- - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hollywood can still make truly great movies, but you wouldn’t know that for most of the year. Tinseltown increasingly packs its smartest, craftiest films into the final months and weeks of the release calendar in hopes of staying fresh in the minds of awards voters. That means that best-of-the-year lists tend to look more like best-of-December lists, or at least best of fall lists. Four of my 10 favorites were released in the last three weeks of the year, and only one came out before Sept. 1.

The release calendar much of the rest of the year seems to be devoted to giant-sized effects spectacles. I enjoyed several of these franchise-hopeful megamovies (“Man of Steel” and “Pacific Rim” were both standouts), but most were throwaways — amusing diversions at best (“Iron Man 3”), active irritants at worst (“Star Trek Into Darkness”).

Indeed, the emphasis on scale made me appreciate the year’s smaller, less ambitious thrillers and action films even more, not only because several of them were quite good, but because they offered a respite from the effects-drive excess that left me feeling cinematically clobbered throughout so much of the year. Many of the year’s best movies proved that smaller is better. If only Hollywood would go small more often, and earlier, too.

1. “Gravity” More than any other film this spectacle-stuffed year, “Gravity” offered a reminder of why we leave the house and go to the movies: to see something we’ve never seen before, that we can’t see anywhere else. Alfonso Cuaron’s riveting, relentless story about survival in space weaves breathtaking zero-gravity sights with human-scale emotional resonance, and a sense of realism that few similarly effects-driven blockbusters even attempt to match. It’s a head-spinning, jaw-dropping cinematic marvel, with the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen.

2. “Her” Clever, sensitive, funny, this digital age love story, in which a lonely man falls for his intelligent mobile phone operating system, is both strange and genuinely affecting. It’s a perfect, and perfectly odd, romance for the iPhone era.

3. “American Hustle” A great movie about liars, lovers, and con artists, which in director David O. Russell’s vision are all the same thing. The movie boasts several of the year’s best performances, with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence all transforming well-written parts into brilliantly rendered characters.

4. “Inside Llewyn Davis” Probably the most gorgeous film of the year, this strange, soulful, oddball musical tracks its title character, an aspiring folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961. It’s moving and sad, but also sneakily tender — a movie about a lovable loser who really is a loser, and who somehow remains lovable anyway.

5. “Before Midnight” The likely capstone to an audacious big-screen experiment, “Midnight” completes a trio of films that started with 1995’s “Before Sunrise” about the same couple (played with marvelous candor by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) as they meet, find each other again, and grow together (and apart) over the years. The combination makes for one of the strongest portrayals of a lasting romantic relationship ever seen on screen.

6. “12 Years a Slave” This somber, harrowing movie about a captured black man forced into slavery can be hard to watch. But that’s as it should be. Steve McQueen’s patient, unblinking direction is masterful, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s achingly realized performance adds to the movie’s considerable moral power.

7. “Captain Phillips” The most honorable movie of the year, and also one of the most gripping: this tense tale of an ordinary man’s extraordinary bravery at sea offered more true heroism than all the year’s superhero films combined.

8. “The Wolf of Wall Street” With “Wolf,” director Martin Scorsese does for Wall Street tricksters what he did for mob murderers in “Goodfellas.” Like its financial world anti-heroes, it’s exuberant and wildly over-the-top — it dazzles viewers until it finally exhausts them.

9. “Riddick” This low-budget science fiction sequel was grungy, grimy, unapologetically violent, and also the best action film I saw in 2013. Yes, it lacked the destructive scope of prepackaged blockbusters like “Pacific Rim” and “Man of Steel,” but what it lacked in size it made up for in fighting spirit. Released in early September, this small but ferociously executed hard-R-rated shoot-‘em-up was the perfect palate cleanser after a summer of teen-friendly mega-spectacle.

10. “Prisoners” Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s American debut is a tough, gritty crime thriller that spends as much time exploring the feelings of its characters as the intricacies of its twisted plot.

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