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The Year in Movies 2013: Top 10 Movies, Houston Style

The best movies this year that you had a chance to see.

The problem with these annual "best of" lists is one of volume: There are just so many of them that it renders much of their findings meaningless. A cursory look at the rankings popping up this time of year will show a few common entries (nobody much feels like defying Gravity this year), followed by a sharp departure into movies you've probably never heard of.

Just to offer one example, in compiling our nominations for the Houston Film Critics Society's annual awards, 58 films were offered for Best Picture. Granted, this includes one wise-ass nomination for Bad Grandpa (cough), but still; that's a lot of dissenting opinion. Even worse, many "top" movies don't go into wide release, making a splash at SXSW or TIFF or some other annoying acronym before disappearing from view altogether.

And there's another side of that coin, for while The Wolf of Wall Street may very well be fantastic, I wouldn't know, because as of December 13 they still hadn't screened it for the press in Houston. A list of great movies you never got to check out isn't very helpful. What follows, therefore, are my picks for the best movies this year you actually had a shot at seeing.

Michael Fassbender, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring 12 Years a Slave to vibrant life.
François Duhamel
Michael Fassbender, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring 12 Years a Slave to vibrant life.

12 Years A Slave

When you read words like "searing," "devastating" or "gut-wrenching" in a review, you can be forgiven for feeling reluctant to seek it out. Steve McQueen's latest is not easy to sit through, thanks to his unflinching portrayal of day-to-day atrocity and also to performances both chilling (Michael Fassbender) and heartbreaking (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o). By refusing to even remotely varnish the brutality of the antebellum South, McQueen has given us a film as necessary to watch as it is nigh impossible to endure twice.

The Act of Killing

Much of what I said about 12 Years a Slave can be applied to this Joshua Oppenheimer documentary about the Indonesia mass murders of 1965-1966. Then again, unlike Solomon Northup, we aren't supposed to sympathize with Anwar Congo and his ilk, who gleefully re-enact the crimes they committed (Anwar himself reportedly killed 1,000 people) in a variety of movie genres. The results are as overpowering as they are unsettling and speak volumes about humanity's often fervent desire to ration­al­ize even the most despicable crimes.

Before Midnight

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is little more than two people talking — this time about the nature of love and commitment — yet doing so in such effortless and absorbing fashion, you almost want the trio (as with the first two movies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy co-wrote the script with director Richard Link­later) to make a new "Before" movie every year. Remarkably, we're still fully engrossed in Jesse and Céline's lives some 18 years after their introduction, in large part because the authenticity of their relationship remains real enough to engross us even in this age of $250 million special effects blockbusters.

Blackfish

I've always been kind of ambiguous about zoos. On one hand, I'm happy my kids have a chance to see wildlife they'd never otherwise get the chance to. On the other, it often feels like a prison when I go (albeit something like one of those "medium security resorts" Peter referred to in Office Space). However, I've never harbored conflicting feelings for "marine mammal parks," having been an avid fan of cetaceans since I was a kid. And after Blackfish, I can safely say my family will never darken SeaWorld's entry gates or contribute to its legal defense fund by purchasing tickets.

Mud

There's been a lot of talk about the former Wooderson's (think Dazed and Confused) thespian renaissance, and he deserves credit for defying his critics. To a point, that is. His character in Dallas Buyers Club — which is receiving much more pub than this — is about 80 percent "emaciated Wooderson," while I suppose we could call the eponymous Mud of Jeff Nichols's latest film "homeless Wooderson." That would be a disservice, however, to both Matthew McConaughey's understated performance and those of co-stars Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Nichols wrote and directed my favorite movie of 2011 (Take Shelter) and after this, he should definitely be on your must-watch list.

Nebraska

Alexander Payne pulls a 180 from the sumptuous palette and gorgeous locales of The Descendants and gives us this subdued, monochromatic character study. If it doesn't seem like I'm doing a good job selling his latest work, trust me when I say it takes what begins as an almost clichéd study of generational differences and deftly — and wryly — turns it on its ear. Bruce Dern might've gotten consideration for a Best Actor Oscar in a year not featuring the names Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey.

Pacific Rim

Not everything on my list is likely to be your cup of tea. Those of you who prefer car chases and gunfights will likely turn up your noses at Before Midnight, while folks keen on ignoring the uglier side of life won't want to dirty their hands with a documentary about Indonesian genocide. So if you weren't someone who regularly pitted his Shogun Warriors against each other in the backyard as a kid, you probably won't squeal like Ned Flanders when "Gipsy Danger" rocket punches a freaking Lovecraftian monster from another dimension.

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