How extraordinarily rich was 2013 when it came to great films? It was easily the best year of the century, and a top-10 list certainly could have swelled to 20 entries.
The choices from USA TODAY movie critic Claudia Puig go from low-budget to mainstream and focus on worthy themes such as racial inequality, fathers and sons, the complexities of love (whether at age 17 or middle age), and the exploration of space and sea. The best offerings cover a broad range of human relations, from a 6-year-old’s view of divorce to an octogenarian facing his mortality.
This year’s picks, in alphabetical order:
12 Years a Slave. The greatest film ever made about slavery is directed with grace and depth by Steve McQueen. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a magnificent performance as a free black man who’s kidnapped and forced into slavery. It’s brutal to watch, but also beautifully rendered and brilliantly acted.
20 Feet from Stardom. This inspiring documentary is massively entertaining and introduces audiences to the fascinating stories of backup singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The film is a tribute to the unsung voices that add unforgettable riffs to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.
All Is Lost. The only movie this year with one actor and virtually no dialogue, Lostoffers a vastly compelling story of adventure on the high seas. It’s a triumph forRobert Redford, as an aging sailor struggling to survive in the Indian Ocean. The powerful story, deftly crafted by director J.C. Chandor, proves that less is more, a huge accomplishment in these times of ubiquitous special effects and elaborate gimmickry.
Enough Said. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener explores contemporary issues in this whip-smart comedy.The film is given vivid life by the performances of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, who have terrific chemistry. Funny and perceptive, Enough Said speaks volumes about love in middle age.
Fruitvale Station. This Sundance Film Festival winner follows the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a black man shot by a white police officer on New Year’s Eve 2008. First-time director Ryan Coogler superbly humanizes the complex young man behind the headlines. Jordan is brilliant as the victim on the final day of his life.
Gravity. A visually stunning lost-in-space saga, Gravity is not only mesmerizing but intelligent. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, it’s a heady thriller with spectacular use of 3-D and a nimble balance between action, emotion and spooky suspense.
Nebraska. Director Alexander Payne presents a wisely observed, perfectly-pitched and wryly funny road trip, shot in crisp black-and-white. He captures the many dimensions of a bittersweet odyssey through the heartland by a headstrong old man, beautifully played by Bruce Dern.
The Place Beyond the Pines. As written and directed by Derek Cianfrance,Pines is a sweeping look at fateful decisions and their lasting reverberations. This saga of fathers and sons is almost a Shakespearean tragedy. Beautifully rendered, wise and somber, it goes in unexpected directions and features a top-notch cast.
The Spectacular Now. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with love and difficult truths in this honest, unsentimental, funny and wise film. It features a pair of stand-out lead performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley and is directed by James Ponsoldt, a latter-day John Hughes.
What Maisie Knew. This modern adaptation of a Henry James novel by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel is cleverly shot from the point of view of a child coping with her parents’ divorce. Six-year-old Onata Aprile plays ever-watchful Maisie with sweet sincerity, avoiding precocity. She heads a strong ensemble cast that includes Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard.