This is my favorite part of being a critic: the privilege of choosing the 10 best films of the year. In a year like 2013, it’s incredibly hard to narrow it down to just 10. I probably could have picked 10 more, easily — but the internal debate is part of the fun. I hope you had the pleasure of seeing some of these films, as well. And I’d love to hear what you’d choose as your favorites.
Visually dazzling and emotionally gripping, “Gravity” held me in its spell for 90 breathtaking minutes. I still don’t know how Alfonso Cuaron made this movie — how he made us feel as if we were actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggle for survival in space. But man, is this an astounding achievement on all levels, from the performances to the editing to the precise tone, one that had me on the verge of tears much of the time. (And you guys know what a big deal that is, given how cold-hearted and soulless I am.)
2. “American Hustle”
Sexy, raunchy, heart-pounding and hilarious, “American Hustle” is a complete blast. David O. Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese himself with this swaggering story of con artists and corruption. At first it feels as if he’s taken his A-list cast — including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence — to the Goodwill store to find the grooviest ’70s duds possible for an elaborate game of dress-up. But the clothes are a reflection of his characters’ desperation as they strive for the American dream.
Just completely lovely from start to finish. Spike Jonze’s film features some of the fantastical notions that are his trademark, but it’s also the most grounded in reality of all the movies he’s made, which gives it an emotional immediacy. Joaquin Phoenix plays perhaps his most regular-guy character yet as a recently divorced man in a near-future Los Angeles who finds new love … with his operating system. Scarlett Johansson is called upon to create a complete character with only her voice and does so with great richness and humanity.
4. “Stories We Tell”
A total original. Sarah Polley’s film repeatedly astonishes, inspiring us to rethink not just the documentary format but also the way we recall events from our own lives. In interviewing members of her family about their history, she mixes memory, photographs, archival footage and reenactments. The result is a hazy, shared truth, one that’s at once personal and universal. At just 34 and with only her third film, Polley has established herself as an artistic master.
5. “Upstream Color”
Shane Carruth’s film is a hypnotic sensory experience — a bold, challenging experiment like nothing else I saw all year. It’s a capital-A art house film with a mesmerizing use of imagery; as writer, director, composer, editor and star, Carruth throws us in at the deep end and makes us work. But at its core is the wrenching tale of two lost souls, with Amy Seimetz giving a brave supporting performance as Carruth’s counterpart.
6. “The Spectacular Now”
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give beautifully nuanced performances in this authentic and honest look at teen romance. Teller is the hard-partying popular kid; Woodley is studious and shy. They wouldn’t seem to belong together but bring out the best in each other. Through long, intimate takes, director James Ponsoldt lets their relationship unfurl in charming, organic fashion, but he also isn’t afraid to make some tough choices with his characters.
Alexander Payne rips the lid off the mythology of the Midwest in this hilarious and poignant father-son road trip. Bruce Dern gives an effortless, unadorned performance as an alcohol-addled Korean War veteran who believes he’s won a million-dollar prize and insists on making the 900-mile trek to collect it in person. Will Forte and June Squibb are among the inspired supporting cast, and the stark black-and-white cinematography gives everything a bleakly beautiful sheen.
8. “Frances Ha”
Greta Gerwig absolutely charms in a role that’s tailor-made for her naturalistic screen presence. As a 20something wandering around New York City in search of a career, a purpose, an identity, she’s sweet, funny, cringe-inducing and heartbreaking. Noah Baumbach’s film borrows affectionately from both 1970s Woody Allen and the French New Wave while achieving a timelessness and a universality all its own.
9. “Short Term 12”
This drama set in a foster-care center for at-risk teens could have been painfully mawkish. Instead, it sneaks up on you with its understated honesty and unexpected dark humor. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is brimming with originality, and it provide a long-overdue leading role for the lovely Brie Larson as a counselor who finds herself in flux.
10. “The World’s End”
This blisteringly profane send-up of sci-fi apocalypse extravaganzas provided the most fun I had at the movies all year. The third genre tweak from director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is simultaneously their most ambitious and their most effective. Their epic pub crawl is full of absurd humor and rapid-fire dialogue but also has something to say about the dangerous tug of nostalgia.