A lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes personal letters for other people (they can’t say what they want to say themselves) forms a wondrous bond with his Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson)—which (who?) becomes more and more sentient. Spike Jonze’s futuristic comedy is an exquisite meditation on love, friendship, human connection, and the singularity that might enlarge (or possibly contract) our definition of what that connection means. In the first hour, there’s a vein of satire—of the supreme silliness and pathos of a world in which people turn increasingly to disembodied voices for solace, friendship, sex. (Can you really “date” an OS?) But the satire yields to a sort of transcendental romanticism that leaves you both heartbroken and full of wonder. This is like no other movie—although it’s clearly a descendant of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Is Charlie Kaufman the new high priest—the William Gibson—of futuristic psychodrama?)
Her is not just the best film in years, it has the best performance of 2013 by a cosmic margin. Perhaps no actor but Phoenix could express emotions that are so painfully unformed. He’s not just unafraid of regressing, of getting lost—he lives for it.
2. American Hustle
In any other year of the last ten, David O. Russell’s ensemble comedy about the wayward—ridiculous, near-tragic—operation that was Abscam would be at the tippy-top top of this list. In any case, it’s marvelous, and so is the cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and that mischievous and inspired comedienne Jennifer Lawrence.
3. The Act of Killing
It’s a bad trip—a documentary that documents a higher and more frightening reality. Joshua Oppenheimer asked admitted Indonesian mass murderers to write, direct, and reenact their atrocities from 40-plus years ago. They rise to the occasion with alacrity, and the result is one of the most lucid portraits of evil you’ll ever see.
4. Much Ado About Nothing
Just before postproduction for The Avengers, Joss Whedon gathered a bunch of friends (TV actors, mostly) and shot a Shakespeare movie in twelve days in his own rambling L.A. house. His casual approach works amazingly well—this might be the best Shakespeare comedy on film.
5. Short Term 12
Destin Daniel Cretton’s fictionalized portrait of a Southern California short-term-care facility for at-risk teenagers sounds like a good-for-you movie. But it’s a complicated weave, by turns grim, exhilarating, funny, and unspeakably moving—and it features a breakthrough performance by Brie Larson as the counselor wracked by her own history of abuse.
6. 20 Feet From Stardom
Morgan Neville’s soaring hymn to so-called back-up singers, the “colored girls” (among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer) who went doo do doo do doo and so much more but couldn’t make the cosmic twenty-foot leap to fortune and fame. Despite a thread of melancholy, the movie goes from bliss to bliss.
7. All Is Lost
J. C. Chandor’s one-man disaster picture—a cunningly edited procedural about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) trying to keep his damaged yacht afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chandor gets the best work in decades from Redford—an actor who has trouble connecting onscreen pushed to the limit of his own self-containment.
8. Caesar Must Die
More Shakespeare, from the great Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who fictionalize the efforts of a group of maximum-security prisoners—mostly organized-crime members—to rehearse a production of Julius Caesar. You’re inside and then outside the play, immersed and then distanced—a heightened space unlike any onscreen. The Tavianis dissolve every artistic boundary they meet.
9. Blue Is the Warmest Color
An intense, three-hour lesbian coming-of-age movie with long and graphic sex scenes. Some critics have accused director Abdellatif Kechiche of leading with his libido. It’s possible. Nonetheless, he and actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux capture the intensity of sexual discovery—and dependency—indelibly.
10. The Wind Rises
Hayao Miyazaki says this will be his last film, and it’s as grown-up as animation gets: a romantic, tragic, exquisitely strange portrait of a Japanese boy (then a young man) who dreams of creating wondrous flying machines—which are then used to rain death and destruction in World War II. Everything is organic—all of a piece—in Miyazaki’s universe: The natural and engineered worlds are part of the same continuum, and there’s barely a whisper of distinction between so-called reality and the dreams that take wing.
Along with The Act of Killing and 20 Feet From Stardom, here are some of the best docs of 2013:
Let the Fire Burn
Jason Osder examines the events of May, 1985, when Philadelphia leaders decided in their wisdom to drop a bomb on the headquarters of the African-American “anarcho-primitivist” group MOVE, a conflagration that killed 11 people (including five children). There are no modern-day talking heads: Osder weaves together archival footage to create a thrilling present-day narrative.
Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s haunting film begins in 2010, when esteemed trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a whale named Tilikum before a horrified Orlando SeaWorld crowd. It turns out Tilikum was only the most extreme case of a “blackfish” brutalized into psychosis by captivity. This is one of those docs where audiences gasp and cry out—or just cry—at regular intervals.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
Alex Gibney’s gripping, deeply ambivalent portrait of Julian Assange angered people on both sides of the Wikileaks debate—a good thing in this case. He came to view the whistleblowers—cyber guerrillas in the war against all forms of secrecy—from a sort of psycho-anthropological perspective. Here, he says, is how the culture created them. And here’s how it destroys them.
And don’t forget:
The World’s End
The third of writer-director Edgar Wright’s genre-bending black comedies starring Simon Pegg (who-co-wrote) and Nick Frost is the year’s most entertaining sci-fi comedy romp, the story of a middle-aged child-man on an absurd quest to relive his university days and drink his way through ten pubs in a single night—and driven to his senses in the act of defeating conformist body-snatchers from outer space.
Ryan Coogler’s debut film dramatizes a day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders’ cell phone cameras. The movie is principally a tour-de-force for actor Michael B. Jordan, who makes Grant the most recognizable kind of martyr—an unstable child-man whose motor runs tragically fast in a world as jittery as this one.
Alexander Payne’s sixth feature is a special kind of triumph: a road movie about an addled, ornery old man (Bruce Dern) on a seemingly pointless odyssey in which the whimsy is always cut by settings redolent of rust and alcohol—and in which the real journey’s end is his own troubled heart.
A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s bloody, four-part drama locates the source of seemingly irrational outbursts of violence in the economic desperation all over modern China. No wonder the government tried to suppress it.
And, the best performances of 2013:
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon and Her
Alicia Witt, Cold Turkey
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
Zhao Tao, A Touch of Sin
Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave
Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now
Amy Acker, Much Ado About Nothing
Nathan Fillion, Much Ado About Nothing
*This article is an expanded version of one that appears in the December 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.