Small-time dreamers and big-time schemers were everywhere at the movies this year -- so much so that by the time David O. Russell's "American Hustle" arrived, its title seemed to encapsulate the very spirit of the times. Everywhere you turned in 2013, someone was trying to get rich quick or master the art of the con, from the juvenile delinquents of "Spring Breakers" and "The Bling Ring" to the pumped-up thugs of "Pain & Gain," the coked-up traders of "The Wolf of Wall Street," the desiccated drug-runners of "The Counselor," and the small-town pariahs cozying up to the quixotic sweepstakes "winner" of "Nebraska." In no case did an actual pot of gold await at the end of the rainbow, though given the number of these films that had their basis in reality, the message was clear that bad behavior is not without its potential dividends.
At the same time, "American Hustle" could have been an umbrella title for how most of these movies -- and many other of the best of 2013 -- managed to get made at all in a climate that has rarely been less hospitable to mid-budget, non-franchise movies by personal-minded auteurs, at least where the major studios are concerned. The ancient Greeks may have believed that fortune favors the bold, but a quick glance at today's average studio release slate makes it clear that fortune favors Roman numerals, while those who march to the beat of a different drum must accustom themselves to a career of panning for financing gold, long gaps between projects, and the dawning realization -- as the filmmaker James Gray commented during a recent master class at the Marrakech Film Festival -- that "you need to find some other way of making money to support your filmmaking habit."
Alec Baldwin's "Seduced and Abandoned," took the search for movie money as its explicit subject, while another, Paul Schrader's "The Canyons," was financed on Kickstarter and proclaimed by its own director to be "cinema for the post-theatrical era." Others took a more metaphorical approach: In the most quietly devastating scene of Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," the eponymous 1960s folk musician auditions for an influential music manager, only to be told, "I don't see a lot of money here." To wit, the Coens themselves found the financing for "Llewyn Davis" entirely in France.
Meanwhile, those who were lucky enough to find money at home, more often than not, had to cobble it together from so many different sources that the lists of credited producers, co-producers and executive producers on many movies became as long or longer than the "special thanks" at the end. In the case of this summer's "The Butler," the late producer Laura Ziskin quite literally went to her grave struggling to assemble the movie's modest $30 million budget -- and with a worldwide gross that now stands at north of $150 million, one had to wonder why there was so much resistance.
So in this season of giving thanks, any serious film buff ought to once again light a candle at the altar of Megan Ellison, the fearless 27-year-old producer and financier who followed up her 2012 double play of "The Master" and "Zero Dark Thirty" with a 2013 hat trick, backing not just Russell's "Hustle," but Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" and Spike Jonze's "Her" -- three very risky ventures that most development executives would have surely turned away at the door.
Ellison's slate contributed to what turned out to be a very productive year for the generation of movie brats who first appeared on the scene in the mid-'90s, passing through the indie-film doors that had been blown wide open by Soderbergh and Tarantino, and who now, having crossed the threshold of 40 (and, in a few cases, 50), are no longer the youngest enfants terrible in the room. And while Russell, Jonze, Gray, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola and the two Andersons (Wes and P.T.) may not share as many stylistic and thematic concerns as the "New Hollywood" mavericks who preceded them, as they arrive at the middle stretches of their respective careers they look more than ever like a true generational movement, and American movies are unquestionably richer for having them.
None of them, alas, will be lucky enough to have the career of that ultimate New Hollywood survivor, Woody Allen, who has enjoyed five decades of the kind of ready financial backing that allows him to move seamlessly from one project to the next with virtually no lag time in between, and who keeps pulling late-career surprises out of his hat with astonishing frequency. Yet in 2013, even Allen couldn't resist giving us a heroine brought low by lean economic times, desperately searching for a new Mr. Right, or at least Mr. Right Bank Account. And so the hustle continues apace.
1. "Her." The perfect movie of this moment -- and the next -- Spike Jonze's 21st-century romance about a lovelorn writer and an artificially intelligent operating system was so prescient in its view of a world made lonely by the very technologies designed to bring us closer, you could almost forget it was supposed to be taking place in the near future. At least, that is, until Jonze turned his camera on a ravishing vision of the gridlock-free Los Angeles to come, pieced together from the real L.A., bits of Pudong, China, and the director's own wistful, heartfelt dreams.
2. "The Wind Rises." Even before 72-year-old hand-drawn animation master Hayao Miyazaki announced that this long-planned feature would be his last, it felt like a summary work -- an epic panorama of Japan between the two world wars, rooted (like several of Miyazaki's previous films) in the director's lifelong interest in flight. Though ostensibly a biopic of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the A6M fighter plane, the journey of the film is as much allegorical as biographical, plunging us into a dense web of historical and literary allusions as it reckons with the eternal entanglement of the ideals of man and the machines of war. In this, Miyazaki's swan song seems both like a companion piece to Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" (which it directly references) and the prequel to "Gravity's Rainbow."
3. "American Hustle." I was in the minority who found the last two David O. Russell pictures, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," to be fitfully inspired but largely softball bids at mainstream acceptance by the nose-thumbing wunderkind previously responsible for "Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings." But Russell the anarchic comic showman was back with a vengeance in "Hustle," a terrifically smart and outrageously entertaining caper of con artists, politicians and mafiosos trying to fleece each other in dream-deferred, post-Watergate America. The cast, synthesized from "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings," captured a half-dozen of this generation's most inspired screen performers in one extraordinary, lightning-filled bottle.
4. "Blue Is the Warmest Color." The girl-on-girl action sucked up most of the media oxygen, but actually accounts for a very small part of Abdellatif Kechiche's tender and raw, joyous and heartbreaking chronicle of a young woman's discovery of herself -- and of all the wonder and pain life has to offer. Like Kechiche himself, who with this film earned long overdue international recognition (and distribution), the movie's Adele (played by the superb newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos) is a sensual omnivore, as stimulated by carnal pleasure as she is by heaping plates of pasta, the revelatory prose of Pierre de Marivaux, and conversations about art and life that stretch toward dawn. Sometimes, you meet a character in a movie and know instantly that you will carry some piece of him or her in your heart forever. And Adele is one for the ages.
5. "Inside Llewyn Davis." A triumph for the Coen brothers, in what has been one of the richest stretches of their career, this music-world companion piece to "Barton Fink" used cleverly fictionalized characters to evoke the real New York folk revival of the early 1960s in the waning hours before the arrival of Bob Dylan. It can be easy, as many (including this critic) have, to accuse the Coens of misanthropy, but for all his bad luck, bad behavior and bad decision making, Llewyn Davis (played -- and sung -- brilliantly by Oscar Isaac) remains an eminently sympathetic figure: a latter-day Sisyphus forever on the climb, gaining precious little ground. But then, what else would he do?
6. "At Berkeley." This monumental achievement by 83-year-old documentary legend Frederick Wiseman felt surprisingly light in its step, and unexpectedly brisk for a movie running more than four hours in length. But Wiseman doesn't waste a frame as he charts a tumultuous year on the UC Berkeley campus, as everyone from the regents to the incoming class feels the pinch of reduced state funding for public higher education. Revolution stirs, then quickly -- almost comically -- subsides; Berkeley in the '60s this certainly isn't. Yet time and again Wiseman's camera alights on impassioned, opinionated young people flush with the belief that they might make a real difference in the world (and not just a lot of money). No movie I saw in 2013 left me more suffused with hope for the future.
7. "Nebraska." It took me a second viewing to fully realize just how much pain, anger and loss simmer beneath the desolate beauty of Alexander Payne's black-and-white road movie: the uncomfortable silences between fathers and sons; the abandoned promise of roads not taken; petty resentments stoked by the fires of time; and the flickering embers of a once-vital heartland America. And still, you leave "Nebraska" feeling strangely elated by the small triumphs and sudden moments of grace Payne and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson afford their richly drawn characters. At Cannes (where it won a deserved actor prize for star Bruce Dern), "Nebraska" was written off by some as a "small" or "minor-key" entry in Payne's filmography. Half a year later, it feels ever more like a career-crowning achievement.
8. "12 Years a Slave." So much more than the dutiful, PC corrective it might have become in the hands of lesser filmmakers, the first straight-faced American drama in decades about the "peculiar" institution of southern slavery became, thanks to screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen, an astute deconstruction of an entire economy of forced human labor, as startling in its brutal (but never exploitative) violence as in its psychological and historical insights. As the forlorn slave mistress Patsy, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o was one of the year's acting revelations, while in a single great scene the great Alfre Woodard infused the film with an unshakable air of courtly menace.
9. "Gravity." What would Norma Desmond say? Yes, the pictures have, in so many ways, gotten smaller, but then along came Alfonso Cuaron's spectacle par excellence to push at the very edges of the frame and the outer limits of the latest Dolby sound system -- a movie that, even in Imax, seemed as though it might somehow jump the tracks. Though the script was not without its plotty longueurs, judging a movie like "Gravity" on its story is a bit like judging a Playboy by the value of its articles. For sheer mind-blowing, capital-C cinema, nothing in 2013 could touch it.
10. "The Counselor." If Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Beckett had dreamed up a movie over a tequila-soaked poker game, it might have looked something like novelist Cormac McCarthy's original screen tale of a high-stakes drug deal gone dizzyingly awry on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Featuring florid performances by one of the year's best ensemble casts (second only to "American Hustle"), and impeccable direction from the chronically underrated Ridley Scott, "The Counselor" was pronounced DOA by critics and audiences alike, but is already the subject of a growing cult enthusiasm.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): "Before Midnight," "Blue Jasmine," "The Bling Ring," "Frances Ha," "Labor Day," "Out of the Furnace," "Prisoners," "Spring Breakers," "A Touch of Sin," "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: "Big Men," "The Golden Cage," "Harmony Lessons," "Intruders," "Mouton," "Nobody's Daughter Haewon," "Norte, the End of History," "Story of My Death," "Tip Top," "What Now? Remind Me"