By Caryn James | James on Screens December 20, 2013 at 12:35AM
I am absolutely certain about the top three films on this list. But the further down we go, the more absurd it seems to rank films as different as the Coen Brothers' wonderfully layered look at a struggling folk singer in the 60's and Martin Scorsese's bacchanalia of 80's excess. So feel free to juggle the numbers in your own mind. What I know is that all these films share ambition and artistry, and are among the year's best.
By far the year's most audacious and truthful film, and also its most romanctic. Spike Jonze uses the affair between a lonely guy (the incredibely touching Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer's operating system (Scarlett Johansson's voice) to reveal the sometimes uneasy truth about love and romance in the age of the internet. (You can find my longer take on "Her and Seduction" at The Daily Beast.)
2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
The fact-based story of a free man trapped into slavery is the year's most powerful film, held together by director Steve McQueen's unblinking rigor and grace, and especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor, giving the year's single best performance. His portrayal of Solomon Northrup is so painfully sympathetic you can't look away, even when the film is at its most wrenching.
Alexander Payne's droll, affecting story of an old man and the son who takes him on a hopeless quest to pick up his sweepstakes winnings may be the year's most perfectly-wrought film. From its flawless performance by Bruce Dern to its counterintuitive use of cinemascope black-and-white, there is not a misstep.
4. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Joel and Ethan Coen's comic drama about a struggling folk singer in the Greenwich Village of the 60's is totally charming, with a dark underside that never gets in the way of its hilariously observed scenes and perfect lines. John Goodman saying you commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, not the George Washington ( "Who does that?") is classic Coen brothers.
5. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Simply amazing. Martin Scorsese's relentlessly energetic film about a corrupt, drug-fueled Wall Street millionare (Leonardo DiCaprio) grips you for three hours without ever offering a likable major character. It's like being in the vortex of an alien world of drugs and money.
6. AMERICAN HUSTLE
David O. Russell's comic romp about a 70's FBI scam is shaped by joyfully outsize performances from Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
7. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Ralph Fiennes is dynamic as director and star in this emotionally penetrating film about Charles' Dickens' tortured love affair with a young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). I hope this delicately beautiful yet deeply moving film doesn't get swamped by the Christmas competition.
8. THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN
Bluegrass from Belgium, as director Felix Van Groeningen uses music and a fractured chronology to tell the story of romance, marriage and grief. One of those captivating little films that is achingly better than its bare-bones plot.
9. TOP OF THE LAKE
If I hear one more argument about film vs. television I will scream. The lines have blurred; they're both good. Jane Campion's sharply observed characters have room to breathe in this smart, engrossing Sundance Channel miniseries about a detective (Elisabeth Moss) obsessed with finding a missing girl. .
10. THE SELFISH GIANT
Honestly, a few films could also have taken this last slot (Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines) but Clio Barnard is one of today's most audacious filmmakers. She brings visual poetry to a gritty world, in the story of the friendship between two working-class British boys who gather scrap metal for money.
also seemed to be more smart, accomplished, small-scale indies than ever this
year, films that didn't make the Top Ten but deserve wider audiences and a long
afterlife. Don't miss Scott McGehee and
David Siegel's update of Henry James' What
Maisie Knew, with Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as bad parents in contemporary
New York; Destin Cretton's Short Term 12, with its perfectly balance performance by Brie
Larson as a youth counselor with her own problems; and Todd Berger's ultra-dark black comedy about a dirty
bomb in the neighborhood, It's a Disaster.