Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck star in the best movie of 2013, Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Times are tough — and in real life, too. At the movies, everything is bleak. 2013 told us love is hard (“Before Midnight,” “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “To the Wonder,” “Her”), aging is hard (“The World’s End”) and we’re all going to die, possibly horrifically (“The Counselor”). Between birth and death, you fight to survive, fending off failure (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), disease (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and inhumane institutions (“12 Years a Slave”).
You may struggle alone, in space (“Gravity”), at sea (“All is Lost”) or at an abandoned hospital besieged by Katrina (“Hours,” with a rather good Paul Walker). If you partied (as in “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring” and “The Wolf Wall Street”), you did it hard and at the expense of others.
There was happiness, too, or at least pretty pictures. There was the usual rash of interchangeable comic book and YA movies, made to be hoovered up by everyone at once then quickly forgotten. (Quick: Who were the baddies of “Thor: The Dark World?”) But it was heartening to see the masses flock to “Gravity,” which offered a legitimately new way of looking at movies, albeit one borrowed in part from the avant-garde. Thanks to digital, the “camera” was freed, and thus created in the viewer the loss of control felt by its sparse, flailing cast.
Some imagery was even older: “Computer Chess” and “No” both used decades-old video to create a look outdated and imperfect, ugly and beautiful. And sometimes the pictures were simply flat-out gorgeous, as in the dim light and radiant colors caught from a Nigerian enclave in Brooklyn by “Mother of George” cinematographer Bradford Young.
The films of 2013 were real downers, but also excellent cinema. Ye gods, it was a year where there were at least 30 better titles than a keyed-up Martin Scorsese picture in “Goodfellas” mode. If 2014 is happier, that may be a bad thing.
1. “To the Wonder” Having tackled life, the universe and everything with “The Tree of Life,” director Terrence Malick settled for a more personalized love story. That doesn’t mean it was less heavy. A couple’s breakup is diced into a reflection on memory, some of it real, some of it possibly imagined. Malick’s camerawork plays like dance, and not just because Olga Kurylenko spends debatably too much time twirling.
2. “The World’s End” One of the funniest films of the year is also one of the bleakest, arguing that not only can’t you recreate the hedonistic glories of your youth, but maturity isn’t much better. Simon Pegg’s pathetic middle ager, still rocking a ink dye job and a Sisters of Mercy tee, discovers there’s a ridiculous reason everyone from his small home town seems zombified. And instead of giving in, he (drunkenly) puts up his fists.
3. “Inside Llewyn Davis” Not every artist makes it. The Coens’ latest — either emotionally gutting or darkly hilarious, depending on how you stare at it — follows a musician (Oscar Isaac), as uncompromising as he is unpleasant, who doesn’t. We watch as the world abandons him, but keeps him alive just enough to mess with him.
4. “The Counselor” Everyone hated this talky Cormac McCarthy thriller without realizing it’s a reductio ad absurdum of the novelist’s bleak-o-rama worldview. After getting involved in a drug deal, our heroes (Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and reliably funny-haired Javier Bardem) realize too late and too little that they’re in comically over their head. The only response, as multiple characters lose their heads, is to laugh.
5. ‘Something in the Air’ French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”) reflects on his misspent youth, with a floppy-haired artist (Clement Metayer) flirting with radical politics without realizing he’s only in it for the girls. Every dumb thought you had in your 20s lies in this quietly devastating time capsule, as do some killer ’70s songs.
6. ‘Her’ Is it really that weird for a grown man (Joaquin Phoenix) to be in love with his new, personalized and self-aware operating system? Especially if she’s voiced by a never more relaxed and flirtatious Scarlett Johansson? Spike Jonze’s latest dares to normalize computer love, in turn asking what constitutes love in the first place.
7. ‘No’ We can all agree that genocidal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was a monster, but does doing the right thing always mean doing the right thing? Shot entirely on ’80s video, this rollicking comedy follows the real-life movement to oust Pinochet, which succeeded in part because they hired an ad whiz (Gael Garcia Bernal). Like “Lincoln,” it argues that, to get things done, the good guys have to be as slimy as the bad.
8. ‘Computer Chess’ It’s tempting to reduce the year’s strangest movie — a midnight movie mindf— waiting to happen — to a simple tale about technology overtaking humanity at a titular conference in the ’70s or ’80s (it’s never clear). But just let weird be weird. Like “No,” Andrew Bujalski’s latest has old video, plus insane camerawork, creepy swingers and lots of cats.
9. ‘Before Midnight’ If Celine and Jesse — Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawk’s meet-cute hotties of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” — fight, is there any hope for any of us? Now with kids, our lovers get a rare “date night” to themselves, and proceed to waste it, because that’s how relationships go when it’s possible you weren’t meant to be together.
10. ‘Sightseers’ Another one funny about love, Ben Wheatley’s comedy follows a couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) as they go on a nice caravan holiday about rural England who belatedly realize they have something in common: they love to murder people for minor slights or just because. Ah, amour.
In a slightly weaker year, these would have occupied spots in the Top 10, and happily so:
11. “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” 12. “Spring Breakers” 13. “The Great Beauty” 14. “Gravity” 15. “Leviathan” 16. “Drug War” 17. “Upstream Color” 18. “The Act of Killing” 19. “Like Someone in Love” 20. “Frances Ha” 21. “Post Tenebras Lux” 22. “Berberian Sound Studio” 23. “Blue is the Warmest Color” 24. “Mother of George” 25. “At Berkeley” 26. “Bastards” 27. “The Crystal Fairy” 28. “Beyond the Hills” 29. “All is Lost” 30. “The Wolf of Wall Street”