This has been one of those years that makes you think whatever Oscar does, a consensus has pretty much been reached among critics and various critics’ groups about which films will pull down best picture Oscar nominations. With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences now delivering as many as 10 best picture contenders, you can pretty much bet that this year will feature a full house and that the listed films will jibe with that consensus.
But there weren’t just 10 good movies, most of them released at the tail end of 2013. Films from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “Blue is the Warmest Color” or “Blue Jasmine” have their champions. Not me. The Danish film “The Hunt” is in the conversation, the best foreign language film of last year (like “Warmest Color,” a tad too melodramatic, I thought), as are the Japanese animated picture “The Wind Rises” and the surprising Canadian documentary/essay “Stories We Tell.” It was that kind of year.
Matthew McConaughey had the best 2013, so good that his mythic turn in “Mud” and his nearly-steals-the-film cameo in “The Wolf of Wall Street” could only sit in the shadows of a film as impressive as “The Dallas Buyers Club.”
“Blackfish” sets a new standard for activist documentaries, run in theaters and then parked on CNN for repeat viewings where it convinced musicians to not play SeaWorld, and might encourage ticket buyers to spend their theme park cash elsewhere.
Oscar bait that we didn’t take? “August: Osage County,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Book Thief” seem to earn that distinction. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” may end up an Oscar contender, but wasn’t a Top 10 movie, in my book. Nominate Forest Whitaker and move on. (Sorry, Oprah.)
Best cameo? Peter Jackson chomping on a carrot at the beginning of “The Desolation of Smaug.”
Ten best pictures? Pat yourself on the back. Chances are, you saw a few of these — a lot of mainstream movies made their mark alongside the arty indie cinema.
“The Dallas Buyers Club”: The tragedy of AIDS, as experienced by a working-class Joe who refuses to be written off or killed off by a medical establishment that doesn’t treat him as a person, this is the first movie on this subject with a swagger. Thank McConaughey. Dude deserves the Oscar. Give it to him.
“Gravity”: A serenely cerebral space accident thriller that hangs on state-of-the-art effects, George Clooney’s voice and Sandra Bullock’s decades of audience empathy. The state of sci-fi effects will change but this one will still be touching people, years down the road.
“Captain Phillips”: A lean, perfectly pitched thriller about a merchant ship hijacking from the director of “United 93,” starring this generation’s EveryAmerican, Tom Hanks. It took guts to give us a taste of the hijackers’ point of view. Director Paul Greengrass and co-star Barkhad Abdi gave us that. But Hanks makes us care.
“Fruitvale Station”: Ryan Coogler’s film of the last day of the life of a young man killed by a cop at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station is a moving depiction of a mistake-prone person (Michael B. Jordan) who had the empathy to change. He just never got the chance to. The year’s most touching drama.
“Her”: The year’s best romance was about a man and his sentient operating system. Spike Jonze made this sci-fi trope fresh and heartbreaking, thanks to Joaquin Phoenix and the sexy, empathetic voice of Scarlett Johansson.
“12 Years a Slave”: The grim subject matter and the “history we need to know” label take nothing away from this black man’s eye-view of slavery in the years just before the Civil War. Any arguments over the allegedly “benign” nature of this “peculiar institution” are silenced by this unflinching depiction of its horrors, with Oscar-worthy performances by Chiwitel Ejiofor and Adepero Oduye.
“Nebraska”: A Midwestern odyssey that follows a single-minded — and a little simple-minded — old alcoholic as he undertakes one last confused quest for himself and his legacy. Bruce Dern’s Woody is the performance of a lifetime, set off by hilarious June Squibb as the sort of woman any man would walk away from, given the excuse.
“All Is Lost”: Robert Redford does his best acting in decades as an old man, struggling with the sea and the small boat that is sinking underneath him. Call it exciting or call it existential, this J.C. Chandor picture is drama at its most elemental and most human.
“American Hustle”: The cast to this ABSCAM comic-caper picture is so good that burning all the attention and Oscar buzz on Jennifer Lawrence is a crime. Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper are just as good. And Amy Adams is better, nothing short of brilliant — her grasping, needy but never bitter turn is the heart and soul of the picture.
“Saving Mr. Banks”: Emma Thompson is gloriously brittle as the author of “Mary Poppins,” a temperamental tempest who descends on Burbank, Calif., utterly immune to the charms of Walt Disney — and Tom Hanks, who plays Walt. Sentimental? Yes. Earnest. And overlong. But witty and ambitious and sympathetically acted by the leads, and supporting players such as B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Giamatti.