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The 50 Best Films Of 2013
Have you seen the best movies released this year?

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Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field, Bruce McGill, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader
Best for... summing up a great man's character in one short span of weeks.

Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. The greatest US president in history (discuss; 10 marks). It's a dream team even before you get to the supporting cast (Strathairn, Spader, Field) and it only gets dreamier from there. By focusing on the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, Spielberg sidesteps the brutality of the US Civil War (somewhat, at least) to focus on the high ideals for which Lincoln, at least, fought. So inspiring that you may find yourself singing the Star-Spangled Banner by the end.

Bonus Feature



This feature first appeared in issue 283 of Empire magazine.

"I DON'T READ TWEETS, so don't share anything else with me," says Steven Spielberg, settling into his chair, flopping his trademark flat cap on the coffee table in front of him. "I read Whoopi Goldberg's tweet only because she put it right into my face." It is the afternoon after Lincoln's unofficial world premiere at the New York Film Festival and we are in a corner apartment on the 12th floor of The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Central Park filling the CinemaScope window frame. Empire has started to relay the #oscarpredictions following the screening, but Spielberg - notoriously circumspect around awards time - has stopped us in our tracks. Although the film is just a few weeks from its November 9 US opening, he is still making editing, colour and end-credit tweaks ("It's the only time I've ever thought that digital was a good thing"), but his Lincoln adventure - when he started, Bill Clinton was in the White House - is coming to an end.

"I didn't make it quickly," he suggests. "It took a long time to get the script right. It took a long time to find my Lincoln. I'm in a moment right now where I am proud of the work and relieved that we got this thing off the ground. There were many times I thought this would never get done."

It's a movie unlike anything I've ever directed.


PREPPING THE PROJECT in the early Noughties, Spielberg's research took him to the Lincoln archive in Springfield (no, not that one), Illinois. As the director perused the panoply of Presidential possessions, he came across the holy grail of Lincoln ephemera - the stovepipe hat. Donning white gloves, he took the iconic headwear in his hands. Was there even a little part of him tempted to try it on for size?

"No, never," says Spielberg, his face going through 50 shades of appalled at the very thought. "I would never put on the frock coat. I would never put on the hat. My goodness. It would be like lighting a cigarette in the Sistine Chapel. And I don't smoke and I'm not Catholic."

Spielberg's bristling is indicative of the aura that still surrounds Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States who saved the Union, ended the Civil War and practically wiped slavery from the face of the Earth. For Americans Lincoln is a figure deified in Washington memorials, cinema (John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln) and US tender (his face is on the five-dollar bill) to the point where he has become an easy target for lampooning, be it Bill & Ted ("Party on, dudes!") or Police Squad! ("… and Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln"). As the overly reverent and ridiculously irreverent have hijacked Lincoln in equal measure, now Spielberg is stealing him back.

"I've always had a passion for his deeds," he says. "Not the image America has embraced, but of his actual deeds. I wanted to look closer at what it was like to be him, to hold the balance of this nation on his shoulders. And I'm glad I didn't take three-and-a-half hours to do that!"

If it took Spielberg over a decade to bring Lincoln to the screen, it took him an instant to commit to making it. In 1999, the director invited historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to join his brain trust on The Unfinished Journey, a short film Spielberg directed for CBS to mark the turn of the millennium. Learning that Kearns Goodwin was writing Team Of Rivals, a history of the Lincoln administration, Spielberg made a snap decision to acquire the film rights. For years, he worked through writer after writer (John Logan, Paul Wright), draft after draft, until he landed on a "real D. W. Griffith epic" examining the President through the prism of nine different Civil War battles. Then he had a change of heart.

Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Steven Spielberg gets into character to direct.

"I REALISED I'D MADE A BIG MISTAKE," he levels. "I didn't want to make Saving Private Ryan. I didn't want to do another movie about combat, this time between the blue and the grey. I just wanted to create a living portrait of a working President and an active husband and father. And I couldn't do that with the war upstaging Lincoln."

To service his new vision, Spielberg hired playwright Tony Kushner (Munich). The resulting script took five years to crack, the first draft coming in at a whopping 550 pages, covering his entire administration from 1861 to 1865. Yet within the breeze block of a script, Spielberg zeroed in on a 50-page section that focussed on Lincoln's attempts to pass The 13th Amendment and finally abolish slavery.

Studios love Awards Season. It's daft to compare chalk and cheese.


As much as Kushner's poetic, literate script highlights the political chicanery involved in passing the amendment - Lincoln finagling his advisors, tempering radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and hiring three political bovver boys (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson) to drum up the 20 votes the amendment needs to get through congress - it is also about how the Presidency affects his relationship with possibly bipolar wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and distant son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It has big laughs - only Spielberg can mine comic relief from the ratification of a legislative amendment - but doesn't obfuscate the central dilemma: to push the 13th Amendment through, Lincoln chose to prolong the Civil War, a conflict that ultimately cost the lives of 750,000 Americans.

"Lincoln does have blood on his hands," says Spielberg. "He made a very difficult decision. He was tortured throughout the making of this decision but I think he made the right decision. I think he made the only decision."

"STUDIOS LOVE AWARDS season," says Daniel Day-Lewis, today sporting short, smart hair, an über-stylish military jacket and drainpipe keks. "Most actors I know have, at the very least, an ambivalent attitude towards them because they understand that it is daft to compare chalk and cheese. We appreciate it is helpful to the film and I think you feel encouraged on a personal level if people recognise your work, but some of them go on for hours. The Golden Globes is TV and Cinema in every single category, and in the cinema categories there is Musical/Comedy, then Drama. It just never ends. If you're lucky you get to sit with some good mates and have a good laugh and try not to get too stewed in the process."

Day-Lewis would be a front runner in any Best Actor race, but it has been a protracted journey to the start line. If you know one thing about Spielberg's Lincoln, you'll know that Liam Neeson was Spielberg's first choice to the play the title role. Only he wasn't. When the screenplay was in its "D. W. Griffith" incarnation, the director sent it to Daniel Day-Lewis and heard a word he mustn't have heard very often in the last 40 years of his career: no.

Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln leads his men on horseback.

"It was a very different screenplay at that time," says Day-Lewis. "At that time it just seemed to be unimaginable to me to take on. I did not think I was ready or able to do that."

Spielberg then went to his Schindler's List cohort Neeson, who deeply researched the role, but the pair amicably parted ways, according to Spielberg "when the film moved to a more singular focus". The project was at its lowest ebb until it found an unlikely saviour in Leonardo DiCaprio. Listening to Spielberg's Lincoln woes over dinner, DiCaprio put in a good word with his Gangs Of New York co-star, and following an intensive two-day brainstorm with Spielberg and Kushner in Dublin, Day-Lewis was in.

I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln.


"I've always felt Meryl Streep is our greatest actress and I think Daniel and Tom Hanks are our greatest actors," says Spielberg. "I knew that if Daniel did not commit to Lincoln, I would never make Lincoln. I had resolved not to make the picture if Daniel didn't make it with me."

Yet before Day-Lewis took on the role, he made a phone call.

"Liam is a friend of mine," says Day-Lewis. "When I'd heard he'd distanced himself from it, I was in touch immediately. I do feel there have to be some good manners in the business. It's hard enough for actors without other actors fucking them over. Look at the box office of our last four films. If he had not backed out, I would not have stood a chance."

The mythos surrounding Day-Lewis' approach to acting is legendary. Depending on who you read, he has insisted on being pushed around in a wheelchair (My Left Foot), spent three nights being hosed down in a prison cell (In The Name Of The Father), learnt to skin animals (The Last Of The Mohicans) and sported a top hat, cape and cane for two months prior to shooting (The Age Of Innocence). It's behaviour that suggests some kind of an intense lunatic or (worse) an insufferable luvvie, but in person he is neither: thoughtful, certainly, but also lucid, funny and charming. Rumours of his Lincoln methodology run from demanding to be called "Mr. President" on set, to entering a fugue state, to completely rejecting the trappings of the 21st century. So are the stories of his character immersion just bollocks?

"Some of them are," he smiles. "There are seeds of truth that get developed to the most hyperbolic degree. I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln. But anyone who is focussed on their work closes off their peripheral vision. If you go to inordinate lengths to create that illusion for yourself, to arrive at some cohesive sense of a life, why keep jumping in and out of it?"

Day-Lewis is fully aware of the rep his process provokes - "In England, they think I'm unhinged" - so takes steps to let his fellow crew know "that I'm not going to start speaking in tongues or something".

"I had a fantastic fella from upstate New York who was taking me to work every day," he continues. "He'd heard all those rumours as well. I thought, 'Let's have a laugh.' I said, 'Go and tell your teamster captain that he's got to send you on a training course because I have to go to work in a pony and trap every day. Tell him I absolutely insist!'"

It goes without saying that Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln, but he replaces interest in an actor's trick with absorption in a man's life. His Lincoln is a quiet, dignified, brooding presence, a raconteur ad nauseam ("I know one or two people like that, where you're thinking, 'I've got stuff to do here'") and a measured thinker ("He had an internal rhythm which seemed like his spirit had left the building") who unusually combined this almost scientific capacity for thought with a deep well of compassion.

"There is no doubt in my mind that as a young man when he saw slaves heading down the Mississippi it had a very profound effect on him," says Day-Lewis. "And that he genuinely in his spirit - not just intellectually - believed that every man had the right to be free. He was born to do the thing he did."

Lincoln (2013)

Lincoln consulting wife Mary Todd (Sally Field).

TO GET INTO 1865 character, Steven Spielberg directed Lincoln in a suit - he is wearing one today - so not to be the "schlubby, baseball-cap-wearing 21st century guy".

It's not just his dress code that's changed, however; it's his entire filmmaking approach. For Spielberg, Lincoln is "as close as I've ever gotten to directing for the stage". It's his most talk-filled, performance-driven piece to date. "Some of the scenes are eight, nine minutes long with their own beginning, middle and end," he says. "I don't have eight or nine minutes in any of my movies!" And while Spielberg has retained Janusz Kaminski's gorgeous, Vermeer-inspired lighting schemes (captured on film, not digital), he has mostly eschewed the "fancy shots" that have been part and parcel of his directorial DNA since Duel. He also has only 30-odd minutes of John Williams' score - "John and I decided not to underscore dialogue scenes" - shredding the sentiment his detractors often lambast him for. Schindler's List saw him adopt a black-and-white cinéma-vérité look. Tintin saw him abandon live action altogether. But Lincoln's stately, stagey approach might be his most radical departure to date.

"I don't try to upstage the content by doing something cinematically that would obviously make me think that I wasn't interested or trusting enough in Tony's dramaturgy," he explains. "And because I had such respect for his language and our screen structure, I didn't want to reinvent Lincoln on the soundstage. I had a great script, and I didn't want to get in the way by trying to make it greater."

Let's be clear. This isn't a permanent change of direction for Spielberg. Although Lincoln may feel unfamiliar, Spielberg is essentially doing what he has done his entire career: serving the material the best way he knows how. "It's nice at 65 that after 28 movies I can really say I made a movie unlike anything I've ever directed," he reflects. "And if people don't want to see it because they hear it is not typical of my work, I'll fully accept that. I'm not a barker. I can't sit outside the tent with a bullhorn. They either will or they won't."

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Your Comments

1 RE: Some Missing Pictures
I know it's a UK magazine, I'm from the UK. However they placed films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Hobbit before UK release, therefore I was just making some suggestions that could have equally have been 'Late Entries' More

Posted by CalRhys on Sunday January 5, 2014, 16:40

2 RE: Some Missing Pictures
Your timing is out for 2 - neither Fruitvale nor 12 Years a Slave have been out - this is a UK site/magazine was disappointed at the absence of Act of Killing in a list that can find room for the likes of Warm Bodies, and other entries in my personal bottom 50 of the year. More

Posted by elab49 on Monday December 23, 2013, 11:40

3 RE:
I'll echo the surprise lack of love for The Way Way Back but also add that Flight is more of a surprise omission from the list. On a positive note it's nice to see Mud so high on the list. More

Posted by Dee Jay on Friday December 6, 2013, 21:51

4 RE: World War Z??
I would have liked to have seen the way way back on there as well as side effects but it is a good list. I find it weird that Django and Zero Dark Thirty are on there as they seem like last years christmas movies. Don't know if they where released in 2013 but it feels like ages ago. More

Posted by beardyphysics on Tuesday December 3, 2013, 17:42

5 RE: Stoker?
L: chris wootton Bollocks on't hold back tell us what you really think More

Posted by rich on Monday December 2, 2013, 22:49

6 RE: The 50 Best Films Of 2013
Some great films in that list - Mud, Zero Dark Thirty, Man of Steel, Gravity, Frances Ha, Only God Forgives, A Field in England and Upstream Color are superb choices. Although it is surprising to see The Act of Killing omitted. Was it released in the UK this year or last year? Oh and I wish Leviathan had gotten a place on the list. It's still my favourite of the year so far. More

Posted by garvielloken on Monday December 2, 2013, 19:06

7 RE: The 50 Best Films Of 2013
There's plenty on your list that I'd take exception to, but it's good to see you got the number 1 right. ike others on the thread though, I'm sad to see no place for the Way Way Back. That film took me completely by surprise at how emotionally engaging and well observed it was. I also thought it would be something right up your alley, at least to break the top 50 anyway. More

Posted by Qwerty Norris on Monday December 2, 2013, 18:48

8 RE: The 50 Best Films Of 2013
For those who don't want to click and click and click: here's the full list. 50. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 50. Anchorman 2 50. The Hobbit 2 47. Now You See Me 46. Prisoners 45. The Conjuring 44. Kill Your Darlings 43. Much Ado About Nothing 42. Robot & Frank 41. World War Z 40. Nebraska 39. The Bling Ring 38. Warm Bodies 37. Wreck-it-Ralph 36. The Place Beyond The Pines 35. Saving Mr Banks 34. Star Trek Into Darkness 33. Les Misérables 32. The Impossible 31. About Time 30. Frances Ha 29. Philomena 28. Man of Steel 27. Trance 26. Hunger Games 2 25. A Field In England 24. Filth 23. Blue Is The Warmest Colour 22. All Is Lost 21. Upstream Colour 20. Cloud Atlas 19. Blackfish 18. Only God Forgives 17. Thor 2 16. Short Term 12 15. Blue Jasmine 14. Behind The Candelabra 13. Django Unchained 12. The World's End 11. Zero Dark Thirty 10. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa 9. The Great Beauty 8. Before MidnighMore

Posted by dseys on Monday December 2, 2013, 18:38

9 RE: The Way Way Back
L: LetsKissToMakeItReal L: DeadlyDave Though I fully accept that there isn't room for everything and you certainly can not please everyone, personally I feel the omission of The Way Way Back is criminal. econded! It's just unforgivable. Thirded! I think there's enough of us,shall we start a cause ? Mr Rockwell is with us.. More

Posted by Magenta on Monday December 2, 2013, 17:46

10 RE: The Way Way Back
L: DeadlyDave Though I fully accept that there isn't room for everything and you certainly can not please everyone, personally I feel the omission of The Way Way Back is criminal. econded! It's just unforgivable. More

Posted by LetsKissToMakeItReal on Monday December 2, 2013, 17:36

11 RE: RE:
Also some love for Blackfish, saw it recently and glad I did. A gripping documentary, perhaps not as obviously upsetting as Grizzly Man (although that guy was plain weird) but more subtle and thought-provoking. Free Willy indeed! I forgot to mention Trance, unexpected gem of a film and easily for me Boyle's best since Sunshine. Strong cast, interesting premise and definitely one of those films where each will come to their own conclusions. Not quite the British 'Inception' but worth watching for sure. More

Posted by MDG_78 on Monday December 2, 2013, 17:26

12 RE: RE:
L: Magenta I agree this year has been stronger than 2012 and the list as it goes is on the whole is a good one. though very surprised not to see The Way Way Back? explanations Empire? So very peased to see ]so high and perplexed to see Now You See Me,which I also think was awful,I think the trick was I sat through it! t because of the unexplainable release date is Bernie and consequently it's slipped throught two years netting,which is a shame and like a lot of really good films I scream two words " Limited Release!!" o pleased that at least my local has some sense,next stop Nebraska. ll in my top 10 More

Posted by Whistler on Monday December 2, 2013, 17:13

13 RE: RE:
I agree this year has been stronger than 2012 and the list as it goes is on the whole is a good one. I am although very surprised not to see The Way Way Back? Any explanations Empire? So very peased to see Mud so high and perplexed to see Now You See Me,which I also think was awful,I think the trick was I sat through it! One that because of the unexplainable release date is Bernie and consequently it's slipped throught two years netting,which is a shame and like a lot of really good films I scream two words " Limited Release!!" So pleased that at least my local has some sense,next stop Nebraska. More

Posted by Magenta on Monday December 2, 2013, 17:03

14 RE:
I too think it's been a really good year for films, surprised Django didn't rank higher and was disappointed with Lincoln but agree with many choices. Gravity, Rush and Captain Phillips all really good mainstream drama's that don't treat their audience like dolts and although Iron Man 3 was entertaining both Star Trek and Man Of Steel were better (the latter featuring very highly on my own Top 10 list, can't understand the hate for it). Now You See Me though...easily the worst film I have seen this year. At first I thought it was average fare and inoffensive pop BUT as it dragged on and on and I started to dislike nearly everyone single person in it (exception of Melanie Laurent) and got a headache from the camera spinning around all the time and the annoying music and rubbish CGI-enhanced 'magic' tricks (see The Prestige and The Illusionist for examples of how it can be done) , I came to the conclusion that it was indeed a piece of garbage. Shame to the friend who recommended thMore

Posted by MDG_78 on Monday December 2, 2013, 16:20

L: chrispdaniel How dare you Empire, I am a generic movie goer who didn't see all of the films released this year, but does see more than your average Joe/Jane, and you failed to mention some of my favourite films and/or rated some films more highly than I would have done. You nincompoops! Do you professionals know nothing. Clearly I am right because I say I am, and therefore I shall use this comment section to voice my anger at your betrayal of all that is good and holy about subjective opinions. I am so disappointed, but not nearly as disappointed as I would have been had you not compiled such a list for me to agree or disagree with in the first place. Then I would have been mad! Yours sincerely I M Right p.s. I thought this was a good read, and actually think it has been a good year for films in general. Keep up the good work everyone. :D] More

Posted by waltham1979 on Monday December 2, 2013, 13:40

16 RE: Great list!
L: dseys Empire's Top 50 won't alter my own Top 50, s as valid as theirste] How do you figure that? More

Posted by Macavity on Monday December 2, 2013, 13:05

17 RE: Great list!
L: MikeTheActorMan Gravity definitely deserved Number 1, absolutely stunning and incredible film! Unlike anything else released this year! And Captain Phillips at number 2 is very well deserved too. I'm so glad About Time was on this as well... I went into that thinking it'd be a romantic comedy with a time-travel twist, but about half way through he gets the girl and it turns into an exploration about the bond between father and son and nearly made me cry! Disappointed Pacific Rim isn't on here?? I thought that, Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness were the three best blockbusters this year! Also, Oblivion! Where's the love for that? The story, the acting, the cinematography, the special effects in that were stunning, and I really think it's a great semi-original and gripping sci-fi film that really surprised me this year! gree with everything you said. I think Empire's Top 3 (Gravity-Captain Phillips-Rush) is near perfect but the rest is really weird. Man of SteeMore

Posted by dseys on Monday December 2, 2013, 12:11

18 Iron Man 3 & Stoker
Really glad to see theentan 3 achieving a high slot in the list. A genuinely funny, thrilling, surprising flick and one of best superhero films ever made. Equally happy to see Stoker hit high too. It feels like an instant cult-classic. I'm not so sure about Gravity. It's a good film (one that can only really be appreciated in the cinema) but is it really the best of the year? In comparison to last year's equally stunning Life of Pi it feels pretty bereft of weight. More

Posted by Macavity on Monday December 2, 2013, 11:59

19 RE: Gravity is the shit at the top (or bottom) of the pile
L: Jonny24 at a shit year for movies was worse than the last, which was worse than the year before that, etc. Only World War Z and Oblivion were any good, and that was surprising in itself. Of course neither got much credit around here. ou're not looking hard enough. 2013 has been one of the best years for film in recent memory. More

Posted by garvielloken on Monday December 2, 2013, 11:32

20 RE: WTF
L: That other movie guy For those who hate clicking, these are top 10 from Empire 1:Gravity 2: Captain Phillips 3: Rush 4: Mud 5: Lincoln 6: Stoker 7: Iron Man 3 8: Before Midnight 9: The Great Beauty 10: ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA Omg worst top 10 movies I've ever seen my a movie website, How is Iron man 3 in there? even though Cloud Atlas came out end of last year that movie would wipe Iron Man 3 with toilet paper.. Where the heck is Oblivion in all of the top 10? ut of the 10, I've seen 7, out of the 7 I've seen I adored 5, the other 2... I was fine with Iron Man and cared very little for Lincoln. Pretty good list if you ask me. More

Posted by odddaze on Monday December 2, 2013, 00:46

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