The movie year 2013 was a tale of two seasons. Summer was so disappointing numerous people began ringing the death knell for the American movie industry. Steven Spielberg warned Hollywood was heading for “an implosion,” and he seemed right, given the alarming number of blockbuster flops and generally awful major studio product.
However, the final months of 2013 have been nothing short of amazing, thanks to the strongest slate of independent, documentary and foreign films in any year I can remember.
Below is my list of the year’s best films. For me, there is a clear No. 1, followed by five films of equally high quality, then more than two dozen films that at least deserve mention.
This list is hardly a harbinger of the death of the movies. It signifies an industry in transition yet vibrant just the same.
1. “12 Years A Slave”
Masterfully directed and shot, perfectly acted and tells a vital story. A lot of great movies were released this year, but none more profound and timeless.
The only movie ever to use digital 3D artfully and in service of its story. Virtuoso filmmaking and acting elevate a simple survival story to an unforgettable experience.
Lonely writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Director Spike Jonze uses this not-as-far-fetched-as-it-sounds scenario to tell a heartbreaking love story and explore our increasingly complex relationships with technology.
4. “American Hustle”
Director David O. Russell’s paean for the 1970s is flawed but irresistible. A handful of great performances punctuate a long-con story loosely based on Abscam.
A son (Will Forte) and his demential father (Bruce Dern) embark on an absurdly conceived road trip that slowly exposes the wounded heart of their family. Director Alexander Payne perfectly balances dry wit and subtle sentiment.
6. “The Act of Killing”
The most inventive and disturbing documentary of the year. The filmmakers allow former Indonesian death squad leaders to re-enact their own mass killings, forcing them to confront the horrors they inflicted and giving us an unprededented look into the abyss.
7. “Upstream Color”
Writer/director/star Shane Carruth’s unique science-fiction drama is as emotional as it is intellectual and explores the nature of identity and love.
8. “Fruitvale Station”
Chronicles the final hours and killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old African-American man shot by police on New Year’s Eve in 2008. The film deserves praise on its own merits, but it’s uncannily relevant to the Trayvon Martin killing.
9. “The Wind Rises”
Hayao Miyazaki’s biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, possibly Miyazaki’s last film, is animated beautifully. The best animated film of 2013 and a worthy swan song for a brilliant animator.
Based on a true story, a downtrodden political journalist (Steve Coogan) leads a woman (Judi Dench) on a search for the son who was taken from her decades ago while she was living in a convent. A riveting mystery yarn that uncovers disturbing truths.
11. “The Hunt”
Director Thomas Vinterberg’s exploration of how a child’s fleeting accusation sparks a crucible for a small Danish town is frighteningly plausible.
12. “The Spectacular Now”
The first teen movie to matter in years displays impressive artistic growth for Georgian director James Ponsoldt.
13. “Short Term 12”
Another surprising indie, this film offers an honest and engaging look at the lives of the residents and caretakers at a short-term facility for troubled youths.
14. “The Grandmaster”
Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts biopic of Ip Man is short on story, but each of the fight scenes is a masterpiece on its own.
15. “Stories We Tell”
Sarah Polley mines her own parents’ pasts in a fascinating, daringly made look at one family’s secrets and lies.
A Disney musical worthy of its classics that offers unexpected twists, great songs and amazing performances.
17. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
The second entry in the franchise raises the stakes for Katniss and improves on the first film.
18. “Muscle Shoals”
This must-see documentary examines how tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama, became a recording mecca and features loads of wonderful music and interviews.
19. “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug”
It’s long and probably changes Tolkien’s novel too much, but it’s still the most entertaining blockbuster of the year.
20. “Frances Ha”
Noah Baumbach’s throwback to French New Wave filmmaking offers a great performance by Greta Gerwig and a unique take on coming of age and friendship.
Honorable mentions include: “Mud,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Prisoners,” “Europa Report,” “Captain Phillips,” “It’s A Disaster,” “Dirty Wars,” “Blue Jasmine” and “Blackfish.”