Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost (NYFF51) 

The unexpected good news in world cinema in 2013 is the vitality, against all odds, and against all supposed economic logic, of the work from the American low-budget indie sector. Eleven American films have been, or are about to be, shown or released that I would designate as excellent. Here in alphabetical order:

All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, NYFF51)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
The Immigrant (James Gray, NYFF51)
Inside Llewyn Davis

 (Ethan and Joel Coen, NYFF51)
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, NYFF50)
Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, NYFF51)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2013)
The Act of Killing (Christine Cynn, ND/NF '13)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, ND/NF '13)

Eleven, count-em, eleven superb American films, of all makes and models, from the aggressively experimental to the classically Fordian. A bunch of relative newbies making second and third films that surpass their promising early stuff (Carruth, Bujalski, Nichols, Chandor, and Castaing-Taylor/Paravel) a bunch of veterans about ready for master status, doing the deepest and best work of their careers, (Coens, Payne, Gray and Linklater) and from-out-of-nowhere newcomers of undeniable authority (Oppenheim, Coppola) .

But this is only the beginning.

Terence Nance's The Oversimplification of Her Beauty (ND/NF '12)

You have to also take into account a whole bunch of other work, somewhat slighter in thematic ambition, with a few more aesthetic imperfections, and yet totally worthwhile. In other years, many of these would have been good enough to make my best-film lists. In no order:

The East  (Zal Batmanglij)
To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)
I Used To Be Darker (Matthew Porterfield)
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
The Canyons (Paul Schrader)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Tracks (John Curran)
As I Lay Dying (James Franco)
Simon Killer (Antonio Campos)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
The Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, ND/NF '12)
Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
This Is The End (Evan Rogan/Seth Rogen)
Child of God (James Franco, NYFF51)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

So, eleven, superb and nineteen, totally worthwhile—making for thirty American features to feel seriously good about.  In what year can you recall so many?

Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Centerpiece, NYFF51)

There are three American studio movies I have real hopes for (but haven’t seen): Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty (Centerpiece, NYFF51) and Spike Jonze’s Her (Closing Night, NYFF51). I won’t bother to mention how relatively “indie” they sound—Martin Scorcese, Bennett Miller, David O. Russell and George Clooney have films beckoning to us from their late holiday dates. Perhaps high quality awards fare from the studios will make the list I’ve drawn up—composed in awe and gratitude—gravely insufficient.  

All I know is this: American cinema is suddenly, and against all odds, looking like it’s in very, very good shape.

P.S. The secret hero of this banner year for American cinema has to be James Franco. He co-starred in and supplied the source material for one film on the superb list (Palo Alto), he directed two on the worthwhile list (As I Lay Dying and Child of God), and co-starred in and co-produced a third on the worthwhile list (The Living End). And I’m not mentioning or listing two films he premiered at Sundance back in January that I haven’t seen that some people I respect thought very highly of.  When you add on to all this the commercial success he had with that not-horrible Sam Raimi Disney picture, Oz-whatever-it was, 2013 will have to go down, in part, as the year that James Franco became an irrevocable fact of American Cinema’s artistic present and future.