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2013: Sensational On Screen

A Spectacular Year for Movies

  • This photo released by Roadside Attractions shows Robert Redford starring in J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost."  The film opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Daniel Daza)

    This photo released by Roadside Attractions shows Robert Redford starring in J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost." The film opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Daniel Daza)

  • Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, second right,  of the film "Enough Said," poses with cast members, from left, Tracey Fairaway, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tavi Gevinson on day 4 of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 in Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

    Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, second right, of the film "Enough Said," poses with cast members, from left, Tracey Fairaway, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tavi Gevinson on day 4 of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 in Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

  • This film image released by CBS FIlms shows Oscar Isaac in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis." (AP Photo/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa)

    This film image released by CBS FIlms shows Oscar Isaac in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis." (AP Photo/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa)

  • This photo released by Roadside Attractions shows Robert Redford starring in J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost."  The film opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Daniel Daza)
  • Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, second right,  of the film "Enough Said," poses with cast members, from left, Tracey Fairaway, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tavi Gevinson on day 4 of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 in Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
  • This film image released by CBS FIlms shows Oscar Isaac in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis." (AP Photo/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa)

May we stipulate that 2013 has been a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies?

Which means that many of us are frustrated. After all, the average filmgoer only sees about six films a year. This is being written at a time when there are at least 10 must-see movies in theaters, not to mention titles that are stacking up in our on-demand queues like backed-up shuttle flights circling the airport.

And guess what: There are more on the way. Even with names like Soderbergh, Spielberg and Lucas decrying the current state of cinema in recent months, it’s still easy to choose 10 movies of exceptional ambition, vision and artistic sensitivity, so easy that we decided to expand the list to a lucky 21. And that’s leaving out such standouts as Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight, Rush, Short Term 12, 20 Feet From Stardom and Frozen, to name only a few.

With such above-average fare to choose from, filmgoers may want to adjust their averages, too.

Top movies of 2013

1. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s stately, searing drama invited viewers to inhabit a chapter of American history by way of galvanizing performances, visual poetry and unforgettable moments.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

This sepia-toned evocation of 1960s New York perfectly captures an era, its music and the nearly forgotten artists who made it all possible.

3. Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s ingenious documentary fused fact and fictional techniques to create a fascinating meditation on family, memory and meaning.

4. Enough Said

In one of his final roles, James Gandolfini was the sweet-natured anchor to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a bittersweet, consistently hilarious romantic comedy for grown-ups.

5. All Is Lost

Robert Redford delivered a nearly wordless performance in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s tour de force of pure cinematic storytelling.

6. Her

Spike Jonze’s brilliant futuristic love story starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson captures the zeitgeist with flawless wry humor, pathos and visual brio.

7. Gravity

This year’s single best reason to ditch the couch and go back into theaters, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi ride brought vigor and unmatched technical virtuosity to the humble Popcorn Movie.

8. Mud

What could have been a Southern gothic curio became a touching coming-of-age story, thanks to star Matthew McConaughey and writer-director Jeff Nichols.

9. Fruitvale Station

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler made the year’s most smashing debut in this wrenching fact-based drama, featuring a breakout lead performance from Michael B. Jordan.

10. Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner embodied the passions and pitfalls of female friendship in Noah Baumbach’s kicky urban comedy-drama about young adulthood in modern-day New York.

11. The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer audaciously interrogated pure evil by way of cinematic tropes in this unnerving investigation of Indonesian deaths squads.

12. In a World . . .

Lake Bell’s smart comedy about an L.A. voice-over artist tackled sexism, show business, self-confidence and romance with sharply observant elan.

13. Museum Hours

Jem Cohen sent viewers on an intoxicating tour of Vienna in this immersive tour through the riches of the Kunsthistoriches and beyond.

14. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Texas noir received both a jolt and much-needed touch of lyricism thanks to filmmaker David Lowery and a trio of terrific performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster.

15. Captain Phillips

You’ve already heard that the last 15 minutes redefine screen acting, but they also redefine all that’s gone before.

16. Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s father-son drama featured a career-making performance from Bruce Dern, and a melancholy glimpse of Recession-era casualties in the Corn Belt.

17. Medora

The nonfiction flip side to Nebraska, this riveting documentary about an Indiana high school basketball team perfectly captures the American Dream at its most tattered.

18. Mother of George

Andrew Dosunmu’s rapturous melodrama, set in the African diaspora in Brooklyn, featured gorgeous images captured by cinematographer Bradford Young.

19. American Hustle

David O. Russell’s anarchic ode to the 1970s that uses the FBI Abscam case as a backdrop to examine striving, conniving and self-deception.

20. Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto transformed themselves from the inside out in the service of a funny, touching drama set at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

21. Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Part historical pageant, part domestic drama, this occasionally unwieldy tour through American history was enormously entertaining, and confirmed that, no, there’s nothing Oprah can’t do. Respect.