Some years, movie critics scratch and scrape to try and come up with a list of the ten best films. No such struggle in 2013! There was a plentitude of quality films this year, especially during the home stretch of the last several months. The real problem is narrowing down the list.
Never let it be said we shy away from a challenge at Purple Clover. We’ve winnowed our list by limiting it to movies aimed squarely at discerning adults. You won’t find any comic book superhero flicks or alien robot combat dramas here, just movies that will move you, make you laugh and give you plenty to chew on afterwards.
Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:
"All Is Lost" — Talk about the old man and the sea. Robert Redford, 77, gives what just may be the performance of his career — and sans dialogue, other than a well-timed expletive or two. This absorbing drama tracks a man’s attempts to survive alone at sea after his sail boat is irreparably damaged by a collision with a floating cargo container. Moving and meaningful.
"American Hustle" — The Abscam scandal of the late '70s, an FBI sting operation in which faux Arab sheiks offered bribes to politicians, is the focus of this raucous and engaging drama. The movie focuses on a couple of small-time con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams, both terrific) who find themselves involved in the sting alongside a cocksure FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). We’re never sure until the very end exactly who’s conning whom. David O. Russell (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) directed.
"Before Midnight" — What does it take for a relationship and a marriage to go the distance? This third chapter in director Richard Linklater’s trilogy about Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) finds the pair on the verge of middle-age and trying to maintain the love amidst childcare, career concerns and the flat-out fatigue of daily living. It’s not necessary to have seen “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004) to enjoy this supposedly final chapter but, just as being Jewish did with Levy’s rye bread, it helps.
"Captain Phillips" — Tom Hanks always makes it looks so easy that sometimes you forget just how good he is. Moviegoers will be reminded all over again in this tense drama, which is based on real life, about an American cargo ship captain (Hanks) whose vessel is hijacked by desperate Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. Hanks’ captain is an everyman rather than an action hero and his actions are all the more remarkable for it. And there’s a scene near the end of the movie — you’ll know it when you see it — in which Hanks shows that he can convey with less than any other actor around today.
"Enough Said" — Gone too soon: That’s the aching feeling you’re left with after seeing the wonderfully warm performance by the late James Gandolfini in this bright romantic comedy about middle-aged lovers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays a divorced masseuse who falls for Gandolfini’s schlumpy Mr. Nice Guy but, at the same time, becomes best buds with his hypercritical ex (the redoubtable Catherine Keener). Sure, this is a first-world problems kind of movie, but who wants to suffer and wallow 24/7?
"Fruitvale Station" Based on a true story, this haunting drama follows a young ex-con (beautifully played by “Friday Night Lights” standout Michael B. Jordan) as he tries to straighten out his life on what tragically turns out to be his last day on Earth. By simply following him for a day as he meets with friends, a former employer, family, his daughter and girlfriend, the movie offers a complete and moving portrait of a young man gaining an understanding of what it means to become an adult.
"Gravity" — Sandra Bullock is lost in space, but without the camp or a robot barking, “Danger, Will Robinson!” In this thrilling ride of a movie, the actress more than earns her dramatic and action star stripes as an astronaut cast adrift in black nothingness of space after debris slams into and incapacitates her spacecraft. Whether and how she manages to survive, much less figure out a way to get back to Earth, makes for a tense and yet affecting 90 minutes. (Note: Do pay the extra to see this one in 3-D.)
"Inside Llewyn Davis" — The Coen Brothers do it again. Directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen have made a melancholy beauty about an early '60s folk singer, the titular Llewyn Davis (beautifully played by Oscar Isaac), who’s struggling to find success and, more often, just a place to crash for the night in Greenwich Village and the rest of New York City. The film is a ruefully funny meditation on fame and talent and how the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
"Nebraska" — This is a road movie that takes the a scenic route from Montana to Nebraska, where a somewhat befuddled, older ne’er-do-well (Bruce Dern, never better) hopes to collect his supposed winnings for a sweepstakes prize. Tagging along for the ride on this picaresque tale is his son (Will Forte), who grudgingly loves his dad, even while recognizing his many faults. It’s about love and family and making the best of it, and doesn’t that pretty much sum up everything that matters? Alexander Payne (“The Descendants” and “Side Trip”) directed.
"12 Years a Slave" — This one is a tough sit but worth it. A searing drama, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by British actor Chiwetel Ojiofor), a free-born black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s. As a slave, he has owners both kind and cruel, but life is never less than desperately hard and he longs every single day for freedom and to be reunited with his wife and children. Throughout, his humanity shines through.
Bonus recommendations: These five films didn’t quite make our list, but if you get the chance to catch 'em, do:
"Blue Jasmine" — In Woody Allen’s latest bittersweet comedy, Cate Blanchett gives a sensational performance as a once-wealthy socialite trying to rebuild her life after her husband (Alec Baldwin) pulls a Bernie Madoff.
"Frances Ha" — Rising star Greta Gerwig offers a heartfelt and winning turn as a twentysomething who, unlike of many of her friends, can’t quite make the leap into functional adulthood.
"Lee Daniels’ The Butler" — A sweeping though sometimes heavy-handed look at the civil rights movement as viewed through the life of a longtime butler (Forrest Whitaker, in a deeply felt performance) at the White House.
"Short Term 12" — In a breakout performance, Brie Larson is all exposed nerves and ferocious dedication as a troubled young woman caring for even more troubled young charges at a group home for problem adolescents.
"Wadjda" — This Saudi Arabian film, the first directed by a woman, is a heartwarming tale that still manages to make its points about the oppression of women in a society that frowns on even a young girl, like the movie’s plucky heroine, wanting to ride a bicycle.