The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Top films of the year as chosen by reporters at The Canadian Press

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This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from

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This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk

TORONTO - An unflinching look at slavery, a terrifying trip into space and a poignant father-son road tale are among the cinematic stories that captured the imaginations of the writers and editors at The Canadian Press this year. In alphabetical order, our top films of 2013 are:

"12 YEARS A SLAVE" — This brutal, true-life tale of a free black man sold into slavery is so excruciating that many film-goers may take a pass altogether (this is about as far away from date-night fare as it gets), but it's impossible to deny the importance and bravura of director Steve McQueen's achievement. Chiwetel Ejiofor commands the screen as enslaved fiddler Solomon Northup while Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti are the embodiment of evil as his masters. Those who do buy tickets will leave the theatre nagged by uneasy questions about earlier cinematic renderings of this dark chapter in American history.

"AMERICAN HUSTLE" — Outrageous performances and brazenly outlandish style pervade this '70s-set dramedy from David O. Russell, who enlists past partners Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for a rollicking tale of hair-obsessed, sequin-adorned hustlers addicted to the con. It's essentially a crime saga — loosely inspired by a real-life FBI sting — but the twisting tale is laced with such delirious abandon it's equally exhilarating as a manic comedy. An off-beat crowd-pleaser that's filled with swindles, glam and heartache.

"BEFORE MIDNIGHT" — Like its predecessors "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," this organic romantic drama offers a fly-on-the-wall feel during existential and sometimes stinging conversations between romantic leads Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. They're now parents vacationing in southern Greece, where director Richard Linklater allows lengthy scenes — from an idyllic dinner party, to a countryside stroll and a gloves-off argument in a hotel room — to play out naturally and with a remarkable sense of realism. Delpy and Hawke once again co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater for what is arguably the best of the three films.

"DALLAS BUYERS CLUB" — Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallee is known for tackling wildly diverse subject matter, from the rule of Queen Victoria to growing up gay in the '70s and the struggles of a boy with Down Syndrome in 1960s Paris. In "Dallas Buyers Club," Vallee's trademark verve is on full display as he dives headfirst into the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) — a heterosexual Texas rodeo rider struck with AIDS in the '80s. This is a director in full creative stride, deftly shepherding McConaughey in a go-for-broke, career-making performance that miraculously retains Woodroof's redneck, unvarnished essence even as he reluctantly steps into the role of unlikely hero.

"ENOUGH SAID" — James Gandolfini's sensitive performance in this romantic comedy isn't notable because it's one of his last, but because it's one of his best. The late "Sopranos" anchor plays against type as a divorced dad entering into a sweetly tentative relationship with a massage therapist who, unbeknownst to him, is simultaneously beginning a friendship with his ex-wife. Julia Louis-Dreyfus contributes a funny, soul-baring turn as a once-burned lover struggling to trust her romantic instinct, and writer-director Nicole Holofcener's script strikes the perfect note of low-key melancholy.

"FRUITVALE STATION" — Oscar Grant III was a young father who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer while lying prone and unarmed in a subway station in the wee hours of New Year's Day in 2009. The primary achievement of this deeply moving drama is that it elevates Grant from a symbol (whose death inspired rioting) to a fully realized character, whose flaws only seem to amplify his humanity. In his rightfully lauded lead performance, Michael B. Jordan finds all the colours in the work-in-progress Grant — who at times flickers toward frustrated resignation before continually finding the resolve for redemption — and portrays him with such sympathy, his senseless end is all the more heart-breaking.

"GRAVITY" — With Emmanuel Lubezki's dazzling cinematography and director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron's painstakingly choreographed scenes, viewers are sucked into a convincing space thriller that leaves no clue it was actually shot in a movie studio instead of the dark, zero-gravity depths of the universe. From its gripping opening scene, to Steven Price's moving musical score and Sandra Bullock's perfectly measured performance as a medical engineer lost in space, "Gravity" is an awe-inspiring blend of beauty and terror.

"THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" — Never mind "American Hustle" or "Silver Linings Playbook," we'd argue that Jennifer Lawrence turns in the best performance of her career in this second instalment to the adventure-packed young adult franchise. The Oscar winner holds nothing back as reluctant rebel Katniss Everdeen, who once again is pulled into a deadly televised battle against other teens. It's long at times but Lawrence never wavers, and is bolstered by an impressive broader cast including new additions Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer.

"MUD" — McConaughey has been deservedly decorated of late for a newfound gift for reinvention — but the earnestly lovelorn Southern drifter he portrays in Jeff Nichols' winsome coming-of-age tale resides firmly in his wheelhouse. McConaughey fully inhabits the role, imbuing the titular sweet-natured dreamer — who forms an unlikely friendship with a pair of young boys who thrive amid the Arkansas backwoods — with enough menace to keep the kids (and the shaggy-dog film) off-kilter. With help from the promising auteur behind "Take Shelter," McConaughey's stunning winning streak continues.

"NEBRASKA" — There aren't too many surprises in this bittersweet father-and-son road movie, but it all unfolds with charm and beauty in striking black and white. Director Alexander Payne lets his understated stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb slyly reveal one family's mess of long-simmering angst and hurts, their bonds to each other continually tested against a dusty backdrop of the big sky American midwest.

— Compiled by Canadian Press reporters Victoria Ahearn, Andrea Baillie, Nick Patch and Cassandra Szklarski

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