The Year in Movies 2013: Joaquin Phoenix Returns and the Films of the Year

We look at the year a man fell in love with a phone and a whole lot more.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie — Morton Downey Jr.'s talk show was on the air for only two years, but you can still hear his scream. The failed lounge singer would do anything for attention. As a Democrat in 1980, he ran a fat-chance presidential campaign; as a raging conservative in 1987, he threatened to puke on Ron Paul. What's fascinating about this documentary on the charismatic, weak-chinned warrior isn't just his quick rise to media dominance and the fist-pumping fans who hooted their approval like Romans at the Coliseum. It's how quickly he was forgotten, despite his desperation to stay famous. Meanwhile, in Beck, Limbaugh and Imus, his scream still echoes.

The World's End and Drinking Buddies — Bar-hopping is a blast, but these two very different comedies by Edgar Wright and Joe Swanberg both ask what happens when it's time to sober up. Tipsy, Simon Pegg and Olivia Wilde are king and queen of the pub — at least, in their own heads. Yet we see through their false confidence and root for them to put down the beer and show true bravery, be it fighting aliens or being vulnerable enough to love the right man.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — Ben Stiller's passion project is more heart than brains — but, boy, what a heart. Judd Apatow gets the critical respect (even though his middle-class microcosm flicks are a snooze), yet it's Stiller who takes real risks for intermittent rewards: slathering Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, touting himself as the world's most handsome man and, here, daring to release a high-budget, high-concept uplifter that couldn't give a shit about cynicism. Look closely and you'll see he's also Hollywood's deftest director of physical comedy since Mel Brooks.

Yes, the space movie makes it, also, a superior sex comedy.
Joaquin Phoenix is lovelorn in Her.
Amanda Demme
Joaquin Phoenix is lovelorn in Her.
Rooney Mara stars with Phoenix in Her.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rooney Mara stars with Phoenix in Her.


Want to see the list of the 10 best movies that screened in Houston this year? Check out The Year in Movies 2013: Top 10 Movies, Houston Style.

Slideshow: The Top 20 Films of 2013

By Stephanie Zacharek

Here's where I write about how hard it is to draw up a ten-best list at the end of the year. Except it isn't: I think of drawing up a list as an honor and a necessity, a way of putting 12 months of moviegoing into some sort of perspective — if not necessarily into any semblance of order — before moving on to the next. Beyond the first three or four titles, the order is mutable. How do you rank a comedy against a drama that moved you deeply, or a documentary that challenged or delighted you? It's impossible, so I don't sweat it. And this is, of course, a very personal and thus idiosyncratic list of 11 movies. The main thing is to take stock of the movies worth caring about, and 2013 brought plenty of choices. Here are the pictures I loved best:

Gravity — Alfonso Cuarón's lyrical and terrifying 3D adventure was one of the big blockbusters of the year, but maybe now's the time to take a few spacewalk steps away from it and consider how meditative it is. Some found Sandra Bullock's not-so-interior monologues a bit taxing, but her performance connects with something beyond words. Gravity explores both wonder and the thing that makes wonder possible: despair. It's harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less.

Blue Is the Warmest Color — The hot topic of conversation surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour drama about love, desire and loss is the explicit nature of the sex scenes — plus, the reported after-the-fact squabbles between the director and his lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. But as beautifully carnal as those scenes are, it's the movie's tenderness that sticks with you. Falling in love is easy; it's the end of love that tells you what you're made of, and Blue's willingness to face that truth makes it devastating.

Inside Llewyn Davis — This is Joel and Ethan Coen's warmest, most emotionally direct movie, and possibly their best. Oscar Isaac gives a sterling performance as a dislikable (if gifted) folk singer in 1961 New York. The music he plays is ostensibly all about connecting with humanity; he just can't get the hang of it in real life. To borrow a line from an old, old song that also figured in a Coen brothers movie, he really is a man of constant sorrow.

Much Ado About Nothing — Joss Whedon got a bunch of his friends together and, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney-style, said, "Let's put on a show!" The result is one of the most exuberant movies of the year, filmed in and around Whedon's own house and featuring a marvelous cast of actors (particularly Amy Acker, a Beatrice who's both flinty and a little loopy). Shakespeare in the park is great, but Shakespeare in the backyard is even better.

Frances Ha — Noah Baumbach and his star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, explore anxiety and joy in this story about an aimless late-twentysomething in New York. A movie for anyone who has ever felt lost in the world, or even just below 14th Street.

The To Do List — The outlandishly talented Aubrey Plaza plays a sexually naive young woman who gets ready for her first year of college by drawing up a list of blush-inducing goals for herself. The picture — directed by Maggie Carey of Upright Citizens Brigade — is raw, as you'd expect, and wickedly funny. For years now, women have been told we need to "take charge" of our sexuality. Well, sure — but The To Do List understands that it's a job that really demands a wrangler.

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