Our Favorite Movies of 2013



Paul: It’s once again time to take a look back at the year in movies and celebrate the ones that meant the most to us. Like last time, we’ve asked Erigena Sallaku to join us for this special Gaffer MacGuffin conversation, to add another perspective and increase the likelihood that the reader will agree with at least some of the rankings. Then again, disagreement is welcome when it comes to lists. We wish to stress that these Top Fives are lists of favorites — I, for one, haven’t even seen 12 Years a Slave yet (or most of the other movies up for Best Picture at the Oscars, for that matter), so who am I to talk about the “best” movies of the year? So just sit back, and we’ll try to articulate why we love these movies so much.


Paul: Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

My list will probably be the saddest list. I liked a lot of sad movies this year: movies about grief, loss, failure, people getting left behind by the march of history. Llewyn Davis, brought to such vivid life by Oscar Isaac’s performance, is such a person. But this movie doesn’t take any easy ways out. The Coens don’t settle on the story of art vs. commerce, pitting emotional honesty against catering to what the public wants. They go deeper into their hero’s psyche, exploring his inability, or unwillingness, to find a place in the world. While the film is full of trademark Coen brothers humor, the experience as a whole is uniquely wintry. It’s swirling snow on a dark highway; it’s a smoke-filled room where a desperate man sings songs that were “never new and never [get] old.”

Erigena: Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro

Thank you guys for inviting me back. Like you, I have not been able to watch some critically acclaimed films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, or Philomena, so my list may or may not be exciting. For number five, I picked Pacific Rim because it is a surprisingly great movie. It not only offers action, stunning visual effects, and an all-star cast, but also powerful conflicts and character arcs. It is light-hearted, colorful, adventurous, and offers amazing sound effects. The film is set some time in the near future when earth is at war with colossal creatures that emerge from a multidimensional portal on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. To battle against these monsters, humanity has created equally colossal robots that are controlled by two pilots whose minds, yes minds, are joined via a neural bridge (creatively brilliant).The two pilots, one a rookie and the other retired, despite their damaged hearts and minds, find a way to work together. This film teaches about teamwork in a fun way. Two final words to describe this movie: epic and cool.

Daniel: Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder

Similarly to Paul and Erigena, I have seen very few of the year’s biggest and most critically acclaimed films, so I’m afraid my list might be somewhat generic. That being said; my #5 this year would have to be Man of Steel. We’ve talked about this one before, so I’ll be somewhat brief. There has not been a Superman movie that I really loved. That changed this year with Zack Snyder’s rendition of the world’s most well known super hero. We were given an incredibly familiar origin story in a way that felt new and exciting. The visual and thematic tone of the film added an unfamiliar weight to an otherwise light and airy franchise. I can’t wait to see this universe expanded, as it fit in nicely with Nolan’s The Dark Knight series. They’ve got a good thing going, but I can’t help but be a little concerned for the drastic jump in scale that Batman vs Superman is turning out to be.


Paul: The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-Wai

This might be the most visually ravishing film to be produced since The Tree of Life. So that’s one thing. Another is the impressive density of the story: so much history, philosophy, tragedy, and action in just 130 minutes (if you’re watching the definitive Chinese cut). Then there are the beautifully delicate performances from Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung, who successfully keep the movie’s ideas personal. This kung fu art film succeeds both as entertainment and as a challenging statement on the threats to tradition and family as a far more destructive kind of fighting blew a country apart. There’s a poetry to martial arts, something that recent classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero have captured. The Grandmaster joins that tradition while maintaining a rhythm all its own. There’s swirling snow and singing in this one too, but the movie really looks nothing like Inside Llewyn Davis.

Erigena: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson, and Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor

I’m doing something I haven’t done before by picking two. I couldn’t decide which one I like best so these two films are a tie for me. I liked this “second” Hobbit more than the “first” because of its faster pace and adventurous action moving each character forward. It offers a beautiful fantasy of Middle Earth world with each character, Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, Legolas, and Smaug/Necromancer further developed (by taking us back to the origins). Thor 2 is entertaining in both action and humor. The stakes are higher this time around and Thor faces tremendous character growth as his responsibility increases and his patience is tested. Both films satisfied my longings for adventures by transporting me to two different breathtaking worlds thanks to the amazing cinematography, unique characters, scary villains and complex plots.

Daniel: Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Frozen was a pleasant surprise. It was a similar experience to seeing Tangled. I went in with low expectations due to (in my opinion) some pretty terrible marketing. I came out amazed at how true to the nature of classic Disney Animated features it was. The music was spectacular, the story fun and light and the visuals top notch. I placed Frozen higher on my overall list than Pixar’s Monsters University. I’ve been really impressed with Disney Animation lately (except for the marketing vehicle that is Planes). While I still love traditional animation, there is no doubt that great strides are being taken in the CG animation world. It’s no longer just Pixar’s game. Like most of the audience, I absolutely loved the song that’s in the Oscar race for best original Song. “Let it Go” proved to be the emotional focal point for, arguably, the strongest animated film of the year.


Paul: Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski

Shot on black-and-white video, this is a mockumentary depicting a chess tournament in which the players are computer programs. The ultimate aim of the programmers: to create software that can beat the best human players in the world (who are known as “grandmasters,” incidentally). This might not seem like the most exciting premise (especially since we know where technology has gone in the decades since this film’s 80s setting), but the film is endlessly surprising, hilarious, and surreal. It puts a new spin on many familiar ideas: artificial intelligence, Cold War paranoia, socially stunted nerds. Also, cats. Lots of them. Like Llewyn Davis, a character in this film has cat-related problems as well as sleeping arrangement problems. In a crummy motel, a bunch of nerds work diligently toward the goal of rendering themselves obsolete. Today, nerds are practically rock stars. Who knows what they’ll do next?

Erigena: Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder

There’s so much I can say about Man of Steel. We all know the hero but I think above all, this film emphasizes the heartwarming story of a son and his father. Director Zack Snyder makes sure to show that Jonathan Kent, his earthly father, always encourages Clark to not use the powers for his own rewards but for the good of humanity. Clark must suppress the truth until due time. He must suppress all of his strength and he must bring it down to the human level simply because the world is not ready to experience him for the fullness that he truly is. This is strikingly similar to Christ imagery. Snyder presents Superman as not just a character but an aspiring figure who exemplifies a picture of our perfect selves. He has an incorruptible power, kindness, and decency that as humans we can only strive towards. A very inspiring take on a familiar story.

Daniel: Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro

2013 was a great year for large scale set pieces that existed purely to be destroyed. Still, Pacific Rim managed to win my #3 spot. Guillermo del Toro has an incredible imagination that, when allowed to run rampant, is a blast to witness. The level of joy he expels creating his worlds seems to directly transfer to the level of entertainment his audience experiences. What could have very easily been an unfortunate Transformers clone turned into one of the most fun theater experiences this year. A stellar cast combined with new and exciting elements was blended perfectly with influences from all over the entertainment industry. I was literally smiling through almost this entire movie just because of the “cool factor.” Del Toro has become a master in modern fairy tales, drawing from pop-culture as well as ancient lore. Pacific Rim turned out to be much more than “monsters vs robots.”


Paul: Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Simply as an exercise in conveying physical sensations through visual stimulation alone, Gravity is a marvel. Watching bodies in motion is every bit as mesmerizing here as in The Grandmaster, but, of course, without any of the martial artists’ control. The terror and the beauty go hand in hand as the film relentlessly explores our worst nightmares about, as a certain novelty folk song put it, “Mr. Kennedy [shooting us] into outer space.” But there’s real meaning to this simple story as well. It’s about overcoming grief, building the courage to fight for your life, and even how human companionship can overcome barriers (including language) when the situation is life-or-death. Sandra Bullock’s wonderful performance gives the movie its heart. But her character’s fragility shows that our machines have already surpassed us: Voyager has flown out of the solar system, but “life in space is impossible.”

Erigena: Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve

For me, Prisoners is one of the most intense and suspenseful movies of the year. It grabs one’s attention from the start and it doesn’t let go, until that last scene — the sound of the whistle — the sound that made time stand still for me at the movie theatre. One major aspect I loved about this movie is its unpredictability. One would think that it’s simply a story about a father taking the law into his own hands. Yes, he does take action and does so to the point of desperation, exhaustion, and uncertainty. But the story is actually much deeper, it keeps moving forward as the audience learns more of the intricacy of human nature through these complex characters. The atmosphere is haunting, the tone is dark, the plot is a puzzle, the musical score gives chills, and the acting is Oscar-worthy, especially Hugh Jackman’s and Paul Dano’s performances. This film is rare, it is gut-wrenching in the sense that it doesn’t just give you a simple solution in the end. Instead, it disturbs the core of your being.

Daniel: The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost bid adieu to their “Cornetto Trilogy” with The World’s End. The drinking comedy/end of the world romp features some of the sharpest comedic writing and widest array of emotions to extend from a humorous film this year, by far. On the surface it appears to be about a group of friends fighting alien/robot/zombies while attempting to complete an epic pub crawl ending at the legendary “World’s End,” the titular pub. Along the way, almost every theme under the sun is addressed, oftentimes irreverently, but more than expected in heartfelt and sometimes devastatingly sad ways. Heavy themes don’t often mix well with irreverent comedy romps, but Wright manages the whole thing quite well. The entire film is jam-packed with rapid-fire jokes, making this an easy #2 for me. I can’t wait to see what Wright does with Ant Man.


Paul: Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater

Each new addition to this now-trilogy has gotten exponentially riskier, over and above the risks of the average franchise. Nine years between films allows for a dedicated cult following and endless speculation about what happens next with these beloved characters. But Linklater, along with his cohorts Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, embraced the challenge, giving us an honest, insightful film that ponders whether romantic love can survive the passage of time. This film is more plot-driven than Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, but the plot is simple enough to allow time for lengthy conversations about such diverse subjects as religious icons, sex with computers, telling the story of your life through art, grieving the loss of loved ones, and — wouldn’t you know it? — cats. But the main conflict gradually bubbles to the surface, and the stakes for these characters and their relationship couldn’t be higher. Before Midnight is full of simple beauty and complex truth. I adore it.

Erigena: Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity is an exciting and visually amazing film about an astronaut floating in space trying to survive a quickly unfolding horrifying situation. I have read that the science is not particularly accurate but I will speculate that it doesn’t matter since I believe this film is meant to be more of a space thriller than sci-fi. Sandra Bullock’s performance is faultless as a scientific engineer who has just been allowed to go into space. When the terrifying and gigantic debris appear to be getting closer to her and to the camera, I found myself asthmatically gasping for air. This film allows the audience to somehow relate to the main character, even though she seems so far away. We don’t hear much dialogue or even monologue but yet somehow, it becomes real. She is running out of oxygen — we are too. She is terrified and excited — we are too. Some scenes are eerily familiar, hinting at an emotional cosmic death and rebirth, a sense of either being the first or the last person in the Universe. In my opinion, the masterpiece of 2013.

Daniel: Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity takes my top spot for 2013. Alfonso Cuarón crafted the most visually beautiful movie of last year. The opening 17 minute long scene was one continuous take, a fact I didn’t even realize until after I saw the film. It’s those kind of bold moves that made Gravity interesting, but it was the superb acting ability mixed with the breathtaking scope of the film that made it truly stand out. Bullock and Clooney managed to turn what could have essentially been “Castaway in space” into the masterpiece that it was. Though some criticized it for being overly simplistic, the nature of the story allowed for that to be the case without it being detrimental to the quality of the material. The deeper imagery that’s crammed into each frame permeates through the performances of each actor and through every note of the musical score. It’s intense and emotional, and the best movie I saw last year.

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One Response to “Our Favorite Movies of 2013”

  1. How Facebook Missed the Stars, Landed On a Cloud | Infinite Crescendo Says:

    […] a well-written and illuminating review of something like The Tree of Life, Moonrise Kingdom, or Before Midnight — my favorite movies from each of the past three years. See top of post for my favorite movie […]

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