Sorry. 2013 was too great a movie year – the best, by far, in a decade or more. So I’m not even going to try to keep my year-end list to that hallowed number – 10 – that has been sanctified by critics in their year-end lists since, no doubt, Byzantine Rome.
If I kept it to 10, I’d probably have to leave Gilles Bourdos’ wonderful “Renoir” and Ryan Coogler’s “The Fruitvale Station” out and I don’t want to do that. They’re too good and too attached to positive memory cells in my over-movied brain.
And even there, in what is a Top 13 for 2013, I’ve had to leave out two huge candidates for inclusion in a year-end Best List, one for unavoidable personal reasons and one for thoroughly unfortunate corporate ones: 1) Spike Jonze’s upcoming “Her,” which I was thrilled, finally, to get a screening of only to be prohibited, at the last minute, from going by a very transient respiratory setback and 2) Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which Paramount refused steadfastly to screen in Buffalo.
This, then, could easily have been a Top 15, under other circumstances. That’s absolutely how terrific movies were in 2013. I’ll stand pat, though, with these 13, listed in alphabetical order, with their directors.
“All Is Lost” J.C. Chandor
The year’s primal American movie – a harrowing and magnificent near-wordless story of one man, a lone sailor in the Indian Ocean, versus a hostile universe in the form of an angry, storm-tossed sea. The performance by 77-year-old Robert Redford is the performance of his, and most ordinary actors’ life.
“American Hustle” David O. Russell
A sophisticated, brilliantly written takedown of the ‘70’s Abscam sting in which the movie’s good guy is a corrupt but idealistic Camden, N.J., mayor and the ultimate sleazeball in the whole sleazefest, is the careerist FBI investigator who wouldn’t know a genuine idealistic motive from a bite on the butt. And what performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
“Before Midnight” Richard Linklater
The newest, and most impressive, entry in a series about a loving couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who simply can’t stop being fascinating and immensely articulate on camera.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” Abdellatif Keciche
Steven Spielberg’s jury at the Cannes Film Festival went out of its way to give awards to the director and stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydous for making the film possible. The famous/infamous ultra-graphic “lesbian sex movie” is also one of the most moving stories about young love and sexual awakening that you’re ever likely to see.
“Blue Jasmine” Woody Allen
Another senior citizen of American film at the top of his game. It became Woody Allen’s best of his latter-day career by marrying the Bernie Madoff story with “Streetcar Named Desire.” Cate Blanchett’s performance in the lead is the finest performance in any Woody Allen film and the finest by anyone in this magnificent movie year. If anyone else wins the Best Actress Oscar, Grand Theft Hollywood has been committed and they ought to arrest the entire Motion Picture Academy.
“Captain Phillips” Paul Greengrass
Reality made a major comeback in 2013 movies. This high-seas piracy tale was incredibly suspenseful despite the fact that we all saw the outcome on front pages and the evening news. Neither prepared us for the coda by actor Tom Hanks giving us, at the end, a traumatized wordlessness we’d never seen on screen before. Now we know what happens after dramatic stories end.
“The Fruitvale Station” Ryan Coogler
More from the real world. In the year of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman fiasco, here was a lacerating fictionalization of a real event that could help explain how such injustice happens.
“Gravity” Alfonso Cuaron
The first half hour of this movie took us somewhere we’d never been before in a movie theater – unmoored outer space recorded with so much devastating visual realism that you could feel it in your stomach. After such cinematic majestry, Sandra Bullock’s return to earth was the triumph we yearned for and needed.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” The Coen Brothers
(Scheduled to open here Jan. 10.) In their middle ages, the Coen Brothers are unabashedly letting their humanity out to play. Now we know: in their superiority to almost everything, one thing they seem to exempt from it all is the idealism of young Greenwich Village folkies in the early ’60’s. A great lead performance by Oscar Isaac that has been terribly undersung this far. And an even greater cameo by that consummate cameo-maker, John Goodman.
“The Butler” Lee Daniels
Forest Whitaker in the freely fictionalized story of a very real White House butler over many presidential administrations. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife. Our era’s black film establishment in the most convincing fictional film yet made about the conflicts inside the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s.
“Renoir” Gilles Bourdos
A truly great film about an artist, his process and his family on almost the same level as Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” and Peter Watkins’ “Edvard Munch.”
“Stories We Tell” Sarah Polley
One of the most creative and unsual autobiographical documentaries ever made and one of the most haunting films of a movie year full of them. For years, we only knew Polley as an actress. She’s one of our great living filmmakers.
“12 Years a Slave” Steve McQueen
It’s no one’s idea of a movie that’s easy to watch. But no film of 2013 was more necessary, considering how fatuously satisfied film history has been to let the racism of Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and Selznick/Mitchell/Fleming/Cukor’s “Gone With the Wind” stand for purely cinematic reasons.