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A movie year for the record books

'It's a mini-1939," Alexander Payne observed when he dropped in for the Philadelphia Film Festival in October. The director of Nebraska was talking about the flood of formidable films that made their way onto screens this year, and joining a chorus of elated moviegoers in doing so.

'It's a mini-1939," Alexander Payne observed when he dropped in for the Philadelphia Film Festival in October.

The director of Nebraska was talking about the flood of formidable films that made their way onto screens this year, and joining a chorus of elated moviegoers in doing so.

Maybe it's a stretch to compare 2013 to 1939, when Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach led a glittering list of box-office and Oscar favorites.

But maybe not.

And maybe it's not even a "mini" '39. There are 10 titles on my best-of-2013 list, including Payne's, but I could easily exchange them with another 10 and be every bit as satisfied. Well, easily is the wrong word: With so many big, small, foreign, domestic, and awe-inspiring pictures to choose from, putting together the list was a sleep-depriving struggle.

What if I counted 12 Years a Slave and Short Term 12 as one (best films with "12" in the title), or All is Lost, Captain Phillips, and Gravity in a single slot (best films about trying to survive on the high seas, or high up in space)? Frances Ha and Nebraska (best black-and-white)?

OK, never mind. But suffice to say the year has produced a wealth of enduring cinema. I wager that in 50 years, most of these titles will still be looked at the way we now consider Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

There are no munchkins in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, but its desperate heroine, Ryan Stone of Illinois, shares much with Dorothy Gale of Kansas. Both are hit by twisters of flying debris, sending them on a journey of self-discovery where getting home looks impossible. Dorothy has a trio of friendly traveling companions, Sandra Bullock (another Oscar nomination, for sure) has George Clooney.   

I won't belabor the comparison, except to say the stylistic and technical innovations of Wizard (black-and-white turning to vivid Technicolor) and Gravity's stylistic and technical innovations (that 15-minute unbroken tracking shot in space) are game-changers.

This year also was significant for films of the black experience. Spike Lee gripes that the media have heralded a new wave of black cinema every 10 years since 1986, when his She's Gotta Have It came out. But this year, it's more than a wave - it's a sea change. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, destined for Oscardom, is the first major film to address America's holocaust from the black perspective. Lee Daniels' The Butler begins in plantation days before time-traveling to the mid-20th century White House to tell the remarkable true story of a black man who served under seven presidents. Hokier moments notwithstanding, The Butler revisits, with power and poignancy, key events in the civil rights movement, chronicling historic changes on the path to racial justice.

Meanwhile, Ryan Coogler's devastating first feature, Fruitvale Station, reminds us there are still miles to go: In reenacting the killing of a young, unarmed black man by a police officer in Oakland, Calif., this small, taut film echoed the Trayvon Martin controversy and all the injustices blacks still face.

But, at least on the law books in the United States, blacks and whites (and people of every ethnicity) are equal. Not so in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic opening here Wednesday. Idris Elba's portrayal of anti-apartheid crusader Nelson Mandela brings this momentous figure to life. The film may not rise to greatness, but Mandela certainly did, and it's an important story.

Speaking of equality, or lack thereof, there are two films by women on my 10-best list (Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell) - better than most years, but not good enough. But stories about women, with women at their center, were prominent, from Blue is the Warmest Color and Frances Ha to Gravity, and, in the almost-on-the-list pics Before Midnight (co-written by its co-lead, Julie Delpy) and Short Term 12 (Brie Larson's riveting indie star turn).

Here, then, are my 10 best, followed by a like number of contenders. In 1939, 10 films vied for the best picture Oscar, and 2013 holds the same possibility. The academy's nominating rules make that somewhat less than a sure thing, but there can be no argument there are at least 10 worthy contenders this year - if not 20.

12 Years a Slave. The true story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, director Steve McQueen's unblinking look at human cruelty, and resilience, is a film for the ages. And Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is astounding.

All is Lost. Robert Redford in a boat on the ocean. A solo journey, with barely a word uttered, in J.C. Chandor's bold, brilliant tale of physical and emotional turmoil. A metaphor for existence, and a meta-performance from Mr. Sundance.

American Hustle. David O. Russell is on a roll. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now this head-spinning take on the late-'70s Abscam scandal, with Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence given rein to run wild. And, somehow, this tale of grifting and graft is, above all, a love story.

Blue is the Warmest Color. The hype and controversy about the long, graphic lesbian sex scenes have no doubt boosted its box office, but what's truly exciting about Abdellatif Kechiche's French-language gem is its fully realized portrait of a young woman's coming of age. Actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, fearless and vulnerable, amazes.

Enough Said.  Middle-aged love is the subject of Nicole Holofcener's keenly observed seriocomedy. Divorced mom Julia Louis Dreyfus and divorced dad James Gandolfini, in his final leading role, meet, date, get serious. Then she does something seriously stupid - but completely understandable.

Frances Ha. Inspired by the French New Wave and by his star (and partner) Greta Gerwig's screwball wackiness, Noah Baumbach's portrait of a cusp-of-30 New Yorker's struggles to find herself is full of heartache and grace.

Gravity. One of the year's biggest hits is also one of the best - taut and terrifying, with Sandra Bullock jettisoned into the soundless void, wondering if she'll ever make it back to Earth. The filmmaking technology developed by Alfonso Cuarón and crew makes even the impossible look impossibly real, and Bullock's performance makes it feel that way.

Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers' melancholy ramble through the Greenwich Village folk scene, circa 1961. Oscar Isaac picks up his guitar - and an errant housecat - and dives into the part of a hard-luck troubador. Yes, his name has Oscar written all over it - but even if the prize goes elsewhere (and that's likely), he has made his presence known.

Nebraska. Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern, often cast as a villain or nut, or both, steps out - with the unsteady gait of an octogenarian Midwesterner - in this quiet, immensely satisfying road movie. Will Forte is the son who reluctantly accompanies Dad on his mission to collect $1 million, promised in a letter from a magazine subscription company. Old friends crawl out of the woodwork to claim a piece of the prize, and old memories crawl out, too.

Stories We Tell. Like Nebraska, Sarah Polley's documentary explores the relationship between parents and grown children. The Canadian actress and filmmaker investigates the mystery that was her mother, who died when Polley was a kid, and discovers truths about her family, and herself, in the process. A form-breaking meditation on love and memory and fictions that can become real.

And if that's not enough, consider:

The Angels' Share. Ken Loach's merry heist pic about a motley gang of troubled Glaswegians plotting to make off with a storied cask of rare whiskey.

Before Midnight. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke take another long walk, talking about what's right and what's not in their relationship. Three movies in, their characters seem absolutely real.

Captain Phillips. Gut-churning terror off the Somali coast, with Tom Hanks at the helm - until it's seized by a pirate.

Dallas Buyers Club. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in a Ratso Rizzo/Joe Buck team-up based on the true exploits of an HIV-diagnosed cowboy homophobe-turned-AIDS-treatment hero.

Fruitvale Station. A young life cut down, a story too important to ignore.

Her. (opening Jan. 10) Joaquin Phoenix stars as a guy who falls in love with his operating system - sentient, Scarlett Johansson-voiced - in Spike Jonze's near-future rumination about technology and the human heart.

Like Someone in Love. From Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, a haiku-like story set in Tokyo about a young call girl and the elderly professor who hires her to chat, to dine, to let us in on the lives of the lonely and the longing.

Mud. Thrilling Mississippi delta drama, with shades of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, about two boys who befriend an escaped convict (Matthew McConaughey).

The Place Beyond the Pines. Ryan Golsing is a motorcycle stunt rider turned bank robber, Bradley Cooper the cop who crosses his path, fatefully, in Derek Cianfrance's tough, tender neo-noir.

Short Term 12. Troubled teens in a foster-care facility, watched over by a not-much-older, or wiser, supervisor (Brie Larson). A surprisingly moving, documentary-like drama from Destin Cretton.

No year-end piece would be complete without a passing nod to the films at the other end of the spectrum: the stupidest, the lousiest, the most egregious wastes of time, money, and talent. It's a close race, but the worst movie of 2013 is . . . Grown Ups 2. Adam Sandler refuses to grow up, and also refuses to care. The paycheck he doesn't refuse.