Let's be honest: No overview of the year in cinema can fully convey its range. Each year, hundreds of movies make their way into theaters, television and digital platforms, while countless others crop up at festivals around the world. Top 10 lists are particularly strange, fickle ways of reducing that dense onslaught into a more comprehensible package. But anyone bitter or clueless enough to dismiss 2013 or any other year as a particularly week one for the medium clearly didn't experience enough of it.
And yet: This was a weak year for blockbusters. "Gravity" and the forthcoming "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" provided the top spectacles among mainstream releases, mainly by using special effects as storytelling devices rather than pure smoke and mirrors to bury other shortcomings. However, if Hollywood product sagged more than usual, the year was especially strong in virtually every other respect.
My own list of favorites released this year, which I began compiling in January, contains well over 50 movies, many of which I could easily justify placing on the following roundup of finalists. However, the following titles made the cut not only because they're each outstanding achievements on many levels, but also because of their collective balance. As a whole, they paint a vivid picture of the movies in all their transformative capabilities: Whether dealing with major historical issues or intimate ones, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, assuming traditional narrative structures or demolishing them, conveying sadness or humor or some combination of both, they're never less than thoughtful, engaging works of art. They have sustained emotional, visceral impacts but are also riddled with provocative ideas.
These choices are ranked, but it goes without saying that they're all first-rate.
One of the major problems with any year-end analysis is that it adheres to rules that have nothing to do with quality. In this case, our ground rules dictate that a top 10 list must only recognize movies that have received at least a one-week theatrical run or digital release in the United States during the calendar year. That discounts anything that has screened at a film festival but landed distribution for next year, as well as new titles that have yet to land any distribution at all (however, a list of the best undistributed 2013 movies is forthcoming). Other disconcerting qualifying rules, particularly those mandated by awards season, further complicate matters. Last year, "Room 237" received a pithy one-week run in New York to qualify for awards season before "officially" hitting theaters this past March. Does that make it a 2012 release or a 2013 one? The confusion caused by such ambiguity led the acclaimed work to wind up on very few lists.
And so it goes with "Gloria." Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's staggeringly beautiful portrait of the titular middle-aged woman getting her groove back, anchored by a remarkable breakthrough performance from Paulina Garcia, was met with great cheer at the Berlin Film Festival back in February. This month, Roadside Attractions with squeeze it into a single screen in Los Angeles to keep Garcia in the Best Actress race, but "Gloria" won't make it to more theaters until January. By then, we'll be peering ahead to the Sundance lineup and who knows what else, and 2014 will be off and running. So it seems fitting to single out "Gloria" here and now, without breaking the rules, when it could use a little boost anyway.
The first and last time we see the main character, a 58-year-old Chilean divorcee who gives writer-director Sebastián Lelio's touching midlife crisis drama its name, she's lost in the shuffle of the dance floor -- at once buried by the world and free to roam it. With Garcia's cryptic expressions saying much more than her words, "Gloria" explores this fragile state of being with extraordinary astuteness. It's an open-ended question whether Gloria ever finds the happiness she seeks while dodging the current of middle-aged isolation, but her constant search is a valiant and deeply involving one. Lelio reveals her fluctuating mindset through sudden outbursts, solemn asides, brilliant music cues and one utterly memorable dancing skeleton puppet — whose symbolic power only slightly bests the peacock that arrives later on. Visually, "Gloria" is alive with the vivid mindset of its eternally young protagonist. Forget "Thor"; this is the superhero story of the year.
9. "Upstream Color"
Director Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to "Primer" is an conceptual puzzle of existential sci-fi. But even as it initially looks like a monumental head-scratcher, the plot is actually deceptively simple: It's the story of a woman dealing with the aftermath of getting brainwashed and having her consciousness implanted in a pig -- and that's just the starting point. What starts as first-rate body horror transforms into a soul-searching romance when she comes across another person who has endured similar troubles. Their search for collective meaning transcends the simplistic abstractions of the plot and eventually arrives at a point of spiritual awakening on the story's own daffy terms.
There are enough clearly defined events in "Upstream Color," starting with the harvesting of plant material in the prologue, to suggest a firm narrative about the capacity to transplant consciousness into nature and vica versa. But ultimately it doesn't matter, because the movie makes it easy to get swept up in a largely wordless progression of visuals that symbolize its characters coming to understand the world beyond the tunnel vision of everyday problems thrust upon them. In particular, Carruth's fixation on prose from "Walden" points to Thoreau's assertion that nature is the key pathway to understanding reality. It follows that "Upstream Color," which finds man, pig and flower united in a struggle to find the logic of a fragmented world, maintains the framework of a story purely as a vessel to explore transcendental ideas.
In a larger sense, it effectively conveys the gap between inexpressible emotions and root causes. Carruth nails the fundamental inscrutability of the universe while remaining in awe of it the whole way through. "Upstream Color" is routinely confusing but not oppressively so; its final exquisite moments explain little yet still manage to invite you in.
8. "Computer Chess"
There is an immediate sense of change afoot in "Computer Chess," Andrew Bujalski's fourth feature as writer-director, visible to anyone familiar with his previous work. While Bujalski's influential "Funny Ha Ha" -- along with follow-ups "Mutual Appreciation" and "Beeswax" -- were almost defiantly shot on 16mm film and focused on the interpersonal relationships of chic young adults, "Computer Chess" is a period piece set 30 years in the past and shot in black and white on low-grade analog video. Experientially, however, "Computer Chess" falls in line with its precedents while achieving much funnier, offbeat results.
Focused on a group of proto-computer nerds involved in a tournament to devise first-rate chess software for their clunky machines, the movie relishes the awkward expressions of brilliance from its introverted leads. A savvy ensemble piece set over the course of a weekend-long hotel conference, "Computer Chess" echoes Bujalski's preceding efforts by investigating the pratfalls of miscommunication in continuing deadpan fashion. The shift in this case involves taking that idea to its logical, hilarious extreme of man versus machine.
Appropriately set in the early '80s (shortly before 1984, to fit its technophobic theme), "Computer Chess" takes place at a conference in which nearly everyone believes the future has arrived in the form of the unwieldy processors students lug into the hotel. Viewed in a 21st-century context, this continuing assertion takes on absurdist dimensions, but Bujalski's knack for dialogue quickly disabuses the material of any heavy satiric intentions. Instead, with an opening panel discussion headed by professor and chess champ Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary, exuding an amusing blend of sheepishness and consternation), the movie neatly establishes its world and stays in it until the very end. At first off-putting, "Computer Chess" grows on you as its subjects develop into delicate, flustered three-dimensional creations incapable of reconciling their interests with society at large. The movie delivers its witty thesis in claustrophobic terms foreshadowed by a line sarcastically mentioned early on: "A machine can't compete against the human soul." But by the end, that proposition remains far from certain.
7. "Inside Llewyn Davis"
"That's a folk song," says Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the opening scene of Joel and Ethan Coen's aptly titled "Inside Llewyn Davis," after playing a tender melody for the cozy room at New York's Gaslight Café circa 1961. One could usually make a similar pronouncement about the Coen brothers' usually eccentric works -- yep, that's a Coen movie, folks -- but this one's a different story.
Light on plot, heavy on melody and feeling, "Inside Llewyn Davis" takes some inspiration from the career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but avoids the trappings of a biopic or making broad pronouncements about the era. Instead, the nomadic Llewyn's fleeting misadventures, which find him drifting from one couch to the next while struggling to justify his career, lead to a delicate, restrained portrait that results in a different kind of movie than anything else the siblings have produced. The directors' gentle touch makes it easy to empathize with their down-on-his luck protagonist in spite of his rascally attitude. But it's truly the songs that make the mood come alive. From the ironically-charged "Please Mr. Kennedy" to the utterly tragic "The Death of Queen Jane," Llewyn's odyssey is expressed more coherently in melodies than in any of his flustered rants. It's a kind of muted movie magic that has never before been executed with such quietly stirring results. While Ulysses the cat plays a key role in enlivening Llewyn's life (Uggie who?), the real star of this movie is the musician's guitar.
6. "Museum Hours"
To date, Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. While his new feature "Museum Hours" is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story, its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work. On the one hand a sad, poignant character study, "Museum Hours" is also a treatise on art history and a love letter to architectural wonder. Predominantly set in Vienna's grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the trim story involves middle-aged museum guard Johann (Robert Sommer, making a gently affecting onscreen debut), whose quiet gig has allowed him to fade into his surroundings and observe the visitors in much the same way they peer at the artwork. It's here that he encounters the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara), a woman of the same generation in town to deal with her cousin's debilitating illness. Sensing Anne's isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. Whether seeking meaning in paintings or their lives, their faces reach artistic heights worthy of the same scrutiny allotted to the museum's collection.