Top 10 movies of 2013 critics' picks: Ken Eisner


What a weird year for movies. Fewer than usual foreign-language gems to choose from, and more Oscar wannabes rammed down our throats at the last moment. These are ordered in some semblance of general preference, but not by much.

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers’ latest Homeric odyssey may not be a totally accurate depiction of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene before Bob Dylan, but it’s rich with the wintry mysteries of life, acoustic guitars, beards, and runaway cats.

12 Years a Slave
For people wondering why African-Americans are still crabbing about that little thing called slavery, this superbly crafted movie is the biggest jolt since Roots hit TV viewers where they lived. So, naturally, it had to be made by a mostly non-American cast and crew. By Oscar time it will certainly teach us to pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name.

In which Alexander Payne leaves Hawaii (and George Clooney’s sunny star power) for a black-and-white return to his Midwestern roots, with Bruce Dern outstanding as a clueless geezer on the road in search of money, and inner peace, he’s never going to get.

Dallas Buyers Club/Mud
Matthew McConaughey was seen elsewhere this year, including the first and best scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street. But these two bittersweet, fablelike dramas show the Texan at his leanest but not meanest—as an unlikely AIDS fighter and an overly romantic bandit, respectively. Together, they herald a breakthrough for a guy who started out as a comic sidekick, tried (and failed at) being a leading man, and appears to be settling in as a major character actor.

Before Midnight
The darkest of Richard Linklater’s two-decade trilogy with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in glorious Greece—now hooked up and with kids of their own—captures the more elusive challenges of requited love.

Spike Jonze’s cautionary tale of the very near future, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a slightly old-fashioned romantic, posits what happens when our smartphones outsmart us. (It opens January 18.)

This dreamlike Spanish take on the Snow White story out-Artists The Artist, extending its black-and-white, silent-film vocabulary with the help of Maribel Verdú (of Pan’s Labyrinth) as a resourceful female bullfighter.

A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s remarkably subversive film, made up of four slightly overlapping stories set in different corners of China, depicts a giant country at a surreal and violent crossroads between past and future.

Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett pulls out all the stops as an unstable con woman in Woody Allen’s Tennessee Williams–inflected comic drama about East Coast crooks and San Francisco strugglers. Sally Hawkins is equally good as the baffled, hard-working sister.

At Berkeley
The documentary of the year—four unnarrated hours spent on almost every aspect of life on California’s most vital (if woefully underfunded) campus—could only have been crafted by Frederick Wiseman, the almost 84-year-old who taught every other docmaker how to do it.

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