Movie News & Reviews

Best movies of 2013: Carla Meyer picks ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘American Hustle,’ ‘The Spectacular Now’

The 2013 movie year stacks up better than any since 2009, when “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Hurt Locker” “Up in the Air” and “Avatar” were released.

This year’s films clearly improved on 2012’s, especially when you compare the best from both years.

The 2013 film based on a late-1970s true story with political implications, “American Hustle,” out-zipped last year’s entry, eventual Oscar best-picture winner “Argo.” And “The Spectacular Now” showed a touch more insight into its high school characters than last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

But giving examples within weight classes and declaring 2013 a great movie year are easy. Harder is accounting for why any movie year stands out from any other.

There’s no master plan by filmmakers to make one year better than the next. Planned release dates shift for studios all the time. The conception-to-screen process can take forever. The special-effects-heavy “Gravity,” for example, was supposed to come out last year but took until 2013 to finish.

But drill down past the release-date happenstance, to when a year’s actual movie calendar is set, and there are indicators of how it will turn out. Like the presence of directors with proven track records. A filmmaker who made one good film is likely to make another, and 2013 was rich with movies from reliable indie directors.

David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen brothers ranked among cinema’s most respected talents before their latest films made my top-10 list. Top-10 inhabitants Richard Linklater, Sarah Polley, James Ponsoldt and Jeff Nichols all made earlier films I either loved or liked a lot.

But as satisfying as it is to have one’s expectations fulfilled, there’s nothing like that sense of discovery. That happened in 2013 with “Fruitvale Station,” the accomplished first feature by Sacramento State graduate Ryan Coogler.

Coogler led a fine trio of artists with local ties. The others are St. Francis High School graduate Greta Gerwig, star and co-writer of “Frances Ha,” and former Elk Grove resident Brie Larson, star of “Short Term 12.”

“Fruitvale” made my top 10, “Frances Ha” and “Short Term” would rank in my top 20. So this top-10 list comes with an update on what’s happening movie awards-wise with Coogler, Gerwig and Larson.


1. “12 Years a Slave”: In this fact-based film, director Steve McQueen takes the audience along with free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is abducted into slavery and introduced to the pathology disguised as the 1850s Southern economy. We encounter the depths of slavery’s inhumanity along with Solomon, and the effect is disturbing and unforgettable.

More than a history lesson, “12 Years” is a triumph of cinematic story telling. The visuals are painterly yet free of the antebellum fuss of most slavery-era films. The acting is flawless, the characters three-dimensional (even Michael Fassbender’s sadistic plantation owner), and Northup’s true tale inherently compelling. (In theaters).

2. “Nebraska”: Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) sends a cranky, heavy-drinking senior (a subtly powerful Bruce Dern) and his son (the likable Will Forte) on a dubious road trip that ends in Payne’s most heartfelt film to date.

Starkly but beautifully photographed in black and white, “Nebraska” makes plain a universal truth: If you see past the emotional cloud of your own perspective, you might get to know those mysterious people who raised you. (In theaters).

3. “American Hustle”: The editing, camera work and clothes are flashy, but filmmaker David O. Russell is the real deal. The FBI “Abscam” sting of the late 1970s, which involved a con-man facilitator (Christian Bale in the film), a fake sheikh and briefcases of cash meant for lawmakers, suits Russell’s (“Silver Linings Playbook”) off-kilter sensibility beautifully.

“Hustle” is funny and freewheeling in attitude but tight in construction and tone. The acting by Russell veterans Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is uniformly great and full of verve, and Jeremy Renner adds soul as a politician who’s not as bad as the FBI would make him out to be. (In theaters).

4 “The Spectacular Now”: Director James Ponsoldt made the small, powerful 2012 film “Smashed,” about a hip, early-30s couple whose party-down lifestyle is becoming a bad look. “Spectacular,” based Tim Tharp’s novel, catches its drinker (Miles Teller) earlier in the journey, in high school.

Teller is a revelation as an endlessly charismatic kid who’s raising the roof to avoid considering the future. “Spectacular” shows great empathy for him, even when he does stupid things because he’s too young to know better, and for the smart, quiet girl (an achingly authentic Shailene Woodley) caught in his whirlwind. (on DVD Jan. 14).

5 “Before Midnight”: My favorite movie trilogy contains no capes nor elves but a couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who met (“Before Sunrise”) and reunited (“Before Midnight”) under highly romantic circumstances and now face the realities of a life together. Or as much reality as a gorgeous Greek island offers.

But director Richard Linklater and his co-writers Hawke and Delpy confine most of the romance to the setting as Jesse and Celine, those champion talkers, discuss their future and their differences. Within the marathon conversation lies abundant dramatic tension and the possibility, made distinct by the fearless Delpy, that Celine is not the free spirit we recognize from the first films but simply out of her mind. (DVD, streaming)

6 “Mud”: Combining a moodily-noir Arkansas river setting with Huck Finn-esque high adventure, “Mud” is foremost a tale of romantic education. A youngster (the excellent Tye Sheridan) discovers the depths and dangers of love through the back story of Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a wanted man the kid finds hiding out on an island. McConaughey shows the abundant fear beneath his character’s seemingly dangerous surface. Mud has gone to great lengths for a woman (Reese Witherspoon, the toughest she’s been since “Freeway”) who might not appreciate it.

This nearly perfect film underscores the distinct point of view of filmmaker Jeff Nichols – whose terrific 2011 film “Take Shelter” tracked a construction worker (Michael Shannon) called crazy because of his apocalyptic visions – as a teller of highly masculine stories that hinge more on emotion than action. (DVD, streaming).

7. “Inside Llewyn Davis”: Leave it to those bleak absurdists Joel and Ethan Coen to craft a folk-singer character (a downcast yet dazzling Oscar Isaac) who travels through the camaraderie and earnestness of the early 1960s folk scene without any of it sticking.

His talent abundant but his bitterness a clear liability, Llewyn takes us on a journey that holds all the perils of an old folk tale but none of its wisdom. But he has wit, good songs, an expressive tabby cat and the Coens’ inimitable ability to make human foibles fascinating. (In theaters)

8. “Stories We Tell”: Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley chronicled the effect of Alzheimer’s on a longtime couple in her moving 2006 narrative film “Away From Her.” Polley explores family bonds again in this documentary about her own clan. Intrigue-filled, inventively told and fueled by the mysteries surrounding Polley’s late mother, “Stories We Tell,” like “Nebraska,” reminds us parents are people, too. (DVD, streaming).

9. “Fruitvale Station”: Based on the true story of Oscar Grant (a natural, charismatic Michael B. Jordan), the unarmed young man fatally shot in 2009 by a BART officer, this film by Ryan Coogler matches a fully realized person to the figure whose shooting was captured by onlookers’ cellphone cameras at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station.

The film follows Grant, an ex-convict trying to get his life together, on his last day alive. He helps a stranger, does nice things for his mother, irritates his girlfriend, flashes with temper. He’s neither martyr nor irredeemable criminal, but a complex guy to whose struggles you can relate. That empathy enables the movie’s climax to stun even though we know it’s coming. (DVD Jan. 14)

10. “Gravity”: Like the Earth seen from a space shuttle’s rear-view mirror, “Gravity” lessens in its size and power the farther you get from it. Since Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Children of Men”) film arrived in early October, several movies have eclipsed it in terms of character development and emotional impact.

But “Gravity” hangs on to the top 10 because of breathtaking visuals that transport the audience into space with Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s stranded astronaut characters. No other 2013 film can touch it as a fully-immersive viewing experience.

Catch it while it is still in theaters. Its smaller qualities might loom too large on the home screen.

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