Top 10 movies of 2013 critics' picks: Janet Smith

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Subversively political, thrillingly visual, and sometimes downright offensive, the following films took risks to rise above the dreck. Below, you’ll find ghastly hairdos, one rad station wagon, and enough drugs to knock out a herd of elephants. What you won’t find is Grudge Match.

Fruitvale Station
With a small film as timely as the Trayvon Martin trial, Ryan Coogler achieves huge results, humanizing the final 12 hours of an African-American man shot dead by Oakland transit police. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as a flawed but likable ex-con trying to get back on track is deceptively low-key, quietly building to the fatal night with the force of a hollow-point bullet.

The Hunt
Frosty Scandinavian reserve tightens the intensity in Thomas Vinterberg’s tale of small-town scandal. The director siphons all melodrama out of his story of a teacher falsely accused of abusing a child, instead focusing on the intricately understated Mads Mikkelsen as a man who refuses to holler his innocence.

Gravity
Sandra Bullock’s stripped-down performance and the higher themes of rebirth and survival are powerful. What really makes Gravity the most exhilarating trip of the year, though, is the way it celebrates the limitless visual frontier of high-tech moviemaking, sending us spiralling into outer space. That Alfonso Cuarón also gives it heart is the icing on the escape pod.

Wadjda
Haifaa Al-Mansour lifts the hijab on Saudi Arabia, a country so oppressive it considers bike-riding a threat to virginity. Waad Mohammed’s feisty, Chuck Taylor–wearing title character dreams of buying a shiny new two-wheeler in a heartbreakingly empathetic and dangerously defiant portrait.

The Act of Killing
Here’s a group of gangsters that’s stranger than fiction: aging dandies who openly brag about committing genocide in Indonesia, making them heroes to a scary new wave of paramilitaries. But documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer takes the absurdity to surreal heights by convincing the onetime killers to re-enact their dirtiest deeds in whatever movie style they like—be it noir, western, or even Bollywood. Deranged, chilling, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The Way, Way Back
Awkwardness becomes high art in a film that captures the exquisite pain of a kid who can’t fit into his divorced parents’ love lives, and a single mother trying to assimilate to her new boyfriend’s cocktail-swilling, yacht-sailing vacation scene. Bonuses include outdated waterparks, banana-seat bikes, a wicked woody station wagon, and Steve Carell as the ultimate dickhead.

12 Years A Slave
Steve McQueen doesn’t stylize his story of slavery, and he doesn’t need to. His straight-up rendition of one man’s hellish enslavement on southern plantations works because it puts you in his shoes, erasing the distance of history and making every brutal injustice sting like a whip.

The Wolf of Wall Street
We can’t promise that you won’t feel the urge to shower immediately after watching Martin Scorsese’s outsize parody of Wall Street excess in the ’80s and ’90s. Vulgar? Yes. Too long? Probably. But his cocky, freewheeling descent into stock-market debauch—complete with epic drug binges, extended talks with the audience, and killer turns by the likes of Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and a balls-to-the-wall Leonardo DiCaprio—captures the manic energy of Casino and Goodfellas, and of an America that eventually crashed in 2008.

Side Effects
What is a top-10 movie list without an expertly crafted thriller? Steven Soderbergh comes through with the best one of the year, cleverly weaving in themes about Big Pharma pushing happy pills on the depressed masses, and using dreamlike sound and cinematography to conjure his drug-induced world.

American Hustle
And the Javier Bardem Honorary Oscar for the most elaborately hideous hairstyles goes to… Submit to David O. Russell’s weird rhythms, random tangents, and hilarious toupees and you’ll enjoy this ’70s-style party—especially the off-the-wall characterizations by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a long ride, but the last act pays off like the ultimate scam.

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