Before anybody asks, yes, I saw “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Those films, along with the other 193 new movies I was able to check out over the last year, made for a busy and very interesting time at the theater. From the 1960s folk music scene in Lower Manhattan to an unusual romance between a lonely man and his computer (a new way to consider cybersex, perhaps?), here’s a look at my 10 best films (and a few honorable mentions) of 2013:
Minimal in its delivery but brimming with heart and bittersweet moments, director Alexander Payne’s film about a father and son’s road trip to claim a bogus million-dollar sweepstakes prize makes for a tender dynamic between well-written characters pulled straight out of the American Midwest.
9. Fruitvale Station
A stunning and sympathetically rich film that paints a compelling picture of a 22-year-old man who loses his life in 2009 after being shot by a public transportation officer. First-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler has created a three-dimensional character in Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) that is both flawed and easily relatable.
As Saudi Arabia’s first-ever submission for Academy Awards consideration (and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa Al Mansour), this groundbreaking film takes an insightful look into the country’s societal ideologies through the eyes of a little girl trying to raise enough money to buy a bicycle. There’s a sense of hope that resonates with a character as confident as Wadjda that can’t be ignored.
7. Captain Phillips
Director Paul Greengrass keeps the blood boiling at high levels in this true story of a merchant mariner who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in April 2009. With Greengrass at the helm and two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks on board steering the ship, it’s the year’s most well-crafted dramatic thriller on both a technical and emotional level.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
If 1960s-era folk music isn’t playing in your iPod right now, leave it to filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen to make you fall in love with the genre in an instant. Set in 1961 Greenwich Village, everything comes together beautifully in this plotless dark comedy by way of its expressive soundtrack and a noteworthy lead performance by Oscar Isaac.
5. Frances Ha
A carefree character piece by filmmaker Noah Baumbach, actress Greta Gerwig drives the comedy into a place where very clever and high-spirited dialogue prevails. In an industry that has forgotten how to write full-fledged female characters, Baumbach’s B&W film might be an easy target for hipster detractors, but Gerwig is the type of actress who can charm the skinny jeans off anyone with her adorable smile and talent.
Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, this British drama about a woman searching for her son who was taken away from her when she was a teenager takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false sentiment. Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench is miraculous, giving the title character extraordinary depth and resonance.
3. 12 Years a Slave
From its significant subject matter to Steve McQueen’s fine direction to a script that pits man’s brutal nature against the persevering human spirit, this harrowing drama set in the Antebellum South has all the elements for a Best Picture win at the Oscars this year. Capturing the harsh realities of the era, the film is extremely powerful and should be considered essential viewing for everyone.
Coming from the exceptional mind of writer-director Spike Jonze, this touching romantic dramedy set in the near future about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his technologically advanced operating system (think Siri with a conscience) is the most unique script produced in the last five years. Remember it next time you choose a screen (computer, TV or otherwise) over real human interaction.
1. Short Term 12
If all films were as affecting and authentic as this indie masterpiece by director/writer Destin Cretton about a group of teens and caretakers at a short-term group home, the moviemaking industry would be a better place. Deeply moving and featuring extraordinary performances by both first-time and established actors, this feel-everything drama is one of those honest and intimate scripts that come out of nowhere to say something incredibly meaningful and memorable.
Honorable Mention: “The Act of Killing,” “After Tiller,” “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Enough Said,” “God Loves Uganda,” “The Hunt,” “Mud,” “Narco Cultura,” “The Past,” “Prisoners,” “Upstream Color”