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Best Films of 2013

Scott, it’s 2014 and time to reflect on the best movies we saw in 2013.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Indeed, Greg. Although there were a lot of stinkers in 2013, there were also many quality movies deserving of recognition.

For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. There were a lot of great films this year. Picking just 10 that I wanted to see again was a tough call.  Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10
10 – Mud
9 – Hunger Games: Catching Fire
8 – Star Trek Into Darkness
7 – About Time
6 – Saving Mr. Banks
5 – Rush
4 – Gravity
3 – Walter Mitty
2 – 12 Years A Slave
1 – Ender’s Game

I generated my list based on the quality of the story and how memorable the characters were.  Another big factor, of course, was the worthiness of the hero. Here is my top ten list:

Scott’s Top 10
10 – Gravity
9 – Nebraska
8 – Philomena
7 – Rush
6 – The Book Thief
5 – Mud
4 – The Butler
3 – 42
2 – Ender’s Game
1 – 12 Years a Slave


Rush_movie_posterIt looks like we have some movies in common. Let’s do a deeper dive into each of our top five lists. My #5 pick was Rush which you listed as your #7.

I loved Rush. It was what makes a great movie. It’s a the buddy story of two men in competition to be the best Formula One racers in the world. Nikki Lauda is the straight-laced, methodical racer. James Hunt is the party animal and sex-crazed undisciplined seat-of-the-pants driver. They start out as bitter rivals and in the end have an enduring friendship. It’s the stuff mythic heroes are made of and that story makes me want to go back for a second helping.

I enjoyed Rush, too, Greg. I’d like to see director Ron Howard get some recognition for his meticulously accurate portrayal of this great racing rivalry.

Mud_posterMy #5 pick was Mud, which was a poignant story of a young boy wrestles with the trials of growing up in the modern world. I’m glad you included Mud in your top 10 list, too, Greg. I was impressed by how Mud shows us that a kid can have the best of intentions and yet still get hurt by adult strangers, by parents, and by fickle romantic interests. Emerging from the pain is real and meaningful personal growth in our hero, Ellis. The movie does an outstanding job chronicling the hurts, the setbacks, and yes, the triumphs of this young man.

Mud was a great story and was one of the few we admitted to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. I was particularly taken with Ellis’s idolizing of Mud. Ellis was in search of a hero and Mud came along at a time when Ellis was in search of someone to look up to. Ultimately such heroes must take a fall and that leaves the young man to go on alone. It was a bittersweet story and one worthy of a second look.


MV5BNjE5MzYwMzYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4MTk0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_My #4 pick was Gravity. This is the story of Dr. Ryan Stone, a female astronaut portrayed by Sandra Bullock in a nearly stand-alone appearance. Stone goes from a space novice to space veteran in one sitting. This is a strong story of growth and overcoming impossible odds. Aside from the hero’s journey was the technical accuracy and stunning graphics of the film. I don’t think I’ve seen such meticulous film-making since 2001: A Space Odyssey. I definitely want to enjoy this film again.

Gravity didn’t make my top 5 but was in my top 10, Greg. This may be Bullock’s best work to date, and you’re right, she really had to carry the movie single-handedly. The CGI effects were astounding and helped make a strong storyline truly come to life.

The_Butler_posterMy #4 movie of the year was The Butler. This movie details the heroic life Cecil Gaines, who is both witness to, and a participant in, the Civil Rights movement in America.  We see the life of a man who not only lived through radical changes in American society, but also witnessed the U.S. government machinery that either helped or hindered the transformation.  You can see both pain and dignity in Cecil’s every word and facial expression. I believe that 2013 was the year of the African-American heroic journey, with films like The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave all documenting remarkable stories of courage and resilience in African-American men.

The Butler was a great film but didn’t make my top 10 because of some of the casting. It seemed like a who’s who of liberal Hollywood with Robin Williams and Jane Fonda playing characters they had no business playing. Plus there was a lack of historical elaboration that made it hard to follow without some research. It is one of many great stories depicting Black American struggle this year, but not one of my favorites.


The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterMy #3 pick for 2013 is a complete diversion from the historical films we’ve been discussing. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller’s Christmas offering with the story of a timid man (Mitty) who spends more time day dreaming than actually doing anything. He wants to gain the affections of a pretty woman. But he has lost an important image for Life magazine and so he embarks on a worldwide trek in search of the missing negative. I loved this film’s imagery and cleverness. It was colorful and epic in it’s scope. I definitely need to see it again.

I also enjoyed Walter Mitty, although the movie didn’t make my top 10 list.  It’s omission on my list is due more to the abundance of quality movies in 2013 than it is a reflection of any major problems I had with the film. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet, simple story that may be the feel-good movie of the year.

42_film_posterMy #3 pick is the movie 42, which captures on film one of the greatest defining moments in American racial desegregation – the introduction of an African-American man in major league baseball. The film’s two parallel heroes — Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson — were stirring and inspirational. Rickey serves as the catalyst for Robinson’s journey while also playing the role of mentor to Robinson. If this film accomplishes anything, it shows us a greater social context to Robinson’s remarkable accomplishments. For me, 42 packed deep emotional punch. I had to reach for the Kleenex when I saw two of Robinson’s teammates, Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker, put their own well-being on the line to support Robinson during the worst of the abuse that Robinson endured. 42 is a true triumph of filmmaking.


Scott, 42 is a great story and didn’t make my top 10 list. While I enjoyed the story I didn’t feel there was anything that beckoned me back to the theater to see more. It’s a great hero’s journey but once was enough.


My #2 pick was 12 Years a Slave. This is the story of Solomon Northrup who was a free Negro living in the North in 1841. He was abducted and sold as a slave in the South. It’s a terrifying story of a man who lost everything and worked to acclimate himself to his new situation but never gave up hope of making his way back home. The story and the filmmaking were so well-constructed and so full of events that I want a second chance to take it all in.

MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_Greg, you have good taste — I chose 12 Years a Slave as my Number 1 Movie of the Year. This film is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. The scenes of brutality are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Our hero Solomon must summon every resource to survive — his brains, his brawn, his spirit, his resilience, and his heart. 12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart but it is a story that must be told, and in this case it is told extraordinarily well. In my opinion, the movie deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.


Ender's_Game_posterThat brings us to my #1 pick of 2013 – Ender’s Game. This is the motion picture recreation of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel from 1985. The outer-space acrobatics in this book were not reproducible on-screen before now. The imagery and special effects were outstanding. But most of all, it was a faithful reimagining of the source material. Ender Wiggin is a gifted youngster and his talents are exploited by his mentors to political ends that he ultimately comes to question. It’s a story that is both timeless and timely and one that I could watch again and again.

Greg, I loved Ender’s Game. It is my #2 pick this year.  Ender’s Game is the gripping story of a gifted young boy who is shaped and mentored into battle-readiness by elders we both admire and revile. This movie’s coming-of-age story is superior to any other I’ve seen. Everyone involved in the making of this film deserves great props, from screenplay writers to production designers to cinematographers. It’s fascinating to watch Ender overcome obstacles to become transformed as a character. Ender’s Game is a film for people who like to leave the theater pondering intellectual and ethical issues. How should we treat our enemies? What exactly is good leadership? Should any society use children to fight wars? Ender’s Game reminded me why I love going to the movies.

Scott, it’s been a great year for great storytelling. Thanks for joining me in reviewing these wonderful works. I’m looking forward to another year of reviewing the best and worst of 2014 with you.

I agree, Gregger. I believe 2013 was a banner year for the movie industry. Let’s hope it continues into 2014.



  1. David Thomas says:

    I’m struck by a couple of things. One is how you are both heavily tilted in favor of movies currently showing or produced for the current Oscar season. It’s a human trait to be influenced by what we have most recently been exposed to. A good exercise for you might be to go back to movies time January-August 2013 time frame and make new lists out of that limited pool, and then see which if any of them might make your final choices for the year a little different than it is. Another observation I have is your frame of reference — the year’s best HERO movies — leads you to pick films, by and large, that idealize the main characters. As you both know, I am sure, Hollywood insiders are not happy with the whitewash that the Disney studio imposed on the treatment of Walt’s and Travers’ clay feet and so on. What I getting at is illustrated by the split you two have over Lee Daniels’ The Butler over the “real world” applicability of the importance or relevance of casting liberals in the roles of history’s conservative icons — which itself is an idealization if not a whitewash of Ronald and Nancy Reagan by today’s GOP revisionists. I’m hugely into Jung and the power of narrative as you no doubt remember. I also loved both of those movies. I think my essays on them, if I get around to it, will have a somewhat different take on them. And no, off hand, I don’t have any candidates from last year’s winter and spring movies to wave at you. Good job! Keep on keeping on. Peace, David PS I don’t know what it is about me but I don’t have an easy time getting into fantasy superhero movies at all. Lack of sufficient imagination I guess. I have to read a lot about a movie like Gravity before I “get it.” I just saw (the recency syndrome) All Is Lost with Redford, and I don’t have any trouble “getting it” about the movie or about the acclaim Redford is receiving in the Oscar buzz for his acting in it.

    • Greg Smith says:


      Sorry I haven’t gotten back to your comment until now. We were inundated by spam.

      One reason we like more recent films is because the good ones are held back until Oscar season. In the fall and spring months we don’t get a lot of good releases. I’ve actually plotted our ratings of movies over the year and there’s a definite spike in the summer and in the last weeks of December. So you’re right, we do favor films later in the year – but that’s because they really are better in the latter part of the year.

      Keep in touch!


  2. Kate says:

    Outstanding summary! Thank you both for the great reviews each week and for the end of the year see-what-I-need-to-go-back -and-see-or-see-again list. You also remind me it was a good year for intelligent films. Thank you both!

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