The best films of 2013

Gritty slavery tales ruthless documentaries awesome boat movies and more

The competition for best flick of the year so the Internet says (and it’s always a competition with year-end lists) is between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity .

For populist critically acclaimed and audience-loved movies they’re worthy choices. 12 Years a Slave will win the Oscar — it’s raw brutal stunningly composed deadly serious and offers a correction to Quentin Tarantino’s splattery disco take on America’s worst crime Django Unchained . Gravity is a thrill though less a film than a theme park ride — something you’d more likely see at the Epcot Center than at home in front of the TV. Its power resides solely on the big screen and I suspect that it’ll be remembered more as a technological curio than an outer space classic.

This year’s best surprise: two awesome boat movies. Tom Hanks retained the people’s trust with Paul Greengrass’ verité pirate flick Captain Phillips while my favourite of the year remains All Is Lost a beautiful work of pure cinema featuring a scarily committed performance by Robert Redford.

Those who attended the Calgary Underground Film Festival and its companion event the inaugural documentary festival CUFF Docs saw many of this year’s best movies. (Full disclosure: I’m a programmer for the festival.) Upstream Color Shane Carruth’s sophomore film (after the mind-bending Primer ) was brainy druggy sci-fi at its best; Noah Baumbach’s millennial-in-crisis Frances Ha might be his best yet; and The Act of Killing and Narco Cultura are two of the best docs of this or any year.

Fans of stoner comedies didn’t have much to choose from this year; thankfully they had an instant cult classic with This is the End . I had hoped The Heat would be a new female take on Lethal Weapon but director Paul Feig forgot what made that film work: the action was as strong and necessary as the jokes. Simon Pegg Nick Frost and Edgar Wright didn’t disappoint Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fans with the funny and unexpectedly serious cap to their Cornetto trilogy The World’s End .

Animated flicks were overwhelmingly lacklustre this year: The Croods Planes Epic Escape From Planet Earth Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 and Free Birds were all instantly forgettable. Even the “best” of the bunch — Monsters University Despicable Me 2 Turbo Frozen — only gained mild to faint praise. There was nothing really original or inspired just more sequels and expensive product tie-ins.

The best and scariest of the mainstream was James Wan’s old-school haunted house flick The Conjuring . Even more impressive: he followed it up with the almost equally awesome Insidious: Chapter 2 . The Evil Dead remake surprised naysayers with a wickedly nasty brutal take on Sam Raimi’s cult classic. If anything it was far too punishing for most audiences’ expectations.

My favourite sleeper of the year was Steven Soderbergh’s so-called “last film” Side Effects . I’m a fan of his more tossed-off flicks ( Haywire Contagion … um I guess everything he’s done in the last decade) and this one displayed his characteristically slick and studied side at its peak. Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is overly long and unwieldy but has ambition to spare and Woody Allen made one of his angriest on-the-nose flicks yet with Blue Jasmine . And for those who care Terrence Malick made another dreamy flick that looks like a Subaru commercial To the Wonder . It’s great so I hear.

In the unfairly maligned category the lacklustre response to Pacific Rim was particularly disappointing. Guillermo del Toro’s homage to manga and monster movies was a blast of big goofy fun. Oh how I wish it did better. Despite unwarranted tinkering from the Weinsteins Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster still remained picture perfect if a little lost in translation. And saddest of all the excoriating response to Rob Zombie’s inspired take on devilish ’70s flicks and folky heavy metal The Lords of Salem . It was challenging so nobody liked it.