Ben Stark’s 2013 Year-End Favorites

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The time has come. I watched 170 movies in 2013, some of those being repeat viewings, and 65 movies released in 2013. It was another great year for film. There are a number of films I wish I had seen but didn’t get a chance to. Here’s how 2013 shook out for me.

10. Short Term 12

Short Term 12 begins and ends with two separate stories, wonderfully told by John Gallagher, Jr., but the film’s examination of artistic expression doesn’t stop there. Each of the very damaged young characters in this film find a way to express themselves – either through music or writing or drawing – except our lead character, played by Brie Larson. She deprives herself of a voice, closing herself off to the world and stewing on her anger. It’s a great performance in a wonderfully and deceptively simple and “small” film.

9. Monsters University

It’s hard to discuss Pixar’s latest without spoiling it, so forgive me when I call Monsters University one of the best films about failure that I’ve ever seen. Dan Scanlon and his team do what every great Pixar film manages to do; to tell a very adult, very human story on the canvas of a colorful, imaginative world that can be accessed by people of all ages. I might be too revealing when I say that of all the great Pixar characters, if Mike Wazowski isn’t the best, he’s certainly the one I relate to the most.

8. Upstream Color

It was a good year for purely cinematic movies; films that rely on the elements of filmmaking that cannot be mimicked in any art form – images, sound, and the convergence of the two. Only God Forgives, To the Wonder, and – by all accounts – Leviathon (a film I haven’t seen) are all examples of films that ask their audience to put away their limited understanding of what cinema can be. Shane Carruth’s latest, however, is the best of the bunch. On top of a simple science fiction narrative, it builds a visual and aural tapestry of emotion and revelation using impeccable editing, videography (the film was shot on Panasonic’s prosumer grade AF-100), music, and sound mixing. Carruth’s sophomore effort is even better than Primer, and he continues to reveal himself as one of film’s most important voices.

7. Frozen

Not only is Frozen a triumphant return to the top of the mountain for Walt Disney Feature Animation, with massive box office returns, tremendous pop culture impact, and a handful of Oscar victories, but it’s also a simultaneous ode to and subversion of traditional “Disney Princess” narratives. Eschewing the idea of the jealous, bitchy villainess, Frozen becomes a movie about broken relationships and broken people. Paul Bullock said it much better than I could when he pointed out that the film is an analysis of depression and isolation. That’s a brave thing to do with a strategically positioned $150 million tentpole release, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come for Disney.

6. 12 Years a Slave

One of the constant themes of 2013 film, in my opinion, is identity. What happens when our identity is taken from us? What happens when we are subjected to the whims of another person acting their identity out on us? The Solomon Northup story is surely harrowing in a physical way – and Steve McQueen doesn’t hesitate to explore that element – but under the surface, revealed in a single, silent direct-address close-up of Chiwetal Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave illustrates the horror of forgetting who we are. There are so many things to discuss about such an important and impeccably crafted movie, but I’d like to point out that Patsey and Solomon aren’t the only slaves at the center of the film’s narrative. McQueen marvelously illustrates the slavery of Michael Fassbender’s Epps to his own compulsions and sexual fixations, and the hell it unleashes on those subjected to his will.

5. Pacific Rim

A $190 million monster movie about dancing. Guillermo del Toro responsibly wields the full power of Warner Brothers’ blockbuster machine to make a boy’s adventure movie that features incredible visuals, satisfying battles between giant creatures, and a story that highlights the importance of community and collaboration. We are all of us incomplete, and the person we need to save the world might be the last person we expect: One of the joys of the film is its subversive love story. Pacific Rim’s blond, white, male hero goes from having essentially a clone of himself as his perfectly compatible partner to realizing that a dainty Japanese girl is a better “dance partner” than anyone could have guessed, and the very thing that brings them together is the loss in their past. You’d never think this film, with this premise, would tell that kind of story, but that’s what you get when you have a filmmaker like del Toro, who belongs in the same conversation as Spielberg, Nolan, and Bird as great artists that explore great truths on the canvas of massive, commerce-driven spectacle.

4. Drug War

If Solomon Northup is in danger of forgetting his true identity, the hero of Johnnie To’s excellent Drug War is as secure in his identity as possible… but that doesn’t make him safe. Matt Singer’s Letterboxd blurb of the film perfectly expresses the character of Yi Huang’s Yang: “I’m a cop. You’re a drug trafficker. I didn’t betray you; I busted you.” Yang perfectly understands his job, and literally carries it out to the bitter end. On the other end of the spectrum, Louis Koo’s Timmy will swap sides and flip allegiances as often as he can to save his skin. He’s willing to give up who he is to survive, and in essence loses any semblance of identity – or humanity – in the process.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Of all the 2013 films I saw, there isn’t one that I’ve spent time turning over in my head more than Inside Llewyn Davis. Joel and Ethan Coen surpassed the title of mere “national treasure” so long ago that I’m afraid we’re all in danger of taking these masters for granted. Much like Monsters University, Inside Llewyn Davis asks its lead character how he will react to failure. Will he flee the Greenwich Village folk music scene that has been so cruel to him, and that he has been so spiteful towards? If he does get out of this seemingly endless cycle, how will he do it… by settling down, by suicide, by selling out? The climax of Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit of enigma, and could be viewed as hopeless, but for those of us that have faced failure time and time again, it’s a shout of victory.

2. Gravity

Gravity has taken a lot of flack for being a shallow technical exercise, but I think it’s a crime to confuse “simple” with “shallow”. The trajectory of the film’s plot is direct, without any fringes. The goal of its hero is clear, as are the obstacles. Through this stripped-down premise, director Alfonso Cuaron tells a story of rebirth and the delicacy of survival. Gravity mirrors Frozen by exploring the idea that, despite it often being easiest to tune out the noise of the world around us and “let go,” there is a necessary sweetness in the chatter. The barking of a dog, the banter of an annoying co-worker, buzzing of flies… noise signifies life.

1. Captain Phillips

All the production value, all the camera tricks, all the computer graphics, all the publicity that money can buy will never replace the transformative power of the face of another human being. Tom Hanks’ performance in Captain Phillips has haunted me ever since I saw the film in the fall of last year, but that doesn’t make the movie a one-trick pony. The prelude to Captain Phillips‘ finale is a near-perfect execution of a near-perfect script. It’s an action movie with two clearly defined characters on a collision course with one another. It’s a scathing examination of the changing face of American labor and global economics. It’s a stimulating look at the layers of command that exist in all of our lives. And, just like 12 Years a Slave and Drug War and Monsters University and Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s a mirror held up to each of us, asking us: What happens when our identity is taken from us? What happens when “who we think we are” turns out to be a false assumption?

American Hustle
Drinking Buddies
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunt
The Lone Ranger
Only God Forgives
To the Wonder
The Wolf of Wall Street

5. Pacific Rim
4. To the Wonder
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
2. Upstream Color
1. Captain Phillips

5. The Conjuring
4. Gravity
3. Pacific Rim
2. 12 Years a Slave
1. Upstream Color

5. Star Trek Into Darkness
4. Oblivion
3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
2. Pacific Rim
1. Gravity

10. Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives
9. Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Into Darkness
8. M83, Oblivion
7. Steven Price, Gravity
6. Hans Zimmer, The Lone Ranger
5. Cristophe Beck, Frozen
4. Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips
3. Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim
2. Howard Shore, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
1. Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4. 12 Years a Slave
3. Monsters University
2. Oblivion
1. Pacific Rim

5. Andrew Lesnie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4. Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
3. Claudio Miranda, Oblivion
2. Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
1. Sean Bobbit, 12 Years a Slave

5. Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi, & Yau Xi Yu, Drug War
4. Tobias Lindholm & Thomas Vinterberg, The Hunt
3. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
2. The Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis
1. Billy Ray, Captain Phillips

10. Final Shoot-Out, Drug War
9. Train Chase, The Lone Ranger
8. Barrel Chase, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
7. Camp Scaring, Monsters University
6. Ending, Gravity
5. Performing “Fare Thee Well”, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Let It Go, Frozen
3. Final Scene, 12 Years a Slave
2. Battle of Hong Kong, Pacific Rim
1. Ending, Captain Phillips

5. Jacob Lofland, Mud
4. Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra
3. Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
2. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
1. Louis CK, American Hustle & Blue Jasmine

10. James Franco, Spring Breakers
9. Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra
8. Jake Johnson, Drinking Buddies
7. Mads Mikkelson, The Hunt
6. Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Christian Bale, American Hustle
4. Chiwetal Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
3. Honglei Sun, Drug War
2. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
1. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

10. Rooney Mara, Side Effects
9. Olga Kurylenko, To the Wonder
8. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
7. Oliva Wilde, Drinking Buddies
6. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
5. Amy Adams, American Hustle
4. Brie Larsen, Short Term 12
3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
2. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
1. Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color

10. Jeff Nichols, Mud
9. David O. Russell, American Hustle
8. Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim
7. Johnnie To, Drug War
6. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
5. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
4. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
3. Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
2. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
1. The Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis

You can check out my favorites from 2012 here, and my most anticipated films of 2014 here. I’ll also being weighing in on Aspect Radio’s big 2013 show and 100th episode. Be sure to head on over to to see my film projects and follow me on Twitter and Letterboxd.