By Alynda Wheat
December 30, 2013 12:00 PM

1. 12 Years a Slave

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt

The profound achievement of Steve McQueen’s film is that it lays bare the human cost of America’s deepest shame while addressing the complexity of modern race relations. The cast—including Ejiofor as a free man kidnapped into slavery, Michael Fassbender as a sadistic master and Pitt in a pivotal role as a man with antislavery views—makes history feel not just current, but urgent.

2. Her

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson

A lonely man (Phoenix) falls for his phone’s operating system (Johansson). It may sound silly, but Her is a beautiful look at the human need to connect however we can.

3. American Hustle

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams

Who says Oscar bait has to be dreary? Director David O. Russell and his stellar cast turn financial scandal into sexy fun.

4. The Act of Killing

The year’s most stunning documentary unmasks men responsible for mass killings in Indonesia as both boastful and pathetic—and, disturbingly, still in power.

5. Gravity

Starring: Sandra Bullock

Visually and technologically dazzling, Gravity boasts a bravura turn by Bullock and a charming assist by George Clooney.

6. Nebraska

Starring: Bruce Dern

Quietly hilarious, Nebraska takes an old man and his delusions back to his hometown, where all is upended and then lands just perfectly.

7. Saving Mr. Banks

Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks

Thompson is divine as the persnickety author of Mary Poppins while Hanks charms as Mr. Disney himself.

8. Dallas Buyers Club

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto

To watch McConaughey and Leto, as accidental crusaders in the early AIDS fight, is to discover two actors in their prime.

9. Philomena

Starring: Judi Dench

Dench is deeply moving as a devout mother looking for her long-lost son. Steve Coogan stands in for us, marveling at her grace.

10. Enough Said

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini

Nicole Holofcener’s nuanced take on single parents navigating dating is the rare comedy made by and for adults.