It's customary for us ink-stained (and now, of course, pixel-stained) wretches to look back on the year's films and pluck out 10 titles that we ordain collectively as top 10 lists.
This process was fun the first 20 or so times I did it, but there is so much wrong with it that the last drop of pleasure has evaporated during the last decade.
The phrase "top 10" suggests that films with vastly different aesthetics can be meaningfully judged against each other. In 1980, both "Ordinary People" and "Airplane!" were released. I'm not alone in thinking that, while "Ordinary People" has its virtues, "Airplane!" has held up longer, been more influential, and was more compelling, even at the time. So "Ordinary People" wins the Oscar and "Airplane!" doesn't even get nominated.
No one — presumably including the latter's writer/directors — was particularly surprised. The point is not that "Airplane!" is a better film — though, between you and me, it is — but that such comparisons are absurd in the first place.
Last year, for the first time, I decided it wasn't worth it; no top 10 for me, no sirree. Way too many films released, way too many arriving simultaneously at the end of the year. According to my top-flight panel of medical caretakers, the prospect had triggered a spell of what the Europeans call das ennui de cinematico — Film Fatigue.
I used to release my list as late as possible, in order to catch a few more contenders I had missed. Nonetheless by then my list was just one more addition to a great critical heap. A kind of consensus had solidified; one more twig on the fire would not add any extra light.
So, this year, an experiment: I chose my favorite 15 or so titles. Then I clicked over to Movie City News to see its annual number-crunching of scores of other critics' lists. I crossed out anything on my list that was already in the distilled critics' top 10, which comprised "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Her," "Before Midnight," "American Hustle," "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Blue Is the Warmest Color" and "Frances Ha."
Several of those would have made my list, and some of the others on my list were just a few places lower on the MCN chart. But most of mine had drowned in the flood of releases and were seen by relatively few; in some cases, by practically no one.
By design I have no No. 1, but if you waterboarded me for a choice, I'd probably make it Edgar Wright's "The World's End" — the alleged third entry in his self-styled "Cornetto Trilogy" (following "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz"). It achieves everything it sets out to: Imagine the energy of a raunchy teen comedy, harnessed by a master of comic timing and technique, and dealing with somewhat more grown-up issues. The pace is so frenetic that, after several viewings, I'm still picking up fresh gags and nuances.
Don Coscarelli's "John Dies at the End" is remarkably similar in type. Coscarelli ("Phantasm 2," "Bubba Ho-Tep") had a smaller budget, which often shows: Think of it as "The World's End (Fresh and Dirty Edition)." Still, working from a novel by the pseudonymous David Wong, he presents a world in which both physics and metaphysics seem totally cracked. It flags toward the close during the obligatory apocalyptic battle, but I still wanted it to go on longer.
"Stoker," the American debut of the great Korean director Park Chan-wook (the original "Oldboy"), tries to breathe new life into a played-out genre — The Arrival of the Sinister Stranger. Hitchcock did the archetypal version in "Shadow of a Doubt," which Park has most definitely seen. Matthew Goode plays the mysterious uncle who turns up at his brother's funeral and immediately takes over the dead man's life, moving into his house, romancing his widow (Nicole Kidman), and creeping out/intriguing his niece (Mia Wasikowska). Park seems to want to rewrite and expand the language of suspense film technique; his style is disorienting, even baffling at times. But the result is more interesting than any other thriller this year. Certainly more interesting than "Beautiful Creatures," which, released earlier in the year, presented many of the same plot elements with nothing new to say.
Shane Carruth made a dazzling debut several years ago with the ultra-low-budget time travel tale "Primer." His second feature, "Upstream Color," is what you'd expect if Terrence Malick ("The Tree of Life") made a science fiction movie: stylistically rich and, with its slightly bigger budget, visually many steps up from "Primer." If "Primer" was largely dialogue-driven, "Upstream Color" tells its "story" almost totally through images. I can't exactly describe that "story": Carruth is so defiantly without pandering that, as with its predecessor, it takes more than one viewing to piece together the internal logic that drives the experience.
"Mr. Nobody": In a 20-year career, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael has only made three features. His first, "Toto the Hero" (1991) remains an underappreciated masterpiece, hilarious and touching. It jumps back and forth in time, following the memories of an old man, who has more or less wasted his life, trying to rekindle a childhood love and punish the boy he thinks stole his identity at birth. The English-language "Mr. Nobody" is an even more ambitious take on similar themes: Jared Leto plays the oldest man in the world, who intertwines two different versions of his life, each the result of a single choice during childhood.
The film made a splash on the festival circuit — four years ago. Through some shameful distribution eccentricity, it didn't get a commercial theatrical release in the U.S. until this fall. And even that release was merely a token gesture for the home-video edition.
The documentary "Tim's Vermeer," directed by Teller, produced by Penn, chronicles a charmingly geeky silicon valley millionaire who suspects that the realistic style of painting that emerged in the 17th century may have been stimulated by the availability of lenses and mechanical devices. To bolster the claim, he sets out to make an exact copy of a famous Vermeer, despite having no artistic talent himself. There were many good docs this year, but none pleased me more than this.
Two of my other 2013 favorites were exorbitantly budgeted Hollywood blockbusters — "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Neither needs any explanation; they don't quite match up to their immediate predecessors, but both come close enough to please the franchises' fans.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).