Best Films of 2013

Films of the Year

As we look back on 2013, there have been great cinematic moments that have dealt with profound human stories, complex moral dilemmas; historical biographies and some films that were just good escapist entertainment.

Our alphabetic list is by course not in any order of recommendation and if you want to see these on DVD please note the classification warnings within the full reviews at In some of these movies there is subject matter, sex scenes, violent language and simulated violence that would disturb some Catholic viewers.


You will have your own list, but here are our office’s best films for 2013.

Amour: a heart-wrenching and truly memorable film about love at the end of life for an elderly couple, who have been married for nearly 50 years. Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or for it at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. But viewers beware. The film is a harrowing cinematic experience.

Barbara: a complex and thoughtful German film about Dr. Barbara Wolff who is planning her escape to the West. There is a compelling moral probity to the actions of Barbara. The movie spurns exhibitionism, and it intelligently combines mystery, drama, and romance.

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen is back to his bleak best with a portrait of a woman (Cate Blanchett) whose life is one lie on top of another – and then it all comes crashing down. If “our Cate” does not win the Oscar for this performance, she will have been robbed. Blue Jasmine is a master class in great acting and a cautionary tale.        

Captain Philips: based on true story of the hijacking of the US container ship, “MV Maersk Alabama” by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks plays the part of Captain Phillips with dignity and reserve. It raises more moral questions then it resolves.

Fruitvale Station: based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael Jordan), who was killed by a police bullet fired at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station, in Oakland, California, US. His death occurred in the morning of New Year's Day, 2009. Criminal charges were laid and the Officer in question was jailed. The movie was awarded Best First Film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The film conveys realistic attempts to promote insights about the social and human factors that impact on the lives of deserving people.

Gravity: while a spaceship does experimental work, there is an explosion, a storm of space debris, and the work and the expedition is imperiled. With the members of the crew dead, there are only two survivors, Ryan, played by Sandra Bullock, and Matt, played by George Clooney. ‘No greater love than to lay one’s life down for the other.’

The Hunt: was awarded the prize of the Ecumenical Jury in Cannes 2012. The focus is on a kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town. He is accused of child sexual abuse. The experience and the stigma might never go away.

Life of Pi: This is a fantasy-adventure drama based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The novel won The Man Booker prize in 2002. Pi survives 227 days in a lifeboat set adrift after a fierce storm at sea. This is an intense, emotional and absorbing film of spiritual survival against the odds, and illustrates strongly the themes of friendship, faith, and perseverance.

Lincoln: a biopic set at the conclusion of the American Civil War when President Abraham faces an extraordinary crisis of conscience as he wheels and deals the Act abolishing slavery through the Congress. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of his career, very ably supported by Sally Field. This is a powerfully dramatic, historical movie that expresses moral conflict in an accessible way.

The Master: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is traumatised by his Navy service in World War II and has serious psychiatric problems. Looking for solace, he discovers a religious movement called, “The Cause”, led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Master, and he commits himself deeply to him. The film is much more than an exposé of a religious cult and more than the confrontation between two disturbed people, who need each other.

Mystery Road: an Australian crime thriller about an Indigenous Police Officer, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) who returns from a city job to outback Queensland. His first assignment as a detective is to find the killer of a young Indigenous girl who was brutally murdered. The film fluctuates between being a crime thriller and a taut psychological drama. This film is full of insights about race relations in outback Australia, and of what not to do and what not to let ever happen.

Philomena: This British film is based on the 2009 book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith which tells the true story of a 50 year-long search for her son by Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman wanting to discover what happened to the child that was taken from her, decades before. Steve Coogan and Judi Dench work wonderfully well together in the movie. They are divided by social class and faith in God. The movie treads the line brilliantly between comedy and tragedy. This is an unsentimental story of tragic events, and it takes us unpretentiously on a journey that is enriching. Through Philomena's and Martin's exposure to great sadness, it is also a moving tribute to personal growth.

The Railway Man: the film opens in the 1980s with a group of ageing former soldiers sitting in a veterans club in a Scottish town by the sea all of them survivors of the Thai-Burma railway. Eric falls in love, but is haunted in every way about what happened to him as a POW. Eric has developed a hatred of the Japanese. Can Eric go through life with this intense bitterness and hatred? Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman and Hiroyuki Sanada are excellent in a very fine film about cruelty, torture, bitterness, vengeance and when must the hatred must stop and reconciliation begin.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: a political drama based on the novel by the same name by Mohsin Hamid, about a Princeton (US) graduate, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), son of a Punjab poet (Om Puri), who finds success in the corporate world of Wall Street, New York. He becomes romantically involved with Erica (Kate Hudson), a troubled photographer, who happens by accident to be the niece of the man who owns the firm he works for. The film explores intelligently the complex world facing a Muslim man following the events of 9/11 and the evils of political and religious extremism, personal prejudice, and racial discrimination.

The Rocket: a collaboration between Screen Australia and film producers in Laos, about a family who survives wars, unexploded landmines and family tragedies. There is a rocket competition as ritual preparation to praying for rain for their drought stricken region. A deeply moving portrait of near-neighbours who have suffered so much, almost all of it not of their making.

Rush: a biopic about the Formula One rivalry between the British James Hunt and the Austrian Nicky Lauda. They both come from wealthy families and have fathers who disapprove of their choices of racing driving. The filming and editing of the racing sequences is expert. It ends up a compare and contrast not just with driving styles, but with how one leads one’s life off the track.

Rust and Bone: this French film won best film at the 2012, BFI London Film Festival. The term “bone” in the film’s title is an oblique reference to the 27 bones in a boxer’s hand. It is a provocative, moving, and very confronting film about a psychologically insecure kick-boxer, Ali and his growing love for Stephanie. This movie is a tour-de-force.

Silver Linings Playbook: this clever and original American film is the first movie in over 30 years to score Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. It centres on the very mentally ill Pat Solitano, who has been deserted by his wife and charged for assaulting her lover. It tells the story of his personal search to reestablish his marriage. The emotional themes of this movie are designed to be troubling. They deal with mental illness, marital failure, inability to cope, and profound personal vulnerability. People survive in this movie by constantly negotiating through their vulnerabilities, and the fact that this all happens in a comic way makes the film particularly quirky and unusual.

Stories We Tell: a highly effective film examining the world of family secrets that have stayed hidden for a long time, but are now being shared, how memory is constructed, and how story-telling can hold healing and peace.

What Maisie Knew: an American family drama is based on Henry James’ 1897 novel, “What Maisie Knew”. James’ story has been transposed to modern-day Manhattan, New York City. This is a powerful and moving film about dysfunctional relationships seen through the eyes of a young child. It offers us a thoughtful and heart-rending emotional drama about a child coming to understand that the love between her father and mother has died, and she herself must look to ways of trying to form a new existence. This film captures the modern-day fragility of fractured relationships, and shows the consequences of love that goes missing and then is found again.

Zero Dark Thirty: It is amazing that such a detailed film on the search for Osama Bin Laden (and finding him) could be in theatres within a year and a half of the actual events. The culmination of the film is the preparation for the raid, the helicopters’ night flight across the Afghan mountains into Pakistan, the landing, the search, finding the family, identifying Bin Laden and his death. This is a long but gripping film.

Entertaining Films

There have been a few films which, while very enjoyable, did not make our best film best list.

Blancanieves: a silent Spanish, a black-and-white fantasy. The setting for the movie is Seville and the bull-fighting areas of Andalusia in Spain during the 1920s. The film won Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography Awards at the 2012 Cinema Writers Circle Awards in Spain. It’s a clever, sophisticated film, at times sensual in tone, as well as creative, and is rhythmically compelling.

The Butler: inspired by a 2008 story published in the Washington Post by Wil Haygood, titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election”, this film is based on a true story about the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American, who served as a butler in the White House for 34 years through 8 Presidents. It provides telling glances across the history of the civil rights movement in the US. In the final run, the dramatic power of the movie loses out to the expansiveness of its historical sweep, but this is a film about racial inequality, and the need to fight racial discrimination in every way.

The Croods: anyone with half a funnybone should find the film amusing – and, with a complete funnybone, hilarious. In one sense, it is a variation on the Ice Ages stories. However, it stands on its own as a story of cavemen and cavewomen and the survival of a family called The Croods. The screenplay is very witty, amusing comparisons between the Stone Age and the present. And it has plenty of ideas about nature, survival – and the meaning of life.

Man of Steel: This installment returns us to Superman’s early history. The planet, Krypton faces imminent destruction, and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) launch their newborn son, Kal-El, to Earth in a spacecraft and load a genetic register with him, called Codex, that is intended to preserve the Kryptonian race. Brought to the screen with a bold visual style, this film reenergizes the superhero myth, Henry Cavill’s fine performance as Superman helps us believe in Superman’s quest for decency and humanity. But ultimately action effects win the day in a movie that goes over the top to dazzle in explosive ways.

Worst films of the year

I can remember when I was a boy and read catholic films reviews the ones I wanted to go and see were those which my predecessor, Dean Fred Chamberlain, labeled as “condemned,” So at the risk of encouraging our most contrary readers please stay away from our worst films of 2013: The Family, The Big Wedding, Kiss Ass 2, I’m so excited, The Counsellor, Grown Ups 2 and Bling Ring.

Happy New Year.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting. Compiled with the associates Fr Peter Malone MSC and Professor Peter Sheehan.

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