The big studios and name-brand actors offered some of the biggest triumphs of 2013. This wasn’t a year for breakout indie movies, although a couple of those made my list of the best of 2013. While I wasn’t impressed by many of the children’s movies or comedies I reviewed, the movies at the top of my list are ones I’ll be thinking about and viewing again and again in the years to come.
1. “12 Years a Slave” This brilliant, haunting look at American slavery from director Steve McQueen can be hard to take because of the injustice and sadistic violence. But “12 Years a Slave” isn’t a screed inveighing against a dead institution. The artfulness of the film makes it vivid and enduring, not the toll it exacts from the viewer. Though watching “12 Years a Slave” can be an ordeal, it’s worth a second or third look to see the care Mr. McQueen takes in his imagery, matching the visual language of the film to the emotions and traumas endured by the characters.
2. “Inside Llewyn Davis” “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t likely to be one of the Coen Brothers’ more popular films. It lacks the brazen stoner appeal of “The Big Lebowski” or the narrative drive of “No Country For Old Men,” or the metafictional treats of some of their genre films, which are as much about other movies as about the stories contained therein. But “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the story of an ambitious folk singer enduring the torments of a very personal hell, is probably the duo’s most fully realized cinematic achievement to date.
3. “Nebraska” What begins as an attempt of a son to reconnect with his aloof, alcoholic father on an ill-fated road trip, turns into a historical odyssey, taking one Midwestern clan back to its roots in the tiny town of Hawthorne, Neb., where old hurts and obligations are unearthed and rivalries rekindled. Director Alexander Payne is at the very top of his game in this bleakly gorgeous dark comedy, filmed in luminous black-and-white.
4. “American Hustle” This compulsively watchable disco-era period piece is one of the great con game movies of all time, and the most exuberantly fun movie of 2013. The movie is based on the investigations behind the Abscam political scandal, but there’s no need to do any homework before watching “American Hustle.” The movie is unapologetically in love with itself — and with good reason. A joy from start to finish.
5. “Short Term 12” Destin Cretton’s searing yet matter-of-fact look at life inside a home for juvenile offenders burrows into the consciousness slowly, by degrees. The hand-held camera lends increased intimacy, and the dialogue at times seems almost improvised. But there’s nothing accidental about Brie Larson’s layered performance about a counselor who’s trying to keep her own life stitched together as she battles the limitations of the institution she serves and her own personal demons.
6. “Blue Jasmine” Woody Allen’s update on “A Streetcar Named Desire” isn’t just one of the director’s best films in recent years, it’s a joy to watch from start to finish. Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett, is exiled from her wealthy Manhattan life after her husband’s financial skullduggery comes to light. She tries to reinvent her self in San Francisco, with the help of her sister, but she’s too enveloped in her own delusional fog to connect with real-life people. Miss Blanchett gives what is certainly the best single acting performance ever in a Woody Allen film — reason enough to give it a second look.
7. “Side Effects” Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic swan song (or so he says) was one of the most criminally underrated movies of 2013. In a year of big special effects blockbusters like “Gravity” and intense star vehicles like “All Is Lost” and “Captain Phillips,” Mr. Soderbergh offered a quiet, understated genre thriller that plays like a contemporary update on Alfred Hitchcock. Jude Law stars as an ambitious psychiatrist whose career hits the skids when a patient played by Rooney Mara commits murder while under the influence of a controversial medication.
8. “Frances Ha” It may look like a long-form episode of “Girls” shot in black-and-white, but this bittersweet elegy to the diminishing promise of youth made for one of the most artful cinematic experiences of 2013. The naturalistic acting and deceptively easygoing script (from co-star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach) delivers a credible and compelling look into the life of an arty striver in contemporary New York.
9. “No” This film about the creation of an ad campaign to oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 election was shot on vintage U-matic video to seamlessly interweave the film with period footage. Solidly acted and darkly comic, this film imagines how the anti-Pinochet campaign took shape, as a coalition of fractious leftists and good government types coalesced behind a feel-good ad campaign that could have doubled as a soft-drink pitch. The vintage look and style gives this film about a reluctant political activist the feel of a lost artifact of its own time.
10. “The Heat” This girl-power cop buddy movie is one of the most raucous comedies in recent memory, and gives Melissa McCarthy a great vehicle to show off her gift for trash talking and physical performance. It’s not a movie of enduring cinematic value, but it’s certainly the best studio comedy of 2013 and one that I expect will develop something of a cult following in years to come for its absurdist send up of cop movie conventions.