The Top Films of 2013

Themes of Hope, Survival and Faith in a Year of Big-Screen Hardship

2013 was a year of cinematic trauma and stress: a year of harrowing, at times also exhilarating, survival stories, many on the abyss of the sea or even the void of space.

Mainstream Hollywood fare was dismal, alas, and family audiences were swamped with mediocrities. Yet the larger cinematic world had much to offer — including a remarkable convergence of religious themes in a number of dramas and even a number of animated films.


10 Films That Stood Out

1. This Is Martin Bonner. Amid the trauma-filled films of 2013, no film spoke to me more profoundly of hope, empathy and spiritual thoughtfulness than Chad Hartigan’s quietly miraculous little character study. Following a church-based prison program volunteer and an ex-con trying to find his way, the film explores the enigma of faith in a postmodern world with extraordinary insight. A fleeting depiction of a sexual encounter (nothing explicit); brief strong language. Adults.

2. 12 Years a Slave. More than just a brilliant, devastating film about an important subject, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of his 1841 kidnapping and sojourn in slavery is the first major fact-based motion picture about the slave experience in America. Extremely harsh content, including scenes of vicious abuse and cruelty; a brief sexual encounter and scenes of sexual abuse (no nudity); nonsexual nudity (e.g., a slave-market scene); profane and obscene language. Mature viewing; discretion advised.

3. Gravity. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in the year’s most gloriously spectacular exercise in Hollywood escapism, leavened with a sprinkling of spiritual themes. Alfonso Cuarón’s low-orbit survival thriller offers something remarkable: new kinds of images, set not in some sci-fi/fantasy world, but in our own. Much intense peril and some brief graphic, disturbing images; some strong language; a sequence depicting the heroine in modest underthings. Teens and up.

4. The Past. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (whose masterful A Separation was my No. 2 film of 2011) explores the fallout around broken family bonds and the perils of trying to build new lives on the ruins of old ones with more psychological insight and moral precision than any other filmmaker I know. Domestic complications, including divorce and remarriage theme; references to an extramarital affair and an attempted suicide; brief abortion theme. Subtitles. Adults.

5. Fill the Void. Orthodox Israeli director Rama Burschtein’s unprecedented drama about life in Tel Aviv’s Hasidic Jewish community offers an intriguing portrait of a close-knit culture shaped by faith, tradition and family ties. A Jane Austen-inflected tale of a young girl whose hopes of making a match are complicated by a family tragedy, it’s a rare hopeful film about marriage in a cinematic season of domestic failure. Thematic elements. Subtitles. Nothing inappropriate for watching with kids.

6. Fruitvale Station. With stunning performances and a naturalistic style, first-time director Ryan Coogler’s Sundance winner — a fictionalized account of the last hours of a young black man killed by police — makes a powerful case for a system that works better for the marginal as well as the privileged. A disturbing extended sequence of police roughness with a fatal shooting; some sensuality and a scene of sexuality (no nudity); brief nonsexual nudity; racial epithets; heavy obscene and crass language; limited profanity. Mature viewing; discretion advised.

7. Captain Phillips. Tom Hanks is outstanding in Paul Greengrass’ lucid, intelligent thriller adaptation of the real-life story of a container ship captain whose vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates. Much intense menace and some frank violence; limited profanity and brief crass language. Teens and up.

8. From Up on Poppy Hill. A minor gem from Studio Ghibli, developed by Hayao Miyazaki but directed by his son Goro, this lovely period piece, set in a Japanese coastal town in the early 1960s, eschews high-flying fantasy for delicate coming-of-age drama. Thematic elements. Subtitles or English dub. Nothing inappropriate for watching with kids.

9. Caesar Must Die. This movingly humanistic docudrama from the octogenarian Taviani brothers depicts a prison theater program with real convicts — some mafiosi, drug traffickers and killers — staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Thematic elements; a few obscenities. Teens and up.

10. ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! Russian documentarian Victor Kossakovsky’s meditative globe-hopping film seeks out comparatively rare locations on the Earth with people living diametrically opposite one another. Footage of a beached whale corpse being dismembered; a suggestive remark. Subtitles. Too slow for kids (and many adults).

See runners-up and honorable mentions at

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic

and the creator of Decent Films.