2013 was an outstanding year for movies with a slate chock-full of thought-provoking, fact-inspired dramas, including "42," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "12 Years a Slave," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Philomena," "Saving Mr. Banks," "Lone Survivor," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Dallas Buyers Club."
Also among the year's best big-screen offerings were the riveting thriller "Prisoners;" superb space odyssey "Gravity;" wildly entertaining con-artist caper "American Hustle;" family-themed dark comedies "Nebraska," "Blue Jasmine" and "August: Osage County;" warm, insightful relationship studies "Before Midnight," "Her," "About Time" and "Enough Said;" excellent family features "The Book Thief," "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," "Man of Steel," "Iron Man 3," "Thor: The Dark World" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty;" magical animated pictures "Frozen," "Despicable Me 2," "Epic," "Turbo," "Planes" and "Monsters University;" and spine-chilling horror movies like "The Conjuring" and "World War Z."
Below are more details about some of the aforementioned films, which are earning recognition this awards season ahead of the official announcement of Oscar nominations next month.
"12 Years a Slave"
This emotionally devastating, unflinching historical drama is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in 19th century New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, then spends more than a decade trying to get home. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup; Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a brutal plantation owner; and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, Epps' favorite slave and the object of his wife's eternal abuse. All three stars turn in Oscar-worthy performances in this film, which reunites Fassbender with British director Steve McQueen, with whom he collaborated on "Hunger" and "Shame." "12 Years a Slave" co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard.
This film is one of the most entertaining movies of the year. Writer-director David O. Russell's followup to "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" is a fictionalized account of the infamous Abscam scandal of the 1970s, in which the FBI used con artists to help nab corrupt officials in New York and New Jersey. Russell's version of the story casts Christian Bale and Amy Adams as small-time hustlers Irving and Sydney, who are forced by Bradley Cooper's ambitious FBI agent Richie to help bring down Jeremy Renner's good-hearted Camden mayor Carmine Polito, as well as various other politicians and gangsters, in a sting that ends up bigger than any of its participants ever imagined. Outrageously funny and compulsively watchable, the film also does a great job making viewers care about this quirky crew and root for the characters to achieve their visions of the American dream. Set in an era between HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Sopranos," "American Hustle" also features actors from both New Jersey mob dramas, including Jack Huston, Shea Whigham and Paul Herman. Jennifer Lawrence plays a scene-stealing supporting role as Irving's loopy, accident-prone wife, Rosalyn.
"August: Osage County"
"Osage County" is director John Wells' big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' blistering, Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play of the same name. Julia Roberts is fantastic as Barbara -- a woman, who in the midst of her own divorce, is summoned to her parents' home in Oklahoma because her mild-manner poet father Beverly (played by Sam Shepard) has disappeared and her acid-tongued mother Violet (played by Meryl Streep) is undergoing treatment for cancer. The movie acts as a pressure cooker, focusing on what happens when Barbara, her estranged husband Bill (played by Ewan McGregor), their precocious daughter Jean (played by Abigail Breslin), Barbara's sisters Ivy and Karen (played by Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), their Aunt Mattie Fae and Uncle Charles (played by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper) and cousin Little Charles (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) all end up under one roof on a sweltering summer day for arguably the most uncomfortable family meal in movie history.
Writer-director Woody Allen's sharply written, contemporary riff on Tennessee Williams' classic, "A Streetcar Named Desire," casts cinematic chameleon Cate Blanchett as the dramedy's delusional title character, a socialite from humble beginnings whose marriage to wealthy businessman Hal ends abruptly, prompting her to stay with her earthy sister Ginger in her modest San Francisco apartment as she tries to put her life back together. Alec Baldwin plays Hal and Sally Hawkins Ginger, while Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alden Ehrenreich round out the cast.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener's latest film is a wonderful romantic comedy for grownups, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a middle-age massage therapist who falls in love with her poet client Marianne's ex-husband Albert (played by the late James Gandolfini), but can't believe he is the same man Marianne (played by Catherine Keener) is always complaining about. The film is most notable for its honest dialogue and the touching, layered performance given by Gandolfini, who was cast against type as a vulnerable single dad with a daughter heading off to college.
Sandra Bullock, who earned an Oscar for her work in "The Blind Side," gives a career-best performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, an inexperienced astronaut, stranded alone in space after her ship is destroyed by flying debris and her crew is killed in Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity." A technical marvel, this captivating film transports audiences to the final frontier, but it is Bullock's one-woman show that sees her experiencing a spectrum of emotion -- from terror to sorrow to resignation to determination -- that makes the film a must-see. George Clooney and Paul Sharma make brief, but memorable supporting appearances in the film, which Cuaron co-wrote with his son, Jonas.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler"
"The Butler" is a moving, fictionalized account of a real-life African-American staffer who worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving as a witness to a tumultuous era in U.S. history while trying to protect and provide for his family -- some members of which disagree about how to define progress and achieve success. Forest Whitaker is extraordinary as the title character who ages 50 years on screen. The film itself is a snapshot of the civil-rights movement as seen through the eyes of a black man. Whitaker has said he hopes the movie serves as a wake-up call to viewers to stand against injustice wherever they see it. Helmed by "Precious" director Daniels and written by "Game Change" and "Recount" scribe Danny Strong, the film co-stars Oprah Winfrey, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard.
Also based on a true story is "Philomena," which stars Judi Dench as retired Irish nurse Philomena Lee, who sets out to find the son she was forced by Catholic nuns to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope, plays Martin Sixsmith, the real-life British journalist who grows close to Lee as he helps her locate the boy she lost when her father sent her to an abbey where she was treated as a fallen woman because she was an unwed mother. The film examines the practices of the local parishes in Ireland half-a-century ago, as well as the subsequent efforts to cover up the measures, but it also demonstrates how unshakeable Lee's positive outlook on life and her faith in God have remained, even after such a bad experience as a young woman. The movie was helmed by British director Stephen Frears.
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski, "Prisoners" co-stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Maria Bello and Viola Davis. The modern-day, Pennsylvania-set movie follows Keller Dover, a distraught father (played by Jackman), who holds captive Alex, the troubled young man (played by Dano) he is convinced kidnapped his 6-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old friend while they were playing outside on Thanksgiving. Gyllenhaal plays Loki, the police detective trying to unravel the case as he deals with Dover's interference. This nail-biter of a picture dares audience members to consider what they would do in the same harrowing situation and to ponder if it is ever a good idea to take the law into one's own hands.
"Saving Mr. Banks"
This film is the quasi-factual take on how family entertainment titan Walt Disney persuaded iron-willed Australian author P.L. Travers to let him bring her book, "Mary Poppins," to the big screen in early 1960s Hollywood. The movie stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in tour-de-force performances as Disney and Travers. The stellar cast also includes Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and Colin Farrell.