Here’s where I write about how hard it is to draw up a 10-best list at the end of the year. Except it isn’t: I think of drawing up a list as an honor and a necessity, a way of putting 12 months of moviegoing into some sort of perspective — if not necessarily into any semblance of order — before moving on to the next. Beyond the first three or four titles, the order is mutable. How do you rank a comedy against a drama that moved you deeply, or a documentary that challenged or delighted you? It’s impossible, so I don’t sweat it. And this is, of course, a very personal and thus idiosyncratic list of 11 movies. The main thing is to take stock of the movies worth caring about, and 2013 brought plenty of choices. Here are the pictures I loved best:
Gravity — Alfonso Cuarón’s lyrical and terrifying 3D adventure was one of the big blockbusters of the year, but maybe now’s the time to take a few spacewalk steps away from it and consider how meditative it is. Some found Sandra Bullock’s not-so-interior monologues a bit taxing, but her performance connects with something beyond words. Gravity explores both wonder and the thing that makes wonder possible: despair. It’s harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less.
Blue Is the Warmest Color — The hot topic of conversation surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour drama about love, desire, and loss is the explicit nature of the sex scenes — plus, the reported after-the-fact squabbles between the director and his lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. But as beautifully carnal as those scenes are, it’s the movie’s tenderness that sticks with you. Falling in love is easy; it’s the end of love that tells you what you’re made of, and Blue‘s willingness to face that truth makes it devastating.
Inside Llewyn Davis — This is Joel and Ethan Coen’s warmest, most emotionally direct movie, and possibly their best. Oscar Isaac gives a sterling performance as a dislikable (if gifted) folk singer in 1961 New York. The music he plays is ostensibly all about connecting with humanity; he just can’t get the hang of it in real life. To borrow a line from an old, old song that also figured in a Coen brothers movie, he really is a man of constant sorrow.
Much Ado About Nothing — Joss Whedon got a bunch of his friends together and, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney–style, said, “Let’s put on a show!” The result is one of the most exuberant movies of the year, filmed in and around Whedon’s own house and featuring a marvelous cast of actors (particularly Amy Acker, a Beatrice who’s both flinty and a little loopy). Shakespeare in the park is great, but Shakespeare in the backyard is even better.
Frances Ha — Noah Baumbach and his star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, explore anxiety and joy in this story about an aimless late-twentysomething in New York. A movie for anyone who ever felt lost in the world, or even just below 14th Street.
The To Do List — The outlandishly talented Aubrey Plaza plays a sexually naïve young woman who gets ready for her first year of college by drawing up a list of blush-inducing goals for herself. The picture — directed by Maggie Carey of Upright Citizens Brigade — is raw, as you’d expect, and wickedly funny. For years now, women have been told we need to “take charge” of our sexuality. Well, sure — but The To Do List understands that it’s a job that really demands a wrangler.
Before Midnight — Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke made a painfully articulate movie about a couple, together for years and now raising kids, who hit a big bump in the road. These are characters many of us have loved since Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise. To see them so unhappy is excruciating; to see them pull through, as it appears they do, brings not just relief, but hope for the rest of us sorry souls.
Stories We Tell — The book world has gone memoir-crazy, an unfortunate development: It’s exhausting to be asked to care about so many not-that-interesting lives. But Sarah Polley’s movie-as-memoir is something else, a strange and wonderful little picture that considers the myriad ways in which a single family’s story can be told — only to conclude that there’s no such thing as one definitive story. This is a film unlike any other.
20 Feet from Stardom — Morgan Neville’s beautifully constructed documentary isn’t just a movie about backup singers, the unsung heroes of at least 1,001 records you love; it’s also a meditation on the joy and possible heartbreak of singing out for the love of it, rather than for the glory.
Despicable Me 2 — Some like their animation tasteful; others go for the id. Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud’s follow-up to 2010’s delightfully disreputable Despicable Me is the antidote for those who don’t worship at the feet of Miyazaki. This rambunctious exercise in ridiculosity features a terrific voice performance from Steve Carell, and a bonus: about 50 percent more Minions!
Dark Skies — In the 1990s, the era of The X-Files, we couldn’t get enough of alien-abduction stories. But almost nobody went to see Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies, a well-made, melancholy little picture that takes the measure of our current national anxiety just as Joseph Ruben’s dream-family nightmare The Stepfather took the Reagan era’s. Dark Skies didn’t screen for critics, an increasingly common practice that still leads people to assume a movie is “bad” — another kind of alien brain-hijacking, when you think about it. Lovers of the wonderful J.K. Simmons, in particular, should have a look: He plays an alien specialist and crazy cat-daddy, though, in the end, he’s not so crazy after all.
And don’t forget: David O. Russell’s American Hustle for its disco-ball dazzle, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for sheer braggadocio; Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas’s semi-autobiographical sketch of a kid growing up in Paris, post-1968; After Tiller, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s morally complex documentary about the few remaining doctors in America who perform late-term abortions; The Butler, from Lee Daniels, a mini pop history of black America from circa 1950 to 2008; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sweet, sure-footed directorial debut, Don Jon; Best Man Holiday, Malcolm D. Lee’s sequel to The Best Man, a comedy-drama with tons of life packed into it; The Past, in which acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi gets in touch with his inner Douglas Sirk; Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, messy, problematic, but alive, thanks to Lindsay Lohan’s scraped-raw performance; Paolo Sorrentino’s lush, mournfully poetic The Great Beauty (and guys! Take some style tips from impeccably appointed leading man Toni Servillo).