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10 Best Movies of 2013

The year's top 10, from Sarah Polley's family chronicle to "12 Years a Slave" to Scorsese's audacious comeback.


Everybody who writes about movies dreads making these lists, yet all of us want to readeach other’s lists. Partly we’re looking for affirmation, partly we’re looking for ideas, and partly we’re looking for guidance on how to approach this strange exercise in subjectivity and perspective. I kept my movie-watching in 2013 to an almost human scale at roughly 175 films, about half the number I typically watched in the days of Salon’s  “Beyond the Multiplex” column. (I know plenty of people in and around the film business who watch 450 to 500, or even more.) Even so, you wind up faced with ridiculous conundrums: How do I decide whether a contentious French drama about a love affair between two young women is better or worse than an absorbing and informative documentary set in Tahrir Square? Can’t we say they’re both terrific, and leave it at that?

Sure we could, but that would be cheating. I decided sit down one day in mid-December and make the list quickly, without much deliberation. I don’t fiddle with it for weeks and I don’t try to make guesses about historical importance or whatever; that won’t make me happier, and the odds that I’ll look at it six months or a year from now and think I screwed it up are pretty high in any case. Suffice it to say that what everybody says about 2013 is true: It’s been an explosive year for movies in general and especially for American cinema. We may be in the “post-theatrical” age but movies continue to play surprisingly widely on the big screen, even as more and more people watch them at home, on mobile devices or via brain implants. (OK, that technology’s not quite ready, but just you wait.)

The 10 movies on this list all moved me, challenged me, thrilled me and delighted me; I recommend them all without hesitation. The honorable-mention list (which I always stretch to 11 movies, because it’s my list and I can do what I want) tend toward the specialized, the eccentric and the offbeat. Every one of them — yes, including  “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”— felt like a startling discovery, if maybe one that comes with an asterisk. Your favorite film totally isn’t here? I know the feeling; please educate me as to the glaring omissions.

1. “Stories We Tell” Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has sneakily become one of the best young filmmakers in North America, and this subtle, heartbreaking documentary proves it. Masquerading as a straightforward family memoir about Polley’s long-dead mother, “Stories We Tell” gradually becomes something else, an inquiry into the nature of memory and reality, a love letter to Polley’s English-born dad (who narrates the film), a puzzle box with unanswerable questions about how we become who we are at its center.

2. “12 Years a Slave” Unsettling and formally rigorous, Steve McQueen’s fact-based tale of a free black man sold into slavery in the 1850s puts America’s darkest secrets on screen for the first time. Yes, it’s sometimes a difficult film to watch, and lacks the blood-drenched fantasy retribution of Quentin Tarantino’s ludicrous  “Django Unchained.” But the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor,  Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o,  Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest of the stellar cast are so strong, the created 19th-century world so compelling and the filmmaking so confident and complicated that the experience is completely worth it.

3. “Inside Llewyn Davis” Simultaneously one of the  Coen brothers’ most mysterious films and one of their most accessible. Little-known Oscar Isaac zooms toward stardom as the eponymous Llewyn, a talented folk-singer in 1961 Greenwich Village who’s on the verge of making it — or screwing everything up.  Justin Timberlake sings “Please Mr. Kennedy,” Carey Mulligan curses a blue streak and John Goodman is at his ogre-like best when this immensely evocative, shaggy-cat saga goes on an allegorical road trip.

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