The Oscars and My 10 Best Films of 2013

Some wonderful films get the attention they deserve

Darleen Ortega | 2/26/2014, 11:52 a.m.
Our 'Opinionated Judge' Darleen Ortega reflects on her 10 favorite films of 2013 in preparation for this years upcoming Oscars
(left) Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in the film ‘12 Years a Slave,’ one of the top films of 2013. (right)Bruce Dern is a cantankerous old man who suddenly springs forth a fearsome determination in life in ‘Nebraska,’ the best film of 2013 as rated by our movie reviewer and Portland Observer columnist, Opinionated Judge Darleen Ortega.

I'm terrible at Oscar pools; I'm not good at predicting the winners because I'm too distracted by my opinions of who should win. So, it is my tradition to release each year at Oscar time my own list of the best films of the year.

This year, there happens to be more overlap between my list and the Academy Award nominees than usual. It's a pleasure to see so many wonderful films get the attention they deserve, though I imagine I'll still have plenty of occasions to shake my fist at the TV during the awards ceremony.

The first four on my list -- all Oscar nominees for best picture -- are so good that I had trouble ranking them. I could make a case for any of them as the best picture of the year. I've forced myself to rank them but, in a sense, all four are arguably the best picture of the year. The rest are less celebrated, but also wonderful -- a gem from the Coen brothers, an inspiring story of intellectual courage, two wrenching documentaries, a lesson in mindfulness, and a dazzling Indian romantic comedy that packs an unexpected wallop.

1. I give Nebraska the edge as my favorite film of the year because it has everything. It depicts ordinary people with a kind of gentleness that few films attempt and fewer still achieve. It is funny but doesn't make fun, and captures a rather bleak swath of American life in a way that reveals its beauty and dignity.

The film is marked by a remarkable, career-capping performance by Bruce Dern, who deserves the Oscar for best actor in my book (though I'll be pleasantly surprised if he wins it), and is the best work of director Alexander Payne, who marshals a cast of underrated actors and ordinary folks to impart a story that feels soulful and true. One of the Academy's most glaring omissions is Mark Orton's gorgeous original score, which embodies the film's spirit and also stands beautifully on its own. You can read my full length review at portlandobserver.com/news/2013/dec/04/soulful-journey.

[Rated R for some language; on at least 44 other critics' top 10 lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), and Best Cinematography; also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb) and Best Original Screenplay; deserved a nomination for Best Original Score; still in limited release and well worth seeing on the big screen.]

2. 12 Years a Slave is by far the most important film on my list and is a master class in how film can enrich and deepen understanding of a neglected subject. Director Steve McQueen (as deserving of a directing Oscar as is Alexander Payne) has the temerity and steady hand to sustain the attention necessary to absorb the magnitude of suffering and the mundaneness that characterized American slavery.

I can make just as strong a case for Chiwetel Ejiofor to win for best actor as Bruce Dern, though for very different reasons; it is hard to overestimate the feat he carried off in embodying the agony of this character, and Lupita Nyong deserves an Oscar for the same reason.