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AO Scott’s Top Movies of 2013

Making it worse (to continue in the vein of self-pity, since no one else will feel sorry for me) is that this was also a year of superabundant quality. Anyone who laments the death or decrepitude of movies just isn’t paying attention. Yes, there are great shows on cable, and dreary franchise action fare clogs the multiplexes in the warmer months. Animation, a bright spot in Hollywood over the past decade, has entered a creative slump as the studios discover that they can sell tickets and tie-in merchandising without taking the creative risks that generate masterpieces. But everywhere else, from the legacy studios and their indie-dependent subsidiaries to the hothouse cottage industries of micro-releasing and self-distribution, the art of cinema is thriving.

Earlier this year, when Manohla Dargis and I set out to compile a roster of promising filmmakers 40 and younger, we had no trouble finding candidates, only in winnowing them to a list of 20. But we were troubled by the lack of recognition many of these directors have found, and the difficulties they encounter as they try to make good on their promise. The movie business has always been rough, of course, but at present there seems to be a growing disjunction — a chasm, really — between the quality of the work being produced and the intensity of its reception.

There are many reasons this is so, including the daunting numbers mentioned above, the logjam of awards-season releases (more than 90 titles a month reviewed by the Times in September, October and November this year) and the water-cooler ascendance of cable television. But in the spirit of the season, let me be blunt. The problem is you. A vital art form requires an engaged — which is to say a skeptical and demanding as well as enthusiastic — audience to ensure its economic viability and encourage its aesthetic development.

So think of the list as a nagging reminder, a second chance and a place to start. There are 35 titles, a robust but hardly unmanageable number: a Top 10 with an absurd (but eminently justified) six-way tie for the 10th spot; 15 runners-up, any one of which could have easily claimed a slot in the top tier and five documentaries, from a crowded and eclectic field.

1. ‘
Inside Llewyn Davis
The musical performances — especially from Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character — are hauntingly lovely, and they anchor Joel and Ethan Coen’s exploration, at once mordant and melancholy, of the early-’60s New York folk scene. A ballad of bad luck and squandered talent that already seems, like the music it celebrates, to have been around forever.

2. ‘12 Years a Slave Its historical seriousness and topical

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