A strange thing happened in 2013 at the movies: We tried new things.
Oh, sure, there were still more sequels than you could shake an unoriginal stick at, but moviegoers also gave never-before-seen astronauts, women cops, prehistoric families, and fake families a chance.
I, of course, didn’t see every movie released in 2013 (I’m only human). I juggled several of my own film projects, and many awards-fodder releases haven’t opened in Wichita yet (such as “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “August: Osage County,” both slated to open here in January).
With that in mind, here are my 10 best films of 2013:
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1. “Gravity” — Alfonso Cuaron’s first directing outing in seven years (after “Children of Men”) was riveting, a tale of two people who became helplessly adrift in space after their station collided with a satellite. The film absolutely pulsated with urgency and was a jaw-dropping technical marvel. But it was also wondrous, grounded — excuse the pun — in a gripping performance by Sandra Bullock. She made us feel every exasperated moment, and as she fought to survive, she seemed to come alive a little bit more. For she may have been enveloped in nothingness, but she refused to succumb to it.
2. “American Hustle” — Director David O. Russell continued his study of combustible characters (after “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) with this engrossing portrait of a sleazy con man (Christian Bale) and his manipulative mistress (Amy Adams) who are forced by an overzealous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to con mobsters and politicians, which immerses them into a dangerous world. The script was juicy, a densely plotted soap opera that just got better as the film unfolded, while the entire cast brought it to vibrant life, especially Adams in a masterfully controlled performance. But it was Jennifer Lawrence who ignited everything with her blistering portrayal of the con man’s ultra-hot mess of a wife.
3. “Rush” — This sweeping, exciting tale of the merciless rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) during the 1970s was one of director Ron Howard’s best films to date. It zipped along and the races were staggering to behold. But the real fuel for the fire was the prickly relationship between Hunt and Lauda, brought to simmering life by the actors, especially Bruhl in his first English-speaking role.
4. “Captain Phillips” — This taut tale was based on the true story of how Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks at his best) in 2009 dealt with Somali pirates hijacking his MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. We saw every thought that came alive in Hanks’ head as he tried to outsmart his captors and just stay alive. But only when he was finally freed and taken to safety did the realization of everything he could have lost come pouring out of him — and us.
5. “12 Years a Slave” — Yes, it was harrowing and hard to endure. But this was an important film, one that single-handedly changed the way slavery is portrayed in movies. Director Steve McQueen showed the atrocity of it all, with no punches pulled. But Chiwetel Ejiofor’s humane performance gave the film heart as a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The journey was devastating yet inspiring, as he struggled to find hope and keep his dignity amid abysmal despair.
6. “The Way, Way Back” — There were several good coming-of-age films this year (such as “The Spectacular Now” or “The Kings of Summer”) but this surpassed them all and reminded us of the pains of growing up and the triumphs of finding yourself. It followed a shy, awkward teenage boy — on vacation with his mother and her awful boyfriend — who finds an only friend in the irreverent owner of a swim theme park. The film didn’t cover any new ground or themes, but it was sweet, genuine and jubilant.
7. “Blue Jasmine” — Cate Blanchett could finally get that elusive best actress Oscar as a New York socialite dumped by her husband who must now fend for herself and move in with her sister (Sally Hawkins, also very good) in San Francisco. Writer/director Woody Allen’s astounding late-career resurgence continues with this engrossing tale, but it was nothing without Blanchett. She made Jasmine so broken, so defenseless and so helpless, we just couldn’t keep from watching — and pitying —the train wreck unfolding before our eyes.
8. “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I am huge sci-fi fan, though I never would have thought of myself as a “Trekkie.” But two films into J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” universe, and I’m all in. This second journey was even more exciting and just downright fun than the first, with a game cast and adventurous story. Beam me up for more.
9. “All is Lost” — This was a remarkable feat — an adventure following a man whose damaged yacht left him adrift at sea while he fought to survive in the face of a monsoon. The film was told with almost no dialogue, save for a few utterances and an initial voice-over, and it had only one character onscreen all the time, played by Robert Redford in an acting triumph.
10. “Warm Bodies” — It’s not just that I directed a zombie comedy myself and am a huge fan of the zombie genre, it’s that this film’s premise worked beautifully when it shouldn’t have, completely — wonderfully — making up its own rules. The film was a love story — yes, that’s right — between a zombie and a living girl who brings him back to life. It was creative, funny and had surprising heart — among other body parts, of course.