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.