Friday, December 20, 2013

The best movies of 2013 (that I saw, anyhow)

Movie critics often lament in December how few memorable films came out over the previous 12 months. I’ve done that from time to time, but not this year: 2013 had plenty of highlights. You’ll have to take my word on some of these, as three films in my top 10 won’t get here until Jan. 10, and another two never opened locally at all (as far as I know). That’s why we have DVD players – and patience.

Here’s the roster, with honorable mentions at the bottom that were just as good as most of the entries in the first 10.

1) “Gravity” – Technically jaw-dropping, deeply moving, compelling acted, gorgeously shot, not a moment too long or too short. An astronaut marooned in space tries to get home, with Sandra Bullock delivering the performance of her career and director Alfonso Cuaron taking our eyes places they’ve never been (and in 3-D).

2) “12 Years a Slave” – Impossible to watch twice, essential to watch once. British director Steve McQueen has made the best film ever about American slavery, as a free man in New York state (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets kidnapped by slavers and tries to regain his freedom without losing his dignity, physical well-being or sanity.

3) “Her” – Writer-director Spike Jonze makes a tender drama about a shy, lonely man (the terrific Joaquin Phoenix) who finally develops a satisfying relationship. Unfortunately, it’s with the disembodied voice of a personal operating system in his computer (Scarlett Johansson), and “she” understands him like no one else.

4) “Captain Phillips” – Director Paul Greengrass maintains the “you are there” tension in this story of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Tom Hanks and talented newcomer Barkhad Abdi play a cat-and-mouse game as the ship’s shrewd captain and the ragged pirate on whom the Somalis rely.

5) “Inside Llewyn Davis” – The Coen brothers deliver their first unexaggerated portrait of a protagonist. He’s a folk singer in the early 1960s (well played and sung by Oscar Isaac) who clings stubbornly to his would-be career, despite everyone else’s insistence that he’ll never succeed. Touchingly down-to-earth.

6) “A Hijacking” – Another story about a ship taken over by Somali pirates, but the focus in this Danish drama is on the cook chosen to communicate with the home office and the company president who hires a professional negotiator to advise him. As weeks drag on without resolution, a different kind of tension begins to grip us.

7) “The Spectacular Now” – One of the most honest movies I’ve ever seen about high school students. Miles Teller plays a smart, self-assured senior looking for a reason to care about anything; Shailene Woodley is the smarter, quiet girl who may give it to him, if she believes he can stop drinking and grow up.

8) “The Great Gatsby” – One of the greatest American novels finally gets a worthy screen adaptation in Baz Luhrmann’s re-imagining, modern rap soundtrack and all. Leonardo DiCaprio surpasses himself as the rich, reckless, tragically fated investor who realizes too late that he’s empty at his emotional, spiritual core.

9) “Room 237” – This fascinating documentary takes its name from the place in “The Shining” where terrible things occur. It consists of fantastical fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s film that occasionally illuminate it (perhaps) but mostly show the deranged lengths to which Americans go to support crazy notions.

10) “August: Osage County” – The most dysfunctional family since Oedipus’ clan reunites when the father goes missing. Tracy Letts’ stage version had more bite than this adaptation, but the acting ensemble – including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch – may be the year’s best.

Honorable mention in alphabetical order: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Enough Said,” “Frozen,” “The Hunt,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”