We live in a time of tyranny. Our oppressor? Choice. You think all those Netflix options are improving your quality of life? Think again. That's why our brains love lists. Not only are they easily digestible—a simple numbering system! So much white space! Ooh, baby-animal GIFs!—but they also alleviate how lousy and overwhelmed we feel when faced with too many choices. Want to be a happy shopper? Avoid the cereal aisle. Want to be a happy moviegoer? Read a top-10 list.
1. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach's portrait of a young woman flailing about in a daunting world is a disarming and exuberant piece of filmmaking, and it's grounded by a performance by Greta Gerwig that bucks the noxious manic-pixie-dream-girl trend. In his own 2013 roundup, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott called it "a sweet bedtime story for anxious millenials." Bullshit. Frances Ha made me fear for my generation—for our self-indulgence, our self-absorption, our flakiness, our way of clinging to all that's bad for us. I adored it anyway.
2. American Hustle
A hyperbolic and freewheeling caper, you might call American Hustle this year's Argo, hopped up on steroids and speed. But even as the story whirls and the camera whooshes, David O. Russell's firm command over the storytelling—and his uproarious sense of humor—never slackens.
3. Blue Is the Warmest Color
While I'm comparing 2013 to 2012, Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour film was this year's Amour: a portrait of love and loss that renders you thoroughly depleted after the end credits roll. Blue Is the Warmest Color gave us far more nudity (and fake rubber vaginas), but for all the tongue-wagging about the sex scenes, it's a movie about lesbians that doesn't reduce itself to a gay-rights drama.
4. The Act of Killing
Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary found aging Indonesian thugs re-creating their slaughter of accused communists. This was 2013's scariest movie, with grandfatherly men dispassionately describing how, decades ago, they used wire to decapitate their victims.
5. Before Midnight
We met Jesse and Celine nearly 20 years ago, back when he was a rakish American boy and she a spirited French girl. Richard Linklater brought them back for a third go-around last summer, which meant talking, talking and more talking—not that I wanted Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to shut up.
6. 12 Years a Slave
What could have felt like an educational or moral obligation instead pulses with vitality and manages scenes of breathtaking patience.
7. Stories We Tell
Like the best nonfiction writing, Sarah Polley's documentary draws on techniques of fiction to convey the truest story possible. That might seem counterintuitive, but Polley's blend of interviews, archival footage and staged Super 8 films creates a narrative that unfolds with suspense and heart.
8. Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
Brian Lindstrom's film about Chasse, a mentally ill Portlander who was beaten by police and died in custody, plays out as an enraging procedural and a stirring portrait of a life lost.
9. The Sapphires
A big-hearted, hypersaturated disco ball of a film, this story about an Australian Aboriginal girl band in 1968 Vietnam unapologetically encourages finger-snapping rather than head-scratching.
10. Neighboring Sounds
Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho's debut feature is a plotless thriller, which sounds like an oxymoron until you let its slowly creeping sense of paranoia and menacing soundscape overtake you.
Runners-up: Cutie and the Boxer, Blue Jasmine, Caesar Must Die, The Great Beauty, Wadjda, No, The Bling Ring, Inside Llewyn Davis.