This post is a look back in retrospect. Sadly, this list was never posted on this site at the time, because it came right around the time that our company was transitioning from a full-time site to a once-every-now-and-then kind of site. Everyone was burnt out, and regardless of how much we love(d) this specific list every year, it just never manifested in a way that put words to the page. So if you're reading this post now, I published it in 2018 - but for continuity sake, I put it in the early part of 2014 so it would line up with other year-end posts. I'm not sure if that's the best way to do it or not, but thankfully this is my blog and I get to do things how I want.
Looking back at the titles now, I know for sure I at least put a ranking of films together, but since I never did a write-up on them, that is now lost to me. I very much would have preferred to post that list, but instead I'm forced to compile it with my feelings on these titles now. I'm not sure a ton has changed, but it surely has changed some. One of my favorite parts about these year-end lists is not that they're setting in stone how we'll forever feel about certain titles, but that they timestamp our reactions to the year while it's still (relatively) fresh. I'm absolutely sure that my feelings on certain titles change over the years, but instead of lamenting that in these posts, I get to look back and find interest on how I felt in the moment. We don't get to do that with this list, but at least it's a list. And it's how I feel about these titles now (2018). So in five more years, we can look back on this list and see how I felt well after they were released, but also back when they were fresher than now (2023). Make sense? Good.
Onto the films. As I was (re)ranking this list, what stood out to me most was that this was just such a loaded year. I had a solid group of films in my top-25, and truly every film in the top-15 feels top-5(ish) worthy. I'm sure that years generally look stronger in retrospect, but I did go back and check a few other years, and this one definitely stands out more than most. Each title below is one I'm excited about, and instead of often picking from a group of titles to fill out the last spot or two, these all came together pretty easily.
15. The Conjuring
This horror movie has absolutely held up in my house (I've even introduced it to my girls - they were fans, even if they didn't sleep great that following week). I've long said that this movie would have received some award recognition if it weren't for the fact that it's a horror movie. The story is really intricately crafted, and what continues to impress me is how this movie was filmed. The cinematography is truly excellent and really envelops you in the surroundings. The scares are for sure great, the tension is high, and the acting is believable, but it's its true dedication to craft that separates this one from the pack. Because it feels like a "real" film to me, I don't necessarily get the vibes to turn this one on around Halloween every year, but if I did, it would for sure be in that group (i.e. it's deserving enough to warrant a watch every year).
14. The Kings of Summer
Boy, do I love a good coming-of-age tale. This is a great little under-seen entry, with such a lively story; if you were a little boy growing up and allowed to run free outside with your friends over the summer, you will probably connect with this. This film gives vibes that you'll remember from being on that verge of high school, ready to transition into more of an adult, but also maybe not quite ready to leave behind that carefree life you've been accustomed to. It's got some good heart, and I think if you find parts of this movie relatable, you'll really enjoy it; if not, it might not be your cup of tea.
The tension in this movie is what I remember most. When you think about what you'd do to protect your own kids, this movie tackles those ideas and pushes them to the limits. You often think things are going too far, but then you feel for the characters and see what continues to happen next, maybe it's not far enough! When I saw the trailer and poster for this movie, it felt like material that was supposed to be pretty generic, middle-of-the-road exploitative drama; but with excellent acting performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a very skillful approach to its construction from one of my favorite directors, Denis Villanueve (Sicario, Arrival), it becomes much more. While it's not the most "fun" subject matter, it's constantly tense and boundary-pushing. It's a much more enjoyable viewing experience than I expected.
12. About Time
This still holds as one of the cutest movies I saw in 2013, and probably still over the last decade or so. This was about the time I was really getting into Rachel McAdams and loving her in everything she did, so when I opted to watch this (well after when it was actually in theaters), it was mostly just because of her; I hadn't heard much about it otherwise or expected much. But what a sweet romantic dramady this turned out to be. Any time you can mix sci-fi elements into a romantic comedy, I'm there. While I won't share specific details in order to avoid any spoilers, the sci-fi aspect of the story alone ended up being very fascinating, and the way in which it was used for the meat of the story was absolutely brilliant; what a clever way to feature that mechanism. You grow quite attached to both McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson's characters, so the final "punch" of the movie is quite powerful, and the decisions made by both characters were quite strong. If you're looking for a date night movie and neither of you have seen this one yet, definitely check it out. You might cry at the end, though.
11. All Is Lost
There are a couple factors we need to discuss in regard to this film. First, it's a lost-at-sea movie, meaning almost all of the screen time goes to one guy on a boat. The circumstances at sea change, but it's all one guy out there. That will lead to a dip in re-watchability in general, and if your attention span is low to begin with, you might struggle with this. Second, Robert Redford crushes this role. If there's one guy about whom you'd want to watch a movie being lost alone at sea, that guy might be Robert Redford. He's incredible and engaging in this role; you want to see how he'll handle the next obstacle. Third, the tension is amazing. It's pretty constant, and done in a natural way. There's a movie higher on my list that's actually a pretty similar film, just in a different location (one that I'm more drawn to and feels a bit more unforgiving); but both manage tension great. If you're looking for that sort of thing, and a movie about the unrelenting human spirit, this is as good an entry as any.
10. Blue Jasmine
Maybe this shouldn't be as high on this list, because I only remember a few specifics from it, and I honestly haven't thought about watching it for years. But I know at the time I really enjoyed it, still recall many of the main players and themes, and Cate Blanchett - one of my favorite actors - absolutely crushed this role. There are definitely some post-recession themes being addressed here, and Blachett's character walks a fine line on the matter between being completely unlikable and entitled, and having us constantly feel bad for her newfound position. She often teeters too far to the unlikable side, but there's still purpose there. I also remember liking Andrew Dice Clay's character; it was a surprising turn and a nice role for him. This film may be little more than a character study, but it was a very good one. Actually, I think I might go watch this again right now - this has me realizing I haven't watched it since theaters, and now I really want to!
9. The Spectacular Now
I've said it before (even in this post), and I'll say it plenty of time again: I'm a sucker for coming-of-age tales. There's something about the awkward transition of child to adult, and the hard lessons we're often forced to learn along the way that really resonate with me. For some reason or another, I always feel for these kids and want to see them make it out on the other end unscathed. This is a pretty classic romance tale of two different people who fall in love and are forced to deal with the difficulties, messiness, heartbreak, and elation that go along with such a relationship. Really this movie succeeds because its stars - Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley - really shine together and have a natural connection; their love and pain is believable. The energy keeps this movie engaging from start to finish, and you'll probably feel an array of real emotions from it.
I love storylines about the future, and technology in particular. It's now five years since this movie released, and I can see us moving closer and closer to a world like this (humans falling in love with their artificial intelligent personal assistant devices - think Siri or Alexa, but with an actual human personality. It's coming). There's something innately compelling about Joaquin Phoenix's screen presence - I tend to absorb into his performances very naturally and comfortably. That stands out to me the most with this film; I just enjoy watching him act. Otherwise, this movie of course makes plenty of commentary on our society's obsession with technology and our growing trend of overcrowded isolation (I just made that term up; I'm not sure I love it, but I'm trying to describe the idea of us not going out in public as much anymore, and instead staying home in our own bubbles - but still being more connected than ever to millions of people who have similar interests). The love story is actually kind of sweet, and is an interesting cautionary tale as A.I. continues to advance at exponential rates.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
In another world, I want this to be my favorite movie of the year. It has a lot of elements I absolutely love, and it feels like they're supposed to make an all-time favorite for me (but it still made the top ten!). Folk music, the 1960's, some gritty black & white New York cinematography, plenty of exposition and fun characters along the way - why is this not in my top five?! If I'm being honest - even if it was clearly a point of this movie - it's probably due to the coldness the movie projects. As much as I like him for what he does, I'm not sure Oscar Isaac has much natural warmth to his acting; there's little there that makes me feel for his characters. And that's of course true here. There's no one we particularly "root" for; no one we're begging to see make it. It's simply a picture of this musician's life, and the details of this leg of his travels. It's still a great film, very finely crafted and acted, but not one in which I'm left "satisfied". Obviously that wasn't the goal of this film, I'm just saying - if that's something you want in your movies, you're not going to get it here. Oh, and that "joke" song - it's so terrible, but in the best ways. I actually love it!
Coming-of-age. We could really just say that and move on. We get it, I love this genre. But what's great about this one, specifically, is that we get to really go on a journey with these kids. While I don't want to be sacrilegious, it feels very akin to Stand By Me, in the sense that it's a pretty "ordinary" adventure that has a very fairy-tale/magical feel about it; there's a wondrous quality to it that you can't pinpoint, you only feel. The movie is mostly moved forward by Matthew McConaughey's character (who he really nails, by the way; a role he was meant for), but is seen through the eyes of these boys along for the ride. It's an interesting angle that allows for curiosity about what situations they'll get into next. The movie is definitely a bit of a slow burn - at least for the first few acts of the film - but if that's a style you can appreciate, this one does it well.
5. Before Midnight
I absolutely adore this series. Ethan Hawke is one of my favorite actors; Richard Linklater one of my favorite writers/directors - together (along with the wonderful Julie Delpy) they make some kind of magic from this very intimate story. I've said in my commentary on this series in the past, I hope they never stop making sequels; I want to see updates from Jesse and Celine as often as possible. Many typical moviegoers might not respond to this film as strongly as I do - the movie is ALL dialogue - but that's what I love watching. And when it's between two people as naturally charming as Delpy and Hawke, they can talk for as long as they'd like.
There are often films that kind of float between multiple years of release, as their "official" release date becomes debatable. Generally, we try to stick with the U.S. release date when stamping the release year for titles, but it doesn't always work out like that. With Snowpiercer, for example, it made my Top 15 of 2014 list because that was the year it was released in the U.S. HOWEVER, this is actually an international film (that just happens to feature many English-speaking actors), so the proper thing to do might be to go by its country's release year - which in this case is 2013 (and also I'm not taking it off my 2014 list!). You can read more about my feelings on this film on that list, but just to sum it up: it was a constantly fun and surprising movie that kept the pace and anticipation always going forward. I truly loved it.
This is where we start to get a little liberal with my remembering of my initial rankings. I'm pretty sure I had this film in the #2 spot back then, but it's close enough - and like I said in the beginning, I'm basing these rankings off how I feel now anyway; it's OK to know a few titles shifted a bit. Gravity is an excellent exercise in tension. Truly, I still remember watching this movie in theaters and literally grasping onto the armrests for long stretches of time. I'd realize it and release, and my muscles would be tired. It very easily drew me in and captured my attention. I absolutely love films about space, and there's a built-in bump solely for that factor; where this film looses a peg is (now) in its watchability factor. Any movie that really features one character in one setting isn't going to be something you often go back to. This was a great story and a really good movie to watch on a large screen, but unless I was introducing someone to this movie, I wouldn't have much drive to watch it again.
2. The Way Way Back
That's right, coming-of-age movie #4 on this list. I just can't help it. This was obviously my favorite of the bunch this year, and still one of the better ones I've seen in a while. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but somehow it accounted for the perfect storm of ingredients in a movie I love. Mainly, I just loved how honest it felt; it felt natural and the characters real. I wasn't quite as young, but after my freshman year of college, when I was home for the summer, I worked at a movie theater with people who became my very best friends - most of whom also write for this blog! It was such a fun and growing experience; a lot of what this kid discovered working at the pool was similar to what I felt. Plus, can we PLEASE get Sam Rockwell an Oscar! He was awesome in this role - just like he is in every role he takes on. The guy has it. I don't know what it is, but he's got it.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street
I know this movie was my #1 pick from the beginning. It feels kind of weird to have this as my favorite movie of the year, but it hit all the right chords with me. It's such a fun story of excess and greed, all in the 90's, the primary decade of my youth. It really was a time of carefree self-indulgence, and I think this movie really captured that well. I also enjoy movies about business/finance, especially when we're talking about the underworld of Wall Street. It's really interesting to me, and I've long thought I could have thrived in that world. Now, of course I wouldn't actually want to get involved in these scams, but I think I could have been really good at it. One of the most exciting and fun watches of the year. It's a vulgar movie, but feels genuine to the time; go enjoy the ride this film takes you on!
So that's where we're at. This list was a long time coming, but I'm glad I finally got it up here. These are some really great movies, and if - still at this point - you haven't seen any of these titles, it's probably time to do so. Each one has so much to offer.