always, Russell gets great performances from his entire ensemble in a story where every character is conning someone in some way. “American Hustle” mixes together elements of everything from “Goodfellas” to “The Sting.” Whatever you compare it to, the film still works beautifully as a fun, sexy, well-written con artist picture while also managing to be something deeper.
10. “Dallas Buyers Club:” Good news, everyone, Matthew McConaughey is no longer the worst actor on the planet. 2013 was truly McConaughey’s year of redemption with his work in “Mud,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and especially “Dallas Buyers Club.” He gives a Best Actor caliber performance as Ron Woodroof, a lowlife bigot who is diagnosed with AIDS. Unable to get the proper treatment, Woodroof forms an unlikely partnership with a transvestite named Rayon, played by the always bold and daring Jared Leto. The two set out to get the medicine AIDS patients require, challenging doctors, the FDA, and their own mortality. The result is an inspiring picture that encourages us to fight for our lives and to think as individuals. In some respects, it’s everything “Patch Adams” should have been.
11. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:” While the first “Hunger Games” was excellent, the sequel improves upon everything from the drama, to action, to the visuals, to the character development. Some might even argue it improves upon a book.
12. “The Wolf of Wall Street:” Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio do it again in this uproarious story of Jordan Belfort, a man the audience both despises and desperately wants to be.
13. “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues:” Like the first “Anchorman,” this long-awaited follow-up is more like a series of skits and one-liners than an actual story. But it’s hard to complain when a movie tries to make you laugh every second and hits almost every joke out of the park.
14. “Captain Phillips:” Paul Greengrass’ intensely shot, authentically edited true story carried by a multi-layered performance from Tom Hanks as the title character.
15. “Nebraska:” Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb give career best performances in a drably optimistic comedy/drama about life, regrets, and final shots at glory.
16. “Inside Llewyn Davis:” The Coen Brothers find the comedy in bleakness and the bleakness in comedy, resulting in a film that’s either saying a lot or saying nothing at all.
17. “The Kings of Summer:” An overlooked little gem, “The Kings of Summer” is another funny, off-beat, and nostalgic coming of age tale that whimsically captures the enchantment of summer.
18. “Star Trek: Into Darkness:” J.J. Abrams continues to breathe new life into “Star Trek” with this thrilling follow-up to the 2009 reboot.
19. “Warm Bodies:” “World War Z” might have been a box office smash, but the best zombie picture of the year was Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies,” a clever romantic comedy of sorts where the zombies are actual characters for once.
20. “This is the End:” Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson all do first-rate jobs portraying themselves in this laugh-a-minute satire of disaster pictures and celebrity. Also, Backstreet’s back!
21. “Rush:” An exhilarating tale of Formula One rivalry driven by Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl and director Ron Howard.
22. “Philomena:” Steve Coogan co-writes and co-stars in this delightful true story about finding family and faith lead by a great performance from Judi Dench.
23. “Saving Mr. Banks:” A genuine crowd-pleaser elevated by two marvelous performances from Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
24. “Side Effects:” Rooney Mara and Jude Law are terrific in Steven Soderbergh’s calculating thriller that provides an intriguing commentary on prescription medicine.
25. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler:” The exceptional ensemble carries this fascinating story of Cecil Gaines, a real life African American butler who served eight presidents at the White House.
26.” Fruitvale Station:” A touching, powerful account of Oscar Grant’s final day on earth, leading up to the reprehensible events that took place at the Fruitvale BART Station five years ago. Yet another example of how 2013 was a great year for African Americans in film.
27. “Enough Said:” Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini shine in the year’s most mature romance from writer/director Nicole Holofcener.
28. “All is Lost:” Robert Redford delivers one of the year’s most impressive acting feats as a nameless, mostly silent sailor struggling to survive the sea, deadly storms, and himself.
29. “Stories We Tell:” One of the most unique documentaries of recent years in which filmmaker Sarah Polley digs into her complex family history with heartbreaking and heartfelt results.
30. “Mud:” Matthew McConaughey gives another great performance while young Tye Sheridan gives a breakout performance in Jeff Nichols’ wise movie about growing up.
• Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.