After a final quarter packed with strong movies, the struggle to choose 2013's best in film got a lot easier when I asked myself which movies I'd like to see again.
Suddenly, “American Hustle,” the New York critics' top pick for the year, dropped from the list. While I admired individual performances, I thought the Abscam movie had a slow first hour before pulling off a strong finish. “August: Osage County,” too, offered heaps of fine acting. But it felt drained of the biting family-dysfunction humor I admired so much in the Omaha Community Playhouse production 16 months ago.
One movie I wish I could see before finalizing this list: “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix falls for the voice of his computer operating system (Scarlett Johansson). It opens here Jan. 10.
So here goes, with the disclaimer that “best” lists are hopelessly subjective and personal. Yours would no doubt be different.
1. "12 YEARS A SLAVE"
Director Steve McQueen's raw, graphic account of what life was like for slaves in the American South is riveting. Chiwetel Ejiofor elevates the title role, fighting off bitterness and hatred. Michael Fassbender, as a sadistic plantation owner, and Lupita Nyong'o, as his slave, are stunners.
Director Alfonso Cuaron and his son, Jonas, wrote a superb thriller about two astronauts stranded in space. The cinematography and digital effects are a technical marvel. Sandra Bullock's performance as one of the astronauts, who must find the will to survive, is simply stellar.
Bruce Dern and Will Forte turn in their best work as a boozy father and his sad-sack, alienated son on a road trip. Director Alexander Payne captures hard-scrabble small-town life on the Plains in beautiful black-and-white cinematography. June Squibb is hilarious as Dern's angry wife.
4. "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS"
Tom Hanks' laudable turn as captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates is haunting. So is Barkhad Abdi as the pirates' leader, whose point of view gets equal weight with the mindset of the West. Director Paul Greengrass turns in a thriller with a subtle subtext about haves and have-nots.
5. "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET"
The hedonistic world of circa-1990 stockbroker Jordan Belfort, stuffed with sex, drugs and despicable amorality, is equally profane and hilarious. It's the best of five pairings of director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, despite being overlong.
Director Ron Howard's movie about the 1976 rivalry between Formula 1 race car drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a finely etched character study of polar opposites that also captures white-knuckle track action. Superb cinematography and editing as well.
7. "SAVING MR. BANKS"
Emma Thompson makes author P.L. Travers an irascible character to savor, if not love, as she battles Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) over plans to turn “Mary Poppins” into a movie. Flashbacks to Travers' unhappy childhood aren't as captivating as her epic sparring with the Disney crew.
8. "ALL IS LOST"
Robert Redford gives one of the best performances of a vaunted career as an elderly sailor alone on the Indian Ocean. His damaged, sinking boat forces him to improvise a course for survival, and nature throws him some nasty curves. Redford is as soulful as he is silent, drenched and exhausted.
9. "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS"
The Coen brothers' latest black comedy follows a struggling, self-defeating folk singer (Oscar Isaac). Period detail of 1961 Greenwich Village and the score are terrific. So are John Goodman as a derisive jazz man, Carey Mulligan as an angry lover and Justin Timberlake as her partner.
10. "THE SPECTACULAR NOW"
A hard-partying high school senior (Miles Teller) finds his life changing after his girl dumps him and he's intrigued by a “nice girl” (Shailene Woodley). Director James Ponsoldt reaches beyond stereotypes in this sad, sweet coming-of-age tale. Strong acting, fine writing.
• “American Hustle”
• “August: Osage County”
• “Fruitvale Station”
• “Dallas Buyers Club”
• “The Place Beyond the Pines”
• “Lee Daniels' The Butler”
• “Star Trek Into Darkness”
• “About Time”