Hollywood’s attempts at Oscar-worthy filmmaking occasionally stumble over good intentions and overheated messages. This year, the film industry buckled down to focus on smart storytelling, patriotism and the delicacies of romance in a way that made 2013 a banner year for films.
1. American Hustle: The Fighter. Silver Linings Playbook. And now American Hustle. Director David O’Russell, once best known for his spat with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, is on a streak unlike any in recent memory. Pinpoint period recreations are just the beginning of this Abscam-based tale, one that doesn’t bury itself in partisanship but sticks to grand storytelling and bravura turns across the board.
2. Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks reminds us he’s both the best Everyman Hollywood can offer and knows how to align himself with the industry’s best directors. It helps that this ripped from reality thriller doesn’t chart a politically correct course that minimizes the barbarism of the bad guys. Instead, we get riveting sequences, a flawed but fascinating hero and arguably the best five minutes of Hanks’s career to wrap the saga. The movie’s stealth pro-gun message is an added bonus as is its treatment of the military members who helped bring about the true story’s happy ending.
3. Lone Survivor: Hollywood didn’t want to make it, in part because its pro-Navy SEALs focus might rub foreign audiences the wrong way. Director Peter Berg, licking his wounds from the formulaic Battleship, knew he had to make the movie to honor the real-life fallen SEALs. Berg’s passion pays off handsomely with this gritty tribute to our military heroes. It’s more than just a patriotic retelling of a mission gone awry. It compares the men and women of the U.S. military to the Taliban, a group which eschews culture in favor of death and destruction. The haunting end credits sequence alone earns the film a spot on this list.
4. The Conjuring: The scariest sight of 2013, beyond seeing Will Smith in an M. Night Shyamalan project, was a pair of hands clapping. Director James Wan follows up the sublime Insidious with an even better shocker, one laced with respect for people of faith. It’s a shame that Wan’s own Insidious follow-up proved so inferior to both its predecessor and this first-rate horror movie.
5. Blue Jasmine: Diminishing returns mark the current era of Woody Allen films, including the vastly overrated Midnight in Paris. That makes Blue Jasmine such a cold-handed slap to the face. Little in its bracing tale tells us it’s from a director in decline. In fact, from Cate Blanchett’s icy performance to its portrait of entitlement in decay, the film feels like the product of a hungry young auteur.
6. The Spectacular Now: Teen films haven’t been the same since John Hughes hung up his director’s megaphone, but this sophisticated yarn would do the Breakfast Club auteur proud. It’s a young romance with a sober edge, capturing the innocence of first love in a way few other films have navigated in recent years.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street: Sex, drugs and penny stocks–plus the most compelling performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. Stay far, far away if hard R-rated scenes disturb you. Everyone else will relish the quickest three-hour film in memory and sneaky great performances by Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey.
8. Enough Said: Hollywood struggles to capture the complexities of dating, but this year we saw both a Spectacular romance and a story of older lovers wary of commitment. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is marvelous as a middle-aged woman who may have found her soul mate in the husky form of James Gandolfini. The sitcom-worthy twist? Her character pals up with a chic friend who divorced Gandolfini’s character and doesn’t have a nice word to say about him. Gandolfini’s gentle performance hinted at the roles he might one day embrace in his post-Sopranos career had he not died of a heart attack in June.
9. Her: What male movie goer couldn’t fall for the curvaceous Scarlett Johansson, but in director Spike Jonze’s new film we can only hear her sultry tones. Jonze cleverly casts the Avengers star as the voice of an computer operating system who turns a nebbishy Joaquin Phoenix into a love-struck teen. The blazingly original story ponders emotional connections in our increasingly digital age while reminding us of the bonds that make life worth living.
10. The Way Way Back: This year delivered two coming of age yarns. While The Kings of Summer stumbled as much as it soared, The Way Way Back rarely hit a false note in a genre that demands sonic harmony. The tale of a lad who lucks into love and self-esteem 101 would satisfy any audience. The addition of Sam Rockwell as the avuncular pal every teen should know gives Back its heart-breaking lift.
Honorable Mentions: Frozen, Saving Mr. Banks, Still Mine, 12 Years a Slave, World War Z, Man of Steel, Out of the Furnace