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Actors reborn. Smart scripts. Tense action. High-risk hilarity. Turns out that 2013 was a very good year in film. Here are 13 reasons to be happy about the state of the movies.
1. Robert Redford’s stoic, near-silent yet riveting performance as a besieged yachtsman in All Is Lost. And he did almost all of his own stunts. As if carrying a movie solo isn’t impressive enough.
2. The invisible raven of doom that perches on bad-luck balladeer Oscar Isaac’s shoulder in every scene of Inside Llewyn Davis.
3. Barkhad Abdi’s electrifying debut as an intelligent, desperate Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. The Somali-born nonprofessional consistently upstages Tom Hanks.
4. The breathtakingly cheesy 1970s costume design and hair disasters of American Hustle. Christian Bale’s laboriously constructed comb-over gives us a backstage look at what Donald Trump does every morning in the mirror.
5. The supremely delightful story of a spunky Saudi girl and her bicycle, Wadjda.
6. Every screen moment from Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games: Catching Fire, American Hustle), a performer put on this Earth to make all other actresses try harder. In Fire she’s a vulnerable badass superhero. In Hustle she’s Lucille Ball meets Lizzie Borden. Whether she’s toppling dictatorships or exploding microwaves, she looks good doing it.
7. The smiling, sweet-spirited grace of James Gandolfini in the midlife romantic comedy Enough Said, reminding us that there was more to this multifaceted performer than his signature role as a TV thug.
8. Midwestern life onscreen in all its buffalo plaid, Bud-swigging, passive-aggressive glory in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
9. Duo of the year: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan as an unlikely comic-dramatic dream team in the reality-based heartwarmer Philomena. (Loud applause, also, for Coogan’s bracingly intelligent script, which melds character insight, sly humor, ripped-from-the-headlines scandal and an adult debate of faith vs. atheism.) If your mom drags you to this one during your holiday visit, don’t resist. You’ll love it.
10. Reunion of the year: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater for the third chapter of their ongoing relationship drama Before Midnight. The emotionally suspenseful examination of monogamy and monotony is deliciously talky and so fair-minded that you can’t pick a side.
11. Ensemble of the year: Drake, Sacha, Liam, Kanye, Harrison, Tina & Amy, and all the other cameo players in Anchorman 2.
12. Comeback of the year (tie): Matthew McConaughey (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club) and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, The Place Beyond the Pines) continue their glorious career reboots.
13. The near-universal critical acclaim and wide audience support for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This harrowing, important film could have disappeared into the art-house obscurity that befell McQueen’s first two features. We’re lucky it didn’t. Now go seek out Mother of George, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, Fruitvale Station, and Blue Caprice, four superb, underseen portraits of 21st-century African-American life.