In a year so rich with captivating cinema, it feels almost criminal to try and narrow it down to a mere five favorites.
While I’ve made my best effort to sample all the hotly-anticipated awards contenders and under-the-radar indies, there’s still countless movies that I’ve disappointingly missed. Social-issue documentaries such as “After Tiller” and “Let the Fire Burn” never saw a Valley release, and critically-acclaimed dramas such as “Mother of George” and “A Touch of Sin” escaped theaters before I had the chance to catch them.
Let’s not even get into “Her,” “The Past,” and “Gloria,” which have been popping up on numerous year-end lists but unfortunately can’t be considered for this one (as they won’t be released in Phoenix until January).
Nevertheless, 2013 has proven to be a bountiful treasure trove of pleasant surprises, unexpected tearjerkers and wildly entertaining crowd-pleasers. While I may not echo the praise heaped upon critical darlings such as “Gravity” and “American Hustle,” here are five films that I absolutely recommend you check out.
1. “Stories We Tell”
There’s no telling how she pulled it off, but Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley somehow managed to make her family history the subject of the most compelling, poignant and ingenious documentary this year. In searching for answers about her mother and father, she asks bigger questions that address the very nature of truth, memory, perspective and documentary filmmaking. After tugging at our heartstrings with narrative dramas such as “Away from Her” and “Take This Waltz,” Polley once again proves that she’s one of the more prolific storytellers of our time, crafting an unforgettable work that will be studied by filmmakers, students and cinephiles for years to come. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
2. “Frances Ha”
Noah Baumbach turns the romantic-comedy formula on its head with this delightful black-and-white comedy, which happens to be one of the most welcome surprises of 2013. In a role tailor-made to her awkward, slapstick charms, the irresistible Greta Gerwig stars as an aspiring modern dancer in Manhattan trying to find her way and clumsily pirouette through adulthood. With a clever wink at the hipster nonsense of pretentious 20-somethings, this love letter to friendship and growing up defies all “chick flick” expectations, featuring astute punchlines that only become funnier with repeated viewings. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
3. “Short Term 12”
This little indie gem managed to elude many filmgoers in its late-summer release but has managed to gain traction in recent months thanks to the awards chatter directed at actress Brie Larson’s star-making performance. The debut feature from filmmaker Destin Cretton, “Short Term 12” is a raw, sometimes amusing, often painful look into the struggles of supervisors and teens at a foster-care facility, leaving very few dry eyes once this deeply affecting drama lets you out of its grip. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray Jan. 14, 2014.)
Bruce Dern and Will Forte give heartfelt performances as a father and son in search of a million dollars that doesn’t actually exist, while June Squibb and a droll supporting cast delivers laughs. This black-and-white comedic drama is a refreshingly accurate illustration of small-town life and relationships, and makes for a wonderful addition to director Alexander Payne’s already exceptional canon (including “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “About Schmidt”). It also features a pitch-perfect score by Mark Orton. (Now in theaters.)
5. “Blue is the Warmest Color”
Unfortunately overshadowed by scores of bad press (regarding the ruthless methods of director Abdellatif Kechiche and the film’s lengthy, explicit sex scenes), “Blue” is one of the most genuine depictions of young love that you’ll ever see on the silver screen. Speaking volumes even when its characters are saying very little (or slurping down pasta), this deliberately-paced but ultimately rewarding Palme d’Or winner is a must-see, if not solely for the nuanced performances of French actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 25, 2014.)
6. “12 Years a Slave”
“12 Years a Slave” is the film to beat at the Academy Awards come February — and rightfully so. A gorgeously shot, almost perfect third feature from master filmmaker Steve McQueen, this unflinching portrayal of slavery is deserving of all the acclaim it’s gotten thus far (particularly for the gut-wrenching performances of its cast, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o). Brutal, powerful, and relentless, “12 Years” is by no means an easy watch, but as a portrait of the unspeakable atrocities humans can commit and the resilience it takes to overcome, it’s necessary viewing. (Now in theaters.)
7. “Spring Breakers”
A polarizing arthouse film marketed as a dubstep-infused party flick for teens, there’s very little middle ground when it comes to “Spring Breakers”: you’ll either think it’s completely pointless or absolutely brilliant. Starring an unrecognizable James Franco as an insanely quotable, Gatsby-esque drug dealer, this fable of girls gone very bad is an assault on the senses and features one of the most cleverly juxtaposed sequences of the year (think ski masks, machine guns and a Britney Spears ballad). (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
A near-flawless masterpiece from one of our finest up-and-coming directors, Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Shotgun Stories”), “Mud” tells a simple coming-of-age story layered with murder and romance, set against the backdrop of the modern South. The film features a fantastic performance from Matthew McConaughey (a likely Oscar nominee for “Dallas Buyers Club”), but is carried by the immensely talented young actor Tye Sheridan, who would easily be an awards contender in a less competitive year. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
9. “The Act of Killing”
Far and away the most unsettling but important film of the year, director Joshua Oppenheimer brings the documentary art form to a whole new level as he asks Indonesian gangsters — and murderers of thousands — to recreate the horrific ways in which they killed. As these apathetic men begin to unravel and realize the terror that they inflicted, we’re left speechless and pondering how individuals are capable of such monstrous acts. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray Jan. 7, 2014.)
10. “Before Midnight”
The third installment in Richard Linklater’s heartbreakingly honest “Before” trilogy (following “Before Sunrise” and “Sunset,” all released nine years apart), “Before Midnight” finds our beloved Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) grappling with marriage and parenting. Bottled-up emotions bubble to the surface and threaten to destroy the life they’ve built together, leaving viewers devastated but enlightened by their keenly written observations on love and humanity. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
(in alphabetical order)
“August: Osage County,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Blackfish,” “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “Computer Chess,” “The Great Beauty,” “The Hunt,” “In a World…,” “Stoker,” “Wadjda.”