And the best movies were...

And the best movies were...

By the time midnight strikes on December 31, we will have reviewed almost 900 movies in the course of 2013.

This number, which grows every year, nonetheless represents a tiny fraction of the moving-picture entertainment made available to the public over the previous 12 months on television, video on demand and streaming services and at the festivals that span the globe and the calendar.

In such circumstances, the traditional, 10-best list, always arbitrary, seems downright cruel — to filmmakers, to readers and to the overwhelmed critic who must kill, or at least neglect, some of his darlings and subject himself to the self-flagellation of second-guessing. (Oh dear: Kill Your Darlings — shouldn’t I have made room for that one?)

Making it worse is that this was also a year of superabundant quality. Anyone who laments the death or decrepitude of movies just isn’t paying attention. Yes, there are great shows on cable, and dreary, franchise action fare clogs the multiplexes in the warmer months. Animation, a bright spot in Hollywood over the past decade, has entered a creative slump as the studios discover that they can sell tickets and tie-in merchandising without taking the creative risks that generate masterpieces.

But everywhere else, from the legacy studios and their indie-dependent subsidiaries, to the hothouse cottage industries of micro-releasing and self-distribution, the art of cinema is thriving.

Earlier this year, when Manohla Dargis and I set out to compile a roster of promising filmmakers 40 and younger, we had no trouble finding candidates, only in winnowing them to a list of 20. But we were troubled by the lack of recognition many of these directors have found, as well as the difficulties they encounter as they try to make good on their promise. The movie business has always been rough, of course, but, at present, there seems to be a growing disjunction — a chasm, really — between the quality of the work being produced and the intensity of its reception.

There are many reasons, including the daunting numbers mentioned above, the logjam of awards-season releases and the water-cooler ascendance of cable television. But in the spirit of the season, let me be blunt. The problem is you. A vital art form requires an engaged — which is to say a skeptical and demanding, as well as enthusiastic — audience to ensure its economic viability and encourage its aesthetic development.

So think of my list as a nagging reminder, a second chance and a place to start — Top 10 with an absurd (but eminently justified), six-way tie for the 10th spot; 15 runners-up, any one of which could have easily claimed a slot in the top tier from a crowded and eclectic field.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
The musical performances — especially from Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character — are hauntingly lovely, and they anchor Joel and Ethan Coen’s exploration, at once mordant and melancholy, of the early-60s New York folk scene. A ballad of bad luck and squandered talent that already seems, like the music it celebrates, to have been around forever.

2. 12 Years a Slave
Its historical seriousness and topical resonance are considerable but should not distract attention from Steve McQueen’s artistry. Suspenseful and dramatic in the best Hollywood tradition — and full of first-rate performances — this story of bondage and the longing for freedom unfolds with startling clarity and immediacy.

3. Blue Is the Warmest Color
Yes, the sex scenes are explicit, but they are both necessary to the love story and tangential to the film’s main ambition, which is to illuminate the life of its young protagonist, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, in full. So, yes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes prize winner is about sex, but it’s also about everything else: food, work, art, social class, education and, perhaps above all, France.

4. Enough Said
Nicole Holofcener’s midlife romantic comedy, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, spins what, at first, seems like an anecdotal premise into a rich and insightful examination of the peculiarities and contradictions of courtship and parenthood in 21st century America.

5. A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s angry, meticulous collection of violent vignettes paints a somber picture of modern China as a place of inequality and indifference — and not only China.

6. All Is Lost
An old story — man against the elements — grandly and thrillingly told by J C Chandor. Robert Redford commands the screen with barely a word.

7. Frances Ha
With its nouvelle, vague, black-and-white imagery and its eye for the pleasures and foibles of young-bohemian New York, Noah Baumbach’s lightest and loosest feature, written with and starring Greta Gerwig, is a sweet bedtime story for anxious millennials.
8. Hannah Arendt
Those who complain that movies can’t think don’t really know how to think about movies. This one, focussing on the controversy surrounding its subject’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, brilliantly dramatises the imperative at the centre of her life as a writer and philosopher, which was to compel the world to yield to the force of the mind.

9. The Butler
Movies about American history tend to be somber, responsible and pious, even as the history itself is completely crazy — violent, tragic, ridiculous and contradictory. Lee Daniels, never known for his restraint, turns America’s most agonised and contentious subject (that would be race) into an opera of wild melodrama, canny naturalism and political camp. None of it should have worked, and, yet, nearly all of it does.

10. The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of  Wall Street, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain and American Hustle.

Six variations on the big theme of our times: ‘Just look at all my stuff!’ It’s capitalism, baby! Grab what (and who) you can and do whatever feels good. We’re all going to hell (or jail, or Florida) anyway.

And: Before Midnight, Beyond the Hills, Caesar Must Die, Computer Chess, Fill the Void, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, Her, In a World, Much Ado About Nothing, Museum Hours, Nebraska, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Viola and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.

Comments (+)