The year of our Lord 2013 has proven to be a dynamite year for film. It featured, among other things, one of the most visually and technically ambitious films ever made (Gravity) and at least four performances that might be considered the Greatest of All Time, in various categories and to varying degrees. Given the scope and spectrum of moviemaking, an annual Top 10 list is necessarily subjective, but here are 10 that, regardless of your personal tastes, you won't want to miss.
1 | All is Lost
Transcendent stuff here at the hands of director J.C. Chandor, the film stars Robert Redford in a virtuosic solo performance as a lone mariner lost at sea. What begins as little more than a beautiful, silent episode of Man Vs. Wild evolves into a beautiful, silent episode of Man Vs. God. In its testament to the human spirit's resilience, it is to the ocean what Gravity is to outer space, only without the hokeyness of the script. Its framework is deeply contemplative and existential, and its final 15 minutes are so poignant, excruciating and visually perfect that you'll be moved to some visceral and/or emotional reaction — tears, sweat, prayer.
2 | 12 Years A Slave
A violent exploration of slavery and its physical and emotional savagery, this film is essential viewing for all adult Americans. It follows the abduction and enslavement of a free black man named Solomon Northrup, played masterfully by the quiet and doleful Chiwetel Ejiofor. He's shuffled among plantations, with owners of various tempers and proclivities, but suffers most under the barbaric Edwin Epps, portrayed by Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor, Fassbender and the newcomer Lupita N'yongo as a slave mistress named Patsy are virtual locks for Academy Award nominations. Here's plantation life — its politics, its horrors — in its awful nakedness. Director Steve McQueen has received acclaim for his art house projects but succeeds much more powerfully here where he combines his knack for perfect imagery with a great story.
3 | Her
One critic has opined that Spike Jonze's films change the way we look at the world, and in Her, that's 100- percent true. It's about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who begins a romantic relationship with his computer's operating system — voiced by Scarlett Johannsen, in what is improbably the finest performance of her career — then falls in love with her and has to figure out what exactly that means. In some respects, the film is a glimpse into the sorts of personal calculations we all may be making in 15 or 20 years, when technology has advanced even further. The film's subtle representation of a slightly altered near future — the pants, the video games, the tech — resonates well, as does the big-ticket emotions and dread that loneliness and love and computers engender in many of us. This is an utterly convincing representation of love and loss in the modern age. It's a straight-up gorgeous love story.
4 | Fruitvale Station
Michael B. Jordan gives a gripping, heartbreaking performance in this true story about a young man trying to get his life together on New Year's Eve 2009, before a fatal shooting at the Bay Area Rapid Transit stop that gave the film its name. It's a simple film, elevated to Top-5 status on this list for social relevance — it hit theaters soon after the George Zimmerman trial — its breakout performance and its fully realized though flashless rendering of Oakland and its citizens through the course of a single day. This is director Ryan Coogler's debut feature film. He will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
5 | The Spectacular Now
Director James Ponsoldt — for whom I have deeper affection now that he's attached to an upcoming David Foster Wallace project — tells a story of young love in this film written by the sensitive souls behind 500 Days of Summer. The movie's two young stars, Miles Teller and Shailyne Woodley, are electric in their scenes together. Give them the Nobel Prize for chemistry, am I right? It's a coming-of-age story about a hard-partying high schooler who changes his approach when he meets Aimee, a "nice girl." It touches on familiar, sort of YA-ish subjects — alcoholism, fatherhood, privilege, peer pressure, sex, etc. — but it is wholly original and hugely affecting. This movie has one hell of a heart.
6 | Gravity
Alfonso Cuaron's heart-pounding galactic opus achieves Top-10 status on the strengths of its technical wizardry alone. This film in 3D is a marvel — outer space and its infinite vastness as it's never been captured before. It serves as a much more compelling direction for 3D than, you know, Wolverine. To boot, Sandra Bullock knocks it out the park as Dr. Ryan Stone, the gutsy heroine trying to survive after a storm of hurtling shrapnel compromises her mission's NASA shuttle... and for whom things get worse. Ultimately, Gravity is hamstrung by lines like "Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris," plus human interactions and bizarre monologues that feel banal and totally cliché. Cuaron should be awarded for tackling a story perfectly suited for the big screen in 2013. He is a master editor and technician. He is not, excuse me, a writer.
7 | American Hustle
If you star in a film directed by David O. Russell, you're all but guaranteed an Academy Award. That should be Russell's tagline. Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence already snagged hardware for their turns in Russell films in 2011 and 2012, and they return here alongside Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper, all of whom glitter predictably in this '70s-era heist film with Oscar aspirations. Moviegoers will love the disco-era fun and the script's restless energy; but though the surface is decadent, the payoff leaves a tad to be desired. Easily one of the year's Top 10, but lacks the full emotional battery of Russell's fantastic 2012 effort Silver Linings Playbook.
8 | Blackfish
This documentary — the only doc on our top 10 list — is a captivating tour of operations at Sea World and its horrifying treatment of Orca whales. Using an attack on a trainer in 2010 as a launch point, the doc crew reveals how and why killer whales are incited to violence and the misconceptions about the breed at large. Tillikum, the massive Orca at the film's center, is as compelling a star as Maximus in Gladiator. Other than tapping into our deep emotional connection to animals, the film is anchored by two prominent elements that make all documentaries so vital to cinema — haunting never-before-seen footage and powerful interviews with sources intimate with the subject on both sides of the issue.
9 | Enough Said
There's nothing quite like a good rom-com, well acted and uniquely told. Nicole Holofcener, who's directed episodes of Sex and the City and Parks and Recreation, wrote and directed this smart, observant romantic comedy about two middle-aged divorcees bumbling through second romances and finding common ground. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini (in the penultimate performance before his death), and they're both, by turns, tender and hilarious. Their chemistry is natural and their conflicts grounded — it's refreshing to see people on screen acknowledge their smaller deficiencies and act their age. A wonderful supporting performance from Catherine Keener and a witty, patient script vaulted this one to Top-10 honors.
10 | Rush
Ron Howard's '70s-era Formula-1 racing biopic is one of his greatest directorial achievements to date. He leverages the pre-programmed drama of both history and sports and coaxes spirited lead performances out of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as rival drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The international grand prixes are rendered in bold colors and sounds in sequences that, regardless of our familiarity with auto racing, feel new and unexplored. Rush edged out a few others vying for the No. 10 spot, mostly for Bruhl's handiwork as the meticulous Lauda, but unmemorable supporting performances and occasional faltering storytelling methods keep this one well out of the Top 5.