NGN’s Best of 2013 (and 2014 Preview): Movies

American Hustle was one of 2013's most critically-acclaimed films.

American Hustle was one of 2013’s most critically-acclaimed films.

I hope all of you had a lovely end to 2013 and a fresh, fun, and hopeful start to 2014. May all your resolutions be beneficial and all your days full of learning, laughter, and love.

After ending 2013 with a look at the year that was in television, I’d like to kick off 2014 with a look at the world of film. It’s time to reflect on the performances and movies that made 2013 such a memorable year, and it’s also time to look ahead at what movies we have to look forward to in the coming year.

Top Five Female Performances of 2013:

1. Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld (American Hustle) and Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Lawrence’s turns as American Hustle’s charismatic but unstable housewife and Catching Fire’s stoic but tortured heroine were both outstanding on their own, but what was truly impressive was looking at them side-by-side as a testament to her incredible range. For someone so young to have built such an impressive body of work is no small feat, but in 2013, Lawrence proved herself able to rise to every challenge put in front of her as an actress—and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Oscar at the end of this year’s journey.

2. Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone (Gravity)
Gravity was literally Bullock’s film—she was onscreen for nearly all of its 90 minutes, and, for much of it, she was onscreen alone. Bullock’s ability to convey the terror of her situation was excellent, but the most captivating thing about her performance was the way she was able to convey both the physical isolation of space and the emotional isolation of grief with such relatable humanity.

3. Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser (American Hustle)
For American Hustle to succeed as brilliantly as it did, Sydney needed to be the kind of woman everyone would fall in love with, and in Adams’s capable hands, she became that and so much more. Adams balanced Sydney’s sensuality, intelligence, ambition, and fierce vulnerability with grace and—even more importantly—with power you couldn’t help but be attracted to.

4. Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers (Saving Mr. Banks)
The way Thompson managed to show the broken little girl underneath P.L. Travers’s icy exterior was nothing short of magnificent. Her harsh sarcasm gave a film that could have been saccharine a nice edge, but it was her emotional journey that gave the film its most winning asset—its beating, beautiful heart. I still find myself tearing up thinking of the emotional range she showed during the scene in which Travers watches Marry Poppins onscreen for the first time, which was possibly the best acting without dialogue I saw all year.

5. Amy Acker as Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
It takes an impressive actor to make me truly care about a Shakespearean character. So the depth with which I came to care about Beatrice proves what an impressive actor Acker truly is. The lines rolled off her tongue like she was born speaking Shakespeare, but it was the genuine humor and gravitas she brought to the role that made this character come to life for me as if she was as real as one of my friends.

Top Five Male Performances of 2013:

1. Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld (American Hustle)
Irving was the slightly skewed conscience at the heart of American Hustle, and Bale brought a very tangible sense of genuine kindness to this con man with his own moral code. There was a soft center to Bale’s Irving that I wasn’t expecting, and his warmth in the middle of his cold little world was even more enjoyable to watch than his sense of humor.

2. Forrest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
Whitaker’s quiet strength as an actor was a perfect match for Cecil’s own quiet strength and pride in his work. You could feel the dignity and respect in Whitaker’s work as Cecil, and that made him feel like a real person rather than just a caricature in a dry American history lesson.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
I may not have loved most things about The Great Gatsby, but the one thing I did love was DiCaprio’s brilliant work as my favorite literary character. DiCaprio played every facet of Gatsby perfectly—his charm, his desperation, his hope, and his deluded belief that Daisy is worthy of that tragic sense of hope. It would have been easy for DiCaprio to simply turn on his movie-star charm and let that do all the work; instead, he went deeper into Gatsby’s psyche and showed the cracks in his debonair exterior that came from trying to create reality from a dream.

4. Robert Downer Jr. as Tony Stark (Iron Man 3)
Iron Man 3 gave us Tony Stark at his most haunted, and it allowed Downey to show more range than ever before. The way he used his trademark, fast-talking style to show Tony’s anxiety rather than his confidence was brilliant. Tony’s panic felt real; it became as much a part of him as the charm Downey has always exuded so effortlessly, and that’s not something we see often in superhero films—a hero who is allowed to be damaged.

5. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney (Saving Mr. Banks)
Not only did Hanks do an excellent job of capturing Disney’s mannerisms and vocal inflections; he captured his spirit of tenacious hope. The businessman, the creator, the dreamer, the father, the cold and tired little boy, and the storyteller—Disney was all of these things, and he was all of them at once. Hanks walked the line between salesman and sincerity with grace, in a way that would have made Disney himself proud, I think.

Top Five Films of 2013: 

1. American Hustle
Smart, funny, and surprisingly sincere for a movie about con artists—American Hustle was the most purely entertaining movie I saw this year. Its cast was in a league of its own, its director was at the top of his game, and it was simply a whole lot of fun.

2. Gravity
No other movie in 2013 was as impressive as Gravity in terms of its scope and its execution. It was a technical marvel and piece of cinema that speaks to the loneliness and isolation we all feel at times in our lives. The way it took a story as old as humanity and told it in such a groundbreaking way was nothing short of masterful.

3. Frozen
With gorgeous animation, inspiring music, and a story that celebrates the true love between sisters, Frozen is unlike any Disney film to come before it in a very good way. The “Let It Go” sequence was worth the price of admission alone, but the whole film resonated with a very important message about self-acceptance and the bonds of sisterhood told with the magical touch reserved only for Disney.

4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
It’s rare that a sequel is better than the original film, but that’s what happened with the second film in the Hunger Games franchise. The supporting characters were given more depth, the central relationships carried more weight, and the emotional impact of the film was stronger than even I, as a fan of the series, could have predicted. With Jennifer Lawrence at the center of the film and a brilliant supporting cast around her, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire wasn’t just a great sequel or a great adaptation—it was a great movie in its own right.

5. Much Ado About Nothing
Chemistry is a hard thing to explain, but when a cast has it, a good movie becomes great. The sense of camaraderie between all the cast members in Joss Whedon’s highly entertaining Shakespeare adaptation made this film feel as modern as a Shakespearean comedy could ever feel. And the dynamic, crackling chemistry between Amy Acker and Alexis Denishof was the best I saw onscreen in 2013.

Honorable Mentions: Saving Mr. Banks, The Heat, Monsters University

Top 10 Films I’m Looking Forward to in 2014:
1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (November 21)
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4)
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)
4. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)
5. Muppets Most Wanted (March 21)
6. Into the Woods (December 25)
7. The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)
8. Maleficent (May 30)
9. The Monuments Men (February 7)
10. Gone Girl (October 3)

What were the best movies you saw in 2013? What movies are you most looking forward to seeing in the coming year?

8 thoughts on “NGN’s Best of 2013 (and 2014 Preview): Movies

  1. I counted, and I saw 18 movies in the theater this year, which I have to say is pretty impressive. Sadly, I feel like most of the movies I saw ranged from barely watchable (Gangster Squad) to average. The only standouts for me were Much Ado, Hunger Games, In A World, and Jurrassic Park 3D (which I know is kinda cheating :P). I saw both ‘Frozen’ and ‘American Hustle’ and thought they were enjoyable, but they didn’t blow me away either. In the case of American Hustle, I feel like its a movie I have immense respect for, but it didn’t engage me like I was hoping. More than once I found myself thinking, “man, this is a LONG movie”. And while I am not sure they are worthy of being on any top 5 lists, a couple movies that surprised me were ‘warm bodies’ and ‘oblivion’. They are worthy of a rental. I am so over superhero movies I am not even going to go there, which is so sad because I am a comic book addict, but I have major action sequence fatigue at this point. This is probably one of the reasons why Much Ado was my fav movie of 2013. Can’t get more wordy than that!

    TV totally kicked the big screen’s butt in 2013.

    • “In the case of American Hustle, I feel like its a movie I have immense respect for, but it didn’t engage me like I was hoping.” — This is precisely how I feel about David O’Russell’s movies. I felt that way about The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees. I liked Silver Linings Playbook a whole lot but what I took from the film wasn’t the stories, it was the performances that I loved.

      • It’s so interesting to me that both of you agree on this point because I was just thinking that David O. Russell is one of my favorite directors because I’m always engaged by the performances he gets out of his actors. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle were all my favorite films in the years they came out.

    • I was actually just having a conversation with a coworker about how she found American Hustle to be too long, so you should know you’re definitely not alone. For me, though, it flew by. I think a lot of my love for the movie came from the fact that it was a rare “fun” movie during “serious” movie season. You have action sequence fatigue; I have heavy drama fatigue at this point. I didn’t realize until I saw American Hustle just how much I’d been craving a movie that didn’t make me cry my eyes out. I think that’s why I loved Much Ado so much, too. It was so much fun.

  2. Oh now we’re talking. Movies is my favorite subject matter. I will handicap this by stating I still haven’t seen American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and August Osage County.

    The Ladies:I am going to handicap that I will likely think that Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson are brilliant and make my list along with Amy Adams in Hustle. The only thing I am in diametric opposition of you on is Gravity. While visually worth the money I paid to see it I thought it was a terrible movie and found nothing special in Bullock’s performance.
    My Favorites:
    Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – I can’t stand Woody Allen and it has been a very long time since I have suffered through one of his films. I didn’t like this film, but I adored Blanchett’s performance. I have never gotten over her not winning an Oscar for her brilliant turn in Elizabeth. Blue Jasmine gives her a broad canvas to display her range and her performance is worth the couple of hours.

    Judi Dench (Philomena) – There are few actors I adore more than Judi Dench and her work in this movie shows why she is one of the most powerful actors to ever grace a screen.

    Jennifer Lawrence – Is there anything she can’t do?

    The Men – Here you and I only crossover one person, Leonardo DiCaprio, but we do so for different films. I don’t dislike any of your picks as they are all actors I like.
    My Picks:
    Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – Issac plays a man who can’t catch a break or get out of his own way. Many aspects of his character’s personality are off-putting and yet in Oscar Issac’s hands you empathize with him and with a glance or a dropped shoulder he makes you weep for someone whose dream is just beyond his reach. It is a beautiful portrait of a broken man.

    Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) – No performance this year haunts me more than this one. In a film that is agonizing to watch Jordan absolutely nails every nuance and complexity that it is to be a young black man in America, one who is neither martyr nor evil, but merely a young man who was trying to find his way. It is a stunning piece of acting and I think he’s the one who is going to miss out come awards season and that’s a shame.

    Robert Redford (All is Lost) – This is the solitary turn about isolation of the year. It is all the things Gravity wasn’t and one of the best performances of his career.

    Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) – No one else could have played this role. What DiCaprio accomplishes in this 3 hour epic of excess is nothing short of amazing. The protagonist is an insane, out of control, horrible person. In Leo’s hands he has shades of remorse, loyalty and conflict that make him more than the profile that is drawn.

    Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – Like Woody Allen, I don’t like Steve McQueen films. However, Ejiofor’s performance transcends the film. After dozens of horrific scenes meant to affect the viewer what resonated with me was a handful of moments and mannerisms Ejiofor creates for Solomon. The film is suppose to be heartbreaking. Ejiofor’s performance is defiant in the face of it.

    Honorable Mentions: Matthew Mcconaughey (Mud) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

    Favorite Films — I am with you on Much Ado and Catching Fire. But I need more than 5 so in no particular order:
    World War Z – not the book, but 2 hours of pure edge of the seat suspense.
    Mud – In a summer that had many, my favorite coming of age film this year.
    Fruitvale Station – It isn’t a great movie, but it is a great idea and a great effort and it should be seen.
    20 Feet from Stardom – This is a must see for anyone who ever dreamed of stepping out of the background and into the spotlight. Terrific.
    Catching Fire – With a high bar set, they exceeded my expectations on all fronts.
    The Wolf of Wall Street – Not for the faint at heart and will offend most, but this 3 hour satire of excess was brilliantly funny and a must see for Scorcese fans. I loved it.
    All is Lost – Everything I thought Gravity should have been. Redford gives the performance of a lifetime.
    Much Ado About Nothing – Speaking of high bars, Emma and Kenneth are the gold standard for my favorite Bard play. Whedon and crew made me love this version for a completely new set of reasons.
    Inside Llewyn Davis – Cohen Brothers is appointment viewing for me. This is much less commercial and quieter than their recent run of movies and I loved it’s sad, morose tone. Plus my best friend plays Davis’ sister in the movie so it was the highlight of my movie year.

    My 2014 look aheads:
    Labor Day, Divergent, Brightest Star, Belle, Maleficent, The Fault of Our Stars, Gone Girl and Into the Woods.

    • I love reading your opinions because you’ve seen such different movies than I have this year. After reading your list, Wolf of Wall Street just jumped up my must-see list (it was already pretty high up on that list because of my intense DiCaprio love). I also still need to see 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis. I cannot wait for award season to officially start this weekend so we can compare ballots! 😉

      • Given what you said about American Hustle, you should see 20 Feet from Stardom too. And yes Awards season is just around the corner. I will be very curious to see what happens. Especially given the strength of male performances this year. It’s a crowded group.

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