It's rare that I can ever fill out my entire top 10 best movies of the year with all four-star films. Picky, I guess.
This year, all of the top 10 films earned four stars, establishing 2013 as the best year of the new millennium for movies, at least for me.
The downside to creating a top-10 list is fairly obvious: Many other memorable and worthy movies don't get proper recognition, films such as the charming coming-of-age comedy "The Way, Way Back," or Jim Mickle's gothic shocker "We Are What We Are," the Coen brothers' impressive "Inside Llewyn Davis," the disarming zombie romantic comedy (a zom-rom-com?) "Warm Bodies," the late James Gandolfini's smart romance "Enough Said," and the two most hilarious comedies of 2013: "The World's End" and "This is the End."
Here are the ones that made the cut. Several movies are fact-based works.
Many can still be seen in theaters, exactly where they should be seen. (I strongly suspect that Satan is behind the presentation of motion pictures on phones, iPads, computers and other devices that diminish the quality of the communal silver screen experience.)
1. "12 Years a Slave" -- Not a big surprise, given that Steve McQueen's historical drama -- based on the memoirs of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South -- won best picture of 2013 from the Chicago Film Critics Association last week.
This is a real horror movie about dehumanizing people. With a perfectly selected, talented cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o), McQueen probes institutionalized slavery with beautiful images and detached interest that only augment the movie's dramatic power without resorting to cliché, stereotype, convention or compromise.
2. "Gravity" -- Alfonso Cuaron's science-fiction survival tale (consider it an outer space version of "The Naked Prey" without the pursuing African warriors) is pure cinema, a visionary work of raw power and nail-biting suspense that puts us into that space suit with Sandra Bullock and hardwires our imaginations to her experience.
3. "The Wolf of Wall Street" -- Martin Scorsese, operating from Jordan Belfort's memoirs, presents the most unflattering assessment of capitalists since the last Oliver Stone movie, all supposedly based on fact. Leonardo DiCaprio leads a group of Wall Street slicksters to Easy Street, exposing them as sexual, moral pigs with money. Scorsese serves up a brilliantly crafted, emotionally mesmerizing movie that sucks us into this world and creates such a strong bond with Belfort that we almost regard him as a hero. But not really.
4. "American Hustle" -- Another late arrival from David O. Russell, who takes a fictionalized story of the 1970s Abscam scandal and spins it into a densely layered, multi-conflicted and infinitely nuanced examination of relationships: romantic ones, political ones, friendly ones, business ones and family ones. This tale of two con artists working for the feds to nab crooked pols never happened for real. But it sure feels that way.
5. "Prisoners" -- The creepiest thriller I've seen since "The Silence of the Lambs." Denis Villeneuve directs a dark and disturbing missing kids mystery that evolves into an essay on justice and humanity. As Hugh Jackman's survivalist dad investigates the disappearance of his daughter and her friend, this movie investigates the investigators and comes to a startling conclusion: People can fool you, but what they harbor in their basements always tells the truth.
6. "Short Term 12" -- A delightful, simple surprise highlighted by Brie Larson's elegantly transparent performance as a foster-care facility administrator, and the movie's compelling, understated storytelling from director/writer Destin Cretton, flushing out a full feature from his 2008 film short of the same title. Larson leads a staff of young people supervising a makeshift family of even younger people filtered through a publicly funded foster care center. It's a quiet treasure of a movie.
7. "The Stories We Tell" -- Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family to explore not only what made her late party-girl mother tick, but to redefine the movie storytelling experience. It's too faked and dramatized to be a documentary. But it's also all true. Sort of. A triumph of originality and narrative vision any way you look at it.
8. "Dallas Buyers Club" -- This may be a formula Hollywood drama about an everyperson underdog taking on powerful institutions. (Think "Erin Brockovich" or "The Insider" or "Flash of Genius.") But bold and canny direction by Jean-Marc Vallee turns it into an urgent, human story aided by Matthew McConaughey's go-for-broke performance as a hardhearted, hedonistic homophobe who contracts AIDS during the 1980s and spends what's left of his life making money off his situation. And, by collateral benefit, he actually helps other patients obtain lifesaving drugs they can't get through regular avenues within the United States.
9. "Captain Phillips" -- Paul Greengrass directs Tom Hanks in this nail-biter fact-based piracy thriller that goes beyond a regular Hollywood action yarn by showing us the aftermath of a violent encounter. How the U.S. military saves Hanks' title character provides the movie's suspense. How Hanks shows us the emotional toll of violence provides the movie's humanity and heart.
10. "Nebraska" -- At 77, Chicago's own Bruce Dern performs the role of his long career, so far, anyway. As an aging patriarch convinced he has won a (bogus) million-dollar sweepstakes prize, he creates a cantankerous, empathetic character operating in a comically dead-on reality fabricated by director Alexander Payne. This movie understands really small-town America, and it's not quite as clever or engaging as Mayberry RFD would have us believe.