In recent years it's been difficult to cobble together a best-of list at all, and not because there were too many choices. So it's sort of touching that the year popular cinema lost one of its great champions, Roger Ebert, also would be one of its most memorable. Ebert, who began reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, died in April, during the spring of an unusually good year for movies.
It's easy to name an obligatory 10 or so, even discounting the releases pouring out of studios this season, the period of months when studios traditionally release their award favorites. For years we've heard that television is taking the place of movies. It may be, but not yet, not this year that saw an entire calendar filled with excellent films.
The one thing largely missing from the cinematic landscape is a healthy independent realm. There's almost no art cinema to speak of, largely because there's no viable place to see it. There's not much that challenges perception or the status quo, or even surprises with its subject matter. Yes, there are compelling films made with seeming disregard for box office numbers. Two relatively high-profile and very good films were released this year in black and white: Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" and Alexander Payne's "Nebraska." But while both try to expand consciousness by exploring complex issues and themes, they make no attempt to do the same for the language of cinema. That duty might be the unlikely and unintended work of the studios' big and sometimes seemingly stupid tent-pole films.
Strip away the sound, and a movie such as "Thor: The Dark World" becomes a beautiful, enigmatic kaleidoscope of wondrous imagery. Sometimes the art direction borders on kitsch — and sometimes cannonballs into it like a frat guy into a swimming pool. But that doesn't make it any less striking. It takes armies of talented craftspeople almost as large as the forces arrayed against the hero to make those images come alive on screen. It's a shame that in-between battles with the Kursed from Svartalfheim their work is degraded by the writing, with characters saying the kinds of things found in the text messages of eighth-graders.
The guiding force of most filmmaking is, we're often reminded, the tastes of teenagers. And yet those stalwart adult filmgoers who'd rather not wait to see their favorite actor or director's work on a 50-inch plasma TV had their patience rewarded in 2013, with films such as "Frances Ha," Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," and distinctive thrillers like Danny Boyle's "Trance" and Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects."
There also were important literary adaptations, not just Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" but also "What Maisie Knew," an impressive update of the Henry James novel by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
The year also witnessed a continued effort to capture important and topical nonfiction narratives. The sheer proliferation of the documentary in recent years suggests that for some, the genre merely is a way to break into filmmaking, while for others it's a way to express a fervently held passion, or to expose a sense of wrongdoing. And for others it remains a time-honored way to reflect real life through the prism of a personal point of view. Sometimes it's simply a way to get out a story that needs to be told.
Some of the year's best were the most difficult to take, such as "The Act of Killing" and "Blackfish." Yet others explored the better angels of our nature, like the over-the-top Kubrick worship in "Room 237" and Frederick Wiseman's "At Berkeley," a stirring ode to education and community.
Nearly every month offered something worthwhile to us 1-percenters, whether it was the weirdly evocative mystery "Upstream Color" from Shane Carruth, or the difficult-to-take but riveting historical drama "12 Years a Slave." "Inside Llewyn Davis" has the soundtrack of the moment, but those previous films offered scores and songs on par with the best.
It's funny sometimes how the reception of our own cinema works. Just two years ago the silent homage "The Artist" won numerous awards, while the near-silent film "All Is Lost," a simple yet gripping tale of a man on a sinking boat, is drifting by barely noticed. The year did too, in a way. And yet we might look back on it, maybe not too far in the future, with much nostalgia. S
My picks for the year's best films, in no particular order:
"All Is Lost"
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
"To the Wonder"