In surveying the year at the movies, the topography is rich. From the dusty, dying towns of "Nebraska" to the rooftop Roman parties in "The Great Beauty" to the sleek future Los Angeles of "Her," 2013 has been a trip. But has it been a great year? Negativity reached a fever pitch in the summer when Steven Spielberg lamented Hollywood's risk-adverse, finance-driven blockbusterism. The grim, humorless "Man of Steel" and its careless backdrop of mass destruction was a low point: the epitome of everything bad about movies today. Yet ambitious films gathered in number as the year went on, and many began calling 2013 a historically excellent year for film, after all. Here are one critic's top picks of the year, all of them reasons why 2013 was a good year for the big screen:
1. "12 Years a Slave" — Steve McQueen's masterful adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir is simply a powerhouse. McQueen, I suspect, will never make a comedy; his three movies ("Shame," ''Hunger") reveal him a harsh storyteller, drawn down dark rabbit holes. But his lack of sentimentality gives "12 Years a Slave" its clarity: a long overdue correction to cinema's reluctant treatment of slavery. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor's soulful eyes carry us through a nightmare odyssey of America's past.
2. "Mud" — From the plantations of mid-19th century Louisiana, we travel up river to contemporary Arkansas in Jeff Nichols' Twain-esque tale of boyhood on the Mississippi. With the wise-beyond-his-years Tye Sheridan as the 14-year-old Ellis, "Mud" is a full-hearted American fable.
3. "Frances Ha" — Full disclosure: I'm in love with Greta Gerwig. That bias notwithstanding, Noah Baumbach's latest — co-written by and starring Gerwig — is a lovely ode to its title character (who has much in common with Gerwig, herself). Frances is an idiosyncratic 27-year-old finding her place in New York; where the "Ha" comes from is answered in the film's sweet final moment.
4. "Inside Llewyn Davis" — Like Frances, Llewyn is a striving Manhattanite without an apartment or a steady job. But he's much angrier about it. The Coen brothers' melancholy story of a bitter, unfortunate folk singer is a wry commentary on the cruelness of fate, and melody born out of disharmony.
5. "The Hunt" — In the most haunting film of the year, the weak binds of a seemingly close-knit Danish community disintegrate when a kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) is unjustly accused of sexually assaulting a child.
6. "The Great Beauty" — Fellini looms large in Paolo Sorrentino's portrait of Rome in decadent decay. Sorrentino is an exquisite stylist (the opening minutes of his "Il Divo" are pure, blistering cinema), and "The Great Beauty" is manic and overstuffed. But it's bursting with life. (Literally. It's got a giraffe.)