Joaquin Phoenix

2013 was a year brimming with fantastic films that both entertained and resonated with audiences — so much so that the films of this year couldn’t be limited to a traditional top 10 list; a list of 10 simply won’t even scratch the surface. Even with 15, and another 10 honorable mentions, there are still another two dozen or so films worth mentioning, and that alone qualifies 2013 as one of the most impressive film years of our lifetimes as of yet. 

The Daily Texan created a list of the top 15 films of 2013, starting with Spike Jonze’s unconventional, futuristic love story, “Her.”

1. “Her”

2013 was a year of great love stories in film, with the authenticity of “The Spectacular Now,” the audacity of “Blue is the Warmest Color” and the bracing realism of “Before Midnight” all shining for their intimate portrayals of relationships. Spike Jonze’s “Her,” though, stands at the top. “Her” is an unconventional romance between a man and his computer executed with wit, heart and intelligence. Bolstered by a stunning duet of performances from Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix, “Her” isn’t just a great movie; it’s the best film of 2013.

Jonze crafts a wholly plausible future in which operating systems have evolved far past Siri, programmed so effectively that they become sentient. The lonely, recently divorced Theodore (Phoenix) purchases one on a whim but is surprised when Samantha (Johansson) proves to be a vibrant, inquisitive presence, rather than a product. Despite the massive logical problems, the two fall in love, and, as Theodore wrestles with the concept of dating an invisible presence, Samantha’s thirst for life and knowledge threatens to overwhelm them both.

Samantha starts off as half computer and half therapist, but as she grows, so does the scope of Jonze’s thematic intentions. He gives insightful life to concepts easily taken for granted, such as memory or desire, and every one of Samantha’s discoveries feels like a layer of the human mind, peeled back and examined. Johansson’s purely vocal performance is astounding, and, removed from any physical screen time, Johansson gives her best performance yet. She conveys tenderness, joy and regret with previously untapped depth, and she plays off of Phoenix beautifully.

Phoenix, meanwhile, is quickly emerging as one of cinema’s great chameleons, able to completely immerse himself in any role given to him. His sensitive performance here is incredible, complementing a disembodied voice with wit and creating scenes that are not just believable but human and vital. 

The rest of the women in Theodore’s life are equally well-cast. Amy Adams finishes off a great year of performances with a warm, uncharacteristically funny turn as a friend of Theodore. Rooney Mara, playing his ex-wife, gives a performance defined by its stark juxtapositions — loving and gentle when viewed through the rosy filter of memory yet complex and frustrated in reality and equally authentic in both modes. Olivia Wilde also shines in a short sequence as a wounded young woman set up on a blind date with Theodore. 

Directing from his own script, Jonze brings a graceful, effortless intelligence to “Her,” and every sci-fi concept he introduces is creatively and thoughtfully explored. The future he creates is one that feels realistic but hopeful — every aspect of life a bit sleeker and warmer. The film’s central relationship, the tricky dynamic around which “Her” hinges, is a beautifully observed romance that uses the absurdity of its concept to get at some profound truths about the beginnings and endings of love. Also worth commending are the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, blending the skylines of Los Angeles and Shanghai to create a beautiful metropolis, accompanied with a lovely score from Arcade Fire.

“Her” is a gamble: a film with a laughable concept that works thanks to a wholly honest execution, a script brimming with smart ideas and uniformly excellent, low-key performances. It’s a work of surprising creativity and shattering empathy, and it uses its high concept to tell a nakedly personal story packed with so much wisdom and feeling that it becomes universal. It’s hard to judge what a film’s legacy will be so close to its release, but, if there’s any justice in the world, “Her” will be regarded as a classic, a science-fiction film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and a relevant, heartfelt masterpiece.

2. “The Spectacular Now” 

The year’s most authentic romance perfectly captures the soaring highs and shattering lows of first love and growing up, anchored by two incredible performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller, in particular, is fascinating, harnessing his character’s self-destructive impulses into a hurricane of boozy charisma, while Woodley’s unguarded vulnerability and warmth allow the two to build a tender, fragile intimacy. Supporting work from Bob Odenkirk, Brie Larson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead bring melancholy touches, but the movie’s most profoundly emotional moments come from these wounded, delicate kids finding something to love in each other.

3. “Short Term 12”

Brie Larson’s natural, warm, perfectly calibrated performance as Grace, a supervisor in a halfway home for at-risk kids, is only the beginning of what’s great about “Short Term 12.” The film brings viewers into the lives of these kids and plays out with genuine emotion, effortlessly breaking our hearts with something as simple as a character detail clicking into place. Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever and John Gallagher Jr. all stand out in a stacked supporting cast, their arcs playing out with an eye for powerful moments that truly bring us into the characters’ psyches, each big scene hammering home what a fantastic, big-hearted film this is.

4. “Gravity”

This is movie magic in its truest sense, taking Hollywood actors to space without ever leaving Earth. After Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is set adrift in space, her struggle to survive makes for the year’s most essential cinematic experience, a dazzling advancement of technology that redefines what film can and can’t do. Director Alfonso Cuaron cultivates a consistent sense of panic, drawing both wonder and terror out of the depths of space. Bullock shines as a rookie astronaut in a horrible situation, while George Clooney is tailor-suited for the role of the unflappable veteran astronaut that helps her along. 

5. “Stories We Tell”

It takes true fortitude for a filmmaker to turn the camera on themselves, but Sarah Polley did just that in “Stories We Tell,” a fascinating documentary that’s equal parts memoir and mystery. As Polley tries to find out who her true father is, she also unearths interesting, candid truths about her family and about storytelling in general. It’s a meticulously structured, nuanced and effortlessly wise work that not only tells the story of a family but even examines some of the underlying themes in Polley’s own work. “Stories We Tell” is a reflective documentary that never becomes self-impressed, but it does establish Polley as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.

6. Before Midnight

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater’s third installment in the “Before” trilogy finds Jesse and Celine’s relationship straining under the weight of a few years, and the collaboration between the three has never been stronger. Both characters are so completely realized by Hawke and Delpy that their performances barely register. These are real people who only happen to exist in celluloid. A lengthy argument between the two late in the film is one of the year’s most harrowing sequences, with Delpy turning in a bold, passionate performance and Hawke perfectly blending frustration and flippancy, before ending on a heart-warming, surprisingly optimistic note.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

A perfect example of everyone involved in a film firing on all cylinders to make a spectacular, pointed critique of one of America’s self-assigned blind spots. This kinetic, wildly entertaining work from cinematic master Martin Scorsese condemns through staging moments of hilarious debauchery with stunning precision. Leonardo DiCaprio does the best work of his career as Belfort, including a spurt of physical comedy that will go down in the history books, but Jonah Hill comes stunningly close to stealing the show with his hilarious brand of improv.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are at their most melancholy with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a quiet look at the folk scene of the 1960s. Oscar Isaac wholly embodies the lead character, effortlessly and perfectly bringing every frustration, regret and rare moment of self-awareness to life. John Goodman and Carey Mulligan are both suitably acidic as comedic foils the universe throws at Llewyn, and frequent musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett lends his talents to the year’s best soundtrack, a soulful collection of authentic folk songs as catchy as they are memorable. 

9. Spring Breakers

A film about lifestyle more than characters, Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is the year’s most entertaining indictment. The woozy spring break plays like a half-formed memory at times, its disorienting dialogue and neon-drenched aesthetic coyly disguising its sharp critique of modern youth. James Franco has received lots of attention for his absolutely demented performance as Alien, a sleazy drug dealer who doubles as Korine’s thesis statement. He truly energizes the film, even lending his dulcet tones to a hilariously bizarre rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” that gives the film its most memorable sequence.

10. 12 Years a Slave

This quietly horrifying account of America’s most despicable history is an undeniably vital film. Chiwetal Ejiofor gives the sort of soulful performance that defines careers, and Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and newcomer Lupita Nyongo all do essential, often painful but effective work. John Ridley’s script is equally strong, appropriate to its period setting but never antiquated, and Steve McQueen’s direction is perfectly measured, capturing the horrors of slavery without reveling in them and balancing its most painful moments with the smallest of triumphs.

11. The Conjuring

A modern horror classic, “The Conjuring” is a masterpiece of craft, with each bone-chilling horror piece immaculately constructed and populated with likable characters. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga nail the procedural elements of their ghost hunter characters, but it’s Lili Taylor’s battered performance as a haunted mother that gives the film heart and stakes.

12. The World’s End

For a melancholy rumination on adulthood and alcoholism, “The World’s End” is also a ton of fun. Simon Pegg’s manic performance grounds an impressive ensemble, but Nick Frost emerges the year’s most unlikely action hero once the film’s creative, challenging science fiction concerns come to the surface.

13. Mud

Jeff Nichols’ deliberate script and lush visuals made the familiar riveting again in his Southern-twanged coming-of-age story. Matthew McConaughey continues his rise to one of Hollywood’s best actors as a snaggletoothed fugitive, while Tye Sheridan perfectly embodies reluctantly fleeting innocence as the boy who agrees to help him. 

14. Stoker

Chan-wook Park’s American debut was a gleeful perversion of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” an exhilarating visual puzzle with atmosphere to spare and some of the year’s most memorable images. Mia Wasikowska fearlessly comes into her own as a young girl struggling with her father’s death, while Matthew Goode chills as her predatory uncle.

15. American Hustle

It’s all about the performances in David O. Russell’s endlessly entertaining caper. Amy Adams leads an excellent cast with a performance of pure confidence, while Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper both do electric work and heat-seeking missile Jennifer Lawrence takes her handful of scenes by storm. 

Honorable Mentions

The Act of Killing - A tough but essential documentary

Blue is the Warmest Color - An admirably epic love story

The Broken Circle Breakdown - A rollicking heartbreaker

Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks’ finest hour

Frances Ha - Greta Gerwig beats Lena Dunham at her own game

Fruitvale Station - Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler single-handedly drive up tissue sales

Furious 6 - Top-notch action film with extra cheese

The Hunt - Sobering, fascinating study of a community in chaos

Prisoners - Tough, moody, and gorgeously filmed procedural 

You’re Next” - Pulpy, surprisingly witty horror fun 

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson films are practically cinematic events. Anderson’s work is known for its surgically precise imagery, performances beyond reproach and distinct soundtracks that “The Master” is happy to oblige. What it does lack is a strong script.

Not to say Anderson hasn’t baited a compelling hook for his audience. The story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran set adrift into an affluent postwar America, isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. Freddie is helplessly compulsive to the point of being self-destructive and Phoenix plays the character with a perpetual snarl, a force of nature just looking for an excuse. He is a harsh presence in appearance, demeanor and even in the way he delivers dialogue. Every scene has an added edge simply because there is no way to predict what Freddie is going to do.

Early in the film, Freddie stumbles onto a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the enigmatic leader of a movement called “The Cause.” Almost immediately, they inspire a madness in each other. Something in the boy inspires Dodd in a way that his followers cannot. The moments between Freddie and Dodd, small-scale sparring matches, are the best and most illuminating “The Master” has to offer. Much has been made of the similarities between “The Cause” and Scientology, and scenes where Dodd puts Freddie through a few of his “scientific” experiments are absolutely riveting, both for the character work on-screen and their inspiration off-screen.

Hoffman’s performance is largely built around Dodd’s interactions with Freddie. His slow ideological seduction is fascinating to watch simply for how completely Hoffman embodies the character. When Dodd takes to the pulpit, we see a different side of him, almost a different character, and Hoffman demonstrates remarkable charisma as he delivers verbal manure so convincingly that you almost buy into his schtick.

Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s steadfast wife, is sparsely utilized, but when she is, she’s a fiery, supportive partner, seized with legitimate fervor in her husband and the empire he’s building. It’s a beautifully impassioned performance and one of the many elements that could use some filling out.

There’s no denying that “The Master” is packed with compelling ingredients, but the final dish is shapeless and unsatisfying. The best word to describe the film upon first viewing is “chewy,” peppered with moments of undeniable brilliance and dramatic resonance, but so maddeningly oblique that it’s hard to swallow.

Freddie and Dodd are fascinating figures and “The Master” spends a lot of time wallowing in their dynamic, but it ultimately fails to pay off those interactions. The final scene between the two is a dramatic moment crippled by writing that sucks out any energy or feeling despite boasting one of Hoffman’s most beautifully acted moments in the film. Certainly traditional storytelling isn’t a requirement for classic cinema, but there’s a reason dramatic structure dictates a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying conclusion that “The Master” simply lacks.

Even if his script isn’t quite the connective tissue it should be, Anderson is at the top of his game in every other aspect. His images are crafted with a confidence and precision that very few working directors possess, and every frame of “The Master” is a work of art, each element exactly where it should be. The Alamo Drafthouse recently outfitted its downtown location with the ability to show films in 70mm simply so it could play the film how Anderson intended. If you get a chance to see the film in that fashion, absolutely do so. There aren’t many sweeping visual flourishes, and many of its biggest scenes consist of close-ups, but the level of detail that 70mm allows is unprecedented and gorgeous.

The film is a technical marvel to boot. Jonny Greenwood’s score is practically magic: a seductive, emphatic work that adds dramatic weight to even the smallest moment. Even things that usually go unnoticed, like costume and production design, stick out here, and Anderson’s attention to detail deserves commendation. He’s created a real and unique world for his characters here, and that alone is an achievement.

The best films leave you with a sense of elation, a feeling that you’ve seen something truly special, and there are parts of “The Master” that inspire that childlike giddiness. Phoenix and Hoffman’s work, Greenwood’s score and many of the images that Anderson captures are among the best of the year, but when the credits roll, that rush of having connected with a film on a purely emotional level simply isn’t there. Not that “The Master” doesn’t deserve multiple viewings, because I can’t wait to see the film again and hope that many of my issues with it are allayed by a second viewing. Nonetheless, “The Master” is my favorite working filmmaker taking a step back for the first time, and that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment it has to offer.