Though it got off to a slow start, 2013 turned out to be a banner year for film — even more consistent and varied in its artistic successes than 2012. The formerly sharp divisions between the worlds of Hollywood and American independent film continued to blur, benefiting filmmakers and audiences.
Last year, the major studios seemed eager to hire visionary, often up-and-coming filmmakers to tackle big-budget movies. This year it was well-established directors borrowing style and techniques from their younger, hipper counterparts — perhaps in an effort to hold onto their jobs. Advances in digital camera technology helped veteran filmmakers find the courage to embrace spontaneity, using minimal lighting and three-dimensional sets to create looser and less formulaic movies.
Those relatively agile methods also allowed actors to shine brightly in 2013. In year-defining movies like Blue Is the Warmest Color and American Hustle, those in front of the camera were openly acknowledged as full partners in the creative process. One artist stood apart from the crowd: Matthew McConaughey, who emerged from self-imposed exile in the netherworld of romantic comedies. In two of the year's best films — Mud and Dallas Buyers Club — the native Texan transformed himself in body and spirit to offer a revealing study in Southern manhood. Dallas Buyers Club and Fruitvale Station stood among many 2013 films "based on true events" that succeeded by imagining the inner lives of characters drawn from newspaper headlines.
What follows is an alphabetical top 10 list of personal favorites from the films that debuted in New Orleans in 2013:
12 Years a Slave. Stunning for its lack of Hollywood-style drama and sentiment, British director Steve McQueen's film finally made real the horrors of an ordinary day under American slavery.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints. This poetic and understated second feature from David Lowry recalled the 1970s classics of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman and set a high standard for indie films in 2013.
American Hustle. The only disappointment in David O. Russell's finest film arrives when the lights go up and you realize you'll never know what happens next to his endlessly endearing characters.
Bayou Maharajah. Local filmmaker Lily Keber's imaginative documentary delivered the untold story of piano genius James Booker while reminding us what it means to love New Orleans.
Blancanieves. A black-and-white silent-movie version of Snow White from Spain? Pablo Berger's whimsical yet affecting film was the year's most unexpected blast of fresh air.
Fruitvale Station. The debut feature from 27-year-old filmmaker Ryan Coogler imagines the devastating final day of Oscar Grant, who was killed during a routine arrest by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif.
Inside Llewyn Davis. It seems like Joel and Ethan Coen always make the year-end movie lists. But what other American filmmakers reinvent themselves every time they pick up a camera?
Mud. There's something irresistibly Southern about Jeff Nichols' rich and engaging film, which wraps a crime drama around a doomed love story to hide the coming-of-age tale at its center.
Nebraska. Alexander Payne's best film since 1999's Election finds humor in bitter truths about old age, family and American greed.
War Witch. Canadian Kim Nguyen's little-seen masterwork of magical realism used a 12-year-old's perspective to humanize the atrocities of guerilla warfare in sub-Saharan Africa.
Films that nearly made the list: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Blue is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, No, Stories We Tell and West of Memphis.