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Top 10 films of 2013 featured strong stories, acting


Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Her."

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There were more than 650 films released in 2013, according to

With no further adieu, I’ve narrowed the field considerably and present the following top 10.

1. Her. Writer-director Spike Jonze’s offbeat romance between a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to get over his divorce and his advanced Siri-like operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson) struggling with her artificial consciousness is my film of the year. It’s a moving comedy-drama featuring terrific performances, a strong sense of style and place, and a witty, intelligent script with much to say about love and relationships, and how humans interface with technology and each other. Her is a slightly futuristic sci-fi — until you look around the world and see how many people are plugged in and connected to somewhere and something else, and you know that Jonze is addressing our present condition.

2. Nebraska. Filmmaker Alexander Payne is from Omaha. His first film, Election, felt like a middle finger to the director’s Midwest roots. Nebraska is the nostalgic reflection of a middle-aged man looking back with fondness. Bruce Dern caps a brilliant and underrated career with a quiet, moving performance as a put-upon elderly Wisconsin man who cannot drive but is determined to get to Lincoln to receive a million-dollar cash prize he received in the mail. His son (Will Forte) knows the letter’s a scam but agrees to drive Dad anyway. It’s a profound, sad, funny, and revealing journey, with comic relief by June Squibb as the caustic shrew wife/mother stealing the film.

3. Before Midnight. This is the third film in Richard Linklater’s ongoing exploration of a great love affair that fate cannot deny. This time it’s the pitfalls and realities of middle-age, parenting, and careers at a crossroad that conspire to tear the relationship apart. With the usual template of “24 hours in the life of ...,” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy improvise their way through much of the story as the older and wiser couple has grown quietly bitter and resentful. But as they angrily exchange their pain and heartache during the film’s teary third act, this fictitious couple has never been more believable.

4. American Hustle. ABSCAM was a sting operation in the late 1970s that teamed a gifted con man with the FBI in an effort to nab Washington politicos on the take. In filmmaker David O. Russell’s hands, there’s much more to this story. His partially-fictionalized version of the events is a twisty comedy-drama of cons within cons that, like a modern version of The Sting, keeps you guessing until the end. There should be Oscar nominations aplenty for the cast: Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld, Amy Adams as his equally talented grifter mistress, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s obnoxious wife, Bradley Cooper as an overly eager FBI agent, and Jeremy Renner as a likable New Jersey mayor open to bribes.

5. 12 Years a Slave. Maybe the opening hype over this brutal and true account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from the North kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery before the Civil War, caused the film to peak too soon. Or, perhaps the film’s minor flaws caught up to it. Either way, the buzz over Steve McQueen’s powerful drama is considerably calmer and quieter than it was a month ago. But that doesn’t diminish the gut-punching force of the film as it confronts a great American tragedy. Equal to Ejiofor’s amazing breakthrough is Michael Fassbender’s performance as a cruel, vile Louisiana slave owner.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street. The fictional Gordon Gecko defined Wall Street greed in the 1980s. But the real-life Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) lived it, pushing worthless stocks in the 1980s and ’90s to the gullible and making millions by doing it. Capturing Belfort’s crazed life of money and drugs, DiCaprio is a hurricane force. Martin Scorsese frames this true story in similar first-person voice-over narrative as Goodfellas and Casino. The Wolf of Wall Street taps into a time decades ago that is, sadly, just as relevant today.

7. Gravity. Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and the film’s gorgeous effects are the headliners of the film, but its true star is director and cowriter Alfonso Cuarón. Working with a simple premise — astronauts stranded in space who must find a way to return to Earth before their oxygen runs out — Cuarón finds inventive ways to keep the tension and pace building. For most of its 90-minute run time Gravity doesn’t let up: pushing audiences to the edge of their seats and beyond. More than a clever gimmick set in space, Gravity is the increasingly rare smart science fiction blockbuster.

8. Dallas Buyers Club. In an Oscar race stacked with terrific performances, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto should factor heavily. In this powerful and moving true story set in early years of the AIDS crisis, McConaughey plays a Texas redneck and homophobe diagnosed with the disease and given only a month to live. Leto is a sweet but troubled transvestite also dying from AIDS. Together the pair form an unlikely friendship to help each other and others with AIDS acquire a cocktail of non-FDA-approved drugs to fight the disease.

9. Blue is the Warmest Color. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a bright and attractive high school senior in Paris who is madly in love. That her crush is a 20something woman named Emma (Léa Seydoux) is only one facet to this refreshingly honest story. Based on Julie Maroh’s comic books, Blue is the Warmest Color captures love and heartbreak in universal ways; just know that the French film was tagged with an NC-17 rating in its U.S. release for nudity and fairly graphic sex. Director Abdellatif Kechiche has come under fire by cast and crew for his onset demeanor, but Exarchchopulous and Seydoux deliver astonishing performances.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac delivers a star-making turn as the titular character, a talented struggling folk singer in the habit of irritating everyone he meets. Based loosely on real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the film is as much about a time and place — 1960s Greenwich Village — as it is the person. Inside Llewyn Davis is a haunting fan letter to those early folk days from writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen in their most un-Coen-like film to date.

Contact Kirk Baird at: or 419-724-6734.

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