In surveying the year at the movies, the topography is rich. From the dusty, dying towns of "Nebraska" to the rooftop Roman parties in "The Great Beauty" to the sleek future Los Angeles of "Her," 2013 has been a trip. But has it been a great year? Negativity reached a fever pitch in the summer when Steven Spielberg lamented Hollywood's risk-adverse, finance-driven blockbusterism.
The grim, humorless "Man of Steel" and its careless backdrop of mass destruction was a low point: the epitome of everything bad about movies today. Yet ambitious films gathered in number as the year went on, and many began calling 2013 a historically excellent year for film, after all. Here are one critic's top picks of the year, all of them reasons why 2013 was a good year for the big screen:
1. "12 Years a Slave" - Steve McQueen's masterful adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir is simply a powerhouse. McQueen's three movies ("Shame," "Hunger") reveal him as a harsh storyteller, drawn down dark rabbit holes. But his lack of sentimentality gives "12 Years a Slave" its clarity: a long overdue correction to cinema's reluctant treatment of slavery. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor's soulful eyes carry us through a nightmare odyssey of America's past.
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George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star in “Gravity.”
2. "Mud" - From the plantations of mid-19th century Louisiana, we travel up river to contemporary Arkansas in Jeff Nichols' Twain-esque tale of boyhood on the Mississippi. With the wise-beyond-his-years Tye Sheridan as the 14-year-old Ellis, "Mud" is a full-hearted American fable.
3. "Frances Ha" - Full disclosure: I'm in love with Greta Gerwig. That bias notwithstanding, Noah Baumbach's latest - co-written by and starring Gerwig - is a lovely ode to its title character (who has much in common with Gerwig, herself). Frances is an idiosyncratic 27-year-old finding her place in New York; where the "Ha" comes from is answered in the film's sweet final moment.
4. "Inside Llewyn Davis" - Like Frances, Llewyn is a striving Manhattanite without an apartment or a steady job. But he's much angrier about it. The Coen brothers' melancholy story of a bitter, unfortunate folk singer is a wry commentary on the cruelness of fate, and melody born out of disharmony.
5. "The Hunt" - In the most haunting film of the year, the weak binds of a seemingly close-knit Danish community disintegrate when a kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) is unjustly accused of sexually assaulting a child.
6. "The Great Beauty" - Fellini looms large in Paolo Sorrentino's portrait of Rome in decadent decay. Sorrentino is an exquisite stylist (the opening minutes of his "Il Divo" are pure, blistering cinema), and "The Great Beauty" is manic and overstuffed. But it's bursting with life. (Literally. It's got a giraffe.)
7. "Gravity" - So simple you could make the case that Alfonso Cuaron's 3-D spectacle is a bit banal. But, man, is it something to look at. The movie won't be remembered for its thin story, but at a time when television's rise is much discussed, "Gravity" reinvigorated the big screen experience.
8. "Blue Is the Warmest Color" - Several films this year were fascinating snapshots of lives in motion. But Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme d'Or-winner (also called "The Life of Adele: Chapters 1&2") is the most memorable for its extreme closeness in portraying a teenager's awakening to herself and the world. Adele Exarchopoulus' performance is staggeringly open. The irony is that the infamous sex scenes in this flawed but arresting coming-of-age tale are easily the most artificial parts in it.
9. "This Is the End" - The jokes just come and come. Nobody had a better time making a movie this year than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and it's written all over their self-parodying apocalypse comedy.
10. "The Spectacular Now" and "Short Term 12" - Movies that honestly represent teenage life are seldom, but both of these films magically move from familiar plot lines to somewhere honest. The high-school comedy of "The Spectacular Now," starring Miles Teller, smacks up against hard realities. "Short Term 12," starring Brie Larson, tenderly depicts a foster-care facility and its young supervisors without resorting to clichs.
Honorable mentions: "Her," "Nebraska," "Rush," "A Band Called Death," "Elysium," "Fruitvale Station," "Captain Phillips," "Upstream Color," "Enough Said," "Blue Jasmine"