A tale starkly illustrating the cruelty of slavery, an almost-documentary about a very personal family story, a drama of an astronaut lost in space, a Shakespeare-penned romp, a father-son road trip … these were some of my favorite movie experiences this year. And none of them were the slightest bit like any of the others, which is why ranking them seems absurd to me.
It’s customary for reviewers to make a year-end 10-best list; I always call it a 10-favorites list. Here are my favorite movies of 2013, in alphabetical (and numerical) order. Your list will of course be different, but I hope you saw 10 films that you enjoyed as much as I did these.
12 Years a Slave. Yes, it was brutal, and it needed to be. Beautifully acted by an all-star cast, Steve McQueen’s historical drama became an instant classic. I’m not sure I want to watch it again, but I don’t think I need to — it’s unforgettable.
56 Up. How lucky we are that Michael Apted, 49 years ago, helped out on a British TV program about a group of 7-year-olds — and that, since then, he’s checked in on them every seven years, creating a series of unique, moving portraits of real lives lived. It’s no less than the greatest documentary project of our time.
Before Midnight. This one won’t leave my head, months after I saw it. After three movies, the bumpy romance between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine feels utterly real — and the long, unbroken hotel room argument in this film’s final third feels like it’s been building for years; it’s mesmerizing in its emotional honesty.
Enough Said. I’ve been moaning for years that nobody’s making smart, funny romantic comedies — and then Nicole Holofcener turns up with this charmer, featuring the year’s most unlikely yet irresistible couple: the brilliant Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep, Seinfeld), showing us that she owns movies, too, and James Gandolfini, in one of his final roles, note-perfect as a slightly shlubby romantic hero.
Gravity. Saw it once (on a very big screen). Didn’t breathe. Saw it again (on an almost-as-big screen). Still didn’t breathe. Alfonso Cuaron’s soulful space odyssey is both a thrill ride and a work of art — and a triumph for Sandra Bullock, whose gentle voice guided us through and brought us home.
Her. A wistful tale of love and technology, Spike Jonze’s unexpected romance has a few things to tell us about both. Good thing Joaquin Phoenix didn’t quit acting after all; he’ll break your heart here, with Scarlett Johansson’s voice to put it back together. (Scheduled to open Jan. 10 in Northeast Ohio.)
Much Ado About Nothing. It takes moxie to follow up a movie like The Avengers with a tiny black-and-white Shakespeare comedy filmed in your own house — but Joss Whedon has that, and then some. The year’s most delicious party, and a glorious reminder of how Shakespeare speaks the language of the heart better than anyone.
Nebraska. Any other filmmaker would have made this movie sweeter. That Alexander Payne (working with Bob Nelson’s fine screenplay) didn’t do so — and that the film moves us all the more — is what makes Nebraska, and Bruce Dern’s performance, so mesmerizing. A father-son movie for the ages.
Philomena. Dame Judi Dench, now in her late 70s, may never again get a role this layered. Watch what she does with this character, an elderly Irishwoman searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption half a century ago — she lets Philomena’s strength of character sneak up on us. A miraculous performance, in a film masterfully paced by Stephen Frears.
Stories We Tell. Actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley set out to investigate a family saga about her mother, who died long ago. Along the way, she made a remarkable almost-documentary about loss, love and memory — and how those affect the stories we tell.
Ten more great movies that might have made my first list, on a different day or mood: 20 Feet From Stardom, American Hustle, At Berkeley, Behind the Candelabra, Broken Circle Breakdown, Fruitvale Station, The Great Gatsby, The Hunt, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, The Spectacular Now, What Maisie Knew. Oh wait, that’s 12. So be it.
Ten worst movies … wait, let’s not go there (because I suspect I managed to miss a lot of 2013’s true dreck). Instead, here are 10 movies that greatly disappointed me this year because they had the potential to be so much better: About Time, Austenland, The Book Thief, The Counselor, Diana, Man of Steel, Now You See Me, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, To the Wonder and The World’s End.
As always, I’ll close with a sincere wish for laughter, wisdom and peace in 2014 — at the movies, and elsewhere.