Top 10: The Year of Survival and Reinvention
3. "Inside Llewyn Davis"
4. "12 Years a Slave"
5. "The Wolf of Wall Street"
6. "American Hustle"
8. "All Is Lost"
9. "Dallas Buyers Club"
Honorable mentions: "Saving Mr. Banks," "Captain Phillips," "Philomena," "Prisoners," "Before Midnight"
For me, 2013 was the year of the double feature. With the exception of Steve McQueen's historical drama -- as clear a first choice as any I've encountered in my years of making these lists -- the movies that struck me most forcefully did so in tandem. The four pairs and one trio that follow "12 Years a Slave," whether obvious or idiosyncratic, reveal the diverse aesthetic gambits by which filmmakers tested the documentary form, interpreted the high seas adventure, constructed complex stories as striking miniatures, portrayed the romance of youth or the middle-aged romance. It was these unexpected conversations that defined the films I loved, no matter the order.
1. "12 Years a Slave"
In a somber graveside rendition of "Roll, Jordan, Roll" as in a torture of unbearable brutality, "12 Years a Slave" distilled the omnipresent violence of the Old South's "peculiar institution" and the innumerable avenues by which the enslaved survived, or failed to survive, our history's most indelible scar. Those who consider the film "pornographic," or prettified, seem to have forgotten the complexities of the past. Enduring bondage meant resisting an overseer's play for power and finding the beauty in paper dolls, keeping faith in the next life and sometimes trying, by suicide or escape, to enter it. McQueen, aided by his outstanding cast, bore fuller witness than any director before him to a world that resists understanding. In the process he created not only the best film of the year, but also the finest film ever made about American slavery.
"Visitors" and "Stories We Tell"
Godfrey Reggio's immersive sensory experience, 70-odd frames of faces, bayous, and an abandoned amusement park set to Philip Glass' excellent score, rejects narrative entirely. Sarah Polley's investigation of a family mystery takes narrative (how we construct it, deploy it, change it, secret it away) as its explicit subject. Yet both films force us to reconsider the centrality of the ineffable, and at times the fictive, in the documentary's power -- to respond as profoundly to the artful hand that shapes nonfiction as to the form's tacit promise of "truth."
"Captain Phillips" and "All Is Lost"
One plunges us into a cacophony of directives, negotiations, pleas, and cries; the other, nearly wordless, is a diving bell submerged in nature's fury. Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" and J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" share little but the mercilessness of the ocean -- stretching as far as the eye can see, and beyond what the mind can conceive -- and a hard-won understanding of what it means to be, in the figurative sense, at sea. Indeed, on the strength of brilliant performances by aging lions Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, both films plumb the depths of fear and despair that accompany their protagonists' courage: heroism in its most rough-edged, moving, and indelibly human form.
"Laurence Anyways" and "Frances Ha"
"Laurence Anyways" screened at Cannes in 2012 before securing a U.S. theatrical release this summer, so its inclusion here may be cheating. But I couldn't omit Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's exuberant romantic epic, exploring the vagaries of love, sex, and identity as Fred (Suzanne Clement) and Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) work through the challenges of their unconventional relationship. Much like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's warm, disarming "Frances Ha," about the joys and disappointments of a twenty-something dancer in present-day New York, Dolan's film fashions a remarkably precise portrait of the world it inhabits -- French Canada in the 1990s -- but never loses its empathic grip on adulthood's lingering growing pains, no matter the time and place.
"Before Midnight" and "Enough Said"
If "Laurence Anyways" and "Frances Ha" suggest the hurdles we face in making a life, "Before Midnight" and "Enough Said" feature the troublesome work of living with the lives we've made. In "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy complete their superb relationship trilogy by mapping the limits of attraction; Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said," starring James Gandolfini (alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in his last and most adroit film performance, examines the anxiety of discovering attraction once more. Both chatter through decades of baggage -- former marriages and forgotten moments, annoying habits and bad faith -- to emerge, in their ambivalent conclusions, as fine-grained depictions of people-in-progress, learning to be unfinished together.
"Street of Dreams," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Aningaaq"
Is Vine a cinema of attractions? Is YouTube a modern-day nickelodeon? Where do GIFs, auteurist advertisements, interactive music videos, and the ancillary materials of a major studio release fit in this puzzle we call "the movies"? I chose Martin Scorsese's dreamy, black-and-white Dolce & Gabbana spot, Interlude's multi-channel interpretation of Bob Dylan, and Jonas Cuaron's "Gravity" sidelight as representatives of where cinema seems to be going -- or returning -- as we encounter new frontiers of the digital age. The short has been around as long as pictures have been moving, but one would be forgiven for thinking the Internet has given the form greater visibility, and malleability, than it's enjoyed in decades. Here's to 2014: I can't wait to see what's next.
Next: John Anderson, Matt Mueller and Tom Brueggemann chime in.