The five best films of the year

2013 was a special gift to avid moviegoers.

2013: This magical year will be remembered for a long while as the best year for movies in the new millennium so far. I would go as far as to call it the best since 1993, which some critics referred to as an annus mirabilius, or a miracle year.

One after another they arrived, great movies of all sorts—from sweeping epics to elegiac poems, 2013 left no stone unturned. And the ripest fruits of its labours pulled no punches. Many of the finest films of the year took their audiences on emotional roller coasters, while others, like Gravity, served the trend more literally.

Most important was how completely 2013 defied the Hollywood machine. 2013 saw an unusually high number of box office flops—in fact, three of them (The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., and Jack the Giant Slayer) currently place in the top ten box office bombs of all time. Audiences seemed to come to their senses, largely ignoring sequels and big-budget traps of movies that attempt to use flashy effects as placeholders for thoughtful storytelling.

Instead, we witnessed the induction of many new and talented filmmakers into the world of cinematic arts. Independent filmmakers gifted us with titles like The Selfish Giant, The Past, Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now, The Way Way Back, and Stories We Tell. No year in recent memory has more confidently indicated the direction in which the film industry is headed. It is a hopeful one, and 2013 has provided it with spirited momentum.

Here are the best films of the year, in order of approximate preference:

Her: Spike Jonze both wrote and directed this unorthodox love story. The plot follows a man who is a more sensitive version of the hopeless romantic archetype, here played flawlessly by Joaquin Phoenix, and a self-aware, animate operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in a bravura performance.

Short Term 12: Featuring Brie Larson in another of the year’s best, most full-bodied performances, Destin Cretton’s independent, feature-length debut revolves around a foster care facility for at-risk teens. Larson plays Grace, who cares greatly for her work but is simultaneously distancing herself from her own rough past. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, and life-affirming, often within the same frame.

12 Years a Slave: An unflinching testament of a free man’s kidnapping and selling into slavery, based on a true story. Director Steve McQueen adds a bit more panache—which is justified because it never sacrifices substance for style—to a film which has done for slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust. It doesn’t provide any catharsis, as catharses in these cases are most likely impossible. It dramatizes historical events artfully and provides us with insight into human nature.

The Act of Killing: Documentaries exist to reach the uncharted and bring it forth. The idea behind this one was to provide Suharto death squad members, who believe themselves to be in the clear for their war crimes, the tools with which to recreate their many heinous acts. Confronting death in this manner plays to unexpected but devastating effect.

Before Midnight: One of the only romantic dramas that can be called ‘thrilling.’ Richard Linklater, who directed and co-wrote the script with leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, filmed an emotionally satisfying conclusion to a saga spanning nearly two decades. The dialogue is natural and true, flowing from the characters like water, but carefully crafted by the artists who wrote it.

This column is dedicated to the life and collective works of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was one of maybe five actors who worked prolifically and consistently chose exceptional roles for themselves. His loss is unfortunate and tragic.

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