I always have a difficult time putting together year-end top 10 lists for two reasons: 1) The further down the list you go, the more arbitrary the ranking becomes – I mean, really, how much better is title No. 7 than No. 8? – and 2) coming up with 10 movies that I really loved in a given year is a trying task – that means a typical top 10 list is composed of, say, five great films and five really good ones.
But 2013 has proved to be a new kind of challenge, because this is one of those years when I’ve simply had too many worthy candidates to choose from. It’s a testament to the quality of the year that the newest films from Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne didn’t crack the top 10 – although they’re all hovering there in an imaginary 11th place. This could just have easily been a top 15.
Looking at the 10 films I’ve selected, I realize they’re all deeply personal stories of people coming to terms with their own fate – whether it’s an astronaut floating helplessly through space, a man lost at sea, a woman searching for ballast in her chaotic life, a musician struggling for recognition or a couple approaching a difficult crossroads in their marriage. Here are the best movies 2013 had to offer:
1. “Her” – Spike Jonze’s “Her” is two great movies in one: an intimate, painful, deeply-felt examination of love and loss, and a quirky, funny, and prescient statement about our ever-intensifying relationship with technology. The chameleonic Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a lonely, heartsick divorcee who purchases a highly advanced personal assistant called Samantha (the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson) that’s designed to be compatible with his every need. Not only does he fall madly in love with the program, but its feelings – if you can call them that – are mutual, and Samantha develops at such an alarming rate that it (I almost wrote “she”) begins to assume the characteristics of a flesh and blood human. Both thematically abstract and dramatically piercing, “Her” opens as a modern, high-concept farce and closes as something much different, a moving look at how we live and why we love. It might very well be Jonze’s masterpiece, and it’s as timeless as it is timely.
2. “Inside Llewyn Davis” – One thing that separates Joel and Ethan Coen from other American filmmakers is their impeccable sense of time and place. “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961, right around the time that Bob Dylan famously wandered into town, and from the very first title card we’re completely immersed in that world. The film, which is one of the Coens’ very best, chronicles a week in the life of struggling, nomadic folk singer Llewyn Davis (a brilliant Oscar Isaac), who has been a drunk, emotional wreck since the suicide of his former songwriting partner. The plot doesn’t follow an arc so much as an infinite loop of rejection and disappointment, including a careless yet colorful odyssey from New York to Chicago and back again. The music is beautiful, the supporting cast (Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake) is excellent and the ending is among the strangest, most disarming and quietly profound things the Coens have ever attempted.
3. “Frances Ha” – Noah Baumbach’s best, most assured film is a deceptively rich comedy that finds humor and truth in minor details, offhand remarks and missed connections. Structured like a series of vignettes, the movie follows the sweet but absentminded 20-something Frances (the luminous Greta Gerwig), an aspiring dancer who hops from one New York apartment to another in a backhanded quest to find meaning in her life while her best friend is consumed by Serious Adulthood. It’s perfectly calibrated, but it also has the stylistic liberation of a happy accident, the kind of film that doesn’t feel like it was made but rather simply came to be.
4. “Before Midnight” – Over the course of three excellent films, Richard Linklater has kept us updated on his hopeless romantics Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who first met on a train in 1996’s “Before Sunrise” and are married with children in “Before Midnight.” They’re at a turning point in their relationship – they’re both unfulfilled, and they each blame the other person for it – and Linklater lets the wistfulness of the first two films come crashing down in the movie’s centerpiece, a long and achingly authentic verbal fight in a hotel room. This is the best and most thoughtful entry in an already tremendous series, and I wouldn’t complain if Linklater were to keep dropping in on these characters once every decade.
5. “12 Years a Slave” – While so many historical biopics are noble testaments to the human spirit, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is a brutal, unflinching look at the unimaginable cruelty that mankind is capable of. As Solomon Northup, an emancipated black man unlawfully sold back into slavery, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the beating heart of an otherwise grim film, and it’s a dynamic performance rooted in pain, sadness, anger and, ultimately, forgiveness. No medium will ever capture the true horrors of slavery, but McQueen’s righteously unsentimental approach exposes some of the ugliest scars of our past better than any other movie before it. This is a hard film to watch, but it’s a necessary one to see.
6. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” – More people heard about this movie than actually saw it, and that’s a shame: Despite the controversy surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour character study, it’s a simple but engrossing portrait of a young girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos, in one of the best performances of the year) and her tumultuous relationship with a slightly older woman (Léa Seydoux). Despite the controversy surrounding the graphic sex scenes, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is less about sex than it is growing up, and it’s rare to find a film that explores its characters as deeply and openly as this one.
7. “The Act of Killing” – In one of the most compelling and haunting documentaries I’ve ever seen, director Joshua Oppenheimer assembles a group of former Indonesian death squad leaders and allows them to recreate and film the atrocities they committed, using makeup, special effects, actors and sets. The results are as strange and horrifying as they are captivating – one of the men photographs an agonizing interrogation in the style of a film noir, while another stages elaborate musical numbers and bizarre dream sequences to communicate his inner turmoil. It’s gut-wrenching stuff, especially when Oppenheimer challenges his subjects to recognize the disconnect between reality and Hollywood violence.
8. “Stories We Tell” – Another superb and unforgettable documentary, this one about actor-director Sarah Polley’s journey through her own family’s past: her parents’ marriage, her relationship with her siblings and the lies she grew up believing. Using narration from her father, Michael, and archival footage of her late mother, Diane, Polley constructs a playful yet meditative film about personal history – how we preserve it, how we share it and how we manipulate it – and the illusions created through filmmaking and storytelling.
9. “Gravity” – It remains to be seen if “Gravity” still holds up on your living room TV screen, but there’s no denying that it sets a new precedent for cinematic immersion. In all its IMAX 3-D glory, it isn’t so much a film as it is an experience: When Sandra Bullock goes tumbling through the void of space, we go right along with her. The special effects here are amazing, but director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) creates a sense of weightlessness using just his camera, and that’s a remarkable achievement.
10. “All Is Lost” – Much like “Gravity,” writer-director J.C. Chandor’s second feature is a bare-bones survival story, but it might be more audacious in its starkness. It’s very simple: A man is stranded at sea in a sailboat that’s slowly sinking. We don’t know his name, who he is or why he’s on the ocean in the first place, and he hardly ever speaks. But the movie is enthralling in its dramatic simplicity, and Redford commands the screen at every moment. It’s a risky film, from its setup to its enigmatic ending, but it pays off beautifully.
And here are 10 more also-rans: “American Hustle,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Captain Phillips,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Nebraska,” “Short Term 12,” “The Spectacular Now,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The World’s End.”