Here's where I write about how hard it is to draw up a year-end 10-best list. 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 10 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:
Alfonso Cuarón's lyrical and terrifying 3-D adventure was one of the big blockbusters of the year, but maybe now is 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 its 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 song that figured in another 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.
Noah Baumbach and his star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, explore anxiety and joy in this story about an aimless late–20-something in New York. A movie for anyone who 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, 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.
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke made a painfully articulate movie about a couple, together for years and now raising kids, who hit a big bump in the road. These are characters many of us have loved since Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise. To see them so unhappy is excruciating; to see them pull through, as it appears they do, brings not just relief but hope for the rest of us sorry souls.
Stories We Tell
The book world has gone memoir-crazy, an unfortunate development: It's exhausting to be asked to care about so many not-that-interesting lives. Sarah Polley's movie-as-memoir is something else, a strange and wonderful little picture that considers the myriad ways in which a single family's story can be told — only to conclude that there's no such thing as one definitive story. This is a film unlike any other.
Twenty Feet from Stardom
Morgan Neville's beautifully constructed documentary isn't just a movie about backup singers, the unsung heroes of at least 1,001 records you love; it's also a meditation on the joy and possible heartbreak of singing out for the love of it, rather than for the glory.
Despicable Me 2
Some like their animation tasteful; others go for the id. Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's follow-up to 2010's delightfully disreputable Despicable Me is the antidote for those who don't worship at the feet of Miyazaki. This rambunctious exercise in ridiculosity features a terrific voice performance from Steve Carell, and a bonus: about 50 percent more Minions!
Stephanie Zacharek is lead film critic at New York's Village Voice, L.A. Weekly's sister paper.