2013 was an embarrassment of film riches, and the best movies of the year are all over the place in terms of budget, scope, genre and style. The Coen brothers delivered a typically bleak comedy infused with uplifting music in the outstanding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Blue is the Warmest Color” contrasted the electric rush of new love with its eventual demise, and the under-seen indie “Short Term 12” profiled the troubled youths who live and run a halfway house with surprising depth and maturity.
And those movies didn’t even make the Top 10. Here goes nothing:
10. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — David Lowery’s Sundance stunner starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a Texas married couple forced apart after a robbery gone bad, casts a unique spell for such a classic theme: the doomed love story. Lush cinematography and naturalistic acting make it linger well beyond its running time.
“Short Term 12”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Blue is the Warmest Color”
“The Place Beyond the Pines”
“Stories We Tell”
“Cutie and the Boxer”
“The Spectacular Now”
9. “Nebraska” — Will Forte is desperate to make a connection with his father, Bruce Dern, and new shades of their strained relationship are unexpectedly revealed in this black-and-white low-key road trip movie from director Alexander Payne. Filled with insight about incommunicative families and unexamined lives, “Nebraska” also has some of the most cathartic laughs of the year.
8. “American Hustle” — Leave it to David O. Russell to turn a real-life corruption scandal from the 1970s into a bizarre madcap farce and still manage to wring some pathos out of it. This sprawling, messy tale of deception hinges on the versatility of its actors (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence among them), with Amy Adams standing out as a woman willing to do anything to change her life.
7. “Spring Breakers” — It may have been sold as a fun party movie aimed at a teen audience, but Harmony Korine has darker intentions, satirizing the hollow aspirations of a culture raised on movies and video games. James Franco is frightening and hilarious as a white boy Florida rapper/drug kingpin, but the real star of the movie is the hallucinatory editing, which puts you inside the disturbing minds of its “protagonists.”
THE FIVE WORST
“Olympus Has Fallen”
“Man of Steel”
“August: Osage County”
“A Good Day to Die Hard”
6. “The Wolf of Wall Street” — Martin Scorsese doesn’t do straight-up comedy often, so it’s an extreme pleasure (emphasis on the “extreme”) to see his cinematic prowess unleashed on this insanely debauched tale of greed, excess, and denial. Leonardo DiCaprio is hilarious as the real-life stock trader who knowingly defrauded blue-collar investors, lived the high (emphasis on “high”) life, and embraced everything that is wrong with the American dream.
5. “Mud” — The best film of the year starring Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Nichols’ ensemble drama begins with the mystery of a boat found in a tree and a man named Mud who wants to live in it. It becomes a poignant meditation on unrequited love, viewed through the eyes of a boy (Tye Sheridan) who has yet to outgrow his idealism. A film made richer by its rural Mississippi River-based setting and lived-in supporting characters, “Mud” is destined to become a timeless American folk tale.
4. “12 Years A Slave” — Steve McQueen’s adaptation of an 1841 memoir from Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, gets its power not just from the horror of its subject matter and its director’s avoidance of easy sentimentality, but from the complicated moral questions that cloud up a survivor’s mentality. Led by a fearless Chiwetel Ejiofor, the cast is uniformly excellent and the filmmaking is confident and focused.
3. “Her” — Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in a tale that’s set in the near future, but feels like the first classic romantic comedy of the new decade. Spike Jonze’s script and direction are assured, speaking volumes about the way technology has changed our lives and the unchanging desires of the human heart.
2. “The Act of Killing” — Jettisoning all the rules of standard documentary filmmaking, Joshua Oppenheimer’s study of a group of small-time Indonesian gangsters celebrated as heroes for committing genocide is truly one of a kind. Never before have the minds of cold-blooded killers been so vividly exposed as they are here, through grotesque Hollywood-style re-creations of their acts. “The Act of Killing” is an unforgettable experience.
1. “Gravity” — The deceptively simple and harrowing premise of a woman (Sandra Bullock) lost in space becomes a deeply emotional metaphor for the struggle to move beyond tragedy in this action-filled drama from Alfonso Cuarón. Filled with bravura cinematic technique, this immersive journey is a triumph on every artistic and technical level — the rare movie that stimulates the senses with rollercoaster thrills and engages the soul with its touching depiction of human courage.
— Eric is a longtime Lawrence.com/Journal-World entertainment writer. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Scene-Stealers and on-air film critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, vice president of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. On the air-guitar circuit, he goes by the name Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11.