Movie Magic

The 11 best movies of 2013 surprised, shocked and delighted audiences

Brad Pitt in World War Z
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Fruitvale Station
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer's Club
Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12
Photo by Brett Pawlak/Cinedigm
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips
Photo by Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures
Robots vs. monsters in Pacific Rim
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano in Prisoners
Photo courtesy of Alcon Entertainment
The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Like any year, 2013 had its fair share of bad movies. But when its movies were good, they were very good. The cream of crop were easy to choose, but so many films came in at just a notch below that I decided not to confine my top picks to just 10 films. These are the 11 movies of 2013 that made life as a film critic extra sweet.

10. (tie) World War Z/Warm Bodies
Both of these movies dealt with zombies and both were highly entertaining, but for very different reasons. World War Z proved you can make a great action movie with zombies as the antagonists, while Warm Bodies delivered one of the best romantic comedies of the year even though one of the participants was a zombie. By giving refreshing twists to an age-old genre, these two films proved there's still life to zombie movies.

9. Fruitvale Station
Containing the first of many stellar lead actor performances this year, Fruitvale Station recounted the ordinary yet harrowing last day of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a transit officer in Oakland in 2009.

Star Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler succeeded in making Grant into a fully three-dimensional person, not an easy feat with a case as charged as this. Jordan may not end up with an Oscar nomination (see the rest of this list), but it's not for lack of talent.

8. Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey is in the midst of a career rejuvenation, going away from romantic comedies to roles that require a bit more acting ability. None needed more expertise than the role of Ron Woodroof, a Dallas rodeo cowboy who contracted HIV in the 1980s and set up a buyers club to gain access to drugs that were not available in the United States.

The weight loss by McConaughey and the equally-great Jared Leto is one thing, but the depth of emotions they and the film have makes Dallas Buyers Club one of the most memorable experiences of 2013.

7. Short Term 12
A film about troubled kids who are forced to live in a foster care facility doesn't necessarily seem like a sure-fire winner, but writer/director Destin Cretton makes the most of the setting.

Led by charismatic star Brie Larson, the film contains enough humor, drama and poignancy to power a dozen lesser films. It's independent films like these that show that Hollywood hasn't completely lost its way.

6. Captain Phillips
Even though Tom Hanks is still one of our more reliable movie stars, it had been a long time since we were treated to a great Hanks performance. He gave just that in Captain Phillips, making the boat captain turned piracy victim into an ultra-relatable hero.

Directed by master of realism Paul Greengrass, the film is tense from beginning to end. It's not until Hanks' final scene, during which he secures his forthcoming Oscar nomination, that you realize just how well-executed the film actually is.

5. Pacific Rim
One of the more criminally underrated films of the year, Pacific Rim was so much more than Transformers meets monsters. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro put the audience directly in the middle of an apocalyptic war, delivering a pure popcorn thrill ride containing actual excitement instead of the faux-citement of most other summer movies.

The film definitely had its cheesy moments, but the face-offs between the human-powered robots and the signature del Toro monsters more than made up for the movie's faults.

4. Prisoners
Revenge movies are a dime a dozen, but Prisoners upped the ante by having a plot that made you question the motive for revenge and even the morals of the one seeking revenge.

Hugh Jackman is heartbreakingly menacing as a father trying to find out the fate of his daughter, Paul Dano is both creepy and sympathetic as the object of Jackman's ire and Jake Gyllenhaal is solid as the detective trying to figure out who's right and who's wrong.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street
It's not often that movie audiences get to just revel in the antics of bad people doing bad things, but Martin Scorsese's latest afforded them that opportunity.

The (somewhat) true story of stock trader/fraudster Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is an outrageously funny film featuring copious amounts of profanity, drugs and nudity. Every actor, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, is allowed to get as wild as he or she wants to be, and the result is a blast to watch.

2. 12 Years a Slave
A film that instantly became the definitive pop cultural representation of the slave experience, 12 Years a Slave is disturbing yet richly rewarding. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance for the ages as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery.

Director Steve McQueen is unflinching in his portrayal of the intricacies and horrors of the lives of slaves and plantation owners, yet he manages to flesh out many of the main characters instead of reducing them to pure good or evil. Not one false note is struck throughout the entire film, and with such a tricky topic to navigate, that's saying something.

1. Gravity
No other film this year, or in recent memory, epitomized the term "movie magic" more than Gravity. Set in the terrifying vastness of outer space, two astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, must try to find their way back to safety after space junk destroys their space shuttle.

Every breath and movement the two make is fraught with danger, giving the audience no chance to rest. And the way writer/director Alfonso Cuaron stages the film, you feel like you're experiencing what the actors experienced, especially if you saw it in IMAX 3D.

Gravity is emotional, transporting and awe-inspiring, and it richly deserves to be called the best movie of 2013.