Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2013

The year of 2013 was a banner year for cinema. I saw 119 movies during the past 365 days, and 42 of them were released in 2013.

Thematically, coming-of-age stories about parental abandonment (The Spectacular Now, The Way Way Back, The Place Beyond the Pines, Short Term 12), systemic injustice against minorities (12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station), intimate stories involving two people talking (Before Midnight, This Is Martin Bonner, Prince Avalanche), one-person survival stories (Gravity, Captain Phillips, All is Lost), and the banalities of the monster of consumerism (The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street) all made up the filmic smorgasbord of the past season. I am so pleased with my top ten list, and while I wish I could have viewed even more films than I did, the ten on this list were all fantastic and affecting films, ones that I'll keep coming back to in the years to come.

Here are my ten favorite movies from the past year, seen in 2013

10. The Way, Way Back (dir. Jim Rash, Nat Faxon). The Way, Way Back falls in line with the summer movie themes--awkward teens, miserable experience in a beautiful vacation spot, hilarious side characters, etc.--without slipping into cliches or sentimentality. When 14-year-old Duncan (perfectly portrayed by young actor, Liam James) has to spend his summer with his out-of-touch mother and her demeaning boyfriend, he finds hope and belonging by working at a rundown waterpark. The park's owner, Owen (a hilarious performance from Sam Rockwell), embodies what it means to be a place-sharer, a mentor who steps into the messiness of a young life and becomes an advocate and guide, even if for only a brief summer season. Owen's life certainly isn't perfect; he's a bit directionless and irresponsible, potentially costing him his own romantic endeavors. Yet his learns a bit of responsibility from Duncan, just as he teaches Duncan how to have fun and grow in self-confidence. It's a beautiful picture of discipleship, with Owen and Duncan both emerging from the summer season as transformed in subtle and profound ways. Marked by humour, authenticity, and charm, The Way, Way Back is not only a summer movie; it's a youth ministry movie. (My review)

9. To The Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick). My favorite filmmaker, Terrence Malick, has crafted a frustrating and fascinating film, one that lingers and comes back to mind in moments of quiet. Where Malick's The Tree of Life encompassed the beginning and end of all creation, To The Wonder focuses on life's most wondrous reality: love. For Malick, love comes down to choice and commitment. Whom will I choose? To what person, place, or ideal will I commit my life? Will I commit to my choice, see it through to the end, remain constant and faithful? According to Father Quintana, "there is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above." According to the Apostle Paul, love--the love embodied in the person of Jesus--is patient and kind, always protecting and trusting and hoping and persevering. In Christ, love never fails. That is a wonder to behold. (My review)

8. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)This is a story of visionaries. Where Jeff Nichol's previous film, Take Shelter, told the story from the perspective of an isolated man with personal visions, Mud focuses on the visionary's followers and fellow idealists. I love films about teens and youth ministry, and the protagonist of Mud, Ellis, is one of the best embodiments of a young teen I've seen on film. Portrayed by Tye Sheridan (the youngest brother in Malick's The Tree of Life), Ellis is idealistic, naive, rash, and courageous. Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud (a great performance from Matthew McConaughey), and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents. (My review)

7. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)Frances Ha is filled with beautiful, cathartic moments which happen in fits and spurts: Frances sitting with the crying college girl in the dorm hallway; Frances' monologue telling the woman at the dinner party about her ideal romantic moment, where two eyes catch across the room and there is a "knowing" of each other that is beyond sexual or emotional longing; Frances running and dancing through the streets of New York with a reckless freedom. It is this last image--Frances running--that sticks in my mind the most. The world around her is a blur as she rushes forward, uncertain about the obstacles or opportunities that lie ahead, yet running at full speed. She is the poster child for the millennial generation's struggles and hopes, rushing with abandon into the future. (My review)

6. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen). 12 Years a Slave can be added to the canon of films that portray the brutal realities of human history. It is devastating and heart-wrenching to behold. It is also important. Every American should see this film. American history has a dark side, and 12 Years a Slave dares to force us to look it directly in the eye. This willingness to stare into the darkness of humanity is contrasted with glimmers of light and hope, quiet scenes of the sun peering through trees on Louisiana bayous, or the spiritual hymns of the slaves about redemption and exodus. There is a brief scene where Solomon is gazing outward, waiting and watching and wondering about his freedom, his eyes slowly scanning the horizon, when he suddenly stares directly into the camera for a brief moment and his eyes lock with the audience. Then he continues to turn and gaze and watch and wait. The moment is no more than a second--I may have even imagined it--but that stare, that gaze, is a powerful moment of peering into the soul of a man longing for freedom. (My review)

5. This Is Martin Bonner (dir. Chad Hartigan). A quiet minimalist masterpiece, This Is Martin Bonner is made up of table conversations between two men, filled with moments of quiet intimacy, authenticity, and depth of emotion. The actors feel so natural and fresh together that it's a wonder they're acting at all. They are human, through and through, two men journeying through the sacred ordinaryness of life. This is a film about renewed vision. At the onset of the film, Martin goes in for an eye appointment and is asked the question, "are you having trouble with your vision?" A sermon at Steve's church is about Jesus putting mud on the blind man's eyes and opening them for the first time. Two memorable scenes are 360-pans of Martin's apartment and the outside of Travis's motel room, a panoramic view of the new surroundings these men inhabit. Both Travis and Martin are finding a new framework and a new lens for viewing the world. They are seeing themselves, seeing each other, and perhaps even seeing Christ in the invisible connection between two human beings. (My review)

4. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)Gravitas means weightiness, seriousness, profundity. This exhilarating film is more than a survival story, more than a space thriller. Gravity is a meditation on the very essence of life, i.e. what keeps us breathing and moving and continually taking steps into the future. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, in a masterful performance) has lost someone dear to her, and the thought that no one is looking up into the sky and praying for her seems to give a sense of hopelessness. In the weightlessness of space, it is quiet. Peaceful. Restful. Yet space also reminds us of this: we as human beings can feel terrifyingly alone and small. Staring into the abyss of infinite stars, one begins to wonder: why do I matter? What difference do I even make? When amazing technology like telescopes, shuttles, and space stations can be destroyed in the blink of an eye--a life's opus, brushed away by debris--what then? When our child dies, our marriage falls apart, our job is lost, our security is taken or abused, what keeps us going? How do we know that we're not alone? (My review)

3. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)Imagine if Terrence Malick made a film based on a Hayao Miyazaki story, and you have a glimpse into filmmaker Shane Carruth's approach in Upstream Color. Hypnotic and wandering cinematography, utilizing images over dialogue (showing over telling), and the integration of imaginative and mystical elements that must be taken at face value as part of the tale. At its core, Upstream Color is a film about healing. Karl Barth and other theologians make the claim that we are only human persons in the context of relationship; we can only know our identity through the interaction and connection with other beings made in the image of God. When identity is shattered and relationships are distorted, it is a long and arduous process we go through to heal our wounds. Kris and Jeff have found the Thou to their respective I, the person in their life who is simply that--a person, not an object or an avatar or a figure of dominance and control. Their journey towards healing is traveled together, beautifully wrapped in each others arms as they break free from the bondage of isolation and control. (My review)

2. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater) The romance between Jesse and Celine has created one of the best--if not the best--of all filmic trilogies, with three consistently well-crafted, affecting, and thoughtful films. Keeping to the simple "walk and talk" formula, Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have created some of the most authentic, nuanced, and compelling characters on screen. If Before Sunrise was about exploring the notions of romance and sex, and Before Sunset addressed humanity's deeper question about love and destiny, then Before Midnight is the trilogy's meditation on marriage and commitment. Jesse and Celine offer a myriad of views on the concept of marriage--much of it cynical and jaded, though honest and not without merit. Even when I disagreed strongly with their beliefs or comments, I would still find myself nodding in understanding and empathy. As they wander through the countryside and pathways of the coast of Greece--a beautiful setting for any conversation on romance--their honesty and openness is both intriguing and disconcerting. It's like we've been invited to walk alongside a couple as they pour out their hearts, no holding back, no restraints or social barriers. It can be painful or awkward or even ugly to hear, but it is always honest. (My review)

1. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Cretton)Filmmaker Destin Cretton has crafted a world that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--it's certainly emotionally moving, and I found myself wiping my eyes numerous times. Short Term 12 is one of the most affecting and honest portrayals of youth work I've seen on film, sitting alongside The Kid with a Bike and About a Boy. While the youth workers in Short Term 12 are facility employees and therapists, there are strong parallels to Christian youth ministry, both in the church and the community. I don't think it's an accident that the heroine of Short Term 12 is named Grace. She is broken and beautiful, pouring out strength for others through her own weakness, a voice for the voiceless while she struggles to articulate her own story with raw honesty. She is a gift to the other people around her. Through her own wounds, she heals. (My review)

Honorable Mentions (the top 20):
11. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
12. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
13. Monsters University (dir. Dan Scanlon)
14. Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon)
15. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
16. The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright)
17. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
18. Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
19. About Time (dir. Richard Curtis)
20. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (dir. Adam McKay)

Films I Haven't Seen Yet, but are Critically Acclaimed:  Fruitvale Station, The Kings of Summer, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, August: Osage County, The Wolf of Wall Street, Stories We Tell, Leviathan, Her, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, All is Lost, Like Someone in Love

The Disappointments (the worst 5 I saw this year, in alphabetical order)Iron Man 3, Only God Forgives, Spring Breakers, Thor 2, World War Z

What were your favorites from 2013? Share in the comments!


  1. Great post Joel! You've got great taste in films. I think you'd like the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Came out Christmas day I think, and it was really good!

  2. We have very different tastes in film. But I always appreciate your keen insight into what you enjoy and as always I look forward to your reviews and end of year list as there are films I haven't seen yet.

    1. Chris, I always appreciate your fellow love for film and youth ministry, and even when our tastes are different, there's definitely a mutual respect here!