The Year's Best Films
1. Her The "zeitgeist"-y American movie of the year is a slightly futuristic tale that reflects blindingly on our present. Written and directed by Spike Jonze with elegant, melancholy calm, Her functions as a sincere and most unusual romance—between a human and a figureless artificial intelligence—a consideration of the meaning of consciousness, and a dissection of our continental drift away from each other. Yes, (modern) man is an island: a plugged-in depressive noncommittally straddling life and virtual reality. Brilliantly performed by Joaquin Phoenix and an offscreen but vital Scarlett Johansson.
2. 12 Years a Slave The year's top tale of physical and emotional survival wasn't All is Lost or Gravity but this wrenching film adapted from free Northerner Solomon Northup's autobiographical account of being pressed into slavery. Without succumbing to either undue caution or melodrama, director Steve McQueen thoughtfully unfolds a serious drama of the undeniable pain and the considerably more interesting existential threat of slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor impeccably traces the odyssey of Northup beginning with contentedness devastated; proceeding through torture, despairing denial and self-awareness; and arriving at someplace unsettlingly like and unlike his starting point.
3. Before Midnight The third in a trilogy shared by co-writers Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater continues to foster dramatic intimacy and tension by radically prioritizing conversation. If the honeymoon is long since over for Delpy's Céline and Hawke's Delpy, they offer a good facsimile of one on a Greek family vacation—until, that is, modern-family issues crack open festering resentments, unleashing bitter recrimination and scary midlife evaluation. Plus, as is his wont, Linklater makes room for entertaining digressions and interesting supporting characters.
4. At Berkeley Woody Allen said that eighty percent of success is showing up, and one might say those are words the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman lives by. This time, Wiseman shows up at U.C. Berkeley, which just by being there becomes a potent symbol: concretely, it is that sui generis institution fired into shape by the student protests of the '60s, but it also stands in here for the tenuous space occupied by public (higher) education and how any school functions as a microcosm of its community. Wiseman wisely observes, then assembles his footage into a four-hour fascination that teases provocative notions while allowing you to draw your own conclusions about what the evidence on display proves about the film's many subjects.
5. Frances Ha Cycles of disappointment make up most of this funny-sad movie co-written by star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach. A quirky, funny take on work life, art life, romance, and friendship, Frances Ha locates a fresh style of humor, creating magical moments of conversational nothing. Remarkably, this black-and-white, Manhattan-set film survives the inevitable comparison to Woody Allen's Manhattan, another film that usefully explores the tension between romanticization and reality in New York City.
6. The Act of Killing With the most audacious film of 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer gambled and won by allowing Indonesian death-squad thugs, "victors" of a sort, to "write" recent history as movie scenes starring themselves. Laying bare attitudes and acts that come as close as anything to "evil," Oppenheimer gives the torturer-executioners enough rope to betray themselves and for one, unexpectedly, to find his guilt bubbling to the surface. Weird, shocking, and riveting, The Act of Killing means to be offensive—you should be appalled—but also fascinates in how the processes of acting, reenacting, and revisiting can offer access to unexpected emotion and inconvenient truth.
7. A Hijacking Business as usual takes on new meaning in this potent, well-researched verité thriller. In work that approaches documentary realism, Søren Malling gives arguably the best performance of the year as the shipping company CEO forced to negotiate for the lives of one of his crews. What are those lives worth, and what risks are acceptable? Writer-director Tobias Lindholm manages to make his hostage drama twice as interesting as Paul Greengrass' superficially similar Captain Phillips. Taken literally, A Hijacking is gripping drama; seen through a wider lens, it's an allegory for today's global economy, the ugly choices it offers to high and low, and what happens when push comes to shove.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street There's a Dorian Gray effect at work in Martin Scorsese's twenty-third narrative feature: Leonardo DiCaprio has finally grown up—his performance as hotshot stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the real deal—and Scorsese's simultaneously aging in reverse. In terms of energy, this doesn't feel like the film of a seventy-one-year-old, even as abetted by Terence Winter's whip-crack adapted screenplay and Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing. Sterling supporting work by Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie and others bolster this get-angry epic of quintessentially American conspicuous consumption, one that rests comfortably beside Goodfellas and Casino.
9. In the House François Ozon's devious adaptation of Juan Mayorga's play The Boy in the Last Row was the headiest comedy of the year. The meta-literary tale of genius envy and thieved intimacy boasts deftly drawn characters, sharp performances, and incisive satire: of teacher-student psychology, our increasingly voyeuristic global culture (thank you, internet), our escapism into stories fictional and “reality,” capricious criticism and hypocrisy, and all colors of denial.
10. All is Lost In critics' minds, J.C. Chandor's tale of survival spent the year waltzing with Gravity. Both films are technically proficient (though Gravity's brilliant effects, in 3D, dazzle like nothing else this year), but All Is Lost proves a more pure and moving experience, shot through with sincere melancholy about facing death alone. Robert Redford does fine work as the only human in sight, holding the screen with the strength and frailty of mind and body under fatalistic duress.
Runners-up: Gravity, The World's End, The Grandmaster, The Past, Monsters University, Short Term 12, Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Spectacular Now, Mud
More top docs: Leviathan, The Square, Call Me Kuchu, Blackfish, After Tiller, Stories We Tell
The Year's Worst Films
1. Romeo and Juliet On Shakespeare's grave, these words: "...curst be he that moves my bones." How does screenwriter/desecrator Julian Fellowes sleep at night?
2. Charlie Countryman What's the difference between watching this Shia LaBeouf-romps-through-Bucharest crime-drama-romance and burying your face in a loaded diaper? That's not a riddle...I'm really asking.
3. The Host Do not consume before operating heavy machinery. Side effects may include spontaneous coma or fits of giggling.
4. Grown Ups 2 Adam Sandler really ought to take himself out of competition next year. It's just not fair to all the other bad movies.
5. Getaway This peerlessly stupid fast-car thriller somehow goes from 0 to 0 in 90 minutes...while still putting precious miles on your odometer.
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