The Three Brothers' Essential Films of 2013

Every film site from the A.V. Club to Indiewire has released their best films of the year in the past few weeks. While our Top 10 lists won't arrive until the first week of January, we thought it'd be useful to compile a list of the essential films of 2013, inspired by Scott Tobias's exhaustive "The Big Checklist" over at The Dissolve.

Before the list starts, a few clarifiers:

We think of essential films as those movies every cinephile ought to see. They don't have be great, but they have to be good and interesting and worthy of conversation. Not every brother saw every film on this list, so we listed whose nomination it was. If the film was loved by one brother and hated by another we didn't include it, so don't expect to see Star Trek Into Darkness on here. But if only one brother saw the film and loved it, we included it since there was no dissenting opinion. We also didn't include anything that didn't get a 2013 North American release date, so no Joe, or Jodorowsky's Dune or Like Father, Like Son.

We've also divided the list up into four categories to make it easier to sort: The Prestige Pic, The Multiplex, The Arthouse and The Hot DocThe Prestige Pic includes cinema heavyweights, movies looking to find glory come awards season and the festival circuit. The Multiplex includes all the mainstream movies you'd find at the local Cineplex. The Arthouse includes foreign and independent cinema, the kind of stuff mainstream theatres usually avoid showing. And finally, The Hot Doc includes documentary cinema, of which the brothers, especially Aren, saw a lot of this year.

Without further clarifiers, these are the Three Brothers' Essential Films of 2013, sorted by category, and listed in alphabetical order.


12 Years a Slave

dir. Steve McQueen

What It’s About: Freeman Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is tricked and sold into slavery in the deep south for 12 years in the mid-18th century.

What the Brothers Said: “Many films are moving. Many films tell hard truths. Not all films are monumental. 12 Years a Slave is.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anton and Anders.

All Is Lost

dir. J.C. Chandor

What It’s About: A lone man (Robert Redford) becomes shipwrecked at sea when his sailboat suffers a hole in the hull and withstands a typhoon.

What the Brothers Said: “All Is Lost proves that the value of a film lies in how it tells its story, not entirely in the story itself. The story of All Is Lost can be summarized in one line: a man is shipwrecked far out to sea. Now try summarizing the filmmaking of All Is Lost in one line. You can’t.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

Before Midnight

dir. Richard Linklater

What It’s About: The third film in Richard Linklater’s series about the romance between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) catches up with the characters a further nine years after their meeting in Paris in Before Sunset and focuses on the hardships of love after the bloom is off the rose.

What the Brothers Said: “Before Midnight solidifies Richard Linklater’s trilogy as an all-time classic exploration of romance and aging [...] It doesn’t have the romantic conceit of the first or the self-reflexivity of the second. Not that those films are unrealistic, but this one brings both of those past events into a startlingly real world context. What makes this film still a romance at its heart is its exploration of the notion that romance is a fantasy shared by lovers.” (Aren)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Anton and Aren.

Captain Phillips

dir. Paul Greengrass

What It’s About: Somali pirates led by the wiley Muse (Barkhad Abdi) take the commercial shipping freighter Maersk Alabama and its captain, Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage.

What the Brothers Said: “The fact that Captain Phillips actually gets at the heart of why the events it portrays happened without characters theorizing about it from a distance is remarkable. It also makes the four Somali pirates into sympathetic human villains, although villains nonetheless — Barkhad Abdi gives as compelling a performance as Muse as Tom Hanks gives as Phillips.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.


dir. Alfonso Cuaron

What It’s About: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempts to survive in space and make her way back home after her shuttle experiences a disaster while in orbit above the Earth.

What the Brothers Said: “As a whole [Gravity] works because through its technical innovations it manages to impart something of how fundamentally unnerving it would be to be separated from Earth, adrift in space. Its best thematic moments, even in its on-the-nose fetal imagery, work because they touch on the notion of human life as being like a baby, dependent on the Earth as a mother, and the evolutionary struggle to survive against all odds. What’s cool is how the technical aspects enhance those themes, rather than needing a clunky script to underline them. It’s one of the more clear examples of form and content mirroring each other in recent cinema.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren.


dir. Denis Villeneuve

What It’s About: The abduction of two young children sets off a chain of events spiralling downwards, drawing in an obsessive young detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), pushing one father (Hugh Jackman) to use questionable means, and uncovering deep, dark secrets.

What the Brothers Said: “Using child abduction can be an easy way to manipulate an audience into uneasiness and emotional frailty, but Prisoners is never manipulative. In the moments when it could be most dishonest, Villeneuve cuts away or lets a static camera allow the actor’s emotions to tell the story for him.” (Aren)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren.


The Conjuring

dir. James Wan

What It’s About: Demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) investigate the case of a demon terrorizing a family who just moved into a rural farmhouse.

What the Brothers Said: “There is something charmingly conventional about The Conjuring. It draws upon the conventions of a time when horror movies were about characters we cared about in situations that terrified us.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anton.

The Counselor

dir. Ridley Scott

What It’s About: A successful legal counselor (Michael Fassbender) decides to get involved in a one-time deal with a Mexican drug cartel, but finds that evil is not so easy to disentangle from.

What the Brothers Said: “The Counselor is a strange beast compared with most of the films out right now: it’s too violent and trashy to be taken seriously by many who would dig its philosophical musings, but its too elusive and unconventionally delivered to please straight genre fans. Still the question at the heart of the film is one that thematically ties it all together: can you flirt with evil and remain unscathed? The Counselor would emphatically suggest, no.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren.

Ender's Game

dir. Gavin Hood

What It’s About: Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is recruited to attend Battle School, where he is taught to become a ruthless military commander necessary to defeat an aggressive alien race.

What the Brothers Said: “Ender’s Game is a blockbuster of intelligence and ideas over brawn and style. It may be meticulously designed and sleek like any good sci-fi film, but it’s the themes behind the film that give it its heft.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

The Great Gatsby

dir. Baz Luhrmann

What It’s About: Based on the great American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby tells the story of the mysterious, charming Jay Gatsby’s extraordinary efforts to win back his former lover (Carey Mulligan), told through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire).

What the Brothers Said: Forget the brouhaha about the adaptation, which is solid. This is “classical big-budget entertainment, hearkening back to the days when big movies were big not because they were part of some action-packed fantasy mega-franchise, but because they had big stars, high or middle-brow source material, and always impeccable and lavish production values.” (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren and Anders

The Hangover Part III

dir. Todd Phillips

What It’s About: One of the Wolf Pack (Bradley Cooper, Zack Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Justin Batha) is kidnapped, and the rest have to rely upon the help of Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) to get him back. More darkly humorous thriller than comedy.

What the Brothers Said: “The Hangover trilogy has been billed as a blockbuster comedy series. It’s the appearance the marketing team wants to put out there, and what most audience members see it as. However, as the layers and repetitions of the sequels show, this is a series about the nihilism of the mainstream American comedy.” (Aren)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

dir. Peter Jackson

What It’s About: After narrowly escaping the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves of Erebor head into Mirkwood Forest on their long quest to reclaim their home from the dragon Smaug.

What the Brothers Said: No official review, but it improves upon its predecessor, mostly due to the faster pace and the wonders of the CGI Smaug.

Nominated by Aren.

Man of Steel

dir. Zack Snyder

What It’s About: An origin story of Superman (Henry Cavill) and how he transforms from an alien outcast on Earth to the world’s saviour when his fellow Kryptonians arrive to terraform the planet.

What the Brothers Said: “I think the most impressive thing about Man of Steel is the way it truly gives us a Superman film on a grand scale. In fact, Man of Steel has more in common with films like Star Wars or Avatar than it does with most other superhero films in terms of creating a massively intricate world.” (Anders)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anders


dir. Joseph Kosinksi

What It’s About: Jack Harper is a recon tech on a war-ravaged Earth in 2077. When he discovers capsule pods containing human survivors of a downed starship, he comes to question his mission on Earth and the motivations of his employers.

What the Brothers Said: “Kosinski is possibly the first filmmaker to successfully incorporate the architectural aesthetics of video games in films.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anders

Pacific Rim

dir. Guillermo del Toro

What It’s About: In the near future humanity has created Jaegers, giant robots controlled by two mind-linked pilots, in order to battle the kaiju, a seemingly unending wave of giant monsters springing from an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The film follows one last stand from some of the remaining Jaeger pilots (Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi) as they must learn to work together.

What the Brothers Said: “Pacific Rim [...] draws on a child-like yearning for adventure and the cool trappings of Japanese pop culture, all while managing to combine them together with satisfying playground logic. While other summer movies this year have offered up stories with city-scale destruction and fights between outlandish combatants, no other movie does so with such lack of cynicism or sense of outlandish imagination as Pacific Rim does.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren and Anton.

Side Effects

dir. Steven Soderbergh

What It’s About: When nothing seems to work for the depressed Emily (Rooney Mara), her doctor (Jude Law) decides to try the new antidepressant wonder drug, Ablixa. But, as the title suggest, there are side effects.

What the Brothers Said: “Side Effects skillfully manipulates our expectations about genre and our sympathies for its characters. . . . This is the kind of thriller that’s so good I was smiling when I shouldn’t be.” (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren and Anders

The World's End

dir. Edgar Wright

What It’s About: Gary King (Simon Pegg) recruits his old friends (Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine) to return to their hometown and finish the pub crawl—the “Golden Mile”—they never completed 20 years before, and reach the fabled “World’s End” pub. But something strange is happening in their hometown.

What the Brothers Said: We didn’t review it for the website, but The World’s End completes Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” on a consistently high-note. The misadventures of Gary King and his companions perfectly balances a tale of accepting maturity and growth with the genre interests that have driven the first two entries in the series (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren and Anton.


Frances Ha

dir. Noah Baumbach

What It’s About: Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an aspiring dancer in New York city, living with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie tells Frances she is moving in with her boyfriend, it comes as a shock to Frances, triggering the journey from Brooklyn, to Chinatown, home to Sacramento, to Paris, and into adulthood.

What the Brothers Said: “Frances Ha is a fleet-footed and at times joyous film that captures the pain and dreams of twenty-something New Yorkers as well as any other in this decade [...] The definite difference-maker here is Greta Gerwig as Frances. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that this is a career-defining performance that will be remembered for a long time; a Diane Keaton as Annie Hall-level feat of iconic characterization and output of goofball energy. Gerwig co-wrote the film and it is tempting for me to attribute the film’s sheer goodheartedness in large part to her.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren and Anton.

From Up on Poppy Hill

dir. Goro Miyazaki

What It’s About: In 1963 Yokohama, Umi lives with her grandmother and siblings running a boarding house. Umi gets involved in the campaign to renovate the Latin Quarter, the school clubhouse, and begins a tentative romance with a passionate young man named, Shun.

What the Brothers Said: “From Up on Poppy Hill is one of this year’s movie going treasures thus far. While at times it seems a bit too on the nose thematically, the film reaches a depth that is rare in films ostensibly aimed at teenagers these days. It recalls instead films of the 60s where the actions of the youth and the legacy they will protect or leave seemed to have real stakes. As one character comments, “Get rid of the old, make way for the new.” Studio Ghibli respects the craftsmanship of the past, without rejecting the spirit of youth that provides us with our future.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren.

Fruitvale Station

dir. Ryan Coogler

What It’s About: An account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) who was shamefully murdered by a police officer on New Year’s Eve 2008.

What the Brothers Said: “What Fruitvale Station does is show that men like Oscar Grant are beautifully flawed human beings, and that the real tragedy is not only that an innocent man like Oscar Grant was killed, but that a man like Oscar Grant would be thought of as anything less than human in the first place.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anders.

The Grandmaster

dir. Wong Kar-wai

What It’s About: The story of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the legendary kung fu master, and the divisions and rivalries that dominated the world of Chinese martial arts in pre-war China and Hong Kong.

What the Brothers Said: No review for the website, but even the American cut of the film that we saw is full of director Wong Kar-wai’s signature visual style and continues his treatment of memory, history, and longing. Zhang Ziyi gives a wonderful performance as Gong Er, Ip’s rival and (in typical Wong fasion) thwarted romantic interest. (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren.

The Hunt

dir. Thomas Vinterberg

What It’s About: A kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelson) is wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a child and becomes the target of his town’s vindictive retribution.

What the Brothers Said: “My mom often likes to yell out at characters in movies for doing stuff she disagrees with. This is one of the first times in a cinema where I’ve felt like doing the same.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.


dir. Jeff Nichols

What It’s About: In the rural South, two boys find a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) living in a boat stuck up in a tree on an island. The man recruits the boys to help him reconnect with a troubled woman (Reese Witherspoon) and escape the men hunting him down.

What the Brothers Said: “[A] tall tale with the beating heart of a coming of age film.” (Aren) or simply a good story told very well. (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren and Anders.

The Past

dir. Asghar Farhadi

What It’s About: An Iranian man returns to Paris to finalize divorce from his wife only to become embroiled in the personal drama regarding her affair with a French Arab.

What the Brothers Said: “The Past [is] a beautiful and sensitive examination of personal problems. It remains the kind of perceptive filmmaking that only a director of Farhadi’s stature can accomplish.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren. Seconded by Anders.

The Place Beyond the Pines

dir. Derek Cianfrance

What It’s About: When a stunt cyclist (Ryan Gosling) learns he fathered a child with an old flame (Eva Mendes), he takes up robbing banks, which sets him on a collision course with a hero cop (Bradley Cooper) with grand ambitions.

What the Brothers Said: “The Place Beyond the Pines is a film reaching for greatness and profound meaning, trying to capture the grace and truth of an old saying like “the Sins of the Father,” and, more often than not, succeeding.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

The Spectacular Now

dir. James Ponsoldt

What It’s About: A lovable slacker and alcoholic (Miles Teller) becomes romantically entangled with a good girl (Shailene Woodley) from his senior class.

What the Brothers Said: “The Spectacular Now shows how even if making mistakes is an essential part of adolescence, bad decisions have consequences.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.


dir. Park Chan-wook

What It’s About: When her creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) moves in with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman), India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) begins to wonder where her Uncle Charles has been all these years. Dark secrets and forbidden desires are slowly uncovered.

What the Brothers Said: “While Stoker is not as graphically violent as Park’s revenge films, it still disturbs taboos and deeply unsettles.” (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren and Anders

Upstream Color

dir. Shane Carruth

What It’s About: A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is drugged with a worm, sees her life fall apart, and finds a connection with another victim, Jeff (Shane Carruth), as they attempt to rebuild their fractured lives. Oh, and there’s the mysterious Sampler, (Andrew Sensenig) who is central to connecting the various characters and events.

What the Brothers Said: “Upstream Color might be one of the best films I’ve ever seen in recreating the way we actually experience reality and organize narratives out of the sense data we are given. It is radically subjective [...] but viewers are able to make sense of it because our lives are radically subjective.” (Anders)

Nominated by Anders. Seconded by Aren and Anton.

The Wind Rises

dir. Hayao Miyazaki

What It’s About: Jiro wants to make beautiful planes. Miyazaki’s final film is a beautiful meditation on the labour, compromise, stubborn determination, and inspiration that are each a part of the creative process.

What the Brothers Said: “[T]he work of a master. Like the protagonist Jiro’s aeronautic masterwork, the Mitsubishi A5M, the film’s seams are barely visible, the bolts holding everything together embedded not protruding, and the final product soars with a visible ease that conceals the intense labour and sacrifice required to construct such a work.” (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Anders and Aren.


The Act of Killing

dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

What It’s About: A look at the Indonesian genocide of 1965, told by the killers themselves as they recreate their crimes in the style of their favourite Hollywood movies.

What the Brothers Said: “The Act of Killing shows us that not only is evil banal, but that evil has a human face, and it is pitiful.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.


dir. Frieda Mock

What It’s About: A portrait of professor Anita Hill, who famously accused future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, bringing sexual harassment into the forefront of American public thought.

What the Brothers Said: “A must-see for men who often fail to understand women’s struggles with sexual harassment and find it difficult to imagine harassment in their own contexts.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

The Armstrong Lie

dir. Alex Gibney

What It’s About: Gibney’s anatomy of a lie, analyzing Lance Armstrong’s system of doping and deception, from his “miraculous” recovery from cancer to his recent castigation, being stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories.

What the Brothers Said: “Gibney’s own self-narrative of desiring to believe followed by disillusionment parallels that of the public, but with the difference that Gibney allows for the complexity of the issue.” (Anton)

Nominated by Anton. Seconded by Aren.


dir. Alex Winter

What It’s About: A look at Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, and the creation of Napster, which ushered in the modern era of the Internet.

What the Brothers Said: “Downloaded offers an entertaining overview of Napster’s rise and fall, while featuring an intimate look at its two founders, Fanning and Parker.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

The Human Scale

dir. Andreas M. Dalsgaard

What It’s About: A look at the theories of Jan Gehl and how the modern supercity is an impersonal creation more supportive of cars than people.

What the Brothers Said: “The Human Scale should be required viewing for every city planner and mayor who professes to care about the interests of people.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

Narco Cultura

dir. Shaul Schwartz

What It’s About: A juxtaposition of the booming music subculture of narcocorridos in the United States, which glorifies Mexican cartel killers, and the on-the-ground police officers in Juarez dealing with the casualties of the War of Drugs.

What the Brothers Said: “If Narco Cultura were nothing else, it would still be a masterpiece of editing.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer

dir. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin

What It’s About: A look at the radical Russian performance art group Pussy Riot and the legal fallout that followed their controversial arrest.

What the Brothers Said: “Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer works wonderfully as a primer for someone who’s heard lots about the group, but never really investigated the specifics of the case.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

Stories We Tell

dir. Sarah Polley

What It’s About: Sarah Polley interviews her family to get at the root of a guarded family secret, only to shed light on the nature of stories in general.

What the Brothers Said: No official review, but the film works a neat trick at being both an examination into the sense of identity Polley has lived with her entire life, and a metatextual look at how what we omit in stories is more telling than what we include.

Nominated by Aren.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

dir. Alex Gibney

What It’s About: A chronicle of the rise of whistleblower site WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

What the Brothers Said: No official review, but it shames The Fifth Estate as both a thriller and a definitive telling of an important piece of contemporary history.

Nominated by Aren.

William and the Windmill

dir. Ben Nabors

What It’s About: The story of William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill from scratch in 2007 to support his village, and entered the global stage as a humanitarian celebrity.

What the Brothers Said: “By telling the focused, fascinating story of this brilliant young man, it manages to capture the universal tension between the developed and developing world.” (Aren)

Nominated by Aren.

What were your essential films of 2013?