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Movies flourished in 2013: Here are the top 10 mainstream films

Wasn't this supposed to be the year the movies died? First, Steven Soderbergh announced he had quit the film business in frustration. Then, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted the imminent meltdown of the $30-billion-plus worldwide movie industry, saying that ticket prices will soar for the fewer films that make it into theatres, while everything else will be delivered to your living room. What isn't on IMAX, in other words, will be on your iPad: The artistic middle ground has been ceded to interactive game designers and cable TV's writer-producers.

Sounds plausible. Unless, of course, you've actually been paying attention to the movies. The past year has been as exciting as any in recent memory, with films that emphasize visual storytelling and narrative complexity, and build to satisfy the urge for a one-time only, two-hour epiphanic experience.

Yes, there's a catch. Nearly every quality movie these days comes with a backstory about a Hail Mary financial play: Brad Pitt used his celebrity clout to get 12 Years a Slave made; Leonardo DiCaprio courted investors to produce The Wolf of Wall Street when studios passed on it; French investors stepped up to finance the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis; and one 27-year-old woman, Oracle heiress Megan Ellison, kept the indie world alive through her Annapurna Pictures, financing Her, Spring Breakers, American Hustle and The Grandmaster.

On a humbler level, fans on Kickstarter helped make Paul Schrader's "post-theatrical-cinema" release, The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan, and are currently financing new films from Zach Braff and Spike Lee. You heard that right: Audiences are directly bankrolling the films they want to see. The old business models may be broken, but this year the movies flourished. So much so that a single Top 10 list won't contain the bounty. So I'll break it up.

Top 10 mainstream films


12 Years a Slave

A mix of visceral intensity and artful design, Steve McQueen’s depiction of slavery is historically important: Hollywood’s record is appalling. Yet it’s not just a worthy film but something deeper. His specialty (as in Hunger and Shame) is a painterly gaze upon suffering and entrapment, on the human condition at its most primordial and wordless.


A formulaic plot and technical tour de force, Alfonso Cuaron’s 3-D film gets us, along with Sandra Bullock, lost in space in a combination of ballet and cold-sweat nightmare.


Alexander Payne’s caustic edge and sentiment find the right mix in this story of a son (Will Forte) and his deranged dad (Bruce Dern) on a fruitless quest for a publishing prize. The black-and-white palette is both a tribute to cinema and to an economic broken promise.

The Wolf of Wall Street

An insane movie for insane times, Martin Scorsese’s biopic of morally empty stock swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an exhilarating dissection of moral rot. The story doesn’t draw direct lines to the 2008 Wall Street crisis, but it doesn’t need to.


Loneliness doesn’t get much more extreme than in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi fantasy about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who likes his computer more than he does real women. Heartfelt, tender and creepy, it’s a status update on the death of intimacy.

Before Midnight

A married couple drive, have lunch with friends, go for a walk, and fight in a hotel room in long scenes that strip a relationship down to its bones and build it back again. Richard Linklater’s third film in the Before series, in combination with actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is film marriage as long-term commitment.


Inside Llewyn Davis

To paraphrase a line from the movie, the Coen brothers’ latest is like a great folk song: It’s familiar, but feels new. Set in the 1960s, this serio-comic portrait of a self-sabotaging, second-tier folk singer (Oscar Isaac) is a piquant exploration of the quest for authenticity, and an undistilled concoction of surreal dread and precision-timed jokes.

American Hustle

Touching on the year’s two favourite themes – abuse of authority, and money scamming – David O. Russell’s perverse screwball comedy, inspired by a late seventies’ FBI sting, is a warp-speed, star-studded acting class, topped by Jennifer Lawrence as an imperious floozy.

Captain Phillips

Not an art movie, but a superior action film, Paul Greengrass’s depiction of the real-life hijacking of a U.S. merchant ship by pirates is relentless, from the battle of wits between the American captain (Tom Hanks) and his Somali counterpart (Barkhad Abdi) to the bravura action scenes and the stunning final moment.

Frances Ha

Loopy, stylish and uncharacteristically warm-hearted, Noah Baumbach’s latest film might be seen as a companion piece to Inside Llewyn Davis – another portrait of an itinerant artist in cold New York. Co-writer Greta Gerwig stars as a woman being reluctantly dragged into adult life. Shot in black-and-white, it’s an homage to cinema’s past, and a study of an artist struggling to face the future.
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