Best Movies of 2013

Published on December 6, 2013

Best Movies of 2013

May we stipulate that 2013 has been a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies?

Which means that many of us are frustrated. After all, the average filmgoer only sees about six films a year. This is being written at a time when there are at least 10 must-see movies in area theaters, not to mention titles that are stacking up in our on-demand queues like backed-up shuttle flights circling Reagan National.

And guess what: There are more on the way. Even with names like Soderbergh, Spielberg and Lucas decrying the current state of cinema in recent months, it’s still easy to choose 10 movies of exceptional ambition, vision and artistic sensitivity – so easy that we decided to expand the list to a lucky 21. And that’s leaving out such standouts as “Blue Jasmine,” “Before Midnight,” “Rush,” “Short Term 12,” “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Frozen” – to name only a few.

With such above-average fare to choose from, filmgoers may want to adjust their averages, too.

(Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight Pictures )

1. “12 Years a Slave”

Steve McQueen’s stately, searing drama invited viewers to inhabit a chapter of American history by way of galvanizing performances, visual poetry and unforgettable moments.

(Inside Llewyn Davis by Alison Rosa / CBS Films, Stories We Tell courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

2. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

This sepia-toned evocation of 1960s New York perfectly captures an era, its music and the nearly forgotten artists who made it all possible.

3. “Stories We Tell”

Sarah Polley’s ingenious documentary fused fact and fictional techniques to create a fascinating meditation on family, memory and meaning.

4. “Enough Said”

In one of his final roles, James Gandolfini was the sweet-natured anchor to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a bittersweet, consistently hilarious romantic comedy for grown-ups.

5. “All is Lost”

Robert Redford delivered a nearly wordless performance in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s tour de force of pure cinematic storytelling.

(All Is Lost by Daniel Daza / Lionsgate / Roadside, Her courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

6. “Her”

Spike Jonze’s brilliant futuristic love story starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson captures the zeitgeist with flawless wry humor, pathos and visual brio.

(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

7. “Gravity”

This year’s single best reason to ditch the couch and go back into theaters, Alfonso Cuaron‘s sci-fi ride brought vigor and unmatched technical virtuosity to the humble Popcorn Movie.

(Mud by Jim Bridges / Roadside Attraction / FilmNation Entertainment, Fruitvale Station by Cait Adkins / The Weinstein Company)

8. “Mud”

What could have been a Southern gothic curio became a touching coming-of-age story, thanks to star Matthew McConaughey and writer-director Jeff Nichols.

9. “Fruitvale Station”

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler made the year’s most smashing debut in this wrenching fact-based drama, featuring a breakout lead performance from Michael B. Jordan.

10. “Frances Ha”

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner embodied the passions and pitfalls of female friendship in Noah Baumbach’s kicky urban comedy-drama about young adulthood in modern-day New York.

11. “The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer audaciously interrogated pure evil by way of cinematic tropes in this unnerving investigation of Indonesian deaths squads.

12. “In a World…”

Lake Bell’s smart comedy about an L.A. voice-over artist tackled sexism, show business, self-confidence and romance with sharply observant elan.

(Museum Hours courtesy Little Magnet Films, Ain't Them Bodies Saints by Steve Dietl/IFC Films)

13. “Museum Hours”

Jem Cohen sent viewers on an intoxicating tour of Vienna in this immersive tour through the riches of the Kunsthistoriches and beyond.

14. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

Texas noir received both a jolt and much-needed touch of lyricism thanks to filmmaker David Lowery and a trio of terrific performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster.

15. “Captain Phillips”

You’ve already heard that the last 15 minutes redefine screen acting, but they also redefine all that’s gone before.

(Merie W. Wallace / Paramount)

16. “Nebraska”

Alexander Payne’s father-son drama featured a career-making performance from Bruce Dern, and a melancholy glimpse of Recession-era casualties in the Corn Belt.

(Medora by Peter Leix, Mother of George by Oscilloscope Pictures)

17. “Medora”

The nonfiction flip side to “Nebraska,” this riveting documentary about an Indiana high school basketball team perfectly captures the American Dream at its most tattered.

18. “Mother of George”

Andrew Dosunmu’s rapturous melodrama, set in the African diaspora in Brooklyn, featured gorgeous images captured by cinematographer Bradford Young.

(American Hustle by Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Productions, Dallas Buyers Club by Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features)

19. “American Hustle”

David O. Russell’s anarchic ode to the 1970s that uses the FBI Abscam case as a backdrop to examine striving, conniving and self-deception.

20. “Dallas Buyers Club”

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto transformed themselves from the inside out in the service of a funny, touching drama set at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

(Anne Marie Fox )

21. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Part historical pageant, part domestic drama, this occasionally unwieldy tour through American history was enormously entertaining – and confirmed that, no, there’s nothing Oprah can’t do. Respect.

Amy King and Veronica Toney

Editor’s picks

Best Television of 2013

Hank Stuever picks the best TV shows of 2013 and the biggest letdowns.

Best Music of 2013

The 10 best albums of 2013. Plus the year's three worst, as picked by Chris Richards.