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After a shaky start, 2013 ended up a stellar cinematic year, covering subjects as varied as young love, ‘70s (and ‘80s and ‘90s) con men, our country’s horrific history of slavery, and perhaps most importantly, giant robots battling equally elephantine alien monster.


 

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Lionsgate


Suzanne CollinsHunger Games novels increasingly foreground the fact that her world is a horrific, traumatizing dystopia as she goes, which seemed to get increasingly uncomfortable for some readers. The movie of the second book manages the rare feat of making the same move even as it’s more immediately pleasurable than its fine but lukewarm predecessor. It’s the best kind of adaptation, one that compensates for the unavoidable losses of translation (such as no longer having such a clear sense of our first-person narrator’s mind and heart) by staying true to the core of the story and adding its own pleasures (Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks, for example, add whole new dimensions to relatively minor characters from the books). Political repression, PTSD, the uses and costs of fame; these are the kinds of things it’s good to see box-office smashes smuggling into the conversation. Ian Mathers


 

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The Conjuring

Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

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The Conjuring
Warner Bros.


Leave it to director James Wan, who kicked off the “torture porn” craze when he directed the first Saw movie, to be the one to lead the genre away from gristle and gore again. His two 2013 horror movies, Insidious Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, rely more on mood and atmosphere to ratchet up the tension and deliver their haunted-house scares. Of these, The Conjuring is more traditional, and more successful. It uses scares we’ve all seen before—from a menacing music box to a creeptastic twist on hide-and-seek—but uses them effectively; muscles will start to tense the minute you someone winds the gears of that music box or starts counting for that game of hide-and-seek. Wan elevates these tropes with a some visual flourishes, including an excellent tracking shot that follows multiple characters as they zig-zag through the haunted house on move-in day. There’s also an unexpected emotional core to the story, since The Conjuring portrays the interaction between two families: The Perrons, a boisterous family of seven that moved into the cursed Rhode Island farmhouse, and the Warrens, the demon-fighting couple that pledges to help them. (The Warrens are based on real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.) It’s rare to see loving families depicted in horror movies—let alone two of them in one movie—which give stakes that are higher than every-teen-for-himself slasher movies since the characters have something important that they can lose (other than quarts of blood). Wan proves that you don’t have to be grotesque or shock to scare, so long as you have real people, not stock types, living in that haunted house. Marisa LaScala


 

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Prince Avalanche

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Joyce Payne

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Prince Avalanche
Magnolia Pictures


With Prince Avalanche, you get the best of director David Gordon Green‘s two worlds: the lyrical prettiness and gorgeous compositions of his early indie movies (like All the Real Girls), plus the playfulness and humor of his bigger studio comedies (like The Pineapple Express). The film follows two lonely workers painting lines on a remote, fire-damaged road in the forests of Texas, and Green’s at his best when he’s working in this intimate scale. He’s a keen observer of human behavior, and he knows exactly what to slightly exaggerate for maximum comedic effect. Then again, there are parts of the story that are profoundly touching, especially when the main characters come across a woman who lost everything in one of the big fires. In this way, Prince Avalanche shows that you can do so much—evoke a whole range of emotions—with so very little—just two really strong performers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd), the bounty of nature, and a keen sense of the human condition. Marisa LaScala


 

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To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline

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To The Wonder
Magnolia Pictures


Terrence Malick‘s To the Wonder is a deeply romantic film about the limits of romantic love. The central relationship of the film is that between Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck). Marina’s relocation from Paris to rural Oklahoma is expressed as a leap of faith, the results of which are less than ideal. But that simple plot opens the story up to the role of faith in lasting love. The film is another example of Malick’s poetic approach to narrative storytelling, with painterly cinematography, voice-over dialogue and discontinuous editing. Yet the clarity of the movie’s spiritual core is unsurpassed within his filmography.


Triggered by the question that begins the film’s second act (“What is this love that loves us?”), To the Wonder explores the difference between human love and divine love. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest, articulates the difference, even as he experiences his own bouts of melancholy and loneliness. Of the many unforgettable sequences in the film, none is more effective than Quintana’s carrying out the duty to love “the least of these” in his community. On the soundtrack, Bardem recites the Lorica of St. Patrick over Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. Malick has often been labeled inscrutable, but To the Wonder is a film that bowls us over by speaking directly to the soul. Thomas Britt


 

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The Unknown Known

Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris

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The Unknown Known
The Weinstein Company


In The Unknown Known, Donald Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Errol Morris’ documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come. Chris Barsanti


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