My 2013 list of films that were actually worth my time is much longer than any year’s in recent memory. The general consensus is that ’13 was an outstanding year in movies, to the degree that the Motion Picture Academy will have no trouble filling their expanded Best Picture category with ten worthy contestants.
Here’s my own personal honor roll of the best of the best:
- Inside Llewyn Davis: This astringent look at the New York City folk-music scene in 1961 is one of my favorite Coen Brothers films. Oscar Isaac’s title character is ill-mannered, condescending and abrasive, yet you still root for this talented but pig-headed musician to catch the break he deserves. The Coens’ filmmaking and evocation of the period are
immaculate, and they’ve surrounded Isaac with a lively supporting cast, especially dependable John Goodman as a hilariously confrontational junkie jazz musician.
- 12 Years a Slave: Steve McQueen’s devastating drama is something rare: an unflinching account of our nation’s horrible legacy of slavery as seen from the vantage point of the enslaved. The mesmerizing Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the Oscar for his highly empathetic portrayal of a free black man in 1840s New York who is drugged and sold into a degrading life of bondage. I can’t recall having a stronger emotional reaction to a film than I did at the story’s heart-shaking conclusion.
- Gravity: Especially as seen in IMAX 3D, Alfonso Cuarón’s groundbreaking sci-fi thriller is a truly immersive experience. Sandra Bullock’s performance as an astronaut struggling to survive after a catastrophic collision with space debris is a revelation. The viewer becomes one with her odyssey in this visual tour de force that really seems to have been shot “on location” in outer space.
- The Past: It’s a puzzlement that Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi’s new film isn’t one of the nine finalists for this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign-Language Film. Once again, he turns
the complex relationships of men and women into a many-layered drama that has the surprise and gripping tension of a taut thriller. Bérénice Bejo, so delightful in The Artist, is another revelation as the mercurial woman at the center of the story.
- Before Midnight: Like Michael Apted’s “Up” series, the every-nine-years collaboration of director Richard Linklater and actors/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy has evolved into a remarkable chronicle of how people evolve with the passage of time. This third in the series finds the onetime magically romantic pair settled into domestic life with twin daughters, their flirtatious conversations now transformed into something more weary and barbed. It climaxes with a searing hotel-room encounter that recalls the psychological savagery of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s a bold, brave turn for an ongoing story whose nonstop talk remains altogether compelling.
- Stories We Tell: Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who directed that marvelous Julie Christie drama Away from Her, looks inward for this formally innovative documentary about the mysteries within her own family. Polley’s mother was herself a vivacious actress who died when she was eleven; along with her desire to learn more about this special woman, the director also seeks to deny or confirm family scuttlebutt that her beloved dad Michael is not her biological father. Polley’s extremely personal film takes a number of surprising turns, abetted by her own audacious filmmaking sleight-of-hand.
- Short Term 12: Destin Daniel Cretton’s low-budget drama was the indie surprise of the year—a subtle and compelling look at life inside a group home for troubled teenagers, inspired by the director’s own experience working in such an institution. Rising young actress Brie Larson is terrific as a counselor with issues of her own, and the entire cast creates the impression that you’re watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, not a piece of fiction.
- 20 Feet from Stardom: For sheer delight, few 2013 films could beat this documentary about the “unsung” tribe of backup singers who bring so much of the magic to popular recordings. Morgan Neville’s film makes us think about the connections (or lack of same) between talent, luck, ambition and stardom, while providing a well-deserved showcase for gifted performers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer amidst a wealth of irresistible performance clips.
- American Hustle: David O. Russell’s follows his crowd-pleasing Silver Linings Playbook with this ambitious, high-energy, twisty tale of the con artists behind the Abscam corruption
sting of the late 1970s. With a kinetic style influenced by Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, this fast-paced wallow in polyester, perms and pulsating disco is buoyed by a quintet of diverting star performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and a scene-stealing Jennifer Lawrence.
- No: The political TV ad campaign that ousted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988 is the subject of this slyly satirical film from director Pablo Larraín. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the ad man who masterminds the “No” (anti-Pinochet) strategy which beats the odds by underplaying serious political content in favor of more traditional marketing tricks. The film was shot with antiquated cameras that make it nearly impossible to distinguish new footage from the riotous actual commercials of the period.
And, for the record, my runners-up in this very strong year include Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lone Survivor, In the House, Call Me Kuchu, Captain Phillips, Philomena, Rush, Fruitvale Station, Nebraska and Her.