My favorites of 2013, plus …

December 24, 2013

12 years

It’s the time of year when critics release their lists of the year’s best films.

It feels like a competitive sport – or a provocation, which all of these lists are, by nature. As in: “This is my list of the best films. If you don’t agree, you’re wrong.”

Or: “Look how contrary I can be, naming films no one has seen or liked as the best – because I’m so freakin’ smart and you’re not.”

Or – oh, hell, why bother?

This is my list of my favorite films of the year. I’m not going to rank them as being better or worse than each other or other films of the year. Perhaps there are better films that were released; I may even have seen them.

But this is the list of the movies I responded to in some strong way, films that stuck with me, films I would happily recommend to other people to see. They are in no particular order.

“12 Years A Slave”: Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a true story featured several of the year’s most searing performances, from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and several others. Steel yourself – it’s gripping but it’s tough to watch.

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“Fruitvale Station”: Almost a companion piece for McQueen’s film, this assured debut film by Ryan Coogler looked at race relations in modern America; unsurprisingly, even 150 years after the Civil War, they’re still ruled by fear and suspicion.

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“Nebraska”: Alexander Payne is one of my favorite filmmakers, someone who doesn’t work nearly often enough – but when he does, it’s not only worthwhile but often an engaging emotional experience that can make you laugh even as it chokes you up.

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“Inside Llewyn Davis”: The Coen brothers in smart, stylish form, looking at what life was like for a struggling folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village. It featured a star-making performance by Oscar Isaac and a wonderfully weird cameo by John Goodman.

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“American Hustle”: David O. Russell is obviously on a hot streak, having made “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and now this dazzlingly wild, emotional tale of con men in the 1970s. The most heartfelt swindlers you’ll see this year.

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“Blue Jasmine”: Woody Allen takes on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” giving Blanche the backstory of Ruth Madoff. In the process, he handed Cate Blanchett the best female role of the year – and found the humor and the tragedy in this story.

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“20 Feet from Stardom”/ “Muscle Shoals”: Two of my favorite documentaries of the year. Both films celebrated the magic of popular music – one focusing on the artistry of underappreciated backup singers, the other telling the story of a mystical force that turned an Alabama backwater into the most soulful destination for recording the music that defined an era.

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“Concussion”: When I saw this film at Sundance, I was blown away by the performances of Robin Weigert and Maggie Siff. It was like a lesbian version of “Belle du Jour,” smart, touching and funny.

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“Gravity”/ “All Is Lost”: Two of the year’s most harrowing films were tales of individuals facing impossible odds – a woman lost in orbit, a man lost at sea. They provided showcase opportunities for Sandra Bullock and Robert Redford, both of whom took their game to another level in bravura performances.

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“Stories We Tell” / “Philomena”: Sarah Polley’s nonfiction film (about her late mother and the secrets she kept) and Stephen Frears’ dramatization of a true story (about a woman searching for the child she gave up for adoption) both found humor but also earned their tears, telling tales of cover-ups that reveal much about the nature of motherly love and the parent-child bond.

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“Her”: Spike Jonze’s wonderfully bizarre tale of a man who falls in love with the voice of his computer’s operating system was less a comment on technology than on the difficulty of any kind of human connection in a world permanently set on fast forward.

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“Stoker”: Hardly anyone saw Chan-wook Park’s deliriously weird and unsettling American debut, but it offered intriguingly upsetting performances by Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode and some of the most amazing camera work of the year.

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“What Maisie Knew”: Adapted from a Henry James novel and set in contemporary times, this was a beautifully told story of divorce from the perspective of a young girl (the amazing Onata Aprile) who becomes the object of a parental power struggle.

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“Mud”/ “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”: A pair of Southern tales about men who love too much and with too little judgment. “Mud” was a gripping coming-of-age tale featuring strong performances from Matthew McConaughey and its young cast; “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” recalled films from the 1970s, with its spare, evocative story-telling.

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“In A World”/ “Don Jon”: Two eye-catching debuts by actors who wrote and directed (and starred in) their first features. “In a World” was Lake Bell’s wonderfully fizzy look at a voiceover artist with daddy issues; “Don Jon” offered Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Jersey Lothario who meets his match in Scarlett Johansson.

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“Enough Said”: Nicole Holofcener’s touching tale of middle-aged divorcees who connect offered Julia Louis-Dreyfuss her best movie role – and showed a side of the late James Gandolfini that we hadn’t seen before.

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“The Attack” / “Our Children”: A pair of foreign films – from Lebanon and France – looked at family dynamics under strained circumstances. In one, a Palestinian surgeon in Israel is shocked to discover his wife was the one who carried out a suicide bombing. In the other, a young man is startled to discover the depths of unhappiness that prompt his wife to carry out a horrific act.

Meanwhile, a couple of offerings as the year’s most overrated films:

“Frances Ha”: I’m a Noah Baumbach fan, but this collaboration with the distinctly overrated Greta Gerwig was flat and formless. The woman just isn’t much of an actress.

“The Great Beauty”: Director Paola Sorrentino’s 2.5-hour meditation on modern Rome was so frustratingly slow and plotless that I walked out after 90 minutes.

“The Grandmaster”: It will be a travesty if Wong Kar-wai’s arty, unexciting version of a martial-arts film gets an Oscar nomination, while Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is ignored.

And a couple of underrated films:

I was surprised that I enjoyed both “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine’s candy-colored bacchanal, and Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” Both films’ visual excesses captured the sense of a group of people struggling more and more to have less and less fun.

That’s the year. Make of it what you will.

Enjoy your holidays.

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